Since the beginning of 2021, Greg’s commentaries have appeared on the writer’s platform Substack. To see them, with the most recent writings always at the top, please go to

What you see below is an archive of his pieces before he was published on Substack.

On Trump’s Talk

With less than two weeks left of our national nightmare, should Donald Trump really be removed prematurely from his presidency? After all, in his robotically delivered video released last night, finally he condemned the anarchists and called for calm, finally he said all the right things, starting with his very first words: “I would like to begin by addressing the heinous attack on the United States Capitol.”

Coming from anyone else, that opening sentence would have been genuine. Constructive. Believable. But coming from Trump’s dissembling lips, even those first words were a lie. As was almost every word that followed.

A “heinous attack?” That hardly squares with reports from inside the White House the day before— the day the terrorists invaded and vandalized and looted our poorly protected Capitol— that as he watched the attack, during which five people died, Donald Trump was “borderline enthusiastic.”

The next words to come? “Like all Americans, I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.” Then why, the morning of the invasion, did the president rile up a rally, with the White House as its backdrop, calling the growing chorus of voices that acknowledged an honest election “a criminal enterprise” and urging the ragtag rioters before they marched on the Capitol to “fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.” All this, of course, after Trump’s unhinged friend Rudy Giuliani already had called for “trial by combat,” and after his pathetic progeny Donald Junior— who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has never achieved anything on his own, save perhaps for shooting endangered species in Asia and Africa— had warned fellow Republicans who’d turned on his father, “We’re coming for you.”

And next, in Trump’s litany of lies? “I immediately deployed the National Guard and federal law enforcement to secure the building and expel the intruders.” Except, cowering like a coward in the Oval Office, he didn’t. Pence did.

Donald Trump’s next words might be the most perfidious of the whole short address: “America is and must always be a nation of law and order. The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy. To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay.” Are we meant to forget that only the night before, in a more spontaneous message to the rioters themselves, Trump assured them, “We love you, you’re very special?”

Then Trump went on: “We have just been through an intense election and emotions are high.” Yes we have, and with a ridiculous but relentless campaign to overturn the will of the American people, whose fault is that?

It’s worth continuing to quote this quack until you’ve read every word he uttered last night, because Trump’s two-faced duplicity is without parallel.

“But now tempers must be cooled and calm restored. We must get on with the business of America.” Yes we must but what’s wrong here is, the election was more than two months ago. Trump’s a little late. Anyway, the business of America since he lost the election has been to try to control the pandemic and restore the economy. He has lifted nary a finger for either.

“My campaign vigorously pursued every legal avenue to contest the election results. My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote.” This might have a ring of truth if everyone from state legislators to governors to federal judges, including Trump’s own justices on the Supreme Court, hadn’t already affirmed its integrity.

“In so doing, I was fighting to defend American democracy.” Aside from the acolytes around him, does anyone believe that? Not on your life. All he was fighting for was to stay in the Oval Office, protected from the possibilities of prosecution and poverty that could face him when he leaves.

“I continue to strongly believe that we must reform our election laws to verify the identity and eligibility of all voters and to ensure faith and confidence in all future elections.” This is rich, coming from the man who did all he could to steal the election by excluding citizens likely to vote against him, and demolishing, not ensuring, faith and confidence in future elections.

“Now, Congress has certified the results. A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth orderly and seamless transition of power.” Maybe, but only with a gun to his head. Thank goodness at least, he’ll skip the inauguration. Motives notwithstanding, maybe that’s his only kind act.

“This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.” If only we could believe that he meant a single word here. Trump’s whole time in office— almost every word, almost every action— has been the antithesis of such a call.

“2020 has been a challenging time for our people. A menacing pandemic has upended the lives of our citizens, isolated millions in their homes, damaged our economy and claimed countless lives. Defeating this pandemic and rebuilding the greatest economy on earth will require all of us working together.” Only one thing need be said to this: 360,000 deaths to date, almost 4,000 a day now, and still rising. And not a single spontaneous expression of empathy before now. No cohesive national strategy to control it either.

“It will require a renewed emphasis on the civic values of patriotism, faith, charity, community and family. We must revitalize the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that bind us together as one national family.” Bind us together? One national family? If only! I mean, when did that start?

“To the citizens of our country, serving as your president has been the honor of my lifetime. And to all of my wonderful supporters, I know you are disappointed, but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning.” By which he means what? Just 24 hours earlier, in one of his last tweets before being banned, he wrote of the riot, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.” That’s more of the same treasonous talk that caused the chaos in the first place. It’s anything but a new beginning.

“Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.” If there is a god, hopefully that will happen. But not because God listens to Donald Trump.

And now you’ve read every word that Donald Trump spoke.

Contrition? Atonement? Repentance? Not at all. It was nothing more than the ultimate example of hypocrisy. The ultimate act of cynicism.

So yes, if there is an effective way to throw Trump out on his tail, I say, by all means, go for it. We’ll be rid of him soon anyway, but if we can send a message to a bewildered world about America’s true values, and write a passage about those values for history to record, it is more than a distraction. It is our testimony that the treasonous conduct of Trump and his team shall not stand.

On Treason

You don’t need me to add to the commentary about the shameful and scary scene yesterday in Washington. There is plenty out there already. But I’m going to anyway, because it cannot be said often enough: Donald Trump is a danger to democracy. Some of us have thought so for four frightening years, but every American ought to think so today.

Trump encouraged the rampage in the nation’s capital. Not just at his defiant rally hours earlier when he said “We will never concede” and then told his mob of madmen as they turned toward the United States Capitol, “I’ll be with you,” but the president has encouraged it since the day in November when he became the sorest of all sore losers in American history.

Life is replete, of course, with sore losers. What makes this despicable president even lower than the rest is his willingness, his eagerness as he goes down, to bring the nation down with him. What makes him even lower than the rest is that he is the president. Not that he knows the meaning of the word. For four years, it has been obvious to many that he never has. Today, it should be clear to all.

It’s nothing short of pitiful that Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson had to presciently propound the other day, “It is good that all 10 living former defense secretaries signed a Post op-ed warning against involving the military in any election dispute— but scary that such a piece had to be written.”

But it did, thanks to Donald Trump. The man is so self-centered on his own ego, his own future, his own political base, that even when he finally issued his tweet urging the Capitol’s invaders to go home, he didn’t repudiate their common cause: he still claimed that he’d won a landslide election, that the vote totals were fraudulent, that the other side was trying to “take it away.” The very language that led to Washington’s mutinous mayhem in the first place.

Those who have supported this deranged, delusional, desperate demagogue bear some of the blame. For four years they have exceeded the limits of linguistics to justify his treacherous behavior, as if “norm-shattering” is justification to shatter norms. It’s not. As a friend wrote, “I’m sorry, but we wouldn’t have just called Al Capone ‘norm-shattering’ and left it at that.”

First among the blameworthy are members of the body politic who have not just acquiesced to Trump’s deplorable defiance of the election, but they’ve endorsed it, they’ve embraced it. No need to name names, partly because there’s not enough space here to name them all. But their perilous support for Trump’s lies flies in the face of something else that also can’t be said too often: local election officials, legislatures, governors, judges and justices clear up to the Supreme Court— even the three justices appointed by this president— in effect have declared that his charges of electoral corruption are claptrap.

Mind you, if you need to understand his irrational and relentless rage, maybe it can be put in five simple words: Donald Trump is running scared. Not just because he’s now a loser and all the world can see it, which for him is worse than catching Covid, but because he knows what his future might hold: prosecution for crimes as a businessman, hundreds of millions of dollars in loans called in, and possibly, just possibly, if there really is a long-rumored tape of Trump in compromising sexual situations in the hands of Russia’s President Putin, Putin could put it out for the public to see.

Columnist Robinson also wrote about all the hogwash Trump and his lapdogs have spread about the election, absent any evidence, culminating with his seditious phone call last weekend to Georgia’s Secretary of State, asking, “Which would be more alarming? That Trump knows this is all nonsense and is just throwing random stuff against the wall, hoping that enough of it sticks to allow him to steal those 11,780 votes? Or that the most powerful man in the world, the keeper of the nuclear codes, is so divorced from reality that he actually believes this insanity?”

To that point, whether Donald Trump exemplifies the ultimate cynicism or the ultimate sickness, in a way it no longer matters. Treason means you have betrayed your nation. Trump is guilty of treason.

Until now, I have felt ambiguous about proposals to prosecute this man after he loses the immunity of the presidency. The consequences for civil order could be fierce. After this week, I am unambiguous no longer. Try him for treason. Take him away in chains. He deserves that, and worse.

On Pandemic and Politics

• Back in the pandemic’s early days, for those who lost a job to go to (but not the resources to survive), a month of Sundays sounded kind of nice. But every season runs its course. Now it feels more like a month of Mondays.

• Maybe the luckiest generation in America today is mine, the baby boomers. For the one venerable generation even older, the pandemic has laid bare its vulnerability to this virus, and laid low a record number of its victims. For the generations younger, it’s not just that life has been put on hold, but that so much forward progress has been lost, from job growth to social contact to precious parts of education. Boomers are the lucky ones because by and large, we aren’t yet exposed in nursing homes, but are well past the developmental years where for others, the pandemic has brought such life-shattering changes.

• Truer than ever now, life is not a fairy tale. Some stories don’t have a happy ending. From the first hellish death from the virus, from the first plunge into poverty, this one hasn’t. And won’t.

• If we didn’t know it before, we know it now: men really don’t need neckties (we just need to be neater when we’re sipping soup). Women probably feel the same about 6-inch stilettos (well, except for Ivanka and Melania).

• Some shortages make sense: propane-powered heat towers for people with outdoor space since seeing friends is safer outdoors than in. Bikes for people who don’t want to go to the gym or take the bus. Even flour, because so many more people are spending so much more time at home. But the toilet paper thing? That one will never make sense.

• Years ago, I wrote a book called Life in the Wrong Lane. It is mainly about the life of a foreign correspondent— my life. I came up with the title when I thought about television coverage of hurricanes, where you’ll see shots from local news helicopters of highways packed like parking lots because everyone who’s smart is in the right lane, trying to get as far from the trouble as they can. But every once in a while a car goes whistling down the wrong lane, racing toward the trouble. Those are the first responders… and the journalists. Now, with the pandemic, it’s frontline workers who live life in the wrong lane. They walk knowingly toward trouble, day in and day out. They are healthcare workers, nursing home aides, teachers, grocery clerks, police officers, and others we never fully appreciated before. Maybe now, that changes.

• Plenty of people just don’t read any news from reliable sources. They don’t read it, they don’t watch it, they don’t listen to it. So to be magnanimous toward some who show no obedience to good guidance from public health experts, maybe we can cut them a speck of slack. But when people we know are smart and well-informed but still ignore reality, there’s only one appalling lesson: we truly live in alternate universes. And only one alarming conclusion: trying to explain it with logic is a total waste of time.

• Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt (and if you don’t get da point, say da sentence out loud).

• One of the key questions for which we don’t have all the answers is, what won’t ever again be the same? This pandemic has forced changes in how we gather, how we shop, how we work, how we eat, how we communicate, how we learn. It has blighted businesses, it has heightened homelessness. It has made some of us forlorn of our loneliness, and others fearful of our fellow man. Some of these impacts will be long-lasting for sure. But which will be permanent? We just don’t know. Not yet.

• But maybe Zoom? I’ve come to hate Zoom. Sure, it lets us connect with those we love and those we miss and right now there is no substitute and until we reach the light at the end of the tunnel, I wouldn’t trade it. But still, maybe because it’s not what we really want, I hate Zoom.

• From its birth, America has been great. At least until four years ago when one man, enabled and encouraged by many more and showing a lethal lack of leadership during the pandemic, threatened to take it down. But last month, the majority of Americans took him down. There never was a need to make America great again. Beginning January 20th, its enduring greatness will be affirmed.

• But not before we must endure a few more weeks of the dangerous and despicable doings of Donald Trump, who is like a little boy screaming, “If I can’t have what I want, no one will.” Now, on top of his continuing campaign to depreciate our democracy, this petulant president has refused to sign, without empathy or remorse, a bi-partisan funding bill, letting programs for the poor expire— on which millions depend day to day for their survival— and retarding relief for the twelve-and-a-half million Americans who have been thrown out of work.

Two New York Times White House correspondents, trying to figure out what drives this cruel creature, wrote, “It is not clear that Mr. Trump’s latest behavior is anything other than a temper tantrum, attention seeking or a form of therapy.” I beg to differ. It is an act of domestic terrorism. The basic definition of terrorism is, an act that is dangerous to human life, committed against non-combatants, for social or political gain.

Trump is a terrorist.

But soon he will be out on his ear. Then possibly impoverished. Maybe even imprisoned. Good riddance. The tunnel does have an end.

On The Twilight Zone

We are nine months into the pandemic. Nine months and counting.

By my count, this twilight zone began back in March, on the disquieting date of Friday the 13th, with the nation locked down and the death toll shooting up. Nine months. As it turns out, time also flies when you’re not having fun.

And speaking of time flying, can you believe that Congress impeached President Trump only one year ago? After the year we’ve just had, it feels more like two.

But if we and those we love haven’t fallen fatally ill from the coronavirus, and haven’t plummeted into the plight of poverty, certain fruitful lessons in this unnerving year of 2020 have been learned. Some about the pandemic, some about politics. Some good, some bad. And some just amusing.

Like shaving. Overrated, totally. So are suits.

And, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For the first time— and I never thought I’d say it— I’m grateful for all the choices. Because maybe one out of twenty is worth watching.

We have heroes where we never saw heroes before. In schools, hospitals, police precincts, grocery stores. “First responders,” “essential industries,” and “frontline workers” take on whole new definitions.

And we have adapters we never might have imagined. Like restaurateurs— those who’ve survived— who have reinvented themselves to safely feed us. A friend of mine is a developer who, in the early days of restricted dining, had to convince city officials to let restaurants put their tables out on the sidewalk, let alone on a protected part of the street. Now, no one would stop that. (And no city would forgo whatever tax revenue it brings in.)

Another positive lesson learned: even isolation is okay if you share it with someone you love. Or for some, even just like. Far better to bear it together than alone.

A more negative lesson though: although I’m not going out nearly as much as I used to do, the credit card bills aren’t a whole lot lower than they used to be. Amazon’s stock is soaring.

And a lesson affirmed that’s much sadder and more serious: life can be a really raw deal. Since the dark dawn of the coronavirus, I’ve had five different friends, five, who have been diagnosed with an unrelated plague. All had been careful to protect themselves from the pandemic. But for them the culprit is cancer, not Covid. The lesson is, all the care in the world won’t protect you against a disease that doesn’t discriminate.

For me, the best news in the pandemic is about people. By and large, most are pretty smart. Each of us has had to find our own level of risk tolerance, but most, at least in my orbit, have found one that lets us avoid the most precarious risks while not going crazy in self-imposed captivity.

But the bad lesson is, being born smart doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually smart. Exhibit A: the recently-resigned White House advisor Dr. Scott Atlas, who even Stanford’s Hoover Institution has all but disowned. Exhibit B: a doctor educated at Columbia University named Jane Orient, invited to be lead witness at a Senate hearing to tout the dangerously unproven drug hydroxychloroquine as a tool against the coronavirus and to diss scientifically vetted vaccines as “reckless.”

But there’s more good news about lessons learned too: most people are pretty respectful. It might mean wearing a mask to minimize the chance that they pass on the virus if they have it but don’t know it. It might mean waiting for the next elevator when someone’s already on the one that stops. Or moving aside on a sidewalk when someone’s coming the other way.

But respect is not universal. Case in point: even after the president himself was sidelined with the coronavirus because he was incessantly careless— along with the First Lady and cabinet secretaries and White House aides and ultimately his own lawyers— Trump and his enablers kept pretending there was nothing to worry about. Like the rest of us, they don’t always know whether or not they’ve got the virus themselves, but by flying in the face of sensible and not immensely inconvenient guidelines, they put all of us at risk. A risk with consequences of life and death.

And there’s another lesson about the meaning of flat-out stupid. Like the commissioners in Weld County, Colorado, who have defiantly refused to comply with statewide curbs to stem the spread of the pandemic, insisting that they will rely on people’s “personal responsibility” instead. The trouble is, this county— where they opt for personal responsibility over shared responsibility— ran out of ICU beds. Something tells me, personal responsibility isn’t working.

Meantime a state health official from Wyoming, just north of Weld County, callously referred at a public event last month to the “so-called pandemic,” characterizing vaccine development as a conspiracy by China and Russia to spread worldwide communism. What?!? He has yet to tell us if these two perpetual foes are furtively plotting together.

And speaking of stupid, another lesson reaffirmed is that there’s a sucker born every day. Can you believe that since the election, Trump-adoring Americans have sent more than $200-million to his new PAC and his reelection campaign? Someone should tell them, he has spent less than $10-million of their money in his desperate crusade to undermine democracy and overturn the election. The rest? Unaccountable.

And can you believe that some of the loudest bygone voices for the Constitution now are trying to all but trash it.

And that some people still buy the bilge that America’s record rates of Covid have come as a result of more testing? Someone needs to explain to them that with some 3,000 deaths a day now and 300,000 to date, not a single one came from a test.

So the last lesson we’ve learned is this: The Twilight Zone is not just a fanciful fictional series on television. It is real. It is all around us.

On Dictators

Call it a cautionary tale in this disconcerting year of 2020.

A decade ago now, I shot a television documentary in Russia. The grammatically-graceless working title was, “How does Putin get away with what he gets away with?” Having covered draconian days in the Soviet Union, when all any citizen seemed to want was freedom, I was staggered by o’s swelling stranglehold on his nation’s short-lived post-Soviet liberties.

One man I interviewed in Moscow was the head of Russia’s only reliable polling agency, called Levada, which had recently asked people about their perceptions of Joseph Stalin, the tyrant who’d ruled through dread and death for a quarter of the 20th Century. The verdict? 40-percent of Russians thought Stalin had brought “more good than bad.”

Which is, equally staggeringly, how some see their own historical dictators in other places around the planet.

I once covered an attempted coup in Spain by fanatics for Francisco Franco. They longed for the autocrat who’d aligned with Hitler and Mussolini and oppressed their nation for 35 years.

I’ve seen ethnic Serbs commend the conduct of war criminals— the likes of Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic— who exterminated enemies on their behalf.

In North Korea, each of the three “Dear Leaders” created a cult of personality that fooled people into believing their despot was all that stood between them and debilitating foreign domination. In her compelling book Nothing to Envy— the title taken from a North Korean children’s song called We Have Nothing to Envy in the World— author Barbara Demick asks of the brainwashed masses in that cloistered country, “What if the nightmare imagined by George Orwell in 1984 were real?”

And lest we forget, even if not a sovereign nation, 909 sorry souls died together in 1978 at Jonestown, Guyana, at the command of the charismatic zealot Jim Jones, who lured them to his paragon of utopia, but locked them in his prison of body and mind.

I’ve also done stories with citizens right here at home who hanker for Hitler. To say nothing of the millions during World War II who cheered on the Nazi death machine itself.

Staggering, but cautionary tales, all.

This all came back to me last month when The New York Times ran a fascinating feature called, “Along Russia’s Road of Bones.” It was about the 1,200-mile trans-Siberian highway that carried countless of Stalin’s political convicts to their enslavement and most to their death. Today, the cold and isolated towns that are now just shadows of Stalin’s time are inhabited largely by elderly survivors, or their descendants. But the amazing thing is, many revere the dictator.

Yes, Stalin did modernize some characteristics of his country. He did command a persevering Nazi defeat. He did elevate the Soviet Union to its decades-long status as a superpower. But he also did create gulags without mercy, and famine without precedent. Under Stalin’s reign of terror, some 20 million Soviet citizens died.

“That Stalin was a great man is obvious,” one man said, even though his own father and grandfather had come to Siberia as Stalin’s prisoners. “Stalin was God” said a 93-year-old woman, who had served a sentence herself of 10 years in the gulag. “Stalin wasn’t at fault at all. It was the party and all those people. Stalin just signed.”

That popularity poll I saw a dozen years ago was a portent. According to The Times, Joseph Stalin’s popularity is at its highest level in decades. I could argue that it’s not a very high bar, but high or low, he outpaces all other Soviet leaders in public esteem.

It’s staggering, but maybe not surprising. Call it the consequence of people’s isolation. Of their present-day struggles. Of the passage of time. Call it the consequence of the information bubbles in which more and more of us live, and the lessons of the past that more and more of us forget. Or just call it the upshot of human nature… although maybe downshot is a better word.

I could argue that there are parallels— not to the behavior of history’s odious oppressors, but to their popularity— today in America.

Consider the fact that in the wake of Trump’s incontestable defeat, one of his shameless lawyers tweeted for him to “use the Insurrection Act, Suspend the December Electoral College Vote, and set up Military Tribunals immediately.” And that another said that the Homeland Security official fired last month for declaring the elections the “most secure in American history” should be “drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot.” Predictably, a whistleblower protection group condemned the comment. Equally predictably, the president did not.

If you didn’t know better, you’d assume these anti-democratic atrocities came from Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, Uganda, Afghanistan, or a host of other countries whose conduct we typically condemn. But you do know better. They came from right here at home.

And, consider the fact that the man who has abused his authority and has bullied his rivals and has been doing his damndest to convince his countrymen to mistrust the underpinnings of our democracy— the independent judiciary, federal law enforcement and intelligence, the free press (which with Stalinesque denunciation he has called “the enemy of the people”), and now, the electoral will of the majority— this man got 74-million Americans to vote for his reelection. Consider that to this day, despite a dearth of proof, more than half the members of his political party actually say he rightfully won.

The only saving grace is that more than 80-million voted the other way.

Still, as commentator Frank Bruni asked on election night, “Just how badly must a leader behave, just how rotten must his character be, for him to be rejected unequivocally in America circa 2020?” Maybe the working title of a documentary on this era should be, “How does Trump get away with what he gets away with?”

Even if he doesn’t get away with it any more, roughly half of all his constituents have shown their approval for his behavior. A personal friend painted this perturbing picture: “What we are witnessing is the demasking of America.”

Britain’s Winston Churchill famously said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” Our own future is shaky, if cautionary tales are ignored.

On Lies

Watching the President of the United States and his sycophants struggling to stay salient reminds me of the sardonic line in the movie Duck Soup when Chico Marx is caught in an untruth: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

If you’re Donald Trump, we now see with conspicuous clarity, the answer is, “me.”

But the truth is, he is the one who’s been caught in a lie. A big lie. A lie contrived to convince the country that counting every legally-cast vote is fraud.

It’s not. It’s democracy. As columnist Greg Sargent put it, “The fraud in question is the counting of your votes.” That was shockingly reinforced by Thursday’s stunning announcement from the Department of Homeland Security that in this election, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” It was, the statement said, “the most secure in American history.”

The defense rests.

If Trump were the only one to get hurt by his malicious whoppers, no matter. In fact, good riddance. But he’s not. Because as Tom Friedman wrote unerringly if despairingly last week, lying has been normalized at a scale without precedent, “the worst legacy of the Trump presidency.”

Remember when we all were younger (which these days feels like about a century ago)? We thought we knew the difference between good and bad, between right and wrong, between truth and a lie. But today, thanks in part to polarization in politics, we can’t always tell. We now live in a world where curious citizens get contradictory accounts from conflicting news organizations. A world where voices and images are so manipulated that maybe the sun really does come up in the west. A world, since Trump walked into the White House, with “alternative facts.”

In other words, lying is the new normal.

Which makes Trump’s big lie an assault on our culture, an attack on our republic. It is an act of sabotage to diminish our faith in democracy. And maybe, too, another nail in the coffin of our country’s once luminous image overseas. Trump has taken a blowtorch to the bedrock of what we’ve long treasured, and given comfort to adversaries overseas who crave American chaos. His big lie is the match that can burn down as much of our dependable democracy, and our national security, as this wannabe despot is willing to sacrifice, to salvage his pride, perhaps to stay out of penury and prison.

So he tells the big lie— “We did win this election,” despite every tenable sign that he didn’t— then amplifies it, while his lovers and lawyers labor to prolong it, filing frivolous lawsuits that Don Quixote himself would never touch. It is what presidential historian Michael Beschloss calls “the abuse of presidential power to keep himself in office.” As television comedian Jimmy Kimmel said, “Trump’s like the guy who knows he’s broke and still has the waiter run his credit card ten more times.” Funny, if it weren’t so true. Funny, if it weren’t so evil. Funny, if it weren’t so dangerous.

But it is. Donald Trump’s big lie hurts us all. Big time.

There’s also an axiom behind it that hurts us just as much, and ought to scare us even more. To quote David Shipler of The New York Times, “Lies don’t work unless they’re believed.” As the paper’s Moscow bureau chief in the Cold War days, he would know. Trump’s lies work. They are believed by an astounding slice of the American pie, and bolstered by leading lights of his party. Isn’t it ironic, that people who have made a show of flying the American flag now are untroubled to trample on it.

What confounds a lot of us is, why? Personally, I’ve stopped trying to figure it out. Nature or nurture, maybe some of both. But if you look back in history, you’ll see it’s not the first time that a deviant, destructive, delusional leader is empowered by deviant, destructive, delusional disciples. Do the names Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, Hess, Eichmann, and Speer ring a bell? They supported a wicked man who acted not just odiously but insanely. But without them, he couldn’t have acted at all.

So it is with those behind Trump. Unless they have actively tried to disable his madness, they have enabled it. For four years he has undermined the confidence in and credibility of certain cornerstones of our society, from judges to law enforcement leaders to intelligence divisions to public health agencies to the news media and now, to our whole election process. Unless they’ve tried to extinguish it, his henchmen have helped hold that blowtorch with which Trump threatens America. Some leaders in his party have been silent at best. But that’s not enough. Because if they don’t try to tame the autocratic compulsions of this president, they are nearly as bad as the autocrat himself.

Eventually, they might have to make a choice: Do they want to be listed in the company of authoritarian nations like Congo and Chad, Laos and Libya, Iran and Belarus, North Korea and Russia, or do they want to underpin the proud legacy of the United States of America? Which means, they’ll have to make this choice: Donald Trump, or American Democracy? This pathetic president has left no middle ground.

I’ll make a prediction here: Donald Trump will never concede. That would be to admit that he is a loser, and a staggeringly sore loser at that. The man is too selfish for such a state of grace. He will walk out of the White House on January 20th— with or without a military escort— but he will not concede that it is the voters’ will. Instead he will do what he has done since the first day he walked into that hallowed house: he will lie, he will rant, he will insist that the election was rigged, his ouster illegal.

He will continue to subvert our democracy, and many Americans’ faith in it. Because, as we have learned painfully by now, millions will believe him, and not their lying eyes.

That’s what we’re up against. Heaven help us.

On Trouble

If you’re not still scared, you’re not paying attention.

Because even now when Joe Biden can confidently claim not just a popular vote edge of some four million Americans but a verifiable victory in the Electoral College, there will likely be trouble. Not from most of the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump and who respect our democracy. They might not like the final result but they are Americans, they are patriots, they will peacefully abide by the outcome.

But if the history of just the last few weeks is any guide, let alone the whole of Trump’s presidency, there will be trouble from those whose unflagging obedience and blind belief in the president might send them to the streets.

Some, I fear, with their guns. With the covert but clear encouragement of the president.

Hyperbole? Hardly.

Look back to just the day before yesterday, when Trump’s former campaign manager and White House senior counselor Steve Bannon spoke on a podcast about Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray, both of whom have spoken out against Trump: “I’d put the heads on pikes. I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning,” to which his podcast co-host added, “You know what, Steve, yesterday there was the anniversary of the hanging of two Tories in Philadelphia… This is what we used to do to traitors.”

Or look back, also two days ago, when the president’s rabid son Donald Trump Jr. called on his father “to go to total war over this election.”

Hyperbole? Depends on who’s looking.

Look back just a month to the documented plot to kidnap, try, and execute the Democratic governor of Michigan. The president’s repugnant response? “Maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t.”

Look back to Trump’s four years in the White House. Did this president ever try to pacify the conspiracy spreaders, the anti-semites, the racists? No. Remember what he said to Savannah Guthrie during his NBC Town Hall when she held his feet to the fire for tweeting nonsense about Joe Biden having a Seal Team killed? “That was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position.” He enables the fanatics, he empowers them, in their misshapen minds he even ennobles them.

Look back to Trump’s campaign against Biden. Did he honestly depict the differences between them? No, because he didn’t just exaggerate Biden’s place on the political spectrum, he purposely perverted it. Biden, a socialist? Hogwash. I’ve covered news in many socialist countries and what’s obvious is, neither Trump nor his followers have a clue what socialism means. What’s more, as Trump said so often during the campaign as if it disqualifies him, Joe Biden has been in the public eye for almost 50 years. If the man were a socialist, by now we’d know it.

But because Trump lies as easily as bees sting, tens of millions of Americans think Joe Biden is a socialist and, from Trump’s own lying lips, Kamela Harris is a communist. Will that drive some of Trump’s most fervent followers to go to any lengths to keep this president in office? The alarming answer might lie in talk on Trump’s side— including Bannon in that threatening podcast— of civil war, which would be a whole lot worse than looters smashing windows and grabbing a pair of Nikes.

Donald Trump these last few days has done all he could to undermine our faith in this democracy, which means, he undermines democracy itself. He’s been calling the vote counts (only the ones that went against him, of course) a conspiracy, a fraud. But maybe it’s not hard to understand: the narcissist faces not just humiliation but conceivably incarceration when he’s kicked out of office. So this selfish unscrupulous man unleashes the worst instincts of his acolytes. The scary thing is, even if he goes away— in chains if need be— they don’t.

Is Joe Biden the perfect person to lead this nation? Maybe not. But is he the right one right now? Absolutely. Because with Biden in the Oval Office, once again we’ll have a president who sends love letters to allies, not adversaries. Once again we’ll have a president who treats people decently, not maliciously. Once again we’ll have a president with a history of compromise, not con jobs. Once again we’ll have a president who leads by example and wears a mask, not ridicule those who do.

I’ve said this many times but it’s more important now than ever: whether on the left or on the right, all of us— almost all anyway— want the best for our nation. The trouble is, we have different ways of getting there and sometimes, different definitions of what’s best.

If Joe Biden is the winner of the election, that’s what he’s up against. That’s what we’re all up against. As we have in the past, we can figure it out. Unless those who can’t accept a democratic outcome don’t let us.

A Closing Argument

If you’re part of the plurality of Americans who won’t vote until Election Day itself, this is for you.

A good friend of mine— as decent a man as I know, philanthropic and family-oriented, smart and educated, unshakably moral with middle class roots— told me the other day he’s voting for Trump, because “His economic policies are right for me.”

