Two very useful assessments of Bob Woodward’s mega-best-selling Fear, officially published today, are this one by Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, and this one by Andrew Prokop, in Vox. They both make one of the enduring points about Woodward’s long-running inside-Washington saga: how easy it is to guess at least some of the people who have talked with him.
Partly that is because these figures are presented with ongoing interior monologues: “Powell wondered: was Cheney pushing the WMD evidence too hard? Might they regret the step they were about to take? Was he being hung out to dry?” “Petraeus thought as he left the meeting, Maybe this time, at long last, Obama would finally act.” Or in the latest book, “Cohn realized, this could mean economic war. If only there were some way to head it off.” None of these is a real quote, but any of them could be.
Back in 1976, Art Levine published in The Washington Monthly a famous parody of how Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s treatment of Richard Nixon’s resignation, in The Final Days, might have applied in the final days of Naziism. Only two books into the Woodward oeuvre, Levine highlighted the source-conscious tone. His piece began:
This was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was September 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a forty-seven-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.
Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Fuhrer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but still, the two men were troubled.
Another clue is that these figures come off so much better in the books. Precisely because of the interior monologues, they’re more rounded, they’re more aware of the trade-offs in public choices, they’re conscience-stricken, they’re trying to do the right thing. Thus, as both Chotiner and Prokop point out, the figures who show up in Fear as struggling hardest to save the country from Trump rank high on the probably-talked-with-Woodward list. (Of course there must have been many others—including some whom Woodward could cannily have concealed by not given them the “Mattis was worried...” treatment.)
But there’s a second ongoing point about Woodward’s books, which is: no matter how he obtained them, Woodward’s anecdotes, allegations, and narratives have to a remarkable degree stood up.
This is a point acknowledged even by the very harshest overall assessment of Woodward’s books, Joan Didion’s essay back in the 1990s in the New York Review of Books. Specific parts of Woodward’s reportage have been challenged — including by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, who questioned an allegation concerning early-Obama-era economic policy. But over millions of words, and thousands of quotes and anecdotes, in 20-some books, the vast majority of what Woodward has reported has either stood unchallenged, or been acknowledged long after the fact as having been correct.
This is of course the very opposite of President Trump’s track record and reputation when it comes to verifiable fact. And even people who haven’t followed every twist and turn of Woodward’s journalistic output have probably been aware of him long enough, on the national scene—and over the past decade, as a more-conservative-than-liberal figure on cable news shows. This is why Trump’s “Woodward is a liar” campaign, while consistent with his standard response to any criticism in the press, seems unlikely to pay off.
There isn’t, and can’t be, any modern counterpart to the mainstream consciousness-of-the-nation role that Walter Cronkite played through the 1960s and 1970s, as anchor of the CBS Evening News. But Bob Woodward occupies at least a distant-cousin version of that information-world niche. He has been around forever; he has seen everything; he has a track record that has generally stood up; and he features a just-the-plain-facts / “that’s the way it is” retro affect.
Historians still argue over whether it really made any difference in mainstream support for the Vietnam War, when Walter Cronkite announced on his broadcast, after a trip to Vietnam in 1968, that he considered it a lost cause. (“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion…. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”) But it seemed at the time that it mattered.
Maybe historians will argue 50 years from now whether Bob Woodward’s catalogue of incompetence, madness, and deceit made any difference in reckoning with the gravity of our current governing emergency. Let us hope that those future historians will say that Americans with influence “did the best they could.”
The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.
I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.
But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.
His first tweet, at the top of this item, dramatized his inability to conceive of any event, glorious or tragic, in terms other than what it means about him. People are dying in Puerto Rico; they have lost their homes and farms; children and the elderly are in danger. And what he sees is, “nasty to Trump.”
That was followed by:
This is an outright attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whose passionate appeals for her citizens would evoke compassion and support from any normal person — and from other politicians would stimulate at least a public stance of sympathy. I can think of no other example of a president publicly demeaning American officials in the middle of coping with disaster. There were nasty “God’s punishment!” remarks about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but they did not come from the White House or George W. Bush.
They “want everything to be done for them.” It is impossible to tell whether this is a conscious racist dog-whistle by Trump—these people! always looking for a handout—or whether it is instinctive. Either way, it is something that no other modern president would have said in public, and that no one who understood the duties of the office could have done.
This has not happened before. It is not normal. It should not be acceptable. The United States is a big, resilient country, but a man like this can do severe damage to it and the world — and at the moment, he is leaving many Americans in mortal peril.
During the campaign, I argued that the greatest responsibility for Trump’s rise lay not with the man himself—he is who he is, he can’t help it—but with those Republicans who know what he is, and continue to look the other way. Their responsibility for the carnage of this era increases by the day, and has grown by quite a lot this weekend.
As it happens, I wrote and published that preceding paragraph a week ago. The Republicans’ responsibility is all the graver now, and deepens by the day.
The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.
By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takesby Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.
My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodramaby the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.
