To Impeach Or Not To Impeach
I’m sorry, but if Congress has a duty, then… well… Congress has a duty. In this case, to follow up on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s unmistakable if unofficial indictment of the president who officially he was not allowed to indict: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
It couldn’t be much clearer than that.
Within hours of Mueller’s proclamation, members of Congress and several Democratic presidential candidates alike rashly called for the immediate impeachment of the president. Personally I preferred the prudence of one candidate— John Hickenlooper, immediate past governor of my own state of Colorado— who, instead of rushing to judgement, floated a more fundamental issue: “We cannot leave unanswered the question of whether or not the President of the United States committed a crime.”
No, we can’t. Or to be more explicit, no, Congress can’t.
That’s because Congress has a duty to exercise the checks and balances the Founding Fathers enshrined in Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution. And, if warranted, to exercise the option of impeachment established in Article I, which lays out the commitments of Congress and uses the word three times:
“The House of Representatives shall chuse (sic) their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
“The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.”
“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office… but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”
Article II, which lays out the parameters of the presidency, brings it up again:
“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Of course if we all can agree on anything, it is that Congress— under the control over the years of both parties— has dodged (or downright defied) as many duties as it has fulfilled. Exhibit A, on which Democrats will agree anyway: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s barefaced blockade of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee— a moderate, no less— a full ten months before Obama left office.
But Exhibits B-Z are all the other issues on which Congress behaves with impotence, like healthcare, the debt, equal rights, public safety, foreign wars, and most recently, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. You can defend one party or the other, but both bear blame for inaction, because both have exhibited an inability and unwillingness to meet somewhere in the middle for the greater sake of us all.
So what would I have Congress do? Pull out all the stops to answer the question posed by candidate Hickenlooper, “of whether or not the President of the United States committed a crime.”
Yes, many Americans, including some Democrats, believe we ought to just do what the president (and McConnell) has demanded and declare, “Case closed.” But here’s the trouble with that: it isn’t. And as long as it isn’t, then there will be precious little progress on all the substantive issues on which we need action if this nation is to preserve its place as the best nation on earth.
But investigating, and impeaching, are two different things. The investigations must continue if we ever are to get closure, which each side would define in a different way but which, for both sides, might be indispensable for our sanity. Closure, and possibly, justice.
Impeachment, though, is a different story. Sure, depending on what Congressional investigations turn up, impeachment might become an imperative. But with a Senate firmly in Trump-friendly hands— even if only because senators are fearful of losing their jobs by speaking out against the bully in the White House— I’m afraid it will jeopardize priorities 1-10 in my book, all of which are to ensure that this disgraceful demagogue is a one-term president. If Democrats race to impeachment in the House but it is repudiated in a trial in the Senate, that will play right into Trump’s hands… and possibly help him claim vindication and win re-election. That’s called winning the battle, but losing the war.
For me— and most likely for the majority of Americans, who voted against him in 2016— that is the worst outcome of them all.
On Uncivil Discourse
I’ll admit, when I first heard a couple of days ago that Nancy Pelosi said, “We believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up,” I was shocked. Not shocked at the charge of a cover-up; I believe it too. But I was shocked that right before a scheduled meeting with the president on infrastructure, knowing what a vengeful viper he can be, the Speaker of the House would knowingly taunt him.
It’s also why I’ve come to like her.
Because she speaks truth to power. Bluntly, and at least as effectively as any of the 20-some Democrats running for President.
And, because Trump deserves it. Of course the president took offense— big-time offense— that the Speaker was “disrespectful” and had accused him of “horrible, horrible things.” As if Trump isn’t “disrespectful” and doesn’t say “horrible, horrible things” about every human being who looks at him the wrong way.
The roster is too long to record— like disabled reporters, Mexican-American judges, Gold Star parents, overweight women. But the most recent instance is the Republican congressman from Michigan, Justin Amash— a founding member of the super-conservative House Freedom Caucus by the way— who last week had the temerity to tweet after reading the Mueller report, “President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.” Trump’s response? Tweets last weekend that Amash is “a loser,” and “a total lightweight.”
Actually, that isn’t “the most recent instance.” The most recent is Trump’s tweet yesterday morning, after a new report that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called Trump ill-prepared and outfoxed by Vladimir Putin for their 2017 meeting in Poland. It prompted the president to recycle his opinion that Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon, is “dumb as a rock.”
Well, even that isn’t “the most recent.” As of this writing anyway, that came yesterday afternoon when Trump tore into Speaker Pelosi, calling her “Crazy Nancy” and saying, “She’s a mess. She’s lost it.”
You get my point.
Every time the president takes offense that he is being either investigated or insulted, I don’t know whether to consider it hilarious or horrifying. Probably some of both. But the stupefying revelation from Trump’s latest hissy fits is, he deplores disrespect. Go figure.
The trouble is, Pelosi’s charge of a cover-up tamped up Trump’s temper to the boiling point, where instead of negotiating at the scheduled summit about infrastructure, he blew his tinted top and, according to reports, “stormed” out of the room straight to the Rose Garden and demanded that the Democrats stop their “phony investigations.” But he’s been pleading that case for a long time. The surprise was the clincher: Trump won’t work with the Democrats at all, on infrastructure or presumably anything else, until they give in. “We’re going to go down one track at a time.”
Put aside for the moment the appearance of a scripted outburst that Trump was shocked by Pelosi’s broadside, since in the moments it took Trump to travel from the Cabinet Room to the Rose Garden, his staff had already methodically erected a podium decked out with defiant signs saying “NO collusion NO obstruction” (as if saying it makes it so). And put aside the fact that Trump’s channeling of the classic line in Casablanca— “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here”— is at odds with the fact that critics have been accusing the president of a cover-up since the whole Mueller investigation began.
Put all that aside, and just consider the president’s assurance in the Rose Garden, “I don’t do cover-ups.” (He went on to say to the assembled media, “You people know that probably better than anybody.” He was smart enough not to take a vote on that one.) But in the wake of his inadvertent analog to Richard Nixon’s infamous assurance, “I am not a crook,” it’s only fair and balanced to point out that Trump actually does cover-ups galore. Does the name Stormy Daniels ring a bell? Or how about the president’s total refusal to release any documents, let alone permit any aides to testify, to Congressional committees trying to exercise their Constitutional right to oversee the Executive Branch. What some have the audacity to call checks and balances.
Kind of makes you wonder, if you’ll excuse the incoherence of the question, if this president doesn’t do cover-ups, what exactly is he covering up?
And one more thing: Trump said in the same Rose Garden rant, “I’m the most transparent president probably in the history of this country.” Right off the bat I’d argue that in modern times at least, Jimmy Carter— ultimately to his peril— has him beat. But the bigger point is another question: if this president is so transparent, how come he hides so much? I can’t help but think about all the men who have been allied with Donald Trump either politically, or professionally, or personally, who now are in jail or awaiting their sentences, thanks to their association with him. I had to conclude early this month that there was something wrong with the picture when Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was marched off to prison, while the man he was imprisoned for protecting roams free.
You could argue, all of this is beside the point. What’s important is the nation’s business. And that includes infrastructure, the rare issue on whose importance the two political parties agree. Politically, it’s about as close as anything comes these days to a no-brainer.
Yet President Trump put his ego above his obligation to get it done. Suddenly, an insult— Trump’s own stock-in-trade— is a capital crime for which the nation’s business must grind to a halt.
The day after Trump’s tantrum, Speaker Pelosi called on “his family or his administration or his staff” to “have an intervention for the good of the country.” The goal of an intervention is to change someone’s destructive behavior.
This time I wasn’t shocked by the Speaker’s blunt talk. I was glad. Because Donald Trump’s behavior isn’t just destructive to him. It’s destructive to us all.
Only a few weeks ago I read what should not be a surprising piece of news but it was: a Republican state representative is defecting to the Democrats, and it’s because of Donald Trump. His name is Andy McKean, and as an office-holder for 35 years, he was the longest-serving GOP lawmaker in Iowa.
But in an essay in The Atlantic, McKean sounded like the Democrat he is now becoming: “He (Trump) sets, in my opinion, a poor example for the nation and particularly for our children by personally insulting— often in a crude and juvenile fashion— those who disagree with him, being a bully at a time when we are attempting to discourage bullying, his frequent disregard for the truth and his willingness to ridicule or marginalize people for their appearance, ethnicity or disability.”
And McKean’s declaration of defection wasn’t just about the president’s appalling lack of character or class. It also was about the president’s policies. He denounced “President Trump’s reckless spending and shortsighted financial policies, his erratic, destabilizing foreign policy and his disregard for environmental concerns.”
The mystery is, why does this longtime Republican stand out? Where are the others in statehouses and in Washington alike who know full well that Trump is a threat to our values and a menace to our stability? Are they actually watching what this wrecking ball of a president is doing?
Did they wonder last week why Donald Trump was sending an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf to fire up our feud with Iran, while after yet another of North Korea’s missile tests, which violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, he was tweeting that Kim Jong-un— who personally supervised the latest launch— “knows that I am with him?” Iran is a threat to western interests in the Middle East, that’s not debatable, but does Trump not realize that while he’s pandering to a murderous dictator on one side of Asia, on its other side he’s reinforcing the influence of hard-liners at the expense of moderates? If I learned anything at all from my years covering that part of the world, it is that the best way to bring polarized people together is to threaten their country. Iran’s angriest threat against us has been the enduring chant I first heard covering the revolution there 40 years ago, “Death to America.” North Korea’s sounds a whole lot more dangerous.
Trump’s approach to policy, which some cleverly call “shoot-from-the-lip,” is to start a fire so he can then rush in and put it out. The trouble is, some of his fires are not controlled burns.
The trade war he started with China is an unnerving example. Ultimately the U.S. might win, depending on how you even define a victory. But at what cost? As the president of the U.S. Council for International Business, which represents global corporations, says, “When the U.S. and China fight, nobody wins, as the past year’s market gyrations, lost deals, and strained diplomatic ties have made abundantly clear.” Not to mention the cost to American farmers and small business owners, and stockholders. And not to mention the unrecoverable cost to the whole economy of the Western world. And not to mention the American consumer. The Vice President of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents major retailers like Best Buy, Target, Walmart, and others, says, “Americans’ entire shopping cart will get more expensive.” Thanks, Mr. President.
Then, there’s Trump’s approach to honesty. Of course when it comes to anything that reflects badly on the man, he calls it a witch hunt, a conspiracy, a lie. As if this guy knows the difference between a verity and a lie. Oh, his defenders will counter that lots of politicians lie. Fair enough. But compared to Trump they are bush league. The president lies to protect himself, to insulate himself, to inflate himself, to fool himself, probably to amuse himself.
That’s what makes Trump’s remorseless resistance to the continuing congressional campaign to force records from his files and testimony from his cronies so intriguing. Especially his reliance on “executive privilege.” It’s a clever tactic because it will stall the campaign, but “executive privilege” is meant to protect private presidential communications, not public prosecutors’ proceedings. Especially when, despite a lack of prosecution, those proceedings turned up at least ten plausible examples of presidential obstruction of justice.
As Democrat Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, says of what Trump is trying to hide— and note that word “oversight,” which is constitutional congressional responsibility— “If there’s nothing, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Look in almost every direction though and you’ll see that the president has a lot to be afraid of. His tax returns, for example. We recently learned from tax records in the 80s and 90s that at the very time when Trump was wowing readers with his pecuniary prowess in The Art of the Deal, he was in fact losing, over the course of a decade, more than a billion dollars… and for eight of those years, paying not a penny in tax. “You always wanted to show losses for tax purposes,” he tweeted in self-defense, trying to put lipstick on the pig. “It was sport.”
Yeah, so were Barry Bonds’ home runs. As columnist Gail Collins put it, “Trump would like us to believe all that red ink was actually a canny business strategy. On behalf of the millions of Americans who filed their IRS returns last month, I want to say that it is always a treat to hear our president explain how only suckers pay taxes.”
So to go back to the observation from Chairman Cummings, if there’s nothing to be afraid of, why is Trump so afraid? Here’s one answer: because we’re finding out he’s an even bigger liar than we realized. Which is embarrassing for the president, although not half as embarrassing as it is for tens of millions that he is our president at all.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Congressional demands for more cooperation “a desperate ploy to distract from the president’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy.” Wisconsin Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner called the Democrats making those demands a “character assassination squad” sullying innocent people.
To which I can only repeat: if there’s nothing, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
I first preached a particular principle while producing ABC News’s coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in the 1970s that undid President Richard Nixon: “Nobody can make the man look like a crook without his help.” The same applies to Donald Trump: nobody can make him look reckless, shortsighted, or erratic, and nobody can make him look like a liar and a bully, without his help.
Iowa representative McKean ended his defection declaration saying of Trump’s way of governing, “If this is the new normal, I want no part of it.” Republicans who do still want a part of it should be ashamed.
On Political Depression
It’s easy to let Donald Trump get you down. Because it’s hard to get away from the guy. It’s hard because you can’t follow the news without seeing him stirring things up. That’s why, unless you have made a deal with the devil and ignobly ignore Trump’s endless affronts to decency and legacy and honesty (all of which, before he came along, you likely would have condemned), it can be downright depressing.
It sure is some of the time for me, and maybe you can relate: every time Trump wins some small victory, I’m depressed. Not clinically, but moodily. And it’s not because his side won and my side lost. No, it’s because with precious few exceptions, his victories are America’s losses. For the most part, they put our historic values at risk and our treasured rights in peril. They cost us money at home and influence overseas. They alienate us from our friends and align us with our adversaries. They change the definition of once solid words like “truth,” and “fact.” They put us at war with ourselves.
Trump’s slogan from the get-go has been, Make America Great Again. But before he got to the White House, there was no need. Now, after the damage he has done, there is.
So unless you have made that deal with the devil, how can you not be depressed?
Even though Trump doesn’t get nearly as much accomplished as he would have you believe— especially now that both Congress and the courts sometimes serve as effective obstacles to his every mean-spirited whim— he’s still there, operating with the credo of act now, answer for it later.
But maybe all is not lost. Because unless the Democrats over the next year-and-a-half shoot themselves in the foot, which in their own chaotic circus is always an unnerving possibility, Donald Trump could be a one-term president.
Which could cure our depression overnight.
Why this conclusion? First, just look at the numbers. In last year’s Congressional elections, which were the most recent nationwide referendum, Democrats took power from Republicans in the House of Representatives in a landslide. Voters have all kinds of things in their heads when they cast their ballots, but polls showed that many were turning thumbs down on the limp-hearted lackeys who supported the president, fearful that he would turn on them if they didn’t.
The nationwide referendum before that was the 2016 presidential election, from which you should never forget one irreversible fact: yes, Trump won the Electoral College, but Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than he did. Her strategic mistake was, she took certain states for granted and lost where she should have won. Next year’s challenger, whomever it is, will have learned that lesson if nothing else.
In short, Trump has a noisy base but they are still a minority of the electorate.
Some Americans who detest Trump— Democrats and Republicans alike— worry that the field of challengers is actually too diverse. I don’t. The nation’s voters showed by electing Barack Obama twice that they won’t reflexively turn away an African-American. And Hillary Clinton’s popular majority in 2016 showed that they won’t turn away a woman. Especially one who doesn’t carry the costly baggage Clinton carried.
Another reason for hope? Look at what candidate Trump promised during his campaign… and look at what he actually has delivered. Maybe he ought to hide his presidential ledger of assets and liabilities along with his taxes.
Blocking the border? Even when he had his own Congressional majority, he couldn’t get what he wanted (and Mexico still hasn’t paid for it). Beheading ISIS? The so-called caliphate is dust, but the terrorists have merely gone underground; American intelligence estimates they now have cells in some two dozen nations. Trump’s trumpeted “deal of the century,” a peace pact between Palestinians and Israelis? All he has done so far is take chips off the table that might have moved the needle. Denuclearizing North Korea? Nothing accomplished. Getting out of Afghanistan? Nope, not yet.
Taking the upper hand with global trade? For the time being, Trump’s trade wars are hurting— manufacturers farmers, consumers— more than they’re helping. A new plan for health care, something superior to Obamacare? Nothing has been created. Rebuilding infrastructure, one of Trump’s few promises that both sides said they could support? Nothing has been rebuilt. The president has been so busy sowing animus, he hasn’t even tried for this one bit of amity.
If whomever goes head to head with Donald Trump in 2020 doesn’t wither under his thuggish attacks and manages to remind the American people not only of what he or she will do for America but also what Trump hasn’t done, then all is not lost.
What worries me though is that the damage will outlast him. Not only in America’s relationships around the world, but in the minds of America’s young.
If you’re old enough to be reading this, you probably grew up aware that while there always was animosity in politics, generally people didn’t think of their adversaries as wicked, and warped. With Trump, it’s different. Many believe Trump is wicked; many believe Trump is warped. And that has become part of the national conversation, which makes it hard to keep it away from the ears of the young.
Having covered several presidents, I’ve always articulated the adage that even presidents put their pants on one leg at a time. They are merely human beings in an exalted position. But if a president sets a positive example for his people, that is a president to exalt.
When will we have another like that? We have to get past the damage of Donald Trump first. And while that might sometimes depress you as it sometimes depresses me, don’t lose hope.
The nerve of this guy. The shamelessness. The gall.
Twice so far, since the Special Counsel concluded his investigation, Donald Trump has called his adversaries “treasonous.” Their crime? Supporting the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the Trump campaign’s willing role as an accomplice.
Unless you don’t think that encouraging Russia to sway the election your way makes you an accomplice. Maybe in the eyes of the law— especially in the eyes of prosecutors who would have to take a case to trial— it’s not conspiracy, maybe it’s not collusion. But it’s inarguably impermissible and immoral. All those convicted senior Trump associates weren’t just lying about connections to Russia for the fun of it.
But who’s surprised any more when Trump turns the tables on his detractors and says they’re the ones who committed treason? After more than two years of pomposity from this president, we know that his bombast plays to his base. Now, after mindlessly mouthing “lock her up” since before the election without quite knowing what it is that Hillary Clinton did to merit a stretch behind bars, his acolytes probably will start chanting “lock ‘em up” about everyone who found any reason to look closely at Trump and his ties to Russia.
What Trump is playing is the patriot card… as if his Putin-patronizing patriotism is beyond reproach. The indictment is, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Where have we heard that before? As if opposing your elected leader and his policies means you oppose your nation. I’ve lost count of the number of authoritarian governments I’ve covered around the world where loyalty to the leader was the only definition of patriotism.
It’s not supposed to work that way here.
But in Trump’s world of alternative facts, we also have alternative definitions. If you go looking for the dictionary definition of treason, you’ll find several, but they all amount to this: treason is the betrayal of your nation by giving aid and comfort to its enemies, or by waging war yourself against it. And that’s not just what dictionaries say; it is the essence of treason as defined in the United States Constitution.
What treason doesn’t include is questioning your government, distrusting your government, investigating your government. One of the very reasons the Founding Fathers defined treason the way they did was to protect us— you and me— when we want to criticize our government. Or the people who lead it. That isn’t treason; it is democracy.
Yet look at Donald Trump’s dark warnings last week: “There are people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things— I would say treasonous things— against our country. And hopefully the people that have done such harm to our country— we’ve gone through a period of really bad things happening— those people will certainly be looked at.”
If those final words don’t send a cold chill down your spine, nothing will. I won’t utter the names of the 20th Century’s worst fascists, because to compare anyone today to the likes of those mass murderers— including a would-be autocrat like our president— is an injustice to the victims of history’s worst. But suffice to say, Trump’s language mirrors theirs.
Late last week at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan— home town to a decent if not dazzling president named Gerald Ford— this indecent man dropped the word “treason” but called the Special Counsel’s investigation a “sinister effort to undermine our historic election victory and to sabotage the will of the American people.”
Trump forgets so much. About history, and about the people’s will. It’s odd, in fact, that this man considers his presidency a mandate at all. What he forgets is, most voters two years ago voted against him. Most voters didn’t want him in the White House. Yes, because of the Electoral College he won the election fair and square… well, square, anyway, because the original need for the Electoral College seems quaintly unfair when twice in 16 years the majority of Americans have been disenfranchised and a president has been elected with a minority of popular votes. That is hardly “the will of the American people.”
President George W. Bush had the grace at least not to speak of a mandate when he served in the White House. He did what presidents do with the power they inherit, but he didn’t act as if the majority of Americans were behind him every step of the way.
Donald Trump does. Which is one more reason why his words, let alone his actions, are unbefitting the presidency. And why he’s got some nerve calling his opponents treasonous.
On Presidential Candidates
Already, more than a year-and-a-half from the next presidential election and almost a year ahead of the first consequential contests, politicians and pundits are proffering predictions about who’s up and who’s not in the crowded field of Democrat candidates.
Which makes me laugh. They should know better. As I once learned myself. The hard way.
Way back in 1991, as a correspondent for ABC News, Good Morning America asked me to fly around the country and spend a couple of days with each of the five Democrats vying to oppose Republican President George H.W. Bush in his campaign for re-election. I would do a five-minute profile of each.
That’s when I got out of the prediction business.
The five would-be nominees were Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, former (and future) governor Jerry Brown of California, and a guy from Arkansas by the name of Bill Clinton.
My camera crew and I connected with Clinton in Seattle, at a National Governors Conference. The other four candidates already had enjoyed lots of days in the sun as national figures, but Clinton was an unknown. So when we showed up to put a television network’s national spotlight on him for a couple of days, at a point early in the campaign when no one else had, he was overjoyed.
So much so that he focused on me like a laser beam. You might remember, that’s what people used to say about Bill Clinton, that he could make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. For those two days in Seattle, that’s how he treated me.
Which made me think he was as phony as a three-dollar bill. I’d already covered presidential candidates in 1972, and 1976, and then after returning home from a decade overseas, in 1988, so I thought I knew when a politician was transparent. The voters would see through it. They’d never buy it.
That’s why, when I’d completed my swing around the U.S. and took all the video to ABC’s headquarters in New York, and lots of colleagues at the Mother Ship, knowing I’d spent time with all five candidates, asked me, “So who’s going to get the nomination?”, my answer to one and all was, “I don’t know, too early to tell.” But then I added, “The one guy you can count out is the guy from Arkansas, the governor, Clinton.”
As it turns out, what I’d found phony about Bill Clinton turned out to be genuine. Not that this was the first time I’d made a bad prediction.
That was much earlier, in 1972, when I was one of the “boys on the bus,” ABC’s producer on the campaign of Senator George McGovern, who was trying to unseat President Richard Nixon. I think we traveled to almost all 50 states— that was McGovern’s unsound strategy to take the White House— and as with other campaigns I subsequently covered, by and large we’d land in a city, speed in a police-escorted motorcade to an event center, the candidate would address an adoring crowd, then we’d speed in a motorcade back to the airport, fly to another city, and repeat the whole thing over again. Three, sometimes four cities in a single day.
To new sure, in every campaign there are protests and demonstrations along the way, but truth be known, when you’re exposed to so many fans and so few critics, it’s easy to conclude that just about the whole world loves whichever candidate you’re with. On election day in ‘72, Nixon creamed McGovern, but it hadn’t been clear in the fever of the campaign trail. I remember reading a day or two after the election that one New York socialite was floored by the outcome, saying “I just can’t believe it, I don’t know anyonewho voted for Nixon.” She wasn’t alone.
Then came 1975, in the run-up to the ’76 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. I’d gotten to know Ford a little bit because I’d covered parts of his vice presidency. (For those with bad memories, President Richard Nixon appointed House Minority Leader Ford in 1973 to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in disgrace.) But the first time I laid eyes on Carter was when we traveled to Iowa well ahead of the caucuses to see what this obscure governor from a southern state was up to.
What he was up to was wearing blue jeans and plaid shirts. He always had a suit handy too… which he carried himself in a plastic suit bag. He slept in supporters’ sofa beds. He was the epitome of humble. And he spoke with that funny twang.
In my own mind— thankfully I wasn’t into public predictions yet like the one about Clinton— I wrote Carter off. Voters across America just wouldn’t go for an unsophisticated peanut farmer from Georgia, especially when they already had a folksy enough choice in Ford.
Of course damned near everybody should have gotten out of the prediction business in the election two years ago. I mean, Donald Trump?!? A New York developer in silk suits whose record of success was decidedly dubious? A reality TV star whose vocabulary was decidedly deficient? True, Hillary Clinton trounced Trump in the popular vote, but he figured out the path to victory and took it to the White House.
Almost no one saw it coming. Almost everyone was wrong.
Modern political history mirrors those mistakes. Going into their first televised debate in 1960, just six weeks before the election, Richard Nixon led John F. Kennedy in the polls. Coming out of the debate, Nixon was behind. The rest is history.
That’s why today, when anyone handicaps the almost dozen-and-a-half Democrats who have thrown their hats in the ring, I laugh. Sure, already there are superstars attracting big attention and raising big money, while others— like Colorado’s Hickenlooper and a few others— are polling at about one-percent.
But don’t count anyone out. Not yet. Ahead of us lie speeches and ads and debates and gaffes galore. Which can turn a superstar into a has-been and a small fry into a front runner. If you haven’t learned that by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
On the Middle East mess
The Middle East is a mess. But I could have written that sentence more than 40 years ago when I first set foot there as a journalist. And I could have written it every single time I went back, probably almost a hundred trips over all.
There always have been conflicts there over military supremacy and cultural superiority, over treasure and territory, over rights and religion. Sometimes externally between Muslims and Jews, sometimes internally between orthodox and non-orthodox Jewish sects, sometimes between different branches of Islam. In those 40 years going in and out of the Middle East, I covered them all.
Some of the ugliest rivalries I’ve seen— and “ugly” has fatal overtones in that part of the world— have been battles within the same religion, where each side believes it has a hammerlock on God’s will. The fact is, ever since Israel was created and the Arab nations lined up in a coalition to destroy it, the Middle East has been a mess. That makes it more than 70 years now. And that’s only the modern-day Middle East. There were messes in the region before we ever came along.
I’ve stopped counting the number of times enemies have lined up to eviscerate Israel. Three attempts by sovereign nations, several more by non-state terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, not to mention the original Palestine Liberation Organization. Today, throw in newer groups like ISIS, and non-Arab nations like Iran, which continues to support those who would push Israel into the sea.
But for most of these years, that’s what “the Middle East” was about: conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, and their proactive proxy proponents. When Arab leaders rattled sabers, it was always in fellowship with the Palestinians, although truth be known, most of them talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. I’ve been in Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries where they were treated far worse than they were treated in Israel itself.
I think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist when I say, the issues between the two sides are so intractable, I don’t think there will ever be peace on that front. I saw hatred passed down from generation to generation, young Palestinians who weren’t even around for the birth of Israel in 1948 protesting that the Jews took their families’ homes, young Israelis who also were shackled by secondhand stories complaining that when Israel was born, the Arabs fled rather than live beside them. All I can say, after so many visits and so many interviews, is that I believe there is some truth from both sides.
What has changed since I first started covering the region though is, “the Middle East” no longer means just that. Where a war in the Middle East used to focus our eyes on Israel, today it might bring us to a map of Iraq, or Syria, or Yemen. It might mean the anarchy in Libya, or the unneighborly hostility between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (or the regional enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran). It might conjure up the ruling tyrants versus the roving terrorists in Egypt, or the mullahs versus the moderates in Iran. When I covered the eight-year-long war between Iran and Iraq and saw hand-to-hand combat in the 20th Century, or during the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon saw brothers from rival militias sniping at each other from rooftops in Beirut, I knew that “the Middle East” was troubled far beyond the borders of Israel.
Today in fact, “the Middle East” extends well beyond the Middle East. When I covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which is Asia, people thought I was in the Middle East. When I covered a war for independence in southern Morocco, which is Saharan Africa, people thought I was in the Middle East.
In my mind, within the scope of my experience, two events drove and define the change.
One is the revolution in Iran. For time immemorial, or at least since the post-ancient concept of a unified nation, there have been revolutions. But until the revolution in Iran, they remained confined to their borders. Revolutions were about a change of government, a change of culture, a change of power, but all within the borders of the nation itself.
The Iranian revolution pushed out those borders. Those of us who covered it didn’t all grasp at the beginning— nor did our governments— that when its advocates called it the Islamic Revolution, they meant a revolution throughout the Islamic world. I got to know the first civilian leaders of Iran, and they didn’t necessarily have that vision. But the religious fanatics, the ayatollahs, did, and they won the day. In Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in the Palestinian Territories themselves, their revolution has taken root. I’ve seen the roots of it firsthand. It’s scary.
The other event is the transistor, which was a revolution of a different sort; it transformed people’s awareness of the world. My first trip to the Middle East, in 1977, was to Egypt, when President Sadat had agreed to pursue peace with an equally willing Israeli Prime Minister Begin. The day I landed, I had to wait for about four hours at Cairo’s airport— an outdoor affair back in the day— for a journalist’s visa. (If I had simply told the immigration officer that I was there to see the pyramids, he’d have quickly stamped my passport and welcomed me to his country. But I wasn’t that smart.)
It happened to be the time of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage that every Islamic male is expected to make to Mecca. So the airport was full of Egyptian men, and maybe some from other Islamic nations in Africa who were changing planes. Many were carrying just two things: a stick with their possessions wrapped in a sheet, reminiscent of pictures we’ve all seen of American hobos during the Depression, and a boom box. By the ‘70s in the U.S., transistor radios were as small as a cigarette pack, but in that poor part of the Middle East, the boom box was the first technology that gave people a picture, albeit verbal, of the world. Especially people who had never before been more than 10 miles from home.
The speakers were blasting various radio broadcasts of Arabic voices. It is not a pretty language, and to my unschooled ear they all sounded angry. And I remember thinking, this is probably both good and bad news. The good news was, these people finally can break out of the narrow prisons in which they’ve always lived. But the bad news was, now they would find out that in other parts of the world, people didn’t live in prisons like theirs. People elsewhere had freedom, and power, and opportunities, and luxuries, that these men with their boom boxes never dreamt existed. Now they would want such things for themselves. And maybe someone else would have to give them up.
It’s a straight line from then to now. The Middle East is still a mess, even bigger than before. Nothing on the horizon suggests it will change.
On Meaning of Iran Revolution
This week makes 40 years since the revolution in Iran. Which is especially shocking to me, since as a journalist I had a front row seat, spending the better part of two years there, covering the peaceful protests, then the pitched battles, then the all-out urban warfare that spun the Western-oriented monarchy known simply as Iran into the decidedly anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran.
I can’t say it feels like yesterday, because 40 years is more than half-a-lifetime back. But I also can’t say that the revolution is only a distant memory, not only because I had some of my closest brushes with death in Iran and you don’t ever forget threats like that, but also because in so many ways— in too many ways— the revolution is still with us today.
That’s what made Iran a real, if radical, pioneer: revolutions go back to the beginning of centralized governments, but never before did they deliberately breech a nation’s borders. Iran’s did, by design. That was the meaning, and the motive, of what came to be called the “Islamic Revolution of Iran.”
All of us who spent those years on the streets of Iran could see the change coming, the change that pivoted this oil-rich, strategically located nation from ally to adversary. Although our diplomats were telling Washington that the Shah’s support was strong, they were living in rarified company and couldn’t see beyond their blinders.
On the streets, anger with the Shah was all we heard. He was modernizing the nation, letting western decadence corrupt a conservative civilization, which the common people didn’t want. He was distributing the nation’s oil riches to a handful of wealthy families, in which the common people didn’t share. And the real emotional spark was the Shah’s savage secret police, Savak. Reporters like me rarely met anyone who didn’t have a cousin or a neighbor or a workmate who hadn’t lost a job, or an apartment, or an arm or a leg or an eye or maybe a life to Savak. The Shah was a bad guy. The catch was, he was our bad guy.
So while western governments stuck with the Shah, we who worked the streets could see that a revolutionary reordering was inescapable. What we didn’t see though was the force that would make this revolution unique: that it would break out of its own national borders and motivate militants to make their mark throughout the Islamic world, sometimes throughout the Western world too.
As it happens, I saw it soon enough, becoming maybe the first western reporter to witness the first steps of the Islamic Revolution. It was after the change of power and I was back in Beirut, covering Lebanon’s wholly uncivil civil war. One day a camera crew and I left Beirut to drive to Damascus, because Syria had a strong arm in that war. As we passed through the Bekaa Valley, we stopped for lunch in an ancient city called Baalbek. But when we got out of our car at the city’s central square, there were tanks with strange markings, and soldiers with strange faces and heavy beards— we almost thought we were back in Iran. Some kind of military training was going on right in front of us.
When they leveled their machine-guns at us, we got the message and got back on the road to Damascus. But what we saw, I later could confirm, was the infancy of Hezbollah, the Iranian-seeded terrorist organization that today controls much of Lebanon’s government and has fought wars with Israel along its northern border. Since then, Iran also has been a backer of Hamas, the most radical Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, at Israel’s southwestern edge. And over the years it has aligned with the most radical elements of Iraq, and Syria, and Yemen.
I tell these stories because it can be instructive to learn a few lessons from it, or at least to re-learn lessons we too quickly forget.
First, as all of us in the West have learned the hard way, it can be tortuous to stop armies that believe they are fighting in the name of God. That’s why, while driven underground, al-Qaeda and ISIS and others of like mind haven’t been driven from the face of the earth. To the contrary, the United States in ways big and small is battling terror in some 80 countries around the world.
Second, be careful what you wish for. Once the savagery of the Shah became known in the West, there was some sympathy for whomever would replace him. As it turns out, it was a bad deal. Holding our nose and supporting those who support us sometimes is the lesser of two evils, when the alternative is even worse. It’s called geopolitics, and to come full circle, sometimes it is a necessary evil.
Third, don’t depend solely on what our governments tell us. They might have our best interests in mind— or theirs, at least— but they only know what they think they know and in my long experience covering crises overseas, too often what they think they know is wrong. If we didn’t learn that from Iran, we should have learned it from Iraq.
Fourth, don’t condemn the whole of a nation for what we see in only a part of it. In the case of Iran, there was almost universal spite for the Shah. But that didn’t mean everyone wanted to replace him with religious fanatics. They didn’t. But when it looked like the ayatollahs drove the bandwagon that would shove the Shah from power, they got on it. And now they, like we, must live with the outcome.
We are now on our fourth consecutive baby boomer president. They all should have learned some of these lessons themselves. From some of the messes we’ve been in, they didn’t.
People probably have told lies for as long as the human race has had a voice box.
Of course that’s not fair to everyone in every walk of life— Mother Teresa might truly never have told a lie— but can you really argue with these generalities: Political leaders lie to their constituents. Manufacturers lie to their customers. Cheating husbands lie to their wives. Used car salesmen lie to their buyers. Fraudulent charities lie to their donors. Cable commentators lie to their listeners. Taxpayers lie to the IRS. Teenagers lie to their parents.
And, truth be told, in the season of Christmas and Santa Claus, parents lie to their little children. Some lies are more harmless than others.
That’s why this column isn’t just about lying. If it were, there wouldn’t be enough space on the page.
So let’s only focus on the most bald-faced liar of our time, the President of the United States. And to do that, we don’t have to rely on liberals, who can be expected to call out the president for his ramshackle relationship with the truth. We need only rely on none less than the man who steadfastly stands behind the president through thick and thin, Vice President Mike Pence.