Well, when it comes to wanting more money in my pocket, I’m as eager for earnings as anyone else. But while I could argue until the rivers run dry about the toxic long-term impact of Trump’s economic policies— the trade wars, the deficit, the unbalanced tax cuts— let alone his environmental policies, his immigration policies, his healthcare policies, that’s not what your decision this time ought to be about.

What it ought to be about is the irreparable cost— to our standards of honesty, and decency, and morality, not to mention the cost to our security— of a second term with Trump. Wearing my own decision on my sleeve, I’ll channel Joe Biden: “Decency, science, democracy, they’re all on the ballot.” What your decision ought to be about is whether the next president strengthens these traits of our national character, or weakens them. Whether the next president leaves this nation a better place than when he came, or worse.

There is no contest. To quote San Francisco columnist Nick Hoppe, “Donald Trump is an evil, miserable human being who has no business being the leader of our country.”

Why not? Let me count the ways.

Read reports from abroad and you’ll see, the western world that America once led no longer looks to us for leadership. Donald Trump in these four years has trashed old friends and cozied up with tyrants. His love letters with North Korea’s brutal Kim Jon-un, his baffling bromance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Trump revealed a lot when he took Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence chiefs about Russian meddling in our elections. He revealed even more when he recently said of Turkey’s thuggish president Erdogan, “The tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them.”

Moreover, some of the most maniacal regimes on earth have greater nuclear capacity today than they had when Trump came to office. Case closed.

So Donald Trump hasn’t made America great again. He has only made it weaker, he has only made it worse. Less safe. Less influential. Less respected. Sometimes the laughing stock. Another four years of this already unanchored president and he will be totally unleashed.

Meantime here at home, he has unshackled the worst, not the best, of our nation. He can minimize as much as he likes his disgraceful declaration, after neo-Nazis and Klansmen rallied for white power in Charlottesville, about “very fine people on both sides”— or walk back his refusal to ask the armed and atrocious “Proud Boys” to stand down— but it doesn’t change the facts on the ground. These people now think they can take off their hoods and militarize their malfeasance. If you don’t believe it, just ask the governor of Michigan if she feels safe any more. Or ever will. This law-and-order president even had the effrontery last week to say of the plot to kidnap, try, and execute her, “Maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t.”

Trump has been trying to pin all the darkness and disorder in America for the past six months on Joe Biden. But connect the dots: none of it happened on Biden’s watch. It happened on Trump’s.

And then there’s Covid, which the president pretends, at our nation’s peril, is disappearing. Even the staid, 208-year-old New England Journal of Medicine took a stand on the election last month, which it has never done before, calling Trump and his team “dangerously incompetent,” lamenting that they “recklessly squandered lives.” With twice as many Americans now dead from Covid in just nine months than the total of Americans killed in every war since WW2, the numbers speak for themselves. And as you read this, the trend lines keep moving in ever more dangerous directions.

Let this meme that’s been going around sink in: The President of the United States has done more to stop us from voting than he has done to stop us from dying.

He has made America— at least parts of America— more militant. More hateful. Less moral. Less respectful. Less secure. And during this pandemic, less likely to survive. Another four years, if he’s let loose without even a crumb of caution about reelection? Heaven help us.

Donald Trump’s mood is dark. His language is dark. His vengeance is dark. His gospel is dark. And if you think about leading by example, his example is dark. That what’s behind another meme going around, which shows a young boy on his dad’s shoulders holding a sign saying, “I’m not allowed to act like the President.”

I hope that come Inauguration Day in January, he can put that sign down.

On Women Taking On Trump

It didn’t start with then-Fox News’s moderator Megan Kelly challenging Donald Trump during a debate in his first presidential campaign, but it sure got legs since she did: women, women, challenging and, equally important, not collapsing before a chauvinistic president of the United States.

The weaker sex? Look again.

Kelly began her first question in that early debate with, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” to which Trump said afterward, (characteristically more crass than class), “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever…” Ever since, it has looked like him waging war on women in the news media, and them waging war on him.

To which I say to every one of them, “You go, girl.” Because it’s not a war, not from their end anyway. It’s merely women doing their jobs. Just as well as men. Often better.

Look at NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. When she intrepidly questioned Trump during his Town Hall in mid-October and he said something shocking or shifty or just plain stupid, she didn’t let it pass. Like when she asked how he could tweet out a phony conspiracy theory about Joe Biden having Seal Team 6 killed to cover up the fake death of Osama Bin Laden, and Trump’s answer was, “That was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position,” to which Guthrie retorted, “You’re the president, you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!” As with every parry with the president though, she said it with a persistently disarming smile on her face.

Or NBC’s Kristen Welker, who moderated the second Trump-Biden debate. As conservative columnist Matt Labash wrote, “I would rather eat a live puppy with baby-seal sprinkles than moderate one of these things. It’s that thankless a task.” But here’s how David Bauder of the Associated Press described Welker’s thankless task: she didn’t stifle exchanges, but she did steer them, “cutting off the discussion when it was becoming unproductive.” That is, of course, what any moderator should be doing, but she was doing it unflinchingly in the wake of the president telling a rally a few days earlier that she is “extremely unfair,” then in a Fox & Friends interview calling her “terrible.” I’ve defended Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, who Trump steamrolled in the first debate, because what can you do when a steamroller is barreling toward you and you’re not allowed to run? But in the second debate, whenever Trump began a polemic beyond any productive purpose, Welker reined him in with her unfaltering commandment, “We need to move on.”

Only a little less illustrious in the spotlight is PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor. Reacting to her questions at briefings, the president has called her “threatening,” he has branded her “racist,” he has labeled her queries “nasty.” He told her in one exchange, “It’s always get ya, get ya, get ya… that’s why nobody trusts the media anymore.” And how had she tried that day to “get ya?” By asking about Trump’s assertion early in the pandemic that some governors’ requests for assistance were overblown or unnecessary. In other words, by doing her job.

Finally (for now), Leslie Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes. Only partway through her sit-down interview last week with the president at the White House, he walked out, later accusing her of “bias, hatred, and rudeness.” And what was behind that? She held his feet to the fire, that’s what. Like her response that “You know that’s not true” after he appreciably exaggerated, “We created the greatest economy in the history of our country.” Her response that “There’s no real evidence of that” after he regurgitated his unsupported complaint about 2016, “They spied on my campaign.” Her response that “People can see cases going up all over the (country)” after he deceptively claimed yet again, “We’ve turned the corner.”

In short, as she warned him at the start of the interview, she’d be tough. She was.

The weaker sex? Hardly.

It’s not as if men never provoked the president— CBS’s Dan Rather was unpopular with the Nixon White House for being a dogged correspondent, especially covering Watergate, and once famously sparred with Nixon when he rose at a public appearance to pose a question and Nixon asked with a smug smile, “Are you running for something?” to which Rather thought a moment, then shot back, “No Sir Mr. President, are you?” Recently I asked Dan about his rationale for what some saw as insolence: “Always respect the office,” he said, “but never be intimidated by the person who holds it.”

Or ABC’s Sam Donaldson, who got under the skin of both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan because, if there was an issue on which the president’s words might matter, even when an event was declared only a “photo op” or correspondents were expected to be silenced by the turboshaft engines of Marine One, Donaldson would shout above the din to ask about it, (which Reagan just laughed off with his classic class, saying, “That’s just Sam being Sam.”). Sam once told me his rationale, which is very much like Rather’s: presidents deserve respect, but not regal reverence. Even presidents, after all, still put their pants on one leg at a time.

But women sometimes sport a skirt, not pants, which metaphorically leaves them as free as men, sometimes freer, to say what they think, to ask what they need to ask, to practice their professions without compromise, and to make fair-minded Americans proud.

On Words For Trump

For some writers, “writer’s block” means you’re having trouble finding something to write about. Maybe it’s better described as “mental block” than “writer’s block.”

For me though, in this Terrifying Time of Trump— when “something to write about” explodes in our faces every day, sometimes every hour— the issue is something else: finding the right words to write. It’s not so much an impoverishment of material, as an oversupply. An oversupply of adjectives, an oversupply of nouns, to depict a pathologically dishonest, disrespectful, indecent, and increasingly desperate man.

What it comes down to is, every time I think I’ve found a few good words to portray this persistently poor president, the next thing he says, or the next thing he does, demands something even stronger.

So I’ve compiled a list of words that although far from exhaustive, paint a picture of Donald Trump. If you feel as I do that our nation will be forever diminished if we suffer these stains for four more years, feel free to sprinkle them into dialogues you have, and add more at your pleasure.

Mocking masks and ignoring social distancing, he holds campaign rallies with no concern for anyone else’s health.

There is a time and a place to throw around the F-word. A national radio broadcast isn’t one of them. Unless you’re Trump, earlier this month on Limbaugh.

Dangerous, that is, to American soldiers. The man won’t even scold Vladimir Putin for putting bounties on their lives.

“I think I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president, and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln.” (June 12, 2020) C’mon man, why stop there?

After a woman is killed protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Trump says, “Very fine people on both sides.” (August 15, 2017)

Aside from his stale stock line that “even one death is too many,” we have never, NEVER actually heard somber unscripted remorse about more than 220,000 countrymen now dead from the coronavirus, whether Trump bears responsibility for many of those deaths or not.

His campaign ads create the impression of endorsements by Dr. Fauci, who is taken completely out of context, then by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose image is used without his permission.

Disconnected, that is, from reality. “We are rounding the turn.” (October 15, 2020) Yeah, right. Declared on a day when at least ten states reported their highest coronavirus case totals since the pandemic began, a day when nationwide the curve is increasing on infections, on hospitalizations, and soon, if history is any guide, on deaths. Meantime, “Next year is going to be better than ever before.” Just like that. 11 million unemployed? Poof, you’ve got jobs. More homeless than ever before? Poof, you’ve got homes. Just like that.

“We will have Healthcare which is FAR BETTER than ObamaCare, at a FAR LOWER COST.” (October 12, 2020) Oh yeah? When??

“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” (August 17, 2020)

At a rally, upset about public safety efforts of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Trump fans chant “Lock her up.” All Trump says in response? “Lock them all up.” (October 17, 2020) No condemnation, though, of the fans already locked up for plotting to kidnap, try, and execute the governor.

“Your all time favorite president.” (May 10, 2019)

The latest? Claiming Democrats want to undermine white suburbs with African refugees.

Now he calls Dr. Fauci “a disaster,” then pouring it on with, “People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots.” (October 19, 2020.) Maybe it’s Trump who’s tired of hearing Fauci, whose latest national trust rating is more than half again higher than his.

Tax records show, Trump has leveraged the presidency to enrich his companies and line his pockets. His kids’ pockets too.

Does the name Stormy Daniels ring a bell? Or maybe Trump’s infamous boast, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” (2005)

Sorry, there’s just not enough room on this page.

Mocking a disabled reporter. Denouncing a Gold Star family. Calling fallen heroes “losers.” Where shall we start?

Thousands of immigrant children, some just toddlers, separated from their parents. For months.

I know, I know, this sounds like a departure from the other adjectives until you understand what’s obscene about Trump’s loyalty: he’s loyal to white supremacists, to crazed conspirators, to the likes of Putin, and Kim Jong-un… far more loyal to them than to our allies in NATO.

A president who is duty bound to keep us safe, doesn’t.

Describing police dispersing crowds after a peaceful protest in Minneapolis: “I don’t know, there’s something about that— when you watch everybody getting pushed around— there’s something very beautiful about it.” (October 17, 2020)

On his niece Mary: “She’s a mess.” (July 17, 2020)

To the Proud Boys, who advocate violence: “Stand back and stand by.” (September 29, 2020) Everything but “stand down.”

Look it up. Or, just watch Trump.

Determined to dismantle everything Obama ever touched: foreign pacts, climate directives, health care.

Trump tweets that President Obama had the Navy’s Seal Team Six killed to cover up the fake death of Osama bin Laden. Oh sorry, my bad, he only “retweeted” it, so it’s not his fault.

This is former Trump chief of staff and retired Marine General John Kelly’s word for Trump, not just mine.

Exhibits A-Z: the first debate with Biden.

Trump, after a Nevada rally where thousands ignored a state rule limiting the size of gatherings: “If the governor comes after you, which he shouldn’t be doing, I’ll be with you all the way.” (September 14, 2020) Side note: the Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon said afterward, “The Bellagio fountain started spraying bleach.”

To quote another TV host, Trevor Noah, “How do you still trust this man after he admitted he’s been downplaying the coronavirus this whole time?… This is like believing a Nigerian email scammer after he tells you that he’s a Nigerian email scammer.’”

How else do you explain that as his polling numbers drop, all he knows how to do is double-down on the petty, perilous, reckless behavior that put his numbers in a ditch in the first place?

Tens of millions sliding deeper into despair, and he calls off the stimulus talks.

This is not exactly what you’d call leading by example: “I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk. I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just, I just don’t.” (April 3, 2020)

He attacks Governor Whitmer, the target of a murder plot. He doesn’t attack the terrorists who concocted it.

Suddenly, with the election looming, he’s going to send $200 drug prescription cards to seniors, billions to farmers, and billions more to Puerto Rico, which might win votes in Florida.

Encouraging disruption at polling places. Enabling voter suppression. Refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Republican Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker says he “cannot support Donald Trump for President.” Ohio’s former GOP governor John Kasich says the same. The widow of 2008 GOP standard bearer John McCain endorses Biden. 2012 standard bearer Mitt Romney votes to remove Trump from office.

Deflecting blame for his slow pandemic response, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” (March 13, 2020)

On John Bolton after his book came out: “Just trying to get even for firing him like the sick puppy he is!” (June 18, 2020)

Talking about Turkish President Erdogan, Trump tells journalist Bob Woodward, “It’s funny, the relations I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them.”

As Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice realistically wrote about the pandemic, “People would have died with even the most aggressive president.” But what she wrote next paints the bigger picture: “President Trump’s willful failure to confront Covid-19 has brutalized our country.”

These, and other words that describe this man, might stand the test of time. I hope that with the election right around the corner, the test will be mercifully short.

On Trump’s Infection

“Don’t be afraid of Covid.”

That’s what our president told us with great assurance in a tweet yesterday. Well, GREAT! You can certainly take THAT to the bank!

Forget the fact that if he truly is already better and not destined to take a new turn for the worse, it is because he is the President of the United States. Forget that once infected, he was taken by helicopter to Walter Reed Medical Center, the U.S. Government’s best hospital for VIPs. Forget that he was installed in a suite the rest of us probably couldn’t rent at the Ritz. Forget that he was cared for by Walter Reed’s top team of doctors, the ones you saw silently huddled behind Trump’s own osteopath when he delivered his sometimes incomplete, sometimes misleading briefings on the president’s condition.

And, arguably as important as anything, forget the fact that Trump was given drugs— including one not even approved yet for general patient use— that wouldn’t be given to the rest of us unless we were far sicker than this guy.

But oh, yes, Donald Trump knows of what he speaks when he tells us, “Don’t be afraid of Covid.” In other words, you can let your guard down, because he’s living proof that miracles do happen.

It would merely be pathetic if it weren’t so darned dangerous.

It would also merely be thoughtless if all those Americans hadn’t already died from Covid. Many of them isolated, and alone.

But they had. About 215,000 now. Tell them and their loved ones, “Don’t be afraid of Covid.”

Tell it too to the growing number of Trump’s own idiotic acolytes who’ve gotten infected because they drank the Kool-Aid and kept their masks in their pockets.

Every time we think this guy couldn’t be more incompetent, more arrogant, more selfish, more dangerous, he fools us.

For all the reckless and ultimately lethal behavior of Trump and his team since this pandemic first pervaded our nation, we don’t even have to reprise it here. We only have to look at what has happened since the man tested positive, to see their perilous incompetence on full display.

There was his doctor’s absurd assertion that the reason he didn’t tell us about a couple of “transient drops” in the president’s oxygen saturation level, and about the need to give him supplemental oxygen, was because “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had. I didn’t want to give any, any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction.” This is some doctor, if he believes “information” steers the course of the illness. As we say these days in computer shorthand, OMG!

So now the White House even has the president’s official doctor dealing in alternative facts? As if we haven’t seen it a thousand times before, our president’s sick ego demands fealty. But doesn’t every honest tax-paying citizen (I’m not looking at you, Mr. Trump) deserve not just fealty but facts— not alternative facts, but honest facts about the medical condition of our commander in chief?

This egomaniacal president also demands adulation. How else do you explain that stupid Sunday stunt when he took his little joy ride around Walter Reed, to thank his supporters, as Trump himself put it.

An attending physician from the hospital— also the chief of disaster medicine at the George Washington University Department of Emergency Medicine— put it differently: “This is insanity.” He went on in his tweet to spell it out: “Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump.”

And then yesterday, in ignorant defiance of informed public health standards for anyone infected with this virus, especially someone with as many risk factors as Trump, he headed home to the White House. Once again, he put at additional risk his Secret Service protectors, his Marine One pilots, whatever aides traveled with the president, plus anyone left at the White House to support his pathological lies or simply to wait on him hand and foot.

This guy doesn’t convey strength. He conveys stupidity. And as we’ve seen at his public campaign rallies where followers are mostly unmasked and close enough to kiss, his stupidity imperils more than just him.

In a video Trump tweeted from the hospital, he said this: “I learned a lot about COVID… And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.”

One can only ask, why start now?

Like I said near the beginning, every time we think this guy couldn’t be more incompetent, more arrogant, more selfish, more dangerous, he fools us. Yesterday, he did it again.

On Elections and Democracy

I have covered elections from Venezuela to Egypt to Russia. Each was a nation oppressed by a leader who would unrepentantly use his power to prevent a free and fair vote. A leader whose only intention was to keep on being the leader.

Today in America—with a president who will not assure his nation that if he loses in November he’ll peacefully relinquish the Oval Office, a president who protests without proof that the ballots (on his watch by the way) are “a disaster, a whole big scam,” a president who feeds the fearful frenzy of his followers by saying “I’m not sure” the election can be honest, a president who responds to journalist Chris Wallace’s question about accepting the results if he loses with, “I’m not going to just say yes”— we look just like those other nations in which tidy, tranquil, trustworthy elections were a joke.

If you were to read a story about what Trump’s done without knowing it’s about Trump, you’d think you were reading about some tinhorn dictator from Venezuela or Egypt or Russia… or Belarus, Zimbabwe, North Korea, because Trump does what they do. He installs his closest family in supremely powerful positions, he uses troops to clear his path to a photo op, he perverts everything from his country’s Justice Department to its Postal Service, he circulates conspiratorial conjecture to destabilize his detractors, he debases his own intelligence chiefs’ alarms about foreign influence on an election and devalues his own FBI chief’s assurance that he has seen no evidence of a “coordinated national voter fraud effort.”

We keep wondering, how low can this man go? There is, it seems, no bottom.

And now, after scandalous disclosures about his taxes, and how vulnerable he might be to losing his wealth, maybe even his freedom if he’s ousted from the Oval Office, we know the man’s morals well enough to plausibly presume he would selfishly sacrifice our nation’s stability even more, if that’s what it takes to stay out of jail.

Many have written by now about the deranged and dangerous motives of our deceitfully transparent tax-trickster president, but it can’t be said too often: he isn’t just discrediting our democracy any more, he’s not even just undermining it. He’s attacking it. Let me say that again because we’ve never before seen the likes of it and still can’t quite believe it’s happening now: the president of the United States of America, created on an unprecedented platform of democracy, is literally daring it, undoing it, attacking it.

My old friend Dan Rather has covered many presidents, and he recently wrote of this one, “He is deeply afraid of losing. Losing an election could mean losing in a court of law. It could mean prison time and ruin. But I suspect Trump’s motives are more instinctual. He needs to hold on to power for the sake of power. He cannot lose, even if he has to cheat to win. Even if he has to blow up American democracy.”

The upshot? A few weeks ago I quoted a Trump-supporting truck mechanic in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, who referred to the Democrats and warned, “If they think there’s unrest now, just wait to see if they try to steal this election. Personally, I think people that are nonviolent, we’re going to get very violent.” That’s what the author of Election Meltdown, law professor Richard Hasen, foresees: “We could well see a protected post election struggle in the courts and the streets if the results are close.” It’s what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni fears, that Trump’s treacherous tactics are “making it more likely that (his) supporters will view the election as invalid and will refuse to accept the result if he doesn’t win.”

And maybe most ominous, it’s what three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman just wrote about in The Atlantic: “Something dangerous has hove into view, and the nation is lurching into its path. Conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity.”

But Gellman’s prognosis only gets worse: “If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.”

Maybe you thought the comparison to tinhorn despots was overinflated? Think again.

Some of you might not like columnist Bruni’s chronicle of this crisis, but it’s hard to take issue with most of it: “This country, already uncivil, is on the precipice of being ungovernable, because its institutions are being so profoundly degraded, because its partisanship is so all-consuming, and because Trump, who rode those trends to power, is now turbocharging them to drive America into the ground.” He’s also regrettably right when he reinforces Gellman’s prophecy: “The Republican Party won’t apply the brakes.”

Even Dan Rather, who has lived through so many crises, is anxious: “I have seen this country in deep peril, as the hungry begged for sustenance during the Great Depression, as the Nazis marched across Europe and the Japanese across Asia, as missiles were moved into Cuba, as our political leaders were murdered, as a president ran a criminal conspiracy from the Oval Office, as planes were hijacked into skyscrapers. All of these were scary times, but through it all I never worried about a president actively undermining American democracy and inciting violence to do so— even Nixon, for all of his criminal activity.”

Remember Al Gore? In the 2000 election, he conceded defeat. He didn’t have to. He won the popular vote against George W. Bush, and when it came down to electoral votes and hanging chads in Florida, his defeat was hardly a slam dunk. But for the good of the nation, Gore made the agonizing decision to conclude the contest, to ensure an untroubled transfer of power, to prevent a wrenching rip in our democracy.

Sadly, tragically, the president we have now doesn’t have that gene for the greater good in his makeup. The near-certainty of an untidy, untranquil, untrustworthy election is no joke.

On the Court…and Climate Change

Unless you are living through 2020 with blinders on, you’ve got to be repelled by the barefaced hypocrisy of Republican Party leaders and Republican Party lackeys since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It makes their earlier embrace of “alternative facts” feel almost quaint.

But as threatening as that is to the moral durability that has kept this nation great, we’re also at another national turning point with equally perilous prominence, a crisis made bleakly visible by the godforsaken fires that have burned through the West: climate change. Although pushed from the headlines by the unrepentant plot to fast-track a new Supreme Court justice, the Republican Party’s resistance to reversing the climate’s pernicious power is just as reckless, just as long-lasting, just as dangerous.

Unless, that is, you’ve been cruising through life with those blinders on, as if climate change is a hoax. If the fires prove nothing else, they prove that it’s not. Every indication, in fact, is that the trend lines are getting worse.

An exhaustive New York Times Magazine study entitled “How Climate Migration Will Reshape America” lays it out: “Buffalo may feel in a few decades like Tempe, Arizona, does today, and Tempe itself will sustain 100-degree average summer temperatures by the end of the century. Extreme humidity from New Orleans to northern Wisconsin will make summers increasingly unbearable, turning otherwise seemingly survivable heat waves into debilitating health threats. Fresh water will also be in short supply, not only in the West but also in places like Florida, Georgia and Alabama, where droughts now regularly wither cotton fields. By 2040, according to federal government projections, extreme water shortages will be nearly ubiquitous west of Missouri.”

By way of example, Phoenix this year has suffered through 53 days of 110-degree heat. That’s 20 more than ever before. Record temperatures have shut down power grids all around the West.

Now add fires that conjure up the agony of the Dust Bowl almost a century past, which made parts of several states impossible to inhabit… or for some, a picture of Armageddon. After its hottest August ever, there’ve been roughly 900 fires in California alone, three of them the worst in the state’s history, all burning at the same time.

And it’s not just here. The fiercest fires in decades have been burning from the Arctic to Argentina to Australia, from Brazil to Indonesia to Siberia. Concurrently up in Greenland, after record summertime temperatures, a huge chunk of ice— more than 600 square miles on its surface— just broke off the Arctic’s largest ice shelf. How much higher can sea levels rise before coastal cities are swamped?

Meanwhile, for only the second time since the National Hurricane Center started naming storms in 1953, it has just run out of names and will start referring to the rest of this year’s storms with letters from the Greek alphabet.

There’s no bromide in which to take shelter, nothing like, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.“ Until everyone takes their heads out of the sand, it’s just going to get worse.

Especially with clueless commanders like Donald Trump, who told California’s natural resources chief this month during the height of the fires, “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” Shades of his late-February prediction about infections from the pandemic: “Within a couple of days, (they’re) going to be down to close to zero.”

This president’s incomprehensible ignorance might only aggravate the prospect of progress if he has his way with Justice Ginsburg’s replacement, and climate change legislation comes before the Court.

In its own report, “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” the World Bank warns of what are known as “climate migrants,” escaping increasingly uninhabitable environments around the planet but only to contribute to rising urban unemployment, higher demand for depleting resources, increased stress on basic services, and deeper poverty and homelessness. Some studies forecast tens of millions of climate migrants right here in the U.S.A.

I’ll never forget a lesson I learned in 2005 while covering Hurricane Katrina. After a couple of days in New Orleans, my cameraman and I drove over to Biloxi, Mississippi, because decades earlier, that’s where I covered the first major story of my career, Hurricane Camille, which had virtually blown Biloxi off the map. I wondered whether it had happened again.

It had. Houses had either blown away, washed away, or collapsed on their concrete slabs. It was at one of those, with its roof at street level, that I met a man as he carried a plastic bin packed with children’s clothes he’d salvaged. He was in his 50s, so I asked whether he’d been around as a kid for Camille. He had. I asked what had happened to his family’s home back then. It had been destroyed, but they rebuilt. I asked what he planned to do with the shattered home behind him now. He said, rebuild, right on the same spot.

But when I asked why, after already losing two homes to hurricanes, he turned the tables on me and asked, “Where are you from?” When I said “Originally, San Francisco,” he responded with, “Don’t you have earthquakes in San Francisco?” Then he asked, “Where you from now?” I said “Colorado,” to which he asked, “Don’t you have forest fires in Colorado?”

He had a point. You can run but you can’t hide. You can escape one climate threat but you probably run into another.

The only way to mitigate those threats is to recognize what’s behind them: climate change. Some now-or-never issues are at stake in the tug-of-war for the Supreme Court— gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, guns, the separation of church and state. But as big as anything that might come before it is climate change.

Americans with a conscience cannot leave that in the hands of those who deny it even exists.

On the Fires Out West

The horrifying fires up and down the Pacific coast— with homes and lives and livelihoods turned to ash, whole cities suffocating on smoke, skies the color of a nuclear winter— these catastrophic conditions are a big news story.

But if the fires out West instead were hurricanes back East where the media is concentrated, they’d be an even bigger story than they’ve been, so big that it might take World War III to replace them as the lead of every paper and every newscast.

You might understand why if you remember this famous mid-70s Saul Steinberg cover from The New Yorker Magazine, which then also became a popular poster. (Having reported for a television network with its Mother Ship in New York, I understand why in spades). It shows a myopic panorama looking west from the center of the world— Manhattan, of course— with just a few pimples popping up across the plains before you reach the Pacific.

But if you’re actually out West, the inferno has, for the time being, replaced the pandemic as the biggest influence on— and threat to— people’s lives.

Less than a week ago, I sent an email to far-flung members of my family, most in California, with a link to a pandemic-related New York Times article entitled, “How to Choose the Best Cloth Face Mask for You.” Just days later, the pandemic took a back seat to the fires and now instead we’re exchanging website links about how to find the most accurate measure of your local Air Quality Index. “Good” is zero to 50. “Moderate,” 51-100. Portland’s, today, is 477.

San Francisco’s hasn’t been much better. Just a few days before the city’s smoky sky turned the color of sewage water, my daughter Amy, an artist, was proudly on her way to the prestigious de Young Museum, where the newest painting in her coronavirus series will be shown.

But the concentration on Covid was short-lived. Amy and her family are in a home built right after World War II, where now they’re not just locked down from the virus, but sealed in from the smoke. The air inside the house got so bad, they blue-taped over the vents in their garage door, tried to similarly seal the edges of the front windows, and squeezed rolled up towels into the gaps at the bottom of several doors.

Meanwhile up in the High Sierras where my son Jason lives, seven-year-old grandson Jake excitedly entered his first day of first grade… before school was shut down the second day, not by the infectious virus, but by the inferno. Since then, about a third of his scheduled “in-person” school days have gone up in smoke. Imagine a school district, on top of all the other challenges from the pandemic, having to send out notices day after day telling families it can’t hold classes because “Smoke patterns and density are very difficult to predict,” and “all indicators are that the smoke today is forecast not to improve.” Ironically, if there’s any silver lining, it’s that because of the pandemic, schools are better positioned than they’d otherwise be to virtually stay connected to their students.

California’s governor Gavin Newsom gravely observed last weekend that breathing the air in large parts of California each day is the equivalent of smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. He also angrily said he has run out of patience for climate-change deniers: “If you do not believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence.”

My relatives do. Even if the flames aren’t yet close enough to see, they’re close enough to fear, so some have had bags packed for an emergency escape. It makes me mindful of a woman I interviewed many years ago a couple of days after her home in the Santa Barbara hills, along with hundreds of others, was burned to cinder by a fast-moving fire. When I asked what she grabbed as she rushed frantically to get out, she answered, “My kids, the cat…,” then she broke into tears and pointed to her car. “I just didn’t have any time to think. I just grabbed what I use every day.” On the deck of the station wagon were a vacuum cleaner, a kitchen blender, and a bunch of other stuff she could have replaced the next day at Walmart.

Authorities say, if you have to evacuate in an instant, grab the irreplaceable essentials (and maybe these days include a few masks). Some boil it down to “6 P’s:” People & Pets, Phones (& documents), Prescriptions (& glasses), Pictures (& Jewelry & Art), Personal computers, and Plastic (including ATM cards). Don’t forget the car keys either.

And a personal note: it’s not just the Pacific Coast. The past month here in drought-dry Colorado, we’ve had two flurries of bad fires. They didn’t turn our skies orange, but they did go white, which isn’t just about losing a pretty view. It is about losing breathable air. In our first flurry, we had ash falling from the sky. In the second, no more ash, but even more dangerous air, because the smaller the particulate matter, the more easily it pervades your lungs. Like the coronavirus, it’s the insidious, invisible enemy that can hurt you the worst.

It’s all we need, on top of the unchecked virus, the struggling economy, the divisive politics. What’s worse, officials on the West Coast say some fires will burn until put out by winter’s snow.

Not that they’ll notice on the East Coast, once the next hurricane hurls itself in.