On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)
* * *
This is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:
Devil’s Bargain, a story about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump by my friend (and former Atlantic colleague) Joshua Green. It is fascinating, well-researched, and of lasting interest, despite Bannon’s ouster from the White House, because of his ongoing Breitbart- role.
Hillary Clinton’s own What Happened, as I argued 10 days ago, is much more interesting and edgy than the standard politician’s book. And while it places central responsibility for last year’s results on Hillary Clinton itself, it raises important questions about—and asks for similar introspection from—other participants, notably the “what about her emails?!?!” press.
Here are two more campaign-related books very much worth reading:
I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.
In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and the darkness.
Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies. In a famous episode, he gave her a backstage kiss before he went onto a TV show.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:
His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….
“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”
He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.
“It’s Pew Research,” I say.
Now he’s fuming.
His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.
The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:
That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.
Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.
She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.
Thanks Obama is a very different book from these other three, starting with its focus on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns rather than 2016. Litt was a 20-something precinct worker in Obama’s 2008 campaign, and eventually became part of his White House speechwriting staff. He had worked for The Onion before trying political speechwriting, and his specialty at the White House (in addition to some heavy-weather policy work) was Obama’s comedy riffs. Among these were Obama’s last few White House Correspondents Dinner appearances, including his celebrated “Luther, the Anger Translator” routine at the 2015 dinner.
The book is genuinely charming, and perceptive. You can get an idea of Litt’s tone from his very effective Fresh Air interview last week.
White House speechwriters, as a class, are—well, writers. This makes it the more noticeable that the collection of effective memoir-books by them is thinner than you would expect. Walter Shapiro, mentioned above, was a speechwriter during the Carter administration—as was I, and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, and the novelist Jerry Doolittle, and the newspaper editor Griffin Smith, and the now-Congressional candidate Bob Rackleff, and the newspaper reporter Achsah Nesmith, and others.
You could find a similar lineup for most administrations (until this one). But graceful, instructive, wry speechwriter memoirs like Litt’s are the exception rather than the norm. I think Thanks, Obama will join the ranks of lasting works about the culture and texture of political life, and of coming-of-age accounts by staffers who grow up personally and politically at the same time. (This is a category whose towering examples range from literary memoir-essays like The Education of Henry Adams, to romans-a-clef like All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, to serious policy-essays like A Political Education by Harry McPherson. Please read them all!)
Staff memoirs are easier to write, or at least more fun, if you’re describing a meltdown or race-to-the-bottom political disaster—as in John Podhoretz’s mordantly comic Hell of a Ride, about his experience with George H.W. Bush. (I don’t agree with Podhoretz on much, but this is a funny, interesting book.) When I wrote about the Carter administration long ago in this magazine, it was also with a “how did that happen?” tone.
Litt takes on a much higher degree of difficulty by being mainly positive and respectful of Obama and his achievements. But he avoids a pious or reverent tone by directing many of his comic talents at himself. He’s aiming for, and mainly achieves, a self-presentation as a barely-skirting-disaster naif who gradually learns what he is supposed to do. The hoary Hollywood joke is that once you can fake sincerity, everything else is easy. The political counterpart involves being able to feign self-deprecation. It’s appealing in a speaker—one reason Donald Trump simply could not perform as a Correspondents Dinner-style after-dinner humorist is that self-deprecation is a necessary part of the schtick, but is wholly outside his range—and it’s appealing in an underling’s memoir like this.
Perhaps there are some people who, summoned to the Oval Office for the very first time, walk in there like it’s no big deal. Those people are sociopaths. For the rest of us, attending your first Oval Office meeting is like performing your own bris.
To make matters worse, when you have a meeting in the Oval Office, you don’t just go into the Oval Office. First you wait in a tiny, windowless chamber. It’s kind of like the waiting room in a doctor’s office, but instead of last year’s Marie Claire magazines they have priceless pieces of American art. And instead of a receptionist, there’s a man with a gun. And in a worst-case scenario, the man with a gun is legally required to kill you.
It turns out this little room is the perfect place to second- guess every life choice you have ever made… I was on the verge of losing it completely when one of the president’s personal aides emerged.
“Okay. He’s ready for you.”
To my credit, the first time I walked into the Oval Office, I did not black out. In front of me I could see a painting of the Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell. Behind me, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Emancipation Proclamation. Not a photocopy or poster. The. Emancipation. Proclamation. I didn’t turn to look at the document, but I could feel the message it was sending through the room.
“I’m here because I freed the slaves,” it seemed to say. “What are you doing here?”
And, when it comes to the But Seriously Now part of the book, Litt says:
Eight years in Obamaworld taught me focus. Each news cycle—already shrunk to twenty-four hours when POTUS took office—lasted mere seconds by the time he left. He faced constant pressure to approach every issue with the frantic, hair- on- fire urgency of a tweet. More than once, I found myself frustrated by the president’s patience. To me it seemed more like delay. But nine times out of ten, Obama was right. The secret to solving big problems, I learned, is knowing which little problems to ignore.
The list of things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages. I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grownups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld. For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult….
I read the book cover-to-cover in one evening. Very well done.
