Watch Him Before You Judge Him.

Joe Biden gets a raw deal.

In a poll that came out late last month, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research asked people what comes to mind when they think of the two leading contenders for the presidency. The top terms voters used for Donald Trump were “corrupt” and “dishonest.” Their top terms for Joe Biden were “old” and “confused.”

I don’t have to make a case for Trump being corrupt and dishonest. Prosecutors from Washington to Atlanta to New York have done a fine job making that case themselves.

But I can make a case that when acting as president, Joe Biden is neither old nor confused. He is calm. He is considerate.

There’s no denying it, he’s 80. But voters shouldn’t look at Biden’s age on a calendar. They should look at how he spends every day on that calendar. If they do, they’ll see that while Biden moves more slowly and speaks more softly than he used to, he has more energy and gets more done than many people half his age.

Look at his travel schedule alone. Only two weeks ago Biden crossed seven time zones without ever leaving the United States, to inspect the ravages and console survivors from the fires on Maui.

Then six days ago he was surveying the damage and comforting victims from Hurricane Idalia in Florida.

And now he’s in India. As you read this, the president just flew halfway around the world. Fourteen hours on an airplane gets the better of anyone, but facing Biden immediately after landing was a bilateral meeting with Indian prime minister Modi. After that, as the leader of the free world, he’ll be prodding his fellow leaders at the G-20 summit in New Delhi to support everything from the fight against climate change to the fight against Russia in Ukraine.

You can’t pull that off if you’re “old” and “confused.” You can if you’re calm and considerate.

And this won’t even be Biden’s toughest foreign trip this year.

That would be his secret journey in February to see the war in Ukraine up close. He lifted off for Poland at 4 in the morning, crossed six time zones, then took the ten-hour train ride to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and then, after spending the day on the ground, he was on the train for ten more hours to get out.

But while Biden was tired, he wasn’t through. He went on to Warsaw and met with the leaders of Poland and Moldova, then separately with leaders of the Bucharest Nine alliance, and with the Secretary-General of NATO.

With all that’s at stake, he had no time to be “old” or “confused.”

And those aren’t the president’s only overseas trips. This year alone he has flown to Belfast and Dublin, Hiroshima and Lithuania, Ottawa and Mexico.

And, for good measure, he also has put down in 20 other states, sometimes to recognize innovations in factories across the country, sometimes to show sympathy for the victims of mass shootings.

The travel is grueling enough, but even more so because the president’s always in the spotlight. When he leaves India in three days’ time, he stops in Vietnam, aiming to upgrade our relationship with a nation which is central to the Pacific rivalry between the U.S. and China.

I’ve traveled overseas with presidents. They have the eyes of the world upon them. They arbitrate issues that are existential. You just can’t do all that if you’re “old” and “confused.”

It’s certainly fair to say, Joe Biden doesn’t have to tolerate the travel nightmares the rest of us sometimes suffer. Air Force One is a pretty sweet way to go. But still, he not only has to defy his body clock, but when he gets off the plane, he sometimes has to sit down to negotiate war and peace.

Even when he’s home, Joe Biden, like any president, spends more time behind closed doors calling and cajoling members of Congress to support legislation he’s pushing. When he steps off Air Force One from the India/Vietnam trip, he’ll go right to work in Washington fighting to ensure that the government stays funded. And, of course, there are the signings of legislation he has pushed for and the occasional obligatory photo op with the Pork Producer of the Year.

This president, like any president, lives in a fishbowl. There’s bound to be an occasional flub, but we’ve seen that with every president.

Yet the story the Republicans push that even many Democrats are buying is that Biden isn’t up to the job. And it’s sticking. In that AP/NORC poll, 77 percent of adult Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said that Biden’s too old to be effective during a second term.

In another poll by the Wall Street Journal that came out Monday, 73 percent of registered voters said that Biden is too old to serve four more years in the White House.

True, some are concerned not so much with Biden’s age today as they are with his age at the end of a second term. It’s a credible concern. But slower talk and slower movements don’t tell us what we need to know about the president. What we should be watching is what he does. Many do watch and don’t like what they see, and while I’d argue that he has made this a better nation, that’s a valid measure. But when people write him off because of his age, they aren’t giving him a fair shake.

In that AP/NORC poll, when a security guard in Mississippi was asked about Biden, he told the pollster, “He looks like he needs to be someone’s kindly grandpa on the arm, not someone at the wheel of power.” But his narrative about Trump was harsher, commenting that the former president “acts like a kindergartner when people tell him ‘no’.”

So when we look ahead to next year’s election, all those years are a black mark against Biden. But all those criminal charges might be a bigger black mark against Trump.

When Good News Means There’s Worse News Somewhere Else.

In journalism, we get criticized for reporting too much bad news here at home and failing to report enough good news.

So here’s a twist: the news is even worse across much of the rest of the globe, which makes much of our news sound not so bad at all. Except for Australia and Antarctica, there’s unnerving news on every other continent. It might distress you, it might depress you. But it’s a realistic picture of many parts of the world today. And a realistic perspective on how lucky the rest of us are.

This is only a sampling but start with Europe.

The sad story of Ukraine writes itself.

The United Nations commissioner for human rights reports that since Russia invaded more than 18 months ago, there have been upwards of 26,000 civilian casualties, nearly 9,500 of them fatal. The physical devastation in people’s lives, meantime, cannot even be measured. According to The World Bank, rebuilding everything from homes to businesses to infrastructure itself will cost more than $400-billion, and that’s so far.

But the bad news from the far side of the Atlantic isn’t just about Ukraine. Hungary, according to the European Union’s parliament, is becoming an “electoral autocracy.” The EU says President Viktor Orban has waged attacks on the nation’s judiciary, its universities, its media, and most directly, the rights of its LGBT community. Unlike those who wage similar attacks here in the U.S., Orban has almost total control and has reshaped his nation into what he calls an “illiberal Christian democracy.” Hungary today still has elections, but little resemblance to real democracy at all.