On Russia Russia Russia

“Russia, Russia, Russia.” There is little we have heard more from the lips of Donald Trump than that. “There has never been anybody,” he claims, “so tough on Russia,” expanding it even more recently to, “Maybe tougher than any other president.”

To which we can only say, “Yeah, right!”

Tough, as in putting a hold on assessments by the Department of Homeland Security about Russian disinformation campaigns, according to a former director of intelligence for the DHS just last week.

Tough, as in failing in late July to even ask Vladimir Putin, his godfather in Moscow, about credible reports— reinforced by American intelligence— that Russia was paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops.

Tough, as in deflecting a thousand page report by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee about Russia’s schemes to sabotage our elections. His specious answer when asked about it in a broadcast interview last month by Axios’s Jonathan Swan was, “You know, it’s interesting, nobody ever brings up China.”

Tough, as in pulling out of northern Syria late last year, abandoning our allies the Kurds, and all but inviting Russia to replace us with, “Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!” Which they did.

Tough, as in failing to condemn Russia’s internationally illegal annexation of Crimea, and even more egregiously, as in holding up almost $400-million in military aide to our ally, Ukraine, right in the middle of its war to keep Russia at bay. Which opened the door to more Russian aggression against its former Soviet state. Which hopes to become a member of NATO. Which we lead.

And in one of Trump’s most recent gifts to his godfather in Moscow, tough, as in reducing the strength of U.S. soldiers in Germany, which has been one of Putin’s dearest dreams. To quote Alexey Naumov of Moscow State University, discussing it on Russian television’s version of 60 Minutes, “Trump is still ours.”

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell framed it all this way: “When you think of all the people Trump has betrayed in his presidency and his life including all his wives, it’s all the more impressive that he has never betrayed Putin.”

Think about this: President Trump has, on some key questions of national security, publicly disagreed with his intelligence experts, with his diplomats, with his generals (“a bunch of pussies” he called them in front of reporter Bob Woodward). But he has never, ever, publicly disagreed with anything that came from the lips of President Putin.


To the contrary. After he supposedly spoke to Putin in Helsinki about 2016 election interference, he told reporters, “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Wow, that’s good enough for me!

Maybe it wouldn’t matter if Russia shared our values. But it doesn’t. There’s a reason why, like the Soviet Union before it, Russia has always been an adversary. Its gains come directly from our losses. There’s a joke I used to hear when I’d go in to cover the Soviet Union: “Why do KGB officers make such good taxi drivers? Because you get in the car, and they already know your name and where you live.” I’ve reported from Russia since then, and that hasn’t changed.

And maybe it wouldn’t matter if Trump trusted our friends too. But he has trashed them— from Germany’s Merkel to France’s Macron to Canada’s Trudeau— far more than he has uttered a single scathing word about Putin (or other autocrats like him), a man who will crush his opponents, sometimes brutally, without losing a night’s sleep.

So how does one explain Trump’s ominous affinity for Vladimir Putin, which sometimes puts Russia’s interests ahead of ours? Well, according to Woodward’s new book Rage, Trump’s former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats “continued to harbor the secret belief” that Putin knew something compromising about Donald Trump— “kompromat” is the word in Russian. In other words, “that Putin had something on Trump.”

From indecent conduct in a Moscow hotel room to dishonest conduct in a Moscow business deal, the theories about why Russia’s president can blackmail America’s have been out there for years now. But whatever it is, if there is anything at all, it led Coats to wonder, “How else to explain the president’s behavior?”

When it comes to Donald Trump and Russia— or “Russia Russia Russia” as he angrily puts it— he’d like us to accept his assurance that “There’s nothing to see here, folks.” But the fact is, there is plenty we can see, right out in the open. And maybe even more that we can’t.

On Dangerous Free Speech

More times than I can count in my career, I put my liberty on the line, sometimes my life, to perpetuate a paramount privilege: the free flow of information.

Not always fun, but that’s what the job sometimes requires: defying authorities’ arbitrary dictates, going where we’re told not to go, reporting from repressive countries where we could disappear without a trace, running toward trouble when smarter souls are running the other way. From bush wars in Africa to guerrilla wars in Asia to drug wars in South America to terrorist wars in Europe to big wars in the Middle East, the risks I had to take back in my day were high. For journalists still out there today, who risk being arrested or tear-gassed or shot even during discord right here at home, they’re no different.

But there’s a driving force that impels journalists to take these risks: our constitution, which grants Americans gifts that most of the world’s people don’t have— freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of the press. Foundational freedoms in our democracy.

However, as the Supreme Court established a hundred years ago, free speech is not unfettered. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the unanimous court in a sedition case, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre.” That has since been colloquially altered to the simpler, “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” According to legal scholars, that means that a statement that’s true, albeit dangerous, is protected, but a statement that is both false and dangerous is not.

Sadly, many Americans, including some who lead us, don’t care any more. They shamelessly abuse our freedoms. They debase our information. We all suffer for their shortsighted selfishness.

Which brings me to the president’s fallacious and dangerous speech.

Just this past week, employing coded phrases to petrify his base, Donald Trump claimed that Democrats were trying to “destroy” suburbs with “low-income housing, and with that comes a lot of other problems, including crime.” He warned of “people in the dark shadows” supporting Joe Biden. He made unsupported (meaning, absurd) assertions that an airplane had been headed to last month’s GOP convention “almost completely loaded with thugs” wearing “dark uniforms” to do “big damage.” And, that recent protests in American cities were incited by anarchists “trying to take down the President.”

What does that incendiary kind of speech lead to?

For one thing, a Trump-supporting truck mechanic in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, saying of the Democrats, “If they think there’s unrest now, just wait to see if they try to steal this election. Personally, I think people that are nonviolent, we’re going to get very violent.”

Just what Doctor Trump ordered.

Equally egregious, a video just out showing Joe Biden sleeping during a television interview. For real? Of course not. It’s doctored, manipulated, phony. It’s bad enough that unprincipled players stoop to such lows. But what’s it mean when the unprincipled player who tweeted this video out to a cast of millions is Dan Scavino, the Director of Social Media in Donald Trump’s White House?

But this stuff isn’t new. When Joe Biden announced that his vice presidential pick was Oakland-born Senator Kamala Harris, Trump magnified baseless alt-right assertions that unabashedly questioned her citizenship.

A few months before, he brazenly blasted critic Joe Scarborough, an MSNBC talk show host, tweeting, “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so,” referring to the death 19 years earlier of a young woman on then-Congressman Scarborough’s staff, who fell in his Washington office, hit her head, and died. Scarborough was 800 miles away in his Florida district at the time, but why let facts get in the way? Trump doesn’t, which is why he doubled down in a followup tweet: “So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair?” Which of course maligned not only Scarborough’s reputation, but the dead woman’s too.

Freedom of speech? Or audacious, reckless, groundless, dangerous speech? Even some of the president’s allies thought it was the latter. “Vile,” according to the reliably rightwing Washington Examiner. From the otherwise conservative Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Trump is debasing his office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.”

He’s hurting the country because by his standards of free speech, anything goes.

Like his smear back in June of the 75-year-old peace activist in Buffalo who a police officer knocked to the ground during a George Floyd demonstration. He hit the sidewalk hard, blood seeping from his right ear. But again, why let facts interfere with fanaticism? “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” the president tweeted. “Could be a setup?”

Host Jimmy Kimmel said it best on his late night talk show: “It takes a special kind of monster to see a peaceful 75-year-old man shoved to the ground by police so hard he bleeds from the ears and take the side of the concrete.” It’s a disgrace. And more important, dangerous.

But it’s not just the president. It’s the fringe telecasts and websites to which he pays attention. One America News, Conservative Treehouse, and others, whose bullhorns blasting baseless conspiracy theories wouldn’t get much traction if they weren’t amplified from the bully pulpit of the White House.

And now, there are candidates for Congress proudly pushing the preposterous conspiratorial claptrap of QAnon, which has risen to the top of the heap of hogwash these groups dish out.

Despite their deliberate abuse though, I would never compromise, let alone disclaim, our freedoms, for which everyone from soldiers to first responders to journalists takes risks. They are foundational, indispensable, the cost of a free democracy, even when exploited.

We can only swallow hard and remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the others.” We can only hold the abusers morally, and electorally, to account. November is our last chance.

On Whose America is Safe?

I wasn’t even going to write about the two political parties’ conventions. Plenty already is being written elsewhere. But on the Republicans’ third night, when I heard Vice President Mike Pence warn, “You will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” I thought “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Because when you look around, using the Republicans’ own ominous measures to define the future under Biden, we’re not safe now in Donald Trump’s America.

Begin with the apple that didn’t fall at all far from the tree, Donald Trump Jr. In his convention speech he portrayed the Trump-Biden contest as a choice: “church, work, and school” versus “rioting, looting, and vandalism.”

Um, excuse me Junior, but for the past few months, and occasionally before that since Daddy Trump tromped into the Oval Office, we’ve had “rioting, looting, and vandalism” from coast to coast. That isn’t in Joe Biden’s America. It’s in Donald Trump’s America. If that’s the future, the future is now.

Or before Junior at the convention, his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, former Fox commentator (and in a peculiar gyration, former wife of California’s Democrat governor Gavin Newsom), who shouted to the rooftops (yes, literally), “Rioters must not be allowed to destroy our cities.” Kimberly and Don Jr. must be smoking the same weed. Although rioters are not truly destroying whole cities, they are destroying parts of them. But take a look: it’s in Donald Trump’s America, not Joe Biden’s.

So we won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America? Maybe the Vice President needs a reboot. But is he capable of one? Although speaking in the midst of the deadly bloodshed in Kenosha, he uttered no more than this boilerplate warning: “Let me be clear, the violence must stop, whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha” (which was, by the way, the only time Kenosha even came up all night). Under the headline, “Pence seemed to forget who is in office,” a Minneapolis columnist asked a perfectly rational question: “By what logic was the vice president blaming Joe Biden for… the breakdown of law and order?” To which I would add, was that the vice president’s best shot at attacking the underlying reasons for the violence?

If so, don’t tell me what’s safe and what’s not.

But there were so many more alarmist admonitions at the GOP gala, all in keeping with the fear-mongering from Pence. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn: “If the Democrats had their way, they would keep you locked in your house until you become dependent on the government for everything.” Millennial conservative Charlie Kirk spoke of “the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighborhoods, schools, churches…” South Dakota governor Kristi Noem bewailed that cities run by Democrats are “overrun by violent mobs,” with people “left to fend for themselves.” California school choice advocate Rebecca Friedrich warned that teachers’ unions had “morphed our schools into war zones.” And in a predictable piece of posturing, Patricia McCloskey, who with her husband Mark pointed weapons at peaceful protestors passing their suburban St. Louis home back in June, told the convention, “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrat America.”

What hypocrisy. She and her husband clearly didn’t feel safe in Donald Trump’s America.

Neither do I. I don’t feel safe from domestic violence when social media posts from the young man charged with killing two people in Kenosha with his assault-style rifle show that he was a gun-loving admirer of Donald Trump’s. Like others who’ve come before him.

I don’t feel safe from foreign threats when we have a president who trashes the leaders from our alliances, which were formed to keep us safe, while cosseting despots whose hostile ways threaten that safety. A president naive enough to “fall in love” with a merciless dictator like Kim Jong-un, who now is farther down the road than ever before as a nuclear threat against us.

I don’t even feel that my ballot is safe, with Trump and his acolytes doing whatever they can from the courthouse to the statehouse to suppress our votes. For that matter, with all his scare-mongering about a “rigged” election, can we even feel that its outcome will be safe, if Trump is tossed out by the voters?

And I still don’t feel safe from the pandemic, not when thanks to Trump’s appalling example, public events at the Republican convention itself— including his openly illegal use on the final night of the White House, the People’s House— were littered with lackeys wearing no masks and practicing no prudent social distancing.

Is this what you call feeling safe in Donald Trump’s America? Sounds more like the “American carnage” he condemned the day he was sworn into office.

And speaking of the pandemic, how can we feel safe when the president and the vice president just flat-out lie about their lack of leadership? Trump, Pence promised the convention, “marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset.” Tell that to all who suffered for months— including the 180,000 now dead in the U.S. alone— from insufficient supplies of everything from ventilators to face masks. As for Pence’s claim of “a seamless partnership with governors across America,” I can lead you to a group of governors, left on their own to compete for precious protective equipment, who would disagree.

Granted, as a production, the Republican convention was slick. Much slicker than the Democrats’. But that’s just flash. It really means nothing when you’ve got some snake oil salesmen inside the tent, trying to sell you on ideas that just aren’t true.

Sitting in the Director’s Chair of course is Donald J. Trump. He had called the Democratic convention, the week before his, the “gloomiest convention in American history.” Like his vice president, he needs a reboot too.

Or even better, they both just need the boot.

On This Weird World

I thought I was clever back in April, while the novel coronavirus still was truly novel, when I wrote of life in lockdown as “a month of Sundays.”

Now, after nearly five months of Sundays, author John Pavlovitz has updated the narrative: “Yesterday was a long year.”

And it isn’t over. Not even close.

Can you believe, not half a year ago, that when we saw pictures of people wearing masks in Asia, we thought they looked strange, as in, “It’ll never happen here!” Or that many of us now would rather let the plaque build up rather than go to the dentist? Or even let heart pain play out rather than go to the hospital? And can you believe we used to consider airplanes safer than cars, until we began to think of them instead— despite airlines’ assurances about excellent ventilation and air circulation— as long tubular petri dishes with no escape from a fellow passenger’s deadly germs?

And who ever would have thought not half a year ago that we’d spend a couple of months hoarding toilet paper… if we could even score some at all? Actually there’s a name for that: “Hoarding disorder.” But the American Psychiatric Association defines that as a distinct mental illness, so it must be someone else, right? Nope. Not any more.

A friend offered me a theory about it: with maybe 250-million Americans suddenly using the toilet 24/7 at home rather than at their place of work or school or play, they now need more TP at home than they used to, and snatched up all they could. I don’t know whether this explains the inexplicable or not, but it’s as good as anything.

By the way, at risk of sending you soaring to a higher level of anxiety, I went last week to my local Costco and guess what they were out of, all over again?! Uh-huh, TP.

If you’d seen a movie about this pandemic and all its awful upshots just six months ago, you would have called it Science Fiction. A death toll, in a mere six months, already three times as high through a decade of war for American soldiers in Vietnam, and this war hasn’t ended. Funerals without mourners. Semi-trucks outside hospitals, doubling as morgues. And because of the world’s worst scale of infections, most major nations, from Europe to Asia to our very own hemisphere, not just telling us “Yankee go home,” but “Don’t even think about coming because we won’t let you in.”

Plus, to heap affront upon affront, camouflaged troops clashing with citizens from coast to coast. And for the national pastime, cardboard cutouts filling the seats of live fans.

Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks? Not til next year. Maybe.

And then there’s the economy. With the biggest drop in history for America’s Gross Domestic Product, some see shades of the Great Depression. Bankruptcies from Hertz to Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers to Payless, and tens of thousands of small businesses you’ll never see again.

Moreover, how will we keep modestly paid nurses and teachers and grocery store clerks in their occupations when suddenly, if involuntarily, they have become “essential workers” where their risks of fatal infection are elevated just by doing their jobs?

And, not just incidentally, no matter how critical it has been, how will our economy survive the disbursement of trillions to keep people on their feet?

Like the disagreeable dearth of toilet paper, we can laugh about the little things. Dogs, with more company than before and more walks than ever, are thrilled. Nail polish sales are way up as women want to brush it on at home rather than enter a salon. Lipstick sales way down, because lipstick and masks don’t mix. Anyway, if a woman’s wearing a mask, why would she bother with lipstick?

But most isn’t laughable at all. From business to recreation to education at every level, some things looking down the road are going to look decidedly different. Maybe though, there’s a silver lining. Maybe, although we were forced into these changes, some will actually look better. As Plato wrote in his dialogue Republic, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Futurist Rohit Bhargava recently laid it for the Vail Symposium: “One of the biggest effects of the disruption we are facing today is the acceleration of ideas. Distance learning, ghost restaurants, e-sports, telemedicine, streaming entertainment, videoconferencing, and more than a dozen other futuristic ideas are now becoming daily realities and going mainstream.”

But that doesn’t solve the mess we’re in right now. Our downtowns won’t be ghost towns forever, but how is the street vendor I read about in The New York Times going to survive by selling about ten hot dogs a day outside Rockefeller Center, versus roughly 400 every day before the pandemic? And how is civil discourse going to survive when those of us who want everyone in any crowded place to wear masks feel naked hostility toward those who don’t… while they feel equally hostile toward us because we are threatening their right to… what… be barefaced?

The Founding Fathers, if their statues are still standing, must be turning in their graves.

We’d like to think of some of these dreadful byproducts as short-term, but we really don’t know. How long will it take to develop an effective vaccine? And when someone does, for how long will it actually protect us? How much time will they need to produce billions of doses to prevent a whole new global spread? And what about the people who say they won’t take it?

We’ve come a long way since the world first turned upside-down, when something that got canceled in March got rescheduled for May because “It just can’t last longer than that.” Until May got rescheduled to July and then that got cancelled, and now events set for December are indefinitely postponed too. Schools? You can’t even begin to place a safe bet. But you can take Google’s announcement as a hint: employees can be working at home at least until July next year. They won’t be the only ones.

Heaven help us, we haven’t had our last Zoom calls.

It is clearer every day that for a long time to come, we’ll be saying that yesterday was a long year. It really doesn’t seem like Sunday any more.

On Fires

The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” On the other hand, just over a hundred years ago Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the Supreme Court that freedom of speech notwithstanding, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.

But President Trump couldn’t care less. He yells fire almost every day of the week. The “rigged” elections (where he says polling places will have to be “monitored,” which sends chills up my spine because I lived in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago). The threat to the flag (The American flag? The Confederate flag? Take your pick). The protestors in Portland, Austin, Seattle, and with more presidential provocations, coming soon to a city near you. Fires are burning and only he can put them out.

Millions of gullible Americans buy it. They are manufactured crises, but these people scream fire alongside the president. Which puts us all in peril.

Except when Trump’s trying to minimize a genuine crisis because it reflects abysmally on him (like, say, a pandemic he has mortally mismanaged). Then he tells us there is no fire, even though it’s raging out of control, more an inferno than the “embers” he claims it is. Of course the pathetic paradox from his lying lips is, there is no fire because he is putting it out.

Millions of gullible Americans buy that too. Which means, although in some places it’s burning hotter by the day, they pretend it’s not. Like their president. Which also puts us in peril.

Take Portland. Last week Trump called it “worse than Afghanistan, by far… worse than anything anyone’s ever seen.” No it’s not Mr. President. I’ve been in Afghanistan. Portland’s not worse. I’d say Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, maybe North Korea— the nation ruthlessly run by the dictator with whom Trump “fell in love”— have been worse than anything anyone’s ever seen. Not Portland.

Yes, there was despicable violent criminal behavior in the streets before Trump sent in the troops. And as former Senator Gary Hart knowingly wrote in The New York Times, a president can proclaim a “national emergency.” But Trump’s perverted perspective notwithstanding, citizens exercising their First Amendment rights isn’t a national emergency. Not even a hardcore corps of rioters is a national emergency. It was the president yelling fire that fanned the flames and turned Portland into the hotspot it is now. Even Tom Ridge, the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, condemned this president’s use of troops this way, contemptuously calling them Trump’s “personal militia.”

Ask yourself this: if you heard about camouflaged troops somewhere taking hold of a city’s streets against the will of local leaders— firing tear gas into crowds, arresting citizens without warrants, holding them without charges, even using batons against medics (who have red crosses on their clothing) while they treat an injured man, as if they are enemies of the state— where would you think it was happening: in Iran? Russia? Syria? Any of the above and more. But not in our democracy. Not in Portland.

At least not until now.

Maybe the satirical magazine The Onion framed it best: “Is it normal for citizens in a democracy to be taken from the street in unmarked cars without a warrant? Towards the end, it is.”

Over the course of my career, I’ve covered despots. Despots are the kinds of leaders who yell fire in a crowded theater because they believe they have absolute power over their people. Despots are the kinds of leaders who threaten to dispatch “50,000, 60,000” troops into their nation’s cities, before arbitrarily upping the number to “75,000,” as Trump did in a FoxNews interview last week. Despots are the kinds of leaders who say things about their leverage like, “The authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”

What’s frightening is, if those were Hitler’s words, or Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s, Kim Jung-un’s, you wouldn’t be surprised. But they weren’t. They were Trump’s.

Equally frightening is that sometimes, although there’s a fire burning and the nation needs a firm hand, Trump says there isn’t. A case in point: the ever-higher death toll from the pandemic, which makes America “Number One” but not in the way Trump wants. So he literally ignores the facts, ignores the fire, telling Chris Wallace in his famous “cognitive test” interview that his performance with the pandemic has made our country “the envy of the world.”

One can only say cynically, “Yeah, right.”

Hardly a word of mourning, by the way, for all who’ve suffered. Only words about testing, as if he can blame having more deaths on having more tests. He can’t… unless you consider an autopsy a test.

Another case in point: last week our president talked on the phone with Russia’s president. The White House says they discussed the coronavirus and arms control. But the intelligence community’s assessment that Russian hackers are trying to steal vaccine research from American labs, and also still influencing the upcoming elections? Not a word. And those bounties Russia reportedly has paid to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American troops? Not a word.

Nothing to see here folks, no fires are burning, you can return to your homes.

A lot was written last week about the president’s “shift in tone,” finally at least acknowledging the severity of the pandemic (in some places) and even the importance of masks. From an ethical president, this would be commendable. But if history is our guide, and especially from what Richard North Patterson described in The Bulwark as “a mentally disordered demagogue bereft of principles and starved for adulation,” we can expect his “shift” to have a very short half-life.

In fact as another writer put it, the bar is so low that “when Trump manages to read a scripted message without interjecting something especially bizarre, he is praised. There should be a gong, a buzzer, or an electric shock every time he lies.”

And he is lying, every time he says there is no fire when there is. And every time he screams “fire” when there isn’t. There is a cost to both. A cost to our democracy, a cost to our very lives. For some Americans, November’s election will be a test of their gullibility. For the rest of us, it will be a test of our tolerance.

On Masks

This whole thing about masks is madness.

Last week in Utah, at a hearing in Provo to explore the issue of masks in schools, county commissioners had to shut it down when obstreperous parents packed the room, refusing to sit only in designated socially-distanced chairs and consciously appearing without masks. Even, as you see in the picture below, advocating against them.

As any fool can see, they put themselves at risk. Now you might say, “So what,” but here’s the hitch: they put everyone else in the room at risk too. Do they not even know that Utah was recently listed by the CDC as a state “with the greatest likelihood of a larger number of deaths?” Its own hospital association has asked for a statewide mask rule.

It’s madness.

Look, I don’t like these masks any more than anyone else. They feel hot, they inhibit breathing, they are generally a pain. But guess what: if I wear one, and I’m someplace where the virus can spread, I’m protecting not just me, but you. I had a woman ask me a few weeks ago, “Why are you wearing the mask?” I told her, “Because I want to protect you as well as me.” She came back with one of the stupider questions I’ve heard since this whole mess started: “Do you have the coronavirus?” To which I said, “I have no way of knowing, and that’s the point.” I wanted to add, “Would you like to be the one who finds out, the hard way?” But at that particular moment, I wasn’t in a combative mood.

This isn’t rocket science. There is virtually no discordance among scientists and physicians (might we even dare to call them experts on this issue?): Masks, especially indoors, not only are an easy way to protect ourselves, but an easy way to protect others around us.

But try telling that to those parents in Provo! They just weren’t of a mind to hear it. Their argument is that masks infringe on their freedoms. As if their freedom to flaunt the rules doesn’t infringe on my freedom to stay fit. And it’s not just Utah. The Denver Post reported a few days ago that in stores and restaurants around the state, “When trying to enforce mask policies, employees say they have dealt with customers spitting on them, using racial slurs and even threatening their lives.”

It’s a fair guess that you could find similar stories in every city across the country.

And you can lay it on Trump.

That was obvious when one of the careless citizens at the Utah meeting told a television reporter, “I think it’s a political hoax, and I am against masks.” Shades of the Denier-in-Chief’s own concocted complaint that the coronavirus is part of a plot to trash the economy and hurt his chance for reelection.

Anyway, why would Trump’s acolytes obey the law when their pitifully irresponsible non-role-model of a leader encourages rebellion against rules rather than obedience, like when he urged citizens in April to “liberate” their states from stay-at-home orders. Or after he personally repudiated masks with the absurd assertion that he can’t see himself wearing one when “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” come through the Oval Office (expect the dictators to get the first invitations). Or when he rashly allows photographs like this one last weekend on the golf course where, totally unmasked, he was darned near close enough to kiss Lindsey Graham (and since Graham has been such a Trump toady, he’d probably like to.)

Of course once this guy has staked out a position, he seems viscerally incapable of changing it, even when his original outlook proves to be a malignant mistake. That’s why he’s still advancing his timeworn argument that everyone from the “alarmist” Dr. Anthony Fauci to his own Surgeon General originally said we shouldn’t be buying masks. Characteristically of course he ignores a pivotal point: in those early days, they didn’t want to shrink the seriously short supply of masks for medical providers. Since then, everyone else in a position of responsibility has said, “Wear them.” Including the chief of the CDC who declared last week, “If all of us would put on a face covering now for the next four weeks, six weeks, we could drive this epidemic to the ground.”

But why would we listen to experts like these, versus a man whose only involvement with masks before the pandemic was at his construction projects. Yet on Sunday he told FoxNews’s Chris Wallace, who asked about a possible national mandate on masks, “I want people to have a certain freedom, and I don’t believe in that, no.” He also stuck to his imbecilic and counterfeit claim that the disquieting spike in infections from coast to coast is just “burning embers.” Yeah, right, with the U.S. death toll— from those “burning embers”— now around 140,000. And with embers now burning in a record 75,000 more Americans each day. That’s more confirmed cases per capita, by the way, than any other industrial nation on earth.

Which Trump still speciously chalks up to the “best testing in the world.” So what that it’s taking many people up to a full week to get their test results. That’s pretty useless if the result comes back negative, after seven days of exposure since the test was taken… and dangerously useless if it comes back positive.

The mayor of hard-hit Austin, Texas, lamented last week, “When we were trying to get people to wear masks, they would point to the president and say, well, not something that we need to do.” The mayor of Miami sadly said, “People follow the people who are supposed to be leaders.”

Need any more explanation for the dangerous deportment of those Trump disciples in Provo?

My plea is, even if some of you don’t believe the almost unanimous announcements of experts who argue that masks help protect us, how about some courtesy and respect for those of us who do. Those of us who believe it when these experts even warn, masks might make the difference between life and death.

Our lives, and yours.

On Dr. Fauci

So now Trump’s trashing Fauci. Arguably the least trusted public figure in America, smearing one of the most trusted: “Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.”

Fauci’s made a lot of mistakes? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. If you needed more proof that this sick self-centered man in the White House puts his welfare ahead of the nation’s, you’ve got it.

But hypocrisy here is not the most urgent issue. Trust is. Wisdom is. Science is. Survival is. The White House already has all but removed Fauci from public view and now, if its escalating campaign to discredit America’s most persuasive pandemic pundit succeeds, we’ll have no one left to listen to. No one to believe. The implications for that— from more abandonment of responsible measures to prevent contagion, to more rejection of the CDC’s common-sense guidelines to flatten the spread, to more skepticism about the potency of a vaccine once we’ve got one— are too chilling to contemplate.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Back in mid-April, the president retweeted a hashtag from a smalltime Republican politician that said, “Time to #FireFauci.” The White House assured us afterward, don’t worry, the president isn’t firing Fauci. But come on! Just recirculating the hashtag to undercut and intimidate the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, as Trump did, spoke volumes. Just as he recirculated another mad and menacing message about the pandemic the beginning of this week: “Everyone is lying,” a television game show host the president admires had tweeted, as if that’s where the leader of the free world should be getting his best ideas, “The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors.” By putting it out there again, Trump took another selfish and savage step to sabotage Americans’ faith in actual expertise.

Even more egregious, Trump is deliberately giving these dangerous ideas more exposure in the same week when the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has started going up again, the same week when several U.S. states and the nation overall set new records for new infections, the same week when hospitals began ominously reporting— again— a dearth of protective gear for medical workers and an overflow demand for intensive care beds.

What Trump obviously wants us to think is, there’s really no one to believe but him. The “stable genius.” The man running for his life to get reelected.

Heaven help us.

But again, we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s all about him. From time to time Dr. Fauci has contradicted crackpot claims of the president. Which is why, here we are, still in the midst of the crisis, and the president and his treacherous team are targeting one of the people best suited to combat it. One report in the past couple of days has this self-centered president “annoyed” with Dr. Fauci’s “good press.” In another, some White House officials say they don’t think Fauci is working in the president’s best interests (as opposed to, say, the nation’s?). And the most recent revolting report, from a CNN interview: there are concerns within the White House “about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things.”

Funny, they don’t seem to be keeping count on Trump.

Yes, a few times early in the pandemic, Fauci was wrong. On masks. On not changing our routines. All were part of his own learning curve on a whole new virus that no one had ever seen before. But here’s the difference between Anthony Fauci’s learning curve and Donald Trump’s. Fauci has learned. Trump has not. Fauci has told the truth, as best anyone understands it, about what we should do and what we shouldn’t. Trump has not.

Some are debating today about the future of Dr. Fauci (and Dr. Deborah Birx too). One school of thought is, both should resign from the government with their honor intact, rather than let it be dismantled by a president whose ego supersedes their expertise. The other school of thought is, they should stay where they are, even if their visibility and their voices are markedly diminished, because at least they still might be a moderating force on a man bent on following his instincts rather than their experience.

I’m torn. I believe more in the second school than in the first. But on the other hand, if they were to quit, they could then publicly berate the treacherous anti-science temperament of this administration.

The one thing they wouldn’t have to berate is a proclamation from the president back in April, defending his performance on the pandemic, which he all but repeats to this day: “We have done a job the likes of which nobody has ever done.”

True. Just not in a good way.

On Patriotism

The Fourth of July means something special to us. More important, it means the same special things to all of us. A celebration of our nation. Of its origins, of its freedoms, of its promise, of its strengths.

But now, there’s been an attempt to hijack the holiday. By the president.

How dare this vile man. Friday at Mount Rushmore, then the next day at the White House (which under more deserving leaders has been called the People’s House), this vile, vicious, vacuous excuse for a president sullied, soiled, and spoiled our most patriotic holiday. He turned it into an accolade for his ego, an attack against his antagonists. He tried to hijack the Fourth of July.

How dare him!