In the 1990s, when the Democrats had their own dark days dealing with dishonesty because of Bill Clinton’s lies about sex in the Oval Office, Pence called for Clinton “to move out of the White House,” writing in a column only recently unearthed, “Now more than ever, America needs to be able to look to her First Family as role models of all that we have been and can be again.” Which is pretty strange, considering the credible claims of extra-marital affairs against the man who elevated Pence to an office a heartbeat from the presidency, Donald Trump. Which makes Mike Pence himself a lie.
Now you can write off some of Trump’s lies if you choose to as “alternative facts,” as his counselor Kellyanne Conway preposterously put it back at the beginning of his presidency, when Trump claimed he’d had bigger inaugural crowds than President Obama. Pictures proved, he hadn’t.
But chalk it up to opinion. Like another of Trump’s “opinions” back then that Barack Obama hadn’t been born in the United States and therefore wasn’t legally eligible to be president, which has been thoroughly discredited. Or that voter fraud accounted for an extra three to five million votes for Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton. He has never been able to back it up— surprise surprise— but again, everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Even the one that claims that our nation’s porous southern border is the cause of an apocalypse of everything from opioids to terrorism to rape. Statistics— government stats, in fact— show otherwise. But okay, an opinion is an opinion is an opinion.
Tellingly by the way, America’s sextet of intelligence chiefs never even mentioned the southern border as a peril in the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” they issued at the end of last month. To the contrary, they contradicted the President— or at least, they contradicted his “opinions”— about the levels of danger in everything from Iran to Russia to North Korea to ISIS. But fine. That’s just their opinion. To which Trump says, they are “extremely passive and naive” and “should go back to school.” That’s his opinion.
But what about the Americans who passively put up with Trump’s treacherous tall tales, be they opinions or appraisals or flat-out lies? Not because they believe them, but because they consider it the cost of doing business. The cost of getting decisions out of Trump that they want. As liberal columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, “The real story of Trump isn’t his amorality and outrageousness. It’s Americans’ receptiveness to that. It’s the fact that, according to polls, most voters in November 2016 deemed him dishonest and indecent, yet plenty of them cast their ballots for him anyway.” Or to quote conservative columnist Bret Stephens, “Among many conservatives I know, the view of Trump is that chaotic management, clownish behavior and ideological apostasies are irritants, not calamities, and prices worth paying for deregulation, tax cuts, and conservative courts.”
But even if you cut these people some slack for rationalizing Trump’s prevarications as just opinions, how can they look at themselves in the mirror when he is caught out on blatant, totally indefensible lies?
Maybe the most recent example is the president’s claim during the government shutdown that when it comes to spending billions on a wall, “This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me. And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.”
The trouble for Trump is, there are four living ex-presidents and all four, either directly or through their spokespeople, have said that’s a lie. Not an opinion. A lie.
Or the president’s phony proclamation that his father only staked him to “a very, very small loan” when he was young, in his eyes a modest one million dollars, despite exhaustive investigations which show that trust funds put tens of millions in Trump’s bank account before he even outgrew acne.
Or the he-said-she-said stories about Trump’s extramarital affairs.
All of which his supporters swallow as the cost of doing business.
One of the problems, of course, is that we don’t get the chance to dwell on Trump’s decrepit relationship with the truth. As my former colleague Dan Rather recently pointed out, beginning even before Trump reached the White House, “It got to the point where it was one outrage after another, and we just moved on each time.”
And it continues at a machine-gun’s pace.
We can’t leave this subject without merely mentioning Mitch McConnell, the president’s enabler at the Capitol. During the shutdown, in an effort to sell the Trump’s big beautiful wall, McConnell mendaciously muttered that the Democrats had the chance to put nation above party. I wanted to grab him by the collar and scream, “Oh, the way you did when our last president nominated a respected federal judge to the Supreme Court and you held up the nomination for the better part of a year, alleging that the American people should have a ‘voice’ in the process?” That last president, if anyone needs reminding, was actually elected not just with a majority of the Electoral College but with a majority of the American people. They’d had a voice in the process. Which makes Mitch McConnell yet another lie.
The president’s dishonesty has taken hold. Many condemn it, but many others emulate it. In the next election, we have a choice. Validate lies by electing more liars who couldn’t care less. Or send them packing.
On Afghanistan War
We have tried to win in Afghanistan, but lamentably, we have reached a stalemate at best, which means we have failed. Because when the world’s greatest power isn’t winning, it is losing. After more than seventeen years fighting America’s longest war— longer than the Civil War, World War Two, Vietnam, or Iraq— we should pay heed to the past in Afghanistan and foretell the future, which only portends more failure. We should cut our losses, and get out.
The British learned that lesson the hard way. When they invaded Afghanistan almost two centuries ago, they had superior firepower as it was measured back then, but they were fighting in someone else’s neighborhood, which meant they were playing by someone else’s rules. As I’ve learned covering wars myself, that is no sure recipe for success. Almost none of Britain’s stately soldiers survived. One of the few who did, an army chaplain, afterward said the war had been “brought to a close after suffering and disaster,” and penned these prophetic words: “Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.”
The Soviets should have heeded his advice, but didn’t. The day before Christmas in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. They stayed for almost ten years. Having covered part of that war too, at times I thought they would win. Just seeing their menacing-looking helicopter gunships patrolling the mountains and valleys in search of homespun Afghan guerrillas— who came to be called the Mujahideen— I couldn’t see how they could lose.
But they did. They too were fighting in someone else’s neighborhood. Which spelt failure. The Mujahideen knew every nook and cranny of the battlefield. They had safe havens. And maybe as important as anything, deprivation and doggedness were in their DNA. I’ve always used something I saw one day in Afghanistan as a metaphor for just how tough these people are. It was in a village north of Kabul, and we came to a field where men were playing a game they call Buzkashi, a form of polo. But there was no ball being batted around. Instead, they were playing with a human head. The head of an enemy.
These are the people who defeated Britain in the 1800s. Then the Soviet Union in the 1900s. Like the Brits before them, the Soviets brought their battle to its end only after suffering and disaster, and derived not one benefit, political or military, with their war.
In 2001, it was our turn.
Our motives were pure. The September 11th attacks against America were conceived and coordinated by Al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan. Thanks to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda had a safe haven there. We went in to kick them out.
At times, the balance against the enemy has been on our side. We have lost more than 2,400 of our own, but have killed many more of theirs. We have supported governments that worked with us, and peace overtures that might have stopped the bloodshed.
But to this day, those governments don’t even command most of their own territory, and those informal overtures haven’t tempered the fighting. Through our presence we have restored some semblance of human rights to some people of the Afghan nation, but paltry other progress has been permanent.
In fact, the Global Terrorism Index just released says that a quarter of all deaths attributed to terrorists in 2017, worldwide, happened in Afghanistan. In a distinction no nation would want, Afghanistan overtook Iraq. Or put more starkly, Afghanistan is the deadliest nation on earth.
We went in to rout Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It didn’t work. Al-Qaeda scattered, but the handful of safe havens for Al-Qaeda and ISIS and other terrorist groups has only grown. According to a Brown University study late last year, American forces today are taking on terrorists in as many as 80 countries around the world. So much for scuttling the terrorists’ Afghan refuge. They now have many others.
And the Taliban? Our strategy has been to put the Afghan military in a position to tackle the Taliban. Trouble is, it’s not working. They are losing ground to the enemy, not gaining it. The incoming head of U.S. Central Command told Congress last month, “If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country.” Nor, more troubling, could he say how long it would take for that to change.
And despite the American presence, suicide bombs keep going off. Another one just last Monday in the capital. Four dead, ninety injured.
A call to pull out of Afghanistan should not be confused with a call to stay in Syria. There, even the relatively small American force helps at least minimally contain Iran and ISIS and Russia’s President Putin and Syrian President Assad. And it helps protect allies like Israel, and the Kurds. But in Afghanistan, we are not meaningfully containing the enemy, nor effectively protecting anyone.
The money we are spending there is reason enough to reevaluate the whole mission; Brown University’s study estimates long-term costs of $2-trillion. But there are even more important costs to consider. Although our troop force this past year has been minimal, we still lost 13 more American warriors. By calling for withdrawal, I don’t slight the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in these seventeen-plus years of war. To the contrary, I salute them. I salute them by saying, let’s put a stop to more.
It might be overstatement to say of the U.S. effort that “not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.” But for whatever goals we have sought, we are no closer to reaching them, and not likely to down the road. Pulling out could be messy. Staying could be messier.
On Making America Great Again
So, Team Trump, how’s that “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat working for you now? If you bought into this man’s vacuous vessel of pointless promises, it must be starting to fit a little tight.
Therefore, as we head into 2019… and careen toward the second anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration… let’s figure out why. Which won’t be hard. The only hard part is figuring out where to start.
Normally I would have chosen the American economy, but then the president threw us a bombshell overseas: ISIS is finished, we’re pulling out of Syria.
Except ISIS is not finished— just waiting underground to push back into its safe Syrian haven once we have lifted our last boot from Syrian soil. And once that happens, Russia solidifies its foothold in the Middle East. President Putin said of his early Christmas gift, “Donald is right.” I thought the point was to Make America Great Again, not to Make Russia Great Again.
Just for good measure, since this also strengthens Syria’s tyrant-of-a-president Bashar al-Assad and thus his scheming ally Iran, it’s likely to Make Iran Great Again too… and put Israel in even more peril than before. It also will likely feed our steadfast allies, the Kurds, to the dogs. Altogether, it’s a perfect storm of stupidity from the president.
But don’t forget, he has assured us, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” Well, maybe with the departure of four-star General Jim Mattis from the Defense Department, following the departure of four-star General John Kelly from the White House and the departure of three-star General H.R. McMaster before that, Trump does indeed know more than whatever generals who are left.
But now, back to the economy. When he started his tariff wars with friends and foes alike, Trump tweeted that it would Make America Rich Again. It hasn’t. Sure, for a while he was hawking positive economic statistics, but by and large our economy actually started looking better— the unemployment rate, the stock market, you name it— under Barack Obama. Trump only built on the bedrock that his reviled predecessor left behind.
Anyway, you don’t hear him hawking so much any more. American businesses are on edge after Trump started these reckless (and largely unproductive) trade wars. The stock market has tanked. And the deficit? Thanks to the president’s selective tax cuts (selecting the rich as much as anybody), the deficit is at a record high. Which sets our future fiscal strength on a path toward a record low.
Health care? The president and his party have been eager to axe Obamacare since the day it passed. Now, thanks to a partisan federal judge (hey, that’s something else Trump has done for us, making it okay to bad-mouth our judges), the whole shebang is on the garbage heap. As if cutting insurance for citizens with pre-existing conditions, and making it harder for poor and middle-class families to afford coverage any more, Makes America Great Again. It doesn’t. And despite a ton of talk, Trump has come up with nothing to make it better.
Meantime, illegal immigration is not and never has been the existential threat the president has promoted. Sure, there are bad apples, but immigrants also have helped Make America Great, even illegals from Latin America who roof our homes and pick our lettuce. Nor are they the ones who bring the bulk of drugs into our homeland. Yet to get his fatuous $20-billion wall, President Trump has been willing to distract (and reportedly dishearten) the military from its main mission by giving them a meaningless mission on the Texas border. He has been willing to blow up the deficit. He even has been willing to shut down the government. There are more suitable ways to spend our money and control our borders.
What’s more, despite the spurious rhetoric, illegal immigrants are not and never have been responsible for the vast majority of violent crimes committed in this gun-crazy country. It might help Make America Great Again if the president and his lackeys would look, instead, at who commits the crimes (Americans), and the weapons they use (guns), and how they get them (lax laws).
If environmental issues ever scored higher amongst the main concerns of Americans, I might have started there in this survey about how Trump Isn’t Making America GreatAgain. Maybe I’m missing something, but when it comes to conservation and pollution and every kind of environmental concern, the Trump Administration has taken us backwards. Pulling us out of the otherwise globally supported Paris Agreement on Climate Change is only an asterisk. I’m almost surprised this administration doesn’t put up signs saying “Please litter.” And let’s not forget the president’s passion for “good clean coal.” It is a passion unredeemed. It was never in the cards; figures show that U.S. coal consumption in 2018 is the lowest in almost 40 years.
Of course another campaign promise that would Make America Great Again was to “drain the swamp.” Let’s see: Flynn, Manafort, Cohen, Zinke, Price, Pruitt, and a bunch more. Yep, he’s draining it alright. After filling it in the first place. Remember when candidate Donald Trump said a Hillary Clinton administration would just be one scandal after another? ‘Nuff said.
Then, when reviewing the ways the president hasn’t Made America Great Again, there’s the rest of the world. With my own background covering the world over so many years, it’s near and dear to my heart. Which is why, Trump’s policies and personality put fear in my bones. Whatever leading role we have long played in the world is diminished. True, Trump isn’t the first president whose endeavors have eroded esteem and Made America Less Great Again. For different reasons and to different degrees we also can blame Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton before him. But those predecessors arguably tried things with noble purpose, and failed. Trump revels in confrontation and fails to consider the consequences.
And we’re talking about confrontation with friends, who he has alienated right and left. About the only world leaders he hasn’t confronted are the despots and dictators who seem to think just like him. Should I bring up Trump’s proud proclamation that “We fell in love,” about the brutal boss of North Korea, who in reality hasn’t done squat to earn anyone’s affection?
But look, I don’t want this whole picture to be a downer. So let’s look at something positive. Trump promised to Make America Great Again by making American kids safer by combatting schoolyard bullying. No, wait, my bad. That was Melania.
The awful fact is, we are living in a whole new realm of reality. From the inane notion of “alternative facts” early on in Trump’s presidency, to the alarming alternative universe created by Team Trump. It was best articulated earlier this month by one of his acolytes, Utah Senator Orin Hatch, when he said of lawyer Michael Cohen implicating the president in his crimes, “I don’t care.” Nor, apparently, does Trump. It is a whole new realm of dishonesty, when a president doesn’t just lie, but doubles-down when caught.
So the message to Team Trump is, your “Make America Great Again” hat might start fitting so tight that you can barely breathe. I’m sorry about that. But I’m even sorrier for the rest of us who suffocate with you.
On George H.W.Bush
In all the attention we have just given to the life and death of President George H.W. Bush, one fact about the man was understated if not totally unstated: what you saw— when you saw George H.W. Bush up close and personal— was not what you got.
I first met him when I was a correspondent for ABC News and he was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. Note that I say I “met” him rather than “covered” him because that’s how it felt. He asked about me before I could ask about him. And while I rotated in and out of his vice presidential path, he made sure every time I came back in to make some sort of personal comment or ask some sort of personal question: “Sorry you had to wait for me out here in the cold,” or, “Do you like living overseas?”, or even, “I think last time I saw you your little boy was sick. Is he okay now?”
It was inconsistent with every other president or vice president I ever covered, but totally consistent what so many Americans with ties to this man talked about in the wake of his death. His decency, his civility, his unselfish attention to others, his kind heart to all. He was a gentleman. And he worked hard at it.
That’s not what people always saw if they didn’t get the chance to be “up close and personal.” He sometimes seemed stiff, his language sometimes sounded stilted, his behavior sometimes struck people as out of touch.
The first President Bush wasn’t the first one I covered who had that problem, and he wasn’t the last. While Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton showed the same face in public as in private, Jimmy Carter didn’t, and Gerald Ford didn’t. Probably to their detriment, since in a nation where many voters are attracted as much to a candidate’s personality as to his policies, neither won a second term. Nor did George H.W. Bush.
My best personal case-in-point about the difference between a public and a private face was Dan Quayle, who replaced George H.W. Bush as Vice President of the United States when Bush moved into the presidency. Quayle was widely portrayed—and thus widely seen— as something of a dunce. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when the vice president was making an appearance at an elementary school in New Jersey, and a 12-year-old boy in a spelling bee spelled “Potato,” which was right. But Quayle spoke up to say he should add an “e” at the end to make it “Potatoe.”
I bought into this image of Dan Quayle as much as anybody. But during Operation Desert Shield, the run-up to the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), ABC assigned me to fly with Quayle on Air Force Two to Europe and on to the Middle East, where he would consult with American allies in the forthcoming fight. When you fly with a president, you’re part of a press corps of about 300 reporters. Flying overseas with Quayle, I was part of a press corps of three. And two were from his home state of Indiana.
So shortly after takeoff from Andrews Air Force Base, being the only “national” reporter on the plane, Quayle came back to sit with me, probably planning on schmoozing for five minutes and heading back to his cabin in front. But we started talking about the war coming up, and the Middle East in general, and American politics, and European politics, and long story short, the vice president was brilliant. He knew his stuff. No dunce, our first-in-line.
Yet at our early morning refueling stop, at an air base in northern England where U.S. troops were transitioning to the Middle East, Vice President Quayle gave a quick talk… and came across as cold and stiff and inarticulate. The dunce many expected.
Likewise, George H.W. Bush. He sometimes fumbled with facts and stumbled with servility. But that was only in public. In private, he was a smart man, a studious man, a scrupulous man. And, a solicitous, sympathetic man.
There’s one other fact to which a lot of attention was not given in the aftermath of the president’s death: George H.W. Bush was our last leader from our parents’ generation.
Who followed him in the White House? One of the oldest baby boomers, born in 1946, Bill Clinton. Who followed Clinton? Another of the oldest boomers, also born in ’46, George W. Bush. Who followed the second Bush? A younger boomer named Barack Obama. But who followed Obama? The oldest boomer of them all: Donald Trump. (Personal note: I was born in ’46 myself, but later that year than all three presidents. Which means, I’m just a kid.)
The day the president’s death was announced, I heard an interview on NPR with a Wall Street Journal editor who had been the paper’s White House correspondent during the first President Bush’s term. He was asked, who today exemplifies the personal qualities and characteristics of George H.W. Bush? Without missing a beat, his answer was, “I search in vain.”
I hope we don’t have to search for much longer. At this point, whoever fills those shoes most likely will have to come from a generation behind mine.
On What To Believe…
Science is, well, science. It is the calculated, conscientious, chronicled study of a subject.
You don’t either “believe” or “not believe” science. Science just is.
That’s why we don’t say we “believe” that airplanes can fly. The Wright Brothers figured that out for us.
We don’t say we “believe” that the chemical compound in dynamite will explode. Alfred Nobel took care of that.
We don’t say we “believe” in gravity. Isaac Newton believed in it, then proved it.
But while presumably President Donald Trump accepts the science that explains why airplanes fly and dynamite explodes and objects fall to the ground, evidently he has a problem with science that explains why the climate is changing for the worse.
Which leads him to say, “I don’t believe it.”
That is, in fact, Donald Trump’s rote response to virtually every statement of fact that doesn’t match his own personal, or political, view of the world. Or, as he told The Washington Post this past week about mankind causing climate change, “I don’t see it.”
So when more than 300 scientists from thirteen federal agencies wrote their “Fourth National Climate Assessment,” warning that climate change can have catastrophic consequences on our economy and on our health— which Trump’s administration did its best to bury by releasing it on the day after Thanksgiving— how did the president disdainfully dismiss it?
“I don’t believe it.” Or, “I don’t see it.” As if Donald Trump— developer/casino magnate/reality TV star/President— has so much experience with climate science that he knows more than educated experts, who issued their findings despite the fact that it’s Trump’s presidential portrait they have to abide on their office walls.
Actually, Trump did say more about the government’s climate change report that runs tens of thousands of words: “I’ve seen it, I’ve read some of it, and it’s fine.” Which led him to pledge not to reduce emissions in the U.S. because “if we’re clean, but every other place on earth is dirty, that’s not so good.”
It’s not??? To quote you, Mr. President, I don’t believe it.
A week earlier of course, the president didn’t embrace the assessment of the CIA— based on established intelligence and material evidence— that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince personally ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump’s own finding on this fatal fiasco, as if his careers as developer/casino magnate/reality TV star/President give him intelligence insights that the CIA does not possess? “You can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he didn’t.”
In essence, “I don’t see it, I don’t believe it.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. Remember during the campaign, when the man who sidestepped military service because of bone spurs in his heels said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” Or just a month ago, when he responded to the report by journalist Bob Woodward that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis— a four-star Marine general and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO before he went to work for Trump— had to explain to the president, who has been so critical of NATO, that NATO is critical to preventing World War III: “I think I know more about it than he does.”
Translation: I don’t see it. I don’t believe it.
Think back in fact to 2017, Inauguration Day-plus-one, which gave us a glimpse of our future with this fact-free president: he crossed the Potomac to CIA headquarters, his first official appearance, to honor the sacrifices of intelligence officers killed in the line of duty.
Or am I giving the man too much credit?
Soon he seemed to forget why he was there, because he quickly pivoted to “the media… among the most dishonest people on earth.” And from there, to his own “alternative facts” (credit aide Kellyanne Conway for that one) about the crowds on the National Mall at his inauguration. “We had a massive field of people,” Trump told CIA agents who thought they were there to honor their fallen confederates. “You saw them. Packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I say, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, the field was — it looked like a million, million and a half people.”
Oh our lying eyes.
Actual photographs— perish the thought that anyone should rely on facts— clearly showed that the crowds at President Obama’s inaugurations had been bigger than Trump’s. And that during Trump’s ceremony, there was a lot of empty space.
So what did Trump do? In a variation of the theme “I don’t believe it,” the new president— before setting out for the CIA— reportedly personally phoned the acting director of the National Park Service, which controls the Mall, and the next thing you knew, a government photographer had cropped out the empty spaces from the day before and put the altered pictures online.
Believe it or not.
The point is, whether it’s about climate change or the CIA or the wisdom of battle-hardened officers or just the size of the crowds come to idolize him, Donald Trump only sees what he wants to see, and he only believes what he wants to believe, actual facts and prevailing expertise be damned.
This helps explain why he’s so big on his tax cuts, which were sold on the promise of lifting our economy but instead have lifted the nation’s deficit to $779 billion, the worst it has been since the government bailed out key industries during the recession. In Trump’s first two years, in fact, the national debt also has risen, by roughly $2 trillion. For which we’ll all pay in the years to come.
But is the president making major moves to cut those losses? Just look at his tweet after the tear gas on Thanksgiving weekend in Tijuana chased away asylum seekers from that dreaded caravan: “Congress, fund the WALL!” The Department of Homeland Security says the bill will come to more than $20 billion. Other estimates say the true cost is triple that amount.
Deficit? Debt? “I don’t believe it.”
This guy’s running our government. This guy’s changing our lives. On the basis of hard facts and sound counsel? Maybe. But only if he sees it and believes it.
Otherwise, he goes with his gut. And we’re the ones who get sick.
On Realpolitik With Saudis
It’s called Realpolitik.
Given his tiresome and limited vocabulary, I’d be surprised if Donald Trump could accurately define it. Or maybe even spell it. But when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the president is right to practice it. Whether he actually understands the word or not.
Because realpolitik for the United States means politics that are practical. Politics that are practical, beneficial, and sometimes essential for our nation, whether or not we recognize them as moral.
Granted, Trump might not recognize “moral” if it spit in his face. In fact, he didn’t even mention the sadistic strangulation of the Saudi-born Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi until the fifth paragraph of his eight paragraph statement this past week.
The statement said, Trump is sticking with Saudi Arabia (and its evidently murderous crown prince), though it’s for all the wrong reasons which, from everything he has said in the past, are mainly economic— weapons sales and oil. “Very simply” he wrote (or someone wrote for him, since all the sentences come to grammatical conclusions), “it is called America First.”
But no, realpolitik doesn’t mean “America First” because from its results so far, Trump’s “America First” policy isn’t practical for our country, let alone beneficial. To the contrary, it already has hurt us around the globe— from relationships that are damaged with vital allies in Europe to an economy (including a stock market) damaged by our arbitrary and unnecessary trade war with China.
However, Realpolitik does mean politics that are in America’s national interest. And sadly, sticking with the Saudis rather than sending them into the eager hands of impatient and ascendant superpowers like China and Russia is in America’s national interest.
It isn’t the first time we’ve had alliances with iron-fisted autocrats and looked the other way. Probably the very best example is our decades-long relationship with Saudi Arabia’s longtime rival Iran, where I spent the better part of three years covering its transition to become the ignoble Islamic Republic.
We had a cozy relationship with Iran’s pre-Islamic despot the Shah, which translates to “King of Kings.” He was a bad man. And we knew it. He had a secret police force called Savak, whose sole charge was to stifle opposition to the Shah’s control. I met hardly anyone in Iran who didn’t have a neighbor, or a friend, or a relative who hadn’t lost a job, or a limb, or even a life, to Savak.
So he was a bad man. But he was our bad man. Not only because he bought massive amounts of weapons from us and sold massive amounts of oil to us— ironically, the same justifications Trump uses now with the Saudis— but because under his jurisdiction, Iran became almost an arm of our military, and our intelligence. For example, when the Shah fell, we lost our best listening posts along the northern edge of his country, which would give us the earliest warnings of any kind of missile launch from the Soviet Union.
And look what replaced him. The Islamic Republic of Iran. Which not only cost us some of our best defensive tools during the Cold War, but which exported violent anti-Western revolution to other parts of the Middle East. At no small cost to American aims in the region.
At the time, it had seemed to many Americans including me that morally, our nation should not defend a despotic dictator. But in the vacuum left in his wake, equally despotic ayatollahs filled the void. We’ve lived with the consequences every day since. It falls into the category of “Be careful what you wish for.”
I’d argue the same about Saudi Arabia. Believe me, I do not ignore the oil-rich kingdom’s monstrous moral failings. With my own eyes I’ve seen its “religious police”— their power diminished only a short time ago— roughly drag citizens into the streets because they ignored one of the five daily “calls to prayer.” With my own eyes I’ve watched a thief collapse like jello when he saw that his hands would be amputated for his crime. And most egregiously, I believe our own intelligence— even if the president appears to ignore it— that none less than the Saudi crown prince himself ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. To say nothing of the Saudis’ decades-long schizophrenic role in anti-Western terrorism.
So yes, indisputably, Saudi Arabia is an immoral nation. But it is our immoral nation. It has become a fundamental military ally, a diplomatic ally, an economic ally, and frankly, less covertly every day, a partner of Israel, our closest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East. Without Saudi Arabia, we couldn’t have executed the first Gulf War, to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from their occupation of Iraq. Likewise, for better or for worse and I’d say worse, without indispensable help from Saudi Arabia, we could not have fought the Iraq War. And arguably, as inhumane as is its conduct in the war in Yemen, without it, Iran would win a foothold on the Saudi peninsula and have a new platform on the planet from which to export terrorism.
We live in a world of hard choices and sometimes, no good options. Sometimes, we have to swallow hard and accept the lesser of two evils. Certainly there are moves we could and should make to censure and possibly penalize Saudi Arabia, far beyond the president’s pathetic “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” defense of the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. But there is a timeworn expression I heard whenever I went to the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is only a marriage of convenience. Although the president deceitfully overstates the Saudis’ impact on the American economy, from the standpoint of our national security they help us as much as we help them.
As malevolent as their moral behavior is, if we ask for a divorce, there are other suitors waiting in the wings. I swallow hard myself when I say this but what we don’t want to do— and admittedly it is a very fine line— is push them so hard that we create another vacuum. Someone else would fill it, and with an ally like Saudi Arabia, they would shape a world worse than the one we’ve got.
That is the practical definition of realpolitik.
On Trump & Media
President Trump, in his relations with journalists, used to be just a horrible man. Fake News, Enemy of the People, and all that.
Now he has taken it up a notch: he is a horrible, horrible man.
He’s even more horrible than before, because he has gone so personal against journalists. As if they are there to simply regurgitate what he says, not to question it. As if the White House belongs to him, not to the American people.
Thomas Jefferson knew that. He appreciated journalism’s role as a check and balance on government. He famously avowed that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Yet last week, as you no doubt know, Trump made clear his contempt for checks and balances. He pulled the press credential from CNN’s White House correspondent because he doesn’t blindly believe every word the president utters. He told off another CNN reporter, saying she “asks a lot of stupid questions” (because she asked him whether he would have his new attorney general “rein in” special counsel Robert Mueller, which is precisely what the president himself had said he wanted recently-fired AG Jeff Sessions to do).
And all in the same week, Trump called a PBS correspondent’s question “racist” after she asked if his rhetoric encourages white nationalists, and described yet another White House journalist as a “loser” who “doesn’t know what the hell she is doing.” And of course before God and everybody, he denounced the banned CNN correspondent, Jim Acosta, as “a rude, terrible person.” For doing his job.
Maybe most of all, Donald Trump’s even more horrible because he hasn’t stopped calling us “the enemy of the people,” as if Americans would be better off if their president were never challenged.
Thomas Jefferson knew differently.
So did Ronald Reagan. Millions of baby boomers, and maybe some younger Americans as well, will remember Sam Donaldson, the White House correspondent for ABC News. I was Sam’s producer for a while and when I became an ABC correspondent myself, he became my role model.
Why? Because he treated important people like presidents with respect, but not submissiveness. He understood that they weren’t sacred or sometimes even very special. He realized that just like the rest of us, to quote a cliché, they put their pants on one leg at a time. He knew that at the end of the day, they work for us and not the other way around.
In covering the White House under both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Sam practiced his craft accordingly.
Reagan got that. Sometimes assigned by ABC as an extra White House correspondent, I was there a few times when the president’s press secretary would declare a presidential appearance a “photo op,” meaning pictures only, no questions. But if there was a question that needed to be asked to inform the American people about the issue of the day, Sam would shout it out, restrictions be damned.
Or sometimes the president was crossing the White House lawn to board his helicopter to fly off somewhere, and Sam would scream out a question in his booming baritone about an issue, and if the president didn’t want to answer, he’d cup his hands over his ears as if to say, “Sorry, can’t hear you.” Sam had a right to ask a question, the president had a right to pretend he couldn’t hear it.
But Reagan never called Sam a “loser,” or “racist,” or “stupid,” or “a rude, terrible person.” Because Sam was just doing his job.
Like Thomas Jefferson, Reagan understood the import of that job. Or at the very least, that he had to abide it. There is an illustrative tale from the day ABC News opened a bigger brighter bureau in Washington. President Reagan graced us with an appearance. But while he was making his casual remarks, in a newsroom packed to the gills with journalists, Sam shouted out a question about something in the news that needed to be asked.
None less than the president of ABC News, a guy named Roone Arledge, interrupted Sam in front of the crowd, saying something like “Sam, the president is here to honor us right now, not to answer questions.” Inexcusably, Sam’s boss was trying to silence Sam. But he failed, mainly because the president himself interceded, flashing his million dollar smile: “That’s okay, Roone. It’s just Sam being Sam.” Meaning, he is free to ask his questions. I am free to answer or not. That day, he did.
Defaming, demeaning, demonizing his perceived enemies is nothing new for Donald Trump. He has done the same with presidential primary opponents, with war heroes, with Gold Star families. Trump revels in it. He brags about it.
And there’s nothing about journalists that makes us any more untouchable than those others.
But there is something about journalism itself. Those who practice it at the White House are the people’s representatives. It is only because of them that any of us knows what a president is up to, let alone finds out what’s behind it. I’d like to see how the media’s harshest critics would like it if suddenly their only source for scoops was Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Maybe those critics ought to spend a little time in some of the 80-plus nations where I’ve covered news. Nations where journalists are beholden to their governments, and therefore only report what the government wants them to report. If they don’t, they can lose their children’s placement in quality schools, their domicile in decent homes, their jobs, sometimes even their very lives.
This kind of compliance seems to be what Donald Trump wants. Which is why he’s a horrible, horrible president. And a horrible, horrible man.
On Oil & Gas Well Setbacks
It might be telling that on the same day former Governor Bill Ritter had a column in The Denver Post (October 16), projecting “a huge hit” to Colorado’s economy if Proposition 112 passes and new oil and gas projects can’t be placed any closer than 2,500 feet to places where people live or work (as opposed to 500 feet now), there were two less prominent pieces on The Post’s business pages. One said, “Colorado’s economy grew a robust 4.5 percent in the first quarter (of 2018), added 72,000 jobs in August and hasn’t seen so few jobless claims since 2000.” The other was about a new Forbes Top Ten list on economic opportunity: “Denver was No. 4… with $2.3 billion in three-year venture capital investment.”
Sounds to me like our economy can afford a hit if it has to.
And if Prop 112 passes, maybe it does. But even that’s questionable. Ritter’s reasoning is, if this new setback proposition becomes law, oil and gas producers will flee the state. True, some might, but do you know how big oil and gas already is in Colorado? According to the American Petroleum Institute, there are roughly 50,000 active wells in the state, which ultimately contribute more than $30 billion to Colorado’s economy.
Remember, Prop 112 would only create a bigger setback for new projects (and for the reactivation of previously abandoned ones); there’s nothing in the proposal that would force anyone to walk away from what they already have. Furthermore, although there will be bigger areas off limits to exploration and drilling if Proposition 112 is approved— which means jobs on some potential new wells wouldn’t happen— there still will be big areas in which they can drill clear down to China if they want to. For that matter, more than a third of all the land in Colorado is owned by the federal government. These days, if President Trump has his way, federal land will be ripe for the drilling.
Coincidentally or not, on the same day as both the gloomy Ritter column and the two rosy business items were published, the front page of the paper carried a headline story titled, “Prop 112: Dissecting the science behind the initiative.” It addressed both sides in the debate about the safety of wells.
For example, for the proposition’s supporters: “Backers of 112 say without bigger buffers, Coloradans will continue to be exposed to noxious emissions from well sites, like toluene, formaldehyde, xylene and cancer-causing benzene, to say nothing of the environmental harm from potent greenhouse gasses, like methane.” For its opponents: “The industry points to its use of pollution-reduction technology, like methane capture, leak detection cameras and remote monitoring equipment, for helping make drilling and fracking a cleaner process than it once was.”
Want the conclusive facts though? The jury isn’t in yet, not really. You don’t have to look very hard to find studies that support either point of view. Is it dangerous to live or work close to an oil or gas well and, if it is, how far away do you have to be to mitigate the danger? Read two different studies, you’ll get two different answers.
And there’s a wholly different but equally important piece of the debate: how close would you want an oil or gas well to your home? I know my own answer: half-a-mile wouldn’t be nearly enough. Not only because of the possibility of poisoning my soil and water (which some experts fear), but because of the prospect of heavy equipment, and annoying noise, and unsightly structures right out my back door.
There’s a parallel: plenty of Coloradans, because of its impact on lifestyle, hope Amazon won’t put its second headquarters here, economic impact notwithstanding. The principle behind Proposition 112 is the same.
Governor Ritter called its supporters “keep it in the ground” folks. That’s not fair. They’re “keep it farther from my home” folks. He might switch sides himself, if it came closer to his.
Almost lost in the headlines about hearings and hurricanes these past few weeks was the revelation that President Trump has taken off the gloves against anyone who wages cyber war against us. His National Security Advisor John Bolton said the president’s order “effectively enables offensive cyber operations through the relevant departments.” Adversaries specifically identified include Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
Oh how the world has changed.
Back in the years of the Cold War, when there was just a single superpower that threatened us, we knew the threat, as our rivals did: nuclear bombs. And we knew the antidote, as they also did: more nuclear bombs.
That was the reality that hung over every episode of U.S.-Soviet arms talks that I ever covered, and it was MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD was the canon— undertaken in the Carter years, strengthened in the Reagan years— that ironically kept us safe. You wipe me off the face of the map, I’ll wipe you off the same map.
Today, Mutual Assured Destruction is still with us, but not necessarily with nukes. Because the next big battle with an aspiring superpower is more likely to be fought with computers. Cyber warfare replacing nuclear warfare.