Anyone can see the narrowing of civil rights in Russia. The freedoms we take for granted— freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press— blossomed when the Soviet Union fell apart. For a brief moment in their history, the Russian people had something to smile about. But when Vladimir Putin came to power, he slowly but surely started narrowing down those long-cherished rights. In recent years, if he doesn’t try to have his adversaries killed, they end up accused of fraudulent charges and put behind bars, which might explain why public protests against his costly war in Ukraine have not filled the streets with demonstrators.

In Asia, we usually use China as a focal point for autocracy on the rise. Human Rights Watch says, “Repression (has) deepened across China.” According to HRW, “Authorities continue to harass, detain, and prosecute people for their online posts and private chat messages critical of the government, bringing trumped-up charges of ‘spreading rumors, picking quarrels, provoking trouble, and ‘insulting the country’s leaders’.” Surveillance of citizens has become ubiquitous. There have been secret trials and imprisonments of people whose only infractions were organizing discussions about democracy and human rights.

But there’s bad news from every corner of Asia, not just China.

Afghanistan keeps sinking deeper in almost every way. Since the Taliban retook control of the country, its rule, according to the Brookings Institution, has “progressively hardened.” Brookings says the Ministry of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has become a “principal tool of repression.” It stated in a recent report, “The Taliban conducted extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and unlawful detention of perceived opponents with impunity.” Limited opportunities in both education and vocation for which women already had only slim hopes have been narrowed almost to the point of extinction. And the economy has become a wreck. Brookings says six million Afghans are “on the brink of famine.”

Next door, there’s Iran. Right now Iranians are girding themselves for a crackdown at the end of next week when dissidents demonstrate a year after the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the nation’s “morality police” for refusing to publicly wear a hijab— the scarf that covers most of a woman’s head. When she died in custody, angry protests broke out across the country and at least 500 people were killed, seven of them executed by hanging.

Now, according to The New York Times, the Islamic government preemptively is arresting “women’s rights activists, students, ethnic minorities, journalists… and family members of protesters killed by security agents.” The Times says a popular singer was arrested at his home last Monday after releasing a song that praised Iranian women who have showed their hair as an act of civil disobedience. The government claims his song is “illegal” and defies the “morals and norms of an Islamic society.”

In the Middle East, where citizens began to dream during the Arab Spring a decade ago of freedoms they’d never had, many nations have returned to a state of oppression, if not a state of war.

Yemen is the worst of several sad examples. The headline of a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations was, “Yemen’s Tragedy: War, Stalemate, and Suffering.”

A long-fought civil war— with Iran and Saudi Arabia backing different adversaries— has displaced more than four million people and opened the door to cholera and famine. An estimated three-quarters of its population lives in poverty.

Armenia is in another corner of Asia and it’s fighting its own war against a neighbor. Ancestors of the victims of ethnic cleansing by the Turkish Ottoman Empire more than a hundred years ago are seeing signs of it again at the hands of neighboring Azerbaijan. For nine months now, mostly Muslim Azerbaijan has blocked the one mountain route that leads to an isolated, mostly Christian Armenian population, cutting off food, fuel, and medicine— even supplies from the International Red Cross.

The BBC quoted a local journalist who said, “People are fainting in the bread queues.” A former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has declared, “There is an ongoing genocide,” saying that its invisible weapon is starvation.

In eastern Asia, the minority Muslim population of Myanmar, called the Rohingya, has been brutalized by the Buddhist generals who run the dictatorship. Described by the United Nations as “the most persecuted minority in the world,” almost a million of them had to escape to a hellacious refugee camp called Cox Bazar, across the border in Bangladesh. It has become the largest refugee camp in the world.

And there is no relief in sight. The assessment of Myanmar by the Brookings Institution is that the “abysmal state of armed conflict, insurgency, chaos, and anarchy has only been deteriorating.”

And we can never ignore North Korea. In a land where every child once was taught to sing a song called “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World,” the BBC managed to interview three citizens in June who said that the fatal famine of the 1990s is back. One woman, in the capital Pyongyang, told the BBC’s reporter that she knew a family of three who had starved to death at home. “We knocked on their door to give them water,” she said, “but nobody answered.” Even the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has acknowledged a “food crisis” but that doesn’t stop him from spending more than half-a-billion dollars— enough money to mitigate the famine— to launch missiles to threaten his enemies.

Africa, meanwhile, rarely has a moment of peace.

As The Washington Post put it last week, “There’s little end in sight for Sudan’s hideous civil war.” In this battle between rival warlords in the Sahara, massacres have become commonplace and have led to “thousands of civilian deaths, displacing roughly a tenth of the country’s population and leaving millions hungry and bereft of medical care.” According to The Post, “Conditions on the ground grow worse. Some 20 million Sudanese people face acute food insecurity. Around 14 million children lack access to basic services, including education and medical care like vaccinations. Eighty percent of Sudan’s health facilities are out of service, due to a lack of supplies, electricity or both. Hospitals themselves have been targeted by the warring parties.”

In East Africa, Uganda has waged a war against gays. After intolerable legislation was passed in May, gay marriage is against the law, same-sex relationships can result in a sentence of life in prison, and “aggravated homosexuality” can produce a sentence of death.

In our own hemisphere, the immigration crisis on the southern U.S. border tells the story of how bad life is in parts of Central and South America.

Venezuela, once wealthy from its abundance of oil, is a mismanaged mess. The State Department warns U.S. citizens not to travel there “due to crime, civil unrest, kidnapping, and the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” Hospitals are closing, orphanages are bursting, and some 95% of the population today lives in poverty.

In El Salvador, the rate of violent crime makes it the most dangerous nation in the hemisphere. In the gun-crazy United States of America, the rate of homicides two years ago was 6.8 per 100,000 citizens. In El Salvador, where gangs have earned their nation the nickname of “murder capital of the world,” it has been as high as 103 murders per 100,000 people.