Every Independence Day for decades, until the pandemic put a temporary stop to it, I have attended concerts of patriotic music, surrounded by friends. Some have views that reach much farther to the Left than mine. Others come from farther to the Right than I like. But year after year, concert after concert, we have stood together, singing in unison to eulogize our unity. My Country Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful, the Star Spangled Banner. No matter how we vote on Election Day, we all vote on Independence Day for America.

Except this president. On the Fourth of July, he chose to extol America by assaulting his adversaries: “American heroes defeated the Nazis, dethroned the fascists, toppled the communists, saved American values, upheld American principles, and chased down the terrorists to the very ends of the earth. We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”

Equating the Nazis, the fascists, the communists, with the miscreant troublemakers on America’s streets is sick. Depreciating the savage slaughter of millions just to foment his faithful flocks is shameless.

He also assured his unmasked (translation: asinine) apostles, “We will not allow anyone to divide our citizens by race or background. We will not allow them to foment hate, discord, and distrust.” He defined his opposition as “the very definition of totalitarianism.” On Independence Day, no less.

Dividing citizens by race or background? He would know about that. Fomenting hate, discord, and distrust? He would know about that, too. And if totalitarianism means a nation led by a wannabe dictator who thrives on obedience and subservience, he knows all about that. Remember when President George W. Bush infamously invoked, “Either you’re with us or you’re against us?” Today, that sounds almost quaint.

On Independence Day, the rest of us wave the same flag, no matter where we fall in the body politic. Not the Confederate flag by the way, the salient symbol of slavery which this president has dared to defend, but Old Glory, the American flag, which soldiers and citizens have died to defend.

The president pretentiously wraps himself in our flag too, but as if it is his and his alone to defend. The irony of his professed passion for Old Glory is that to this day, despicably and inexplicably, he still hasn’t ordered it flown at half-staff to memorialize the more than 130,000 Americans who have died— on his watch— from the coronavirus. Perhaps the Denier-in-Chief just doesn’t want to draw attention to the tens of thousands who experts say still might be alive if he had marshaled a national strategy to combat the disease, rather than an inept endeavor to ignore it.

He has their blood on his hands. And yet in his consecutive tirades at Mount Rushmore and the White House, amid a streak of six days’ worth of new record-high Covid infections, their lives— their deaths— rated hardly a mention.

Many years ago at Mount Rushmore, I had an unparalleled privilege. As part of a story I was reporting about technicians examining some expanding cracks in the four faces of the presidents, a camera crew and I got to join them crawling around the faces ourselves, sometimes gripping their granite features, sometimes suspended by ropes. What I remember thinking was, these were four great men, some flawed far more than others, but each having done this nation more good than harm.

That story was part of the run-up to that year’s Fourth of July.

On this Fourth of July holiday, in front of those same storied faces, this president had darker thoughts: “There is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for.”

That’s another irony, since the growing danger I see comes from a leader who, in the run-up to Independence Day, was threatening anyone who leaked or reported news about his unpatriotic failure to act on intelligence that Russia was paying the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American troops. In other words he threatened his political opposition, but didn’t threaten Russia itself.

Another growing danger comes from a leader who unpatriotically threatens the constitutional right of every American to vote. He fails to fight the invisible enemy, Covid-19; he fails to confront the obvious enemy, Russia. But he will muster up an army to stop a straw man he created called voter fraud, which really means, to prevent minority voters— typically (and justifiably) not his supporters— from exercising a right written into the bylaws of their democracy.

The writing already is on the wall. Although absent any evidence, he warned his ill-advised Arizona rally a few days before Independence Day, “These will be the most corrupt elections in the history of the country.” Could this become a pretext if he loses for refuting the results? The growing danger, the growing threat, is that this man knows what he’s doing. And will stop at nothing to look like he’s winning every war.

We are bigger than that.

There is a stunning summit in Colorado, over which my wife and I passed last week, called Independence Pass. The views from the top— 12,000 feet above the seas— are a metaphor for the endless horizons of America. If independence meant tearing away from the English monarchy, it also meant turning toward something new, if untested. Toward endless opportunity. Endless liberty. An endless American Dream.

Any other president would appreciate that. Any other president would want that for his (or some day, her) fellow citizens. But not this president. He speaks, and acts, and enacts, only for himself. As a former GOP Capitol Hill communications director named Tara Setmayer put it this weekend, his presidency is “the antithesis of patriotism.”

He has no right to hijack our holiday. Hopefully at this time next year, we won’t have to worry. We will have it back.

On the Ongoing Crisis

In the midst of the angst we’ve all felt these past few months, the word “crisis” has become an understatement.

At its outset, the coronavirus was a crisis. Now, with record numbers of new infections in the nation with the pandemic’s highest per-capita death rate in the western world, and progressively polarized about the safest way to confront it, it still is.

Then on the wave of the virus, the economy became a crisis. Today, with the repercussions of premature “reopenings,” and some warnings in the U.S. and globally that it could take as much as a decade to win back the losses we’ve all incurred— some at much more painful levels than others— it still is.

Then, in the glare of a single pointless death under the knee of a single bad cop, the precariousness of racial relations, and the processes of policing, became a crisis. Despite reforms so rapidly embraced by a broad spectrum of American society, until we’re convinced that they’ll actually alter the attitudes and the behavior of us all, it will also be fair to say of this crisis: It still is.

Yet hanging over all this— the health crisis, the economic crisis, the social crisis— is the crisis of leadership. The crisis of a president whose personal interests and unappeasable ego are so core to his conduct that virtually every word he has uttered and every edict he has issued have moved the nation toward more trauma, not less. Toward more division, not less. Toward more losses, more tension, more deaths, not less.

Toward more crisis, not less.

Every day, sometimes every hour, brings new portentous proof. With even more this past weekend. Just one weekend.

First, the president “retweeted” a video of a man in Florida driving a golf cart festooned with flags and banners supporting Trump.

The trouble is, as the man drove by the camera, he was pumping his fist and shouting “White Power.” One of the president’s spokesmen put this spin on Trump’s blatantly racist tweet: He “did not hear the one statement made on the video.”

As if that is an adequate excuse.

It’s not. Because it means one of two things: either the leader of the free world (as if the free world has much respect for this man’s leadership) pays so little attention to detail that he is willing to put something out to his tens of millions of followers without first making sure that it’s worthy of wider exposure… which raises questions about just how alert he’d be to detail when a crisis of national security threatens us. Or it means, in the interest of pleasing parts of his base, he endorses White Power, which pitifully, given his history, raises no new questions at all.

Neither gives this nation any relief from its crises.

Then, on the wave of reports that American intelligence learned months ago that Russian operatives have offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan to target our troops there, and that some U.S. troops have died as a result, the best Trump could do was tweet, “Nobody briefed or told me.”

As if that were an adequate excuse. Especially after reports just yesterday that this alarming intel was part of an assessment two months ago in the CIA’s World Intelligence Review and, even more telling of the president’s inattention to our safety, part of the President’s Daily Brief report— the piece he’s supposed to read every day— a full four months ago.

This all leads to several chilling conclusions: either Trump has surrounded himself with such incompetent advisors that they don’t know what’s crucial to point out to the president and what’s not. Or, Trump’s people are so loath to suffer his wrath if they deliver bad news that instead, they somehow protect him from it. Or most likely, given the menacing nature of the report, Trump was aware of it, but in deference to his bewildering bromance with Vladimir Putin, he did nothing to protect our troops, then flat-out lied.

Based on this president’s history, you be the judge. But however you explain it, this only aggravates the nation’s crises, it doesn’t relieve them. Not to mention, if Trump was briefed and didn’t act, you could call it treason.

Then, although at the nation’s expense the president now perilously pretends it’s all in the past, there’s still the pandemic. On a Sunday talk show, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander made this sensible statement: “If wearing masks is important, and all the health experts tell us that it is in containing the disease in 2020, it would help if from time to time the president would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask, if you’re against Trump, you do.” Shades of Florida Republican Marco Rubio’s more direct injunction: “Everyone should just wear a damn mask.” Even Trump’s shameless alter-ego, the Vice President, said over the weekend, “Where you can’t maintain social distancing, wearing a mask is just a good idea.”

But this doesn’t diminish the crisis, because as even his allies openly urge levelheaded measures like wearing masks, Trump doesn’t. And from what he has told us, won’t. Which makes this president a high-risk role model, because there are morons out there who follow his lead.

Getting Trump out is our only way out. Otherwise, every crisis will be unabated. As will our angst.

On Police

“A Policeman is a composite of what all men are, mingling of a saint and sinner, dust and deity.”

Those are the first words of a three-minute oral essay called “Policeman” by the radio legend Paul Harvey. For the better part of his 60-year career, Harvey was the biggest voice on American radio. He was conservative, but unlike his successors in broadcasting today who are provocative and incendiary, he was pensive and insightful.

I know, because for 2-½ years at the start of my career, I was his editor.

“Gulled statistics” Harvey went on to say in his essay about the police, “wave the fan over the stinkers, underscore instances of dishonesty and brutality because they are ‘new.’ What they really mean is that they are exceptional, unusual, not commonplace.”

Today, when police get painted with a broad brush they don’t all deserve, I agree.

This has to be put in context, of course. First, because Paul Harvey’s father was a lawman, a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was killed in the line of duty. All the time I knew Paul, he revered those who took the pledge to serve and protect. And second, because Paul Harvey is long gone, and never knew the names of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor or Freddie Gray… or George Floyd. The way they died is bound to shape many citizens’ views of policing.

But how fair is that broad brush? Harvey made a claim in his essay that might be hard to support:“Less than one-half of one percent of policemen misfit the uniform. That’s a better average than you’d find among clergy!” He threw out that percentage— President Trump put it at “99.9” percent— but neither man could know whether it’s true or not. In Harvey’s defense, we didn’t have the viral media coverage that we have today to focus attention on police misconduct. We didn’t have cell phone cameras.

Yet in my experience as a journalist, which probably includes more observations of and interactions with police than most Americans have, most cops aren’t bad cops. To me, although it’s hard to square Harvey’s words of worship with what we see today, they still ring true.

“He must make an instant decision which would require months for a lawyer to make. But, if he hurries, he’s careless. If he’s deliberate, he’s lazy. He must be first to an accident and infallible with his diagnosis. He must be able to start breathing, stop bleeding, tie splints and, above all, be sure the victim goes home without a limp. Or expect to be sued. The police officer must know every gun, draw on the run, and hit where it doesn’t hurt. He must be able to whip two men twice his size and half his age without damaging his uniform and without being “brutal.” If you hit him, he’s a coward. If he hits you, he’s a bully.”

I grant you, if you grew up in a neighborhood where police were more to be feared than trusted— and there are those neighborhoods and there are those police— you could take issue with Paul Harvey, and with me. If you watched those horrifying 8-minutes-and-46-seconds of a Minneapolis cop killing George Floyd, you could take issue too.

But it appalls me, when there’s so much talk today about discrediting, defunding, even disbanding police departments, that in many people’s minds, it comes down to taking sides: either you’re on the side of the police, or you’re against them.

If you don’t support police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, you’re blind. We need reform in the fields of crisis intervention and use of force, in sensitivity training, hiring, accountability. Even a former big city cop, who’s now chief of police in the Colorado resort town of Vail, was this week quoted as saying, “We all have buttons that get pushed. We can let our emotions get the better of us.”

For the record, he keenly supports reform. He understands, every cop sometimes is confronted with a hair-trigger crisis. The bad ones turn to the trigger in their hands too fast.

But the good ones? Again, Paul Harvey: “The policeman must be a minister, a social worker, a diplomat, a tough guy and a gentleman. And, of course, he’d have to be genius… for he will have to feed a family on a policeman’s salary.”

Are Harvey’s notions outdated in the current climate? That is open to debate, as is virtually every aspect of police behavior today. But in my view, we are at risk of swinging the pendulum too far. With respect to those who disagree, when I read about these movements— I even heard a guy on NPR calling for “cop-free neighborhoods”— I think it’s madness. What in tarnation does he think his neighborhood is going to look like when it’s “cop-free?” Crime-free? Not unless we also can legislate against deviant unlawful behavior in every corner of the country.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, we’ve all gotten used to the phrase “essential services.” When they’re doing their job wrong, police are a menace. But when they are doing it right, they are about as essential as it gets. Goodbye law enforcement, hello anarchy.

Personally, I come down on the side of a Venn diagram that has been circulating on Facebook.

Or, you can take it from liberal satirist Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame. He told a New York Times interviewer, “It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer… and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true.”

Back in the day, even Paul Harvey saw the conflict for someone in law enforcement: “He, of all men, is once the most needed and the most unwanted.”

If we can agree that we need laws to help keep us safe— in our homes, on our highways, around our streets— then we can agree that we need law enforcement. Thankfully, bipartisan public opinion is driving police toward reform. But that’s where it should stop: at reform, not relinquishment. And not indiscriminate condemnation either.

On Crucial Cell Phone Videos

Those cell phone cameras in everyone’s hands are annoying. Often obnoxious. Sometimes even intrusive. But one of them, in the hands of a teenaged girl in Minneapolis who daringly documented the death of George Floyd, already is changing our world. Mostly for the better.

Thank goodness for those annoying, obnoxious, intrusive cell phone cameras.

And thank goodness by the way for Darnella Frazier, the teenager who held hers on the sickening scene in front of her for those fatal eight minutes and 46 seconds. If she hadn’t, we might never have known. She is a hero.

Several years ago, I did a documentary about the proliferating presence of all kinds of cameras in our lives. Visible security cameras, hidden surveillance cameras, police body cams, GoPro cams, and most common of them all, those annoying cell phone cameras. As they have become more ubiquitous, more Americans complain that they intrude on our right to privacy. Or to put it differently, that no one has the right to take someone else’s picture without their permission.

They are wrong. The conclusion (of constitutional experts, not just me) is, whether you’re a solitary citizen or an elected official or an officer of the law, if you’re in a public place, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. If public safety is not an issue, photos and videos can be shot of anyone by anyone in any public place. If the target of the camera doesn’t like it, he or she has to retreat to someplace private. Period.

Like I said, after George Floyd, thank goodness.

Think about this: the cell phone video of him dying with a police officer’s knee relentlessly resting on his neck has turned Floyd, albeit through no action of his own and through no one’s premeditated intent, into the most influential black man in modern times, save for Martin Luther King. The aftermath of Floyd’s death, a focus on reducing if not erasing racism, isn’t just silver lining. It is gold.

How so? Because after the video of his dark death came to light, protestors poured into the streets of American cities. In a broad-based crusade, the impacts of which we haven’t seen since the Vietnam War or the earlier war for civil rights, they already have wrought big change. Although some cities sound like they’re going too far, and although many good cops have been painted with a broad brush that should be wiped only on the bad, state and local governments across America are examining the procedures of their police, and reforming the way they handle their suspects. And, domestic and mental health cases for which police officers aren’t always adequately trained will be handled by professionals who are.

What’s more, tokens of treason and slavery are finally getting the broad condemnation they have long deserved. NASCAR, a mainstay of southern American culture, announced that it is prohibiting the Confederate flag at its properties and its races, saying that the flag’s presence “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.” Not too little, even if too late.

The National Football League finally took an equally enlightened if overdue stance. Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, publicly apologized for the controversy over players taking a knee to protest racism during the National Anthem. “We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier,” he said in a video statement. Now, the league will “encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

All thanks to a cell phone video from Minneapolis.

Meanwhile in Washington, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Army announced that they are willing to reopen discussions about removing Confederate heroes’ names from U.S. Army bases. We’re not talking about remote outposts here; we’re talking about the Army’s most important institutions like Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Fort Hood. The president has said, “My Administration will not even consider” it, but the barn door has been opened. It will be hard to close it again.

Especially when none less than General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and served in fact three times at Fort Bragg, wrote in The Atlantic, “The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention.” Even a former commander of Fort Benning itself, retired General Paul Eaton, said of the president’s resistance to removing the Confederate names, “Rather than move this nation further away from institutionalized racism, he believes we should cling to it and its heritage by keeping the names of racist traitors on the gates of our military bases.”

All thanks to a cell phone video. It has brought out some of the best.

Like the respected former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Although some citizens took advantage of the protests across America to go on cruel and costly crime sprees, most were peaceful. Yet the president cracked down on them anyway, threatening the use of “ominous weapons” and “vicious dogs” and even active duty army troops, which led Mattis to write that the president was making “a mockery of our Constitution.” “‘Equal Justice Under Law,’” he said, “is precisely what protestors are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand— one that all of us should be able to get behind.”

The cell phone video also ultimately led the respected former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, to publicly voice the same conclusion: that this president has “drifted away” from the Constitution. He added, for good measure, that the president “lies all the time.”

Even the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, threw water on the flames, apologizing for being a pawn in the president’s brazen bible-bearing photo op, saying, “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics… I should not have been there.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper already had said something similar.

Changes in policies, changes in attitudes, changes in alliances, aren’t always all good. In this case though, most inarguably are.

They wouldn’t have happened without a cell phone video from Minneapolis.

On an Empty Suit

When it comes to finding unity in the embers of upheavals across America, and before that, leadership during the calamity of the coronavirus crisis, maybe this satire says it best: “A controversial new study suggests that the United States of America could benefit from having a President.”

The New Yorker’s resident satirist Andy Borowitz then continued, “The study has raised eyebrows by claiming that a President could be helpful in unifying a country and, in a best-case scenario, providing moral leadership.”

If only.

But the satire raises a serious question: where is our president? What have we seen in the White House beyond an empty suit?

Oh, the suit moves. But only to secure a street with tear gas so it can cross and pose outside an historic church, looking like a kid told to stand in the corner, holding up a bible in one hand that all signs suggest it has never read. And, as a Denver columnist metaphorically wrote, holding a gasoline can in the other.

And, the suit talks. But does it speak of calm conduct, and common sense? Of course not. It threatens, it bullies, it distracts, it lies. It calls governors “jerks” and protestors “thugs,” which is hardly calculated to unify, as if the empty suit could even spell the word. And if you don’t take it from me, take it from “Mad Dog Mattis,” the empty suit’s first defense secretary, who now calls the empty suit “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.”

But this empty suit seems driven strictly by confrontation, not conciliation. Mouthing totalitarian cravings like “I wish we had an occupying force in there” and Tiananmen-like threats such as “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” its mentality is typical of a dictatorship, not a democracy. You arrest looters by the way; you charge them with looting, theft, arson, destruction of property. But you don’t shoot them. Not in a democracy.

However, when the empty suit at the top of the food chain preaches violence, advising law enforcement officials who’re confronting protestors that ”You don’t have to be too careful,” what else can you expect? Likewise, when the empty suit calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” then compliant cops in several cities target journalists trying to give us news about what’s going on, what else can you expect?

Where others might say of the need to come down hard to win the peace, “I wish I didn’t have to,” the depraved empty suit says, “I’m glad I get to.“ For the empty suit, it’s us-against-them. Hardly a healthy prescription for a nation in need.

It blames everyone and everything but itself for a country unraveling from a pandemic, then an economic free-fall, and now riots. Whatever happened to “The buck stops here?” If ever asked about that plaque which graced the desk of Harry Truman, the empty suit probably would hold up the Chicago Tribune’s embarrassing headline from 1948 and say, “The election was rigged.”

If you’re a baby boomer, even amongst the youngest, you’ve lived through ten presidents, the oldest amongst us, thirteen. All flawed, some far more than others and none more flawed than Richard Nixon. I covered a few of them myself. But I can’t even imagine any of those presidents failing at least to try to restore some sanity to a society spinning out of control, a nation already pent up with frustration from fright from an invisible virus, from economic erosion, from isolation in lockdown? Can you imagine any president choosing to inflame rather than assuage?

Not until now. Not until three-and-a-half years ago when this empty suit took up residence in the White House. An empty suit that shows no instinct to restore social stability, no plan to relieve a panicked population.

That’s because this empty suit knows no such strategies. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, it ignored reality and as a misguided show of trumped up masculinity, stuck its head in the sand, retarding the nation’s response and leading, scientists and statisticians say, to tens of thousands of additional deaths. Then at the height of the crisis, when every kind of emergency supply was running short, the empty suit stood by as states were pitted against other states, hospitals pitted against other hospitals. Remember those famous words when a national strategy might have made the difference between life and death? “We’re not a shipping clerk.” There was no national strategy, period. And now, if a national strategy this past week has been articulated, it was to have an occupying military force. On American soil.

It feels like our nation is spiraling into a train wreck. Maybe it’s not the worst in our lifetime. But maybe it is. We can’t lay it all at the feet of the empty suit. Not the pandemic, not racial violence by a few bad cops. But did the empty suit take the obvious steps to minimize the pandemic’s horrid harm? To the contrary, it scoffed at best practices and advocated some of the worst ones. Did it do anything to calm the chaos of racial tension? To the contrary, it inflamed it. So some of this lands right at the empty suit’s feet. An empty suit presiding over the deterioration of the America we know and love. At best it is deaf, at worst, complicit.

Andy Borowitz ended his New Yorker satire, about the benefit of actually having a president, with some wishful thinking: “As improbable as it might seem, citizens would look to the President as someone to admire and emulate in their daily lives.”

Mad Dog Mattis ended his commentary with something more foreboding: “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

These are the consequences of three-plus years with an empty suit. The nation, the world, cannot afford much more.

On Space

What perfect timing— the month of May— for two Americans finally to lift off again into space, not from a Russian launch pad in Asia, but from American soil. This pandemic has brought much of our movement to a halt… but not our quest for the cosmos.

As older baby boomers might remember, it was also in May, 59 years ago, that Alan Shepard, in his capsule dubbed Freedom 7, became the first American to soar into space. The space race was on.

And as even younger boomers will remember, that put us on the path to create the Apollo program and win that race against our Soviet rivals, landing six times on the moon. Still, today, only twelve men have left their footprints there. One of them was Alan Shepard, ten years after his first flight on Freedom 7. Nice bookends to grow up with.

After the final mission to the moon, it was 8-½ years before Americans reached space again, this time in the Space Shuttle. It was a magnificent vehicle. All told, there were 135 missions, and I had the privilege of anchoring a 90-minute television broadcast from the Kennedy Space Center for each of the shuttle program’s final 22 flights.

It never got old. Every launch was unique: the weather, the time of day, the trajectory toward the target, a different crew, a different payload, a different mission. But more momentous, with every launch, watching from my anchor desk 3.1 miles from the launch pad (considered the “blast radius,” as close as anyone got, save for a handful of emergency rescue personnel in a bunker), I was infused, sometimes emotionally overwhelmed, with a sense of awe: awe for the power of the vehicle, awe for the brilliance of the engineering, awe for the precision of the flight plan, awe for the courage of the astronauts. The head of NASA’s manned space program once squeezed his thumb and forefinger tightly together right in front of me and said, “We’re always this close to disaster.”

And now, here we are again, astronauts blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center, nine years after the last launch from Pad 39A but still, “this close to disaster.” That’s what it takes to explore the cosmos. So many moving parts, so many forbidding forces, so many unknowns.

But man was meant to explore. Not to ignore the implications for native peoples, but where would we be today without the inquisitive adventurers of centuries past, who crossed into the unknown in their sailing ships and found new worlds? There are practical goals in space travel, as there are practical benefits from the exploration we’ve already seen— from home insulation to fire retardants to polarized sunglasses to freeze-dried foods to solar panels to the Dustbuster. But more important are what separate us from other species: curiosity, knowledge, invention, exploration. Now, from conception to ignition, it is once again an all-American enterprise.

I produced an hour-long program once at Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center— Gagarin was the one human being who beat Alan Shepard into space. As a reflection of the Cold War, it is hidden in a forest of birch trees about a hundred miles from Moscow. For many years now, to get to the International Space Station, U.S. astronauts had to spend months there learning the Soyuz system, because they launched in Soyuz capsules atop Soyuz rockets.

Not any more. As one of our astronauts temporarily based there told me (while living in an American-style two-story clapboard house surrounded by a white picket fence which Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, thought would be a nice touch for our people), the Russians’ procedures weren’t better, or worse, just different. But when he said it, he winked.

With SpaceX building the Crew Dragon capsule that just carried our astronauts back into space from Florida, and with other companies also in the game, NASA now is more the manager of space flight than the galvanizer, but that’s not as big a change as it sounds. Private enterprise has always cobbled the ships together, to carry our modern adventurers out to do what man was born to do. Not even a pandemic can stop us.

Toward the end of the shuttle program, I asked NASA’s then-Administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a four-time shuttle astronaut, whether we’ll ever go back to the moon. “Yes, but we’re in no hurry” he said, summarizing America’s place in space. “Maybe someone will even beat us there. But do you know what they’ll find when they land on the lunar surface? Six flags. And they’re all ours.”

Now, even more flags are in our future. Somewhere. And they’ll be hoisted into space once again by an American rocket, from American soil.

On Coronavirus Sadness

Plenty of jokes have made the rounds about the crisis we’re in, and that’s healthy.

Like, I just saw my neighbor, homebound for two months now, talking to his cat. He thought the cat actually understood what he was saying. I went back home and told my dog about it. We had a good laugh.

But other things are not as funny as they are curious. Or if not curious, then confounding. Or strange. Or sad. Sometimes, pathetically sad.

Like my beard, which is funny-curious (or maybe, pathetically sad?). When I decided on the fateful day in March, Friday the 13th, that I’d stop shaving until the world turned right side up again, I expected that if I were still at it by now, I’d have a beard bushier than Paul Bunyan’s. I don’t.

I also expected that by staying at home, I’d be at a loss for things to do. But I’m not. Between long walks and long reads and long stints at the computer (and sometimes at the stove) before TV at night, I’m only at a loss for enough time to do them. (Thank goodness it doesn’t take up precious time to grow a beard.)

It’s curious that although most of us are at home far more than we ever thought we’d be… we’re still not flossing our teeth.

And that when we used to talk about “the good ol’ days,” we meant 60 years ago. Now we mean 60 days ago.

It’s strange, getting a credit card bill without a single charge for gasoline for an entire month. And inexplicably strange, still finding a store’s shelves stripped clean of toilet paper. A friend wrote that he used to spin the roll of TP like he was the host on Wheel of Fortune but now, he spins it like he’s cracking a safe.

It’s also strange that we’re washing the bottles and cans before we put our groceries away. I always washed my apples but this is the first time I ever washed the applesauce too. And, that when we’re walking toward a stranger and one of us swerves to create more space between us, the other one doesn’t take it personally.

It’s strange, to me anyway, that while I covered many wars and natural disasters where no one had to tell me that something horrible was happening, we’re now going through a global calamity but the enemy is invisible and everything looks so normal. When I see road and public works projects going on as if nothing has changed, I have to stop and remind myself, “Well of course, the whole world hasn’t come to a halt.” Which is a good thing, because the business bailout programs and unemployment systems couldn’t afford it.

It’s curious that in one way, this pandemic has become a great equalizer. Everyone is affected: young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, black and white, female and male. Yet in another way, it has made some gaps wider. A lot of us have been stuck at home, but some have more money to cope than others, and some homes are a whole lot easier to shelter in place than others.

It’s more confounding than curious that because we’re at war with an enemy no one has seen before, our lives are in the hands of experts who are on the same learning curve we’re on. Which has resulted in what one commentator calls “the fog of war.” Should we all wear masks? The answer was no… until it changed to yes. Is six feet enough for social distancing? Sure… until ten feet became even better. If we’ve been infected, are we immune from reinfection? Yes… but maybe now, no. Are kids bulletproof? We thought so… but not any more.

It’s also more confounding than curious that until the president cut off those daily televised coronavirus task force briefings because they made him look bad (to be clear: he made himself look bad), virtually every briefing was broadcast in full, even though much of the content was just Trump’s tall tales and self-loving boasts and bitter rants. As my old friend and colleague Ted Koppel said last month, “Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism.”

Which reminds me: it’s either funny, or frightening, how quiet Trump’s supporters were last month when he said of presidential power, “The authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.” Just imagine if President Obama, in his quest to have his way, had said anything even remotely similar. They’d have rammed their way through the White House gates.

It’s sad that when the president’s own valet tested positive for the virus, Trump reportedly asked in frustration why the valets hadn’t been ordered to wear masks. This is the man who goes bare-faced himself on public visits (too busy entertaining “dictators, kings, queens”), clueless that the presidential pulpit comes with presidential responsibilities.

Pitifully sad is that in less than three months, the death toll from coronavirus in the United States already exceeds American deaths from the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, combined! Estimates say that before this coronavirus war is over, you can throw in Korea too.

What’s maddeningly sad is that our malignantly misinformed, moronically myopic, mendaciously amoral leader said not long ago, “We have it totally under control.” True, as Senator Lamar Alexander observed at this week’s hearing, “Even the experts underestimated” the scale of this crisis. But eventually they recognized it, while Trump persisted in ignoring it, and it was his oblivious assertions, not anyone else’s, that retarded the nation’s response to the pandemic, at the cost of countless American lives. What’s funny, in an awfully sad way, is that this man thinks he is even remotely qualified to run for a second term. And that anyone else thinks so too.

My dog agrees.

On Leadership

Leadership. American leadership. Through the calamitous course of the coronavirus crisis, it is a phrase that hasn’t so much been redefined, as abandoned.

As a journalist, I have covered great American leaders. First among them, Ronald Reagan. His politics weren’t my politics, but with one part commitment, one part charisma, the man knew how to lead. Wherever in the world I went with Reagan, people looked to him for leadership. You could see it simply enough because it was written on their faces. No baby boomer— no member of any generation conscious of America’s place in the world at the time of Reagan’s presidency— can forget his demand, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Not long after, Gorbachev did.

Before Reagan, Jimmy Carter’s presidency is not remembered as one of the great ones, but he showed signs of great leadership too. I shuttled with Carter around the Middle East when he was struggling to sew together a peace accord between two decades-long enemies, Israel and Egypt. In Carter’s case, leadership was one part commitment, one part perseverance. Against all odds, he wouldn’t give up and he wouldn’t let Begin or Sadat, the leaders of those two acrimonious adversaries, give up either. Eventually at Camp David, they signed. The peace is in place to this very day.

Finally, after Reagan, George H.W. Bush. When Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded an American ally, Kuwait— the alliance greased by Kuwait’s abundance of oil— Bush rode to the rescue. Militarily, the United States could have pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait by itself. But diplomatically, Bush knew that international law wouldn’t permit America to wage war alone. So he painstakingly assembled a coalition. I covered that war, code-named Operation Desert Storm. Bush built a team of 39 countries, from Argentina to Australia, from Poland to Pakistan, from South Korea to Senegal. Iraq’s army was badly bloodied and fled back to its borders.

That was leadership. Take a good look, because today, still in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, we have none.

Does anyone seriously think that any of those presidents would have disclaimed his duty to lead our fifty states when the tide of this insidious virus began to wash over them? Of course not. But the president we have now is more consumed with preposterous boasts and petty bitterness than he is with leadership. When he told the nation’s governors who were begging for help with medical supplies, “We’re not a shipping clerk,” there was no more doubt. Neither Reagan nor Carter nor Bush told those who looked to them for leadership, “You’re on your own.”