* * *
It’s a dark time, with some positive notes. These are worth your attention.
Over the weekend I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting NFL players, at a raucous rally in Alabama, and his tweeted threats that if North Korean officials didn’t change their tune, “they won’t be around much longer!”
A sample of the response—pro, con, amplifying, and correcting:
‘To Make America Great, Remind Us of What Makes America Exceptional ...’ A veteran of America’s current long wars writes:
I am a U.S Marine who has proudly served in Afghanistan and Iraq after a weekend filled with consternation over our president's comments and tweets. I'm convinced that he no longer cares about his job or national unity.
He turned an NFL protest into a wedge issue about the flag so that he can appeal to a base of voters he is letting down. If players want to protest on the sidelines before games it is their choice and I respect their right to do so.
As a U.S servicemen I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution which grants the right to free speech, peaceful assembly as well as to petition the government for wrongs committed. How players or individuals choosers to exercise such freedoms is not my concern but my commander in chief using the flag and the sacrifice made by military families as a wedge issue is what troubles me.
Being in the military you fight so that you have a home to come back to, you fight for a more "perfect union" but not to divide, politicize or segregate our nation on the basis of what voters believe in standing for the flag and which voters don't. I don't support the presidents effort to divide a nation already split on so many issues and unsure how to combat inequality.
To make America great he must remind us of what makes this nation exceptional which is our belief that freedom and justice exist for all and that all Americans are created equal with inalienable rights.
* * *
‘Trump Never Loses!’ From another reader:
Amidst the noise, I think you've overlooked last week's 'shocking' (but not surprising) reprise of one very basic Trump theme: TRUMP NEVER LOSES
On Friday morning I read the accounts of the Alabama debate wherein Strange [appointed incumbent “Big Luther” Strange, whom Trump was backing] accused Moore [the Bannon-favorite challenger, Judge Roy Moore] of proposing that Trump was being manipulated by McConnell.
I wondered that Moore did not respond that Trump the deal-maker was not being manipulated, but instead was consciously fulfilling a commitment to McConnell in pursuit of the Trump agenda. More could have said that Trump did so fully expecting Strange to lose anyway, and that he, Moore, even approved of that deal by the savvy President because, on the day after the election, Alabamians could be sure Trump would thank them for choosing Moore, the true Trumpian.
Or something like that.
But how validated I felt when on Friday night Trump did not even go through the motions of waiting for Tuesday. Instead already—at the very rally where he was “supporting” Strange— he semi-endorsed Moore, while claiming for himself credit that Strange was [getting as much support as he did]. Clearly, if Strange wins it will be because Trump is awesome—and if Strange loses it will be because Trump is awesome but couldn't carry *such* a feeble candidate across the finish-line.
Perhaps this will fit well in your next piece later this week when Trump responds to two glaring failures: the Alabama election and the final attempt to repeal Obamacare. All politicians hedge, but not all are able to *pre-hedge* like this one, are they? My supposition is that 'the great deal-maker' has never in his life before had an ally - or even a friend - with and for whom he makes a commitment. Hell, I guess I'd even add here a *wife*, recalling his history of infidelity and especially his boast that he's never heard Melania fart. A strange and very sad man.
* * *
America’s Original Sin
In my piece I said that even a president as divisive as Richard Nixon had tried to avoid explicitly inflaming racial tensions in his public statements. “Law and order” dog-whistles are a different matter. Along the way I said that the history of slavery was “America’s longest-standing injustice and wound.” A reader suggests this adjustment:
I would argue only one point, and it is that our nation's longest standing injustice is to the Native Americans. It is not only a point of chronology, but of an intentional and systematic destruction of the Native people. The systematic enslavement, import, breeding and trafficking of humans is no less egregious. But by killing off the First Nations, and inhumanely dealing with the remaining population, we have millions fewer disenfranchised to have to "deal with."
As a Scots American woman I understand fighting wars that aren't "one's own", tribal differences, cultural separation, social nuance, and political embarrassment. How Donald Trump manages to package it all into one weekend of human offense and carnage is a reflection of a deeply disturbed mind. That the party of old white men refuses to care for the welfare of their constituents boggles and deeply disturbs my mind.
* * *
‘Girl in the Well’
Twenty years ago, in my book Breaking the News, I wrote about the “girl in the well” media frenzy of the late 1980s. In Midland, Texas, a toddler who became (at the time) world-famous as Baby Jessica fell into a well. For several days the nascent cable-news industry focused round-the-clock attention on the drama of whether Baby Jessica could be saved. (She was.) For a wonderful and incredibly dark movie that presaged this drama, which itself presaged this era’s disaster-centric media coverage, check out Billy Wilder’s underappreciated 1951 classic, Ace in the Hole.
A reader applies girl-in-the-well logic to the current president:
I think you wrote about [Baby Jessica] in your book on the media. The current administration is so awful in so many ways that it would be boring if it weren’t so dangerous.
Hence, the escalation of outrageousness by the head of state. Trump is "the girl in the well" and he has to keep digging himself into the well to keep the attention on himself. The worse he is, the more coverage he gets. I don’t know if there’s a solution but I hope somehow something changes and soon.