In Cuba, ever since the days of Fidel Castro, people have regularly run the risk of secret trials and arbitrary imprisonment for the smallest criticisms of the government. Political dissidents have been tortured, some have just disappeared. Meantime Cuba’s planned economy has been stagnant for years. Depending on imports for 70% of its food, its inflation rate has soared as high as 200%.

Sometimes when people ask me how I am, my stock answer is, “Just fine, as long as I can ignore the chaos everywhere else.” But of course I can’t. None of us should. The picture I’ve painted of the world around us is sobering. But if there’s any good news for us, it is that as dreadful as things sometimes seem here at home, they are immeasurably worse in many other corners of the earth.

One Of The World’s Most Difficult Clubs To Join.

India landed last week on the moon! A spacecraft called Chandrayaan-3— Sanskrit for “journey to the moon”— made a successful soft landing near the lunar south pole. Nobody has ever gotten there before.

You could be excused if you missed it. Between our first look last week at Republican candidates on a debate stage, yet another look at Donald Trump under arrest and this time with a mugshot to prove it, and maybe yet another murder on Vladimir Putin’s rap sheet, there was no room in the headlines for the story of India’s achievement. But it’s no small achievement. In fact it’s immense.

Until now, only three superpowers had ever pulled it off: first the Soviet Union, then the United States, then China. Now India’s a fourth member of the club. What makes its triumph even bigger is that only four days earlier, a Russian spacecraft called Luna-25 also attempted a soft lunar landing, but failed. It was Russia’s first attempt to put down on the moon since the Soviet era. But as its spacecraft approached, it crashed, or as the Russian space agency Roscosmos put it, “ceased its existence.”

Meanwhile, there’s another rocket called “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon” sitting right now on a launch pad on the southern tip of Japan. After bad weather this week, its launch has been postponed to mid-September but if it lands on its target, it will make Japan the club’s fifth member.

Only one space-faring nation, of course, has put human beings on the lunar surface. Beginning with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July of 1969, the U.S. did it six times. As Charlie Bolden, himself a retired astronaut and one of the administrators of NASA during the years that I covered the space program, once proudly told me, “Maybe someone will even beat us (back) there. But do you know what they’ll find when they land on the lunar surface? Six flags. And they’re all ours.”

India didn’t put men or women on the moon, just a lunar rover, but what stands out is where it touched down: about 370 miles from the moon’s south pole, where it will search for extractable water. That has been a goal since the early days of space flight. When the Apollo astronauts brought rocks home from their landing sites closer to the moon’s equator, the inference from what the rocks revealed was that the moon is dry.

But as technology progressed, scientists began to conclude that in shadowed craters at the lunar poles which never see the sun, water might exist. Photographs from India’s Chandrayaan mission reinforce the theory.

That’s important for all kinds of future space travel. Whether to be used as drinking water for future space explorers or as an ingredient in hydrogen-based rocket fuels to propel humans deeper into the cosmos, water might be considered the most important gift from space. If India finds extractable water at the south pole of the moon, it can be a game-changer for how humans travel to farther destinations. Launching first from earth to moon, then blasting off again from the low-gravity lunar surface means a lighter lift and more fuel left in the tanks for the long journeys to other planets.

However, while putting an unmanned spacecraft on the moon’s surface is incredibly complicated, the complexities of a manned mission, to support and safeguard the lives of astronauts, are even more costly and more challenging by many orders of magnitude. The head of NASA’s space shuttle program once pressed his thumb firmly to his forefinger and told me in an interview, “When we put people in space, we are always this close to disaster.”

As much as the U.S. achieved more than 50 years ago, we have had to start almost from scratch to put people back on the moon. As of now, with the ingenious scientists and engineers who designed the Apollo program long gone, we still couldn’t do it. But I hope within not too many years, we will.

I had the privilege of watching a couple of Apollo rockets rise from the launch pad in Florida, then I covered the last several years of the space shuttle program and saw almost 40 shuttles blast off.

Every one inspired awe. And every launch was different: different trajectories, different weather, different hours, sometimes different missions.

But the real wonder was the bigger purpose of the program: to explore, to innovate, to discover. Man was meant to do these things. Once it was courageous voyages to the far reaches of the earth’s oceans. Today it is to the far reaches of outer space.

The Picture That’s Worth A Thousand Words.

That mugshot.

What I wrote on Friday, the day it became an appalling piece of presidential history— the day Donald Trump’s campaign called it “a symbol of America’s defiance of tyranny”— was that it just looked like a symbol of humiliation to me.

But I’ve been rethinking that because I’ve been thinking about two of Trump’s more provocative proclamations this year. One was right after he formally announced that he is running for president again and told the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, “I am your retribution.” The other was three days after he was indicted in Washington for his part in the insurrection, when he threatened on his website, “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”

Look at the mugshot. See if you don’t see what I see.

Humiliation, yes, that’s a part of the picture. Even the narcissist he is had to concede in an interview with Fox News, “It is not a comfortable feeling.” But of course the incurable liar couldn’t stop there. “It is not a comfortable feeling — especially when you’ve done nothing wrong.”

But there’s more in the mugshot than just Trump’s humiliation. There is intimidation. There is revenge. It is that combination of omens that ought to put a chill in the spine of every American who hasn’t been duped by Donald Trump. From what we know of the man, if he does make it back to the Oval Office, his first priorities won’t be immigration, infrastructure, or the IRS. He will focus on retaliation against his enemies. And that means everyone who is not his friend.

That’s why that menacing mugshot is more famous already than Al Capone’s…

… more famous than Saddam Hussein’s.

It’s also more profitable, already the mainstay of a new round of fundraising to put the man with the stone-cold stare back in the White House.