But today, leadership has been abandoned.

Leadership means when tens of thousands of your countrymen are killed by an invisible enemy, you lead the nation in mourning. Remember Reagan after Challenger? Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City? George W. Bush after 9/11? Barack Obama after Charleston? But where is the mourning from this White House? Other than occasional words of empathy scrupulously scripted in his written remarks and stiffly pronounced from his podium, we’ve seen none from this president. It has been left to governors and mayors to even order flags flown at half-staff. The president has been silent.

Leadership means when you’re trying to put down a pandemic that has no respect for borders, you straighten out the governors who don’t seem to understand that, and encourage them to act in the nation’s best interest, not just in their own. Tweets that encourage militiamen armed with assault rifles to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” aren’t leadership. They’re relinquishment of responsibility, dereliction of duty, abandonment of authority.

Leadership means you don’t declare victory until you’re out of the darkness and victory is assured. Because otherwise, you give people false hope. Yet every time this president tries to rescue his reelection and save his fragile ego by showing us the future through his rose-colored glasses, he does just that. Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke said it best in this cynical summary of the president’s perpetual parade of self-promotion: “Victory is ours! Not everyone has died, not everyone is unemployed.” Or as Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, put it after the president talked about the great shape we’ll all be in by the Fourth of July, “He plans fireworks while Americans plan funerals.”

And by the way, leadership means that when you’re the head of a government and the government says that for the safety of the nation, people in public ought to wear masks, you should be a role model and wear one yourself.

And all of that is to say nothing of the absence of global leadership. Shifting the blame for a belated and bungled American response to the pandemic. Disowning the World Health Organization, the only agency designed to help coordinate an international battle against the pandemic. It leaves pro-American political scientists like Dominique Moisi to sadly say, “America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly.” And it leaves Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas to observe that whilst in the old days, the world would depend on the United States for leadership, under this president, when the world needs leadership, it doesn’t even look in our direction.

There’s a word that this president tweeted a lot in the early days of his presidency, bemoaning anything that didn’t fit with his narrative: “Sad.” It’s time to bring it back. Because although the president has a bully pulpit, he only uses it to be a bully. When we need it the most, he doesn’t lead the world. He doesn’t lead the nation. Unlike Reagan, Carter, Clinton, Obama, both Bushes, he doesn’t lead at all.

On Personal Responsibility During the Pandemic

I was just getting comfortable with the idea of social distancing, enforced not so much by restrictive regulations as by the force of “personal responsibility.” It is a precept promoted primarily by conservatives, but when life and death are on the line, everyone is bound to be as careful as they have to be if they don’t want to be the next victim of the coronavirus, right?

Then I took a hike.

It was on a trail through some open space near my home here in Colorado. And I’m not exaggerating when I say, the percentage of people on the trail with masks over their noses and mouths was in the single digits. The low single digits. And these were people who, by dint of the fact that they were out hiking, supposedly take their health seriously.

What’s worse, just a handful made any effort to pull off to one side of the trail to ensure that we had some space between us when I pulled off to the other. I could only wonder, have these people read anything at all about this pandemic, and the enigmatic and insidious ways in which the virus spreads from one human being to another?

Evidently not. I mean, if they couldn’t even be bothered to read the sign at the trailhead, which clearly states in its list of rules, “Wear a bandana or face mask; cover your nose and mouth at the trail head or when passing others on the trail,” I guess they couldn’t be bothered to read all the other warnings the rest of us have seen since this whole crisis started.

Extrapolate that throughout the nation and we’ll never come close to the general goal of high compliance with social distancing to keep the curve flat.

It did occur to me that virtually everyone I encountered was younger than I am— not such a high bar any more— and therefore, perhaps in their minds anyway, bulletproof. Which is more proof that everyone isn’t reading everything they can to know who’s safe and who’s not, because the answer is, no one’s patently safe, and everyone’s not. Statistics show that the young can be struck just as hard as the old, the fit might get just as sick as the unfit.

So maybe, if the question is why these people were so careless about their own health and cavalier about mine, the answer is, they think the worst has passed and they can relax. Which brings to mind what a cardiologist once told me about some of his patients, who’d say that they had taken the heart medications he prescribed so religiously that they now felt good enough to stop. Or as another friend put it, “It’s like the guy who goes skydiving and says, ‘The parachute has slowed my rate of descent; I can take it off now and relax’.”

We can’t relax. Not yet, anyway. Whether walking on a trail or a sidewalk, a deserted campus or a public park, the virus is still spreading, and what we’ve learned so far is, we’re the only ones who can stop it. And even then, not right away. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Sunday, “Social distancing will be with us through the summer.”

Back in the car after my hike, I heard an interview on NPR with a legislator in Pennsylvania who was calling for lockdown restrictions to be lifted, saying with great confidence, “I have full faith in the personal responsibility of the people.”

Sorry, but after my hike, I don’t. And if people are going to act this way on one trail in Colorado, there’s no reason to think they won’t act the same way in every other setting in every other state in the union. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: citizens are free, sitting in the privacy of their homes if they like, to play Russian Roulette. But when they come out in public, they’re not free to force me to play their deadly game with them.

On Lockdown Protestors

Is it a year ago now, or just a little more than a month but it feels kind of like a year, that so many of us thought this whole coronavirus crisis— the extraordinary lengths to which we’d go for personal protection, the extraordinary losses our economy would suffer, the extraordinary toll of fatalities— would last for two weeks, maybe four weeks max?

If only.

Now, we are well past the one-month mark, and studies show that most of us are doing a pretty good job of sheltering-in-place, but we still haven’t fully flattened the curve. Yet some Americans arbitrarily have decided, that’s long enough, and have agitated to lift all the restrictions. As if it’s better to dig more graves in our cemeteries than to dig more dollars from our wallets. One thing they might be overlooking: an economy can’t get healthy if its people stay sick.

Of course, how would they know any better when their president inflates their ignorance with inflammatory tweets to “LIBERATE” their states? Should we expect critical thinking from people for whom this president can do no wrong?

These are citizens who kept their mouths shut earlier this month when President Trump said of his own presidential power, “The authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.” Just imagine if, in his quest to have his way, President Obama had said anything even remotely similar. Trump’s disciples would have rammed their way through the White House gates.

So, note to these protesting patriots: America’s death toll just a week ago— and these are only the deaths recorded in hospitals and nursing homes; they don’t even include people who died in their own homes— was 30,000. Today, just one week later, we’re pushing north of 50,000.

Comparisons can be useful, if the comparison is a cudgel. If a hundred fully-packed 747s went down all in the space of a few weeks, it would mean about 50,000 lives lost. And here’s an even more shocking comparison: more than 58,000 Americans died during the eight years of the war in Vietnam. We’ll reach that nasty number, from coronavirus, just another week from now.

One of the protestors’ signs last weekend demanded “Facts, Not Fear.” Those are facts. Another proclaimed, “Jesus is my vaccine.” But here’s some sorry news: for 50,000 Americans and roughly 200,000 people worldwide, the vaccine hasn’t worked.

These protestors complain that by being forced to shelter in place, their rights have been trampled. Well, here’s more news, about one right they certainly haven’t lost: they have the right to play Russian Roulette with their lives, if they sit at home and do it in private. But polls show that most of us— and by “most,” I mean it’s not even close— don’t believe it’s safe yet for all the restrictions to be lifted. One right the protestors don’t have is to force the rest of us to play their deadly game.

On Trump and the Coronavirus

Watching Donald Trump deal with the coronavirus crisis, I’ve come to see that the man is like an onion. Not because tens of millions of us tear up, the closer we get to the mere mention of his name. But because, like an onion, this creature has many layers and as each day passes in this pandemic, yet another is peeled back to show what an inept, corrupt, petty, dishonest, mean-spirited, totally self-serving man he is.

I’ve heard and read a lot about what Trump has said in his White House briefings, although to be honest, not every word. With all his ego-feeding hogwash about what a “great job” he’s doing and how “everyone else thinks so” too, my stomach couldn’t take it. But it’s even more stomach-turning that while governors and mayors across the country from both parties have sympathetically expressed their sadness at the human toll of this crisis, I haven’t heard a single word from Trump, not a single word, of sorrow. Sorrow for all who suffer from the virus. And from the economy. From anxiety. And isolation.

His absence of human empathy is best told in the five-word title of a Frank Bruni column in The New York Times: “Has anyone found Trump’s soul?” The appalling answer is, no.

But equally odious to what we haven’t heard, is what we have heard. And it is best told by a single word: “tromper.” It is French for “to deceive.” In a delicious serendipity of sound, its English translation is “trumpery.”

Trumpery is the president’s personal crest. In briefing after briefing, at best he errs. At worst he lies.

Neither comes any more as a surprise. But they do both come these days with consequences: deaths that didn’t have to happen, and likely wouldn’t have happened, if Trump hadn’t seen himself as smarter than the scientists, and due to his denials, delayed a more forceful fight against the virus.

I could give you examples from any day, any week. But let’s just boil it down to a single week, because it drips in irony: April Fools’ Week.

It was a week, by the way, when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic (what’s even reported, anyway) approached double the combined death tolls from the tragedy of 9/11 (2,977) and the two wars it triggered: Iraq (4,550), and Afghanistan (2,401). That’s almost 10,000 deaths, in more than 18 years. The coronavirus count has grown twice that high in just seven weeks. Seven weeks, and counting.

So how did this president spend some of his precious time in the public eye that awful week? For one thing, shamefully still making unsupported claims about an unproven cure called hydroxychloroquine. “You are not going to die from this pill,” he recklessly assured us. Forget that the president of the American Medical Association warned that if you take the pill, because of potential side effects, “You could lose your life.” But hey, what does she know, compared to Trump’s “natural ability” in science?

As a scary sidelight, several outlets made connections that week between Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine, and his family’s financial interests in the company that makes it. I don’t know if there is one or not, but as the history of this corrupt presidency is our guide, I can’t reject the reports outright.

He also used the week to once again out-and-out lie to the American people. “We really inherited bad tests,” he dishonestly proclaimed, scapegoating the Obama Administration… ignoring the truth: the initial tests for the coronavirus were created early this year by Trump’s own agency. On the economic front he promised that the small business lending program has “really been performing well.” Of course it hasn’t, not even close. Just ask millions near the end of their rope. And toward the end of April Fools’ Week, Trump tweeted about “light at the end of the tunnel.” It would be fine to give people hope, but not when it merely means they might let up their guard and come out of self-isolation before it’s safe.

Which leads to another scary sidelight: by the end of April Fools’ Week, eight governors— inexplicably and idiotically in light of the evidence— still hadn’t locked down their states. Republicans all, if you must know. Mind you, even they don’t hold a candle to the GOP chairwoman of a suburban Denver county who posted to the party’s Facebook page, “Do you believe that the Coronavirus is a PSYOP (Psychological Operation)?” Nothing like reinforcing skepticism that this whole thing’s even real. To their credit, most GOP officeholders in her county demanded her resignation.

And oh, speaking of scary, it was during April Fools’ Week that the president’s son-in-law comforted us all with the petty proclamation that the National Strategic Stockpile, our largest cache of life-saving medical supplies for a public health emergency, “is supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” And Trump backed him up.

Trump also used a briefing, once again, to berate a reporter after being asked about the Inspector General’s verdict from the Department of Health and Human Services that hospitals still suffered severe shortages of supplies. After the president inquired how long this Inspector General had served in government and ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl told him she had served “in the previous administration,” Trump mockingly maligned her report as “another fake dossier” and, in his mean-spirited no-class style, called Karl “a third-rate reporter,” embellishing with, “You will never make it.”

But maybe what really took the cake that week was when the Centers for Disease Control formally recommended that now, when we go out in public, we all wear some sort of mask. The reasoning, spelled out simply by the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, is this: “On a very simple level, you can’t give the virus to someone else if you’re not physically near them.” To which the president defiantly declared, “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t.” Of course he’s not greeting anyone in the Oval Office anyway these days (although he’d probably prefer the dictators when visits do resume). Does this self-serving president even have a clue about being a role model?

And by the way, also in April Fools’ Week, the president appointed a fool as his press secretary. A woman who had such myopia in mid-March, when the pandemic already had taken its toll, that she said on the radio, “This is something that is under control.” The ideal lackey to work for an inept boss like Trump. Contemptibly, she also said, “(Democrats) root for this to take hold… It doesn’t matter how many Americans they destroy in order to get there.”

After a week like that, I can only hope for four things. The first is, may the disease disappear faster and the deaths stop sooner than some predict. The second is, may the economy rebound, and its victims survive. Third, may the goodwill and amity many Americans have shown to total strangers persist beyond the end of the crisis. And fourth, may the majority of Americans see the truth about this monstrous man in the White House, and vote him out in November.

On A Month of Sundays

This is like a month of Sundays. It’s what a lot of us have always dreamed of having.

But somehow it doesn’t feel the way it should. Too much anxiety out there. Anxiety over what we touch. Anxiety over how close someone comes when we pass on a sidewalk. If you wrote a story about what we see in our world today— from refrigerated trucks sitting outside hospitals waiting for corpses, to the inexplicable run on toilet paper— you could submit it to the incomparably chilling old TV series called The Twilight Zone and they wouldn’t have to change a word.

Not that every living thing is anxious. To the contrary, almost every other living thing is impervious to this crisis. Where I live, in the Rocky Mountains, the elk still graze where they like. No need for social distancing.

And it’s healthy for us to see healthy sights like this: a mother dove, nesting in an old Christmas wreath outside the suburban Washington home of BoomerCafé’s co-founder David Henderson. It’s like nothing in her life has changed. Because it hasn’t.

The only exception, in fact, is dogs. They’re having the time of their lives. For once, people aren’t shutting the door and leaving them alone from dawn to dusk. And they’re getting more walks than ever. A joke went around on the internet that says, “It’s the dogs who started this.”

For dogs, this month of Sundays is a treat.

But for most of us, not so much. Back in normal times, which seems like half-a-lifetime ago, a Sunday was a day to do whatever we liked. A day away from home, or a day on the couch at home. A good project, a good walk, a good game, a good book.

That was then, this is now. Happily, I’ve heard some people rejoice at the slower pace of life, the lower levels of pollution, and for families, the togetherness that the old normal rarely allowed. But I’ve heard others refer to this new normal— spent sheltering in place, in self-isolation, whatever you want to call it— as imprisonment.

Just last week was the anniversary of the conviction of Lieutenant William Calley. Baby boomers will remember him from the Vietnam War, the fomenter and fall guy of the massacre at My Lai. Ultimately his sentence was three years of house arrest and I remember thinking at the time, “Gee, that hardly sounds like punishment.” Now I see it a little differently.

Of course we’re all finding new things to do in our month of Sundays. Or finding more time for old things. A friend of mine pointed out that between FaceTime and Skype and Zoom calls, and a growing stream of jokes and cartoons, comedy sketches and clever songs circulating on the internet, and just paying intense attention to the ever-alarming news about the virus, he’s spending a lot more screen time than ever before. Which gives him a glimpse of his grandkids’ future. Which isn’t auspicious.

One new thing for me by the way is, I’m growing a beard. Last month, on Friday the 13th, when our world really began to turn upside down, I decided for the first time in my life to grow a beard. Thankfully I’ve got other things to keep me busy while I shelter in place because growing a beard doesn’t actually take up much time in my day.

That’s a good thing, because I need a lot more time for washing. Not just my hands, but my food. I’m wondering, after washing our hands with soap, should we wash our soap with more soap?

Another change in this month of Sundays is, in the old normal, if you had a little sniffle, that’s all it was, a sniffle. Now, you might worry that a sniffle is a symptom. A symptom of the virus. No reason to run scared, but it’s hard to keep your mind from running in that direction.

And, although this dread disease is respiratory, not gastrointestinal, what’s with the unfathomable but unrelenting run on toilet paper? You know there’s something abnormal going on when, after a friend directs you to a stash of toilet paper on Amazon, you score four 24-packs and arrange to have them shipped to yourself and to each of your kids. Not a gift of chocolates, or flowers, or a case of beer, but toilet paper. And then, something even more abnormal: you get a followup email saying “Sorry, we’re out.”

But if that’s the worst thing my family and I suffer in this month of Sundays, we are indisputably lucky. Luckier, for sure, than the woman another friend describes, whose husband has COPD and whose five-year-old granddaughter has a compromised immune system. He says that when he asked her how he might be able to help, she simply said, “Catch my tears.”

There are a lot of tears going around. Particularly in parts of the population about whom we don’t think nearly enough. The homeless, amongst whom this virus can spread like wildfire. The abused, stuck even longer with their abusers. And lest we forget, the victims of the virus now fighting for their lives. I have a friend who was intubated two weeks ago and put on a ventilator to stay alive. I’ve been intubated twice in the past myself. It’s horrible. Like a gag reflex you can’t suppress, 24/7. Thousands, from coast to coast, are going through that right now.

When will it end? How will it end? I can only quote the two experts I’ve come to trust, even though in some ways they only stay a step ahead of us. As Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.” And from Dr. Deborah Birx: “There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors.”

But those behaviors have to be universal, because otherwise, this plague will be like a campfire that’s not totally smothered. Science correspondent Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic, “As long as the virus persists somewhere, there’s a chance that one infected traveler will reignite fresh sparks in countries that have already extinguished their fires.” In other words, until there’s a vaccine or a treatment for this coronavirus, all of us are only as strong as the weakest link.

Our month of Sundays could last longer.

On Coronavirus ‘Luck’

There’s nothing lucky about living with the looming threat of the coronavirus.

But if you live in Evergreen, or Conifer, or the mountain areas around them, have you stopped to think about how lucky you are anyway?

Sure, there have been runs on our supermarkets, just like everywhere else. And we can’t go out any more to dinner, or even out for a haircut. Those with school-age kids might find that cabin fever fills the house sooner for them than it does for the rest of us. We all face a shortage of testing kits like virtually every other state, and our hospitals down the hill suffer the same shortfall of protective masks and gloves that hospitals suffer nationwide.

But while eventually our walls might feel like they’re closing in on us, almost none of us living here has other people living right on top of us. Unlike millions of Americans in most big cities, including Denver, almost none of us opens our front door into the long hallway of an apartment house, subject to worrisomely passing a neighbor on the way to the elevator with far less than six safe feet between us.

To the contrary, when we want to ease our isolation with a walk, we’ve got plenty of open space in which to do it. Every day since it became clear that, by and large, we should “shelter in place,” my wife and I have gone out for a walk, or a hike (we’re suddenly debating the definition of the difference between the two). Unless someone else is careless, we can safely keep our “social distance” from whomever is coming in the other direction, sometimes swerving to cut a wide swath for one another. But so far, no one has been careless. They’re as interested in preventing the transmission of an infection— in one direction or the other— as we are.

You just can’t do that— not efficiently anyway, not safely— in a city.

In fact, everyone has been categorically friendly. Virtually every pedestrian we’ve encountered has at least said hello— not always the norm in more normal times— and often something more, sometimes reflecting on how lucky we are to be able to get outside without amplifying our risk. Every motorist, when we’re walking on a winding road in Evergreen, veers to the opposite side of the road and gives us a wave.

You just won’t get that in a city.

And then, of course, there’s the view in almost every direction from any open space we find. We’re all already well aware of the beauty of our mountain communities— it’s why many of us moved here. But today it seems to mean more. Today it is a reminder that whenever this coronavirus finally leaves us alone, the world will still be around. And hopefully, we’ll still be around to enjoy it.

So if luck is on a scale, ours is high on the chart. It would be better not to be in a situation where we even have to think about such things. But here we are. And aren’t we lucky!

On Trump and his Dismissal of the Coronavirus

Watching Donald Trump dealing with this disease through rose-colored glasses and orange-toned skin— praising his own performance with “I’d rate it a 10” and bent— until someone Sunday talked sense into his head— on getting the country going again by Easter because it’s “a beautiful time, a beautiful time line”— some Americans might think he’s an optimist.

That would be a mistake. And in the darkness of all the deaths you might lay at his doorstep for his delusional early dismissals of the disease, a fatal one. Of course today he’d like you to forget all that; he’d like you to forget the false sense of security that he wittingly and recklessly radiated, which meant the nation wasn’t ready when the coronavirus crossed our shores. No, this man is not an optimist. He’s an opportunist. A dangerous, deceitful opportunist. Always has been, and as we’ve learned after his three-plus years in the White House, always will be.

All he does is take care of himself, not us. I’m proud of a lot of my fellow baby boomers who have made our world a better place. But not Trump. He puts his own welfare before the public’s. In ways large and small.

Remember a week ago when the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told an interviewer that when Trump makes his mindless misstatements, “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down?” Suddenly, at White House briefings where he had previously contradicted the president’s opinions with his own expertise, Fauci was periodically missing in action. Sidelined by a thin-skinned president, who put his own ego before the public’s need to know.

Or a few days after that, when Trump flagrantly told Vice President Pence, the head of his Coronavirus Task Force, “Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington,” (Jay Inslee, who he’d previously described as “a snake”), “and don’t call the woman in Michigan” (who also has a name: Gretchen Whitmer, which in a later tweet our lowlife leader turned into “Gretchen Half Whitmer”). Ignore them, Trump told Pence, “if they don’t treat you right.”

Since when did Donald Trump become the president of just 48 states? The answer is, when the governors of the other two grumbled that the federal government wasn’t delivering on promises Trump had made to get emergency equipment to their states, which still has been in short supply. Apparently in Trump’s warped world, Americans only deserve his attention if their governors shower him with compliments, not complaints.

Which raises a bigger question: Did we really only recently start having this conversation about ventilators (and face masks and protective gowns and all the rest)… just as some hospitals in New York already have to resort to the desperate but unproven procedure of joining two patients to a single ventilator? We should have had a clue when Trump disavowed his own accountability for the government’s failure to get these critical products produced and shipped out fast (and with his archetypal absence of empathy for those suffering): “We’re not a shipping clerk.” Actually, Mr. President, if you’re not, who is?

Then there’s the day Trump touted “chloroquine” as a potential game-changer for coronavirus. He then threw in, as if it didn’t much matter, “Some people would add to it ‘hydroxy’.” It did much matter, because a substance called chloroquine phosphate is an additive to clean fish tanks and after an elderly couple in Arizona heard the president, they ingested some. The man died. Overseas, also after Trump sloppily simplified the name, several Africans swallowed some. They died too. A woman in Kenya wrote ruefully to a friend of mine, “We see the USA as the savior.” More’s the pity.

No doubt, if any reporter had the guts to ask the president about those deaths, his answer would be the same one he gave when asked about the dearth of test kits for the disease: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Give him credit for this: he’s consistent. If there’s blame to go around for any aspect of this crisis, he’s the first to cast it: at China, at the media, at Democrats, at Barack Obama. Everyone messed up, except him. Having long displayed “The Buck Stops Here” on his Oval Office desk, Harry Truman must be rolling in his grave.

Finally, Easter. No doubt, having the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” would have been good for votes. But any moron could see that if the death toll trend in Europe is still surging— grim new records of 969 deaths Saturday in Italy, 838 Sunday in Spain— then Americans shouldn’t be sitting side by side in church pews on Easter, just two weeks from now. Especially since this past weekend, the United States achieved mournful milestones of its own: more than 140,000 reported infections, which makes us the world leader. And worse: more than 2,300 deaths. That’s like almost six 747s going down in flames.

As writer Ric Patterson put it in about the Easter goal before Trump moved the goalpost to at least April 30th, “Trump’s literally irreverent proposal to serve as our national East Bunny causes public health experts to shudder.” Like Dr. Fauci, who doesn’t even see a peak for this plague until the beginning of May, with a new unnerving projection of 100,000 U.S. deaths or more. He has said (as if this incurious president would listen), “You don’t make the time line. The virus makes the time line.”

We’ve learned to use the phrase, “Flatten the curve.” But apparently the President of the United States doesn’t really know what it means. Because right now, the curve still is shooting for the sky. Case in point: on the same day late last week that the president preposterously proclaimed that “the mortality rate is, in my opinion… way, way down,” an emergency doc described the scene at his New York hospital as “apocalyptic.”

There is consensus among experts— who work from data, not from their gut— that this disease will continue to strike in different parts of the nation like a rolling blackout. The number of infections reported in some cities is now doubling every three or four days. Doubling! This is no time to start relaxing the precautions. Anywhere. To the contrary, if we do want to flatten the curve, it’s time to reinforce them. Everywhere. If we don’t all do it the right way together, we’ll all end up in the wrong place together.

Franklin Roosevelt, taking the nation’s helm in the depths of the Great Depression, said in his first inaugural address, “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”

What’s sad and scary is, we’d be better off with just a foolish optimist at the helm. But we have something worse: a foolhardy opportunist.

On Coronavirus Shelter-In-Place

Today, shut into our homes and restricted on our streets, we are hostages to the coronavirus. But what makes our isolation unique is, under the circumstances, we are enduring it by choice.

Most of us who should, are doing our duty to “shelter in place,” to “flatten the curve,” to stay a proper distance from others and prevent further transmissions of the coronavirus, in one direction or the other.

Most, but not all. It’s hard to fathom the selfish short-sightedness of hard-headed citizens who, despite the advice of authentic science-driven experts and even artificial hunch-driven experts like the president, not only still are going out into crowds, but even encouraging the rest of us to do so.

Exhibit A: California Representative Devin Nunes, who told FoxNews, “One of the things you can do is, if you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant. Likely you can get in easily. Let’s not hurt the working people in this country that are relying on wages and tips to keep their small business going.”

Of course some might argue— some, like those authentic scientific experts for instance— that given the character of the coronavirus (and the persistent deficit of testing kits), “if you’re healthy” is a downright dumb thing to utter, since we can’t always know if we have it or not (Harvard Medical School says we might not show symptoms until almost two weeks after being infected). Maybe the congressman ought to be thinking more along the lines of, “Let’s not hurt the healthy people in this country— and prolong the duration of this pandemic— by possibly exposing even more of them to this invisible enemy.”

But enough about the knuckleheads. I guess out of 330-million Americans, there are bound to be a few. Even out of just 535 members of Congress. One can only wonder, what cave have they been living in?

For some citizens in fact, living in a cave is not an option. Even “sheltering in place” is not an option. And those are the people I want to talk about. Not because we have to say thanks for what they’re doing. But because we ought to.

Think about paramedics and hospital staffs and others who risk direct contact with victims of the virus to do their jobs. Even though, as one ER doc told NBC News, “There’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of wondering if you’re risking your life by going to work.”

They don’t really have to wonder. They are. Some, doing their duty to test and treat people with coronavirus, already have died. Globally, that number continues to grow. And yet, even without enough protective suits and masks, the rest have stuck with it.

And not just them. Someone’s cleaning those medical facilities too. For minimum wage.

And someone’s protecting your streets and fighting your fires and facilitating take-out food and delivering food to your supermarket. A delivery worker in Tucson explained, “I have been coming in sick because I’m worried that I’ll lose my job or just be punished if I call out. I am 23, and I have no savings, and I have a 4-month-old son.”

And, lest we forget, someone’s taking your money, face-to-face, when you buy that food. Some states are designating grocery clerks as “essential workers.” Because they are. The president of one local food workers’ union says, “Workers in food stores are the ones keeping this nation from going into civil unrest.” That might not be far from the truth. In the bigger picture, someone’s sustaining the infrastructure on which this society stands, from energy to transport to communications to finances. And someone’s still defending our nation, at home and abroad.

They are all at some kind of risk, far more than those of us staying home. No one makes them do it. But they’re out there doing it anyway.

And I left out one category you might not think about, even though virtually everything you know about the coronavirus crisis— from the latest developments to the latest deaths— is thanks to them: journalists, and those who support them. Think about the news on which you now so vitally rely. You’re getting it as you shelter at home because journalists and their teams have been leaving their homes to get it to you. They can depend to a degree on the telephone to gather information but trust me, they can’t get all of it without being there in person. Watch a White House briefing and you’ll see what I mean.

Which brings me to last Friday’s. That’s when NBC correspondent Peter Alexander asked President Trump what he’d say to Americans who are scared because Trump’s “impulse to put a positive spin on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope” (which inarguably he has done, sometimes to the nation’s peril). The president’s pathetic response? “I’d say that you’re a terrible reporter… I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.” As if this self-proclaimed “smart guy” of a president hasn’t put out everything from misleading hunches to outright lies since this whole crisis started. Which in its early days only let it grow.

Of course you don’t have to thank Peter Alexander for taking flak from the president, just as no one ever had to thank me for the flak I took to cover news in global trouble spots so Americans would know what’s going on. I was arrested, I was beaten, I was shelled, I was shot at, I had machine guns held to my temple and a knife held to my throat. Once I was even chased by a gang with machetes.

But I volunteered for the duty. If I didn’t want to do it, I was perfectly free to leave.

That’s why, you don’t have to thank Peter Alexander, you don’t have to thank all the other journalists who are out there trying to put things in perspective, you don’t have to thank the healthcare personnel or the cops or the clerks or the firefighters or the janitors or the others who are risking infection to hold things together. You could even say, nobody made them take on the careers they chose to take on.

But maybe you ought to be thankful. Because America is being held hostage. And in countless ways, they’re helping protect us from the worst of it.

On Coronavirus Hoarding

Some decent jokes have circulated on the internet since the coronavirus started spreading. My first favorite was an offer to swap a four-bedroom home for a 12-pack of toilet paper. Then a better one came along. It described the newest sales pitch for real estate agents: “Can’t you just see yourself quarantining in this beautiful home?”

And why not?! All our lives are abruptly altered— no one escapes this time— and we can either laugh about it, or cry. I’ll choose the laugh. In times of crisis, all kinds of things get us through, first amongst them natural human resilience. But humor helps too.

However, no one should lose sight of one absolute: this pandemic is no joke. And like any of you, everywhere I look, everything I see, reinforces that.

Like a video I saw of two people not just pulling toilet paper off a supermarket shelf but physically fighting over the last package. When I saw that, I knew, this was no joke.

Or when a friend told me she scored the very last container of chicken at our supermarket, one of only two stores that serve our community of about 30,000 people. I knew it was no joke.

When I went myself to Costco— not to panic-buy but simply to refresh stocks of a few things I always get there— I found that in the paper products section, they were out of their typical towers of toilet paper and facial tissues but they did have a pile of paper towels. I didn’t need any. But I bought them anyway. Just in case. This was no joke.

When my daughter in the locked-down city of San Francisco sent me photos of how she is using soap suds, then warm water to disinfect the bananas she was lucky to buy from a grocery delivery service, I knew it was no joke.

When my local paper, The Denver Post, which serves a city that treats its major league teams as religious icons, ran a special box on the front page saying that most days of the week until further notice there will be no sports section, I knew this was no joke.