Cyber warfare means hacking. Imagine the perturbing possibilities. An enemy might hack into our transportation systems, throwing air travel into turmoil. Or into our energy systems, disabling our electrical grids. Or into our satellite systems, incapacitating our indispensable cell phones. Or into our communications systems, cutting off our access to information. Or into our financial systems, creating catastrophic confusion with our money. Even into our military systems, crippling our capacity for combat.
An enemy might do it to us. And because we have the same tools, we might do it to them. Back when we were talking about nuclear bombs, neither side sent even one weapon toward its enemy, because that would set off the Mutual Assured Destruction of both sides.
But cyber warfare? We already know from U.S. intelligence reports that the Russians have tested the waters, for example inserting malware— software designed to disable computers— into U.S. electrical grids. Homeland Security revealed just a few months ago that Russia had “infiltrated” some power plant control rooms. And according to Bolton, some 22 million files on Americans with security clearances, “my own included, maybe yours, found a new residence in Beijing.”
Nuclear bomb shelters aren’t going to help us if it goes much further than that.
If one side ratchets up its cyber warfare, the other side almost certainly will retaliate. The first consequences might be incremental, not calamitous. But where does it stop?
Last month I was the moderator of a discussion for the Vail Symposium in Colorado titled, “Russian Attacks on Democracy.” Sharing the stage were experts from Rand Corporation, which does a lot of analysis for the Defense Department, and the Alliance to Sustain Democracy.
One thing we learned was, the title “Russian Attacks on Democracy” doesn’t begin to capture the scope of the threat, because Russia isn’t the only country attacking us. What’s more, the threat doesn’t just come from other countries. It also comes from lone wolves. Donald Trump as a candidate in 2016 might actually have gotten it right when he opined that interference in the election could conceivably be “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”
Another thing we learned was, retaliation isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, we have constraints that our adversaries don’t have. If Mr. Putin, for instance, gives the word— or China’s Xi or North Korea’s Kim or Iran’s Khamenei or any other authoritarian leader— those acting on his behalf can make any moves they like to throw the American infrastructure into disarray. An American president doesn’t have that luxury. At least not legally.
The president’s order though is a step in the right direction. According to Defense Secretary Mattis, we will “build a more lethal force” of first-strike hackers.
However, it’s a lot harder for us to hack into their systems than it is for them to hack into ours. That’s because we live in an open society. They don’t. Anyone can pull a fast one on our news media if the media aren’t alert (and you can judge their alertness for yourselves). And social media? When we’re talking about attacks on our democracy, as much as anything it means infiltrating social media with fake news to turn one group of Americans against another (as if we need outsiders to pull that off). That’s what they did in the 2016 elections, and although it wasn’t the only factor, it made its mark.
When we see threats to our democracy, I’m all for taking off the gloves. Not by raining bombs down on the enemy; he will then rain bombs down on us. And not by simply establishing or strengthening sanctions either. The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians and others, as a journalist I’ve covered some of those societies and all have suffered deprivation— many for all their lives— and I can tell you, they can tolerate it a lot longer than we would; that’s why more often than not, sanctions prove ineffectual.
But when it comes to cyber warfare, while the United States must conform to certain constraints, between corporate and government resources it also can throw a punch second to none. And the lesson from that punch would be this: back off, because while cyber warfare might take its toll more slowly than nuclear warfare, the end result can be the same: Mutual Assured Destruction.
Which nobody wants.
On Election Energy
Who came out ahead after the Brett Kavanaugh follies? Well, for starters, Kavanaugh himself, after declaring at his hearing that he was “100-percent certain” that he didn’t do what Christine Blasey Ford said he did at a teenage party 36 years ago. As if, even if he did do it, he would be expected to say anything else (and as if, if he was indeed drunk as a rat, he could be expected to remember). After all, the job of Justice on the United States Supreme Court was almost close enough to touch.
It was enough to convince the handful of GOP senators who had seemed to be sitting on the fence. As if the denial by the accused is validation of his innocence. As a result, we now have sitting on the High Court a justice credibly accused of sexual assault.
Welcome to the Third World. It came out ahead too. It just won validation in Washington.
Of course President Trump and his conservative base also came out ahead, the president cementing his pseudo conservative stamp on the Court. Trump even went so far as to declare that he too is “100-percent” certain that Kavanaugh didn’t do it. As if he’d been at the party himself. As if anyone other than just two people— Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford— could be 100-percent certain about anything that might have happened that night.
(Just for the record, the first person to proclaim “100-percent” certainty was Blasey Ford herself. Corroborated, if not confirmed, by her therapist’s notes and her lie detector test. But of course she had so much to gain. Not!)
On top of all that, GOP pundits and politicians think the Kavanaugh circus has energized their voters. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell called Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh “a great political gift for us.” As if that was the most important consequence of the carnival.
Maybe he’s right. Because having watched the testimony and come to the conclusion myself that Blasey Ford was telling the truth and Kavanagh was lying, I wasn’t energized, I was enervated (which means, for those of you without a dictionary handy, drained).
So enervated that for the past few days, for the first time in my life, I’ve tuned out the news. Not because I was on the far side of the earth and didn’t have WiFi, but because I wasn’t, and did. The news from Washington just got to a point where I was too discouraged, too dejected, too depressed— and too defenseless— to read any more.
Professionally, I am embarrassed to admit this, because for the better part of the past two years, when so many people have said, in so many words, “I just don’t follow the news any more, it’s too depressing,” my response, in one form or another, has been, “Shutting your eyes real tight isn’t going to make the problem go away.”
But for the past few days, that’s precisely what I did.
Well, that’s not quite true. I did send a letter to the Republican senator from my state, Cory Gardner, imploring him to oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Fat chance. but I wrote anyway.
“First,” I said, “clearly the abbreviated FBI investigation didn’t touch on reliable-sounding witnesses to two of the alleged sexual assault incidents, which makes it a sham and deep down you must know that.” Deep down, I suspect, a lot of Republican senators knew that. Including Maine’s Susan Collins, who had talked such a good game about female victims of sexual assault and the reasons why they often don’t go public about their painful experiences. As it turns out, it was all talk.
“Second,” I wrote, “in the light of so many reliable news accounts of former classmates speaking of Judge Kavanaugh’s heavy drinking habits through college (including then-friend Mark Judge’s barely disguised reference to “Bart O’Kavanaugh”), the man pretty clearly LIED to Congress by painting himself just short of a saint when it came to drinking, which not only is a federal crime but surely a disqualifier for the High Court.”
Yes, I know that the grave charge against Kavanaugh was sexual assault, not heavy drinking. But I also know, President Bill Clinton was not impeached for having sex in the Oval Office; he was impeached for lying about it. So I continued to Senator Gardner, “In good conscience, can you ignore that?” Obviously he could, and did. Which I guess comes as no surprise. Any elected official who votes to enable the likes of polarizer-in-chief Donald Trump and hypocrite-in-chief Mitch McConnell doesn’t have a good conscience to appeal to.
“Finally,” I wrote, “Kavanaugh’s contrition in the Wall Street Journal notwithstanding (in which the judge offered apologies for his unjudgelike performance before the Senate Judiciary), his opening statement to Judiciary (blaming his plight on “revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups”) rendered him incapable in the future of the neutral umpire’s role as a judge that he claims in the past he played.
But of course that too was bound to fall on flat ears. This is the party, after all, that rushed full speed ahead to confirm Kavanaugh, because the High Court had to have every seat filled as soon as possible. The same party, in case you’ve forgotten, that two years ago cheated in front of God and everybody to keep a seat open for the final eleven months of President Obama’s term. Mitch McConnell even complained with a straight face that Democrats were part of “mob rule,” an “organized effort to delay, obstruct, and intimidate”…. while for eleven months he wouldn’t even give Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a hearing. Check out “hypocrisy” in your dictionary. McConnell’s picture might appear.
But all for naught. Brett Kavanaugh now sits on the High Court. If you believe he did commit sexual assault back in school, then lied about his saintly behavior as a teen before the Senate, you can get only one piece of satisfaction: he will never again proudly prance into a public place with the full respect of any audience before him. Instead, roughly half the people in the room will look at him and see a liar, even a rapist. Small satisfaction to be sure, but just desserts for Kavanaugh’s accuser who came forward with her story and was demeaned by his defenders.
But we didn’t come out ahead. And certainly she didn’t. To the contrary, added to the threats against Blasey Ford and her family and her home was the president’s pejorative performance at a Mississippi rally when he mocked her and incited his myopic supporters to chant “Lock her up.” Nor did women who suffer sexual assault. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee complained that because of what happened to Brett Kavanaugh, good candidates won’t likely accept a nomination in the future to federal court. But here’s what was left unsaid: sexual assault victims once again won’t likely accept an summons to report what happened. They could be the next targets of the president’s malicious messaging. And his party’s.
So here’s where we stand: the Republicans feel energized. For the time being, the Democrats don’t. But election day is coming— mail-in ballots in some states already have come— and while the future of the High Court seems set, the future of the Congress is still up for grabs.
That should be enough to energize the other side. I’m not making predictions about what will happen next month, but I will say this to the other side: we’ll see you at the polls. Closing my eyes and hoping for a different outcome didn’t change a thing. Keeping them wide open, and reminding citizens of like mind that they’re not alone, might.
On Kavanaugh Accusation
So now we know: Brett Kavanagh didn’t do it!
So what, that we haven’t yet heard from his accuser under oath— check that, make it two accusers.
To hear Republican leaders tell it, there’s really no reason to hear what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has to say under oath (let alone Deborah Ramirez, who told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when they were classmates at Yale). These senators already have read his accusers’ accounts. To hear them tell it, they already know the women are lying.
Like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who, without hearing them out, promised to “plow right through” with Kavanaugh’s nomination and asserts that Brett Kavanaugh “will make an exceptional justice.”
Or Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who declared that the Democrats who got Dr. Blasey to go public “will stop at nothing to prevent Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation.”
Or Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who charged, “The Democrats are engaged in a campaign of delay and character assassination against Judge Kavanaugh.”
Or South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who complains, “I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over [an] accusation this vague, not verified in any way.”
Or of course the President himself, who said on Monday that he backs the judge “all the way.”
How can they all be so sure these accusations against Kavanaugh of sexual assault are just a slimy smear campaign to discredit a conservative nominee to the high court? Because Judge Kavanaugh says so, that’s how. And to use a Trumpian turn of phrase, “everyone knows” he’s honest. And respectable. And would never do a thing like that.
Neither would America’s Dad, Bill Cosby.
No, it’s not fair to pair Kavanaugh and Cosby. After all, maybe this is a smear campaign without merit. Maybe Brett Kavanaugh is telling the truth and Dr. Blasey is lying. We haven’t yet heard him under oath either.
But to make up your mind before they testify? As private citizens, we’re free to reach any conclusion we like, whenever we like, with as little to go on as we like. But for United States senators who will be sitting in judgement? It’s dishonorable.
And that goes for some of the Democrats too. From California’s Dianne Feinstein to Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono to Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. All we know so far is that Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser, Dr. Blasey, is an “alleged” victim, not a victim. Yet Democratic senators have used language that convicts the man before his trial. The fact that in the past year a growing collection of renowned and respected leaders from business and entertainment and politics have been credibly accused of assault doesn’t mean Judge Kavanaugh deserves to be tainted in the same tense. It doesn’t mean he deserves to have his life ruined. At least not yet.
I haven’t made my own mind up. Yes, evidently there is corroborating evidence— not conclusive, but corroborating— that supports Blasey’s story. At the very least, it seems more than what Senator Graham characterizes as a “vague” accusation. The expositive session with the therapist, the affirmative lie detector test. And one can’t help but wonder, would a woman fabricate a story this bad, then beg the FBI to look into it?
Of course President Trump couldn’t help but wonder something too, as he opined last week in a tweet: if an attack on Dr. Blasey “was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities.” Maybe (for a change) the president should have spent even more time on Twitter that day. He’d have read literally tens of thousands of tweets from women across America, elaborating on what became the hashtag, “#WhyIDidntReport.”
And the names. It almost doesn’t matter that those Blasey names as participants at the high school party three-and-a-half decades ago say they don’t remember the incident she describes, especially since the only ones who are likely never to forget it would be the ones who were at the heart of it. And that includes the other teen alleged to have been directly involved in what Dr. Blasey describes: Mark Judge, author of a book tellingly called “Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk.” His descriptions of pseudonymically-named classmate “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” by the way, does raise questions.
There is no excuse for anything less than an honest investigation— a thorough investigation— into the veracity of a man whose ideological views can help shape this nation. And that would include sworn testimony from people named in Blasey’s story. Because if Kavanaugh did what she says he did, there is no excuse for his behavior, no matter how young he was. A 17-year-old is not a child. The courts confirm that. And if he is proven to have lied about his denials, there is no justification for his appointment to our highest court.
Judge Kavanaugh deserves the presumption of innocence. If he is telling the truth, then the charges against him are shameful.
But Dr. Blasey is equally deserving. If she made it all up, she deserves to be shamed, or worse. But first she deserves to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to be judged by a panel with open minds.
The evidence so far suggests, that might not happen.
When Hurricane Florence smacks the East Coast, we’ll all see the big picture if we watch the news: masses evacuated, neighborhoods devastated.
But how does it look up close? And how does it feel? What’s it like for those who worked at their jobs and sheltered their kids and paid their bills and never expected to be homeless, yet now they are. A few lessons learned thirteen years ago from covering Hurricane Katrina might answer those questions.
From the Florida panhandle to eastern Texas, maybe a million people uprooted by Katrina had to go months without a home. They had no place to live, no place to work, no place to get food, no place to send their kids to school. In my career as a journalist, I covered some of the major wars and natural disasters of the past several decades, and after Katrina, I saw scene after scene that I could only compare to those experiences. The difference was, in war zones, people were fleeing the fighting; when Katrina blew in, they were fleeing the wind, and the water.
Wherever my cameraman and I went, we saw people who I could only liken to the walking dead. For instance in New Orleans, a guy maybe 30, pushing his father, maybe 60, in a wheelchair. Through two- or three-foot-deep water. We could have set off a firecracker next to them; they wouldn’t have flinched. I guess they’d just seen too much tragedy and suffered too much loss of hope to react to two strangers with a TV camera pointed at them.
Another day we waded through the same depths of water to get to New Orleans’ Super Dome, which had become the biggest of several refugee camps. Busses had been commandeered to get the refugees to a safer haven. People who just four or five days earlier had had homes, and jobs, and normal lives, were now boarding busses with sweaty bodies and soaking wet shoes to go to some other city they might never have seen before, with no promise for how they’d survive once they get there. Watching one particular man carrying a baby in one arm, a three- or four-year-old girl in the other, it struck me that he had what amounted to his whole life in his arms.
But people clobbered in a catastrophe are like that. They have no realistic hope for the foreseeable future. If it’s a hurricane, their homes are under water; their places of work, their schools, their markets, their highways, their cars, their doctor’s offices, their checkbooks, their marriage licenses and birth certificates and computers and televisions and clothing and furniture— it’s all submerged and saturated. And then, whether a hurricane or a tornado, an earthquake or a fire or a flood or anything else, when and if people can finally come back, they come back to a level of loss few other Americans have ever suffered.
They might also come back to a city that smells like a sewer. That’s something in an eerie post-calamity landscape that TV video and news photos can’t convey. It’s a warning about how difficult it will be to make the city habitable again. Sewage deposited in the streets, sewage stuck to the walls, sewage in every crack.
On maybe the fourth day after Katrina struck, we drove east to Biloxi, Mississippi, what locals called, with a combination of horror and the perverse pride of survivors, the “ground zero” of Katrina. By their definition of “ground zero,” Biloxi and its people were every bit as devastated as the infamous ground zero from September 11th, four years earlier.
Biloxi was another war zone. Another tragedy. Hiroshima with a southern accent. Whole neighborhoods were erased by water and wind. The smell of death was not just a newsman’s cliché.
Many people who roam through their ravaged neighborhoods after a catastrophe look catatonic, but in Biloxi we came across one couple more confused than catatonic. Although mostly collapsed, a house stood squarely on the concrete slab that was the foundation of their property. But it wasn’t their house. Theirs had blown into a million pieces, somewhere. This was someone else’s, but it ended up on their land. They pointed to another house that sat at about a 45-degree angle, the upper part elevated by a van crushed underneath. This had been their neighbors’ house. The van had been the neighbors’ only car. The fact that it was still there told this couple that the neighbors hadn’t tried to get away. Which meant they were probably dead inside.
Another day we came across about a dozen poor black people sitting on a long porch. There was no longer a house behind it. They told me how they’d all gone up to the second floor of the house that was no longer there. But the storm surge came in and the water rose fast and they started bailing out through the window, grabbing someone’s arm who had made it to the strong limb of a tall tree. One man was too old, too frail, and he just couldn’t hold on. He drowned.
We came across a different man, walking the grounds of his house. There was nothing left. Not timber, not bricks, no washers or dryers or anything. Just three cement steps still firmly anchored to the ground. They had led into the house. But the house had now disappeared. He had felt his home would survive because of the five-story brick hotel between the house and the seafront. It didn’t. The big brick hotel was gone too.
Maybe the most moving moment in my several weeks’ coverage was at a chain restaurant called The Waffle House, about five miles north of Biloxi. It reopened the day we got in. I don’t know how they did it, because power had been out and all the food had to spoil. But somehow they got eggs and white bread, and they opened their doors to anyone who found out about it. They got together all the staff that normally worked the three different daily/nightly shifts, and had everyone there at once for the few hours they were open. The place was frantic with activity. The cameraman and I grabbed seats at the counter, and I happened to be watching a young heavy-set black man turning eggs on the griddle as fast as he could. Suddenly an older waitress, white, came along and just put her arms around him and gave him a long hug. When his face turned so I could see it, tears were streaming down his face. And hers. Who knows what they lost? But there they were, working. Cooking for us.
I’m a bit of a cynic about the value of organized religion. It has been at the core of too many of the conflicts I covered overseas. But covering Katrina, I saw its benefits. On the first Sunday after the hurricane, we went looking for a church service in an area flattened by the storm. We found one in the heart of a poor black part of Biloxi. The people had dug up folding chairs and were singing like it was the happiest day of their lives. The minister was right out of central casting for a holy-roller preacher on the Mississippi coast. He didn’t just look like Little Richard; he even sounded like him. And when he told this crowd that had just lost everything they owned that their faith would get them through, they said Hallelujah. Because faith was one of the last things they had left.
This reflects the typical response when you ask people how they’re coping after a calamity. Almost universally, they say they feel lucky to have survived. And happy to have their families together. I have my life, I have my loved ones, I’ll find my future.
We’ll see the same things this week after Florence. And hear the same unconquerable human spirit.
On Saint Nixon (no, not really)
Richard Nixon, you’re looking almost like a saint.
Not that our 37th president, elected fifty years ago, was one of the best. To the contrary, although he had a sage’s grasp of America’s place in the world and could claim some sterling triumphs, they were subsumed by his scandalous turpitude.
As a young producer for ABC News stationed in the hearing room during the explosive Senate Watergate investigation, I remember well when then-White House counsel John Dean helped blow the lid off Nixon’s administration by testifying to the “cancer on the presidency.”
But compared to the guy we’ve got in the White House now, Nixon, who resigned under the cloud of imminent impeachment, is looking better every day. His cancer was curable; all it took was his resignation. Donald Trump’s might bedevil us for decades.
Sure, Nixon lied. “I am not a crook,” he assured the American people on national television. But as it turned out, he was.
Sound familiar today? Just last week— even before what our president calls the “treason” in The New York Times of an honest column by a dishonest aide— Trump defiantly declared, “We do everything straight. We do everything by the book.” Some of his own defenders had to be laughing (even if the likes of his long-trusted lawyer and hush money man Michael Cohen wasn’t).
And yes, Nixon did his best to politicize— “weaponize” is the more current lingo— the executive branch of government. Does this sound familiar too?
Nixon planned to employ the IRS to punish people on his infamous “enemies list.” Hmmm, how about that list of former intelligence chiefs who can lose their security clearances because they’ve criticized Trump? Nixon also fired appointees in the Justice Department who wouldn’t march to his drum. This has sinister symmetry to Trump’s disquieting tweet last weekend taking Justice to task for indicting two friendly Republicans.
Nixon even sanctioned the coverup of a criminal break-in on his behalf at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in the building called ‘Watergate” (thus the name of the scandal, and all the “gates” that have followed). No break-ins these days; just criminal convictions or indictments of presidential intimates like Trump’s campaign manager, his national security advisor, his personal lawyer, and about a dozen others.
In short, if our 37th president was contemptible, so is our 45th. But as columnist Michael Gerson put it in The Washington Post, here’s the difference: “We are a superpower run by a simpleton. From a foreign policy perspective, this is far worse than being run by a skilled liar. It is an invitation to manipulation and contempt.”
What’s worse, “contemptible” is only one of many derogatory words we can use about the man who sits in the Oval Office now. And if journalistic legend Bob Woodward is to be believed— remember, it was Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein whose precise and persistent reporting brought Richard Nixon down— then it’s not just people like me who use defamatory language about this man. According to Woodward’s new book, it is the very people who work for Trump and know him the best.
If their quotes are accurately reported, they amount to “contemptible,” squared.
Like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, reportedly saying after a National Security Council meeting that Trump has the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.” And Chief of Staff John Kelly, allegedly calling the president “an idiot,” saying Trump has “gone off the rails” and describing the administration as “Crazytown.” And another of Trump’s former personal lawyers, John Dowd, referring to his client as a “fu#king liar,” telling him to his face that if he does testify in the special counsel’s Russia investigation, he’ll end up in “an orange jumpsuit.” Former economic advisor Gary Cohn calling Trump “dumb as shit.” Former national security advisor H.R. McMaster calling him “a dope.” And former secretary of state Rex Tillerson calling him “a moron.”
Predictably, some of the figures quoted in Woodward’s book have pushed back, Kelly calling the part about him “total BS.” Maybe it is. But given the sensitivity of Kelly’s relationship with the president— and the swarm of strikingly similar reports from other sources— maybe it isn’t. Because you know what they say: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Granted, that’s hardly a trustworthy tenet of journalism, but coming as they do from the most credible reporter in Washington, a two-time (and undisputed) Pulitzer Prize winner, these quotes do carry a whole lot more weight than they otherwise would.
Which raises the question, how in heaven’s name can Republicans still support this guy? Maybe we have to cut the Jim Mattises and John Kellys and others (like the author of the New York Times piece) some slack; maybe, as many have long suspected, they are forfeiting their pride and even their reputations in the interest of restraining an unbalanced president. But the others?
Back in Richard Nixon’s day, although Nixon brought expertise and insight to the Oval Office that Trump doesn’t begin to have, his own supporters eventually had enough backbone to say enough was enough. It was none less than Barry Goldwater— the party’s 1964 presidential candidate whose Arizona senate seat John McCain later occupied— who went to the White House and told the president that if he didn’t voluntarily resign, Congress would remove him involuntarily from office.
Perhaps surprisingly, Nixon’s name doesn’t even appear on the most recent list of our nation’s ten worst presidents, the output of a survey of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Then again, perhaps presidential scholars conclude that Nixon’s successes supersede his failures.
On that same list, Donald Trump is dead last.
On Being 71
I know how old 71 sounds to young people because I know how old it sounded to me when I was one of them. There was even a time when I probably would not have gotten in a car with a 71-year-old man behind the wheel. Old eyes, bad ears, slower reaction times and all the rest.
Now, I get in that car every time I leave home. Because now, I’m that man.
Age is a funny thing. As baby boomers and therefore one of the oldest generations still roaming the earth, we all know that the longer you live, the more you’ve seen and the more you’ve learned. Yet we also know that the older you get, at least in some segments of society, the less respect you are accorded for all that wisdom you’ve collected.
There is a law school in San Francisco— Hastings College of the Law, an arm of the University of California— that used to understand all that. For more than 30 years, until age discrimination laws took root at other schools, its professors were unique. They were judges and attorneys who’d been forced to retire elsewhere because they’d turned 65. Hastings opened its arms to these sage senior citizens. They brought backgrounds that younger professors could not pretend to have. The dean of Harvard’s law school said Hastings probably had “the strongest law faculty in the nation.”
My own claims to strength might not reflect great wisdom, but they do reflect a passion to do what I like to do, senior status notwithstanding. That, for instance, is why I still ski. In fact, I ski on a monoski (which younger people seem to think is cool enough that they call me “dude,” and trust me, there is no place else on the planet where anyone calls me “dude”).
I even work during the Winter as an arm of ski patrol at the Vail Ski Resort, spending most of the day either responding to radio calls or just cruising the slopes, searching for people with problems (my supervisor’s advice: ski with your head on a swivel). I sometimes joke that I keep my helmet and goggles on tightly so the people I’m helping don’t know that the guy bailing them out is twice their age.
Funny thing is, heading home after a strenuous shift on the slopes, I get on a bus where typically there are signs over the seats saying something like, “Please surrender your seat to senior citizens.” Every once in a while, someone does. Which I decline. How can I make them stand when I was just out there skiing, myself?
Cycling’s the same. Last month I wrote for BoomerCafé about my eight days in Italy, biking in the Dolomites with a group mostly around my age, climbing the steepest mountain passes I’ve ever climbed (grades as sharp as 18%). I cycle a lot where I live in Colorado, but our passes feel almost flat by comparison. I would have thought— maybe you would have thought— that by one’s seventies, such physical feats would be beyond reach.
But depending on your frame of mind— and of course on your physical condition too— they’re not. It’s just a matter of how you handle two things. First, everyone’s body erodes; that’s why major league athletes often are past their prime and washed up by their mid-30s. So certainly by my age, I have to accept that I’m not as strong as I used to be. But the question isn’t how I’m doing against someone younger; the question is, how am I doing for my age?
And second, every 365 days, all of us (if we’re lucky) turn a year older. Here too, the question isn’t whether I should read the calendar and say, “Well, I guess I’m too old for this now.” The question is, do I have to abide by the calendar as if some magical number— say, 70— means I should change the way I live? The answer, of course, is no.
I represent the first year of our baby boomer generation. Ten years ago, those of us on the leading edge of the generation prided ourselves on thinking, “60 is the new 40.” Now it’s “70 is the new 50.”
That’s the body. If it supports a younger lifestyle, why not?! And the mind? Well, while some in their 70s already show signs of dementia or worse, most still don’t. I make speeches about our national security on the behalf of the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, and so far, no one has said I’m not making sense. To the contrary, after 40-plus years covering security issues around the world, I might make more sense than some speaker half my age. Just like those law professors at Hastings.
True, I don’t have the energy any more to actually cover news around the world as I did for so long. I watch network foreign correspondents these days (those few who are left), bouncing from country to country and continent to continent, and my only reaction is, “I’m sure glad I’m not doing that.” But I’m not a doddering fool either. Sure, some people my age are but then again, some people half my age are too.
So take no pity that I’m in my seventies. As they say, it’s way better than the alternative. And if someone much younger sees me on a bus and offers me a seat, I’ll say thank you but probably turn them down. They’re likely just as tired as I am.
But enough of all this writing about age. I’m going out to ride my bike.
On John McCain
It must have felt nice to have been John McCain. Not because he bore the scars of a POW. Certainly not because he endured a battle with brain cancer. And not because he brooked the barbs of his own party’s president. But it must have felt nice to feel liberated. To break from political patterns and say what you think must be said, damn the president and damn the consequences.
That would explain why, back when President Trump was beginning to trample on America’s invaluable role as a global icon, Arizona’s late senior senator told an audience in Philadelphia, “We live in a land made of ideals… We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.”
In his sermon about the sorry state of U.S. policies and politics, Senator McCain never mentioned the name of the current occupant of the Oval Office. But we who read about it all knew who was on the receiving end of his oration about America. As if our tone-deaf president was even listening.
Personally, until a decade ago when I covered part of his own run for President, I’d never met John McCain. I’d known only three things about him. He was a genuine American war hero, he was a solid conservative, and he had a sturdy streak of independence.
Then came the campaign. It was the first time I’d ever seen the man face-to-face. He was a nice guy. One day when I was preparing to interview him, McCain asked almost as many questions about me as I asked about him. He not only was the standard bearer of his party, he was a standard bearer for humility, for bi-partisanship, for decency.
He won the nomination but lost the election. And the nice guy turned bitter. For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, if Obama said yes, McCain said no. If Obama said day, McCain said night.
I didn’t lose my respect for the senator’s painful and courageous military service, but I lost my respect for his long-daunted streak of independence. He seemed driven only by one thing: revenge against his triumphant antagonist.
That was then. This is now, when despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to belittle his bearing, John McCain earned respect again. Big time. Not just because of his dramatic thumbs-down vote last year on the repeal of Obamacare, when he bolted from his party’s line and complied with his conscience. But because of what he said on the Senate floor shortly before that vote, lamenting the intensifying state of stalemate in Washington: “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.” After 30 years in the Senate, it was John McCain at his finest, because it held messages for all of us, although none more than McCain’s colleagues, on both sides of the aisle.
Then Arizona’s senior senator elaborated in a Washington Post op-ed. Once again, he sent a message to his peers; once again, the best of McCain: “We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important. That’s not how we were meant to govern… We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.”
Watching the inertia in Washington for many years now and sometimes covering it, I can only wonder, how could anyone argue with that? How could anyone believe that conflict over political principles is more productive than consensus on our country’s core concerns? The experience of his years, and perhaps the reality of his cancer, made McCain wiser. “Both sides have let this happen,” McCain told his beloved Senate. “Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline.”
And then he showed how big a man he truly had become. “Sometimes,” he lamented, “I’ve let my passion rule my reason… Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
It is a long time since the American Congress has been overburdened with benevolent rhetoric and humble thinking and noble men.
It is high time to turn that around. John McCain did his part. Now it’s up to everyone else.
An Enemy of the People
I am an enemy of the people.
I guess I always was, even when covering the violent revolution in Iran for ABC News. It was dangerous reporting from Iran but it was important. It was the only way Americans would know what was going on in that critical country. A mob with machetes chased my camera crew and me, I was beaten at an Islamic cemetery, I had a colleague killed right next to me; Joe Alex Morris of the Los Angeles Times. He must have been an enemy of the people too.
I also apparently was an enemy of the people when I barely made it over a shard-encrusted wall fleeing from a firefight that entrapped us between murderous militias in Beirut, while another colleague climbing the wall wasn’t so lucky and died scrawling the names of his children in his own blood. That was Canadian correspondent Clark Todd. Another enemy of the people, no doubt.
I must have been an enemy of the people when I waded through dioxin-laced mud to report on the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and when my crew and I, embedded with the Colombian anti-narcotics army fighting in the U.S.-funded drug war, had to hotfoot it from gunmen in a steamy jungle during a raid-gone-bad.
There I was, reporting to the people, even though I was their enemy.
Obviously I was an enemy of the people when I got death threats from an American arms dealer I tracked down in Libya, and when I lived in a room running with rats and cockroaches during the war to oust tyrant Idi Amin from Uganda, and when I laid for hours in a swamp aside a runway at Bagram Airport measuring Soviet air power during their invasion of Afghanistan, and when I slept on the desert floor with scorpions popping out of the sand all around me during the Gulf War.
All so the American people would know what was going on.
Then there’s Daniel Pearl, beheaded in Pakistan. And James Foley, who lost his head in Syria. And Marie Colvin, blown apart by Syrian shells. More enemies in our midst.
Apparently by the lights of President Trump, we who leave our families and deal with despicable despots and risk our lives to bring America news about the nature of its enemies and the threats to our security are now the enemies ourselves.
Trump has complained that when he attacks journalists, “They always bring up the First Amendment.” How frustrating that must be for someone who can’t stomach criticism but, because of the Constitution, can’t abolish it. The fact is, this is part of the media’s role: to expose anything, from a public official’s incurious ignorance to his malicious misrepresentations to his polarizing polemics to his flat-out lies.
Donald Trump doesn’t have a clue. He has the most easily offended ego on Earth, but he doesn’t have a clue. No surprise, perhaps, for a guy who pathetically professed during his presidential campaign that he got his information— on military issues, foreign affairs, etc.— “from the shows.” We do know though from his tweets that he follows the news; it keeps him up at night.
Alarmingly, Trump does have weapons to use against the enemy. Like barring his least favorite news organizations (and thus their audiences) from White House briefings. And “opening up our libel laws so we can sue them and win lots of money.” And inhibiting an indispensable tool: the use of “confidential” sources that has in the past exposed everything from the crimes of Watergate to the false premises of the Iraq War. Trump demands of journalists, “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.” Ironic, coming from the guy who perpetuated the Obama “birther” myth and pinned it on “an extremely credible source.”
Disliking journalists who aren’t his sycophants is one thing. Discrediting them is another. But as he has with judges, intelligence officials, and political critics of any color (especially, it seems these days, when their color is black), President Trump is doing his best to make the media into an enemy of the people. “A great danger to our country” is how he has described us. Or more recently, “Dangerous and sick.” The media, he even tweeted earlier this month, “can also cause war.” As if, in matters of war, he has been a paragon of prudence.
What really scares me and ought to scare you is not just the president’s perverted perception of journalists, but his aspirations to subdue them: “We’re going to do something about it,” he once threatened. That is the language you hear from leaders in dictatorships, not democracies.
If Donald Trump called us the enemy of the people only once, that would be Trump being Trump. But it hasn’t been just once; it has become almost incessant. If this thin-skinned president succeeds in stifling a free press, then he is the enemy of the people. Not us.
On Putin & Trump
Donald Trump trumpeted again in a tweet late last month what he has positively professed ever since his presidential victory and seems naively to accept even on the eve of his summit with President Putin: “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!”
As if that puts the issue to rest. As if that’s the end of the story. As if the contrary claims by our own intelligence agencies are foolish. As if most Americans have any reason to believe President Putin’s promises.
And, as if our president’s trust in Putin’s assurances justifies their imminent bromantic hand-holder in Helsinki.
It doesn’t. If recent history of Trump’s faith in other iron-fisted leaders is any guide (see “North Korea”), they can make meaningless promises he’ll believe and we can lose more than we win.
Not that Trump was wrong when he also tweeted, “Getting along with Russia and with China and with everybody is a very good thing. It’s good for the world. It’s good for us. It’s good for everybody.”
It would be, Mr. President, if Russia were trying to get along with us. But it’s not. What we’re dealing with today is an aggressive Russia. An authoritarian Russia. An expansive Russia. It is not a Russia looking to do some good for the world. This is a Russia salivating to steer more of the world. Georgia. Crimea. Ukraine. Syria. And from its meddling in European elections— much more overtly than it meddled here— several sovereign nations just across the Atlantic.
A few years ago I did an hour-long television documentary in Russia. It was about Putin, and politics, because having covered the draconian days of the Soviet Union itself, his ever-stronger stranglehold on his citizens is a mystery to me. Slowly but surely he has withdrawn many of the freedoms they had long yearned for but only briefly enjoyed after the Soviet Union disappeared. Free elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, mostly gone. Dissidents and journalists have been jailed, beaten, poisoned, and shot under his rule. He even evidently rigged the Sochi Olympics.
This is not a man you would necessarily expect his constituents to love. But apparently most do. In fact the one reliable polling agency in Russia, called Levada, asked people just a few years ago about their perceptions of Joseph Stalin, under whose reign of terror some 20 million Soviet citizens died. The outcome of the poll? 40-percent of Russians thought the Stalin era had brought “more good than bad.”