Trump kicked off a cascade of cash when he tweeted from his airplane after lifting off from Atlanta, “I walked into the lion’s den with one simple message on behalf of our entire movement: I WILL NEVER SURRENDER OUR MISSION TO SAVE AMERICA.” Some commentators constructively pointed out that he vowed to never surrender shortly after… um… surrendering. But beyond his taunting pledge, he also told his followers to open their wallets. Again. “Make a contribution to evict Crooked Joe Biden from the White House,” he wrote, “and SAVE AMERICA during this dark chapter in our nation’s history.”

Ka-ching. The money poured in. According to Politico, Trump had his best fund-raising day of this current presidential campaign. It’s worth highlighting, this was after his arrest. His diehard disciples sent in $4.18-million. Since then it has ticked up to more than $7-million, all after the mugshot was taken, making Trump’s haul since August 1st, the date of his insurrection indictment in Washington, something close to 20 million dollars. Politico says that’s more than half his total take in the entire first seven months after he announced his candidacy.

And it’s not just from donations, it’s from purchases. Clearly already on the boards before Trump even traveled to Atlanta, his campaign has put his mugshot on everything from coffee mugs to water bottles to t-shirts, everything up for sale, everything bearing that stone-cold stare.

Donald Junior got in on the act too, plastering merchandise with his father’s mugshot “to fight the tyranny & insanity we’re seeing before us,” and promising that “Unlike many, I won’t try to profit from this.”

If the campaign has its way, no one will profit from it except Trump. A guy named Chris LaCivita, who is helping run the campaign, put up his own tweet warning that the mugshot is Trump’s to market. He wrote ominously, and in the bullying style of his idol, “If you are a campaign, PAC, scammer and you try raising money off the mugshot of @realDonaldTrump and you have not received prior permission… WE ARE COMING AFTER YOU you will NOT SCAM DONORS.”

One thing Mr. LaCivita doesn’t seem to understand: the mugshot is not Trump’s property. It is owned, and was released, by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department in Atlanta.

But whether others rip it off or not, the mugshot is not going away, and neither is Donald Trump, let alone the the millions of Americans who will never give up on the man.

Actually, Joe Biden did the best commentary of all on Trump’s mugshot. In California, heading home after his tour of fire-ravaged Maui, he was asked by a reporter if he’d seen the mugshot himself. “I did see it on television,” he answered, then left it to the rest of us to detect his cynicism. “Handsome guy.”

Inmate # P01135809 for President?

This is the guy for whom six of the eight presidential aspirants who showed up for the GOP debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee disgraced themselves.

Of course typical of his arrogance, he didn’t show up. Instead he disgraced himself 24 hours later at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, becoming America’s first president, current or former, to be immortalized in a mug shot. Now, he is not just former and wannabe future president Donald J. Trump. He is inmate # P01135809. It’s an indignity, not just for the ex-president if he’s even capable of the embarrassment, but for America.

In fact the whole flow of the once proud Republican Party is an embarrassment. At the debate, when Fox anchor Bret Baier posed the question to the candidates, “If former president Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?” and asked for a show of hands, six hands shot up. Four went up immediately. Ron DeSantis spent a couple of seconds testing the waters, looking to his right, then his left, before joining the shameless crowd. Mike Pence jumped in a second later.

Yes, they were saying, we will support him no matter what. As Bulwark editor Charlie Sykes said the morning after on NPR, “It was a pathetic moment.” It’s as if they’ve decided that in spite of the 91 criminal counts against Donald Trump, the old axiom that goes “When there’s smoke, there’s fire” doesn’t apply here.

It’s getting scary.

What’s scary is that despite all the trouble Trump’s in, he and his bull-headed base still have these guys cowed. I’ve got to believe that there was a time in most of their lives, probably in all of their lives before they were corrupted by their political ambitions, when they would have condemned the serious and seditious crimes that Trump is charged with committing. With recordings and witnesses to corroborate Trump’s culpability, the criminality is pretty obvious, whether he’s actually convicted of any of the 91 charges or not.

What’s scary is that when Chris Christie, who did not pledge to support Trump, spoke to that point during Wednesday night’s debate, saying, “Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States,” he was booed.

What’s scary is that the guy who seems to have gotten the biggest lift from his debate performance was the 38-year-old billionaire entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who works the hardest to out-Trump Trump. Charlie Sykes explained it: “He speaks fluent MAGA.”

Maybe the Trump crowd in the debate hall who cheered for Ramaswamy and jeered at Christie don’t represent a decisive block of American voters. As Christie said in a post-debate interview, “Not every Republican primary voter in America was in the arena.” But what’s scary is, Trump’s still the easy frontrunner in the race for next year’s GOP nomination, so maybe his devotees will make a decisive difference.

What’s scary is that behind that scowling face and angry eyes in the mugshot, there are dollar signs. Before Trump’s plane had even cleared Georgia air space, his campaign was fundraising off his arrest, fundraising off the first presidential mugshot in the long history of this nation. An email to Trump’s millions of gullible givers called the mugshot “a symbol of America’s defiance of tyranny.”

It just looked like a symbol of humiliation to me.

But Trump stuck with his strategy of no contrition, no remorse. “If you challenge an election,” he told reporters on the tarmac in Atlanta, “you should be able to challenge an election.” Of course he left a few things out…. like…. you should be able to challenge it within the law. That would mean no conscious lies, no conscious extortion, no conscious schemes to subvert the election.

What’s scary is, my personal instinct that Donald Trump can’t possibly be his party’s standard-bearer in 2024, because all he’s done since losing in 2020 is darken his reputation and defile democracy, might be wrong. An Axios headline early this week about the latest presidential polls said, “Trump seems bulletproof among GOP voters.”

A national Quinnipiac poll showed that an astounding 85% of Republicans don’t think he should be prosecuted. And his popularity actually grew after the most recent indictment in Georgia. According to the polling average compiled yesterday by the website FiveThirtyEight, Trump commands the support of 51.6% of Republicans.