When I saw a credible projection that the internet’s capacity could literally crash against the demand of tens of millions of people newly repositioned at their computers at home— teleworking, tele-learning, streaming movies and video games and other stuff to relieve their boredom— I knew it was no joke.

When the Federal Reserve took radical steps to juice the economy and the stock market’s response was its biggest drop in decades… then two days later, the administration announced a trillion-dollar plan to boost the economy, including checks to almost every American, but the market merely tanked yet again… I knew this was no joke.

When I saw my nest egg shrinking at warp speed, that was no joke.

When I saw the world as we know it virtually shut down, putting tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions of children out of school, it was no joke.

When I saw an email from a friend saying that her husband, a doctor, had come down with the symptoms of the virus and she added “that probably means I will too”… then two days later, she did… this was no joke.

When I saw global figures rise from 165,000 infections and 6,500 deaths when I wrote my last column just five days ago to 230,000 infections and 9,400 deaths as I write this one today (which will be even worse by the time you read this), I knew it was no joke.

When I saw a chart in The New York Times, showing how middle-of-the-road projections of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. could equal the number of deaths in 2018 from strokes, diabetes, Parkinson’s, pneumonia, flu, gunfire, car crashes, and a few other things combined— in other words, second only to heart disease and cancer— and some worst-case projections from the CDC are even higher— I knew it was no joke.

When I saw the President of the United States, who for weeks dangerously dismissed the peril of the pandemic, which dangerously delayed the response of the government, standing in the White House briefing room making serious and finally even informed-sounding statements about how bad this thing really is, I knew it was no joke.

But like I said, “no joke” doesn’t mean we can’t joke. Remember, humor can help us get through this. Which is why I’ll end as I started, and with a good one from the media.

In its campaign to stop citizens from cacheing toilet paper, Colorado’s Grand Junction Daily Sentinel printed an editorial on its op-ed page but left part of the page blank… and then welcomed readers to tear it off and use it to wipe their behinds. “Many claim,” the editorial read, “that this is the highest and best use of The Sentinel. Or that we’ve been scraping bottom for years. Here is a chance to make it literal.”

So if the hoarding continues, we might have to turn to newspapers. No joke.

On Coronavirus Caution

Well, now the coronavirus has caught up with me. No, not physically (at least not as of this writing, although this whole mess is moving so fast, who even knows about tomorrow?!). But my wife and I were going to be flying to Northern California this weekend to be part of a memorial for a nephew who died before his time.

Now, we’re not.

Determined as late as last night to get on the plane and downplay the cautionary warnings for people over 60 (which is most of us baby boomers) whose immune systems aren’t as strong as they used to be, maybe good sense prevailed over good motives.

As a longtime foreign and war correspondent, I lived much of my life calculating odds and measuring risks and, as the sub-headline of my book puts it, “Going in when everyone else wants out.” But like so many people all over the country and all over the world, we had to weigh the risks against the rewards. And since the memorial just now ended up being cancelled anyway because of another kind of warning, the one cautioning against good-sized gatherings, the risks came down heavier on the scale than they had seemed before. Alas.

Yet our decision is nagging at me. A week from now we might look back and think, we should have travelled. But at the speed with which this crisis seems to be spreading, more likely we will look back and think, thank goodness we didn’t. There’s really no easy answer. In an odd way, it’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. The tough part is, each of us has to decide for ourselves which is the lesser.

After all, everyone’s just guessing about where this coronavirus mystery is headed and what we should do about it. Even the experts. Some of it is educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. We’ve learned that the hard way, as even the experts’ theories have shifted with the worldwide spread of this virus. But it is as new to them as it is to the rest of us. No one fully understands it and how it works and what we need to do to protect ourselves against it, beyond all the good advice like washing our hands. We could closet ourselves in caves and probably be okay but how do we know what infected us before we went in?

As senior officials at NASA used to tell me when I covered the space program, the only thing we don’t know is how much we don’t know. This virus hasn’t played itself out enough for anyone to be sure— including those aforementioned experts. I’d discourage anyone from letting it rattle them though. My favorite word in any language transliterates as “malesh,” which is Arabic and means, Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. In parts of the Middle East where I spent so much time, they have to think this way every day of their sorry lives. But in the case of coronavirus, “malesh” means do what you can to control the risk and just let the rest— the uncontrollable part— run its course because it’s going to anyway.

Since the campaign to contain the virus starts at the top, a thought or two now about how that has gone. To be sure, the coronavirus itself is not the fault of President Donald J. Trump. But as its impacts on our everyday lives spread and we all find ourselves living at least temporarily with a new normal— which Axios describes as, “America closes up shop”— part of that new normal is the president’s fault. He speaks proudly and egocentrically of a few things he did early on to stem the spread. But he speaks without credibility. His own ignorant, incurious, irresponsible statements about the virus over the course of several weeks belie any notion that his administration was ever moving full speed ahead, and likely made the government’s response slower than it had to be. He had his head in the sand, caring more about his numbers than the virus’s. The man who claims to be “a very stable genius,” the leader who goes with his gut no matter what his expert aides advise, the president who means to comfort us with his own “natural abilities” in science by bragging about his “super genius uncle” at MIT— as if his uncle’s intellectual genes had migrated down to him— didn’t have a clue.

Testing kits— which not only would help people’s coronavirus diagnoses but would give us a more accurate picture of its scope in America— have been (despite Trump’s inaccurate assurances) few and far between. The Centers for Disease Control said the other day that 8,500 tests had been conducted since the virus first showed up. That’s in a nation of 330-million people. South Korea is doing about 10,000 tests a day. It is frightening to observe, the virus is moving faster than the government.

As for the financial consequences of coronavirus, which are turning catastrophic, if Trump wants to take credit for the long-running bull market on Wall Street as he has boisterously been doing (as if that bull market didn’t actually get its footing under the predecessor Trump so abhors), then he has to take the blame when it plunges. Trouble is, this is not a president who keeps a plaque on his desk that says, “The buck stops here.” Not when the buck is losing value.

Finally, there is the president’s absolute, if no longer unexpected, abrogation of global leadership. We are neither sharing big ideas nor coordinating effective responses with other countries. And, when Trump announced from the Oval Office his ban on travelers from Europe (a good stroke, although he left some of the fine print out of his speech), he did so without consulting with a single fellow leader in Europe. It hurts their economies like it hurts ours, but he treats them as underlings, not allies. Which will make them less enthusiastic allies when we really need them. An economic development specialist wrote this week, “We may look back on coronavirus as the moment when the threads that hold the global economy together came unstuck.”

The numbers on the economy keep shooting downward, just as the numbers on the virus keep exploding upward. In fact in all likelihood, since there aren’t enough testing kits out there yet, they’re probably even higher than reported. The scary part isn’t how big this thing is now. It’s how big it can become.

Beyond prudent precautions, there might not be much we can do now to make the coronavirus go away until it runs its course.

So we can only hope, may it soon be gone. And may this credibility-starved president soon be gone too.

On Coronavirus

Did you ever take the scary specter of Friday the 13th seriously? If not, maybe coronavirus will change that.

Personally, I never did. Geez, I’ve climbed mounds of loose rubble during earthquakes’ aftershocks, and walked into in the dens of terrorists, and run toward gunfire, not away from it. Sinister superstitions about Friday the 13th were always for someone else, not me.

Until this one, last week. This one was different.

It was the Friday the 13th that came true. Not just in my life, but in all of ours.

No more handshakes. No more sports. No more religious congregation for those who want it. No more travel if we can help it.

And in more communities by the day, no more schooling. Which for many poor kids means no more hot lunch. And for many parents, no way to go to work while caring for kids now homebound.

And… no more toilet paper.

A brother-in-law has a metaphor for this new age of constricted human contact: “When you hug somebody,” he said to me, “you’re also hugging everybody they’ve hugged.”

He has to think about that more than most. By the end of the weekend, four members of his family had just gotten off different airplanes. They have a beautiful house, but would I like to spend time there today?!? Now, not so much.

Maybe once— a whole two weeks ago, for instance— that would be irrational. Now, with more than 6,500 deaths and 165,000 infections worldwide (as of this writing), not so much.

It seems like only yesterday when I went with a handful of other guys to the home of a friend— a prominent oncologist who understands pathogens better than most— and he greeted us with elbow bumps. We all shared a laugh. Now, not so much.

And we won’t be laughing soon. A professor in the College of Public Health at Oregon State University has written a paper in which she observes, “Emerging consensus is that containment might have been possible a few weeks ago, but is no longer realistic.” Neither containment, nor calm counteraction.

As The New York Times succinctly put it on Sunday, “The United States began a new week… in a profoundly different place than it was seven days ago.”

So different, that Italy just reported 368 deaths in a single 24-hour period. 368! That’s like a jumbo jet going down. Yet there are so many alarming angles to the coronavirus, Italy wasn’t even a headline story. Nor is the spread of the virus on the uncontained continent of Africa, population 1.3-billion. Infections are now reported in half its 54 countries, most with meager medical facilities and paltry public education to warn people about staying safe. You can bet “social distancing” isn’t a household phrase over there.

Then there’s the crippling impact of the virus on the stock market. And the economy overall. If household names like Nike and Apple have closed their stores, others can’t be far behind.

There are countless examples of the free fall out there and here is only one, but it is mine: I work in a unit that skis the slopes at Vail and assists ski patrol when snowboarders and skiers are hurt or otherwise need help. On Friday the 13th, I got an employee email that explained cautionary new restrictions for how we use our locker room and how we interact at our early morning briefings. Within hours, more emails laid out new rules for restaurants on the mountain (they would serve only pre-packaged food), and for loading chairlifts (everyone had the option to ride a 6-person lift or an 8-person gondola alone). Just hours after that, the final email: Vail Resorts, the largest ski company in the world, was closing every one of its mountains in North America, effective immediately.

But the free fall didn’t stop: the other huge conglomerate of ski resorts in America then announced the same thing. And after that, Colorado’s governor ordered the few unaffiliated ski resorts in the state— which has more skiing than any other— to shut down too.

If you’re not a skier, you might think, so what?! But the impact is on far more than skiers. Every store, every restaurant, every company and service even remotely related is all but out of business for now. Most employ workers on the lower end of the pay scale. People living paycheck to paycheck. Many already shared apartments in shifts, some sleep in their cars. That’s hard when they’re drawing pay. Now it will be worse.

Colorado’s big city paper, The Denver Post, calls it all an “emotional whiplash.” Multiply the whiplash by 50 states and you are just starting to do the math.

Not to mention the run on toilet paper.

Of course some of this— not all, to be sure— but the speed and scope of this pandemic might have been impeded if our president hadn’t responded at the outset with incomprehension and denial. Just three weeks ago he cluelessly claimed, “The fifteen (cases in the U.S.) within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” Day after day, he retarded the American response to an issue of life and death. As conservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote in The New York Times, “A leader who cannot be believed will not be followed.”

Especially since the coronavirus has exposed what Stephens calls Trump’s falsehoods: “That experts are unnecessary; that hunches are a substitute for knowledge; that every criticism is a hoax.” It disproves the conceit, Stephens writes, “that having an epic narcissist in the White House is a riskless proposition at a time of extreme risk.”

Thank goodness there are less selfish and more focused heads. First among them, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who offers a prescription that might actually help us if we take the medicine: “A return to our daily routine will depend on what we do.”

That’s another way of saying, once we get past the stage of surrealism, we have to accept a state of realism.

Maybe there is something to Friday the 13th. This one hasn’t ended.

On Pelosi

We all need a voice.

Tens of millions of Americans would say, Donald Trump is theirs. Heaven help us.

Tens of millions more would say, Nancy Pelosi is theirs. Including me.

Sure, ripping up her copy of the president’s State of the Union speech was provocative and undignified. Even many of Trump’s red hot critics thought her insult on nationwide TV was downright juvenile. One woman told me she prefers Michelle Obama’s famous proclamation, “When they go low, we go high.”

I’d have preferred it myself. But still…..

It’s not as if Trump himself doesn’t personify the presidentially crass qualities of “juvenile,” “undignified,” and “provocative,” every day of the week. His own wife once told a campaign rally that if provoked, her husband would “punch back ten times harder.” So when the Speaker of the House is provoked enough to counterpunch the infamous puncher, I’ll cut her some slack.

And more important, unless you bought into Trump’s typical half-truths and untruths during his speech— an “ironclad pledge” to protect healthcare; Really? A “blue-collar boom;” Really? The U.S. is “highly respected again;” Really?— Pelosi’s reasoning resonates: “He shredded the truth, so I shredded his speech.”

You go, girl.

Don’t forget, he started it. In a ceremony that presidential historian Michael Beschloss describes as “invented to bring the nation together,” the speaker extended her hand when the president stepped to the podium but he turned on his heels rather than take it. Mind you, he would say that she started it by giving her blessing to his impeachment. Then again, she would say he started it by abusing his constitutional power. How far back do you want to go?

So I’m on her side. She showed Trump the contempt I feel. She’s my voice.

Eventually— and hopefully as soon as the election later this year— this face-off will finally end. As University of New Hampshire history scholar Ellen Fitzpatrick told PBS’s NewsHour, “The pendulum does swing back.

But in the meantime, every day gives us additional reasons to show scorn for this president. When Maine’s Senator Susan Collins announced her vote to acquit him of the charge of abuse of power (having finally admitted, along with a few other Republican senators, that he did in fact abuse it), she asserted that “the president has learned from this case.” Roundly mocked for her naiveté, Collins later walked back her foolhardy forecast, calling it merely “aspirational.” Well, even her aspirations proved naive when Trump took his rambling victory lap the day after the Senate acquittal, telling his applauding lapdogs assembled in the White House, “Did nothing wrong. Did nothing wrong.” Then the next day, he executed his Friday Night Massacre. Dasvidaniya Vindman, so long Sondland. This is what happens when you testify against Donald Trump.

Nancy Pelosi expected nothing less. That’s why she’s my voice.

Trump calls her a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person.” She could simply say in response, “Takes one to know one,” since those adjectives are the dictionary definition of Donald Trump himself, and I’d cut her slack for that, too. But she showed class. Exhibiting the faith that she has long openly shown, she simply said, “I pray very hard for him, because he’s so off the track.” To which Trump, in his typically tasteless fashion, cast doubt on her faith, in the same breath trashing Senator Mitt Romney who had proclaimed that his “oath before God” would not let him vote to acquit: “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so.”

As if this incurious president has any idea what faith means to Romney and Pelosi.

As if this immoral president has exhibited any faith himself.

During his State of the Union, in the wake of his decisive trial on impeachment and in the poisoned atmosphere of polemics and polarization, it would have been helpful to the nation he claims to so dearly love if President Trump had even hinted at a wish for new unity. Or at least comity. Or at least civility.

But he didn’t. Of course not. His defenders would blindly excuse his failure to do so by explaining, that’s not his style, and I’d have to agree with that. For by the time he did his White House victory lap, he was back to being the only man he knows how to be: calling Democratic leaders “very evil and sick people,” calling FBI leaders “top scum,” calling the Russia investigation (its tenets supported by every intelligence agency) “bullshit.” Yes, that’s the president speaking, on nationwide TV, coarsening standards (and denying facts).

And you want to give Speaker Pelosi a slap on the wrist because she momentarily lowered herself to his level when she shredded his speech?

Fine, you can make that argument, but don’t expect me to join you. She’s not scared of Trump. She sees him for what he is. And she says it out loud. She’s my voice.

On Media At The Trial

It was bewildering. Breathtaking. Beyond belief..

During the impeachment of Donald J. Trump in the House, then his trial in the Senate, the Republican representatives and senators who were pulling out all the stops to vindicate their vengeful president relied time after time on news reports to advance their arguments.

News reports! That’s what was so breathtaking.

Because the reports they cited were not just from the usual suspects on their side of the aisle like Fox News Channel or Breitbart News or The Washington Times or the Drudge Report. No, they were from mainstream media— you know the ones, the “enemies of the people” to hear Trump tell it— like ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and most evil of all, CNN.

In other words, “The Fake News.” Trump’s defenders depended on “The Fake News” for the facts they cherry-picked to construct their case.

Now I didn’t keep count of the number of references they made to mainstream media reports, both because I didn’t hear every minute of Congressional deliberations, and because I don’t have the resources of, say, The Washington Post to collate and count such things. The Post, on the other hand, maybe could tell you, because it has become the nation’s statistician. In fact just last month it concluded that between his prolific tweets and his public rhetoric, the president at the end of his first three years in office has made 16,241 “false or misleading claims.” Sure, we expect almost every politician from time to time to lie, but 16,241 times? For the record, that comes to an average of about 15 a day. Every day. For three years. (I’d guess that his denial of John Bolton’s story makes it 16,242.)

But while I can’t tell you how many times during the hearings and the trial Trump’s team suddenly held up the mainstream media as a paragon of precision, I can tell you that they relied on it even more than just 15 times a day for their factual foundations. Their citations were endless: “The New York Times reported…,” or “As you see in this ABC News clip…,” or the like. This is the media, you understand, that the rest of the time the Right blatantly belittles. Like suddenly, the “Fake News” is Real News.

That’s called having your cake and eating it too. Depend on the news media when it serves your purpose, deride it the rest of the time when it makes you look bad (although as I’ve long said, we can’t make you look bad without your help). In ancient times they called it killing the messenger. Two thousand years ago the Greek author Plutarch wrote this about a bearer of bad news: he “was so far from pleasing… he had his head cut off for his pains.” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV that Cleopatra “threatens to treat the messenger’s eyes as balls when told Antony has married another,” to which the messenger pleads, “Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.”

So shooting the messenger wasn’t just invented in the 20th Century. But you’d think that after two millennia, people would have learned that the bad message isn’t the messenger’s fault.

Mind you, there’s enough hypocrisy to go around on both sides. The coverage of this whole episode has been replete with soundbites and citations of Trump’s Democratic impeachers railing against impeachment when it was used 21 years ago against President Clinton, using the same arguments the Republican side used this time to fight it… and of Trump’s Republican apologists praising the process 21 years ago with the same reasoning they now disparage when they hear it from the Democrats.

So I’m just a bit gratified that the politicians protecting Trump suddenly see value in the mainstream news media. I’m wondering where they would have gone to buttress their arguments if they hadn’t had the media’s work to summon up. I’m also wondering, now freed of the constraints of impeachment, how fast they’ll be back in Trump’s hip pocket, following his lead and accusing news organizations, as he has, of “treason.”

If history is any guide, it won’t be long. And it won’t be bewildering. It will be true to form.

On Trump Trial

Anyone following the impeachment trial knows that the last best hope of the Democrats who want to convict the president lies with a handful of Republican senators who have indicated that they might— might— be open to bringing in live witnesses. From things they’ve said, three senators— Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Utah’s Mitt Romney— seem the most likely candidates. And if some witnesses were privy to presidential abuse of power for the president’s own personal gain and were to tell the truth about it, it could be huge in the case against the commander-in-chief.

That’s why, as one who believes that Trump is guilty as charged, I have two shreds of hope.

The first is the newest: a report this evening about John Bolton, the president’s former National Security Advisor who, by Trump’s own reckoning, did not leave on good terms. The report is that the so-far unpublished manuscript of Bolton’s book says that Trump told him back in August— this is following the president’s “perfect” call which asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor”— that he did not want to lift the freeze on military aid to Ukraine (lest we forget, Ukraine is in a war with Russia) until the former Soviet republic made moves to investigate the Bidens. This of course contradicts every lie I believe the White House has told about the controversial aid freeze.

The second shred of hope is a weekend piece in The New York Times, which heartened me with the title, “Lamar Alexander, Set to Leave Office, Is G.O.P. Wild Card on Witnesses.” Because to expand Trump’s trial to include witnesses, it would take four Republican senators to break with the party, not three.

The piece points out that Republican Senator Alexander, of Tennessee, who has gone up against this president before on issues of trade, health care, and The Wall, is a protege of the late Tennessee Republican Senator Howard Baker. It even points out that Alexander has said that no one outside his family has had more influence on him than Baker.

Which is why I’m heartened. I had a few dealings myself with Howard Baker. He was a good and honest man. He was a politician with principles. Many Americans will remember that during the Nixon Watergate hearings— which I remember well, since I was in the Senate hearing room at the time— Howard Baker is the one who asked of his own party’s president, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” If Howard Baker once was an inspiration to Lamar Alexander, maybe his example will be an inspiration to Alexander today.

So if, as The Times put it, “The ghost of Howard H. Baker… is hovering over Senator Lamar Alexander,” there is reason for hope. Especially since Alexander has decided to retire at the end of his third term next January, rather than run for reelection. In other words, arguably, even going up against a vindictive president, he has little to lose.

But there’s more. More to encourage me if Lamar Alexander truly walks in the footsteps of his mentor Howard Baker. Here’s a story to bear that out.

During the Republican nominating convention in 1976, I was one of ABC News’s correspondents in the convention hall. My assignment was on what was called “the periphery,” which means I wandered the oval ring around the convention floor, with a camera crew and a live mic, and tried to corral prominent political figures to stand still for a live interview during what in those days was our wall-to-wall coverage of the convention.

Well, along comes Howard Baker. I stopped him. He was an especially good “get” because he was on the short list to be Gerald Ford’s running mate. Via a closed-circuit link I told ABC’s control room in the convention center that I had Senator Baker standing by, and within 30 seconds through my earphones I heard our anchor, Harry Reasoner, say to the audience, “ABC’s Greg Dobbs has Senator Howard Baker with him. Greg?” And that was my cue to begin the interview with potential Vice Presidential candidate Baker.

But when he was in the middle of maybe his second answer, I heard our executive producer say to me through my earphone, “Ask Baker about his wife’s drinking problem!” As it turns out, that morning in The New York Times, there’d been a small piece about Joy Baker’s rehab and recovery from alcoholism, but I hadn’t seen it. And I wasn’t about to launch into a series of questions with a potential Vice President of the United States about his wife’s drinking problem on a nationwide broadcast with millions of viewers when I didn’t have a clue about it. So I quickly cut off the interview and returned the broadcast to Reasoner but then turned to Baker and without being able to explain why, I asked him to stick around for a moment, then I got on the closed-circuit link to the control room and asked the producer what the hell he was talking about (frankly, in a live broadcast like that, I felt sandbagged by the producer), then explained to Baker what I’d been told to ask him about, and asked if he’d stay long enough to go back on the air and discuss it.

And here’s where I came to admire the man. He listened, he nodded, he said the story was true, and he said yes.

That is honesty. That is principle. That is candor. That is patriotism. Baker had a shot at being an incumbent president’s running mate, and the easiest thing would have been to hide or, at the very least, minimize the embarrassment of a family scandal. He didn’t. Word got to Reasoner that I still had Howard Baker, and we went back on the air just a minute later and he owned up to his wife’s problem (parenthetically, she was the daughter of another esteemed Republican senator, Everett Dirksen of Illinois).

Then that night, believing Baker still was the leading candidate to join Ford on the ticket, ABC sent me and a crew on a chartered jet to Huntsville, Tennessee, his home town, to quickly put together a profile of this man who might end up a heartbeat from the presidency. And everyone we talked to in our few hours there, Republicans and Democrats alike, brimmed with respect and esteem for their home town boy. The adjectives they used then, are the adjectives I use today: Honest. Principled. Candid. Patriotic.

As it turned out, President Ford pulled one on the prognosticators and at the last minute chose Bob Dole for his ticket, not Howard Baker. I’ve never known whether Baker’s wife’s problem… or the interview he agreed to do with me about her… nixed his chance at the brass ring.

But it did convince me at the time that this was a good man. Which is why I’m convinced now that if Senator Lamar Alexander truly wants to honor the legacy of his mentor, he will break with Donald Trump as Baker broke with Nixon and call for a real trial, complete with documents and witnesses, to give us the broadest possible look at the impeachable behavior of this president. I’m not predicting it— I got out of the prediction business in the 1992 election when, after meeting Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, I told anyone who asked that they could count him out— but I am hopeful. Especially with this latest revelation about the content of John Bolton’s book.

On Iran

Writing about the crisis with Iran is like shooting at a moving target. Especially when it’s the president of the United States and his henchmen who keep moving it.

We took out Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander Qasem Suleimani because he was organizing “imminent” attacks against American targets? Well, “imminent” eventually was downgraded— by Donald Trump’s own secretary of state and his attorney general— to “deterrence.”

Fine. For my part, having spent many years covering anti-American movements in the Middle East, deterring attacks on Americans is an appropriate approach to self-defense. If only that were the end of the story. But it’s not.

Because the debate is not just about whether or not attacks were imminent. It is about whether or not we can trust our leaders to tell us honestly why the next imminent action might be all-out war. It seems increasingly clear, they didn’t.

To wit, the discourse about imminence soon took a back seat to a more unequivocal assurance from the president himself that Suleimani was “looking to blow up our embassy” in Baghdad, which on Fox News he then equivocally expanded to, “I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.” Trouble is, his own defense secretary was asked if he’d seen any pieces of evidence about four American embassies in Suleimani’s sights and said, “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.”

Adding to the saga of shifting stories, security officials at the State Department, who oversee the safety of our embassies, say they were never told of any imminent threats. You’d think, especially since they work under the secretary of state, that they would be, wouldn’t you?

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the word of an already unprincipled president.

Of course this all got bulldozed under the insanity of the alternating accounts when earlier this week, Trump tweeted his ultimate justification: “It doesn’t really matter.”

No, when it comes to justifying this assassination, maybe it doesn’t. Suleimani was a nasty man. He had our blood on his hands.

But now, permit a digression. From Trump on down, some Republicans have been pointing their fraudulent fingers at Democrats and charging them with taking Iran’s side, not America’s. None less than the president’s press secretary, the seldom-seen Stephanie Grisham, said that Trump’s opponents were “parroting Iranian talking points, almost taking the side of terrorists.” She even deplorably declared Democrats “to be on the side of countries and leadership of countries who want to kill Americans.” The president himself unconscionably asserted, “When the Democrats try and defend Suleimani, it’s a disgrace to our country.”

No, Mr. Trump, you are. For as if the president’s words weren’t despicable enough, he retweeted a photoshopped image depicting his two most important rivals in Islamic headgear, in front of an Iranian flag.

How dare him turn a hypersensitive crisis into a coarse, corrupt campaign scheme. How dare his press secretary. How dare the dishonorable doormats who feed his unappeasable ego. None has offered up a quote— a single quote, spoken or written— to back up their contemptible claims.

Democrats haven’t questioned whether Qasem Suleimani was a treacherous antagonist. But what many have questioned is the risk the president took by taking him out. A high-risk gamble that could lead to all-out war. Another bloody war that could cost our country dearly. A war quite possibly rooted, like Iraq seventeen years ago, on bad intelligence. Would we likely prevail? Yes. Iranian firepower is no match for ours. But remember “Shock and Awe” when we went into Iraq? It might have won the day but it didn’t win the war.

What’s more, look at what the assassination left in its wake. Did Iran forsake its support for terrorists? Hardly, not when the head of Hamas was an honored speaker at Suleimani’s funeral. Did Iran come back to the table to negotiate an end to its nuclear ambitions? To the contrary, according to Republican senator Rand Paul, “The death of Suleimani is the death of diplomacy with Iran. I don’t see an offramp, I don’t see a way out of this.”

Did it secure the safety of Americans in the region? Not at all, since U.S. bases have come under Iranian attack. And did it strengthen the influence of the United States in the region? Regrettably, no. Instead, after Soleimani died at Baghdad’s airport, the Iraqi parliament voted to oust all American troops, which is precisely what Iran— and specifically Suleimani— have long worked to achieve. “American influence in Iraq,” according to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and author of Anatomy of Terror, “is now living on borrowed time.”

That might not matter to all Americans but it should. I wish we didn’t have to be in Iraq. Or Syria. Or anywhere else in the Middle East. But as this president slowly erodes American influence throughout the world, you know what they say about a vacuum; when you create one, someone is going to fill it. Russia. China. Iran. And lest we forget, ISIS. They will not just threaten American security, but will shape a world even more menacing than the one in which we live today.

From the standpoint of security for us and our allies, some wars are necessary. One right now with Iran is not.

So in the wake of Donald Trump’s precarious decision to kill one powerful general from Iran, the question is, is the world now closer to warfare or further? Is the United States more secure or less?

I know the awful answers. You do too.

On The Presidency

I really shouldn’t be worried about the outcome of the 2020 election. Like a lot of President Trump’s antagonists, I can’t help but believe that most Americans will see him as the dishonest, disingenuous, indecent, incurious, unprincipled, immoral, self-serving man he is. Whatever happens with Iran doesn’t change any of that.

Then again, from his life as a businessman and his behavior as a candidate, we knew all about Trump’s ugly temperament and his nasty traits before he ever got to the White House. Those of us who took measure of the man were certain that he would never appeal to the majority of American voters.

And we were right. 66-million Americans cast their votes against Trump, versus 63-million who voted for him. The trouble was, there weren’t quite enough of those anti-Trump votes in the handful of swing states where the Electoral College made its mark and gave the unlikeliest of victors his victory. Sure, some voters were more anti-Hillary than pro-Trump, but in the final analysis that doesn’t matter.

Thus, we were also wrong. He was a liar, a bully, a cheat, and everyone knew it… but as unfit as he was for the White House, he got there anyway.

So I am worried about the outcome this year, because from what we read, those who gave Trump their votes in 2016 haven’t changed sides. And if you paid attention to the way the president’s acolytes in Congress defied the evidence and defended their leader during the impeachment hearings at the end of last year, you know that if anything, his followers are more fervent than ever.

I’m also worried because others are. Others like me. Plenty of pundits who openly declare their disdain for this president also openly utter their fear that he has a fair shot at reelection. Do they know something I don’t?

The answer is no. What they know is that we’re all painting these days on a brand new canvas. With new rules. And new standards. And when we’re talking about an American president who pays hush money to a porn actress to keep a lid on their relationship, new lows.

What they know is, the polls no longer are accurate predictors of peoples’ preferences. For three years now, Trump has never had a majority of Americans approving of his performance in office. Yet he commands loyalty from the core of his political party, even blind obedience, on levels we’ve never seen before. Maybe they’re just a noisy minority but even if that’s all they are, they make enough noise to strike fear in the hearts of the rest of us.

Beyond all that, I’m worried that the Democrats don’t have a standout candidate to beat Trump. From my point of view, all of them would make better presidents and help restore America’s long-respected place in the world— hell, Daffy Duck would be better than what we’ve got— but if we want a better president, first we have to elect one. Which means, choosing a candidate who can beat Trump in November has to be priorities 1 through 10.