That has become the tacit rationale for Putin’s own grip on power.
He waves the flag of nationalism. His message, which I witnessed paraded on placards and screamed in speeches, is this: There was a time when we spoke and the world trembled. We were a great power once, we will be a great power again. And we will do whatever it takes to get there.
Citing Russia’s foreign adventures, conservative foreign affairs consultant Molly McKew put it well in politico.com: “It’s hard to understand Ukraine and Syria as two fronts in the same conflict when we never evaluate them together with Moscow in the center of the map, as Russia does.” That key phrase, “Moscow in the center of the map,” says it all.
And the fruits of democracy, which once had been an ambitious aim in Russia? Here’s what a dissident Russian politician told me in his office in the Kremlin (before his own political party was disqualified from elections): “What did we get when the Soviet Union fell apart? Crime. Corruption. Inflation. Unemployment (none of which was ever acknowledged back in the Soviet days). And the name for that was ‘democracy’.”
What President Trump has shown no sense of understanding is that Russia isn’t looking to get along. The only government ministry into which money has poured over the past half-decade or so is defense. New equipment, new bases. Not to mention an immense investment in cyberwarfare. Otherwise, the nation’s economy is about the size of Italy’s (which gave rise when I was there to a joke: “What did the Russian people use to heat their homes before fireplaces? Electricity”). But, the Russian people are self-reliant; throughout their history, they’ve had to be. So, unlike us whose lives are pretty soft, if stagnation is the price they must pay to be a superpower once again, they can take it. And will.
If Russia’s assertive ambitions were the only obstacle to overcome, they could be conquered. But there’s a second problem when it comes to Russia, and that is America. Today’s America. An America that embraces adversaries like Russia while bad-mouthing allies like Canada (as columnist Tom Friedman asked in bewilderment, “What country wouldn’t want Canada as its neighbor?”).
President Trump has worked harder to tear apart our alliances than to reinforce them (see “Germany,” and now, as of this week, see “Britain”), which is something else he shows no sense of understanding. Reportedly during last month’s G7 summit, despite more recent efforts to reassure, he told our strongest allies, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.” It’s so short-sighted. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was right when she said in a recent NPR interview, “The United States is stronger when we have friends and allies to deal with the various issues.” Which means, you weaken our allies, you weaken us.
Which brings us back to President Putin. He has done his own work of course to undermine American allies, but he has a partner in President Trump.
Now, by putting Putin’s immoral machinations and his undemocratic principles on a par with ours, we’re rewarding him for it. But at no small cost. To quote Molly McKew again, “When we stop fighting for our ideals abroad, we stop fighting for them at home.”
We do want to get along with Russia. But only if there’s something in it for us. Just taking Putin’s word as gospel and his actions as acceptable, there’s not.
On Game of Chicken
In the classic game of Chicken, two drivers race their cars side by side toward a cliff. The first to hit the brakes is the chicken.
It’s the stuff of a good flick. ‘50s teen icon James Dean, who many baby boomers will remember, played it and pulled through without a scratch in Rebel Without A Cause.
But it’s the stuff of bad leadership. Just last month alone, President Trump played chicken with our economic security, our national security, and our personal security. Yet we are powerless; he’s the only one who can slam on the brakes.
But he doesn’t. At least not until we are close to the cliff. Not until we’ve watched our fortunes threatened in trade feuds with other global powers. Not until we’ve trembled from fears of conflict with a nuclear-armed tyrant. Not until we’ve watched innocent children confined to cages within the borders of our own nation.
The President plays chicken, and we are the pawns. The overarching theme of his high-risk game is that the end justifies the means. But how can that be if the means make us less secure, not more? If the means alienate our allies, pull money from our wallets, or in the case of the children, simply make us ashamed but no safer? Say what you will about illegal immigration, in the case of those thousands of children pulled from their parents, the end did not justify the means. Not even close.
Economic security is the President’s rationale for the tariffs, the trade wars. His biggest target is China, although he also has gone to war with old friends and allies in Europe, and neighbors like Mexico and Canada (which is puzzling; as columnist Tom Friedman put it, “What country wouldn’t want Canada as its neighbor?”)
Trump’s goals with China, arguably virtuous, are to stop its intellectual property thefts and balance our trade gap. But his crusade to accomplish those goals isn’t enriching us, at least not yet; it’s draining us. His defenders argue that it is a necessary evil. I argue otherwise: it is only evil. Evil to American companies that depend on China as a major market, evil to American manufacturers that depend on Chinese parts to produce their products, evil to Americans (and this is mostly baby boomers) who are watching their nest eggs in the uneasy stock market dwindle.
Yet when China announces tit-for-tat retaliation to Trump’s first shot in the war— $50-billion in tariffs— does he say, “Let’s sit down and talk?” Nope. He raises the stakes. To $200-billion. Maybe more. The President’s chief trade advisor Peter Navarro— the guy who angrily promised long loyal allies “a special place in hell” if they cross President Trump— insists that in the trade war, China has “much more to lose.” Point of clarification Mr. Navarro: maybe China has more to lose, but we lose too. This trade war may weaken China (and all the others), but it weakens us too. What’s more, if you know anything about China, its people have a history of hardship. They can endure it far better than us. As its foreign ministry said this week, China is “fully prepared” if a trade war comes.
Our balance of trade with China and our other new enemies wasn’t perfect, but think about this: we were still prosperous. The President’s playing chicken with our prosperity, and we can’t slam on the brakes.
National security has been the President’s ongoing rationale for his tempestuous relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His rash rhetoric earlier this year about “Little Rocket Man” and “fire and fury” and his own “much bigger” nuclear button had us genuinely worried about war (remember Hawaii’s nuclear alert) before he brought us down (as if he deserves credit for defusing the fuses he lit). While we all hope the amity of the Singapore Summit will last, the nuclear threat has not melted away. Not until Kim’s nuclear weapons do.
And if they don’t, we’ll be right back where we were just months ago, playing chicken, wondering which strongman will choose to launch the first strike. If it does come to that, it’s a very safe bet that North Korea will be crushed and the United States will come out on top. But not without taking some bad blows ourselves. Maybe North Korea has more to lose, but we lose too. Not to mention the losses our allies will suffer.
Yes, North Korean nukes are uncomfortable, and maybe ultimately Trump’s tactics will succeed, but Kim wasn’t threatening to blow us to kingdom come until Trump threatened him. Is this worth playing chicken with our lives, and our allies’? Maybe not, but we can’t slam on the brakes.
Personal security? That’s what’s behind the ceaselessly controversial case of illegal immigrants, which led to children confined in cages, courtesy of the U.S. Government. President Trump said he doesn’t want illegals to “pour into and infest our country” (another commentator recently wondered, mindful of fascism in the 20th Century, will Trump use the word “vermin” next?). At least he’s consistent; the day he launched his presidential campaign, he said of illegal immigrants from Mexico, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
The trouble is, Trump just makes things up. In May, four separate studies were released, the upshot of which was, illegal immigration does not increase violent crime. The libertarian Cato Institute even found that rates of sexual assault and murder are higher among native-born Americans than among illegal immigrants. (It’s a repeat of this lying president’s reckless rhetoric about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, asserting in a tweet that because of her liberal immigration policies, “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus,” which has been thoroughly discredited.)
But Trump has many Americans convinced. Fans of his “zero-tolerance” family separation policy argued that it was the parents’ fault because they had put their kids in this fix. But until he buckled to political pressure, it was the President who kept them there. Which makes me ask, if it was indeed the parents’ negligence, has this nation no conscience to mitigate it, rather than aggravate it?
Caught in their cages, caught in the middle of the President’s game of chicken, were the children themselves, who had nothing to do with any of this.
He even advocated abolishing due process. Several commentators observed that the Statue of Liberty was weeping. Yet she can’t slam on the brakes and neither can we.
Some people think that everything Donald Trump does is part of a strategy, a strategy of putting America First. I think they’re giving him too much credit. Credit for having a strategy at all. Credit for having a well-thought-out plan, whether it pertains to our economic security, our national security, or our personal security.
I think if we’ve learned nothing else about this creature in the White House, it is that he does not operate according to any well-thought-out plan. He operates according to only one principle: the impulses and ego of Donald J. Trump. Once he feels threatened, once he feels offended, everything becomes a tug-of-war. Almost every action is driven by vengeance toward anyone who has looked at him the wrong way, or affirmation of what he has insisted is true.
Chicken is a game. Our security is not. But President Trump doesn’t make the distinction. And we can’t slam on the brakes.
On Caged Children
The most moving statement about the separation of families this week came not from elected politicians, Democrat or Republican. No, it came from the wife of one, or to be accurate, the wife of a former official. Former First Lady Laura Bush, who always made us remember that her husband had a gentle side, wrote in The Washington Post that President Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. and it breaks my heart.” Many of us who deplore both the political policies and the personal character of this president have been saying with more ardor as his term drags on, we would take George W. Bush back in a heartbeat. Thanks to Mrs. Bush, it’s true now more than ever.
For Mrs. Bush, whom we can assume would not have penned her column without her husband’s consent, called a spade a spade. Other notable Republican women have only tried to diffuse the family separation issue. Speaking not even directly but through her spokesperson, First Lady Melania Trump said she “hates to see children separated from their families.” That merely mirrored her husband’s empty words a few days before. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on a Sunday talk show didn’t even acknowledge that there are any separations: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Oh my lying eyes. Period.
Forget Trump’s simplistic assertion that this sorrowful situation is borne of a Democratic law. That’s just another counterfeit claim by our lying president, who could fix the problem with a single call on his tweet-tattered phone or his oversized stroke of the pen. He and his attorney general started it; obviously they can stop it.
And forget his sycophantic supporters’ attestations— which, when you think about it, undercut his— that this crackdown is merely a manifestation of the President’s campaign promise. There’s nothing noble about sticking to a promise when it’s an appalling promise.
You can even forget about his advisor Stephen Miller’s explanation that what we’re seeing (with our lying eyes)— which also undercuts Trump’s contention by the way that family separation is the Democrats’ doing— “was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period.” (This administration sure does use a lot of periods). A friend of mine wrote when he read that, “You can just feel him calling on his inner Josef Goebbels.” But my friend’s comparison would be lost on Miller. “The message,” Miller says, “is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
No one. Not even children, who had nothing to do with it.
Back in the 1980s, I covered a flood of asylum seekers from Communist Czechoslovakia who found a loophole at the border to get into Austria. Men, women, and children. After days of divisive debate, even Austria’s hard right, which didn’t exactly have a history of inclusion and compassion for minorities, took pity, and let them in. The children were the trump card. The oppression their families were escaping wasn’t their fault. The refuge their families were seeking wasn’t their choice. But they were stranded, and stateless. Sane, sympathetic arguments saved the day.
A few days ago on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” anchor Scott Simon interviewed a woman named Sinthia. Her husband in Honduras had been abusive and ferocious, she told Simon. “He hit me with belts, electric cables, shoes, his feet.” So to escape from him, as well as from a judicial system that would turn a blind eye toward his abuse, she had snuck into the U.S. five years ago with her five-year-old son.
She thought she would be safer here. “I thought yes, the United States is a country of a lot of opportunities, and it’s a place where you can find help for people like me who are in situations like this.” Asked about Attorney General Sessions’ announcement that domestic and gang violence aren’t going to be considered grounds for asylum anymore, she responded, “I think it’s unjust, because we come to the United States looking for a better life because we’re in fear for our own lives.”
Oh her innocent eyes.
No doubt the President’s minions, and probably the President himself, would scream back at this unworldly woman, “Unjust? You broke the law to get here. You have no right to be here. You weren’t born here.” As if she was born in a hard-luck place like Honduras while they were born here in a freedom-loving law-abiding opportunity-rich place like America because they are smarter than she is… as opposed to just luckier.
And that is true in spades for the children.
Illegal immigration has been a hot-button issue for decades. The numbers of law-breakers who cross the border have fluctuated for decades. They have even fluctuated during the short course of the Trump administration.
The numbers fluctuate, but the arguments don’t. Hard-line Americans argue that immigrants cost them money. And raise the crime rate. And take their jobs. Sympathetic Americans argue that that’s all bogus.
But today, where children are caught in the middle, the arguments don’t much matter.
The Attorney General— when he defended family separation last week “because God has ordained” the law— proclaimed, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” Unless the weak and lawful are children.
Anyway, Sinthia put the lie to his logic. “Honestly, I accept that crossing a border illegally is breaking a law. But what would he do in my situation? And you want to live. You don’t want to lose your life. I would say, what decision would you make? Would you break the law, or would you just let yourself die?”
When it comes to Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, even the President, I’m not sure we want to hear their answer.
Sometimes, when there is no simple solution, we have to figure out which of the hard choices is best. The one Laura Bush would make is. The one this administration has made isn’t.
On Trump’s Summits
It is the nature of the news cycle in the Time of Trump that at the rat-a-tat pace of an AK-47, as this spiteful president shoots one bullet after another into the heart and soul of American alliances and American diplomacy and American prestige and American leadership, one woeful wound swiftly is smothered by another.
It is the nature of the cycle, but it shouldn’t be.
Yet while the impact of Donald Trump’s behavior at the Canadian summit will bedevil us for a long time, the news about it will be smothered by the Singapore summit. It shouldn’t be. Because we can’t afford it.
The news is, Trump disdainfully declined in Canada to sign the traditional joint statement by the seven allies of the G7, shorthand for the Group of Seven democracies that have long shared common values and common causes. But because Donald Trump shows no respect for tradition, let alone practical partnerships, realists now ruefully call it G6+1. What’s worse, Trump didn’t just disagree about major issues with our long-supportive allies, which is his prerogative as president; he insulted and threatened them, which isn’t.
How can it be that the few serious, capable, and world-weary people in this president’s orbit don’t read him the facts of global life? What they need to teach him is, more because of the expansion of the economic and military strength of other nations than due to any self-imposed decline of American power, the United States no longer is the undisputed 900-pound gorilla on the planet. And more important, that if we push them away, they can survive on their own.
I don’t even have to think hard when I scroll through stories I covered around the world to come up with examples of the import of alliances. I shuttled around the Middle East with President Jimmy Carter as he won the support of Arab and European nations to solidify the peace treaty he achieved between Egypt and Israel at Camp David (which against countless challenges has endured to this very day). He couldn’t have done it alone.
I patrolled with foreign soldiers during the civil war in Beirut as President Ronald Reagan cobbled together a force of peacekeepers which, although ultimately not so successful, showed the anxiety of the international community about the war that was ripping that nation apart. We couldn’t have shown it alone.
I did stories, in both Saudi Arabia and at the United Nations, about President George H.W. Bush methodically assembling a coalition of 39 countries to confront Saddam Hussein, which eventually routed his troops after they took up residence in Kuwait. We might not have pulled it off alone.
I’ve traveled with local military units in Colombia and in Bolivia as they attacked drug cartels at the behest of the United States. I’ve covered campaigns for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, where the U.S. was the lead mediator but was not operating in a vacuum. I’ve reported on our multinational agreements and alliances from Libya, from Vietnam, from South Africa, from Afghanistan. As a superpower, we can lead the way, but we can only lead if others choose to follow. If we insult and threaten them, we risk going it alone. Which would cost us dearly.
Yet we are on that track. After the Canadian summit, an editorial cartoon in The Baltimore Sun summed it up sadly: a banner flown in front of President Trump said, “You will bow before me.”
Does it really take a dying American hero to bring us to our senses, to publicly (and not for the first time) scold our president for his damaging, dangerous, and disgraceful behavior? Maybe it does, and maybe others will follow, but for now, it is the weakened but not silenced voice of Senator John McCain that shines. After Trump haughtily tweeted from Air Force One after leaving the summit in Canada that the host nation’s prime minister Justin Trudeau was “very dishonest & weak” (because Trudeau had criticized Trump’s trade policies, which is his prerogative), Senator McCain sent out his own tweet: “To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values.”
70 years of shared values. With friends and neighbors who have stood by us just as we have stood by them. 70 years, or more like a hundred, for as Trudeau told reporters, Trump’s national security rationale for tariffs against Canadian steel was “kind of insulting” to a nation that has backed the United States in wars dating back to World War One.
McCain ended his tweet with what our steadfast allies ought to know: “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.” They ought to know, and they need to know, because one day— hopefully sooner rather than later— we shall have a new president. A new president who understands who our friends are, and understands how friends should be treated.
Donald Trump doesn’t. Which we cannot afford.
On North Korea Summit
The question isn’t why President Trump ever fell for flim-flam spin from North Korea, where suddenly its spasmodic leader yo-yoed earlier this month from “Little Rocket Man” to “very honorable.” That one we understand by now: the man in the Oval Office is spasmodic himself. He doesn’t go deep, he just goes with his gut, which might work when you’re building casinos in Atlantic City (although from his debacles there, not always), but it’s no way to govern. The cancelled summit proves that point yet again.
But no, the question is, why would Trump ever think of treating North Korea any differently than he has treated Iran? After all, these are two of the three nations named by President George W. Bush in 2002 as the “axis of evil.” (The third was Iraq but that’s such a mess right now, we don’t know which side is up.) The evil was, they supported terrorism, they imprisoned their opponents, they suppressed their citizens’ human rights, they aligned with America’s adversaries, and they were building, or believed to be building, weapons of mass destruction (translation: nukes).
Yet Trump effectively destroyed the nuclear deal with Iran while he was making nice with North Korea. Why?
Behavior over the years by both countries has been pretty much the same. So has their rhetoric, tossing threats and vitriol toward the United States. And, lest we forget, both have imprisoned American citizens on apparently bogus charges. President Trump strutted like a peacock when three Americans imprisoned in North Korea were released (and to be sure, he deserves credit for that). However, he has all but abandoned four Americans (maybe five) still behind bars in Iran. What’s the difference?
The answer is, Barack Obama.
Along with five other global powers, Obama struck a deal with Iran, which means Trump won’t; Obama didn’t with North Korea, which meant Trump would try. That’s the difference. Same with Afghanistan, same with Syria. Obama did it one way, so whether Trump has a better way or not, he’s determined to do it differently.
That’s no way to govern either.
This could easily be seen as a product of the president’s personal vengeance, but it’s not just him. The vengeance of the president reflects the vengeance of the modern Republican Party. Throughout President Obama’s two terms, Congressional Republicans carried out a strategy of obstruction, culminating in the final year when they unconscionably refused to consider Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination. Now they’re filling them with judges of like mind. The party’s only consistent strategy was to build barriers on every path Barack Obama tried to take and now, with Donald Trump leading the charge, to undo everything Obama did. We don’t even have to guess at it any more.
What should we even call Exhibit A? Their quest to destroy Obamacare (even though the Congressional Budget Office estimates tens of millions more Americans wouldn’t have insurance without it)? Their opposition to and Trump’s rash withdrawal from the Paris climate accord (even though every other civilized nation on earth supports it)? America’s abrupt abrogation of leadership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which gives China an opening to trade with abandoned American partners)? Or is Exhibit A the knife they are taking to President Obama’s policies that have protected us from the financial fiascos that caused the recession a decade ago, or to his policies produced to protect us from suffocating emissions, or to his “net neutrality” rules that prohibited internet service providers from arbitrarily slowing down specific websites and apps, or to the very existence of the Obama era’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose purpose is explicit in its name? Iran is merely the most recent contender for “Exhibit A” status.
The subsequent conclusion is hard to take but also hard to ignore: the president of the United States has no real allegiance to the American people (or at least the ones who didn’t vote for him). He’s the most powerful man on earth but has no real anchor to policy. No long-held principles. No sense, when he impetuously throws treaties and tariffs and traditions in the air, of where the pieces will fall. No sense, and no apparent concern. And the base of his party, in and out of Washington, is right behind him.
To hear him tell it before the summit went sour, “everyone thinks” he ought to win the Nobel Prize. Sorry Mr. President, everyone didn’t. Yes, we’ve all shared the hope— in our nation’s interest, in our world’s interest— that you could neutralize the nuclear threat from North Korea. But you weren’t even close.
In my many years as a foreign correspondent, I covered conflicts, treaties, and the like, including several arms control pacts with the Soviet Union. I learned three things. One was, when negotiating with adversaries, neither side gets everything it wants, but both get more than they had before. Another was, you don’t increase world stability by making the world less stable. The third was, the U.S. is well served in the long term by consulting and compromising with long-loyal allies, not snubbing and sometimes even insulting them.
But these are concepts that Barack Obama (and, by and large, his predecessors) lived by. So Donald Trump doesn’t.
What’s worse, Trump has been playing chicken with both North Korea and Iran. What if, during the pugnacious phase of Trump’s exchanges with Kim Jong-un, Little Rocket Man had had it with the fire-and-fury threats from the White House and launched some of his little rockets at us? What if, with the U.S. breaking its side of the bargain with Iran, the ayatollahs don’t blink and go full speed ahead to build nuclear weapons? Sure, we might try to destroy their program before they revive it but if we do, there will surely be fire and fury in much of the Middle East. That doesn’t help our allies; it doesn’t help us. With North Korea and Iran both, Trump has played chicken with our lives.
That’s surely no way to govern.
The sudden collapse of any accord with North Korea didn’t come because the facts on the ground changed. By and large, they didn’t. It came because Trump boxed himself in, leaving him no negotiating tool more potent than just bluster. Which might explain why he decided to cancel. It’s called “saving face.”
That’s not about governing at all. It’s about ego. And politics.
On Israel & Palestinians
So much anger in Israel and Gaza. So many deaths. But it all wasn’t born of present-day grievances. And it all wasn’t caused by the new embassy in Jerusalem. It goes much, much deeper. And much, much further back.
Back to the creation of Israel.
I once asked maybe 30 Israelis in Jerusalem, “Are you bitter toward the Palestinians and if you are, why?” The answer almost universally was yes, and the reason, although voiced in a variety of ways, almost universally was the same: “Because when Israel was created in 1948, the Palestinians fled rather than live beside us.”
Then I traveled the surprisingly short distance from Jerusalem down to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian West Bank— it’s not 15 miles— and asked about 30 Palestinians the same thing in reverse: “Are you bitter toward the Israelis and if so, why?” Here too, the answer almost universally was yes, but the reason was the polar opposite of what I had heard up the hill in Jerusalem: “Because when Israel was created in 1948, the Jews pushed us from our homes.”
I spent enough time covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the years that I say with confidence, there is some truth to both versions of events, now 70 years in the past. But here’s what’s most telling about these “man-on-the-street” interviews that I was doing as part of a report for ABC News’s Nightline: I made a point of asking my question only to people who looked too young to even have been born in 1948 (and I confirmed the age of each). What this means is, these young citizens, Israelis and Palestinians alike, didn’t acquire their animus firsthand. They inherited it; they were repeating what they had been told by their parents, which is what the parents had been told by their grandparents. Now we are four generations into the conflict and you can bet, the rancor is even more rigid than before.
How do you get past that?
This is why the past six weeks of clashes between Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli military is just a bump in the road. It leaves Gaza’s population depleted by the deaths of several dozen Palestinians— whether non-violent demonstrators or hell-bent terrorists, they are dead— and now, after rioters torched the one working border crossing used to move food and fuel from Israel into Gaza, they are deprived of even that. Yet in the midst of front-page developments between the U.S. and North Korea, between the U.S. and Iran, between the U.S. and China, the low-grade war in Gaza is only a back-page story.
And when you look at it in that context, most everything else that buttresses the bitterness there has also been just a bump in the road: the two Intifadas, the failed peace talks, the bullets and bombs and rockets and knives and Molotov cocktails and now, the official opening of the U.S. embassy in the contested city of Jerusalem. Putting aside who’s right and who’s wrong about the status of this holy capital, the American move pushes the two sides even farther apart, not closer together.
Not only that, it diminishes even more the domination the United States once enjoyed as the “go-to” nation, long trying to bring peace to a region that, in modern times, has never really known it. The Palestinians won’t even talk to us any more, not officially anyway. Instead, they’re making eyes at Moscow. As if the whole region isn’t already insecure and unstable enough, just think how much worse it will be (at least from an American point of view, not to mention Israeli) if its future is shaped more by Russia than by the U.S.
How do you get over that?
Last month, a man named Fadi Abu Shammalah wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, the title of which was, “Why I March in Gaza.” Shammalah is the executive director of the General Union of Cultural Centers in Gaza. I have been there, and it is not where you find your typical trouble-makers.
As I read his piece, having seen the hardship in Gaza with my own eyes, I felt some sympathy. Shammalah told how he explained to his seven-year-old son Ali, the oldest of his three children, why he was putting himself in harm’s way by taking part in the border protests. He told his son he felt the need to demonstrate against “the unbearable living conditions facing residents of the Gaza Strip: four hours of electricity a day, the indignity of having our economy and borders under siege, the fear of having our homes shelled.”
Of course he didn’t mention that his Palestinian community brought at least some of their privations upon themselves. Nor that when he talks about his “nonviolent struggle for our homeland,” history does not indisputably record his “homeland” as a fact.
But what he did mention, as another motivation for his role in the demonstrations, is the crux of the problem: “We have the right to return to our homes. I long to sleep under the olive trees of Bayt Daras, my native village.” It is the crux of the problem because Fadi Abu Shammalah, the father of three young children, was not around himself in 1948 when the modern stage of this conflict began. He has never seen those olive trees under which he longs to sleep. Like the Israelis and the Palestinians I interviewed in Jerusalem and Ramallah, he is repeating what his parents said, and what their parents said before that.
He is right when he writes that life in Gaza is “on the brink of humanitarian collapse,” that people’s lives there “are reduced to a daily struggle for food, water, medicine and electricity.” But that’s an issue for 2018; the disputes about who gets to live where were settled by the spoils of war, if not resolved, in 1948.
Shammalah won’t accept that. Sadly, his little son Ali probably won’t either.
How do you get beyond that?
On 24 hours With Trump
Even the Cuban Missile Crisis took 13 days.
Today though, in Trump World, 13 days is an eternity. There’s not enough space in this column to catalogue, let alone absorb, let alone understand, the past 13 days in Trump World. Any 13 days in Trump World.
So let’s look at just one. Just 24 hours— a span from May 2nd to May 3rd— in the rat-a-tat-tat world of Donald Trump.
The big news was, of course, that Trump did, after all, pay back his personal lawyer Michael Cohen the $130,000 that Cohen had spent to try to silence porn star Stormy Daniels. A waste of good money, by the way; Stormy is not a woman to be silenced.
In the pre-Trump world, the admission by the president’s new lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the president had “funneled” that money through Michael Cohen’s law firm— sure, some might just call it “money laundering” but let’s not get hung up on semantics— could be enough to sink a different president. But not this one.
In the pre-Trump world, the admission by the president himself that he was complicit in the payment of hush money, after flatly saying “No” when reporters on Air Force One asked just a month ago if he’d known about the payment to Ms. Clifford, could be enough to sink a different president. But not this one. (And we won’t even get into the connivance of his staff, like press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said in early March, “I’ve had conversations with the president about this. He has denied all these allegations.”
Melania must be spinning in her stiletto heels.
Mind you, to hear the President tell it in his Thursday morning tweet (and by “Thursday morning,” I mean 4:46AM, which suggests this president is not the cool cucumber he would have you believe), all this proves is, “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.” But this only raises a bigger question— maybe the big question: which Donald Trump are we supposed to believe? The one who said “No,” or the one who now says “Yes?”
As if we actually wondered whether to trust Trump before this.
And I can’t resist pointing out— even though this goes back a whole week— that in late April, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded the Fifth Amendment. He’s free to, of course, but one can’t help but bring back the words of Donald Trump himself during his campaign about people who plead the Fifth: “The mob takes the Fifth Amendment. If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” Maybe he needs to ask his lawyer. Come to think of it, when Trump’s lawyer needs a lawyer, maybe Trump needs yet another one himself.
Now, a personal digression: this whole story that Trump did indeed repay Michael Cohen, which until now he had denied and so had Cohen, came up Wednesday night when new lawyer Giuliani spilled the beans on Fox to Trump sycophant Sean Hannity. Now, had Giuliani told this story to me back when I worked as a reporter, I might have asked him a fairly obvious question like, “So are you saying that up til now, Trump has been lying?” Hannity evidently didn’t think that was important.
But mentioning Giuliani is a good segue to a second strange scene on just this one day in Trump World. Namely, Giuliani’s Thursday morning announcement— again on Fox— that three Korean-Americans being held in a prison in North Korea will soon be released.
Normally, we would treat this as good news— great news— and leave it at that.
But here’s one reason why we can’t: because the last time we looked, Giuliani was not the Secretary of State, he was just the president’s lawyer. That might explain why— and excuse me for my obsolete outlook but wouldn’t State normally be the one to make such an announcement, or maybe even the White House?— the State Department could only say in a statement after Giuliani’s second bombshell in this single 24-hour period, “We cannot confirm the validity of these reports.”
They can’t, but Giuliani can?
And here’s a second reason why such good news can still only leave us scratching our heads: Trump’s tweet on the topic. “As everybody is aware, the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail.” Actually Mr. President, no one is aware of that, since only one of these three prisoners has been held by the North Koreans since “the past Administration,” meaning Obama’s, was in office. The other two were taken prisoner last year when, in case anyone’s memory is fuzzy on the timing, the man in the White House was none other than… sit down for this… Donald Trump.
Which is a segue of sorts to the third blockbuster in this single 24-hour day, and it really kind of ties everything together: Trump’s first-ever visit, Wednesday, to the State Department. That alone should alarm people, that after more than a year-and-a-quarter in office Trump never paid a visit til now, but what struck me was what he said to State’s employees once he got there.
And if you think I’m talking about his remark about “more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time, many years,” I’m not. Although it does prompt the question, How. Would. He. Know? if he’s never been there before now?
But no, I’m talking about another uniquely Trumpian statement when referring to new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first-in-his-class status at West Point: “I’ve also heard I was first in my class at the Wharton School of Finance. And sometimes when you hear it, you don’t say anything, you just let it go.” He sure should, since although he has made such a claim many times, it just ain’t true. A look at the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, from Trump’s year, 1968, shows a list of 56 students on the Dean’s List. No mention of Trump. A look at the graduation program the same year lists 20 award winners at Wharton. As well as Class of ’68 recipients of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude honors. Again, no Trump.
Too bad, really, that the small scandal with President Trump’s personal physician— admitting that his incandescent account of Trump’s health during the campaign was actually written by the candidate himself— came the day before all the rest of this. I guess if we had simply compared its language to the classic narcissistic hyperbole we hear from the President every day— phrases like “astonishingly excellent,” and “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”— we’d have known they were Trump’s own self-admiring words before Dr. Bornstein admitted it.
It’s not as if the statements and events and reversals and lies of this one 24-hour span of time is any big revelation. You could pick just about any 24-hour period and come up with just as much. It is non-stop crisis. Constitutional and otherwise.
Do you remember, just two days before the 2016 election, when Trump said that his opponent Hillary Clinton’s “current scandals and controversies will continue throughout her presidency,” and that it would be “impossible for her to govern?”
It sounds almost peaceful.
I’ve spent much of my life policing people’s grammar. Too much of it, if you ask the people I’ve policed.
Not that mine is perfect. For example I still get mixed up by the difference between “lay” and “lie.” Should I say I’m “laying” down or “lying” down? Well, it’s the latter… I think. “Lay” is an active verb; it means you put something down. “Lie” means something is down, probably horizontally. So I guess if I’m resting on the bed, I’m “lying” down… unless I’ve laid my body down. The only thing I know for sure is, I’m horizontal either way.
Until recently I had the same problem with “farther” and “further.” As in, “I can’t go any farther” versus “I can’t go any further.” Which one is right? Aha. Trick question! Arguably they both are. “Farther” relates to distance, so “I can’t go any farther” means I can’t take another step. “I can’t go any further” might mean, by way of an explanation, “I can’t go any further with this description because I’ve told you everything I know.”
Or should I explain it to you further?
By the way, “who” and “whom” are another puzzle that perplex me to this very day.
But for all my lingual limitations, it doesn’t stop me from foraging for flaws in others. For instance, for many years when someone told me he felt “nauseous,” I corrected him: “If you are nauseous, it means you make other people sick. What you want to say is, you feel nauseated.”
Which probably made him feel nauseated about me.
When a server in a ritzy restaurant asked what I wanted for my “entree,” I corrected the server, explaining in so many words, “Entree comes from French and what it means in France is, the first course. Think of the root of the word: it’s the ‘entry’ to the meal. Like soup, a salad, an appetizer. If you mean, what do I want for my main dish (called the “plat principal” in France, which translates to “principal plate”), I want chicken.”
Yes, I am a guy who likes to hit his head against a brick wall. And yes, you would be right to conclude, since I lived five years in France, I’m a snob. You also would be right to conclude, I must be pretty dull if all I ever wanted was chicken. In any event, it probably made servers sorry that I’d ever made my “entree” into that restaurant.
Which brings me to my latest linguistic pet peeve: “So.” Not that “so” is so bad. To the contrary, think about the sentence you just read. “So” is in it for emphasis, as a synonym for “too” or “unacceptably” or “horribly.” I could have written, “Not that ‘so’ is horribly bad,” and you’d have gotten the same meaning out of it. Likewise, “so” sends positive emphasis: “I am so confused by all this.”
And sometimes, “so” suggests cause and effect. Like last week, in Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults’s calm-as-a-cucumber communication to a Philadelphia air traffic controller after one of her two engines blew up: “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.” A classic case of cause and effect. The cause? Part of the aircraft is missing. The effect? No choice, we’re slowing down. She was so right.
But if “so” is often used effectively, what’s the pet peeve? It is this: people have started answering questions with “So,” even though it serves no purpose, not as a point of emphasis, not as a link between cause and effect, and not as a conclusion (“So the answer to two plus two must be four.”).
The other day I was listening to an interview on a National Public Radio show and if the host asked a dozen questions, the guest began answering ten of them with “So.” I was riding my bike at the time, so I didn’t take notes (that, by the way, is another example of cause and effect), but let me give you a couple of made-up examples. Q: Where did you go to school? A: So I went to C.S.U.” Or, Q: What time did you hear the explosion? A: So it was about 11 o’clock.”
So when did people start starting their responses with “So?” I looked it up, and although there is no empirical answer, I did come across a pretty good illustration of how widespread it has become. Evidently someone at NPR a few years ago was frustrated by the same issue (well, okay, I’ll admit, it’s not an issue for all of us), and did some research. The upshot? Reporters and hosts— remember, these are supposed to be role models for the English language— started sentences with the word “so” 237 times in a single week.
The article about it, incidentally, was on NPR’s own website, and made this astute assertion about grammatical fixations like mine: “Not everybody cares about it, but the ones who do care care a lot.”
Language, after all, is fluid. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. That’s why the word “bad” now sometimes means “good.” “Sick” can mean “cool” and “cool” doesn’t have to be about the temperature. Years ago, when I hosted a show on the big talk radio station in Denver, I had the editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on the air, and my favorite takeaway was what he told me about the listings of the definitions of words: every ten years, when they put out a new edition, the orders of some definitions change, reflecting frequency of usage. That’s why once, the first definition of “nauseous” was (ahem, quite properly), “Causing nausea,” or put more simply, “Making someone sick.” Now, that’s in the second position, replaced by the more frequently used, “Affected with nausea,” as in, “Feeling sick.”