What’s scary is, Donald Trump’s not going away. His true believers aren’t going away. If we don’t want him returning to the most powerful office on earth, we’re going to have a real fight on our hands.

Has Putin Had His Revenge?

If you’ve seen the news about the plane crash not a hundred miles from Moscow in which apparently the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has died, there are a few things to think about.

First, there’s always the possibility that it was an airborne mishap. Of course there’s also always the possibility that the Arizona Cardinals will win the next Super Bowl. The odds of both are small. Given the history of Vladimir Putin, who has reached far outside Russia’s borders to poison and kill his rivals, the crash has all the hallmarks of the Russian president’s pitiless petulance, and pulling it off so close to his own capital would have been one of his easier hits. As President Biden said today when he learned of the crash, “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.”

Second, if you are one of those rivals who has so far survived, you’d better be looking over your shoulder. Both shoulders, in fact. Prigozhin led a rebellion in June against Putin’s chain of command, after which Putin called him a traitor, then he was sent into exile in Belarus. But he didn’t stay, and he even met with Putin in the Kremlin not long afterward during a meeting with some of his key Wagner Group commanders. Just yesterday a video even emerged from what appears to be an African desert, with Prigozhin apparently recruiting soldiers for his mercenary army, which helps fill Putin’s pockets.

Whatever the reason, he seemed to somehow survive his ill-considered revolt.

But CIA director Bill Burns predicted that Yevgeny Prigozhin was not out of the woods. “In my experience,” Burns said, “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback.”

That’s why, after the mutiny fizzled, there were jokes about Prigozhin’s longevity. Jokes like, if he’s smart, he won’t open any packages he gets in the mail. Or, he’d better not stand anywhere near a window. Even President Biden got in on the act: “I’d be careful what I eat.”

But now it seems, along with six other passengers and a three-person crew, and two months to the day after his rebellion fell apart, Prigozhin is dead. Not from a meal, not from a package, not from an open window. It’s from an airplane, a business jet, that was cruising smoothly on a stable flight path when it fell from the sky.

If Putin was behind it, Prigozhin’s not even his first casualty today. The Russian state news agency reported this morning that General Sergey Surovikin, the brutal head of Russia’s forces in Syria who earned the nickname there of “General Armageddon,” then six months after the poorly executed invasion of Ukraine, the man given the reins of the Russian invasion force, has been fired.

Rumors had gone around for a while that he was tied to Prigozhin and had even known of the Wagner Group mutiny in advance. He hadn’t been seen since the failed rebellion and now is out of power altogether. If he’s lucky, that’s as bad as it will get.

Of course there will a probe of the plane crash. The Russian version of our National Transportation Safety Board, Rosaviation, says that it has created a special commission which “has begun investigating the circumstances and causes of the accident.” Any bets that its conclusions will not point toward Putin?

So the last thing to think about is, if you’re a private jet pilot in Moscow, and you’re ever assigned to fly someone who is on Vladimir Putin’s bad side, call in sick.

The Day After Never.

The right to a speedy trial. That is a bedrock of our judicial system, established in the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. Abridged for its relevance to the forthcoming trials of Donald Trump, it says this: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial… to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

The 6th Amendment is in everybody’s interest. Without a speedy trial, a defendant could lose the benefit of witnesses who might die or whose memories might fade, or of evidence that could disappear before the defendant’s day in court. What’s worse, the accused could languish indefinitely in jail before eventually being found innocent.

But there are other interests at play in Trump’s pending trials too. Namely, ours. What the 6th Amendment doesn’t say is that the public also has the right to a speedy trial, especially for the grave accusations that Trump inspired the insurrection of January 6th and conspired to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power. Of the staggering 91 felony counts leveled against him now in four different jurisdictions, I’d argue that these are the most consequential and that therefore, they should be the first to be judged. They are about an assault on our very democracy.

Norman Eisen, a counsel for the House in Trump’s first impeachment, makes the best case for the public’s right to see Trump in court for abetting the insurrection: “There could not be a more important question confronting the country than whether a candidate for the office of the presidency is innocent or guilty of previously abusing that office in an attempted coup.” The gist of his argument is, we need to know that verdict before we cast our votes.

Toward that end, prosecutor Jack Smith has proposed a start date for that Washington trial of January 2nd, 2024. That’s less than four-and-a-half months from now.

Of course Trump sees it differently, and his lawyers make two arguments to delay the insurrection trial (and all the others) until after the 2024 election. One is, he’s running for president. It’s not fair, they say, if he has to bounce back and forth between courtrooms and the campaign trail. However, the judge assigned to the insurrection case, Tanya Chutkan, has already put that to rest. At her first hearing on Trump’s case, she said, “The existence of a political campaign is not going to have any bearing on my decision, any more than any other lawyer coming before me saying their client needs to do their job. What the defendant is currently doing, the fact that he’s running a political campaign, has to yield to the orderly administration of justice.”

Their other argument sounds more compelling. Petitioning Thursday to postpone Trump’s trial until April of 2026— more than two-and-a-half years from now— attorney Gregory Singer argued that with more than 11.5-million pages of evidence to review by this coming January, it would be like reading “the entirety of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace,’ cover to cover, 78 times a day, every day.”

But that’s only a half-truth. For one thing, the vast majority of those “pages” are digital, not hard copies. With the benefit of keyword searches, the magnitude of the job for Donald Trump’s defense is far less intimidating than his lawyers would have us believe. What’s more, there are countless duplications of emails and texts and transcripts and other notes that need not be reread. This is not to minimize the volume of evidence they have to review, but it is to argue that putting off the trial for two-and-a-half years would be an unnecessary delay, and would subvert the public’s right to a speedy trial.