Several of today’s surviving crop of candidates probably would stand up to Trump, but several probably wouldn’t. It’s too early to name names, but when each of you is making your choices, think about who might wither under Trump’s unscrupulous attacks on a debate stage, and who might not. Think about who can escape Trump’s inevitable labels of “socialist” and “communist” (which won’t be true but will resonate with lots of undiscerning voters), and who can’t. Think about which candidates most likely will grow stronger and smarter in a grueling general election campaign— let alone during four years in office— and which ones most likely won’t.

I am worried now, because I wasn’t worried last time, and should have been. Too much damage has been done to our nation in Trump’s first term to allow him a second term to do even more. Too much damage has been done to allow ourselves to be myopic again.

On Socialism

Let me tell you what socialism is.

It is the shoe shine man I used to see on the steps of the National Hotel in Moscow, who didn’t even own the kit or the brushes or the polishes he used on his customers’ shoes. Consistent with the real definition of socialism, the state— in this case, the Soviet Union— owned the means of production. Including the supplies the man used on the steps to shine my shoes.

Or, socialism is symbolized by the long line of customers I saw one cold grey snowy morning winding around the corner outside an appliance store in Warsaw when Poland was still under the yoke of the Soviets. As it turned out, word had spread the day before that a truckload of washing machines was about to be delivered. The line began to form that night. Appliances like that always were in short supply, because with the state owning the means of production, it tended to produce fewer appliances than demand would dictate. That way, no one took the rap if any were ever left over. Sure enough, by the time the last washer was sold, the last customer was still waiting.

Or you could look at the whole Soviet space program, and the Russian program that followed. In many ways, they were as advanced as ours. But I covered the last six years of America’s manned space flights, and learned that everything from our best fire retardant materials to our most effective insulation to polarized sunglasses to the iconic Black & Decker Dustbuster— and hundreds of other products we take for granted today— were derivatives of tools that private industry created so NASA could operate in outer space. By contrast, in our rival’s space program, because the socialist state never got into the habit of thinking about what’s best for the consumer, it never got into the habit of translating its technology in space into comforts for its citizens down on the ground.

As I’ve seen it in practice, socialism is designed only to equalize people’s lives, not enhance them. So citizens of the Soviet state never got the Dustbuster.

That’s why the argument of some on the Right, amplified by the upcoming presidential election, that the Left would turn our society into a socialist state, is empty. Socialism means a planned economy. Almost nothing that any of today’s Democratic presidential candidates proposes— even the most left-leaning candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders— comes even close to real socialism. They want more government regulation for sure. But that’s a far cry from total government ownership. Anyway, when it comes to some forms of government regulation, it’s hardly an insufferable horror even to conservatives.

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist David Brooks cited this phrase as the best definition of socialism: “What touches all should be decided by all.” It was coined by Princeton professor Michael Walzer who, according to Brooks, meant that “the great economic enterprises should be owned by all of us in common. Decisions should be based on what benefits all, not the maximization of profit.” Not to take issue with Brooks, but I think socialism is even better defined by one of its own founders, Karl Marx, who described it this way: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

That definition— actually, either definition— also is a far cry from what even the leftmost Democratic candidates propose to pull off.

Not that that matters to some on the Right. For many years, they have used “socialism” as a cudgel. The gist of their polemic is, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Sounds sensible on the surface, but dig only skin deep and you’ll see, the premise itself is imperfect. Many Americans need to be fed a fish only for a figurative day, long enough to get back on their feet and become productive again. They are the ones who even conservative economist Thomas Sewell sympathetically concedes have been “struck by unforeseeable misfortunes.” Do some take advantage of the rest of us and want to be fed for a lifetime? Sure, but either we lift the deserving at the cost of lifting the undeserving too, or we ignore them all. And have higher rates of hunger and homelessness.

What’s worse, the crooked cudgel some are beginning to swing in this presidential election is to equate socialism with communism. They know that across the spectrum of politics in America, communism is a dirty word. I could cite the characteristics of communism in nations where I’ve covered news on several continents and it’s not pretty. But although both systems have been practiced in tandem in some countries over the years, socialism is not inseparable from communism. Exhibit A, as columnist Brooks pointed out: the nations of Scandinavia.

Still, I’ll go with the system we’ve got in this country. Economic capitalism, not socialism, but with a dose of regulation to ensure that everyone can get a foot on the ladder and keep it there.

Those who characterize Democratic White House aspirants as “socialists”— even Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist” but not in the historical spirit of socialism— don’t know what they’re talking about. Or what’s worse, they do, but they’re willing to exploit the ignorance of some Americans by using words loaded with historical hostility. They’re willing to paint Democrats— including the most centrist Democrats by the way— as socialists and even, as we’ve already begun to see, as communists.

If someone rightly warns me that a candidate undeniably wants a socialist, let alone a communist state, I’m going to run for my life. But if they don’t know what that word actually means, or they just don’t care, I’ll do my best to send them running for theirs.

On Fruitcake

People have made fun of me all my life.

Even as a kid.

Not because I wasn’t any good at sports. I held my own in baseball, biking, running, and skiing. And not because I made an absolute fool of myself whenever I stood up in class. A fool, maybe, but not absolute. And, although I probably wasn’t the sartorially spiffiest student at school, I did know where to apply the deodorant.

No, people have made fun of me all my life for one reason and one only: I love fruitcake.

There, I’ve said it.

I might as well have played the accordion. Remember how other kids would make fun of the kid in school who played the accordion? I always hated that because… well… I played the accordion too.

Double loser.

And although I don’t pull the accordion out of its case much any more, I do still make fruitcake a paramount part of the holidays. So I still am the eternal target of society’s taunts.

But so what?! You think I care what other people say? Let them eat cake. You know what kind of cake I mean!

True, most citizens compare fruitcake to concrete. Some even call it the worst of all holiday gifts. The best doorstop maybe, but the worst gift. One writer called fruitcake a pastry with “violently colored red and green ‘fruit’ and suspect nuts that top the thick dough,” with “pseudo-fruit scattered within, waiting like landmines.”

Yup. That’s what we’re talking about. Fruitcake.

Someone used to send a fresh fruitcake to my dad around this time every year while I was growing up. Since then, my love affair with fruitcake has never faded.

Or maybe Dad’s friend wasn’t sending us a fresh fruitcake after all. Maybe it was the same fruitcake. Johnny Carson contended on The Tonight Show, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.”

Could be.

When my older brother got married, his and his bride’s gift to every member of the wedding party was a little cardboard box embossed with their names and the date of the wedding and when you opened the box, sitting inside was a small cube of fruitcake. Suitable for freezing, meant to be opened and eaten ten years down the road.

Sorry to say, the fruitcake lasted longer than the marriage.

Anyway, if you’re a fruitcake cynic— perhaps a “Never-Fruitcaker” in today’s lingo— you haven’t thought it through. Has it occurred to you, for example, that in this fast-paced society saturated with swooshes and dings and a nonstop stream of audible announcements for meaningless messages, fruitcake is silent. It just sits there gleaming, a soundless sweet reminder that while most of the world gets restyled at the speed of sound, fruitcake doesn’t change. Not day to day, not year to year. Fruitcake has no bells and whistles, no batteries, no moving parts. You should praise fruitcake, not bury it.

But if you choose to keep making fun of fruitcake and those of us who love it, that’s okay too. We think it’s the best gift, not the worst. We are used to being the butts of your jokes. We have a thick hide. Kinda like fruitcake.

On Impeachment

Say what you like about the grounds for President Trump’s impeachment; the president himself cluelessly calls it a “coup.” It’s not. I’ve covered coups and attempted coups, from Spain to Sudan. If the president knew the meaning of the word “coup,” he would know that it’s an entirely different affair. Impeachment is not a coup. It’s a Congressional commitment confirmed in the Constitution.

The language is as clear as day: ”The President… shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Our nation’s Founders left it to Congress to define “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but they told us through their writings that it doesn’t mean crimes of the highest nature. It means crimes by the highest officials, who are singled out because they have obligations that the rest of us don’t.

The highest officials, like presidents.

No matter which side you’re on, you’ve got to admit that a cavalcade of credible corroborators, willing to risk the president’s rage and defying his deceitful claims about their immunity, told Congress the same story: Trump tried to bribe a foreign government. He dangled treats and overtly enlisted Ukraine to help incriminate a political opponent, all to prop up his own prospects. That is illegal on the face of it. Or to frame it in the context of the Constitution, a high crime. And then, they say, he went even further, conditioning military aid— money Constitutionally appropriated by Congress, meaning our money— on Ukraine’s compliance.

What is it about “high crimes and misdemeanors” that Trump’s people don’t understand? What’s more, if Trump has nothing to hide, why has he worked so hard to keep at least half-a-dozen top administration officials from testifying in the inquiry? Of course he says it’s all to protect the integrity of the presidency. That might be a bit more believable if he had done much else in the past three years to protect it.

The president denies he committed a crime, of course, but what else is new? Trump would deny that the sun rises in the east if it worked to his profit. Anyone who doesn’t understand that Donald Trump lies as readily as the rest of us breathe is living in a cave.

Of course Trump’s enablers, many sworn to abide by the Constitution, actually all but ignore it. They call the move toward impeachment an attempt to “undo the election of 2016.” The top-ranking Republican in Congress, that slug of a senator Mitch McConnell, says of the Democrats pushing to impeach, “They have denied President Trump basic due process.”

I could go back to the Constitution’s clarity about the due process of impeachment, but that point already has been made. It’s more fun to go back to McConnell’s own record on impeachment and here’s the funny thing: I checked on the last time a president was impeached— that would be Bill Clinton, a Democrat— and guess what?!? After the House impeached Clinton on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, McConnell voted in the Senate trial to convict on both charges… never once bellyaching that this would “deny President Clinton basic due process.” (Reminds me of McConnell’s other display of hyper-hypocrisy when he stalled President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court for ten full months in the election year of 2016, but then this year, when asked how he’d handle a Trump nomination if a Court seat comes up in the election year of 2020, he said with a wink and a nod, “Oh, we’d fill it.”)

To be fair, on impeachment, there’s enough hypocrisy to go around.

During Clinton’s impeachment, Representative Eliot Engel, today a prominent proponent for Trump’s impeachment, proclaimed, “I rise in strong opposition to this attempt at a bloodless coup d’etat, this attempt to overturn two national elections.” Representative Jerrold Nadler, chairman of one of the three House committees moving today toward impeachment, protested, “This partisan coup d’état will go down in infamy in the history of this nation.” And none less than Hillary Clinton herself, in her memoir Living History, called the impeachment of her husband an “attempted Congressional coup d’etat.”

But that was then. This is now. The hypocrisy of one side doesn’t mitigate the hypocrisy of the other.

Anyway, a coup d’etat altogether alters the governance of a nation, which politicians in both parties, if not Trump himself, probably understand. If this president is impeached… and long shots of long shots, convicted in the Senate… the power will stay with his party and pass, as the Constitution says it should, to his own Vice President. And, again thanks to the Constitution, it will still be true that the only people with the ability to alter America’s governance will be the voters.

Hopefully that’s not cold comfort.

On Patriotism

Patriotism means love of country. That’s the definition, plain and simple.

So would you say a man who volunteered for duty with the United States Army and did tours in South Korea, in Germany, and in a war zone called Iraq is a patriot? Would you say a man who was injured by an enemy’s roadside bomb is a patriot? Would you say a man who won a Purple Heart for his sacrifice is a patriot? And forgive me for sounding snarky, but would you say a man who signed up to serve and didn’t claim he had bone spurs on his feet is a patriot?

That describes Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the National Security Council staffer who spoke out against the pathetically unprincipled but politically profitable performance of President Donald Trump in his dealings with Ukraine. A performance plainly engineered to enhance Trump’s political fate, not our national fortune.

Vindman is a patriot. An American citizen, born in Ukraine but in the U.S. since he was three when his family fled the Soviet bloc. A decorated American soldier. A veteran who then took off his uniform and served in diplomatic hardship posts. An American patriot.

But to hear Trump’s most rabid Republican crusaders tell the story, Lt. Col. Vindman is anything but a patriot. One, a Florida congressman, called him a member of the “deep state.” Another, a former congressman from Wisconsin, said, “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.” One Fox News commentator suggested that he might be a “double agent.” And worst of all, another said this of Lt. Col. Vindman’s testimony about the national security implications of Trump’s infamous phone call with his counterpart in Ukraine: “Some people might call that espionage.”

So this is what it’s come to. If you are deeply disturbed by the disgraceful demeanor of this president and you speak out against it, it isn’t patriotism, it is espionage. Or, as the president himself has said in setting the tone about his critics, you are “human scum.” It makes the theme song of President George W. Bush’s administration, “Either you’re with us or you’re against us,” sound like a call for unity.

These people have their nerve. No scruples, no shame, but plenty of nerve. You can bet that any time a military veteran appears before them, they’re the first to say, “Thank you for your service.” Unless he who served seems to be on the other side from their politics. Then, as they have just proved, they will pummel a patriot who has spent his entire adult life serving his country, and buttress a president born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a convenient doctor’s letter about bone spurs. A president who has done no more for his country than to make it more crass, more dishonorable, more untrustworthy, and more garish.

Credit to one card-carrying member of the Far Right though, Representative Liz Cheney, who said she’d heard enough of her colleagues’ trashing of Lt. Col. Vindman, and of others who have selflessly served but then spoken against the president, like former ambassador William Taylor, a veteran of Vietnam. “We’re talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation,” she said, “who put their lives on the line. And it is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation, and we should not be involved in this process.” Several Republican colleagues in Congress said something similar, although none as strong and some did no more then step aside when confronted with questions, rather than condemn the reprehensible rhetoric of their compatriots.

It’s enough that Trump’s apologists are talking and tweeting about their disrespect for this public servant to ensure that it feeds into the Far Right’s concoction of conspiratorial conjecture. It’s even worse that the president’s henchmen— and the president himself— do everything they can to discourage his detractors from coming forward to speak truth to power, risking their livelihoods and maybe more.

But they do keep coming. Because they love their country, plain and simple. May they come forth and multiply.

On Russia

“Nyet.” All Donald Trump had to do was say “nyet,” which is Russian for “no.”

I’m sure he knows the word. Between his grandiose plans at least 15 years ago for a Trump Tower in Moscow and his proud performance a half dozen years ago when he staged his Miss Universe pageant in Russia’s capital, he must have heard the word more than once. And if not then, then how about some time during his more recent bromance with the former KGB agent who now runs Russia with an iron hand? Maybe Putin said it when Donald Trump tried to give him a kiss.

But, no, Trump never said “nyet.” Not when Turkey’s president pushed into Syria to chase our allies, the Kurds, as Trump pulled American troops out. Not when Russia’s president then hosted Turkey’s president in the Russian city of Sochi to cement their deal to divvy up Syrian territory between them.

All Trump said was, come on in. To Russia!! His very words were, “If Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them,” followed a few days later with, “Others have come out to help and we welcomed them to do so.”

Why don’t we say the same about others we defend… especially if, as the president so crudely put it about the Kurds as he was leaving them in the lurch for their predators, “They didn’t help us with Normandy.” Neither did the Saudis, but we’re now sending them almost 3,000 more U.S. troops, plus warplanes and other weapons, to help defend them against Iran. So why doesn’t Trump say, “If Russia wants to get involved in Saudi Arabia, that’s really up to them, we welcome them to do so?”

Do you see where this is going? Russia, which lost its place at the table when its predecessor, the Soviet Union, crumbled, is back at the table again, with a firm foothold in the Middle East. Staring at us eye to eye. Or at least, it would be if we still had a place at the table ourselves. But we don’t. Trump got up and walked away. And gave his chair to Mr. Putin.

His chair? Our chair!

I did two different documentaries in Russia over the past ten years about politics and I promise you, this is right where Putin wants to be perched. If the documentaries had a single theme, it was the drumbeat of nationalism seen and heard all over Russia, pushed by Putin: We were a superpower once, we can be a superpower again.

I just never thought it would be an American president who would help make his wish come true.

Of course it didn’t just start. It started when Trump welcomed Russia’s influence in the American presidential election and even cried out during his campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 (Hillary Clinton) emails that are missing.” It started when as president, Trump proclaimed publicly— time after time— that he trusts Vladimir Putin more than he trusts his own people, his own advisors, his own intelligence experts. It started when Trump reportedly told fellow leaders at last year’s G7 Summit in Canada, “Crimea is Russian because everyone who lives there speaks Russian,” even though it’s only “Russian” because Russia invaded Crimea and annexed it in 2014. It started when Trump took so much off the table in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that the Palestinians said that if there were to be peace talks at all, they’d prefer they be held in Moscow.

Now it continues with Russia replacing us in Syria. And partnering militarily with Turkey. Just think about that for a moment: Turkey— the second biggest army in NATO— playing footsie with the very nation NATO was created to counter.

Because Trump had neither the guts, nor the strategic grasp, nor the wish, to say “nyet.”

Russia is back.

This is a nation where civil rights have been crushed. A nation where journalists who’ve looked the wrong way at Vladimir Putin have been murdered. A nation I once covered where I knew people— when it was the Soviet Union— who yearned for the liberties we had, and after the Soviet system disappeared, they got them. But then, in short order, they lost them again when they got a president named Putin. A nation we’ve helped put back on the world stage.

Mitch McConnell, the overseer of the spineless Republicans in the Senate, spoke out the other day against sanctions toward Turkey for its behavior in Syria (which his president unleashed), declaring, “We don’t want to further drive a NATO ally into the arms of the Russians.”

Sorry Mitch, that horse is out of the barn. You’re a little late.

It only underscores the importance of the testimony of our former ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor. He told the impeachment inquiry that after learning that Trump was holding up money for political purposes that Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine repel Russia’s bid to redraw its borders through force, he looked across a bridge at Russian-backed military units and thought, “More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die.” At Russia’s hand.

Does anyone remember the “Red Scare” any more? It’s really better known as “McCarthyism,” a rabid crusade to root out communist sympathizers— “reds”— in American society. It’s where Richard Nixon earned his bones. And it was a crusade of Republicans, worried about Russia’s insidious influence. What happened to their angst? Why do they now silently sit by and let our unenlightened president show Russia’s undemocratic president such deference? Maybe we should call it reverence. Why do they sit silently while he hands Russia such gifts?

There are plenty of theories out there. One is that dating back decades to his dreams of a deal in Russia even as his casinos in the U.S. were collapsing, Donald Trump still is beholden to Putin’s friends in the Russian mafia, who reportedly helped bail him out; this actually is documented in journalist Craig Unger’s book House of Trump, House of Putin. Another is that the report in a former British intelligence agent’s dossier that Trump lasciviously watched Russian prostitutes urinate in a Moscow hotel room in 2013 is true… and that Putin has a tape to prove it.

In a way though, the “whys” don’t matter. We have a president who is forsaking American power and influence to Russia.

Putin’s superpower is growing in stature. Ours is shrinking. Because Donald Trump won’t say “nyet.”

On Israel

The United States doesn’t need a wall along our border with Mexico. Notwithstanding his egregious exaggerations about “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” bursting through the border, the president cannot make a credible case for one.

But Israel can. So it has built one. Yet neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor any other prime minister ever had to make the case for it. Palestinian terrorists did it for them.

Today, the near-disappearance of terrorism since Israel began building a wall 20 years ago along its original border with the West Bank— Israelis call it a “separation barrier”— still makes the case convincing.

Until it went up, there had been an annual drumbeat of double-digit deaths from suicide bombings. I covered a few myself. But since then, the bombings have been reduced to a small fraction of what they used to be. The last fatalities, as best I can determine, were seven years ago.

In short, when it comes to security, Israel’s wall works. But when it comes to coexistence, it’s a different story. I’ve traveled along much of its length and it isn’t pretty— a concrete barrier stretching along several hundred miles of the border, as high as 26 feet, with razor wire along the top and booby-trapped do-not-enter zones alongside as wide as a hundred yards, complete with ditches to keep cars from ramming it.

What’s more, it not only all but encircles several Palestinian towns, it even cuts off brother from brother. One story I did maybe a dozen years ago focused on the pros and the cons of the wall, and one of the cons— told as a microcosm— was the tale of two brothers. Each could see the rooftop of the other’s house, both at the foot of Jerusalem, but the houses were separated by the wall— one was east of it, one was west— and it took either brother as long as six hours to get through a nearby checkpoint cut into the wall to visit the other.

What I could see, at that heavily fortified checkpoint and maybe half-a-dozen others through which I also passed over the years, was that while security was the pretext for the protracted and punishing passage of Palestinians from one side to the other, an equally obvious explanation for their onerous encounter was harassment.

And I say that from experience. As western journalists, perhaps posing in the eyes of Israelis a challenge to their process but not a threat to their security, we too were subjected to the laborious technicalities and almost endless interludes to move from one step of the passage to the next. I used to get in and out of the Soviet Union’s police state with less hassle than that.

This doesn’t mean I don’t see the wall’s primary purpose: if Israel lets up its guard, it risks letting in the terrorists.

But by making life even more toilsome on all Palestinians than it has to, which so far has been Netanyahu’s practice, Israel might be breeding more terrorists in the making. From my long-trusted contacts in the Palestinian Territories, that is exactly what’s happening. And things are only getting worse.

Which puts peace even farther from reach than before. And that’s saying something, since despite his pronounced goal of striking the “Deal of the Century” between Israel and the Palestinians, President Trump already has turned some of his best bargaining chips over to the Israelis, leaving little on the table to bring Palestinians back to it to negotiate a potentially persistent peace. If they’re even so inclined any more. As long-ago statesman Abba Eban once said, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

The reality is, the new Israeli government, no matter who runs it, still will be bedeviled by enemy attacks, both from the increasingly restive Palestinian West Bank and even more so from the fiercely militant Gaza Strip. We would be naive to expect a happy ending here.

But if it does not emulate the practices of the past and turn a blind eye to the search for some sort of enduring and enforceable truce— if not a genuine peace— and if it does moderate its treatment of the majority of Palestinians who don’t threaten it, Israelis will be better off, Palestinians will be better off, the United States will be better off. Better off, not worse.

We’ve already got too many fires burning elsewhere. Too many other walls being built.

On Trump Being Trump

Let’s be clear, and, for those who still support Donald Trump, honest: whenever this president does something or says something that goes well beyond the once-respected norms of careful deliberation, conscientious honesty, or common decency, the excuse that “It’s just Trump being Trump” is no longer acceptable.

It’s not even moral.

Because his behavior is not just over the top. It’s savage. And destructive. And crippling. It cripples our reputation, it cripples our security, it cripples our civility, it cripples our founding principles, which have served us pretty darned well til now.

If we had a 7-year-old acting the way Trump acts, we’d send him to bed without dinner. Or worse.

If we had a teenager acting the way Trump acts, we’d take away the car keys. Or worse.

If we had a candidate acting the way Trump acts, we’d roundly denounce and defeat him.

And if we had a president acting the way this president acts, we’d impeach him and send him packing.

If only.

Think about the past week. Just the past week.

For starters, the United States abruptly and unaccountably turned its back on the Kurds, allies who have had our back in Middle East wars for decades. I’ve long had a special place in my heart for these people who have sacrificed and suffered at the hands of rivals in every direction, because while I have seen some awfully grotesque scenes in war zones around the world, none was more monstrous than piles of Kurdish corpses— thousands of men, women, and children— after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein attacked them with mustard gas before the first Gulf War.

Now, the next generation is in the sights of Turkey’s gun barrels. All with the consent of Donald Trump. His egregious excuse? “They didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy, as an example.” It’s hard to even know what to say to an imbecilic declaration like that. North Korea didn’t help us in Normandy either, but that didn’t stop Trump from declaring he “fell in love” with the deadly dictator who runs it, or with brutal despots of other nations who also didn’t storm the beaches alongside us.

By leaving the Kurds to defend themselves without our help, we strengthen ISIS, and Iran, and Russia. We also leave the world to wonder, can we ever accept America’s word again, can the United States still be trusted? And this enhances our security? But of course we are supposed to ignore the outcomes of this man’s temperamental turbulence. After all, he assured us that he would be reacting to events “in my great and unmatched wisdom.”

That’s on a par with his infamous claim, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do” (which you can add to his ego-inflated avowals that “I know more about drones than anybody,” “I know more about courts than any human being on Earth,” “I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth,” and “nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.”) What worries me is, what are the perils in a president who thinks he knows it all, when everyone who ever served before him tells us, he can’t. No one can.

Then, of course, there’s impeachment. It has rarely been used in this country but when it has, it has run the course the Founding Fathers intended it to run. Investigations, subpoenas, hearings, witnesses, and ultimately, a vote.

But for Trump, the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers created in our Constitution are inconveniences. He has taken a pile driver to the concrete they cast.

“Put simply, you seek to overturn the results of the 2016 election and deprive the American people of the President they have freely chosen.” This is the verdict he reached, and communicated to Congress. And with that, he proclaimed that while there may be investigations and subpoenas and hearings and witnesses, they will occur with no cooperation from his White House. In other words, he belligerently built a stone wall around the entire Executive Branch of the United States Government. “Never before in our history has the House of Representatives,” Trump’s letter continued, “taken the American people down the dangerous path you seem determined to pursue.”

And what do you say to all that? Only this: it is not his White House. It is ours. And history has seen it before, against presidents a lot less repugnant than Trump. And, if ultimately he is impeached on legitimate grounds and, beyond that, the Senate conjures up the courage to convict, it is Trump who has put us on this dangerous path that collides with the Constitution, not Congress. It will be important to keep that in mind if he loses his battle but refuses to cede the battlefield.

Then, finally, all in this one week, there’s “Trump being Trump” on the stump, and to be honest, this is what sent me back to my keyboard. In a political rally Thursday night in Minneapolis, Trump denigrated Democrats as “very sick and deranged people;” he said of the Speaker of the House, “She’s either really stupid or she’s really lost it;” and when he came to Joe Biden, “He was only a good vice president because he knew how to kiss Barack Obama’s ass.”

I won’t debate the truthfulness of Trump’s tantrum. Millions of Americans will agree with every word.

But excuse me, this is the President of the United States. A president sets the tone for the rest of us. When he starts sounding like a barroom brawler (as if he only just started sounding like one this past week), the message to the rest of us is, you too can go down this path.

It is not a path we should take. It’s not acceptable. It’s not moral. “Just Trump being Trump” has become an excuse for behavior that cheapens some of the most cherished canons of our country.

To those who still make that excuse, stop. Careful deliberation, conscientious honesty, and common decency have made us what we are. A great nation. Even before Trump.

Boomer Opinion: Don’t accept “Trump being Trump”

On Trump and Ukraine

When it comes to President Trump’s phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, where do we even start?

How about with Richard Nixon.

Reading the loosely transcribed conversation between the two presidents, then the whistleblower’s official complaint about it, and listening to Thursday’s testimony to Congress by the acting Director of National Intelligence, I was struck with the parallels.

Maybe more than most of you. Because in 1973, when some of the most damning testimony was delivered to the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s ignominious resignation, I was producing the coverage of those hearings for ABC News. I was in the room.

So I can tell you firsthand, when White House counsel John Dean testified to a “cancer on the presidency,” virtually everyone inside the hearing felt that if Nixon’s own trusted lawyer could turn on the president, maybe some of his closest allies might turn on him too.

Soon, some did.

Then when a Nixon aide named Alexander Butterfield revealed in his testimony the existence of a taping system in the Oval Office that ultimately would help nail Nixon, there was a discernible intuition amongst us in the room that it was the beginning of the end.

Less than a month later, it was.

Of course the parallel breaks down when you compare the courage of Nixon’s own longtime GOP stalwarts then, versus Trump’s GOP sycophants now. In 1973, the Republican leader of the Senate, the Republican leader of the House, and no less a lionized personality in the party than former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, went to the White House to warn Nixon about the writing on the wall and convince him that he had to resign.

Two days later, he did.

Today, Utah Senator Mitt Romney, a more recent GOP standard-bearer albeit less lionized than Goldwater, has declared that he is “deeply troubled” by Trump’s political conversation with Ukraine’s president. But Romney stands pretty much alone. Yet his words, while not a crushing condemnation, are a tsunami compared to the silence or, even worse, the fatuous defense of Donald Trump by many of Romney’s congressional colleagues, like the one who calls this whole affair a “nothing-burger.”

However, if anyone knows how to stick a finger up into the wind to figure out which way it’s blowing, it’s a politician. It wouldn’t take many more on that side of the aisle to see writing on the wall today, and to vote to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors if the House votes to impeach him. Just a few days ago, for any of us who consider Trump a destructive, duplicitous, dishonest, disaster of a president, that was merely fanciful thinking. Today, I would upgrade the thinking to wishful.

Talking to a foreign head of government like a mafia master might talk to his minions isn’t a crime. But when an American president employs his power to ask another president to advance his personal political agenda— contrary to our interests, let alone our laws— it might be.

And what about Trump trashing the anonymous whistleblower, the apparently credible member of the intelligence community who first reported that something was smelly about the phone call between the two presidents, and then reported… and this could be the smoking gun… that the White House ordered the electronic transcript of the call moved to a computer normally used to store “classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”

Sounds suspiciously more like a cover-up than a nothing-burger, since the transcript shows no threat to our nation’s security. It’s only a threat to Trump’s. A perturbing parallel to what buried Richard Nixon.

The reality is, the only nothing-burgers in the story are Trump’s unabashed apologists, who abide a president who calls a whistleblower’s source “close to a spy,” and implies that the punishment for such sins will be severe, noting nostalgically that “spies and treason” were dealt with differently “in the old days.”

Yet another alarming parallel.

Evidently this unenlightened president doesn’t care that whistleblowers have played pivotal roles over the years to hold tobacco makers, drug makers, auto makers, and yes, policy makers to account. Deep Throat, from the days of Watergate, did the nation a favor. Trump would put him on trial.

At least some of the patriotic Americans who called out Richard Nixon and ended up on his infamous “enemies list” were threatened with little more than a tax audit. And when Nixon attacked his most plain-spoken political enemies, he tried turning to domestic law enforcement agencies, not a foreign government.

If anything, that might make Trump even more of a crook than Nixon.

For close to three years, there has been a cancer on this presidency. Maybe— hopefully— a few more politicians will look in the mirror and rise to the occasion and root it out.

On Courtesy

Call me a baby boomer curmudgeon, but I’m just about to stop being nice.

Not everywhere. Not most places. But what happened yesterday has been happening more and more and I’m tired of it: going in or out of a restroom or in or out of a building, I always hold the door for anyone not far behind me. Yesterday, though, is becoming the norm. I walked into a public restroom with another guy about ten feet behind me, so instead of just letting the door shut in his face, I stood for a few seconds and held it so that he too could pass through. His response? Not a word of thanks, not even eye contact.

Apparently I was the hired doorman (as if you shouldn’t bother thanking the hired doorman). And this guy was the entitled.