* * *
Smith and Carlos
In my item I mentioned the world-famous raised-fist salute that American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both black, gave while being awarded their gold and bronze medals (respectively) for the 200-meter run. In the original version of the note, I said that an infuriated Avery Brundage, the conservative and very controversial head of the International Olympic organization (he had strongly opposed efforts to boycott Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, in Berlin), had stripped them of their medals. Track experts, especially an Olympic historian named Bill Mallon, say that’s not right: Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games but kept their medals.
A reader in New York suggests another correction:
I was pleased, although not happy, to read your essay. (I suppose the distinction between “pleased” and “happy” can, alas, join that which you identified between “surprised” and “shocked”.)
For all that, I do feel compelled to express a reservation about one detail in the essay. In describing Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s gesture in their podium demonstration, during the 1968 Olympics 200-m. medal ceremony, you state that,
“they raised their black-gloved fists in what was then known as a “Black Power” protest salute.”
Such raised-fist gestures were, of course, frequently described as “Black Power salutes”—and that often reflected the purpose of those who made the gesture. And if that were indeed what Smith and Carlos had intended, then that description would be fine.
But Smith and Carlos have written and said, clearly and emphatically, that they were not making a “black power” salute, but a human rights salute. (E.g., Tommie Smith, David Steele, Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, pp. 16-17 (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2007).) They were protesting a complex set of issues in athletics, and in politics and society beyond athletics. Racial injustices were absolutely a major element among those issues, but race was not the sole, or even predominant, focus of their protest that day.
Smith and Carlos have been clear about what they were doing, for almost 50 years, and proper respect to them requires that our descriptions of their actions accurately reflect their stated intent.
By the way, I have also seen video of interviews with both men, over the years, in which they address the accounts that state they were stripped of their medals. They have consistently said that no one took away their medals, and the medals remain in the possession of them or their families.
And, from another reader in California:
Your mention of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in your recent article about President Trump’s recklessness prompts me to write you to encourage you, if you are ever in San Jose, to visit the statue on the campus of San Jose State University commemorating their stand on the medal ceremony.
When I first came across the statue a few years ago I was taken aback by how emotional it made me feel. There was a sense of pride I never would have anticipated, arising in large part I suppose from having grown up in Santa Clara County, graduating from San Jose State University, and being a part of the CSU system, but more than that a sense of gratitude for their protest. You can stand on the statue with Carlos and Smith, if you wish, as Peter Norman’s spot is unoccupied, but if you do so you are physically dwarfed, appropriately, by Smith and Carlos.
It’s a reminder of how large their protest was and is in the public mind. Their moment, though, though calculated, was short, and it was so simple, but it has resonated so much for so many people since then. It’s a great reminder that we don’t have to try to do great things – we just have to remember to keep trying to do good things.
* * *
A Dissenting View
For completeness, this is a representative—yes, representative—sample of a dissenting note. Like 99 percent of notes with this tone, it came without the sender’s real name. From Russia? From someone aggrieved in the United States? I don’t know.
Subject: Fuck off
Damn you mother fucking feckless fuckers !
Trump was spot on in his remarks about these elitist arrogant bastards of the NFL!
If these fucking assholes wish to not honor the flag and the National Anthem of this country they can all go to hell and we will see that they get there!
Game Over! These over paid self absorbed son of a bitches make me sick! So .... get over it you lame brain leftist. The good people of this country have had enough !
THE DAME JO
No kidding: I would publish a better defense of Trump’s tweets if one had come in. But this is the kind of thing that arrives.
Minutes before posting, this more-polite version of a supportive argument for Trump came in:
I’m not a big fan of Trump but I do believe that these very well paid athletes who spurn the pledge of allegiance should think about where else they could be so well off . They are able to go to great schools with B averages and yet still chose to be disrespectful to a symbol that many people died for .
You work for the Atlantic which an old friend worked for . His only flaw was that he like to complain about our system because he was a devout marxist underneath it all . You seem to be on the same track which is probably why you also work for that rag . The republicans abolished slavery but I guess you never learned that at HARVARD .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally-for-real on the instinct that might lie behind the chairs’ placement:
I have to admit I stopped looking and continued to read after I spotted what I thought was the difference: The placement of the chairs in front of the desk—rather than beside, or none at all.
There is a sense of I am the man behind the desk, I am in charge! Compared to allowing the visitor/guest/advisor a less, what I would consider, subservient position.
“I’m the President, and you’re not!!” Which is true, and until this recent interlude, I am not sure there was a president who needed to remind everyone who he is.
His self-centredness is the root of many of his problems. A basic insecurity where he must always prove himself to be the alpha male, right down to his imaginary bone spurs.
More on the flags themselves:
It’s not just the Oval Office. Flags are popping up all over the White House. And our Embassies when The president visits. And multiples wherever he makes a public statement.
I suspect there is someone on the staff there who has been placed in charge of conspicuous flag display wherever the president appears. Would be curious to have a reporter identify and interview that person.
