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Reuters / Yuri Gripas
Donald Trump, who is at one of his golf courses, early this morning.

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.

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Reuters / Carlo Allegri

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 Takes by 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 Melodrama by 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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From another reader, on the same theme:

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

And:

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

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

And:

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

And:

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

And just about finally for now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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Elliot Richardson speaks to reporters on October 23, 1973, after resigning as U.S. attorney general. Richardson, along with his deputy William Ruckelshaus, resigned in protest after Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Charles Tasnadi / AP

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?

In writing about the inevitable but sad passing of my last surviving uncle, Robert L. Fallows of the Philadelphia area, I mentioned the phenomenon of people who—like him, and like my own parents—are respected and influential in their own communities and essentially unknown beyond it. (Want to do a modern test of this hypothesis? Try an online search to learn about my uncle.) These local-scale civic virtues are what entire civilizations depend upon, but their nurturance is at obvious and increasing odds with many other forces in our current civilization.

Readers write about different aspects of this cultural tension. First, from a reader of my sons’ generation, who served as an officer during America’s recent wars. He writes about the military experience that was obviously so characteristic of my parents’ World War II generation and is so unevenly shared now:

I always have a thought nagging at me about families where generations are in and out of the military, which seems to me to be an ideal, as opposed to the current state where some families have long traditions of service; I think that state becomes toxic.

But it isn't much written on… and I'm not adequate material in which that thought can gel.  Nonetheless we are less, as a nation, than the nation in which families like that were common.

***

Next, from a reader of my generation, about the pluses and minuses of a narrowly place-based conception of “community”:

Following the thoughts in your post about our parents’ (your uncle’s) generation as meriting enhanced recognition.

My (step) mother, born in the mid-1920s, has lived by herself for 15 years in a church-run elder community [in central Pennsylvania], where she & my father (a few years older) moved four years prior to his death in 2001. A very large proportion of the residents, my folks included, are/were clergy families (also white, protestant, and not radically evangelical).

I visit my mother frequently - her community is a terrific operation, quite exemplary - and I observe that she and her residential colleagues virtually all seem to be people for whom a) the phrase "purposeful living" would seem puzzlingly redundant, and b) the word "community" has always applied to everyone geographically within shouting distance.

For her "homies," to coin a phrase, these meanings have been reinforced, for better or worse, by the inclusive but relatively static and demographically homogeneous social and economic environment that defined "home" for most white European Americans (i.e. most of the "majority" population) at that time in the US, which continued into your and my childhood.

The home community was a base of strength - people of like mind and shared, or at least similar, experience in a community close-knit and collectively strong enough to extend its hand with good intention to selected outsiders. Recipients of this beneficence were referred to typically as "less fortunate" and implicitly regarded as inherently "good people," virtuous and/or unlucky enough to have deserved a better hand than life had dealt them. To these few the community could extend, and even over extend, its acceptance and generosity….

In any case, as for my parents' generation - with what mixed feelings do I now regard those paragons of that (great) American epoch - their indefatigable strength so daunting to our subsequent generations, their insularity so quaint.

As a preacher's kid, I'm typically awed by the superior strengths of my parents and their generation, rather than dismissive of the relative simplicity of the imperatives within which those strengths arose and were reinforced. But it could be the other way around I suppose, and someone other than myself could just regard the virtues of our parents' generation as natural adaptations to the era, subsequently eclipsed by global evolution in mobility, economics, information, and perceptions.

In this light, maybe Trump et al are the debt collectors - unduly harsh souls, heartless and randomly disruptive but an essential evolutionary digression, unsustainable but creating a space in/during which the imperfections & imbalances of human evolution, which all of us would prefer to ignore, deny or otherwise let pass like unpayable auto loan payments - can knit themselves into some new, more clear eyed social/economic/political fabric.