It also explains the frequency of use these days of the word “awesome” although, while it may explain it, it still doesn’t excuse it. “Awesome” is heroism, love, generosity, the Grand Canyon. It is decidedly not the act of coming up with exact change when you buy a bag of chips at the convenience store. As often as not though, the clerk’s response will be, “Awesome.”
But, like it or not (and I don’t), that’s where our language is. Just please don’t say, “That’s where our language is at.” That’s a whole ‘nother column.
On Waging Wars
Remember when the biggest threat that could keep us awake at night was North Korea’s nukes? That was so, like, February.
Since then, the menace of North Korea has waned in the wake of pugnacious new presidential salvos— or, one might argue, unpresidential salvos— on several newer warfronts: Russia, China, even America itself. It has gotten so bad, the other day I took a long bike ride and forgot to pack my phone, which meant I went something like six hours without tuning into the world’s woes, and when I got back to my car and turned on the news, I found myself half-relieved, but also actually half-surprised, that we weren’t either under attack or on the attack ourselves. I’m old enough to remember the last time anxious Americans felt that way: the showdown with the Soviet Union known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’ve fought plenty of wars since then, some of which I’ve covered, but none came with the impromptu and imprudent risks in which this president seems to revel.
The fact is, the whiffs of wars waged by the president fly almost too fast to track. They feel less like the upshot of the “chaos theory” that many analysts advance about President Trump— which would suggest the risks are calculated— and more like the fallout from an “impulse theory”— which would suggest they’re not. If this is true, Donald Trump doubles down and raises the risks of one kind of war or another not because of shrewd strategy but because of ignorant instinct. Just think about the latest…
This past week, the threat of an unthinkable but not inconceivable shooting war with Russia over chemical weapons in Syria. The American missiles launched to discourage more chemical strikes against Syrian citizens might or might not have lasting effect (because they might or might not represent a strategy as opposed to just a spectacle), but knowing that Russia’s president Putin has a penchant for combat almost as big as his own, Trump didn’t have to stick it in Putin’s eye with his taunting tweet about the missiles, “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!” What we got back was a sinister shot from Russia’s ambassador in Washington: “We are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.” Consequences? They can cut both ways. These adversarial superpowers have decades of experience with restraint, but now, facing each other over Syria, one miscalculation could make that experience moot.
The week before that, the threat of an unimaginable but not unlikely trade war with China over tariffs. Here too, instead of quietly going about the business of evening the playing field, the president openly welcomed economic combat, tweeting, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Easy to win? So far, with even the prospect of a trade war on the horizon, American firms dependent on foreign imports, and farmers dependent on foreign exports, already see unsustainable losses in their immediate future, and Americans with their savings in what had been a soaring stock market already have suffered double-digit losses in their nest eggs. The National Retail Federation accused the president of “playing a game of chicken with the nation’s economy.” This is “good?” And although China has uttered some conciliatory rhetoric, it also has warned that “we will not sit idly by and will take necessary measures if the US hurts China’s interests.” President Trump even earned a reprimand from China’s president Xi— who Trump says will “always” be his friend— that “arrogance” will earn us a place in “the dustbin of history.” That’s some friendship! Leading an economy that inevitably will be bigger than ours, Xi’s ultimatums should not be indifferently ignored.
And just about every week of the year, an incredible but not improbable war against the fundamental foundations of our own society and our own government. Donald Trump has impugned and insulted the integrity of everything from the Judiciary to the media to Congress to overseas allies to members of his own presidential cabinet to Gold Star families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. And, needless to say, of law enforcement. Just last week, on Friday the 13th no less, a presidential tweet, trying to allay the impact of James Comey’s blistering new book, characterized federal law enforcement as “a den of thieves and lowlifes!” (As if we should doubt the honesty of a proven crime-fighter whose senior thesis in college appraised the role of religion in politics, against the honesty of a man whose personal and professional integrity and morals have been dubious and decidedly unreligious since he came out of diapers.) Some Americans might see all of this as a political sideshow, but as The New York Times put it in a Monday editorial, “What can seem now like a political sideshow” can “instantly become a constitutional crisis.” Which would put us at war with ourselves.
What President Trump doesn’t seem to grasp is that while he says he’s making America great again, the truth is, by waging wars on so many fronts, he’s actually making it weaker. Weaker economically, weaker diplomatically, maybe even weaker constitutionally. In his binary brain, he doesn’t seem to understand that for every action, there is a reaction.
Or, put more simply, if you shoot at an enemy, the enemy is going to shoot back. Even North Korea.
On President – Then And Now
Do you remember the good old days?
The good old days, when a president dignified his office rather than degrading it.
The good old days, when a president got his guidance— even if gravely flawed— from seasoned advisors and congressional pros and contemplative think tanks, rather than rabble-rousing commentators on a right-wing television network for which ratings are a richer reward than responsibility.
The good old days, when a president went to war— a diplomatic war, an economic war, a military war— by shooting through a carefully aligned gunsight rather than shooting from the hip. And when he seemed to understand that if you shoot at somebody, they’re going to shoot back, rather than assuming that a trade war won’t draw return fire and hurt our side as much as theirs.
I covered half-a-dozen presidents like that over the years, and would take any one of them back in a heartbeat.
Do you remember the good old days when a president would do his best to steady a staggering stock market in which tens of millions of his countrymen have their nest eggs, rather than impulsively imploding it to animate an ill-conceived campaign slogan or, even worse, to vent his personal pique?
The good old days, when a president endeavored to ensure that our environment would be ever clearer, ever cleaner, ever safer, rather than working to pulverize the protections that had been years, even decades, in the making.
The good old days, when a president would condemn and expel from his circle anyone who maligned schoolchildren who had just been through a murderous hell, rather than staying mum about his own supporters’ reprehensible rhetoric.
I fear that some politicians today with their sights on higher office— both Right and Left— have seen the success of the new politics, and will try to build upon it, rather than tear it down and put its pieces in the dustbin of history, where they belong.
Do you remember the good old days when a president put America on a perch alongside our foreign friends to preserve our power and prestige around the globe, rather than indiscriminately asserting “America First” at our friends’ expense, trashing long-productive relationships that got us there in the first place?
The good old days, when a president understood that America’s values are best purveyed by commanding the world’s respect, rather than just commandeering the world’s attention, which is borne more of distress than deference.
The good old days, when a president publicly praised our allies and pummeled our adversaries, rather than pummeling our allies and praising our adversaries.
I reported from some 80 countries over the years where, at one level or another, our nation was seen as a model to admire, if not actually emulate. It will be a long time, if ever, before we are seen that way again.
Do you remember the good old days when a president promulgated a policy and gave the American people time to ponder it, rather than putting out positions and pronouncements at the ratta-tat-tat speed of machine gun fire so that the citizens don’t have much more than a moment to absorb and appraise it?
The good old days, when a president might throw a bunch of balls into the air but have at least a nominal notion of where they will fall and who they will hurt, rather than tossing them up with no more precision than it takes to punch out a single juvenilely-written tweet.
The good old days when a president who made a pledge— about, say, saving young immigrants, or sensibly restricting guns— actually kept his word, or at least tried, rather than shifting his positions from day to day and sometimes hour to hour, depending on the last hardline lackey to whisper in his ear.
I voted for presidents like that, and dread the time that will pass and the damage that will be done before I can vote for one again.
Do you remember the good old days when a president made the most of the diversity we enjoy in our great nation, rather than making mincemeat of it?
The good old days, when a president learned what a president can only learn once he actually occupies the Oval Office and grows in the job, rather than one who thinks he knows it all before he ever gets there.
The good old days, when a president gave us at least a peek at his personal finances so we’d know how, if at all, they affect his political decisions, rather than imperiously ignoring that norm and arrogantly refusing to share those finances with the people he supposedly serves.
Having covered my share of news conferences with presidents, I can’t quite believe that the media doesn’t press this president more on these failings.
Do you remember the good old days, when our president was elected by a majority of the American people, rather than just a majority of the Electoral College?
The good old days, when we expected a president to lie some of the time for political expediency, rather than most of the time for personal expediency.
The good old days, when the most egregious of a president’s lies led to courageous calls for impeachment, rather than sycophantic spells of silence.
I remember those days. It’s still hard to believe that they are gone. I yearn for them again.
On Soldiers At The Mexican Border.
We’ve got a drug problem.
We’ve got it here in Colorado. Prescription opioids and illegal narcotics. The director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Prevention said of the epidemic last week, “It’s getting worse, and it continues to grow.”
But there’s nothing unique about Colorado. We’ve got a drug problem all over America. Unless you live in a cave, you know that by now.
What we don’t have is a solution. Not to the opioid crisis, not to the flow of illegal drugs. Everyone knows that too, but President Trump would have us think otherwise.
President Trump would have us think his “big beautiful wall” at the Mexican border is a big part of the solution. And until it’s built with a price tag in the neighborhood of $18-billion (at Mexico’s expense, of course, to hear him tell it), soldiers sent to the border are the solution.
No they’re not. Dispatching them won’t be a total waste of money— their deterrent value alone might discourage drug smugglers from breaching the border. But the bigger picture is, drug producers south of the border— not just in Mexico, but well down into South America— have found all kinds of ways to get drugs into our country that aren’t carried across the border by a “mule” on foot.
A few years ago, I shot a documentary in Colombia about the drug war, focusing on the cartels that produce the drugs, and on the Colombian anti-narcotics army that the United States pays for, from helicopter gunships clear down to their lip balm. They are called the “Junglas,” and they are hardened by years of combat. We went along on raids in the steamy jungle, we set down under machine-gun fire in clearings ringed with land mines, we got chased by armed cartel criminals trying to save their illicit industry, we watched primitive drug labs go up in smoke. Yet when I came home to Colorado, I sure didn’t come home to a drug-free state.
It was all quite dangerous but, more important, revealing. In half a dozen Central and South American nations, drugs are big business. Take down a business over here, the bad guys just rebuild it over there.
But probably the most revealing single moment on the whole trip was during an interview within the safe walls of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. An American officer helping run anti-narcotic efforts in Latin America told me that when it comes to stopping the manufacture and movement of illegal drugs toward the United States, we only stay “this far ahead” of the bad guys. He squeezed his thumb and forefinger together as he said it. There was no light, zero, between them.
One case in point: the Drug Enforcement Administration took a camera crew and me to a coastline on the Pacific near the border with Ecuador to see a vessel they had captured, something they call a “one-way” boat. It’s not a submarine, but a “submersible,” visible only about a foot above the water’s surface, designed to smuggle up to ten tons of cocaine out of South America. Remember, that’s in just a single boat. Then, after its one-and-only trip, the submersible is trashed. But by that time, up to ten tons of cocaine are on their way to our nation. From just one submersible. There are hundreds each year that they don’t catch. Which leads to a lot of ruined lives in American cities. Including Denver.
But a lot of drugs don’t take that watery route. Cars and trucks coming north have them secreted in hidden compartments— sometimes ingeniously embedded in gas tanks, engines, tires. You’d have to tear every piece of the vehicle apart to discover them.
Drug exporters hide their product in the heads of dolls coming into the United States as children’s toys. They stick drugs in fruits and vegetables destined for our supermarkets but sidelined to remove the drugs before the journey is complete. They mix cocaine powder with resin used to make plastic deck furniture, then reverse the process and extract the drugs once the furniture has been imported to the U.S.
And of course, as you know if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie about drugs, they move them in by air.
Shortly before I left Colombia, a major in the anti-narco army asked me to tell the American people in my documentary, “We are doing all we can. But we cannot fight consumption in your country. You have to do that.” He was right. We have to fight it in Colorado, and every other state in the union.
Sorry to say, up to two thousand soldiers on our two-thousand mile border with Mexico aren’t going to pull it off. They will stop some drugs, but they won’t end the epidemic.
What in the world does Russia want?
Well, the answer is right there before your eyes. In fact it’s in the question itself: the world. Russia wants the world, or at least facets of the world it used to dominate before its predecessor, the Soviet Union, collapsed in ashes. But the bigger question that’s not so clear is, what can we do about it?
When I covered news from time to time in the Soviet Union, then returned several times after Russia was all that survived, people were clear about their goals: Russia wants power, influence, allies, respect. Russia wants a place at the table. Russia wants equal footing with its superpower rival, the United States of America. Attempt to assassinate a traitorous countryman, then lose a bunch of people from its diplomatic bases in the U.S.? It fits right in: Russia cannot be ignored.
That’s why you won’t see Vladimir Putin or anyone else there wearing a ball cap with the embroidered inscription, “Make America Great Again.” But “Make Russia Great Again?” That’s what they’re all about. Which is why, there are limits to what we can do about Russia. Punish it for its behavior? Sure. But change that behavior? Not so much.
On my last few visits, I made documentaries. One was about politics and Putin himself, namely, how he got away with slowly slashing the democratic liberties for which people there used to tell us back in the Soviet days they yearned, then briefly enjoyed after the Soviet demise… yet today, aren’t agitating to reclaim.
His technique was telling. He flourished the flag of nationalism. In and of itself, nationalism isn’t a bad thing: it means pride in your nation’s history, pride in its culture, pride in its achievements, pride in its power. As Americans we have a lot to be proud about. But so do the Russians. From their tenacity in World War Two to their talents in literature and art to their triumphs in the space race— they put a man in orbit before we put a man in space at all.
But more than anything, they are proud of the power they wielded in the world before the Soviet Empire disappeared. Back in the day, when the Soviet Union spoke, the world listened. And sometimes shuddered. What Putin has told his people for years now is, we were a superpower once, we will be a superpower again.
Can we change that? No. Neither isolation nor sanctions nor ousting diplomats will alter that uncompromising ambition.
In fact, the Russian people want superpower status so badly, they are willing to accept the semi-Soviet style state Putin has restored. There has been just one reliable polling agency in Russia— it’s called Levada (Putin had it designated as a “foreign agent,” so it couldn’t even do polling on this month’s election)— and the year before last, Levada asked Russians whether they would be willing to abandon Ukraine in exchange for an easing of sanctions against their country, which have enfeebled their economy. Three-quarters of respondents said no. These people are tough; they have endured worse. The year before that, they were asked to assess the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin. 40% responded that things under Stalin were “more good than bad.”
Which is just what Putin wants. Painting him as an iron-fisted dictator is not going to blunt the affection of his base.
This helps explain why Russia has become a covert combatant in cyberwarfare, a.k.a. hacking. Early this month the Trump administration accused Russia of targeting our utilities, not shutting them down but showing that they could. “From what we can see,” said a Symantec security expert, “they were there.” This is the arms race of the future, and Putin wants to be on the leading edge: disrupt, maybe destroy, an enemy’s energy grids, its transportation systems, its financial data and satellite traffic and information webs and communication networks and healthcare records, even its military complex. They could do it to us; we could do it to them. The threat is that one side strikes and the other sees no alternative but to raise the stakes. If that’s the new normal, it won’t melt buildings but it could melt the society on which they stand.
Melting ours, is just what Mr. Putin wants. The best we could do is retaliate. Which is lose-lose.
It helps explain why Russia has disrupted the election processes of sovereign nations, and not just ours. Sometimes with overt Russian support, nationalist parties in Europe, whose populist policies parrot Putin’s, have proliferated in longtime American allies from Italy to Germany, from Austria to Greece, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. Some are now governing their countries. This is Russia’s insidious way of reviving the Cold War contests for allies and alliances. It puts NATO in peril, which we see as defensive security but which Putin sees as an offensive threat. It weakens Europe, and what weakens Europe weakens us. It also weakens democracy as we define it.
But that’s just what Putin wants. A Putin advisor in Moscow once gave me his definition of democracy: “Just a system designed to undermine the leadership of a nation.” Another Kremlin politician told me, “When the Soviet Union fell apart, what did we get? Unemployment, corruption, inflation, crime. And the name for that was ‘democracy’.” We’re not going to change the minds of Russians by preaching democracy.
It helps explain why Russia has spent so much in Syria, risking global condemnation for war crimes, brutally bolstering a Syrian despot who drops blazing bombs on his people. Putin made a promise to President Assad that he would pull out all the stops to support his regime, and he kept his word. American intelligence sources say he has earned the respect of other Arab leaders for whom clenched fists are more important than human rights. For half a century, the United States has been the go-to nation all over the Middle East. Today, the Palestinians are proposing Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Moscow. Russia is a player again. And at our expense.
Which is just what Putin wants. And with American influence in the region waning, it’s too late to turn that ship.
Finally, it explains the new arms race. In an early March speech to his Parliament, President Putin bragged about a new intercontinental missile and a nuclear torpedo that he called “invincible,” able to outsmart every counter-defense the United States could throw into the sky. This reinforced the revelation by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that our primary focus today is “great power competition,” not terrorism. Forget for a moment that U.S. analysts believe Russia is years away from weapons like those that Putin described. He spoke like a superpower, and the world paid attention.
Which is just what the Russian people want. And short of a nuclear war, what the American people can’t do a whole lot about.
At a forum a few weeks ago in the city of Kaliningrad, President Putin was asked what he most would like to change in all of world history. His answer? “The collapse of the Soviet Union.” That’s why he presents himself to his population as their bold bulwark between superpower status and subservience, which people in Russia told me they call “Putinism.” It shows the world a Russia that must be feared. It reinstates a Russia that cannot be ignored.
That’s what Russia wants. And it’s working. No matter how we respond, Russia’s getting what it wants. Which means our actions are likely to be moot. And its behavior is not likely to change.
On Trump’s Trade War
I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.
President Trump is willing— in fact from the looks of things, President Trump is eager— for a trade war. Consider his tariffs, his disengagement the first week in office from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the 11 nations we abandoned, representing a market of half-a-billion people, just last week formalized their tariff-cutting trade alliance without us), his whole quixotic crusade for America First in a world where American supremacy is neither totally unchallenged anymore nor thoroughly respected.
What I don’t get is, why? If our economy were going down the tubes and we were desperate, I could see it. A last-ditch effort. A defensive counterpunch.
But does anyone see us going down the tubes? To the contrary, Mr. Trump inherited an economy on the upswing. And maybe partly to his credit, the upswing by and large has continued. At least in the short term, tax reform has put some wind in our sails, although the long term still portends higher deficits.
Look at unemployment. The president protests about losing jobs to foreign competition, but that’s fallacious on two fronts. First, the most authoritative study of the impact of foreign competition on American jobs, put out a little more than a year ago by Ball State University, concluded that 88-percent of U.S. workers who have lost their jobs were not replaced by cheap labor overseas. No, they were replaced by robots. In other words, automation. The study cited General Motors, which once had 600,000 factory workers but today has just a third that number… yet turns out more cars and trucks than ever.
Second, at the beginning of this year, unemployment in the U.S. just last month stood at its lowest point since the start of the new millennium: 4.1-percent. Compare that to almost 10-percent ten years ago during the recession. Another way to look at it is this: last month alone, the economy added 313,000 people to payrolls. The average American worker by the end of last year earned $24.57 per hour, up 40-cents an hour from the year before. We’re on a roll.
But we need a trade war, which might put that in jeopardy?
Look at the stock market. President Trump crows about the record levels it has reached on his watch. You could argue that he has less to crow about now, because once he announced his intransigent commitment to tariffs, it began to tank. But still, compared to when he took office, it has climbed roughly 25% and still is in record territory (although credit where credit is due: the market rose 150-percent under the watch of President Barack Obama, which gave Trump a lucky start).
But with so many Americans depending on the stock market for their nest eggs, we need a trade war?
Look at inflation. It has been at what economists call a “break-even” point ever since the recession. In layman’s terms, that means inflation has been almost inconsequential. But with tariffs, that changes. Tariffs might ultimately spur new production within our shores but that’s far from a sure thing and in the meantime, tariffs mean higher prices. Higher prices for anything in our country made from aluminum or steel, from a soup can to a car. And fewer items sold for export, once other nations slap their own retaliatory tariffs on American products. You can figure out the impact of that on our economy for yourself.
But a trade war is what we want?
Sure, for 30 years we have spent more on imports than we make on exports and we have a growing trade deficit right now. At more than $56-billion a year, it is the highest it has been in a decade. Inarguably it would be good for our economy if that figure came down. But the plurality of the trade deficit is due to the overheated export economy in China. Despite the president’s almost across-the-board application of tariffs, that isn’t going to go away.
Maybe the most comprehensive figure about the state of the American economy is this: it grew at the end of last year by 2.5-percent. That’s better than the year before. And better than the year before that.
But the president says, “I like conflict.” And just like that, he welcomes a trade war.
I like a healthy economy better than I like a hazardous conflict that puts it in peril. So I don’t get it. Or, considering the unanchored, uninformed, and sometimes unhinged behavior of Donald Trump, maybe I do.
If by now we haven’t won the war in Afghanistan, we’re not going to.
And heaven knows, even if our politicians and generals don’t, that while we haven’t conclusively lost the war, we surely haven’t won it. Which was hammered home— not for the first time— late last month. In four attacks over just nine days, more than 130 people were killed by terrorists. Some by the Taliban, some by ISIS. As if it matters.
They struck inside Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, they struck at an Afghan military complex, they struck in Save The Children’s offices in Jalalabad, and in the most lethal of the lot, they struck with a bomb-packed ambulance inside Kabul’s “ring of steel,” supposedly the most secure sector of the city.
But “most secure” in Afghanistan is only relative. Nothing there is secure. Not the capital, not the population, not the government. And not the U.S. mission, whatever it actually is today. That is the terrorists’ intent: to prove that nothing is secure, even after 16-plus years of costly American efforts— with a hundred-thousand troops there at the peak— to exterminate the terrorists and pacify the nation.
Who knows what President Trump might have said about Afghanistan in his State of the Union if not for those four murderous attacks, right on the eve of his address? As it turned out, although it now is America’s longest war ever, and although the president is shoring up the U.S. force back to about 15,000 troops, America’s longest and currently its biggest war rated just 34 words. Stirring words about “our warriors in Afghanistan” and “their heroic Afghan partners,” but none that actually pointed toward victory. That’s because victory is no closer now than it was at the outset. Yet for reasons that defy me, few in Washington are talking about us pulling out and going home.
They ought to examine the evidence instead of their egos. It is there, for all the world to see. Many just aren’t looking.
Exhibit A is simply Afghanistan’s anything-but-simple history. It has been invaded time and time again, beginning before the birth of Christ with Alexander the Great. Then Arabs, Mongols, the British, the Soviets. All swept through and for the most part, all were swept away. Now, with more than 2,200 American deaths already, it’s our turn.
Exhibit B is our own history, a history of mission creep. The original mission was noble, and necessary: we attacked in November, 2001, to rid Afghanistan of the vermin who attacked us on September 11th. The strategy? Annihilate the Taliban who were hosting al-Qaeda and leave Osama bin Laden’s savage soldiers without the safe haven from which they had planned the anti-American attacks. But that mission has come and gone. The latest intelligence concludes that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and ISIS, and others, now have safe havens in parts of more than two dozen countries on several continents. Whatever we eventually might accomplish in Afghanistan is now moot.
Exhibit C is what we should have learned in earlier wars about alien terrain: no matter how smart we are and how strong we feel, when we’re fighting in the enemy’s neighborhood, he has the advantage. That helps explain why we didn’t win in Vietnam or Iraq. The enemy has survived in his harsh environment since the beginning of time, he knows every nook and cranny when he has to hide, and he has friends around every corner. That is something basic training at Fort Benning can’t equal.
Exhibit D is what we should have learned in earlier wars about counterfeit confidence, which conjures up shades of Vietnam: “Peace is at hand” (except it wasn’t). And shades of Iraq: “Mission accomplished” (except it wasn’t). Now it’s President Trump saying of Afghanistan, “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” And, in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks, the general who leads U.S. Central Command being asked by reporters if victory in Afghanistan is still a possibility. His chillingly predictable answer? “Absolutely, absolutely.” Trouble is, previous presidents and previous commanding generals have been telling us that for 16 years now.
Exhibit E is something more personal, evidence I saw of the enemy’s culture and perseverance the very first time I set foot as a reporter in Afghanistan. It was December, 1979, just days after the Soviets invaded. For all the resistance I eventually saw the Mujahideen— the anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters— show against a superior Soviet military force, it was not as potent as what I learned one of those first few days on the ground. I watched two teams playing polo, swinging their mallets and galloping toward their opponents’ goals. But they weren’t swatting at a ball. They were swatting at the severed head of an enemy. It is an adulteration of an otherwise civilized game that dates back to Genghis Khan. And a metaphor that convinces you, the Afghans aren’t soft.
The Taliban today are from that same stock. They are tough, they are vicious, and they can bide their time. Like ISIS in other parts of the world, they don’t have to hold territory to win. They just have to hold a nation in the grips of their terror. The more than 130 people killed late last month are only the latest piece of proof that it works.
The other proof is, we’ve been fighting there for almost a generation. Yet still, nothing is secure. We haven’t lost, but we haven’t won. And positive public pronouncements notwithstanding, there’s no convincing sign that we ever will.
On Trump’s First Year
For a full year now, I’ve been taking notes. Almost every day. Notes about the Trump presidency.
It wasn’t easy, because before one story could play itself out, another replaced it. My notes became encyclopedically long. There’s a popular theory going around: Trump keeps up this pace so we can’t get preoccupied with any one bit of beastly behavior. Or any single atrocious act. It fast becomes yesterday’s news.
I don’t know if that theory is true or not but what we know for sure is that with just one year under his belt, Trump has redefined the presidency to fit his personality. And his temperament. And his ego. His own chief of staff John Kelly says, “He very seldom asks how other presidents did this.”
So a column of 700 words at the end of Trump’s first year doesn’t do it justice. Sure, he has gotten things done, although not nearly as much as he promised or, in keeping with his contempt for facts, as much as he claims.
But credit where credit is due, if you want to give it. Between cabinet-level appointments and strokes of the presidential pen, Trump has made moves to deregulate American society. Many businesses understandably welcome a looser rein. But what it actually means for most of us is the loss of everything from watchdogs protecting us against corporate misbehavior to provisions protecting us against dirty air.
Tax reform? We needed that, to be sure, but not at the expense of a (decidedly non-conservative) ballooning national debt. (And not at the expense, by the way, of charitable deductions, which I predict will cost our culture dearly.) Federal judgeships? Trump’s party crows about filling them at a record pace, including the vacancy on the Supreme Court. What they don’t mention is that the reason they’ve had so many to fill— including the high court— is that they unconscionably held up President Obama’s nominations for nearly a year until he was out of office. The stock market, which has shot up more than 25% in Trump’s first year? It was already on a roll under Obama, growing ten times that much (yes, 250%) during his presidency. ISIS melting down? That was underway before Trump got to town.
Meantime, from Africa to the Middle East to Europe to the Pacific Rim, President Trump has all but offered up for auction America’s once rewarding role as the world’s sole superpower. He has alienated foreign friends and embraced autocratic foes. He has handed our trade ties to China. And North Korea? A danger, for sure. But we had dangerous adversaries through the Cold War and learned, Cold beats Hot.
Bret Stephens, a longtime conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, now with The New York Times, recently recapped the president’s policy record: “Tax cuts. Deregulation. More for the military; less for the United Nations. The Islamic State crushed in its heartland. Assad hit with cruise missiles. Troops to Afghanistan. Arms for Ukraine. A tougher approach to North Korea. Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital. The Iran deal decertified. Title IX kangaroo courts on campus condemned. Yes to Keystone. No to Paris. Wall Street roaring and consumer confidence high.”
“What, for a conservative,” he went on, “is there to dislike?”
But he then answered his own question: “The character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public… matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.” Stephens cites Trump’s “lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness.” He fears that Trump “is empowering a conservative political culture that celebrates everything that patriotic Americans should fear: the cult of strength, open disdain for truthfulness, violent contempt for the Fourth Estate, hostility toward high culture and other types of ‘elitism,’ a penchant for conspiracy theories and, most dangerously, white-identity politics.”
Donald Trump’s personal friend Christopher Ruddy, Newsmax Media’s chief, says, “He’s transformed the bully pulpit like no other president. He’s made the presidency stronger.” But here’s the catch: by denigrating some indispensable democratic institutions— the judiciary, law enforcement, Congress, the media— he has made them weaker. And that’s just in his first year.
Look, I’ve covered news in more than 80 countries, on every continent (except Antarctica). Some, by my own reckoning, were “shithole countries.” There was corruption and filth and hostility in every direction. The phones didn’t work, the food made you sick, you had to break the law and risk arrest to even get the story.
But I confined my pronouncement of that private judgment to letters I sent home from the field. Certainly as a network news correspondent I never vocalized it publicly in any story, because what I said on TV was seen and heard by tens of millions of Americans. My words could have repercussions. But the impact that an assessment like “shithole countries” would have had coming from me obviously pales in comparison to its impact coming from the president of the United States.
Yet last week, commenting about nations in Africa, he allegedly said it anyway (and I use “allegedly” in fairness to the president’s dubious denial that he used those words, although frankly, with no one who was with him actually denying it, I have to conclude that where there’s smoke, there’s fire).
There are so many things wrong with Trump’s coarse comment. To begin with, it is thoroughly unbecoming of the most powerful man in the world, the man who holds the office from which our moral compasses are supposed to be set. (Needless to say though, he’s not the first to dishonor his high office. Exhibit “A” in modern times: Richard Nixon. Exhibit “B”: Bill Clinton.)
Second, it nullifies the sincerity of Trump’s scripted remarks just minutes after referring to “shithole countries” when, at a public ceremony, he signed a Martin Luther King Day proclamation: “Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.” Empty words, because they don’t square with the president’s public portrayal of black African nations as “shitholes.”
Third, it encourages hate groups (and in the case of Donald Trump, not for the first time). Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin wrote on his white supremacist Daily Stormer website that Trump’s words about African countries were “encouraging and refreshing” and indicate that the president “is more or less on the same page as us.” On Twitter, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke simply called them “perfect.” Trump’s words put him in league with the xenophobic ultranationalist leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria. Maybe this is the kind of company Donald Trump wants to keep, but it’s not the kind of company our country needs to keep.
Fourth, it perpetuates the pattern of eroding respect worldwide for the United States of America, which exacerbates our power to prevail, even with our allies, in today’s geopolitical environment. On the website CNN.com reporters interviewed several Americans they know to be Trump supporters. One of them, a truck driver in Youngstown, Ohio named Geno DiFabio, said of Trump’s language, “In the grand scheme… it’s not going to turn any supporter I know of from him.” Maybe not, but that misses the point: it can have critical consequences, turning more countries away from him, and away from us. Trump already has trashed NATO, maligned Mexico, slurred Pakistan, abandoned Asian trading partners to China, forsaken America’s mantle as a neutral negotiator in the Middle East, and not just incidentally, taunted a demagogic dictator with a nuclear bomb in his arsenal. Does the president think that by describing nations in Africa as “shithole countries,” he brings them into the American fold?
The big city newspaper where I live, The Denver Post, put it well in an editorial. American presidents, it wrote, “should appreciate the good fortune they inherited, through no action of their own, by simply being born in our great country.” South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham, who called Trump “unfit for office” during the campaign but now has an on-again off-again relationship with the president, put it even better: “America is an idea, not a race.” Graham added that his ancestors were immigrants themselves who came from “shithole countries with no skills.” Their descendant became a United States Senator.
By making his comment about “shithole countries” (and as if it couldn’t be more bizarre, making it in the very week when his mental fitness was being broadly debated), our “stable genius” of a president proves he doesn’t have a clue. “America First” doesn’t have to mean “America Only.” Except in Trump’s small-minded little world. Which puts our bigger world in peril.
On 2018’s First Week
“That Was the Week That Was” was a political satire on TV back in the 1960s. But after the week just behind us now, viewers in the ‘60s didn’t know the half of it.
In the one week that launched this new year, at a pace I wouldn’t have thought possible, the president came back to wintry Washington from the warmth of Florida and spread the chill to us all.
On his first working day alone, a savage storm of 16 tweets. He blasted Pakistan for its “lies & deceit,” which is true because Pakistan is a two-faced friend. But it’s also an ally which does share intelligence with us and despite its otherwise ambiguous attitude, also helps us fight terrorism. Now, maybe not so much. Already, China is moving into the void.
He blasted the Palestinians, complaining that “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED (sic) OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.” True too, but does he actually believe that by insulting them before the world, they’re going to become more amenable to America’s role as an even-handed Middle East peace negotiator rather than less? All he did was shoot another bullet in our own back… and, by the way, in his son-in-law’s back, Jared Kushner, whose mandate is to close that “toughest deal of all.”
And of course Trump went big button to bigger button with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, as if daring a madman to push his button first is an act of sanity.
It’s not. None of those rash reckless tweets made us stronger. Or safer. And that’s just one week overseas.
Here at home, the president again threatened to corrupt the independence of the Department of Justice (no surprise after asserting, “I have the absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department”), first tweeting about “Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid (sic),” Huma Abedin: “Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act?” Then later in the week we learned that although the FBI had previously closed the Clinton Foundation investigation for lack of evidence, at Trump’s insistence, they’re back at it.
And he prepared to publicize his vindictive picks for “Dishonesty & Bad Reporting” awards. As Libertarian Denver Post columnist Krista Kafer pointed out, he’s attempting to marginalize the people trying to hold him accountable. “This can’t be good,” she writes, “for democracy.”
Unabashedly in another tweet Trump even claimed credit for a fatality-free year in commercial American air travel: “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation.” Preposterous, because the safe streak dates back to 2013. Which inspired some amusing tweets in response, like, “We had no gas explosions in our house this year. Thank you, Mr. President for your hands-on leadership.…”
Maybe the most striking news last week though wasn’t from Trump, but about him. At the request of some members of Congress who are worried about his mental state, a Yale psychiatrist went to Washington and briefed them about Trump’s fitness to be president. Of course his press secretary called questions about the president’s mental health “disgraceful and laughable.”
But a lot of us aren’t laughing. A local psychiatrist talked to me recently— at his behest, not mine— and told me that while officially people in his profession can’t diagnose someone from afar, in the case of Donald Trump and his very public behavior, they know more about him than they know about some of their own patients. His self-loving weekend tweet that he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius” notwithstanding, the diagnosis that many mental health professionals have reached (and written about) is not just narcissism, which is about self-absorption and self-obsession (which any fool can see), but delusional thought disorder, which means he can’t distinguish his own delusions and fantasies from reality.
Which brings us, of course, to The Book, contents of which were released in the midst of all the other inanities of this one wild week. Like, Trump hasn’t read the Constitution. And barely reads anything at all. So let’s say just half of what’s reported in the book is true… or even a quarter… or, what the heck, let’s say just ten percent. Even that would be enough to disqualify this man from working in the Oval Office. My guess— and yes, I’m biased against this president— is that the accuracy quotient is higher than that, because every little tidbit merely affirms what anonymous aides have been quoted saying about their bombastic boss for the past year.
Note to Mr. Trump: this was the first tell-all book but it won’t be the last. Note to the rest of us: this was the first mortifying week of 2018. It won’t be the last.
On Trump and Russia
What’s that our President keeps saying? “Everybody knows that there was no collusion.” That’s his story about claims of collusion between his campaign and Russia, and he’s sticking to it. “There is absolutely no collusion, that’s been proven by every Democrat is saying it.”
Aside from his typically tortured syntax and his disregard for facts, that’s what Mr. Trump told The New York Times a few day after Christmas: “Everybody knows the answer already. There was no collusion.”
I repeat myself because the president repeated himself. 16 times in the Times interview he repeated himself. “Everybody knows that there is no collusion.” As if saying it often enough would convince the world that it’s true.