The trouble is, there are lots of balls in the air. As The New York Times put it, “Three different prosecutors want to put Donald J. Trump on trial in four different cities next year, all before Memorial Day and in the midst of his presidential campaign. It will be nearly impossible to pull off.” That includes the two cases brought by special counsel Jack Smith, with his request to start the trial in Washington in January, and a trial date set for May 30th on the top-secret documents charges in Florida, and the request from the district attorney in Georgia to start Trump’s trial with 18 co-defendants for racketeering on March 4th, and the New York trial about Stormy Daniels’s hush money, which already has a start date of May 20th.

And finally, just for good measure, yesterday a federal judge ruled that he’ll allow the defamation case against Trump by E. Jean Carroll— she’s the woman for whom he was convicted in May of sexual abuse— to begin in January. “Both parties are of advanced age,” the judge wrote, “and a stay of this case pending resolution of Mr. Trump’s appeal would threaten delaying any compensation to which Ms. Carroll might be entitled by at least several months, if not a year or more.”

So yes, putting Trump on trial in four different cities next year might be impossible to pull off. But how about just one? The most important one. The federal trial about the insurrection.

Still though, January 2nd for that trial might be too ambitious. Knowing that Trump’s time-worn legal strategy always has been delay delay delay, we can expect a mountain of pre-trial motions in that case, not to mention the tricky process of eventually choosing a jury to try the most controversial man in America. His lawyers have so much as said that they will draw out the process as long as they can. As a commentator put it on CNN, the date they really want is “the day after never.”

Legal analysts say that since proposed and established trial dates are in conflict, the judges assigned to the different cases can confer. And, putting aside the hush money trial and perhaps the defamation lawsuit, that since the insurrection case against Trump is considered the least complicated of the lot— just four felony charges and no co-defendants— they could conclude that it should be the first.

What’s likely, if that happens, is that Judge Chutkan will set a date beyond January 2nd, to give Trump’s team time to prepare, but still before the election. Maybe long before.

The nation needs that. A piece titled “American democracy is cracking” ran yesterday in The Washington Post. “In a country where the search for common ground is increasingly elusive,” it said, “many Americans can agree on this: They believe the political system is broken and that it fails to represent them.” Now add to that: many believe the court system is broken too. The Post’s reporters added, “Citizens in only a handful of democratic countries take a dimmer view of their government than Americans do of theirs.” A speedy trial of former president Donald Trump could help rectify that.

States’ Rights Might Pay Off.

States’ rights, defined by the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, are a foundation of our federal system. They also are a cornerstone for the autonomy of the 50 sovereign states.

That’s what’s so rich about the newest indictments against Donald Trump. They don’t come out of Washington, where he could claim a “deep state” conspiracy and where, in the worst case scenario, he could conceivably sit again as president and literally wipe any convictions from the books. They come out of Georgia and that means three things. First, as many commentators already have pointed out, Trump could not pardon himself if he gets convicted (and in fact would have to serve at least five years behind bars if so sentenced before the state Pardons Board could even set him free). Second, he could not fire the prosecutor who won the conviction. And third, while there is a prohibition against televising trials in federal courts, there is none in Georgia. If Donald Trump is to be held accountable, it could happen in the grating glare of television lights. It all is a matter for the state to adjudicate and control, not the federal government. It is an affirmative application of states’ rights.

This is not how the far-right wants it.

They want to treat the 10th Amendment as a one-way street. What it says is, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The 10th Amendment helps explain why laws about everything from marijuana to the death penalty, from same sex marriage to gun control, can take different form from state to state.

And now, since the MAGA movement took over the once proud Republican party, the idea of states’ rights has been used to drain power out of Washington. They have become almost a straw man for all kinds of right-wing laws, thanks in part to a Supreme Court that they unethically packed (with unconscionable exploitations of the system by Mitch McConnell). Since then, the party of Trump has had its way more often than not on issues like guns, abortions, voting rights, civil rights, even human rights.

But now, states’ rights might be coming back to bite them.

That’s because Georgia’s laws on racketeering, the state’s laws on racketeering— a.k.a. RICO laws— are almost tailor-made for what Trump and his cronies are accused of doing. RICO stands for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations” and that’s what the indictments imply. By working together, they charge, Trump’s team was “a criminal enterprise,” conspiring “to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump.”

It’s the same law that on a federal level put gangsters like “Teflon John Gotti” and “Sammy the Bull” behind bars.

Of course for millions of Americans, if history is any guide, it’s nothing more than a witch hunt. Dan Rather writes, “Tens of millions of Americans greet the indictment news with outrage, but not because of the seriousness of the charges or the larger story of a violent attempted coup. They rally around the man enmeshed in an unprecedented web of legal peril. They exalt him. He is their hero and their party’s likely standard-bearer for the next presidential election. They will grasp at the faintest tendril of a conspiracy theory to justify their idolatry.”

Well, those of us who don’t trust Trump have a different take on the conspiracy at issue: it’s the conspiracy asserted in Georgia’s indictment, a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election and rob Georgia’s citizens of their rightful vote.

Of course it’s not just Georgians who have that right. It’s the right of every American citizen in every American state. But it’s Georgia that’s leveling the charges that Trump conspired to violate every citizen’s right to have their votes count, their right not to have them manipulated, their right to elect the leaders they want.

This is states’ rights at its best. And it pairs up with the two sets of federal indictments where Trump and some of his allies also have been charged— for purloining and concealing top secret documents and for inspiring the insurrection— two cases where conspiracies also are alleged.

There is no guarantee that Donald Trump will be found guilty of any of the stupefying 91 felony counts he now faces. But with so many trials now looming over the once and now wannabe future president, the odds are that some will stick. If they’re the ones in Georgia, the odds are that he will be powerless to stay free.

What Drives Vladimir Putin?

Since the start of the war in Ukraine… and maybe long before that… we’ve all tried to get our heads around the forces that drive Vladimir Putin. It’s about as hard as figuring out the forces that drive Donald Trump.

All we can do is guess.