These are oversimplified late night thoughts that do not temper my commitment to work against this insurgent American "nativism," but I find myself perhaps too eager to latch onto some constructive meaning in how passively the US is responding to Trump's accession, in how uncannily he disarms the liberal argument with untruth and bullying, in how this brute has been empowered putatively to teach us just what we "have to lose." Unlike my parents and their generation, I'm not at all sure any of us really knows, and maybe this is what it will take to figure that out.

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The best seasonal present, this year and any year (since 1857), is of course a subscription to The Atlantic. Get yours now!

But in addition to that, books make the perfect gift. My own book choices are part of two seasonal wrapups.

One is the 2016 edition of the Atlantic’sBest Books We Read This Year” feature by our staff members. I thinking about this feature, my working definition of “best” is “an interesting book I’d like to let people know about.” There are lots of good suggestions in this year’s report—I expect that I will remember for a long time When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, which is Rebecca Rosen’s selection—but the one I chose to discuss and recommend is Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. You can read my reasons why here.

The other is a “Books for the Trump Years” feature, compiled by Michael Winship for Bill Moyers & Company. I recommend a whole slew of books about the original Gilded Age and the response thereto, for reasons I explain. And of course many other people name their picks.

Read. Enjoy. Subscribe!

A tweet from Donald Trump this morning. It carried the meta-data label “Twitter for iPhone,” which has generally meant a staff-written tweet, in contrast to the freer-swinging 3am messages from Trump’s own “Twitter for Android.” The word “unprecedented” also is not typical of Trump’s own messages. (Also please see update at end of post.)

In my cover story in the December issue of the magazine, on how the United States should prepare for the possibility of a more truculent and repressive China, I mention the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.” The article describes the implications:

This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist [and my one-time professor as an undergraduate] Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for TheAtlantic.com last year.

The idea Allison was getting across—that managing relations between the United States and China is enormously important, and also very complex, and not guaranteed to turn out well—is built into the themes Henry Kissinger expressed to Jeffrey Goldberg in the interview in that same issue, and that I was explaining in my article, and that every U.S. president from Nixon through Obama has reflected upon and, with some variations, built into his policy toward China, the Koreas, Japan, Asia, and the world as a whole.

Reduced to three elements, this outlook would be:

  • Relations with China really matter, for each country’s interests and for the world’s;
  • They’re very complex and less obvious than they seem, in part because the Chinese government sees the world differently from the U.S. government in some important ways; and
  • If poorly managed, they can lead to great danger, even the unlikely-but-conceivable disaster of military showdown. This is another way of stating the first point, with emphasis on the downside.

In his press conference yesterday, President Obama lightly touched on several of these points, while talking about the entities we usually refer to as “Taiwan” (the Republic of China, HQ in Taipei) and “China” (the People’s Republic of China, HQ in Beijing). Here is what he said, with emphasis added:

There has been a longstanding agreement essentially between China and the United States, and to some degree the Taiwanese, which is to not change the status quo. Taiwan operates differently than mainland China does. China views Taiwan as part of China, but recognizes that it has to approach Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways of doing things.

The Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they’re able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy, that they won’t charge forward and declare independence. And that status quo, although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the Taiwanese to be a pretty successful economy and—of people who have a high degree of self-determination.

What I understand for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through the consequences because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues.

They won’t even treat it the way they issues around the South China Sea, where we've had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves.

And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn't mean that you have to adhere to everything that's been done in the past, but you have to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in.

And now we have Donald Trump, five weeks away from being president but determined to put himself in the middle of U.S.-China relations as he has everything else. (Please see update after the jump)

***

As a general principle of life, I’m skeptical of claims that begin, “Oh, this is too complex, leave it to the experts.” Usually there is a simple way to convey the essence of an issue. But the simple way to state the reality of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is that they are very complex and the product of decades’ worth of trade-offs and understandings, and that they are much easier to destroy than they were to create and sustain.

What could go wrong?