Sorry Mr. President, but “everybody” doesn’t know that and the world is not yet convinced. Not the Justice Department, not the House Intelligence Committee, not the Senate Intelligence Committee. Which are moving ahead with their investigations. Led in each case, by the way, by Republicans.
Of course we also don’t know that the allegation is false, but that’s the point. Both special counsel Robert Mueller— a Republican himself— and the committees in Congress are trying to find out. Until they do, whether Russia did or did not tamper with an American election to secure its desired outcome is an open question. As are the more damning questions for Trump: during the campaign, did he personally engage in criminal behavior, even indirectly, to win? And in the wake of his victory, was he guilty of obstruction of justice, if not something worse?
Now, since this is an opinion piece, here’s an opinion. By most impartial accounts, Robert Mueller is a straight-laced straight shooter. That’s something few would say about Donald Trump, whose relationship even with “the dishonest media” is stronger than his relationship with the truth. If there is no evidence of collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign, then there is no percentage for Mueller to keep chasing after it anyway.
Don’t forget, he already has brought up four Trump associates on criminal charges including two big names— former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. So far, his record is two convictions and two other pending indictments. Trump surrogates will argue that it all ends there. But the convictions were for lying to federal agents about contacts with Russians. Which raises the question, if there was nothing untoward about those contacts, why would they lie?
Robert Mueller isn’t just spinning his wheels and it doesn’t look like “it all ends there.” Apparently to stay out of prison, Flynn has agreed to answer whatever he is asked about the Trump campaign. Mueller has thousands of financial records and personal emails and other communications from the Trump team that could uncover a smoking gun, if there’s any smoke at all.
So don’t be fooled by the silence. The website FiveThirtyEight did a comparison of special counsel investigations over almost four decades and concluded that of those that produced criminal charges, “the first occurred more than a year, on average, after the special prosecutor was appointed— while Mueller’s investigation produced its first charges after less than five months.” The investigation is slow, it is methodical. But it is not standing still.
Of course disciples from Trump’s base are doing their best to discredit the special counsel and now they’re bringing up the Clinton campaign’s own shenanigans with Russia and yes, maybe there’s enough misconduct to go around. But don’t forget two things. First, Trump won the election, Clinton didn’t. So if there was any collusion, arguably it helped put Trump in the Oval Office and he’s the one who’s accountable. Second, all they’re trying to do is take your eyes off the ball. Don’t fall for it. Trump is the ball. He can deny collusion, he can call it all a witch hunt. But we won’t know until the investigation is complete. So far, as we launch into 2018, it appears it’s not even close.
On New Year Resolutions
New Year’s resolutions for 2018 are coming soon. Bah humbug. I’d rather recommend resolutions for other folks to make. Resolutions to change not just big stuff, but everyday annoyances. And this doesn’t even pertain to people in the world’s scariest spots like the Middle East. North Korea. The White House.
Take packaging. Please. Have you ever cut your fingers trying to get at what you just bought? Sure, if some purchases weren’t protected by prodigious panels of plastic, the thieves would have a heyday. But there’s something wrong if we need a chainsaw to cleanly cut something open, and a first aid kit to patch ourselves up. I’m told that there’s a tool distinctly designed to open profuse plastic packaging. I’d buy one… except I’d probably cut myself getting at it.
And shoelaces! Do the ends really have to be a foot longer than what you actually need to tie your shoes?
Then there’s brown sugar. Really! We can put a man on the moon— actually we’ve put twelve of them up there (including Alan Shepard, father of Evergreen’s own Laura Shepard Churchley)— but we can’t figure a way to keep brown sugar soft?
And airplane announcements. I was on a plane last month and the pilot was telling us something. Or at least he was talking, I’m sure of that. But no one could decipher what he was saying. Granted, I’d rather the plane’s critical components function flawlessly than the sound system but you have to wonder, if they can build engines to propel 200 tons of metal and fuel and people and pretzel packages thousands of miles through the sky, couldn’t they build speakers to push the pilot’s announcements three feet to our seats?
Like I said, not big stuff but everyday irritants.
Like the strobe lights on squad cars of the Colorado State Patrol. I love what you do, State Patrol, honest, but if the whole point of stopping law-breaking motorists is public safety, wouldn’t it be safer if the rest of us weren’t utterly blinded when you do it?
And litterbugs. It’s easy to understand how, in the‘50s and ‘60s, people thought they could throw everything from trash bags to beer cans to cigarette butts onto the side of the road. It was full of garbage anyway. But most of us have figured out since then that it’s unseemly and unsightly. Most, but not all. Every vehicle comes with an ashtray. If you didn’t know that, please find it.
How about servers in restaurants who grab your glass right around the rim when they’re refilling it? Excuse me, but that’s where my lips go!
And a “thank you” for a tip wouldn’t hurt. Coffee shop or gas station or anyplace else, sometimes the clerk clearly sees you dropping money in the tip jar. But says nothing (trust me, I’ve tested it). It’s a sad commentary that nowadays, the rare “thank you” stands out.
Now, a question to you: when’s the last time it really mattered whether a cashier gave you a couple of pennies change? The penny, sad to say, has outlived its usefulness. Especially when each cent now costs a cent-and-a-half to mint. Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, it’s time to retire.
Since all of this just amounts to a catalog of pet peeves, let me add another: vanilla. Yep, plain ol’ vanilla. I mean, why bother, if within a hundred miles there’s chocolate?
I grant you, we have more consequential challenges to our security and our sanity, like terrorism, and Trump. But wouldn’t it be nice if someone took care of the easy stuff?
On Peace in The Middle East
Just about everything of late that puts us in crisis mode— tensions with Russia, trade with China, even nukes in North Korea— will likely settle into a sustainable if new norm… if no one goes flat-out ballistic.
But not the Middle East. As a correspondent for two television networks, I covered the Middle East off and on for almost forty years. Not just the Hatfield-McCoy feuds that still fuel the burgeoning battles between Shiites and Sunnis, but the gulf between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Nine presidents now, clear back to Richard Nixon, have fiddled with that gulf. Eight of them learned the hard way that it is insurmountable. The ninth, with his official recognition now of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has only widened it.
But in the bigger picture, that is merely another blip on the radar screen, because the Palestinian-Israeli divide is a microcosm of the greater Middle East: a cauldron of competing cultures, competing beliefs, competing interests, competing ideologies, competing ambitions. Obviously religion is at the core of the region’s conflicts. Then add power, fanaticism, and bragging rights.
Yet in my firsthand experience there, history plays the biggest role of all. You can’t change history, you can’t erase it. You can put it aside of course, which is how South Africa came together after apartheid and, for that matter, how the United States reconciled after the Civil War. But in the Middle East they don’t ignore history. To the contrary, it drives them to this day.
I covered the first Gulf War, for example, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s. Saddam was a nationalist who believed that because modern Kuwait (and its wealth of oil) sits on land that once was part of the ancient pre-Iraqi Babylonian Empire, by rights it should once again be part of Iraq. Twenty to thirty thousand people died in that one.
I covered barbaric battles in the Iran-Iraq War in what was basically a border dispute that had been in play for four centuries. That one dragged on for eight years in the 1980s. An estimated million people died, yet at the end of the day, neither side’s borders shifted a single inch.
Maybe most stupefying is the ongoing and incessant clash between Sunnis and Shiites, which I covered all over the Middle East. The conflict dates back a mere 1,400 years to the death of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and, albeit a simplification, it comes down to who should have inherited Mohammad’s mantle of leadership after he died? Talk about a grudge! It’s behind the deaths of millions in all the centuries since.
And history is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Which makes resolution particularly perplexing because each faction believes it has history on its side. From control of ancient sites in Jerusalem to control of land that at one time or another has been occupied by both Muslims and Jews, the argument comes down to whose history carries more weight?
In language unique to our current president, Mr. Trump has called an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement “one of the toughest deals of all.” How tough? Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor with Middle East Peace in his protruding portfolio, told some Congressional interns last summer that he doesn’t know if the United States has anything new and unique to offer. So far, at least, we haven’t seen much to change that assessment.
That’s discouraging, but realistic. And part of a pessimistic assessment of the future: there is nothing new to offer on the intractable core issues that have always divided Israel and the Palestinians; there is even more hostility alienating the antagonists now than in years past; and there is even more instability in the region overall. So unlike Russia and China and North Korea, the chasm between Palestinians and Israelis might be a foreign crisis that just keeps coming. The whole Middle East might be.
People are going to die, Mr. President. They might be Arab protestors, they might be Israeli soldiers, they might be American diplomats. And they might just be bystanders, American or Israeli or Arab or otherwise, unwittingly ambushed in the eternal enmity of the Middle East. But some are going to die.
That seems like the inescapable outcome of your resolve to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Of course it has been the capital of the Jewish state since its birth, we already know that. And personally, I’m happy for the Israeli people. As the president said, Jerusalem is the home of Israel’s parliament, its prime minister, its supreme court. On every working trip I ever took to Israel, I accomplished everything from credentials to interviews with government leaders in Jerusalem.
But while President Trump called his decision a “recognition of reality,” let me tell you about the reality on the ground. Or maybe you should hear it from Jordan’s King Abdullah, arguably the most pro-Western ruler in the whole region: “The adoption of this resolution will have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East.”
A longtime leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. a woman I used to deal with named Hanan Ashrawi who in the past has been a genuine partner in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, calls Trump’s declaration “the total annihilation of any chances of peace.” And a recipe for bloodshed, which gets us closer to the ground itself. “To people who are looking for an excuse,” she says, “this would be a ready-made excuse.”
Sure enough, the Gaza-based terror group Hamas has urged Palestinians to “incite an uprising in Jerusalem.” That, Mr. President, is the reality. One Hamas heavyweight warned of the president inflaming anti-American animus. It’s hard to argue with his logic when he says, “I don’t understand why he wants to antagonize over a billion Muslims around the world.”
So the reality is, while Israel is America’s most democratic and dependable ally in the Middle East, we might win a moral victory but ultimately enfeeble the partner we want to help. Because by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, we are squandering the peacemaking capital of the United States. You want to strike what you’ve called “the ultimate deal,” Mr. President? How can you possibly negotiate that deal now, after you’ve only deepened the doubts people already had about our incorruptible impartiality as a broker of peace? If a peace pact is the ultimate deal, you might have just erected the ultimate roadblock to achieving it.
It wasn’t going to be easy in the first place. For as long as I covered the attempts of several presidents to achieve peace, there were four so-called “core issues” that stood in the way, and the most emotionally charged of them all was ownership of Jerusalem. So now, instead of leaving it on the table as a do-or-die bargaining chip, we’re just handing it to one of the antagonists and blowing off the other?
Your own son-in-law, who you anointed as your Middle East negotiator, seems to understand the equation for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “If we’re going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole,” he said just last weekend, “you have to solve this issue.” The point is, declaring that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, whether it’s true or not, doesn’t solve the issue. It exacerbates it. You said in your speech that keeping our embassy out of Jerusalem has put us “no closer to a lasting peace.” But antagonizing over a billion Muslims does?
What’s more, this isn’t going to open the floodgates for other influential countries to follow suit. All it’s going to do is give the disaffected an excuse to unleash more violence against us. And diminish our ability to serve as an honest broker. As King Abdullah said, it “will undermine the efforts of the American administration to resume the peace process.”
Of course I could be wrong about all this. Maybe the Palestinians will see what’s happened and decide to negotiate for half-a-loaf before the loaf is altogether gone. Maybe Israel will be so grateful to the president that they’ll make concessions on other issues if peace talks restart. But I wouldn’t bet a dime on any of that.
Every time I ever went to Jerusalem I could see why, clear back to the days of the Roman Empire and the Crusades, armies have fought to control it. It is the Holy City, sacred to Jews, to Muslims, and lest we forget, to Christians across the world. The reality is, it doesn’t really matter right now whose claim to Jerusalem as their capital is morally, historically, or just plain realistically right. The reality of President Trump’s declaration, although I hope I’m wrong, is that people are going to die. And peace is going to be even harder to pull off than before.
Our world scares us in a new way every day.
For those of us who lived through it, the Cold War scared us. We dived under our desks during drills when air raid sirens sounded at school. We built shelters underground when Soviet missiles menaced from Cuba. But that wound down a quarter century ago. The enemy collapsed. We could breathe easy. The threat was over. Our world was safe.
That was so 20th Century. What replaced the Cold War became even scarier: terrorism. It became the new normal. And it has become increasingly complicated to combat.
The early threats of terror were scary enough. But at least, over the two decades during which I covered the Middle East, we knew who the terrorists were. They were the ones with machine guns in their arms or dynamite strapped to their chests.
Not so much any more. As we saw in Manhattan on Halloween, now they are the ones with a steering wheel between their hands. They’ve made the truck a tool of terrorism. Which as a weapon makes it invincible. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton delivered this dose of reality after Manhattan: “We cannot prevent everything, everywhere.” No matter where we live. No matter where we travel.
This comes as no surprise to terrorist experts. Back in 2010, Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire ran an article with the ominous title, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” counseling that a truck is meant “not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” It instructed terrorists to “pick up as much speed as you can… to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
Also, in the early days, especially if we spent time in the Middle East, we knew who was directing the terrorists. Orders to foot soldiers came down from the top of the pyramid, whether it was a government chief or a military commander or the leader of a militant group like the PLO.
Not any more. Not since the Arab Spring almost seven years ago. Middle Eastern presidents and potentates had eyes and ears on every street corner in town, yet they didn’t see it coming. That’s because of the internet, which sometimes serves the purpose of good, but also is employed more and more as an instrument for evil. Radical Palestinians have used it to prompt stabbing attacks against Israelis with the hashtag #KillTheJew. ISIS has used it to recruit fanatical fighters.
So it’s no surprise that investigators found almost 4,000 pieces of ISIS propaganda on the cell phone of Manhattan’s bike path terrorist. Today orders don’t descend from on high. They travel anonymously and uncensored at the speed of gigabytes. And sometimes unseen, until it’s too late.
Now, the newest threat to our peace of mind, let alone our security, comes not from terrorists but from legitimate governments, several of which are feverishly working to create a “quantum computer,” or as the Washington-based Hudson Institute defined it last month, “The computer that could rule the world.” Basically it would be a computer with unprecedented speed and power to decrypt darned near anything. Or to put it in language more of us can understand, to hack darned near anything.
Forget your Target credit card or your Yahoo account or your Equifax credit report. Those are just the hors d’oeuvres. An enemy’s quantum computer could hack our nation’s very infrastructure. It could disrupt, maybe even ruin, our energy grids, our financial records, our transportation systems, our information networks, our health care connections, even our military communications. As the Hudson Institute warned in a report, “Imagine a thousand Equifax breaches happening at once.”
If it comes to that, traditional terrorism might seem like yesterday’s news. And so might the arms race. Because our most consequential competition with adversaries like China and Russia won’t be to have the best bombs any more. It’ll be to have the best computers. This is the next new normal.
We already know we’ve been hacked by adversaries. And we’ve hacked them. The threat is that one side escalates. Then the other follows. The new normal is not your father’s Cold War. It won’t melt buildings. But it could melt the society on which they stand.
On The New Normal
Whether as kids we lived in a close-knit community here in Colorado or a big city elsewhere, the Cold War scared us. That was our normal. Now, a quarter-century after that war wound down, we live with a new war. New threats. A new normal. The Halloween slaughter by an Islamic terrorist on a Manhattan bike path made us conscious of it yet again. No matter where we live.
One new threat is, a truck as a tool of terrorism. We learned about that in July last year when a truck-driving terrorist ran down more than 500 people celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice. 86 innocents died. Then in Berlin. 12 dead. This year, a vehicle attack in Barcelona, two in London. Now, New York City.
This comes as no surprise to terrorist experts. Back in 2010, Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire ran an article with the ominous title, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” counseling that a truck is meant “not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” It instructed terrorists to “pick up as much speed as you can… to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
Which takes us to the second threat: the internet. It still serves the purpose of good but increasingly it also is employed as an instrument for evil. Radical Palestinians used it to prompt stabbing attacks against Israelis with the hashtag #KillTheJew. ISIS used it to recruit fanatical fighters.
So it’s no surprise that investigators found almost 4,000 pieces of ISIS propaganda on the cell phone of the bike path terrorist. In the decades I covered the Middle East, orders to foot soldiers came down from the top of the pyramid. Now they travel on the internet. Uncensored, and sometimes unseen, until it’s too late.
The third threat is, we have to live with this. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton delivered this dose of reality after Manhattan: “We cannot prevent everything, everywhere.” No matter where we live. No matter where we travel.
And finally, although sad to say, we saw in the aftermath of Manhattan the threats posed by the president’s worst instincts. First came his call for the death penalty. Personally, I would escort the terrorist into the death chamber myself. But did Mr. Trump learn nothing from his ill-chosen words last year when he demanded death for Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army sergeant who deserted in Afghanistan and ended up a Taliban prisoner? At Bergdahl’s trial which ended just this month, the presiding judge said he would have to take Trump’s imprudence into account in the sentence he’d serve up. Apparently he did. Bergdahl won’t spend another day behind bars.
Now, has the president imprudently influenced an outcome again? He leads the government that will prosecute the Manhattan terrorist. Does he have no understanding of how his words can impact the process? Mr. Trump has the same First Amendment rights as the rest of us. But having the right to make prejudicial remarks, and having the wisdom not to, are two different things.
What’s more, the president showed us how little he cares about actual facts. He restated his plan for stiffer border security, even though the attacker’s home country hasn’t played any role in that plan and even though, back in March, Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security said in a report, “Most foreign-born, U.S.-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States.”
It’s all part of the new normal. Which is the scariest part of all.
On Sifting Through The Ashes
Where do we even start?
For people in Northern California right now who’ve been sifting through the ashes of their lives, that’s what they’ve got to be asking: Where do we start? How do we begin to rebuild? When will we ever again feel normal? And our question here in the high country of Colorado is, will we ever have to ask something similar ourselves?
At every catastrophe I’ve ever covered as a journalist— whether fire or flood, upheaval from an earthquake or convulsion from a war— sometimes survivors stand up above the ruins with their children on their shoulders and their shirts on their backs and little more. Not only do their communities look like war zones; they themselves look like refugees from a war.
And yes, many start by sifting. I saw it after Hurricane Katrina, where I met families calmly sifting through the debris of their houses to salvage a toy or two for their kids. I also saw it after a cataclysmic earthquake in Yemen, where the search was far more frantic: families were sifting through the rubble of their dwellings for the remains of their kids.
It’s almost always happening, somewhere. A wire service report in the wake of the truck bomb that killed hundreds last month in Mogadishu describes “desperate relatives (digging) through the rubble with their bare hands in search of scores said to be missing.”
It can give survivors comfort or closure or simply more heartache. It doesn’t necessarily give them a new start.
At least, though, whether in California or Colorado, we have an edge. Because there are differences between loss in our nation and loss elsewhere. I’ve covered catastrophes abroad— from Beirut to Baghdad to Belfast to the Palestinian Territories— where whenever I went back, even years after the dust settled, rubble still sat in place. Here in America, people do get up and clean up and find some way to start all over again. It is part of a quality that’s hard to define but you know it when you see it: the indomitable American spirit.
Of course another difference is, we have resources that most nations don’t have. Not just money, but another quality of the American spirit: the spirit of giving. In my experience, most countries have little culture of charity and less of volunteerism. Here we do. From service clubs to outreach organizations to churches to the newest form of helping our fellow citizens, GoFundMe pages. And from what I’ve seen in my thirty-plus years in Evergreen, the culture is even stronger in our mountain communities than it is in metro Denver. Not to mention national aid organizations like The Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
In the aftermath of disasters, I’ve seen agencies like these responding within hours. People need water? Done. Baby formula? Done. Underclothes? Done. Shelter? Done. American refugees don’t live for years on a dirt floor with only a tent to protect them from the elements. And when it comes to the big picture of shattered infrastructure, some of the money raised for disaster relief typically is set aside to fix that too. Eventually, after this season of hurricanes, you’ll see it in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico. It just won’t be obvious until the people themselves are secure.
We can understand why someone in fire-ravaged Santa Rosa today would be asking the same question we would ask here: “Where do we even start?” But someone tomorrow will have an answer. In other parts of the world, it’s an answer they wouldn’t always get.
On John McCain
It must be nice to be John McCain. Not because he’s battling brain cancer. Not because he bears the scars of a POW. And not because he brooks the barbs of his own party’s president. But it must be nice to feel liberated. To break from political patterns and say what you think must be said, damn the president and damn the consequences.
That would explain why Arizona’s senior senator recently told an audience at a ceremony honoring him in Philadelphia, “We live in a land made of ideals… We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.”
Senator McCain, like former president George W. Bush just a few days later, never mentioned the name of the president in his sermon about the sorry state of U.S. policies and politics, but we all know who was on the receiving end of his oration about America. As if the man was even listening.
Personally, I never met McCain before I covered part of his run for President. I’d known only three things about him. He was a genuine American war hero, he was a solid conservative, and he had a sturdy streak of independence.
Then came the campaign in 2008. It was the first time I’d ever seen the man face-to-face. He was a nice guy. One day when I was set up to interview him, McCain asked almost as many questions about me as I asked about him.
He won the nomination but lost the election. And the nice guy turned bitter. For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, if Obama said yes, McCain said no. If Obama said day, McCain said night.
I didn’t lose my respect for the senator’s painful and courageous military service, but I lost my respect for his long-daunted streak of independence. He seemed driven only by one thing: revenge against his triumphant antagonist.
That was then. This is now. John McCain has earned respect again. Big time. Not just because of his dramatic thumbs-down vote in late July on the repeal of Obamacare, when he bolted from his party’s line and complied with his conscience. But because of what he said on the Senate floor shortly before that vote, lamenting the intensifying state of stalemate in Washington: “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.” After 30 years in the Senate, it was John McCain at his finest, because it held messages for all of us, although none more than McCain’s colleagues, on both sides of the aisle.
Then Arizona’s senior senator elaborated in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Once again, it was the best of McCain. Once again, he sent a message to his peers: “We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important. That’s not how we were meant to govern… We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.”
Watching the inertia in Washington for many years now and sometimes covering it, I can only wonder, how can anyone argue with that? How can anyone believe that conflict over political principles is more productive than consensus on our country’s core concerns? The experience of his years, and perhaps the reality of his cancer, have made McCain wiser. “Both sides have let this happen,” McCain told his beloved Senate. “Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline.”
And then he showed how big a man he truly has become. “Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason… Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
It is a long time since the American Congress has been overburdened with benevolent rhetoric and humble thinking and noble men.
It is high time to turn that around. John McCain has done his part. Now it’s up to everyone else.
Just because we’ve dodged some bullets over the years here in Evergreen, we’re not immune to fires. Fires like we’ve just seen in Northern California. Fires that flatten everything in their path. And kill people in the process. This year they were out west. Next year they could be in our own backyards.
We’ve always lived here with the threat of fires, so we’re pretty good about mitigation— trimming limbs too close to the house, cutting down dead trees, raking up dead leaves, replacing wooden shingles with something synthetic. But in a perfect storm of fire-friendly conditions, that won’t save us. Most of the homes ravaged in Santa Rosa were suburban, not exurban. There really wasn’t even a whole lot to mitigate. They had trees, but not as big or dense as ours. Their ground cover was mainly manicured, not wild like ours. There is more fuel to feed the flames here, than there.
Ever since the Hayman fire 15 years ago between Denver and Colorado Springs, which was the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of our state and looked for a time like it could send sparks and fan flames in our direction, I for one have never complained about rain or snow. We’re safer when the subsoil is wet than tinderbox dry. However, we don’t get to choose the timing, as people learned all too well around both Colorado Springs and Fort Collins in 2012 and 2013. Several died, 1,100 homes burned down.
As I read news coverage of the devastation in Santa Rosa, I thought back to two massive fires I covered many years ago, both also in California. One was in the hills of Santa Barbara, where wind whipped a small fire into a frenzy and just like Santa Rosa, the flames ran so fast that people had just minutes to escape. Hundreds of homes were leveled.
The third day after, my camera crew and I went looking for refugees. On a beach, we found a woman and three little kids, with a station wagon nearby. I asked her to tell me about her escape.
She said a police car with a loudspeaker had warned, Get out and get out fast. What did she do then? “I got my kids and grabbed the stuff I need the most and piled everything into the car and barely got out in time.” When I asked what “stuff” she had saved, she broke into sobs and just pointed. At the station wagon. I looked inside. There was her vacuum cleaner. Her toaster. Her coffee pot. Stuff she could replace any day of the week. She had panicked, as many of us would, and thought only about what she used a lot, not what she loved a lot. Her scrapbooks, her jewelry, her records of life itself, all were now ashes.
The other fire was around the town of Grass Valley. A camera crew and I were helicoptering in but before we got to town, we set down on the two-lane highway leading out, because we’d spotted a stack of cars almost melted together in a single heap. Everyone had tried to evacuate at once, which led to a traffic jam, which led to a chain-collision. The flames came so fast, people got out and ran. Their cars were incinerated.
There are lessons here. Before you panic, plan ahead of time what you’ll take, and have it ready to pack in your car. And, plan your evacuation route. More than one in fact. And don’t wait too long. Fires move faster than you think.
We’re not immune.
Twitter might not yet be a big moneymaker, but it sure has turned into a big troublemaker.
This twist in the tenor of Twitter, which was born as a harmless social network, doesn’t require profound analysis. Just two words: Donald Trump, a leading-edge baby boomer who has taken to this new channel of communication with relish. Trump tweets to brag and bamboozle, to berate and belittle, to proclaim that news is fake and wars are forthcoming.
The past week proves the point. When he evidently got up on the wrong side of the bed Sunday morning a week ago, the president let loose on retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who had said of the Trump presidency, “I think Secretary (of State) Tillerson, (Defense) Secretary James Mattis and (White House) chief of staff (John) Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos.”
Them’s fightin’ words if you’re the Tweeter-in-Chief (and creator of chaos). Trump’s first tweet across the bow: “Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee. I said ‘NO’.” The second one: “He also wanted to be Secretary of State, I said ‘NO THANKS’.” Then, “Didn’t have the guts to run!” And the final foray in the fusillade: “Bob Corker gave us the Iran Deal, & that’s about it.” I thought it was Barack Obama, but apparently alternative facts say otherwise.
Corker, though, got off the most toxic tweet when he shot back, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” Funny how Trump manages to turn certain Republicans some of us never much liked into political heroes.
Funny, too, how his older son Don Junior proves the adage— admittedly adulterated— that the twit doesn’t fall far from the tweet. Young Trump’s own tweet last weekend— after Vice President Pence left a football game to protest players still taking a knee during the national anthem— raises the question, does any American alive have less legitimacy to proclaim, “After almost a decade it’s great to have leaders who have pride in our country again.”
The answer is no, because this is the same young Trump who had so much pride in our country himself during the American presidential campaign that he welcomed Russian collusion to help Dad win. You remember how reluctant he was to swallow his patriotic pride and take that help, don’t you? Three words, all his: “I love it.”
Then there is hurricane-leveled Puerto Rico, beginning with Trump’s tirade of tweets angrily attacking San Juan’s mayor after she complained, “We’re dying here” and begged for more help from Washington. The president’s tactful tweet in response? “Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan.” And apparently that didn’t sate his appetite for tweeting. Just a few days ago he poured more fuel on the fire: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Maybe we can’t, but is this really the kind of thing you tell American citizens when most still have no electricity, no health care, no clean water to drink, and a death toll that keeps going up? (And especially when you haven’t said the same thing to hurricane victims in places like Florida and Texas.)
The president’s proclivity for tweeting has propagated like cancer, although only selectively. A chart published a few days ago showed that while those frightful wildfires were destroying lives and homes and livelihoods in Northern California, Trump never tweeted about them even once… but transmitted three more tweets insulting Senator Corker. And if you filter out the slaughter the week before in Las Vegas, the rest of the news that week came in bursts of 140 characters or less. The most alarming: Trump’s tweet that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is “wasting his time” looking for a way out of war by negotiating with North Korea. Is Twitter really the place to undercut your own chief diplomat?
The president’s Twitter account itself is suspect. He now claims something like 40 million followers. I use “claims” because if you take the time to Google “Trump twitter account,” you’ll find all kinds of stories about Team Trump electronically creating millions of fake accounts— nearly half the total, according to Newsweek. If true, it’s just to give Trump bragging rights, and that’s not fake news.
But it doesn’t really matter how many followers the man has. He only needs a few hundred: the journalists who cover all things Trump, because Twitter is how the president usually chooses to make news and make trouble, and there’s no ignoring how much he makes.
That’s why now, when you think of Twitter, inevitably you think of Donald Trump. And inescapably you think of trouble. But it’s all quite presidential. Trump has told us that. In tweets.
On Guns and How Nothing Changes
It’s madness. Total madness. No one has to spotlight the madness in the massacre in Las Vegas. But there’s also madness in the reactions of politicians who already were telling us last week, when the blood had hardly even dried, that when it comes to reasonable proposals to regulate rapid-fire rifles, there’s nothing to talk about.
Sure, some senior members of Congress and even, shocker of shockers, the NRA have conceded that maybe a ban on “bump stocks”— the devices that make assault rifles even deadlier— is prudent. Hallelujah. This means even longtime arms acolytes are asking, might fewer have died in Vegas if the killer could release, say, only two rounds per second instead of nine?
How could anyone argue that this is not worth considering?
But some still will, and that’s what even a modest modification of gun regulation will be up against. Like the hollow arguments we heard the day after Vegas: first, we shouldn’t politicize bloodbaths. Second, we can’t prevent bloodbaths. The same arguments we also heard the day after Orlando, the day after San Bernardino, the day after Aurora, the day after Virginia Tech, the day after Newtown.
Newsflash: no one’s contending that we can prevent bloodbaths. Evil is beyond regulation or legislation. What some do contend, though, is that we can reduce the breadth of the bloodbaths. And such easy access to the weapons that trigger them.
The poster boys for hollow thinking this time were the two United States senators from Louisiana. Bill Cassidy assured us, “There’s not going to be a single law which stops somebody determined to do something bad.” The flaw in that? True, nothing will stop everybody. But somebody? Yes, a single law could do that.
Cassidy’s colleague John Kennedy then rode shotgun: “It’s about ultimately getting rid of the 2nd Amendment.” That’s the “camel’s nose under the tent” argument. Open the door just a bit, you’ll never again get it shut. But at risk of offending the animal kingdom, the “camel’s nose” argument is hogwash. Open the door only as wide as need be. Close it when the need has been met. The need, right now, is to make it harder to kill almost 60 people. From a hotel room in Las Vegas or anywhere else.
We won’t win any arguments with statistics. Gun control advocates cite constituencies where strong laws have curtailed gun violence. California proves their point. But opponents cite communities where where despite strong laws, the violence only gets worse. Chicago, or Washington DC, prove theirs. In Colorado, where I live, gun control laws fall somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. So do our statistics for gun violence.
So instead, ask this: if more guns, and more lethal guns, really made us safer, which is the fantasy forwarded by guns rights groups, we would be the safest nation on earth. We’re not. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we have almost a third of its mass murders. And semi-automatic assault rifles are the mass murderers’ weapons of choice.
Granted, the right to bear arms is settled law in our country. So be it. But it’s at loggerheads with another cherished right from our Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Which means, today, the right not to be mowed down by an armed maniac.
Of course the genie’s out of the bottle— the guns are out there, everywhere, and it’s too late to get them back. But how can anyone argue that keeping more deadly devices out of the marketplace won’t mitigate the madness?
Gun owners plead, “Hey, I hunt,” or “My sport is target practice,” or “I have a right to protect my home.” Valid arguments for sure. But not against limits on some level. Hunting is fine, but you don’t need to do it with a tank, so we can’t own tanks. Target practice is fine, but you don’t need to lob a grenade at a target, so we can’t own grenades. And protecting your home is fine, but do you need an AR-15 with a bump stock to do it?
On North Korea
Can we agree on one thing about the hostility between the United States and North Korea? A cold war is better than a hot one. Just like wisely-chosen words are better than red-line threats.
Yes, sometimes a hot war is inevitable and imperative. But when it comes to our own American interests, a cold war protects our military from costly casualties, our economy from catastrophic trauma, and our security from irrevocable attack.
And now, we need to consider another element in the war heating up with North Korea: South Korea. South Korea already had its own hot war, with the United States as its ally. Against North Korea, with China and the Soviet Union as its allies.
That Korean War in the early 1950s lasted for three years. South Korea’s capital itself, Seoul, changed hands four times. Half-a-million South Koreans died. And more than 200,000 North Koreans. Along with 33,000 Americans, and up to 400,000 Chinese.
At the conclusion of all that carnage, all anyone ended up with was Koreans pointing weapons at fellow Koreans. As they do to this very day.
So South Korea’s own reactions to today’s raging rhetoric should matter.
South Korea’s president issued a statement last week after President Trump’s United Nations speech threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” saying that “denuclearization is the only way to the future through utmost sanctions and pressure.” That’s hardly an endorsement of all-out war.
And there’s South Korea’s statement earlier this month that its top interest is to ensure that it will never again experience the devastation it once endured. Stratfor geopolitical analyst George Friedman’s conclusion? “Given a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.” Or as a FoxNews defense analyst put it, “A war with North Korea would be hell— And the aftermath even worse.”
So did it really help when the president of the United States mocked the dictator from North Korea at the U.N.? Sure, the epithet “Rocket Man” can give us a good laugh, but since we don’t really know if the guy’s crazy or not, then we also don’t know whether that’s enough to push him eventually over the edge and propel him to go on the attack. He sure seems to be heading that way.
And did it really get us closer to the safety and security we seek when President Trump threatened North Korea’s destruction on the world stage (in the world body established to enforce the peace, no less)? Kim Jong-un already knows we can do it, yet the first response from his government was hardly one of contrition; Trump, it said, sounded like “a barking dog.” Then Kim himself called Trump “mentally deranged.” Then this week his foreign minister claimed that North Korea has the right to shoot down American aircraft that are anywhere near his country.
An old colleague, Mort Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, recently wrote, “Saddam Hussein… or Muammar Qaddafi… ought to teach us something. Tyrants cannot let themselves back away from showdown, least of all Kim Jong-un. God help us all if he delivers a suicide note.” Cornered, he could.
It might become necessary to pulverize North Korea’s nuclear program before it sends a bomb streaking toward a Western ally, an American territory, or the United States itself. And granted, our options are few and from my own experience covering dictators, none is encouraging. Sanctions? In a nation where people’s prosperity has never been a priority, they haven’t made a difference yet. Diplomacy? As history goes, same story. Regime change comes with real risks of blowback. Pressure from China? There are hopeful signs, but when China weighs the dangers of a madman on its border against the prospect of American power on its border, the madman might win.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seem cast in the same impulsive, truculent mold. This is not to put Kim and Trump on the same moral plane. North Korea threatens to upset the peace. The United States aspires to uphold it. But if there’s a temperamental miscalculation by either man— leading to what a New York Times analysis called “a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado”— there is no turning back. Then, all of us will be the losers.
Hurricane Harvey hammering Houston. Then Irma inundating Florida. With Jose and Katia waiting in the wings.
While at the other end of America, a wave of wildfires (whose smoke we’ve suffered here) across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, California, even a handful close by in Colorado. My wife and I just got home from a seven-state road trip where almost all the way from Seattle to eastern Utah, we couldn’t see as far as a mile.