You write: “(I can’t tell from this photo whether the other three service banners are there as well.)”
They’re there, you can see the flags of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard adding gravitas to this picture [with Russian visitors].
And with a slightly different spin:
Yes, Trump might have the flags to bolster his image. However, perhaps the flags are also a way of ingratiating the military that he needs to execute his (ill-formed) policies, protect him, and because he may some day ask them to perform unexpected and undesirable actions, perhaps against other americans for example.
The flags show his support and alignment with the military and to the extent it influences troops to believe they are supported and connected with the commander in chief, it may lower barriers and potential resistance in the future.
Isn’t this why leaders in the third world developing countries wear military uniforms?
But not everyone agreed with the flag- or chair-based analytical approach. Usually angry mail comes in under pseudonyms or no name at all, as in this case:
While the photos of the Oval Office decor through the years were interesting, your pathetic left-wing bias is obvious. Your attempt to make, as we say, a “mountain out of a molehill” by trying, as usual, like others in the lamestream media, to belittle the president falls way short, as evidenced in the Comments section.
In the future, please spare us your lame, uber-left tripe.
This man used his name:
I read your article about President Trump’s having military Flags in the Oval Office and did you ever cross your mind that he is showing support for our troops yeah I served militarily 101st Airborne/Air Assault Infantry and M. F. O. Peacekeeping forces I just curious did you ever serve a day in the military or did you just wimp out and ride the coattails all those who have and are serving using us to protect your rear end so you can go back to you cushy little job berating people
As did this woman:
Maybe the President included the Military Branch Flags in his office to show his support for the troops? Something your previous messiah wouldn’t due. Always looking for the bad and trying to spin the story to the left, Im a Marine back off.
And another woman with this aperçu:
At this point, I don’t think you qualify to me as a Ralph Lauren of the White House.
These flags remind all of what this country has sacrificed and who really has done that sacrificing ... its surely not you and your convoluted article that speaks to nothing but anti-trump sentiment.
The Oval never looked better Ralph.
Your article is a nothing burger, plain and simple.
Finally, that old staple, “we won, you lost”:
I have just read this little commentary you wrote concerning your appraisal of the new decorations in the oval office. What kind of nut are you to find fault with the honoring of our armed forces? To suggest that this represents an aggressive attitude and to insinuate that this is demeaning to the office is going way to far to find something to earn a few dollars with. Why not write an article on the reasons Hillary lost—and be truthful. You folks really need to get over it. You lost.
To some readers making the “honoring the troops” argument I replied: If it were strictly about supporting people in uniform, perhaps this idea would have occurred to the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself commanded the vast Allied forces on D-Day, or the other presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush who fought in World War II. Yet leaders like these thought it inappropriate to cram the Oval Office with battle flags. I have no idea whether this makes any difference in these readers’ views.
I’ll consider the Oval Office topic closed at this point, unless there is yet another subtext in the photos that no one has yet brought up. Thanks for the responses, pro and con—and Godspeed to the people of Houston dealing with the flood, the police, fire fighting, ambulance teams and regular citizens helping their neighbors cope with the emergency, the local newspaper and broadcast reporters covering the news, and those around the country offering financial support. Support will be needed for a long time.
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.
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.
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:
Even the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, where Trump had spoken, quickly criticized what he had said.
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.
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 TheWall 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What about the Germans? I noted yesterday the historical, ummm... haziness with which Donald Trump discussed 19th- and 20th-century events in Europe, after his visit to Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week. (For instance: Trump apparently thought that Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Europe who died in 1821, was the same Napoleon who oversaw the grand-boulevards redesign of Paris 50 years later. Like Frederick Douglass, you really couldn’t keep that Napoleon down.)
A reader who is originally from Europe and now works for a famous U.S. high-tech company, says Trump’s description was a little worse than I let on:
I just read your article about Trump’s NYT interview and was surprised (yes, really) about what he said about Napoleon and Hitler. Since I'm interested in WWII in general and the Soviet-German conflict in particular, I tried to parse this part, to no avail:
Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.
I guess this reflects a view many people hold—that the Germans went into war and froze to death because of lack of winter clothing—but it’s way too simplistic and doesn’t describe what really went on.
The Moscow campaign started in October when the going was still good for the Germans. They had been slowed down by the Russians but still had a chance. However, due to strong reinforcements from Siberia and very harsh punishments for deserters, the Soviets managed to stay in Moscow and even carry out a counter-attack. The latter was stalled after a while and the Germans held the ground over the winter through better tactics.
There were German deaths from cold in Stalingrad, but the city had been surrounded and there would have been deaths anyway. In fact, most of the “consolidations” (I would assume this means holding ground and strengthening defenses) of the German army actually improved their situation in the short run and hence prolonged the war.
The bottom line is, his description of what went on in WWII isn’t really any better than his account of Napoleon. Like I said to a friend, I used to be more focused on Chinese politics than American, but with Trump that has changed—it’s hard to focus completely on other parts of the world when this administration is in charge. That’s too bad.