The joke about Homer Simpson, as the lovably incompetent operator at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, is that he had no idea of the complexity of what he was dealing with—or the potential consequences of his blunders. It’s not that everything in the world is more complex than it seems; it’s that nuclear plants are more complex, and dangerous. So too in dealings with China.

I can tell you that virtually everyone on the Chinese, North America, Asian and ASEAN, etc. front of U.S.-Chinese relations has a similar dread about Trump’s tweet-based “policy” toward China. Of course any aspect of U.S. policy should be up for re-examination, including this one. But Trump appears to have no idea what he is dealing with, what it has taken to make the relationship as stable as it has been, or what it could mean for it to go awry.

In the sequence leading to this latest tweet, we see an example of the latter point:

  • Trump challenges and provokes the Chinese, with a literally unprecedented gesture toward Taiwan that—as Obama pointed out, and as Nixon, Reagan, and either of the Bushes, plus Kissinger would have confirmed—challenges what China’s leaders consider the irreducible heart of their national identity;
  • Once Chinese officials determine that he’s not just kidding (the initial press reaction noted that Trump was still a private citizen, soon followed by editorials saying that he was “speaking like a child”), the leaders get their back up, and take their own unprecedented step of seizing this maritime drone;
  • And then Trump, who as president-elect has been the major force provoking China, responds in today’s raise-the-stakes way.

I do not believe the United States and China are likely to go to war. There are too many buffers on each side; too many many positive linkages; too much awareness on the Chinese side of U.S. relative military advantages—and on both sides of the potential risks.

But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.

Governor Jerry Brown of California got Twitter-verse attention for saying two days ago that if Donald Trump shuts down satellite collection of climate data, “California will launch its own damn satellites.”

I’ve now seen the short speech from which that line was taken, thanks to a tip from reader CS. It’s remarkable enough to be worth your time. It’s a genuine fighting speech, with a tone that is resolute but positive, rather than resentful or doomed. It’s a rousing call-to-battle against the environmental backwardness and larger disdain for fact of the coming era, from a person who as he nears age 80 has struck a distinctive Happy Warrior tone of resistance. Happy, in its confidence. Warrior, in its resoluteness.

The 13-minute clip of an obviously extemporized speech is below, followed by a viewer’s-guide annotation:

Points to note:

  • Brown is speaking to the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco two days ago. As reader CS says, this is “probably the largest single yearly gathering of geophysics related scientists in the world; close to 25,000 people attended it this year.” Brown’s remarks begin at around time 2:00, and you’ll see that he swings right from the introductory applause into a call for renewed energy on behalf of fact-based policies, science, truth.
  • From about time 3:30 to 3:50, the sound on the video fades away. Just wait it out.
  • From 4:30 to 5:15, Brown begins one of his “we’re ready to fight” riffs. The speech as a whole is unpolished, but among its charms is Brown’s ability to seem self-aware and even self-mocking. An example is in this passage: First he says that Big Tobacco was brought down by a combination of scientists and lawyers. Then, “And in California, we’ve got plenty of lawyers! … We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight!”
  • At 5:30, he introduces the “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Brown? You’re not a country” argument, about the way California has used its technical advances and sheer scale to set national and even international environmental standards. “We have a lot of firepower! We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs. We have a lot of political clout and sophistication for the battle. And we will persevere!
  • From 7:00 to 7:15, the defiantly confident declaration: “We’ll set the stage. We’ll set the example. And whatever Washington thinks they’re doing, California is the future!”
  • At time 8:00, Brown makes an offhand reference to “Breitbart, and the other clowns.” In the following minute and onward in the speech, he increasingly stresses the need for reality, fact, “honest science,” truth.
  • My favorite part of the talk starts at 8:30, when Brown embraces a role that long ago he seemed to resist: that of a consummate politician, who knows both the nobility and the squalor of his business as intimately as anyone still performing on the national stage. This was the theme that fascinated me when I was writing my profile of Brown for the magazine three years ago. During Brown’s first incarnation as California’s governor, when in his 30s he seemed to resist the craft of politics into which he had been born. During his second stint, when in his 70s he is the oldest person ever to be California’s governor, he has fully embraced the importance and the value of political skill. You get a distilled version of how he feels about politics in this brief passage,  through time 9:20.
  • Starting at 10:00, the “our own damn satellites” riff. It also has a great “Governor Moonbeam” cameo.
  • At 10:50, a similarly defiant stance about how Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and the rest of California’s science establishment will stand proudly against a fake-science, no-truth trend. If you’ve watched this far, stay through the “we can take a few data bases more” punchline.
  • Time 11:55, “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future. And you [the climate scientists in the AGU crowd] are the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”
  • Time 13:00, a nice in-your-face challenge to Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas had urged California companies to move to his lower-tax state. It ends with, “Rick, we’ve got more sun than you have oil, and we’re going to use it!”
  • Brown’s talk ends by time 15:45, following a “scientists of the world, unite!” pitch. I think that nearly every part of it is novel enough, in the current political world, to deserve a look.