So I know that FEMA chief Brock Long was right the other day when he told NBC’s Tom Costello, “The important thing for the American public to understand is, nobody in the United States, regardless of who you are, is immune to disasters.”
Nobody is immune. Which I had spelled out for me twelve years ago after Hurricane Katrina. My cameraman and I, after several days in New Orleans, left to check out Biloxi, Mississippi, also on the Gulf Coast, where we had heard that the storm had either blown away or washed away or just flattened thousands of homes where they stood.
We heard right. As we roamed through the ruins, we came to a small house sitting askew upon a concrete slab and a young couple standing there staring at it. “Is this your house,” I asked. “No,” the woman answered, “It’s our slab, but it’s not our house.”
In another part of town we came across a single line of homes where every one had collapsed; the eaves of the roofs were knee-high. Three middle-aged brothers who owned them were climbing through the rubble, salvaging whatever property they could find intact and putting it in plastic bins to carry off.
I stopped one of them, a big man plastered with tattoos and sweating through his sleeveless undershirt. I asked if, as a boy, he had been there in 1969 for Hurricane Camille, which I covered early in my career when it blew Biloxi away. He had. I asked what had happened to his family’s home? It just disappeared. I asked what his family did about it? They rebuilt.
So now I knew, this guy already had lost two homes to hurricanes. Yet when I asked if he would rebuild again, with reasonable odds of yet a third total loss in his lifetime, he said he would. Incredulous, I asked why? I expected him to tell me it’s because of family and friends and the only place he ever knew but instead, without missing a beat, he answered my question with one of his own: “Where you from?” I responded, “Originally, San Francisco.” He said, “Don’t you have earthquakes in San Francisco?” Then, noticing that I had said “originally,” he asked, “Where you live now?” “Colorado.” “Don’t y’all have wildfires in Colorado?”
We sure do. In 2012 and 2013, between Colorado Springs and Ft. Collins, fires killed several Coloradans and destroyed 1,100 homes. People from other parts of the country can be excused for wondering why we’d live here. Let alone why anyone would rebuild, once Mother Nature served up a warning.
Then again, I’ve wondered the very same thing over the years when reporting on rivers that overflowed and flooded communities from North Dakota to Mississippi, or when covering tornados that tore towns to shreds from Ohio to Oklahoma. And that doesn’t even include other lethal oddities of Mother Nature, like the hail storm we had here last May that destroyed homes and cars, even the Colorado Mills shopping mall in Lakewood which put many people out of work.
It all reminds me of the timeless line from heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis when he said of his opponent in an upcoming title match, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” Hurricanes and tornados, fires and floods, earthquakes and hail storms. If one doesn’t get you, the other might. No one, regardless of who you are, is immune.
On Houston and Katrina
Houston has been a story of paralysis: the paralysis of an entire American city. That is what we’ve seen on television.
Harder to see is the more intimate story, really the more important story. It is the same story I reported a dozen years ago almost to the day, and day after day, from Hurricane Katrina. It is the story of uncounted thousands of Americans who are now refugees. The story of citizens who worked at their jobs and sheltered their kids and paid their bills and never expected to be homeless, yet now they are.
And not just homeless, but hopeless. So many people’s houses were under water. Places of business and employment were under water. Grocery stores were under water. Schools were under water.
And roads. But roads weren’t a huge issue for some any more. Their cars were under water too. So they had no easy way to go back to their homes.
Even worse, thousands had no homes to return to, or at the very least, when the waters receded, homes that were not just wet but hip-deep in malodorous mud and mold. And with so many businesses closed, no way to work. No way to earn an income. No way to pay their bills.
That became the story of Houston, as it was the story of New Orleans.
I’ll never forget how a wide band of the Gulf Coast felt like a war zone. The difference? In war zones I’ve covered, people are trying to get away from fighting. In hurricane zones, they are trying to get away from water.
Sometimes clutching their children on their shoulders and in their arms. With only their own wet clothes on their backs.
Yet in the aftermath of Katrina and amidst the wrath of a dozen other natural disasters I’ve seen over the years, people show an unsinkable spirit. Having lost every material possession, enough to drive most of us to grief-stricken sobs, typically they’ll say something along the lines of, “We still have the only things that really matter: the people we love, and the people who love us.”
Houston became a story about the goodness of people. Not just the victims, but those who moved heaven and earth to help them. At Katrina, my cameraman and I spent the very first day after the wind stopped blowing in what became the infamous Lower Ninth Ward, the poor black area where the levee broke.We spent it in a swamp boat, piloted by two men who’d driven all night from northern Louisiana just to help wherever and however they could. We rescued people from rooftops after they’d punched holes through the tiles to stay above the water that chased them to their attics.
Such saints also surfaced in Houston. The Denver Post ran a story about them, the “Cajun Navy,” boatmen who a local filmmaker described like this: “They don’t care if they’re wet, or how hot you are, or how bad you smell.” These are angels from the region who rowed to the rescue.
But between New Orleans and Houston, there also were differences. The Superdome in New Orleans was just as foul and fetid for refugees as you’ve heard. I haven’t heard of anything even close in Houston.
We happened to be at the convention center in New Orleans when the very first National Guard troops entered the city. It was the fourth day after the storm. There was no such delay in Houston.
Relief supplies were inexplicably impeded at New Orleans’ borders for days, to the point where we and other news crews bought flats of bottled water late each night in Baton Rouge and gave them out to stranded citizens the next morning. Houston was supplied as best anyone could.
In New Orleans we even came across a corpse in a wheelchair on a dry piece of land, covered by a blanket. If there were similar signs of despair in Houston, I didn’t see them.
Killer storms are inevitable. Rotten responses are not. Someone learned something from New Orleans. In that respect if none other, Houston might have been paralyzed, but it was lucky things weren’t even worse.
One of my favorite cousins recently sent me this email: “I write this with sadness in my heart. I regret voting for Trump. I miss Ronald Reagan. I miss the feeling I felt about America in the 80’s. I’m embarrassed every time Trump opens his mouth or sends out a tweet.”
Make no mistake, my cousin hasn’t gone Democrat. My cousin is simply a Republican who stopped clinging to a crummy choice. I am proud of my cousin. Better now than never.
This is only a microcosm, of course. But a microcosm of America, borne out by polls (you know, the Fake News polls) that show President Trump’s support, only a minority even on election day, is a smaller minority now. I don’t know what to call it— a stampede, an exodus, just some departures— but a bevy of backers are bailing out.
Like Republican senators who now publicly question their party leader’s moral authority and competence. And corporate heads who have fled from presidential councils that would give them a voice in policy. And the conservative commentator who publicly wrote, “I voted for Trump. And I sorely regret it.” Just like my cousin.
Even the chiefs of our military services have gently challenged the commander-in-chief, breaking their normally non-political posture by explicitly condemning racist hatred after their boss equivocated. For good measure, several major American charities cancelled plans this past week for events at Mar-a-Lago.
This doesn’t mean the administration is unraveling. But back in the 1970s in Washington, I covered Watergate, when the Nixon administration did unravel, and it’s not preposterous to project parallels. A White House preoccupied with its president’s low popularity. Counselors and cabinet officers plotting behind the president’s back. Appointees resigning. Congressmen revolting. The paralysis of government. Eventually people wouldn’t even return Richard Nixon’s calls.
The defections of just the past few weeks span the spectrum of support that any president needs. You lose that critical mass, you can lose the ability to lead. That’s what happened to Nixon. Donald Trump can claim to be the best president ever, but when it comes to major legislative goals, he’s a failure so far.
He has only himself to blame. Remember President Bush at Ground Zero? Remember Obama at the Charleston church? That’s called leadership. Now, instead, we have a president who burns more bridges than he builds. Unity’s not in his vocabulary. He fosters feuds with friends, for heaven’s sake. Even Mitch McConnell is now badmouthing him.
No one need say “I told you so.” We’ve all known that the man will maliciously lash out at the slightest provocation; he told us so himself. We’ve known that he will lie as easily as he breathes; in The Art of the Deal, he told us that too. But millions of Americans shut their eyes real tight and hoped against hope that Trump would change. He even assured us he would: “I will be so presidential, you will be so bored.” Oh what we’d give, Mr. President, especially after your vitriolic speech Tuesday in Phoenix, for a little boredom.
President Trump still could turn everything around. Personally I thought Monday night’s Afghanistan speech, although heavy on hope, was well conceived and well delivered. But we all know from experience, there’s a titanic difference between scripted Trump and spontaneous Trump. We also know that the odds of winning this stalemate, so far from home and relying on unsteady allies against unrelenting enemies, probably are no better under this president than they were under the two before him.
Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker— once on Trump’s short-list for Vice President— last week was blunt: “The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to be successful.” South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott was equally blunt: Trump’s “moral authority is compromised.” Colorado’s Cory Gardner castigated the president: “We must call evil by its name.”
There’s a crack in the dike and for Donald Trump, the pressure is pushing the wrong way. This is how the end of Nixon’s presidency began. That was in Nixon’s sixth year. Trump isn’t through his first.
On North Korea
Evergreen’s connections to the big news stories of recent days— troops in Afghanistan, terrorism in Barcelona, racism in Charlottesville, confrontation with North Korea,— are indistinct. But with North Korea warning Sunday of “the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war,” confrontation is back. And so is belligerence. And so is the nuclear menace. Evergreen isn’t likely in North Korea’s crosshairs. But if the confrontation turns uncontrollable, all of us could be the losers, somehow.
So we still have to ask ourselves, is President Trump’s strategy making war more likely, or less?
Maybe Trump’s right. Maybe he’s got to speak to North Korea’s ruthless Kim Jong-un in confrontational “locked and loaded” language that the equally confrontational Kim can understand.
But I don’t think so. An old colleague, Mort Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, has written, “Saddam Hussein… or Muammar Qaddafi… ought to teach us something. Tyrants cannot let themselves back away from showdown, least of all Kim Jong-un. God help us all if he delivers a suicide note.” Cornered, he could.
Maybe President Trump is right to insist that his threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was “not a dare. It’s a statement of fact.”
But I don’t think so. Another old colleague, Washington Post journalist Michael Dobbs (no relation), reveals in One Minute to Midnight, his book about the Cuban missile crisis, that President Kennedy’s wife Jackie wrote after the showdown, “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.” Who today will prove to be big?
Maybe President Trump is right to assert, ”It’s about time somebody stuck up for the people of this country” and personally I think he is, but not the way he’s doing it. President Obama’s U.N. ambassador Susan Rice writes in an op-ed piece that President Trump’s threats “risk tipping the Korean Peninsula into war, if the North’s leader… believes them and acts precipitously.” That depends on whether Kim is rational or irrational. Which we don’t really know.
What we do know is that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seem cast in the same impulsive, truculent, unseasoned mold. If there’s a temperamental miscalculation, there is no turning back. Which should scare us. Even here in Evergreen.
This is not to put Kim and Trump on the same moral plane. North Korea threatens to upset the peace on both sides of the Pacific. The United States threatens to prevent it.
It might become necessary to pulverize North Korea’s nuclear program before it sends a bomb streaking toward a Western ally, an American territory, or the United States itself. But like his father and grandfather before him, Kim’s only ideology is survival on the family throne. He certainly knows that if he launches weapons at Western targets, he and his nation could be wiped off the face of the earth.
So it’s pretty safe to assume that he won’t be the first to attack. And that he’s not suicidal. And that his bark is worse than his bite. Where I empathize with President Trump is, “pretty safe” is not enough.
Yet our options are precious few and from my own experience covering dictators, none is encouraging. Diplomacy is still one, although it hasn’t gotten us much in the past. Sanctions? In a nation where people’s prosperity has never been a priority, same story. Regime change comes with real risks of blowback. Pressure from China? When it weighs the dangers of a madman on its border against the dangers of a war that could put American power on its border, the madman doesn’t look so bad.
Playing chicken could be catastrophic. If Kim strikes first, he will be disemboweled, but as recent Trump strategist Steve Bannon realistically said last week, not before pouring fire on our friends and us. If we strike first, the result will be the same.
A nuclear North Korea wouldn’t be easy to endure. But a cold war beats a hot one.
On What the President Doesn’t Know About North Korea
On-the-job-training to make hamburgers at White Castle? Makes sense. On-the-job training to make war or peace at the White House? Not so much.
But that’s how it’s been feeling. Exhibit A? Our President’s epiphany earlier this month when China’s president explained the facts of life about North Korea, to which the leader of the free world responded, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.” Any of us could have told him that. (And so could the internet.) But he had to hear it from a power whose interests are almost the polar opposite of ours?
Exhibit B: Our sudden shows of strength. For the first time since he moved to the Oval Office, President Trump won bravos from both sides of the aisle when he sent a message to Syria in the form of 59 Cruise missiles. But then, before that dust had even settled, we dropped the mother of non-nuclear bombs on some caves in Afghanistan, and sent a carrier strike force (circuitously, it turns out) to the waters off North Korea.
Personally I don’t think these are bad moves. Aiming a pistol at a miscreant might modify his misbehavior without ever releasing the lock. The trouble is, given his penchant for applause, what the President is pursuing overseas— after some deflating domestic defeats— looks more like feel-good policy than foreign policy. Which might make us safer from a North Korean nuclear threat. Or it might put us in more peril.
Sure, North Korea’s fitful leader Kim Jong-un talks tough. But that’s just how he plays the game. I’ve covered rulers from the likes of Iran and Iraq and Libya and the Soviet Union who also talked tough. Old-timers will particularly recollect Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s warning to the United States, “We will bury you.” He didn’t. It was bluster. The man currently in the White House knows a thing or two about that.
But what he doesn’t seem to know is, while the bad guys in Syria and Afghanistan can’t effectively shoot back, North Korea can. And if you believe that crazy men sometimes do crazy things, it might. As journalist Barbara Demick points out in her insightful book “Nothing to Envy” (taken from a slogan brainwashed into every North Korean child’s head, “We have nothing to envy in this world”), North Korea’s dynasty, now in its third generation, perpetuates a permanent state of almost-war; it keeps its people scared, and loyal.
But Kim Jong-un isn’t suicidal; his only ideology is survival. He isn’t bluffing about being a nuclear threat, but he is bluffing about throwing the first punch. He won’t. Not against our allies, not against us. But if we strike first? He might see no recourse but to strike back. Not only do crazy men do crazy things, desperate men do desperate things.
China understands North Korea. The day after President Trump warned, “The problem will be taken care of,” China warned us, “If war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, multiple parties will lose and no one will win.” The President should pay heed. The geopolitical consultancy Stratfor, which tracks “the hidden pressures on nations,” warns that “a comprehensive campaign” against North Korea “virtually guarantees full-blown war on the Korean Peninsula.”
I don’t have a splendid solution, not one that would safeguard the world against North Korean nukes. But neither does President Trump, not when you look at the awful options open to him. And neither does China, not when you look its complicated relationship with North Korea, and its dependence on North Korea as a buffer against American military might in its own sphere of influence.
We wouldn’t want to risk everything on the confidence that North Korea is all talk. But President Trump would be prudent to obey the adage, Know thine enemy. As he learned from his Chinese counterpart during that on-the-job training session, he doesn’t, yet.
Here in Colorado, although geographically far removed from the racist and anti-Semitic sentiments that are shaking our nation, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re out there. Because while we might readily relegate them to America’s backwoods or the American South, they also are part of our own history.
Just 33 years ago, white supremacists in Denver assassinated a provocative liberal host on KOA Radio, Alan Berg. I am mindful, because I ended up working there in his time slot.
Almost a hundred years ago, Benjamin Stapleton— after whom Denver’s onetime airport was named— was elected as the city’s mayor. Only subtly shrouded from voters’ eyes: Stapleton was a member of Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan.
Far removed? Hardly.
But the bigger picture of progress in civil rights in America is positive. By 50 years ago we already had the Civil Rights Act signed into law, forbidding discrimination in the workplace and in public accommodations based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” And both the Voting Rights Act and the 24th Amendment, which together prohibited discriminatory decrees designed to block black Americans and other minorities from taking part in elections.
These laws opened the door to diversity in politics. In the past 50 years there have been countless mayors and police chiefs of color; Denver is among the estimable examples. 49 black citizens today serve in the United States Congress. Both major political parties have had credible black candidates for president. Nine years ago, one of them even won.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But then last week was Charlottesville.
It reaffirmed what I learned covering civil rights as a reporter: the mere making of transformational laws won’t soften the spirit of Americans stuck in the bigotry and bias of the past. While you can amend the legal landscape, you cannot alter the human mind.
I reported from two cities, for example, on the beginning of busing for the purpose of integration. There was anger for sure in the southern city of Louisville, but the resistance and bile and hostility were far worse at “Southie,” the nickname for a high school in south Boston.
I did stories in Idaho, where the Hitler-adoring Aryan Nations had its headquarters. I had to listen to leaders like Richard Butler tell me that Jews were a plague on our nation. In Skokie, Illinois, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, American Nazis used their constitutional rights of assembly and speech to march across the city and spread their message of malevolence.
This week though, I saw a photo from Charlottesville: a black policeman at a barrier, protecting white nationalists behind him who just as eagerly might hang him from a bridge as honor his badge. So we’ve come a long way, baby. But the story from that troubled Virginia city is that some Americans still pledge their ugly allegiance to the past, not the future. We’ve still got a ways to go.
There are those today who maintain that from the moment Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, the strong animus against him was not because of his history or his politics, but simply because he was black. Maybe. But we really can’t say for sure.
There also are those who now maintain that because Donald Trump has moved into the White House, there has been a vile and visible rise of white nationalism, with Charlottesville its most recent display. Maybe it’s because of Trump. But again, we really can’t say for sure.
What we can say though is this: Trump’s oratory emboldens the likes of former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke. His alliances empower white nationalist enabler Steve Bannon. His statements equate America’s most repulsive groups with movements that protest their programs. And now he equates George Washington, who fought to create our country, with Robert E. Lee, who fought to destroy it. The President hasn’t diminished the perception that he’s aiding and abetting America’s foulest factions.
Leaving us to ask, if he’s not, what else can explain it?
And leaving us to wonder, now that it’s out in the open elsewhere, what’s to stop it from rising again in Colorado?
On Foreign Elections
I’ve covered elections in many countries— from Britain to Bolivia, Egypt to Zimbabwe. But never have I seen longer lines of citizens eager, even desperate to vote than in two nations that are roughly at the same latitude but an ocean apart, in more ways than one: Liberia and Venezuela. You’d expect a backward nation like Liberia to be on the skids. But it’s not. Resource-rich Venezuela is. There’s a lesson here.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves on the western rim of Africa. It is a poor country even in the best of times. But the aftermath of the election I covered there almost a dozen years ago has been a slow but steady build.
Venezuela, by contrast, was rolling in oil. But as we see every day now in news reports, the aftermath of what I covered there— around the same time as Liberia— is a slow and suicidal bleed.
Liberia’s election followed on a decade-and-a-half of civil war that wrecked the nation. Depraved despots went on killing sprees. And survivors endured a living hell. With its only hydroelectric dam destroyed, the war left Liberia with no electricity. Or running water. Or sanitation. Most people in the capital, Monrovia, squatted in the shells of buildings that were burned out or bombed out. Potholes swallowed cars on war-ravaged roads. Citizens swallowed food we wouldn’t feed our dogs.
Yet on election day in Liberia, I saw thousands of people from all over the countryside who walked for hours, many barefoot, through the bush. They lined up all night, then stood all day in the broiling sun, to vote. To be part of their own future. To rise from their own ashes.
What they got was a stable government. Not strong, not rich, and not without corruption. But they chose a president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf— the first female leader on the continent, in fact— who has attracted foreign investors and, although a dispiritingly plodding process on a bedrock of wretchedness and ruin, she is getting the country rebuilt.
Juxtapose that with Venezuela, which had it all. The world’s biggest reserves of petroleum. The U.S. as its biggest customer. It was South America’s richest nation.
Today? Food is short. So is medicine. Electricity too. Sounds more like Liberia.
But Liberia’s war is over. Venezuela’s is not. Although more than a hundred dissidents have died, it’s not really a shooting war. It’s actually a war about economics. And politics. And democracy. On one side are the loyalists of Nicolas Maduro, the socialist successor of populist president Hugo Chavez. On the other side are the citizens who forced the election I covered, an effort to recall Chavez for squandering the nation’s riches.
Venezuela’s election day was like Liberia’s. I met people who stood in the blazing sun for 14 hours. Some lines stretched for ten city blocks. It was a bellwether of the people’s passion. But Chavez blatantly bought votes, giving away so many spoils to the estimated 80% of the population who are poor, they voted to keep the freebies flowing. The recall narrowly lost. But he paid for this political protection out of revenues from the nation’s oil. Little was reinvested in its industry. When Chavez resigned before dying of cancer, his vice president, Maduro, took his place… and perpetuated his policies.
The worst thing though isn’t Maduro’s policies, it’s his politics. Last month he staged a sham election for a constitutional convention where the opposition wasn’t allowed on the ballot. If you want to know the role democracy will play, heed the words of one of Maduro’s military comrades: “There is no possibility that the opposition will govern this country. Mark my words— no possibility.”
President Trump is right to ratchet up sanctions against influential supporters of the regime although, when Maduro defiantly declares, “Keep up your sanctions, Donald Trump,” it doesn’t bode well for a return to democracy. What it bodes is higher gas prices here in the U.S.
Staggering, isn’t it? A nation with nothing has promising prospects. Another endowed with affluence is on the road to ruin. It’s not just about who governs, but how.
I have to vent.
Many columnists across this country write volumes about the undignified, unprincipled, unbalanced, untruthful— and sometimes just flat-out unbelievable— nature of Donald Trump.
Heaven knows they’re right, and heaven knows he deserves it. Nobody can make Trump look like the loathsome leader he is without his help. But as a columnist, I’ve tried to demonstrate his innumerable defects by identifying, largely from my own long experience covering the world, the incalculable deficiencies in his policies.
Deficiencies with America’s allies, where his insults and inattention invite division. With Russia, where his infatuation invites a stronger antagonist. With China, where his incomprehension invites supremacy. With the Middle East, where his ignorance invites failure. With the budget, where his indifference invites suffering. Former NATO Allied Supreme Commander Admiral James Stavridis says, “Our credibility as a global force for good is deteriorating by the moment.”
Having lived through twelve presidential transitions, I know that in roughly every other election, the White House will shift from one set of principles to another and I’m going to get a president whose policies— and sometimes whose wars— I probably won’t like. But what’s wrong with this guy in the White House now transcends all that.
His behavior is not just abnormal. It’s a moral abomination. As centrist columnist David Brooks recently wrote, Trump has “dropped a nuclear bomb on the basic standards of decency in public life.” Or if you need to hear it from a widely-read conservative, how about Bret Stephens, he of recent Wall Street Journal fame, who just called Trump’s presidency “the most morally grotesque administration in American history.”
He seemingly spends more energy answering slights from his adversaries than ensuring support for his agenda, and says nicer things about Russia than he says about American judges, legislators, intelligence agencies, and certainly the media. Even if Trump accidentally does something right, it is superseded by something else he does wrong. The shelf lives of his campaigns for anything constructive are as short as his attention span. And typical of his deceit. After “Made in America Week” last month, his Mar-a-Lago resort applied to hire dozens of foreign workers. During “American Heroes Week,” this president who has never made a sacrifice in military uniform announced his ban on transgender Americans who have. (His GOP convention pledge to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens?” That is so 2016.)
And as if the whole first six months of Trump don’t demonstrate just how out of control this president is, recent weeks hammer it home. Like the failure of the self-declared doyen of the Art of the Deal to win on health care. And hijacking the Boy Scout Jamboree with a rambling rant that was so ill-advised and vulgar, the Boy Scouts publicly apologized. Not to the President, but for the President.
Then add in the indecorous departures of his spokesman and his chief of staff, both sent packing as if they were the cause of the chaos at the White House. They weren’t. Trump was. Their only sin: they couldn’t clean it up. Maybe the new adult in the White House, General John Kelly, can. But since he can’t spend every hour at the President’s side, don’t bet the farm.
And I haven’t even mentioned Trump “joking” (yeah, right) that policemen should rough up uncharged untried unconvicted suspects. Or his fling with his short-lived potty-mouthed plot-happy communications chief, who (lest we forget) was fired by Kelly, not Trump. Or ongoing outrage about the Trump team’s contacts, or cooperation, or collusion— call it what you will— with Russia.
The world once saw us as Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill.” And that’s how we saw ourselves. Today though, the shine is fading. Today we look more like an unanchored, unreliable, uncaring power that is forgetting the values that made us shine in the first place.
There. I’ve vented.
But I don’t feel better. Because the President of the United States is still undignified, unprincipled, unbalanced, untruthful— and sometimes just flat-out unbelievable. Heaven help us.
On Colorado Drivers
This is about driving in Colorado. More precisely, it’s about drivers in Colorado. Sure, Donald Trump might make my stomach churn every day of the week, but once I leave home, I put Trump in the back seat where he belongs and churn instead about dangerous or discourteous drivers just ahead of me. Or right behind me. Or in the case of bobbers and weavers, all around me.
You know who I mean: the ones who look like they got their license by bashing the bullseye on all the pop-up monkeys at the state fair: “Congratulations my friend, you hit the jackpot and here’s your prize: a driver’s license good for life.”
That wouldn’t be you, of course. You are either the most cautious, or most polite, or most skilled driver on the road. But how about all the others? How did they ever get that license, anyway?
I got to thinking about this last month when a report came out from an east coast nonprofit called Kars4Kids. After an online survey in all 50 states, it called Coloradans the seventh most polite drivers in America.
Not bad when you realize there are 43 states where drivers apparently aren’t as polite as we are.
Then again, maybe the survey was flawed, because when you look at it, you see questions like, “When a car is trying to pass you on the left, do you maintain your speed, or increase your speed?” Or, “Do you signal before turning or merging always, usually, sometimes, or rarely?” They asked, “Do you respond rudely to being tailgated?”, and “Would you steal someone’s parking spot?”
In other words, they were actually asking us if we think we’re polite! That’s like asking Donald Trump if he thinks he ranks as the best president in American history. “Well, maybe after Abraham Lincoln. Then again, I’m probably even better than him.”
What this politeness appraisal tells me is, people in 43 other states are less in denial than we are.
Not that all states’ drivers are created equal. They’re not. For inexplicable reasons there are certain ways people drive in some states and different ways in others. By region, in the survey, West was best.
What I notice myself is, whether impolite or incognizant, lots of Colorado drivers have distinct deficiencies. One is, a merge lane means “merge,” not “stop.” Another is, if I’m doing 70 on the interstate and have to jam on my brakes and you’re close enough behind me to see what’s in my trunk, you’re going to end up in the trunk yourself. The last takes the form of a joke that asks, “How do you identify a Coloradan?” The answer? “He’s the third one running the red light.”
I did a little survey of my own, emailing several dozen friends here, asking how they feel about their fellow Coloradans behind the wheel. “I grew up in Boston where driving is a full contact sport,” one wrote back. “By comparison Denver drivers are polite angels.” Another Boston-born friend who drives for Uber confirmed that: “I started to grouse about our drivers, then I returned to Boston this spring. I’ll never complain about Colorado drivers again.”
From a former New Yorker: “I just had a driver shoot out in front of me on a side street. My wife commented that in NY, a typical driver in my shoes would have 1) honked like crazy, or 2) taken a gun out and shot the guy. We just avoided it and moved on.” And from another: “In New York a horn is far more important than courtesy. In Chicago pedestrians are fair game. We have it pretty good in Colorado.” In the survey by the way, New York came in dead last.
By and large, my friends thought our politeness placement was pretty fair. And accurate. They cited acts of Colorado kindness on the road. And explained the growing impoliteness we sometimes feel from fellow drivers as the inevitable upshot of growth.
Still though, if you want to get inside my trunk, don’t tailgate. Just ask.
On A Divided State
That used to mean to us pretty much the same thing as the Continental Divide: a high mountain ridge where the water on one side ultimately flows to the Pacific, the water on the other ending up in the Gulf and the Atlantic.
Not any more.
Now, it is a divide defined not just by the rift of our Rocky Mountains but by the rift of our populace. It is between urban and rural Colorado. Between the economically affluent sections of our state where broadband internet access is swift and abundant, and neglected corners of Colorado where internet speeds are only barely better than dial-up. Between corporate consolidation and ma-and-pa farms, between healthcare just minutes away or half-a-day’s drive away, between killer commutes on suburban interstates and killer curves on country roads. It is a divide between the culture of younger Coloradans, who have relinquished their rural roots for remunerative rewards, and older ones, who haven’t.
It is, as The Denver Post put it last Sunday in the debut of its series focusing on the Colorado Divide, about “the issues, values and attitudes that can leave rural and urban residents feeling they live in two Colorados.” It is, as Post journalists Jennifer Brown and Kevin Simpson said, about a “fault line,” and the line is no more lucid than on the charts that pepper their piece.
The first one is about “peak population years” for Colorado’s counties and this speaks volumes about the divide: in 23 of our 64 counties, mainly along the entire eastern border of the state and most of the southern border, the population peaked before 1950. They have been losing people ever since. No surprise if they’re not prospering. Or, for urban Coloradans, if they’re not even on the radar.
Yet they should be, because as one official from remote western Colorado said in the story, “Rural Colorado is the picture of what Colorado promotes itself to be. We’re really the culture of Colorado.”
The next chart is about politics, namely, the counties’ preferences for President. The majority of Coloradans overall voted for Hillary Clinton but two-thirds of the counties— pretty much the whole eastern third of the state and, but for a few pockets, the western quarter— were in the Trump camp. Aside from a handful of outliers, it was only the Front Range— the cities running north to south from Wyoming to New Mexico— that voted for Clinton. Is it any wonder that on impassioned issues in the state legislature from transportation to taxation to education to hospitalization, there are fault lines between urban and rural that often retard reform?
Then there’s a chart— a pie graph, really— about the budget for CDOT, the Colorado Department of Transportation. More than half its “new construction” funds are spent in metro-Denver. Arguably this is justifiable since Denver has grown more than 20% in the past fifteen years and fully half of Colorado’s five-and-a-half million people live in metro-Denver. But if you look at it through rural eyes, there’s still far more asphalt in the rest of the state and therefore, when they require roadwork, rural residents regularly feel rebuffed.
These are just pieces of the Post’s picture of the Colorado Divide. And while many are revelations to me, the most conspicuous come from quotes by two citizens in Colorado’s southeasternmost corner, Baca County.
A woman who runs the county’s weekly newspaper resents Denver-based television weather forecasters because when they use those big maps, “they stand right in front of us. We don’t exist. We get ignored like that.” A county commissioner speaks of a “disconnect” between urban and rural residents: “Maybe we don’t understand the lifestyle that they live. But we sometimes feel we’re not appreciated for what we do.”
The first step toward bridging the Colorado Divide is exposing the sentiments of each side to the other. Each has value, each has needs. The state can flourish if we recognize that, and fail if we don’t.
On Six Months of Trump
July 20th should be important to all Americans. It is the day— 48 years ago now— that Neil Armstrong planted man’s first foot on the moon. His eloquence was no exaggeration: “One giant leap for mankind.”
Virtually every American that transcendent day was electrified. None more, though, than in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Neil Armstrong’s home town, where as a young producer supervising live coverage for ABC News, I watched his first lunar steps.
Never in my lifetime have I seen Americans so proud. Never in my lifetime have I seen Americans so respected. In Wapakoneta and everywhere else.
But the pride has dimmed. And the respect is dwindling.
No one factor, no one war, no one president is singlehandedly responsible. As columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, our presidents all have “bent the truth to varying degrees,” and “had a vanity that sometimes ran contrary to the public good.”
But none more than Donald Trump. And because today, July 20th, is a milestone of a different kind— the six-month anniversary of his presidency— it must be noted that when it comes to our pride in our nation and others’ respect for it, we are at a new nadir.
Not everyone feels that way. Although Trump’s 36% approval rating (and 58% disapproval) at this point is the worst of any presidency ever, there are still diehards in denial. They applaud Trump for “shaking things up,” as if it doesn’t matter where the pieces fall, or who they hurt.
What is this world coming to? Overseas, despite the President’s protests that he and his global peers have “beautiful” relationships upon which America’s foundation is fortified, those leaders’ actions, sometimes their inactions, speak louder than his empty words. Respect for American supremacy is slipping, although because fellow leaders play the President like a fiddle, he doesn’t seem to see it.
He pays more praise to our dictatorial foes than our democratic friends. But to what advantage? President Putin hasn’t budged an inch in Ukraine or Crimea and still strives to neutralize NATO. And how about the naive notion of an “impenetrable cybersecurity unit” with Russia (which Marco Rubio caustically compared to a chemical weapons partnership with Syria’s Assad)? Trump doesn’t grasp that Putin’s only goal is to Make Russia Great Again, not America.
And China? Although our great negotiator had great expectations for relief from trade imbalances and North Korean threats, China’s president Xi didn’t do squat. His goal? Make China Great Again. Yet Trump is still sucking up, which NPR’s Scott Simon illuminated last weekend in an incisive commentary.
Simon observed that right after the death of oft-imprisoned Chinese human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, President Trump joined with President Macron in Paris, but “the two leaders who met to celebrate their nations’ shared principles of liberty did not mark the loss of a man who gave his life to the struggle for liberty in his country. In fact, President Trump paused to salute the man who heads the regime that imprisoned Liu Xiaobo.” (“A great leader,” “A very special person.”)
Here at home, Republican lawmakers still want to slash health insurance for tens of millions. They threaten the time-honored separation of church and state. And environmental degradation notwithstanding, they move with resolve toward regulation-lite. JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon, no fan of regulations, lamented last week, “Some regulations quite clearly create a common good— like clean air and water.”
If all that isn’t enough, some on Trump’s team are culpable of cooperation, if not collusion, with a foreign antagonist’s attempts to affect the American election. Of course Trump, who campaigned against politics as usual, justified this in a Monday tweet as, well, just politics.
All this, between January 20th and July 20th, 2017. We’ve come to all this, in just six months.
July 20th, 1969, was a giant leap for America. But this July 20th, the supreme spirit of Wapakoneta is gone. And there’s no evidence that this “buck stops somewhere else” president can make the leap to fully restore the pride of most Americans, or the respect we long possessed.
On America First
The President’s pronouncement a week ago in Poland was positive and powerful: “The West will never be broken!” Just one catch: Mr. Trump himself is trying to break it.
He is assaulting an incomparable quality that has long distinguished our nation from any other. It is this: when our superpower rivals involve themselves in the affairs of other nations, they ask, “What will strengthen us?” We ask more: “What will strengthen us but keep our allies strong too?” Because we’ve understood, what strengthens them strengthens us. What enriches them enriches us. What reinforces their liberties reinforces ours. And what weakens American allies, weakens America. We’ve understood that, until now.
True, sometimes our involvement with other countries hasn’t worked out so well, but more often than not, it has. For them, for us. Which is what makes the President’s platitudes so puzzling, and his self-styled “America First” policies so pernicious.
On trade, one of the central controversies during Trump’s trip, he berates and browbeats allies more than adversaries. He is threatening new tariffs on imports from proven partners which, if you ask many U.S. manufacturers, will raise our costs without copiously creating new jobs. Not to mention inspiring our longtime friends to talk of retaliation. Also of course, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in effect ceding reliable and remunerative trade relationships to China. This makes us stronger?