Last week, Jim Fallows, who covered the fallout from the Watergate scandal 45 years ago, wrote about five reasons why President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may pose an even greater challenge to the American system. In response, Stephen W.—a reader who was then a “young, idealistic college grad” working in Massachusetts politics—shared his own memory of the Saturday Night Massacre:
On the Saturday evening of October 20, 1973, I received a phone call from a mentor, Tom O’Donnell, a partner at Archibald Cox’s Boston law firm. I had heard the news earlier in the day: the firing of Cox, and the resignations of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. Tom asked me if I could perform a favor. AG Richardson was about to land at Logan Airport and needed a ride to his home in Cohasset.
As I pulled up to the terminal curbside, I saw the tall, horn-rim–spectacled figure standing alone in the faint light. I greeted him softly, “Welcome home, sir,” and took his buckled valise from his hand to place it in the trunk. As we made our way down the Southeast Expressway toward the south-shore enclaves of Yankee Brahmins, the night seemed particularly dark and gloomy. Very few people were out and about. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of the moment.
I feel the same weight today as I watch the Trump family tragedy play out. But I also remember the quiet countenance of Mr. Richardson. It was a profile of a patriot, putting country before party or self-interest. His expression was calm and deeply reflective as he sat in the front seat next to me, without a hint of anger or upset. There were no words of any import exchanged between us. It didn’t seem appropriate to intrude on his thoughts.
We exchanged a simple “thank you and good night,” as I passed his only bag back to him. As I pulled out of the long driveway of the dark and secluded home, the encounter left me with a deep impression of the significance of integrity and reputation in the course of all human affairs.
Your article triggers my memory—a very personal memory of the import of our solemn duties and responsibilities exercised for the preservation and protection of those exceptional ideals of democracy, against those who would suborn the rule of law.
Dozens of other readers wrote in to share their thoughts about those duties and responsibilities, as exercised by government officials and private citizens in Nixon’s era and ours. Fallows passed the emails on to me, and I’ve collected a number of them here. From Dan Kimmel:
Excellent article, but, like many, it glosses over the role of Robert Bork in the Saturday Night Massacre. I was no fan of Bork and was glad he never made it to the Supreme Court, but when he became acting head of the Justice Department, he told Richardson and Ruckelshaus he would fire Cox because he believed that the president had the authority to so order, but then he would resign in protest as well. Richardson and Ruckelshaus prevailed on him NOT to resign because there was serious doubt as who, if anyone, was legitimately next in line at the Justice Department. It fits the later narrative of the right-wing Bork to depict him as a willing Nixon stooge, but that was not the case.
According to The New York Times’s 1987 account of those events, Bork apparently considered the firing of Cox to be a question of legal authority, whereas Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned because of moral, not legal, concerns. But as another reader, Randy, points out, acting on principle can also be good politics:
As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest an article about what happens to politicians that bite the bullet and do what’s right for the country, not their party. Howard Baker and others, for example, became heroes. Did any of the Republicans that turned on Nixon lose?
I think it’s very clear that Rod Rosenstein is now an important figure in history. If he stays silent and things go south for Trump, he’s a co-conspirator, possibly, but if he does the right thing, he could become famous. It’s not too late. He could simply appoint a special prosecutor, resign, get rich in the private sector.
I think the personal loyalty oath [that Trump reportedly asked of Comey] is a huge deal. If that’s true, how can any FBI director pursue the Russian case?
Bill Popik likewise fears conflicting loyalties within the administration:
Early on in Trump’s administration (imagine—it’s actually still early, but it seems like an eternity ago) I thought that what might save us were the career bureaucrats three or four levels down in the government who would simply figure out ways to drag their feet to ensure that the most onerous dictates of this administration didn’t come to fruition. Now, I’m not so sure. We are seeing that Trump insists on loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to him and his causes above all else, and that he’ll enforce that through the appointment of loyalists who will drive fealty down through the agencies they lead.
Jay, on the other hand, is “unconcerned at this time”:
I think Fallows exaggerates Trump’s failings and Comey’s probity. We have too soon forgotten the evils of J. Edgar Hoover, a too-independent and too-powerful FBI chief. Comey was going Hoover on us with his dissing of Lynch and Trump. If he “lost confidence” in Lynch, imagine what little respect he would give to Sessions. It seemed clear to me, and I thought everyone else, that Comey’s days were numbered, and Trump only waited until he had an attorney general confirmed to can Comey.
Anyway, Clinton, Inc. and the Democratic Party present an immediate and serious threat to my rights and liberties under the 1st and 2nd Amendments. They also present the same danger to some freedoms I enjoy but that are not protected by the Constitution, such as sport hunting. It is for that reason I have a high tolerance for Trump’s shenanigans.
Jack was alive to remember Watergate, but writes, “I just do not think it has come to that—yet”:
Trump is many things, but not evil. Just a stumbling guy who stumbled upon a huge part of America that hated the Republican and Democratic/Academic/Media/Entertainment class that heretofore has controlled our political discourse and political system. He spoke to their concerns. That part of America elected him. You really should get used to it.