My guess is, Russia drives Vladimir Putin. The Russia that was the first nation to put a man in space. The Russia that was the incubator for cultural treasures like Leo Tolstoy and the Bolshoi Ballet. The Russia that has never gone long without struggling with war and weather, antipathy and poverty, but which prides itself for historically and heroically digging out. The Russia that became a nuclear superpower and in the spirit of longtime Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev, pounded its shoe on the table to make sure we knew it.

My guess is, Vladimir Putin is driven by the hunger to pound that shoe again. Now, the megalomaniac is pounding it to remind the world that Ukraine is an historical part of the Russian motherland.

He is proud of the empire Russia once was. He is proud of its will to survive, proud of its power, proud of its history. By that measure, Putin is a nationalist.

But not in a good way, because he is hellbent on creating that empire again. In most people, nationalistic pride is not a bad thing. It might be pride in your nation’s innovations. It might be pride in its global standing. It might be pride in its soccer team. But Putin’s pride is perverted. He will do anything to put his country back on top.

A few weeks ago, in front of a Colorado audience for a speakers series called the Vail Symposium, I interviewed a man who, by sitting for several years in the unenviable position of Vladimir Putin’s Public Enemy #1, has studied the Russian president as much as anyone. He is Bill Browder, author of two best-selling books about Putin and Russia: “Red Notice — A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” and “Freezing Order — A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath.”

Think about those words: Vladimir Putin’s wrath. Here’s what they mean. Before entering the auditorium for Browder’s appearance, everyone had to go through metal detectors. Inside, we had security guards at the rear of the auditorium and behind us backstage. For Bill Browder, that’s what it takes to survive Vladimir Putin’s wrath.

He earned it when his investment business in Moscow uncovered massive corruption, which was enriching the Russian oligarchs who owe their wealth to Putin at the expense of the Russian people who depend on him. Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, testified in a Moscow court about what they found, after which he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Browder wrote his books for a global audience and exposed it all. What he believes is, Putin isn’t a nationalist, he is a psychopath. “If a child was being tortured right in front of him,” Browder told the audience, “his heart wouldn’t beat any faster.”

There is more than a ring of truth to that. Ukraine is being tortured before his very eyes and what’s worse, he is the torturer. But from all we can see, his heart doesn’t beat any faster. When the victim screams, he doesn’t pause the torture, he steps it up. It probably never costs him a night’s sleep.

But whether he’s a deviant psychopath or distorted nationalist or both, Vladimir Putin is a product of Russia, a nation we’ve never been able to understand. As longtime foreign correspondent Roger Cohen put it this month in The New York Times, “Russia… looks familiar to an American or a European, yet it is not.” And that might explain why we don’t understand. As a journalist who occasionally reported from Russia and the Soviet Union before it, what I learned was that there are as many mysteries about the country and its people as there are certainties.

It is, as Winston Churchill described it nearly 85 years ago, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The thing is, in those 85 years, that hasn’t much changed.

One enigma to us— and this is not unique to Russia— is that corruption there is not a dirty word. It is a way of life. A way of life for the oligarchs. A way of life for Vladimir Putin.

By Bill Browder’s telling, “What drives Putin is money. In order to understand Vladimir Putin, you have to be a criminologist, not a Kremlinologist.” The Kremlin says Putin’s annual income is about $140,000. But Browder did some calculations six years ago and concluded that “Putin was worth $200 billion, which would have made him the richest person in the world at the time.” His wealth comes, Browder says, from the oligarchs. “The deal was, ‘You give me 50% of your wealth and I’ll let you keep the other 50%.’” So Browder’s figure was simple to reach. As Forbes put it, “He added up the net worths of all the Russian oligarchs and divided by two.” Putin’s fortune is said to be invested in posh yachts and private jets, sumptuous villas and Swiss bank accounts.

Another enigma is the expectations of the Russian people. A member of Russia’s parliament, a descendent of the novelist Leo Tolstoy, told The Times’s Cohen, “Our values are different. For Russians, freedom and economic factors are secondary to the integrity of our state and the safeguarding of the Russian world.” That’s something Vladimir Putin understands. The “integrity” of the nation and its “safeguarding” are central to his public justifications for the war in Ukraine.

That might explain why, in The Times story, a vehicle mechanic in Siberia who was himself injured in the war said about Putin, “He was sent to Russia by God.”

I reported from eight different wars over the years, and concluded that all were started for a handful of reasons: regional rivalries, territorial conflicts, irreconcilable ideologies, ethnic arrogance, religious dogma, economic ambitions, dreams of empire, megalomania, and greed.

Today you could take most of those and find that they are part of what drives Putin.

And now, add a new impulse: survival. From my experience covering dictators around the world, survival is their driving force. They will oppress their citizens and wage their wars to stay at the top of the pyramid because, unlike American presidents, if they lose power, they don’t go off to live out their lives behind a white picket fence. As Bill Browder related it to the symposium, “Putin understands very clearly, if he is not in power, he is dead.”

From The People Who Know Trump The Best.

We don’t really need more proof that Donald Trump is off the rails. We have four years of it from the White House, now two-and-a-half more since he left. Just in the last few days, after being criminally indicted for his role in the insurrection of January 6th, he has called the prosecutor a “deranged psycho,” used terms like “sick” and “demented” to describe former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (who had said he looked like “a scared puppy” when he showed up in Washington last week to be booked), and threatened on his website the day after the indictment, “If you go after me, I’m coming after you.” He has the privilege of free speech, but this is hardly sane behavior for an ex-president.

For good measure, he even had the coarse taste to trash the U.S. women’s soccer team, calling their heartbreaking loss at the World Cup “fully emblematic of what is happening to the our once great Nation under Crooked Joe Biden,” as if it was Biden who blew the penalty kick. “Nice shot Megan,” he went on, addressing a player who has criticized him, “the USA is going to Hell!!! MAGA.” It’s worth noting as a contrast we’ll probably see in the general election if the polls are correct, Biden had the grace to send an upbeat tweet to the dejected team: “I’m looking forward to seeing how you continue to inspire Americans with your grit and determination — on and off the field.”

