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