Stephen B. voted for Gary Johnson, but he’s also skeptical that the Watergate-Comey comparison may be overblown by partisanship:
We have been in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom since Watergate. A good percentage of Americans are simply playing a team sport. And like football, the brain damage is starting to accumulate to our society.
Whether you agree with the Watergate comparison or not, the reaction to the dismissal of Comey highlights the extent to which many Americans have lost trust—in government, in the media, or in their fellow citizens. And those accumulated losses could pose a very real threat. As Michael writes:
I just wanted to quibble with one statement made in the post:
At worst, such efforts [at interference by the Russian government] might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy.
I would argue that this is exactly backwards: The results of an election are a one-time thing, for the most part. (Brexit is an exception.) But I believe the Russian endgame is more about the latter than the former; I think it’s well documented that their MO is to sow confusion and uncertainty—even to the point of supporting both sides of a conflict—simply to render an opponent unable to act effectively.
In short, getting Trump elected was a nice-to-have; the real point was to weaken faith in democracy as an institution. This is the potential lasting damage.
David Frum is worried it will happen under President Trump. “The fancy term is authoritarian kleptocracy,” Frum says in a long and enriching talk with Atlantic editor Scott Stossel last Thursday about the dangers of the Trump administration (starting at the 10:22 mark):
The SoundCloud audio version is here. And if you haven’t yet read David’s cover story on Trump, or want to read it again in light of this discussion, here’s the link. If you prefer to listen to it on the go or while doing chores around the house, here’s the audio version:
This reader really liked the piece:
I’d just add a philosophical aspect, which is that if Obama was our first black president, then Trump is our first postmodern president. In postmodernity all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.
This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.
With the news landscape so fragmented, it’s really hard to solve this problem. I can ignore the traditional gate keepers like NYT and WaPo, and I can confirm all my biases on platforms such as Breitbart or DailyKos. Can we overcome that fragmentation? I think so.
Ultimately I believe it comes down to the need to return to hard-nosed investigative journalism, and putting out fewer opinion pieces. So, say Trump goes forward with his tariffs on Mexico. Well it may help the Rust Belt workers, but it will be detrimental to workers in border towns. So you’d want a reporter talking to people and businesses affected. It’s kind of hard to ignore these stories vs. opinion pieces.
In general, to overcome the cultural malaise that led to Trump, we’re going to need more dialogue across communities. The goal is to build a common “meta-narrative” that post-modernity tears down. We need grassroots activity and the revival of social institutions (churches/mosques/synagogues, mutual aid societies, neighborhood councils, etc.). So it just comes down to countering balkanization in media, culture, and politics.
This next reader has a very different view:
“The American free press” consists of some of the largest businesses in the world, huge corporations worth billions of dollars, the unregulated “fifth estate” in America. They are more powerful than politicians or representatives, free to say anything under the guise of “freedom of the press.”
They are no longer really “the press”; they represent the interests of the owners who, through their exposure to many millions of people, have power even beyond that of the president or elected representatives.
Let’s get real. The idea of what is happening in the world is what is presented to you by the media. You see “reality” through their lens. What they say seems to be the same as fact. They really control what you think! The Washington Post endlessly disses Trump, gives his critics more coverage mix fact with opinion, and distort facts. They are manipulating you.
Not so fast, replies this reader:
Or alternately, you could simply apply rational thought to what you read and draw rational conclusions based on the quality of evidence provided, the number of peer sources co-validating it, and the logic of the arguments presented. Or just buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that everything is a lie.
Another reader piles on:
Newspapers like The Washington Post provide sources; Trump never does, unless it’s his own gold-plated observation—like the phantom thousands of people in New Jersey whom he saw cheer on 9/11. The major newspapers also apologize and issue corrections when they make an error; Trump will do the same only when Mar-a-Lago freezes over. And lastly, Trump provides us all with seemingly never-ending examples of distortion, insults, and unethical sexual behavior. Trump is manipulating his penurious lemmings and then spits nails after the majority of the American people resist him.
Update from a reader who suggests that part of the problem is that online media is too democratized:
Very interesting article by Frum and the follow-up posts by readers. I want to add that the rise of Twitter is a major factor in this. It allows people (like Trump) to reach his target audience, unchecked. Any nuance or fact checking or hard questions cannot be condensed into 140 or whatever the Twitter character limit is.
It also promotes people like Milo Yiannopoulos who have nothing valuable to contribute but instead are ready to throw verbal molotov cocktails and watch the world burn. There is no accountability, therefore no need to be truthful.
Let me also pose this question: Why are all of us equipped to comment on news and what’s happening in the world? We don’t let all of us build rockets or do neurosurgery. So why does that standard of having sense, education, training, and aptitude apply to being a journalist? Having a blog—or worse, a collection of loony opinions like Breitbart—is not journalism.
Short of an outright constitutional crisis, a lot could still go horribly wrong.
A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
Boris Johnson has faced his share of blame for the country’s death count. But the British system was failing long before the coronavirus struck.
Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s leaders asked their people to do three things, captured in one pithy slogan: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
On the first of those edicts, Britons largely followed through. Main streets, town centers, and public spaces were mostly abandoned, and the government pulled together a far-reaching job-protection program, ensuring that those who feared losing their jobs felt safe enough to not go to work.
The second request was more unusual. During the pandemic, Britain was the only major country in the world to make protecting its National Health Service a central goal. Signs and placards went up outside people’s homes, declaring their appreciation. The words Thank You NHS can now be seen on sidewalks and soccer jerseys, in children’s bedrooms and even, until recently, the windows of 10 Downing Street. In part, this worked. The NHS adapted to the crisis at extraordinary speed, creating the emergency capacity required to deal with the surge of patients. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19, he said that Britain was winning its battle against the disease because the public had “formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset,” the NHS.
It’s difficult to imagine the party nominating two white men for president and vice president ever again.
In the final rally Joe Biden held before COVID-19 shut down the country in March, he clasped hands on a stage in Detroit with a group of emerging Democratic stars. “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he declared a few minutes later. “There is an entire generation of leaders that you saw standing behind me. They are the future of this country.” Yesterday, Biden took a major step toward redeeming those words when he chose Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of the Democrats on that stage, as his vice-presidential nominee.
By selecting Harris, Biden has positioned the Democratic Party for a profound generational and demographic transition, and he’s addressed the fundamental incongruity of his candidacy: the inherent strain of a nearly 78-year-old white man leading a political coalition that relies on big margins among young voters, people of color, and women.
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
A long obsession with Mars makes all the other worlds seem a little neglected.
Paul Byrne loves Mars. He wrote his doctoral thesis and several research papers about the planet. Most of his graduate students study Mars. And yet, earlier this year, he posed this question on Twitter: “If you could end the pandemic by destroying one of the planets, which one would you choose and why would it be Mars?”
What does Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, have against the red planet? Nothing, he told me. But everyone else loves Mars too, and maybe a little too much.
Aside from Earth and the moon, humankind has studied Mars more than any other world in the universe. In the United States, many planetary scientists are devoted, in one way or another, to the study of Mars. Since 1996, NASA has sent more than a dozen robots to orbit, rove, dig, and hop around the planet. The latest NASA rover, Perseverance, departed for Mars in July, days after China and the United Arab Emirates launched their own missions to the planet.
“Mystery” toys that kids peel open and cast aside speak volumes about consumer culture.
Kids like weird things: Yellow sponge-boys, talking doe-eyed ponies, ruddy-cheeked rodents that say only “pika pika,” and, especially in the past few years, unboxing videos.
Kids’ unboxing videos are YouTube series in which children, or in some cases just disembodied hands, take toys out of their packaging and play with them as uplifting music plays in the background. One particularly popular video shows a small boy unwrapping and then assembling a child-size electric car, using plastic tools that would surely fall apart in less practiced hands. He then drives the car down the sidewalk through an eerily empty neighborhood to a playground that is also completely empty, where he plays by himself, presumably because all the other neighborhood children are busy watching YouTube. The video has 267 million views.
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
In attacking her record on crime policy, her critics are ignoring how politics actually works.
The racial-justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has had two quite different effects on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. It has intensified the pressure on Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate. And it has also intensified the pressure on him to choose a running mate with a history of challenging police brutality. Those two political imperatives are now colliding in the debate over whether Biden should pick Senator Kamala Harris—a former prosecutor whom some progressives in California have characterized as too deferential to police.
Biden had previously vowed to choose a female running mate, and the typical vice-presidential pick is a senator or governor. Harris is the sole Black woman in either category. In one sense, therefore, she clearly benefits from the new political reality that the Black Lives Matter movement has created. But that new political reality has also amplified criticism from progressives. In yesterday’s New York Times, the reporters Danny Hakim, Stephanie Saul, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. quoted David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who argues that when Harris “had the opportunity to do something about police accountability” as the city’s district attorney, “she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” Criticisms like these, the Times notes, have led progressives to ask: “Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed?”
The coronavirus could change lingering cultural assumptions about what makes for a full and happy life.
A few weeks into the pandemic, a meme circulated among some of the mothers I follow on various social-media platforms. “Check in on your friends with little kids,” the words in a tiny black serif font on a light-pink background read, followed by a fairly long list of things parents with young kids couldn’t do, including “go for a run by themselves,” “peacefully read a book or start a new project,” and “go to the bathroom by themselves.” This innocuous-seeming post caught my eye because it felt like a cry for help. My friends were getting honest about how hard it is to raise children right now.
I also read it as an indirect plea to not take my child-free privileges for granted. I don’t know what it’s like to parent a young child, let alone parent in a pandemic. I can imagine it, but like most life-altering experiences, it’s one of those things you have to live to truly understand. I’ve always been ambivalent about whether I would have children, but as I entered my early 40s, I started exploring the possibility of having a child on my own. And then the pandemic happened.
Which is too bad because we really need to understand how the immune system reacts to the coronavirus.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on August 5, 2020.
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.