This is one of the first speeches of the Resistance era that actually makes me feel better.

White nationalism, no. But I could go for some Brown nationalism of this sort.

I have a soft spot for Rick Perry, finding his aw-shucks demeanor more natural-seeming than most politicians’. I can even remember the time, in the summer and fall of 2011, when Perry seemed the strongest Republican challenger to Barack Obama for the 2012 race. The reasoning back then: like George W. Bush before him, Perry was an affable-seeming, popular incumbent governor of an important state. Also like Bush, he was unusual among Republicans in maintaining broad Latino support without alienating immigration-hardliners in his own party.

Then came the Republican-primary debate of November 9, 2011, when Perry had his extended “Ooops!” brain-freeze. If you’ve forgotten the episode, Perry had promised to eliminate three whole federal cabinet departments. But when he tried to name them, he got through two (the Departments of Commerce and Education) but couldn’t come up with the third, not even after checking his notes and thinking about it.

If you haven’t gone back to see this moment in a while, it’s worth another look, in the clip below. Perry actually takes his on-stage embarrassment with good humor. Still, it is as agonizing a 60-second stretch as you’re likely ever to see in a live debate. And, as I remarked during the Time Capsule series, it was the sort of gaffe that back in the pre-Trump age could de-rail an otherwise promising candidacy, as it appeared to do to Perry’s.

Again, I find Perry more appealing as a person than some of the other characters now coming onto the national stage. But it is somehow an appropriate metaphor of our era that, if he is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:

  • 2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
  • 2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
  • 2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.

Long-time reader Jim Elliott suspects she will be:

I just read the news that Carly Fiorina was summoned to Trump Tower. Carly Fiorina as Director of National Intelligence? Her only job qualification is having hired private investigators to spy on her board members while at HP!

I’m curious: Why is no one I’ve seen in the press calling these interviews what they are: summonses to come worship Trump on his throne. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry [Update: picked for Energy], Carly Fiorina ... these are all people who spoke ill of Trump, who refused to endorse him or failed to do so in a timely manner. These job interviews are nothing more than the politics of personal humiliation. President-elect Trump is basking in their subjugation and eager to watch them fawn and slobber over his ego in the hopes of reaping a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that they’ll never actually get. This is the act of a petty man, a child holding court on a playground.

In contrast, what did Obama do after barely beating Hillary Clinton in a long and bitter primary battle in 2008? He made her secretary of state, of course—fourth in line for the presidency. Romney didn’t fare as well in his bid for Foggy Bottom:

Muh names reek @mememojiapp

A photo posted by Shithead Steve ™ (@shitheadsteve) on

Another reader, Dave, fears Obama might be next:

I’m sure you read the “dominatrix” Daily Beast article this weekend. I think the writer is spot on regarding Trump’s character and the basis of his recent actions—parading ex-competitors in to kiss the ring only to be humiliated by being passed over.