It’s usually the same at convenience stores and coffee shops and other such businesses when I put money in the tip jar. Not a smile of thanks, not a word of acknowledgement. It has gotten to the point where I ensure that I don’t move my money-clutching hand to the jar until I’m sure they can see exactly what I’m doing. As if it makes a difference. Most of the time, it doesn’t. True, they aren’t obliged to thank me, but think about this: I’m not obliged to tip them.

If you’re a boomer, you’re old enough to remember when people tipped servers and bellhops and cab drivers and that’s about it. Maybe we should move back in that direction.

I’ll admit, whether it’s the door or the tip jar, I’ve gotten to the point where sometimes I’m testing people instead of just showing goodwill. But you know what? More and more, when they’re not courteous enough to communicate a simple thank you, they fail the test.

Mind you, there are exceptions and they are encouraging. At Oh-Dark-Thirty one morning not long ago, I walked into a gas station convenience store to buy a cup of coffee. As I passed the counter for the coffee bar, I took note of the guy behind it. He was about my age, with a bushy unkempt white beard and a sour-looking face. I’d be sour too if I were in my seventies and working the dawn shift at a gas station. I expected a curmudgeon, maybe even worse than me.

But when I got in line to pay for my coffee, I found out how wrong my assessment had been. True, the man didn’t have a face that naturally smiles— I don’t either— but he was sweetness and light with the two customers ahead of me and when it was my turn, I told him how impressed I was with how he treated people because, as he agreed, these days it’s the exception to the rule. His response was, “Thank you, I sure appreciate that, the coffee’s on me.”

Thank goodness for exceptions.

But let me put the curmudgeon back at the keyboard now, and riff about young riders passing me on my bike. Well, not about them actually passing me, but about what they say— or more to the point, what they don’t say— when they do.

Where I live in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, there aren’t many flat roads to ride. So more often than not, I’m climbing anything from a hill to a mountain pass. Which means, as a leading edge baby boomer whose strength and energy are at least slightly flagging, I get passed by far more riders than I pass. And when I look over at them, the vast majority are about half my age. Or younger.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t say hello when they go by. Am I just old-fashioned? I say it, but they don’t. Hello, good morning, good afternoon, goodbye, how ya doin’, go away, get your tired bones off this road, it doesn’t matter what, but would it hurt to offer a simple greeting, something to acknowledge that we’re two human beings, bonded in the task of climbing a steep grade on a bike, both doing something pretty darned good (especially the older guy, and with white hair spreading out beyond the edges of my helmet, they can have no doubt, I’m the older guy)?

Maybe I’m asking too much. After all, I’m so old-fashioned that I’ll still walk down an urban sidewalk or a mountain path and smile and say hello to people coming the other way. Sometimes they even say something back. Too often though, they don’t.

It’s about courtesy. It’s about civility. It’s about simply being human. Whether the restroom door, the tip jar, the greeting on the sidewalk or on the hill, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I want to keep being nice, I really do. But sometimes, it’s hard, when people don’t reciprocate.

On Remedies For Trump

A good friend emailed me the other day, complaining that I write a whole lot about what a pathetic president Donald Trump is, but never offer remedies.

I could fire back a cheap shot and say the best remedy is, get rid of Trump.

I also could respond by arguing that when I write about yet another egregious exhibit of offensive behavior by the president, the remedy is implicit: don’t do it the way Trump does it. And definitely don’t degrade our destiny by throwing temper tantrums on Twitter. 

But those would just be lazy shortcuts, because my friend’s wish for remedies is fair. However, the bandwidth of my beefs is too big for a short column, so I’ll limit it only to grievances of the last few weeks: immigration, white nationalism, guns, Israel, Democrats, tariffs, the deficit,… and for reasons I still can’t fathom, a rift in America’s relationship with a loyal ally that has sacrificed on our behalf. That should be enough.

I’ll begin with the trade war and tariffs, since on Friday the president amped up his frightening game of chicken with China as if it’s only his own empire at stake and not every American’s. There’s nothing wrong with amping it all up if we are being abused, but plenty wrong with going so far, just to look tough, that you end up weakening the very economy you set out to strengthen. That’s what Trump has done. With China, and other key global traders too. Remember when he said, “Trade wars are easy to win?” White House PR protestations notwithstanding, his trade war has driven our costs up, not down. And even Government figures confirm, it has made our factories sicker, not healthier.

The remedy? Win influence over economic rivals with negotiation, not a bludgeon. And learn a hard fact that is true in every kind of negotiation, including war: the other side also gets a vote. As China proved, yet again, this week.

Which takes us to the deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office says is headed to record levels. Which seems to surprise some Americans who believed in a presidential candidate named Trump. The remedy? If you intend to raise spending and cut taxes, don’t pledge to reduce the deficit. Even with an abacus, you can’t make that work.

Since it was my column about Trump echoing the language and loathing of white nationalists and the impassioned issue of immigration that prompted my friend’s email, I’ll go there next, and the remedy is simple: a president who purportedly speaks for all Americans should stop stoking hate and fear toward some. A president who understands the value that immigrants have added to America— some in his own lineage, by the way, not to mention his own bed— should concede that while people on the Right and people on the Left sometimes choose different paths toward a better nation, having a better nation is our common goal. The remedy there is for the president to stop savaging everyone who sees the world through a different lens than his. 

Such a president should also understand that the inscription at the Statue of Liberty about helping people “yearning to breathe free” has been a proud principle of this lucky nation. The remedy is to accept that while politics may be fluid, principles are not. I agree with the president that if millions of citizens from other nations faithfully follow the law to live here, coming in illegally because you inherited the short end of the stick should not be encouraged. But punishing illegal immigrants and their children the way Trump keeps doing flies in the face of our most sacred founding principles. The remedy is to respect those principles— even taking the bad with the good— because they have long given us more good than bad.

The remedy on guns? Already, the pain of Dayton and El Paso has dulled. As did the pain of Newtown, of Las Vegas, of Aurora, and countless other fields of fire. And that has given cover to a president who self-servingly talks the talk but never walks the walk. Background checks, red-flag laws, gun show regulations, limits on the contents of magazines, boundaries on the sale of assault weapons. Maybe none of those would prevent the achingly familiar carnage. But maybe they would; maybe they would make it harder for some demented shooter to leave holes in his victims the size of a human fist… without making it impossible for well-intentioned law-abiding citizens to have what they want in their arsenals.

So, the remedy? Listen to the unnerved people of your nation, not to the unbending lobbyists of the NRA. Cajole and coerce and coax the powers-that-be until something sensible happens. True, as the president said, ”It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger, it’s the person holding the gun.” But make it harder for that person to get that gun in the first place. That’s a remedy.

On another issue, maybe there’s no hope. When Donald Trump said last week, “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” it showed a total lack of history. In the run-up to World War II, Adolph Hitler called Jews traitorous, treacherous, disloyal. The nerve, of an American president, to reopen that blackened box, purely for the purpose of demonizing his opponents. The remedy here is obvious, although given the character of the bully-in-chief, probably not obtainable.

Finally, Greenland, and Denmark, which really conjure up the fiasco of Donald Trump’s foreign policy and amplify the unstrategic patterns of this president. On its face, trying to buy a mineral-rich province might not seem ill-advised, although Denmark’s prime minister nailed 21st Century geopolitics when she said, “Thankfully, the time when you buy and sell other countries and populations is over.” But what was unseemly was Trump’s response when she called the idea “absurd.” He called her “nasty.” We shouldn’t be too surprised; the president has a penchant for pummeling our democratic partners, while never calling truly tyrannical adversaries anything close to “nasty.” The remedy for his bass-ackwards approach to other nations? Do it the other way around.

So if I had to sum up the best remedies for Trump’s abysmal blunders, it would be this: try (for a change) to think about how your policies, and your performance, reflect on the American people. Not just how they reflect on you.

And that’s just from the last couple of weeks. 

On White Nationalists

President Trump’s apologists say that it’s unfair to lay the massacre in El Paso on him. That Trump is not responsible for the savagery of white nationalists. But despite his carefully choreographed comments right after the shooting, his re-election campaign plan has been traumatically clear: embrace the message of the white nationalists, and stoke hate, fear, and divisiveness in America, just as he did in 2016. Remember, it worked.

He began that first campaign with a dark description of Mexicans who sneak across the border: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” So today, when he repeats similar rhetoric, ask yourself, what’s the difference between him, and those white nationalists who commit the crimes?
And ask yourself, when a member of his flock of followers at a Florida re-election rally shouts that the Border Patrol should “shoot” migrants at the border, and the president’s response is to smile, then crack a sick joke, what’s the difference between them?
When the President of the United States retweets provocative and fallacious prose, for example recently calling Democrats “the true enemies of America,” from the same wicked website on which the El Paso butcher posted his own abhorrent manifesto, really, what’s the difference between him and the original author?

When he warns, at rally after rally and in tweet after tweet, of an immigrant “invasion” of our nation, sometimes substituting “infestation”— amplifying the already disproportionate paranoia some faux patriots have of anyone without white skin— what’s the difference between our president and the predator in El Paso, who wrote in his detestable document that the massacre would be a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas?”

What’s the difference? Very little. Except this: one takes responsibility for the massacre. The other blames everything and everybody else.

After three years of hateful, racist, ultra-nationalist rhetoric, Trump disingenuously declares, “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.” Which is the pot calling the kettle black. He also intoned from the teleprompter, “Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.” He would know.

Trump laid the blame for El Paso on “the perils of the internet and social media,” as if he hasn’t exploited both to stir up hate and anger against his detractors. And, on “racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” as if those haven’t been at the heart of his platform since long before he even ran for president. And, on “gruesome and grisly video games,” about which the American Psychological Association has said, “Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection.” And, the news media: “News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse,” as if the message and the messenger are the same. And finally, reading straight from the talking points of the NRA, the culprit is mental illness, which seems so true… yet two years ago, he cancelled an Obama-era policy to make it harder for the mentally ill to buy guns.

That’s what’s so empty about the president’s strategy to shift the blame away from the gun rights extremists who won’t contemplate even levelheaded limitations on access to weapons: “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”

Well, here’s what the NRA, this president, and his acolytes who enable the nation’s most menacing cabal of lobbyists conveniently fail to acknowledge: if the blame does lie with the internet and social media, or with racism and bigotry and white supremacy, or with video games or the news media or mental illness, wouldn’t we all be safer— and maybe, mightn’t about two dozen innocent souls in El Paso be alive today— if sadistic citizens tormented by these malignant maladies found that guns were harder to get?

But they don’t. And even now, instead of some straightforward pledge to do something sensible to keep guns out of the hands of society’s sickest, the president’s first move in the aftermath of the latest bloodbaths is to make mass murders and hate crimes a capital offense. I’m all for it myself, but it is a fairly empty gesture. Most mass killers will not be dissuaded; they don’t come out alive anyway. And his next move is to tie the catastrophic crisis of mass murders with another issue, “perhaps marrying (background checks) with desperately need immigration reform.” That’s a threat: no reform, no background checks. In other words, nothing new that might prevent the next mass shooting.

A better strategy would be for Trump to put a lid on his own heat. Which means not just condemning hateful and racist rhetoric, but admitting that maybe he himself has gone at least a little too far with his own words, both spoken and tweeted. But that is expecting too much. Donald Trump is a narcissist and narcissists don’t do that. Narcissists show no shame for their own callous carelessness. A narcissist, by definition, takes no responsibility for anything bad.

The president’s most all-embracing statement after the shootings was, “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.” We can all agree on that. And with FBI statistics showing that since Trump took office, there have been eight mass murderers who embraced sinister white nationalist ideologies, the best way to defeat them is to defeat Donald Trump.

That would make a difference.

On Patriotism

It would be easy enough to give up. Easy enough to realistically if reluctantly recognize that this awful man in the White House isn’t going away. Easy enough to see that many of his supporters have abandoned moral ideals they once extolled and sold their souls to the devil. Easy enough to fear that he might be putting his indecent imprint on this nation for eight years rather than four. 

It would be easy enough to deduce that he will poison its environment, its economy, its opportunities, its reputation, its alliances, its security, its civility, its culture, its once-prized place as a beacon of decency and democracy, and maybe most alarming of all, the very canons of its creation. It would be easy enough to conclude that he will poison them all. He already has started. A second Trump term is a bone-chilling prospect, because undoing what he’ll have done in four years’ time will be tough, but undoing two terms of this mean man’s ghastly governance will be next to impossible. 

That’s why, we who see our principles in peril must not give up, must never give up. The scandals, the hypocrisies, the tyrannies, the lies pile up at a pace so fast that we can’t long focus on any one offense. But with the bigger picture, we must never lose focus. That would normalize his policies and his behaviors. It would give him a head start to that second term.

Personally, I am loathe to elevate the importance of the four liberal congresswomen now known as “the squad,” the ones Trump appallingly advised to “go back” where they came from. By my reckoning they don’t always show good sense, but whether the president comprehends it or not, each is a citizen of this nation, each was elected by a majority of her constituents, and each has as much right as anyone to be here. 

But I am loathe, because their politics aren’t my politics. Moreover, I am loathe because elevating them will play right into Trump’s hands. I wrote last month of my fear that he and his acolytes will rhetorically turn any left-leaning Democrat into a “socialist” and that then, the damning if deliberately deceiving label “communist” will not be far behind. I was correct beyond my fears. Lindsay Graham: “We all know that AOC (Bronx congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and this crowd are a bunch of communists.” Donald Trump, in a retweet: “Need I say more.”

But when one of them does show good sense, it is worth repeating. And Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar did that in a recent New York Times op-ed. “This fight is not merely about policy ideas,” she wrote, “it is a fight for the soul of our nation. The beauty of this country is not that our democracy is perfect,” she went on, “it’s that embedded in our Constitution and democratic institutions are the tools to make it better.”

Donald Trump proves time and again that he doesn’t understand that, because free speech, along with principles like religious liberty, pluralism, and equal protection under the law, are the very tools that she and her “squad” are using. They don’t always lead to better outcomes, but when stifled, discouraged, even mocked, they never can.

There is a wide spectrum of thought in America. There is a wide spectrum in the Democratic Party alone. As I explained over many years to people overseas when I covered news in Communist or Third World countries and wanted to explain the American ideal, it was that as wide as that spectrum is, we all love our nation. We have a deep divergence of ideas about how to reach the best outcomes, but whether coming from the far Left, the far Right, or anywhere in-between, we all have one thing in common: we want the best for America. We just have different notions of what is best and different ways of getting there.

That’s what’s so wicked about the warning Donald Trump and his sycophants have issued to citizens who criticize his approach to running America: “Love it or leave it.” It’s a throwback to dissent against the war in Vietnam— which didn’t turn out so well for our nation— and an echo of President George W. Bush’s scornful statement about dissent during the war in Iraq— which didn’t turn out so well either: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” No, we were with America. 

When Trump was asked about supporters at his recent rally who chanted about Congresswoman Omar, “Send her back, send her back,” he called them “a very big and patriotic crowd. They love the USA!” Newsflash to all who think that way: patriotism doesn’t mean you support your president. It means you support your country. And if you don’t love your president, it doesn’t mean you don’t love your country. Maybe those who don’t champion those principles, which are part of the American ideal, are the ones whose patriotism could be questioned. Maybe once you’ve sold your soul to the devil, you’ve lost your ability to buy it back.

It’s fair to say, Republicans aren’t the only ones who sometimes put political primacy over patriotic principle. If the shoe were on other foot, the Democrats might be the ones. But you know what? It’s not. We have a Republican president, and a Republican Party for which he can do little wrong. Consider the resolution passed by the House of Representatives in the wake of “Send her back.” It said in part, “American patriotism is defined not by race or ethnicity but by devotion to the Constitutional ideals of equality, liberty, inclusion, and democracy and by service to our communities and struggle for the common good.” Do you know how many House Republicans showed some spine and supported the resolution? Four. Even though it’s something all 199 would have supported before Trump.

That’s how he has perverted politics in America. And principles. To the point where a senator from Montana named Steve Daines tweeted the other day, “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals.” 
I’d like to give this guy a ticket to one of the many countries in which I’ve worked, where “trashing our country and our ideals” is treated as treason. And give him a dictionary so that on the flight over, he can look up the definition of “dissent,” let alone of “patriotism.”
Trump, of course, needs the same trip. Which is why, until he takes it, we cannot give up.

On Iran

NOTE TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: next time you think of setting a military strike in motion that could have global ramifications, ask about its potential consequences more than just ten minutes before you’re set to pull the trigger (if in fact the reports aren’t true that you’d already been told, then changed your story). In other words, better to ask before you’re “cocked and loaded” (as you put it) than after. And if you don’t think of asking, put together a national security team that will tell you anyway. After last week’s brush with a ballistic war, it’s pretty obvious that yours didn’t.

That’s not to say that in a rare moment of rational reflection, you didn’t do the right thing. You did. You were right, if reports are accurate, to face down Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security advisor John Bolton, hawks who look like the Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld of your team. You were right to decide that since no Americans died when Iran destroyed our drone, the “approximately 150 people” who some general apparently told you would die in Iran if you launched the attack was “not proportionate.”

Of course even stronger sanctions might not be “proportionate” enough— but they are less likely to mushroom into war than missiles and bombs, because the death toll from missiles and bombs quite possibly could climb higher than 150. A lot higher. And not just on the Iranian side. As Trump’s first defense secretary Jim Mattis once put it as a warning that the good guys don’t automatically win every conflict, “The enemy gets a vote.” Which is what makes this such a dangerous game. It could just take a small spat… they hit us, we hit them, they escalate, we escalate… and suddenly it explodes into far more than anyone wants.

Then, “150” could become 1,500, 15,000, who knows where it goes from there? The “collateral damage” (as our leaders called it during the war in Vietnam) could then encompass not just our enemy Iran, but key American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Not to mention U.S. servicemen on the first line of offense. It might some day become an abhorrent imperative, but surely not now.

I know from my own long experience in Iran, covering the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis, that many young people back then, who today help drive Iran’s government, were well educated in Europe and the U.S. (including Iran’s foreign minister, who earned a B.A., two M.A.s, and a PhD here). They are the moderates (in the context of a revolutionary state). And despite Iran’s sinister slogan of “Death to America” which I first heard there 40 years ago, they are smart enough to know that while they would inflict some damage in a face-off against the U.S.A., they would not win.

But there also are religious radicals there who might well want to be suicide-bombers with their nation strapped to their chest, hallucinating about some dire diehard dream. We can speculate until we’re blue in the face, but we really don’t know who there actually has their finger on the button.

So what got us to this perilous point? To begin with, there’s no doubt that Iran took down the drone. In their own rare admission of responsibility, they openly said, We did it. But they also said they did it because the drone had invaded Iranian airspace. Which the United States denies. Given Iran’s history of deceit and deflection, there is plenty of reason to doubt its account. But at risk of being realistic, when an American president is pompous or aggressive or simply ill-informed— or when we have unrepentant hawks hovering over the president who might do anything to have their way— we too can make claims we ought not make and be led to places we ought not go. Exhibit A: the Vietnam War. Exhibit B: the Iraq War.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies praise his on-again-off-again battle stance against Iran, claiming that just by rattling his sabers, he had the Iranians quaking in their boots. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, as I said before, it’s a dangerous game. Other allies see it differently, like the fast-rising clone of ex-Vice President Cheney, his daughter Liz, already one of the top Republicans in the House of Representatives. She said in a radio interview, “A world in which response to attacks on American assets is to pull back, or to accept the attack, is a world in which America won’t be able to successfully defend our interests.” In other words, we blinked, and everyone saw it.

That may very well be true, but it’s equally true that a world in which an American response to a non-fatal assault kills an estimated 150 people… or if it escalates, many, many more… is a world in which America simply won’t have many friends to help defend those interests.

A colleague advanced a theory about the president’s abrupt pullback from launching the attack: given his infamous intolerance for briefings, whether written or oral, maybe through the planning stages of a retaliatory attack, he just wasn’t paying attention. Maybe he wasn’t even there. And didn’t realize what his rhetoric had almost spawned until it was almost too late.

And here’s another, which I advance myself only as a personal theory, admittedly based on nothing but Donald Trump’s overblown ego, which is immeasurably bigger than the drone we lost. Maybe he realized that if his strike became a full-blown war, it could distract attention from— maybe even force him to scrub his trip later this week to— Japan, where he hopes to put out the fire he started in the first place and come home with a trade agreement with China’s president.

But at least, for whatever reason, he called it off. So far, so good, although I still wouldn’t put anything past this president. Not even war, if his ego, which prompts pompous rhetoric like “obliteration (of Iran) like you’ve never seen before,” demands nothing less. Hopefully though, next time he’ll think it more thoroughly through… whether it’s Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or anyplace else… more than just ten minutes before pulling the trigger.

On South Africa

If you pay even scant attention to the news, you know that this past week was the anniversary of the day China changed at Tiananmen Square. June 4th, 1989. Thirty years ago. What was called the “Democracy Movement” was brutally beaten back. There were mass arrests, purges, and executions. Democracy, which had been only a faint hope anyway, has not been heard from since.

Just a few months later— on February 11, 1990— something happened on another continent that took another nation in a new direction. New, but 180-degrees different. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years behind bars, and not five years after that, democracy enthroned him in his nation’s presidency. Apartheid was officially dead.

You could attribute all the attention around Tiananmen Square’s anniversary to the dramatic and diabolical outcome of the day. China’s citizens today have riches and freedoms they never dreamt about thirty years ago, but their government still puts limits on their liberties— they lack some of the very rights we take for granted here at home. Discussion of Tiananmen Square itself is taboo. China still is a Communist country at heart.

As I watched observances of that anniversary, it occurred to me that the milestones that marked South Africa’s movement toward black majority rule typically go largely unwatched, largely unnoticed. There is not a single day to commemorate, but several: Mandela’s release, his election, the adoption of a constitution (largely modeled after ours) that guaranteed equal rights for blacks and whites alike. Thousands died and many more suffered during the decades-long struggle against apartheid, but that was over the course of years; there never was an explosive civil war. Contrary to China, South Africa progressed peacefully into its new age.

That might surprise me more than you, because back in the 1970s and into the ‘80s, ABC News sent me down to South Africa for weeks at a time, to wait for the war. Virtually every western news organization had a bureau there, for that one reason. With a revolution by the restive black majority, the swimming pools of white South Africans would run red with blood. War seemed inevitable.

But it never happened.

Part of that is to the credit of the white minority government, which peacefully passed power to the people they had long oppressed. An equal part, however, is to the credit of Mandela himself. Once free, he singlehandedly persuaded his fellow former prisoners— who wanted to take revenge on their white oppressors— that their way was the way to war, not peace. Ultimately they chose reconciliation over revenge.

Pretty amazing, considering their deprivations. Ahmed Kathrata is the man with whom Nelson Mandela was most often locked up during his decades on Robben Island, the prison for political convicts in the bay near Cape Town. Kathrata told me in an interview— when I went back with a camera crew a dozen years after the end of apartheid to see how the nation had changed— that in all those years as prisoners, they were confined to the far side of the island and never, not even once, actually saw Cape Town, just a few miles off.

He said that it was three months after man first landed on the moon before they heard about it. That for 20 years, he never once laid eyes on a child. One can understand the hunger for revenge.

But Mandela’s argument was that back when they were chopping rocks in Robben Island’s limestone quarries, and would surreptitiously meet in the recesses of a quarry’s walls to talk hypothetically about the shape of their nation under black rule, they had committed to govern a country with equal rights for all. Not just all blacks, Mandela argued, but all peoples of the nation. (Kathrata told me that each man would go up to a different guard and say, “Gotta piss”… and the guard would say “Okay, but be quick about it”… and they’d all meet to piss in the same cave and steal ten minutes together at best, to have these clandestine talks.)

And that’s how it came down. No single day, no single event, no single anniversary. Which means, there is too little perspective about the South Africa that matured from the transition.

That’s why, more than a decade ago, I went back.

If prosperity is measured by freedoms, then prosperity was high. Blacks no longer needed to step aside when passing a white citizen on the sidewalk. Or to have a pass, just to be out at night.

But for most black South Africans, prosperity by its more common definition was still just a dream. And when I was there again just four years ago, that hadn’t changed.

In this squatters camp called Khayelitsha, on the edge of Cape Town, some of its million-plus inhabitants still can’t even imagine living in a place with sanitation, or fresh water, or easily available electricity. Or how easy life is when you don’t have an average of 106 people for every concrete outhouse toilet.

There are other such camps— “informal settlements” they are called— all over the country. At one in Soweto, at the edge of Johannesburg, I asked a woman who was bent over a plastic bucket scrubbing her family’s clothes clean, how long she and her family had lived like this. She said, “For years.” I asked, “How can you ever get someplace better?” She answered, “By getting work.” I asked, “Have you looked?” She said, “For years.”

At schools in the poor black townships, resources have been poured in and they’re better than they were under apartheid. Yet school was such a joke for so many decades, it created a culture that doesn’t treasure education because it was so inferior and did people no good anyway… even if they’d worked hard to get an education, they still needed a pass to move from one township to another. The country’s minister of education told me it’s one of many problems that probably will take another generation or two to overcome.

Crime is just as impervious. The rate of gunshot murders in South Africa today is more than twice our rate in the U.S., and ours is high. A local newspaper columnist wrote a telling line about the government’s inability to do much about it: “These days, a Ministry of Safety & Security makes about as much sense as a Ministry of Maritime Affairs in Switzerland.”

The end of apartheid was the triumph of South Africa, but this is the tragedy. For millions, apartheid died only in daily practice, not in daily life.

I once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, why fulfilling the dream of social prosperity has not gone hand-in-hand with the dream of political freedom. He laughed and said, “How naïve we were, thinking that just because our struggle was noble and our motives were altruistic, we would govern without many of the flaws of the governments that preceded us. What we have learned the hard way is, corruption and selfishness and greed are not just products of people with white skin.”

It is only a quarter century now since the peaceful revolution in South Africa. Too little time, perhaps, to undo 300 years of inequality. Had there been an explosive climax to the civil rights battle, as there was in China, we might take notice. But there wasn’t. So we don’t.

On Socialism

One day years ago while on assignment in the Soviet Union, I stopped at the bottom of the steps coming down from my Moscow hotel, right across from the Kremlin, to have my shoes shined. There was a man on the sidewalk, balanced on his knees, his small wooden shoeshine kit in front of him.

I lifted my leg and put my foot on the kit and, through a Russian-speaking colleague who was with me, started talking with the man as he shined my shoes. What I learned was, this guy didn’t even own that little wooden box. Like everything in the Soviet Union, it was the property of the State.

In the real world, that is the very definition of “socialism.” Which is important to understand because “socialism” already has become a traitorous tag in the presidential race, and it will likely get even worse.

The trouble is, after decades in the reporting business, and more years in the opinion business, I can’t count the number of Americans I’ve interviewed who, when railing against government regulations or authority or oversight, call it “socialism.” They don’t have a clue.

If they haven’t seen what socialism looks like firsthand, they ought to take a look its definitions in the dictionary:
1. Collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods;
2. A system of society or group living in which there is no private property;
3. A system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.

These words all applied in the USSR to my shoeshine man and his little wooden kit.

I’m not a socialist. By measure of what I’ve seen and heard in my career as a journalist, most Democrats aren’t. Not even those farthest to the left who are running for president. We all want the people who shine our shoes to own their own business, or at least work for someone who does.

But to hear the Republican propaganda machine ramping up, you wouldn’t know it. Anyone calling for any kind of government involvement in our lives is a socialist.

What’s worse, if history is any guide, the machine won’t stop there. It will equate “socialism” with “communism.” And what do we think about when we hear “communism?” An undemocratic government. The suppression of human rights. A police state. The Gulag.

Do you remember the presidential campaign of 2004? John Kerry vs George W. Bush. Kerry was the guy who’d gone to Vietnam. Bush was the guy who hadn’t. But the propaganda machine used conservative Vietnam vets who supported Bush to paint him as the patriot and Kerry as the traitor— it was called “Swift boating,” named after the kind of patrol boat on which Kerry served. (For the record, most of the Navy vets who actually served alongside Kerry supported him.)

That was 2004. The Stone Age. In this far more advanced era of unsocial media, heaven only knows what the propaganda machine will conjure up.

Just last week, Senator Bernie Sanders, arguably the candidate farthest left on the spectrum, tried to fend off that machine and soft-pedal his own label as a “democratic socialist;” he framed it as the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “We must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal,” he declared, “and carry it to completion.” He invoked programs that have long since become rightful expectations of almost all Americans, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

Probably safe territory, because ask Americans how they feel about, say, Social Security, and across the board, most will endorse it. But if, instead of asking people if they like Social Security, you ask if they like the idea of universal pensions supported by taxpayer dollars? You’ll get a lot of different answers, which will amount to three words: “Sounds like socialism.”

If you don’t believe it, look back only a few years to the debate over healthcare. Polls were taken asking people how they felt about the Affordable Care Act, and once they heard its features, support was widespread. But then, asked how they felt about Obamacare— which of course was merely the unofficial label for the very same thing— millions were flat-out against it. “Socialism!”

One Democratic candidate in this year’s race has staked out territory to combat that. In early June, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said emphatically to the California State Democratic Convention, “Socialism is not the answer.” He got booed by members of his own party who, in my opinion, can’t see the forest through the trees. But he is right. If Donald Trump’s general election opponent can be tagged with labels like “socialist” and “communist,” this indecent president will cruise to a second term.

That would be the kiss of death, because for me, Priority Number 11 in next year’s election is to reverse the reprehensible record of this president. But Priorities 1-10 are to select someone who can beat him, then roll out the recovery.

Senator Sanders, and other candidates whose place on the political spectrum can earn them damning labels, however unfair, can explain their leanings any way they like. But millions of Americans, probably most, won’t hear them. Instead, aided by the opposition’s propaganda machine, they’ll hear socialism. And communism. And vote for Trump.

I’d like to live in a world with universal health care and child care and college education and gun control and banking regulations and reasonable restraints on environmental decay and all the rest. But no matter how righteous some candidates’ proposals are, if they also issue calls (to quote Elizabeth Warren) to “break up Big Ag, Big Banks, Big Tech” and the like, they’ll play right into Donald Trump’s hands because they’ll be painted as socialists and communists. Maybe they’d win the battle, but they’d lose the war.

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.

On Defectors

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.

On Treason

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.

My bad.

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.

On Lying

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.

It doesn’t.

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.

On Cyberwarfare

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.

On Hurricanes

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.

We don’t.

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 “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.

On Grammar

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.”

So what?

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.

On Russia

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.

On Afghanistan

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.

On Shithole

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 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.

On Jerusalem

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.

On Threats

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.

On Fires

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.

On Tweets

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.

On Disasters

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.

On Trump

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.

On Racism

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.

On Venting

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

“Colorado Divide.”

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?

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 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.

On China

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