On climate, the other core controversy, he will pull out of the Paris climate accord and abrogate America’s agreements on greenhouse gas emissions. Which no less a seasoned diplomat than German Chancellor Merkel declared, most undiplomatically, she “deplores.” The industrialized world’s shift to cleaner fuels and renewable energies is inevitable. And observed in Europe enthusiastically. We just won’t be as big a part of it. China, by the way, will. We are stronger because of this?
On Russia, President Trump told President Putin when they shook hands for the first time, “It’s an honor to be with you.” An honor? To meet a man who takes the territories he wants, who backs the brutal bully in Syria, who has his own critics abducted and imprisoned and killed, and lest we forget, who by consensus in the American intelligence community (which the President continues to dis), fiddled in our American elections? I’m all for patching up paramount geopolitical relationships, but not by turning a blind eye to the other side’s sins.
It is of no small consequence that by showing Russia’s leader respect he does not deserve, President Trump gave President Putin what he has long lusted: to have a seat at the table, to look us in the eye as an equal. This hardly strengthens us. Secretary of State Tillerson rightly said our two nuclear nations have to start figuring out, “How do we live with one another? How do we work with one another?” But do we have to restore Russia to its former glory while we’re at it? Especially when, due in part to President Obama’s inaction in the Middle East, Russia already has a seat again at the table there.
Trump also asked his European audience, “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?” The conundrum is, he doesn’t. A vital value used to be, “All for one and one for all.” But “America First” turns that on its end. And where are our values when the President has said worse things about Germany’s Merkel, America’s ally, than about Russia’s Putin, America’s antagonist? One upshot is, Merkel’s own political party has deleted the word “friend” from its platform when it talks about the United States. Today Trump’s in France for its independence celebration but France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, lamented last weekend, “Our common goods have never been so threatened.”
We are still the most powerful nation on earth. But are we still the most respected? And how can we lead when others don’t want to follow?
Show me how any of this strengthens our friends. Show me how it strengthens us.
On Trump’s Travel Ban – No Grandparents?
I hate to get hung up on just one small facet of the partial application of the Trump travel ban, but grandparents can’t travel to the United States to see their grandchildren? REALLY?
When the Supreme Court allowed, pending its formal hearing on the ban, that foreigners can still come in if they have “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” did the President really believe that shouldn’t include grandparents?
I have kids. I have grandkids. They are the most important family I’ve got. The President might not be grounded in achievable approaches to foreign policy (or dignified declarations about domestic critics), but he is a grandparent himself. Eight times over. I’ve got to believe that he loves his family. Which by most anyone’s definition includes his grandkids. Does he not see that?
When I read about this part of the ban, I thought about a weekend I spent a couple of summers ago at a grief camp for kids. It is run by Mount Evans Home Health Care & Hospice, and gives children who’ve suffered a terrible loss a brief break from their sorrow. They ride horses and catch fish and slide down zip lines and swim, and in-between the fun, there is therapy.
The children sit in circles, along with their adult “buddies” like me, and talk about the loved ones they lost and the futures they face without them. One boy in my circle had lost his father to a motorcycle accident. Another lost his dad to drugs. One girl’s sister had died of a disease. Another no longer had a mom.
And then a little girl started sobbing about her lost loved one. It was her grandmom. I’ll be honest and tell you, in my mind I was thinking that this girl’s loss just wasn’t tragic on the level of the other kids in the circle. Until she told us more. Her grandmother had raised her. Her grandmother was the only family she had. And now grandma was gone. The little girl had no one left.
When the White House announced its definition of “bona fide” relationships, it said it was based on The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Trump’s interpretation is definitely not the act’s two sponsors’ original intent. One was New York Representative Emanuel Celler, who served almost 50 years in the House and once pleaded with President Roosevelt to relax immigration laws to provide a haven for Europeans fleeing the Holocaust.
The other was Senator Edward Kennedy. You don’t have to read up on him to know where his beliefs were anchored. Kennedy’s and Celler’s intent was to reunite immigrant families. But typical of its disregard for precedent, the Trump Administration is turning their legislation on its end and using it to keep bona fide grandparents from uniting with their families.
You’re read it before but it’s worth repeating: when it comes to the threat of terrorism in the United States, incoming refugees, especially those with preexisting relationships here, are not the problem. The mass murderer at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was born in New Hyde Park, New York. The mass murderer at the Christmas party in San Bernardino had served in the United States Navy during the Iraq War and was born in Chicago. The mass murderer at Fort Hood was an Army psychiatrist for heaven’s sake, born in Arlington, Virginia. Three terrorists. Three Americans.
You’ve heard the phrase “arbitrary and capricious.” As law professor Kathryn Watts wrote in the Yale Law Journal, a poorly rationalized decision is “arbitrary and capricious.” Which surely describes this newest version of the Trump travel ban. It won’t do a darned thing about homegrown terrorists. But it will superfluously, stupidly, separate families.
The Supreme Court is back at full strength with the addition of Coloradan Neil Gorsuch but its conservative composition notwithstanding, it should step in and stop this perversion. If anything seems un-American, it is an embargo on entry for the grandparents.
On ISIS and Its Staying Power
In almost every war I ever covered, the side that took control of traditional symbols of power— legislatures, leaders’ residences, military bases, print and broadcast headquarters— held control of government. But in its war with its many enemies, the Islamic State doesn’t have to keep a hold on vital buildings, as long as it has a hold on the human mind.
That’s why it might be misleading to be cheered by The Denver Post’s hopeful headlines this past week. Like, “Iraqi leader declares end to IS (Islamic State) caliphate.” Then, “Airstrikes in Mosul,” which described the Iraqi army’s “territorial gains.”
Don’t be fooled. From “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam to “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, we know that politicians strive to shape the narrative. Beware. The Islamic State might have to reinvent itself. But it isn’t going away.
The fact is, it hasn’t even lost its caliphate, at least not yet, let alone its incomprehensible appeal to militant Muslims, or its ominous existence on every continent. You read that right: every continent (if we can exclude Antartica). Last year, experts counted up to two dozen nations with some incarnation of the Islamic State: Islamic State armies, Islamic State affiliates, Islamic State cells, Islamic State wannabes. Today the estimates are half-again higher.
A year ago, even before the self-proclaimed caliphate seemed seriously threatened, one of its leaders said in an audio message to its acolytes, “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority, or that victory is measured thereby, has strayed far from the truth. It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare open desert, displaced and pursued.”
Because the “bare open desert” isn’t sand. It’s Christmas parties in San Bernardino and nightclubs in Orlando. It’s bridges in London, airports in Brussels, fireworks spectacles on Independence Day in Nice. As Brookings Institution senior fellow William McCants puts it, “They are prepared to wage a war from the shadows.”
West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reported last month that in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State recently has staged roughly 1,500 attacks. And here’s another chiller: in those 16 cities, the Islamic State had been declared defeated. Just because the Islamic State’s enemies are winning some pivotal battles, it doesn’t mean they’re winning the war.
Case in point: the Philippines. In late May, rebels variously described as “aligned with” and “linked to” the Islamic State took control of Marawi City and its 200,000 citizens. Most people have fled but the rebels are still there, fighting house-to-house battles with the Philippine army. By all accounts, even if the army wins, there won’t be much of a city left for citizens who return.
When a nation’s unstable, let alone engulfed by conflict, huge pockets of the population can lose whatever public services they’ve had. For example, in towns through which war has swept in Iraq and Syria, in Libya and Yemen and Afghanistan, life for those left is dismal: no electricity, fuel, bread, or water. No functioning hospitals, no functioning schools. Still a lot of rubble. And still a lot of decomposing bodies buried beneath it. You know what they say about a vacuum. Ideal for a terror group to move in.
I’ve covered it elsewhere. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority was so corrupt, it stopped providing services for citizens. Hamas filled the void. Hamas now holds the power. Likewise in Lebanon, where the government pulled out and Hezbollah, with Iran’s support, replaced it. The Islamic State knows this playbook. And can still make friends, especially if President Trump has his way and American aid funds are cut.
You will hear that the Islamic State is on the run. But don’t be fooled. It is not subject to conventional military defeat. And can turn defeat into victory. Don’t let the politicians, nor the generals, nor certainly our inventive and ignorant president with his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State tell you otherwise. The Islamic State is not going away.
On a Good Governor
When we’re whipsawed from Washington by the likes of Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, it’s refreshing to have a politician here at home who’s more prone to pacify than polarize.
That’s John Hickenlooper.
He has the common touch. After six-and-a-half years as Colorado’s governor and almost eight before that as Denver’s mayor, he hasn’t lost it.
He also has the Midas touch. Hickenlooper started as a geologist, then when the minerals economy went bad, he recreated himself as a brewpub owner and helped launch LoDo. Then he recreated himself again as a mayoral candidate. A most unlikely one. He seemed nerdy and wore ill-fitting suits. And went head-to-head with popular politicians with experience. But he converted most everyone he met. When the political neophyte first came to my talk radio studio, although he and I had clashed in point-counterpoint columns in The Denver Post, he won me over. And won the job. And became one of the nation’s best.
The governor’s office was the natural next step. And he was a natural. Yet again, he became one of the best.
So now, for term-limited John Hickenlooper, what’s the natural next step? His name was in the air when Hillary Clinton looked like our next president. Secretary of Transportation? He was a founding father of FasTracks and for six years chaired the Transportation Committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Housing and Urban Development? Commerce? After successes at City Hall and the Statehouse, they would all fit.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Which, Hickenlooper told me in an interview in his Capitol office, did not disappoint him, because his son Teddy is in the taxing transition to high school. “It’s hard to say no to the President of the United States, but I’d have done everything possible to avoid it.” You’ve got to like the man’s priorities.
You’ve also got to like his humility. He says of his childhood, “I was skinny, I wore thick glasses, I had acne. I wasn’t a leader in any sense of the word.” Nor did his life as a scientist and beer merchant, sometimes selling real estate on the side, fit the mold: “None of this stuff you would pick if you wanted to run for office.”
Yet he ran, and his background served him well, especially operating the Wyncoop brewpub. It taught him, “All the pieces have to work in sync or they don’t work at all.” Kind of like government. He also learned, “There is no margin in having an enemy.” Hmmm… kind of like government.
I asked Hickenlooper how his decade-and-a-half leading Denver and Colorado has changed him? “It’s really restrained my impulses. I used to make snap judgements, moved quickly. It’s more important to be thoughtful, think of the consequences of your decisions.” What a concept!
With a year-and-a-half still to go at the statehouse, Hickenlooper isn’t exactly filling out job applications yet. But ask him what’s next and he’ll matter-of-factly tell you that being chief executive officer of a city, then a state, qualifies him for many things. Running a large company. A big foundation. Possibly a university— Colorado politicians like Hank Brown, Bruce Benson, and Bill Armstrong have plowed that path before him.
Inevitably though, an even bigger presidency comes up. Leaving office in early 2019, the timing would work to commence a campaign for the White House. Hickenlooper’s standard answer when asked about this is, I’m focusing on running Colorado. But taking the lead among the nation’s governors in a bi-partisan campaign to prevent the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, underscored by his news conference Tuesday with Ohio governor and recent Republican presidential candidate John Kasich at the National Press Club in Washington, doesn’t exactly suppress speculation.
Yet still, he sounded genuine when he told me, “There is certainly a strong desire to return to a normal life.” His State Patrol security team, for example, won’t even let him drive.
Personally, holding Hickenlooper’s humility and common sense up against what we see these days in Washington, I’d be fine if the Secret Service does the driving next.
On Who Journalists Should Interview
Before NBC had even aired the second edition last night of its new show with former Fox journalist Megyn Kelly, there was rage about its content. Namely, an interview with Alex Jones, a despicable conspiracy theorist. He’s the one who screamed after the Sandy Hook massacre of 26 people, including 20 kids, that it all had been staged. Staged by the children’s parents, no less. “Completely fake, with actors.”
There was rage from parents, rage from advertisers, rage from celebrities like Chelsea Clinton who, albeit untrained, worked a while as a journalist, and therefore should know better than to tweet, “I hope no parent, no person watches this.”
I pity those Sandy Hook parents for the pain this prolongs, but critics like Clinton are shortsighted because there’s a bigger picture to paint: on Kelly’s debut broadcast the week before, Russian President Vladimir Putin was her blockbuster interview. We didn’t hear a peep of protest.
Yet Putin is more dangerous than Jones. Jones is just a nauseating nut case. Putin is a Machiavellian megalomaniac who has marched into sovereign states and taken by force what he thinks ought to be his. He has brutally bolstered a Syrian despot. He has slashed the civil liberties of his own citizens. And incidentally, evidently he hacked his way into American politics.
But both are worth watching, Putin and Jones. The principle is, better to understand an antagonist than to just ignore him. Megyn Kelly, on the defensive about the Jones interview, put it this way: “Our goal in sitting down with him was to shine a light… on this influential figure, and yes, to discuss the considerable falsehoods he has promoted with near impunity.” So influential, our president even praises this contemptible man (as he praises Putin, too). We surely won’t make sense of it if we hide our heads in the sand.
What every American has to ask is, who should decide who’s worthy of scrutiny and who’s not? Someone on the left, someone on the right? It’s a slippery slope.
What every journalist has to consider is, interviews like this give scumbags a soapbox, but what’s important is how you handle it. What questions you ask, how you phrase them, the tone you take, how you push back if you don’t get honest answers. Even the expression on your face. It all matters.
I’ve interviewed a range of loathsome losers, from American Nazis to murderers on Death Row. I’ve interrogated the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, who led an oppressive government, and Yasser Arafat, who made his bones as a terrorist, and Ayatollah Khomeini, who created the fanatic-friendly Islamic Republic of Iran. The conversations offered insights to their thinking. Should I have ignored them instead?
Granted, when you’re questioning a tyrant on his turf, you need to hold his feet to the fire, yet protect your own feet from getting burned. You have to take care not to cross a certain line… even though you don’t necessarily know where that line actually is.
It’s especially tough to do in parts of the world where, because local journalists are beholden to their governments for their jobs, people assume the same of us. They’re already suspicious, so ask the wrong question, or ask it the wrong way, you can end up dead, and waving the U.S. Constitution won’t help. My mantra always was, if I’m going to get killed for doing my job, it should be because I was star-crossed, not because I was stupid.
In most of the global trouble spots I covered, journalists came from American news organizations and only a handful of other nations, those that had levels of freedoms that come close to ours. Press coverage is something to value, not revile.
So Megyn Kelly, you are the latest in a long line of journalists to ascend to a powerful pulpit. Get the newsmakers, whether saints or sinners. Ask the hard questions, especially if it’s here at home, and don’t let them off the hook. We’ll all be smarter, maybe even public policy will be smarter, because of it.
On Middle East Complexities
Maybe the best way to draw a diagram of rivalries and alliances in the Middle East is to think about how it looks when you boil a pot of spaghetti, then pour out the water and pull out the pasta. You end up with stray strands of starch stuck to the bottom, splayed in shapes that might make Pablo Picasso proud.
The trouble is, such curvilinear contortions might leave an artist proud, but on a Middle East flowchart they only leave us confused. Rivalries I’ve covered there, in large part, are rooted in the principle that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Which works, until your friend makes up with your enemy and the diagram has to be redrawn. Alliances, for the most part, are marriages of convenience. Which also works, until it’s not so convenient any more. And the diagram has to be redrawn, yet again.
The nations of the Middle East know how the game is played. Yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend. Today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy. No friendship is forever, no enmity is eternal.
Those nations get it. Us? Not so much. Especially after the past couple of weeks. Saudi Arabia’s now our BFF (“Best Friend Forever”), so when (along with four other Arab governments) it cut diplomatic, trade, and travel ties last week with next-door neighbor Qatar, President Trump jumped in with the Saudis and skewered Qatar, tweeting, “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
It won’t. Not just because it’s not that simple, but also because oil-rich Qatar is not the only state from which funds flow to fanatics. Another? How about our new BFF, Saudi Arabia. And it won’t end the horror because Saudi Arabia isn’t really cross with Qatar for sustaining terrorists. It is cross with Qatar for aligning with Iran which, as a regional superpower, is the Saudis’ most ominous adversary.
Of course we have no more regard for Iran than the Saudis have, so given the logic for rivalries and alliances, it would follow that since Iran is Saudi Arabia’s enemy as well as ours, and Qatar is a friend of our enemy and an enemy of our friend, Qatar would be our enemy too.
But it’s not, (at least not yet). That’s because Qatar offers irresistible attributes as a friend. Namely, it hosts the Middle East headquarters of the United States Central Command, and the air base from which we stage attacks on terrorists. Like the Islamic State.
Even the geopolitical picture of Iran is fuzzier than you’d think. The fact is, the U.S. and Iran have mutual malice toward the Islamic State. In Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, we are fighting the Islamic State. And so is Iran. How does that that jibe with “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Especially since Qatar is on the same side too, in the same fight.
To different degrees, the United States today is involved in more Middle East wars than ever before. A friend in one war is an enemy in another. The best we can do, although bewildering, is recognize reality.
And if you need any more head-spinning scenarios, late last week our friend Turkey sent in troops to prop up Qatar, which is our friend but also our friend Saudi Arabia’s enemy.
An old parable I’ve often heard in the Middle East actually explains everything. A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. Afraid of being stung, the frog says no, but the scorpion promises that it would never sting the frog because then they both would drown. So the frog gives the scorpion a lift until, halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re dying, the frog asks the scorpion, “Why did you sting me, dooming us both?” The scorpion answers, “Because, my friend, this is the Middle East.”
Someone should explain that to President Trump.
On Keeping America First
Will someone please tell me, when we flip the bird at almost every other nation on earth by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, announcing that although we’re one of its two worst polluters, our planet is on its own so we can “protect America and its citizens,” how does this keep America First?
When we turn our back on science and stand with the only two nations openly opposed to the agreement— Syria and Nicaragua— while world leaders whose partnership is imperative inveigh that after 70 years, the U.S. has lost its mantle of enlightened attitudes and moral leadership, how does this keep America First?
For that matter, when we stage budgetary attacks on the growing and gainful evolution of renewable energy and doom ourselves to outmoded industries and dirty air, how does that keep America First? If you’ve been to China, you know how many people walk around with medical masks over their mouths, and what it’s like for your eyes to burn wherever you go.
I’m all for putting America First, but too many of the President’s retrograde moves and rude manners put us closer to America Last. As Governor Hickenlooper put it, “Isolationism is not leadership.”
Has the President ever learned that although we were helping post-war Europe back when he was born, since then it often has been Europe helping us? Covering the first Gulf War, I did stories on European allies’ armies that rallied to the American cause (yes, including France). Likewise Afghanistan. Likewise Iraq. But now, with the President actually threatening Germany about military burdens— “Very bad for U.S. This will change”— the leader of our strongest European ally bitterly bewails that the United States no longer is a reliable partner.
Already there are allies like Turkey, Poland, and Hungary flirting with our adversaries. Not to mention Asian nations like South Korea and the Philippines. Between conflicts over climate and trade and mutual defense, the trend can only worsen. The President wouldn’t even affirm the “All for one, one for all” canon of NATO (invoked only once, when Europeans streamed in to support us after 9/11). What he doesn’t understand is, we weaken Europe, our principal buffer against everything from refugees to terrorism to expansionism, and we weaken ourselves.
Russia’s President Putin must be licking his chops. Tell me how this keeps America First?
Where is the logic? Except for North Korea, who does the President dis more than anyone? Not Russia, even though Putin isn’t out to Make America Great Again, he’s out to Make Russia Great Again. Not China, which threatens to replace us as the planet’s economic powerhouse. The answer is Europe, which is, with just a handful of exceptions, the only part of the world that shares our values. Most of our other allies take coffee with us because of what we do for them. The Europeans break bread because of what we mean to them.
Or maybe these days, “meant” to them. The President insolently lectures Europeans about trade imbalances (even though the Germans have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States building electronics and autos of which, by the way, our hypocritical headman has owned several), but in Saudi Arabia, an infamous abuser of human rights and contributor to terrorists, he keeps his mouth shut and does the ceremonial sword dance. This keeps America, and its sacred beliefs in decency and democracy, First?
I’m even wondering, would Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “back-channel” to the Kremlin, apparently insidiously intended to circumvent American intelligence (by using Russian equipment, no less), keep America First?
Maybe when the President pushed the Prime Minister of Montenegro at the NATO conference to bully his way to the front for a photo shoot, it was his metaphor for “America First.” Big mistake. Our security, our prosperity, our liberty are best served by focusing on common interests, not self-interest. That’s how we’ll keep America First. Conserving coalitions, not whacking them with a wrecking ball.
On One Friend’s Cancer
This is about a friend. A thinker. A philosopher.
He wasn’t formally trained that way. He was trained as a doctor. A lung doctor. Which is what’s so ironic. Three years ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Unjust, for a man who saved others from the disease. And never once put tobacco between his own lips. Lung cancer usually comes from smoking, but not always. Not for Dr. Dennis Clifford.
I never smoked cigarettes myself but despite my wife’s warnings that cigars are even more poisonous, occasionally on working trips overseas I smoked them. Until the night I got home from a rough trip to the Middle East. We went out to eat and just as I was sheepishly saying that my only treats on the trip were Cuban cigars, Denny walked in. When he came over to say hello, my wife told him what I’d just told her. This tall bearded cerebral man looked down at me and said seven simple words: “I thought you were smarter than that.” They didn’t come from a book. They came from his heart. I never touched another cigar.
When Denny began to die, he began to write. About life. And about death. He posted dozens of engrossing essays, tens of thousands of words, on a website called CaringBridge.org. It’s a place where people share stories, whether spirited or sad, about their health.
He could always see the bright side. Like this excerpt from last year, after thinking all was lost: “I am so grateful to be able to write to you today. Last summer this certainly would have been a fantasy, but I have been given a second life for some mysterious reason and I plan to ride this wonderful wing of well being as long as it lasts.”
And sometimes he was lighthearted, writing posts in the voice of his black standard poodle named Kayla. “I’ve been trained to see the signs of pain in Denny’s face and how he holds his body when he says the ‘pain gremlin’ has gotten ahold of him. I don’t know what a pain gremlin is and believe me I looked very carefully for one to chase him away because that’s my job, but I never saw one.”
Denny also wrote in his own voice about that “pain gremlin,” titling one post “The Hateful Friend”: “Always there upon awakening, ready to start gnawing with its sharp weasel teeth, ready to take away your breath with a sudden sharp stab of astonishing intensity.” He recounted one particular procedure: “Imagine filling your chest cavity with gasoline and lighting it on fire. Pain that chases any consciousness from your brain until you are consumed by it.” To endure such pain is one thing. To describe it is another.
In one post profoundly titled “The Thief of Life,” Denny lucidly described his disease: “When it touches close it smothers anything it possibly can without remorse or hesitation. It lies. It is cunning. Sometimes it knows it is going to win and toys with us dangling hope, only to snatch it away.” This Lutheran Hospital pulmonologist had seen lung cancer beat others. Now it was beating him.
One day, reading some of Denny’s overpowering posts, I was struck by something significant. Many “comments” on the pages were written by people who began with something like, “Dr. Clifford, we’ve never met, but…” The “but” always led to testimonials about how Denny was giving them the capacity to cope with their own staggering challenges, how his strength was strengthening them.
What that told me was, the posts ought to become a book. There already are books out there along these lines, like Mortality, The Last Lecture, When Breath Becomes Air. Each is unique. Denny’s would be too, and evince insights the others don’t.
So with his and his wife’s collaboration, I wrote about it to agents and editors. But I struck out. One wrote back asking, “What does this cover that the other books don’t?” When Denny read that, it was the only time in his incessant illness that I saw some pique: “Just because others have experienced dealing with cancer doesn’t mean they have the same lessons any more than each of us experiences the process of dying in the same way.” But alas, there is no book.
Early this month, Denny wrote his final post: “Cancer in the end always wins. Slowly, inexorably, mercilessly.” All treatments having failed, he was entering hospice.
Eighteen days later, his family added one more post: “Dying is hard but in the end there is peace.” Denny Clifford was gone. His death was the world’s loss. His eloquence, and his inspiration, were the world’s win.
You’d have to figure, if a country can’t get it on with Sesame Street, it’s never going to win a starring role in the league of nations.
But in the case of China, you’d figure wrong. China tried— and technically-speaking, they did Sesame Street they way it ought to be done, right down to Big Bird’s complex costume. But according to Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, who has spent his career not just analyzing China but for many years actually living there (including a stint producing the Chinese version of the show), there was one obstacle their culture couldn’t overcome: marrying humor with education, which is the basis of Sesame Street’s success. But in terms of laying the foundation for a flourishing future, it’s among the few things they’ve gotten wrong.
Listen to the litany of Chinese success stories that Daly laid out to an audience last week at WorldDenver. Some are simply due to the country’s size, but some are due to its determination. China has not just the world’s largest population (about a fifth of all humanity) but its strongest purchasing power. It is the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods, its biggest single producer of steel and motor vehicles and many agricultural products. China has the world’s highest capacity of solar and wind-generated power, the most smartphone users, the most university students, the largest middle class (110 million versus 95 million in the U.S.). China has almost a quarter of the world’s connections to the “internet of things,” the concept of connecting any device— from phones to furnaces to coffee makers— with any other.
And most consequential, China is poised to become the world’s Number One economy. Which would leave us as Number Two.
Sure, China’s got problems, and by dint of its humongous size, they are humongous problems. Its successes have elevated everyone’s income. But it’s all relative. Still, the World Bank says, hundreds of millions— roughly the whole of the American population— live on $2-a-day or less, and some are restive. Levels of air, soil, and water pollution are so high— the inevitable repercussion of China’s dogged industrial revolution— that the cost of correcting them is incalculable. In some parts of the country, pollution lowers lifespans by five years. Nationwide, up to a million pollution-related deaths a year. Even its leaders complain that their eyes are burning, so China will face the music.
But still, China is feeling its oats. It was handed new trade opportunities on a silver platter when President Trump perfunctorily pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It finds itself on the receiving end of pleas by the American president to constrain North Korea (which is not as simple as it might seem). And although it is at loggerheads with some Asian neighbors over its expanding presence in the South China Sea, that expansion has become a reality. The United States has long been the 800-pound gorilla there, guaranteeing the security of our allies (and the security of our global trade). China sees that as an impediment in its own sphere of influence. China, Daly says, wants a “zone of deference,” if not dominance. Although historically a land power, not a sea power, it’s getting what it wants.
And why should we pay attention to all this? Because when we look at our rivals for superpower status, too often we look in the wrong direction, toward Russia. Russia craves the title, but lacks the qualifications. Between a colossal economy, a nuclear-armed military, and ever-increasing influence on every continent, China’s got them. As Robert Daly puts it, “Stop speaking of China’s ‘rise.’ China has risen.”
We want to preserve our position of preeminence on the Pacific Rim. But with China’s own powerful position and its ability to pay for what it wants, plus all the diversions in Washington that muddy our focus, we haven’t yet figured out how. Or decided if we’re even willing to pay the price.
On Trump Meeting Duterte
A really bad guy might be coming to the White House. President Donald Trump late last month invited his Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, to pay him a visit.
Duterte is the tough-talking tyrant who actually encouraged the “slaughter” by his own police of drug suspects — not just dealers, but even users. They’re called “extrajudicial killings.” That means no arrest, no trial, no jury, no conviction. Just death. An estimated 7,000 so far.
The reaction from human rights groups was predictable and proper. The Asia director of Human Rights Watch said, “By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings.”
Predictable and proper. But also, in the world of realpolitik, naive. The Philippines is a longtime ally that has started tilting toward China. It is an important power on the South China Sea, where China would displace the United States. And according to the White House, the Philippines should be part of an American plan on the Pacific Rim to isolate and weaken nuclear-ambitious North Korea.
That’s where realpolitik comes in. It can be hard to swallow, but what it means is, sometimes we have to put national security ahead of moral values. Sometimes there is no happy ending to the story. Sometimes all we get is the best of a bad lot. Examples are abundant.
For more than a year I covered the revolution in Iran. Hardly a day went by without someone telling me a new story about the Shah’s savagery. The Shah was a bad guy. But he was a friend of the United States. So he was our bad guy. It was painful to stand beside him, but once he was pushed out, look what replaced him. We’d have been better off — arguably the world would have been better off — if the whole revolution had never happened.
On and off for several years I covered Libya under Col. Moammar Khadafy. On every trip to Tripoli, someone surreptitiously told me a story about malevolent misbehavior by this madman. He himself all but admitted to me in an interview that he had harbored terrorists who had just murdered Westerners at two European airports (he called them “freedom fighters”). Khadafy was a bad guy. But eventually, seeing which side his bread was buttered on, he became our bad guy. He could barely be trusted, but look at the anarchy that took root after his death. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Mediterranean refugees. We’d have been better off if Khadafy had not been overthrown.
I’ve done countless stories in Egypt. President Anwar Sadat, then Hosni Mubarak after him, they were no friends of democracy. I met them both; they wore suits and ties and seemed civilized. But they oppressed their opposition and ran a police state. It was understandable that in the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the presidency. Then it was deplorable that he was toppled and replaced by Egypt’s military chief. A nation ripe for the seeds of terror once again is a police state. Yet while it hurts me to say it, we are better off.
Even Iraq. I personally witnessed some of Saddam Hussein’s heinous atrocities. Although skeptical about the American case against him and leery of the simmering schism between Sunnis and Shiites, I was glad to see him go. But what followed was a barbaric outburst of centuries-old rancor. Which gave rise not only to the Islamic State but to unparalleled instability throughout the Middle East. That’s what replaced him.
So maybe we’ll be hosting a double-dealing dictator at the White House. He wouldn’t be the first. He won’t be the last (we’re sure to have the Saudis back). And if our realpolitik realities call for it, he shouldn’t be. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out, even shout out, when American allies act like animals. But it does mean we shouldn’t cut the cord, just because they do.
On Peace in the Middle East
Rarely have I hoped so hard that I’m wrong. But when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, despite the President’s confident contention last week that ”We will get this done,” we probably won’t.
I’m not a pessimist just because it’s President Trump, although a negotiation requiring delicacy and sensitivity to history and culture wouldn’t seem to be his strength. But no, I’m a pessimist because all eight presidents before him— from Nixon to Obama— tried for peace themselves. Some expended more energy and intellect than others. Some came closer than others. But ultimately, all failed.
Why? Because there are core issues on each side that for practical or ideological reasons do not encourage compromise: final borders for two separate sovereign states, surefire security for each, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the governance of Jerusalem, to which every side makes sacred claims.
When I covered the peace process, I met not only Palestinian and Israeli leaders, but Palestinian and Israeli citizens on the street. Some on both sides are practical and accept that when it comes to compromise on those core issues, something is better than nothing. But many are uncompromisingly bitter, still looking back almost 70 years to the contentious creation of the Jewish state and three all-out wars that followed, a bitterness that has been passed— on both sides— from generation to generation.
Others are impaired by more recent rancor, like Palestinian campaigns to stab, stone, and bomb Israelis, or Israel’s heavy-handed presence in the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. And complicating everything is conflict amongst Palestinians themselves. The Hamas faction says it’s now considering a change in its charter that would define “occupiers” as its enemies rather than “Jews.” But it still won’t recognize Israel, which makes the change a non-starter. And if it still targets Israel with terror, nothing changes at all.
Furthermore, I fear that President Trump is out of his league. For one thing, because he places such faith in his son-in-law and now senior advisor Jared Kushner whom he publicly praised saying, “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.” Really? But also because back in February, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, President Trump spoke about prospects for peace as if they were no more complicated than prospects for another Trump Tower.
On forming one Israeli-Palestinian state versus two separate states? “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.” When I read that, my reaction was that the President is naive, but I checked my preconceived instinct with an unparalleled expert, Ambassador Dennis Ross, America’s envoy and negotiator in the Middle East and advisor under four presidents. His unequivocal conclusion? “The Palestinians and Arabs won’t accept less than statehood.” Yet he adds, “Israel won’t accept a Palestinian state that would threaten its security and put it at risk.” Stalemate. Sound familiar?
To succeed, Ross told me, President Trump must not establish expectations that the parties find impossible to endure. Attitudes recent years have hardened. Excessive expectations could harden them even more.
That said, beginning with his trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel later this month, President Trump is right to try. Not because he’s likely to succeed, but because it is the only way the United States can keep its place at the head of the table. Russia is banging on the door, wanting its own seat there, and if we retreat from our role as the go-to nation, you know what they say about a vacuum: someone will fill it. Russia would shape a world worse than the one we’ve got.
So I am left hoping against hope that President Trump can do what none has done before him. I wish him well. All Americans, for the sake of security in that combustible corner of the world, should wish him well.
On Trump Fans
There must be a hundred columns out there appraising President Trump’s first hundred days. Most don’t rate them well. Mine certainly wouldn’t. But this column isn’t about what I think. I emailed almost thirty conservative friends who I figured might have voted for Trump. This is about what they think. I knew I’d hit the mark when one wrote back, “Wow. I am humbled and honored that a liberal would want MY opinion. Most just want to call me stupid for voting for Trump.”
I asked everyone the same questions and the first one was, “Are you just as enthusiastic now as you were on Election Day?” The answer across the board was yes, with a few caveats. Like this one: “In my mind I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, I voted for Mike Pence— a man of character— and I voted against Hillary Clinton.” Another qualified her answer this way: “We didn’t vote for him because we loved him. We didn’t want Hillary.” Another put it bluntly: “It was as much (maybe more) about not giving the Left another four years as it was Trump.”
Others were purely positive. One said, “Trump has surrounded himself with experienced business people and I think a perspective on what is going on not only in the United States but worldwide. I think it’s also encouraging that he questions so many things” Another explained that he’s “getting more accustomed to Trump every day.”
The next question was, Do the President’s reversals on any issues bother you at all? Which got a virtually universal answer: No! One friend said, “You get to be president, reality hits you square in the face and sometimes you have to change your mind to face situations you didn’t anticipate. I’m glad that he’s willing to do that.” Another called the President’s reversals “a real plus. It hopefully gives you humility, the responsibility to be the leader for 330-million of us, not just for the 63-million who voted for him.” One justified Trump’s reversals saying, “Rhetoric meets reality.” The worst thing anyone said about any reversals was, “Yes, they bother me a little. But nothing like Obama’s long list of broken promises.”
Another question was about the President’s accomplishments: what are their favorites? One friend said, “His moves to deregulate stuff that never needed to be regulated in the first place.” Another said, “Reducing the size of a bloated government… and allowing a major buildup in our depleted military.” Another gave me a laundry list: “Getting us out of TPP, pipeline, cutting red tape, keeping jobs in the U.S., pro-Israel stance, bombing ISIS, and immigration stance… all good.” One friend is glad Trump has changed from a “lead-from-behind and apologetic strategy
back to one of U.S. leadership.” Hands down, most invoked the installation of conservative Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
I asked about the President’s personal style. If anything brought mildly negative responses, it was Trump’s tweets. One even called them “sickening,” although another admiringly called them “unfiltered Donald Trump.” Another saw value: “They’re getting his message out when the media is not.”
Finally, I asked whether Trump is growing in the job. All said yes. One credits the President’s advisors: “He’s not afraid to say, ‘These guys advise me differently than what my gut tells me but I’m going to listen to them’.” According to another, “He hasn’t tried to be the bully saying ‘It’s our way or the highway.’ That’s how he campaigned and he’s growing into the job.”
What it comes down to is, the Donald Trump I see thro