But the real measure of any man comes from the people who have been around him, known him, watched him, met with him, seen him in action. Better than anyone, that would be family.

That’s why the credibility of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.— son of the late Bobby Kennedy and nephew of the late John F. Kennedy— has taken such a hit.

After making all kinds of outrageous statements about everything from the mandate on covid vaccinations—“Anne Frank,” he said, “had more freedom during the Holocaust”— to the assassination of his uncle, President Kennedy— he blames it on the CIA— his own family has been outspokenly derisive. His sister Kerry Kennedy has called his statements “deplorable and untruthful,” his brother Joseph P. Kennedy II says they’re “morally and factually wrong,” and his nephew Jack Schlossbert posted on Instagram, “I’ve listened to him. I know him. I have no idea why anyone thinks he should be president. What I do know is his candidacy is an embarrassment.”

Kennedy’s family is embarrassed. They are ashamed.

But not a peep from the Trumps about their patriarch.

Expecting any outrage from any of them over Donald Trump’s outrageous behavior would be asking too much.

So the next best sources are the people who served with him, the people who saw how he works and how he thinks. Their observations are nothing if not revealing.

His first secretary of defense, James Mattis, has said, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people— does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”

Mattis’s replacement (who resigned shortly after the election) was Mark Esper. His take on Trump? He “is an unprincipled person who, given his self-interest, should not be in the position of public service.”

Trump’s second attorney general Bill Barr pulls no punches when he talks about the man who gave him his job. He says that if the former president really believes the lies he’s been telling, he is “detached from reality.” Famously, he told Trump his lies were “bullshit.”

Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson— he’s the one Trump called “dumb as a rock”— said in an interview, “His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.”

His second secretary of state, West Point graduate Mike Pompeo, said after the revelations about the top secret papers Trump carelessly and illegally kept at Mar-a-Lago, “Trump had classified docs when he shouldn’t have had them, and when given the opportunity to return them, he chose not to do that. That’s inconsistent with protecting America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.”

Steven Mnuchin, his treasury secretary and longtime friend, reportedly conferred with other cabinet members in the chaos of January 6th to talk about invoking the 25th Amendment, which can be used to remove a president for mental as well as physical illness.

Two of Trump’s chiefs of staff— he went through four of them— have made their own condemnations of their former boss. Retired Marine general John Kelly told friends, “The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me. The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it’s more pathetic than anything else. He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life.” Mick Mulvaney once called him “a terrible human being” and has said, “Is he a role model for my sons? Absolutely not.”

Two cabinet secretaries resigned because of what Trump did to incite the January 6th insurrection. Education’s Betsy DeVos wrote to him, “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation.” Transportation’s Elaine Chao— wife of Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell— told Trump in her letter of resignation that the insurrection at the Capitol “deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside.”

Then there’s Mike Pence, the unfailingly loyal vice president. Never a harsh word from his mouth in all those four years. But now? Anyone who “puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” From a guy like Mike Pence, that’s as close as it comes to raw anger.

All of them have their motives, and some might be entirely self-serving. But it is worth asking, how many cabinet members trashed Barack Obama after they left their positions, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or any who served before them in the Oval Office? These people who know Donald Trump paint an ugly picture. Not just the one the public sees, but the one they saw in private.

Trump has a following that will adore him no matter what. But for people on the fence who might make the difference in next year’s presidential election, this is a picture they should see.

South Africa: Promises Unmet, Expectations Unfulfilled.

I read a report the other day that young South Africans are souring on the father of black majority rule, Nelson Mandela. Young black South Africans. Although the white minority’s system of racial separation, apartheid, ended almost 30 years ago, whites’ incomes are still more than three times as high as blacks’, white citizens still own a disproportionate share of the nation’s land, unemployment among young black citizens is higher than 45-percent. They argue, Mandela didn’t do enough when apartheid died to prevent that.

If I could somehow communicate with these young people, I would tell them, cut him some slack. There is no denying that their lives are still hard. There is no denying that the dream of a prosperous black society has not come true. But from all the trips I’ve made there, although this is a simplistic explanation, here’s the reality: when apartheid was abolished and Mandela became the nation’s first black president, he was up against almost insurmountable obstacles to give his people not just freedom but affluence.

He was up against a business community, a civil service, a police force, and a military, that had been run almost entirely by whites, which meant blacks had no training, no experience. That alone can take decades to reverse. He was up against an educational system that had served no useful purpose for generations of black students. As the chancellor of the University of Cape Town told me when I shot a documentary there, “Many of the children who are in school today are the so-called born-frees, they were not part of the apartheid system, but they have inherited the legacy of apartheid.” That is a legacy of teachers who were taught to underperform, a legacy of parents who didn’t push their children to learn in the post-apartheid world because it had made no difference in their world when apartheid was still in force.

That too can take decades to reverse.

I have seen the nation both before and after apartheid. Before, for blacks, it was a life of almost unmitigated hardship and unending tragedy. Now, it is a mix of tragedy and triumph. What I would tell these disillusioned young people is that things don’t change overnight, but they are immeasurably better than they were before Nelson Mandela reshaped the nation. Today, blacks no longer need to step aside when passing a white citizen on the sidewalk. Or to have a pass, just to be out at night. They have the opportunity, if not the knowhow, to do something more than sweep the streets and mop the floors and collect the trash.

I would tell those young people, that is the triumph, thanks to Mandela.

But there is still tragedy. Like the “informal settlement” outside Cape Town— better known as a squatters camp— called Khayelitsha.

I was there during apartheid and again after it ended. It was impoverished then, it’s not much better now. The latest estimate says some half-a-million people live in Khayelitsha. Many homes still have no internal source of water. People still haul buckets to public taps. Many have no electricity. Nor even their own toilet. In one neighborhood called Endlovini, an estimated 20,000 people share fewer than 400 communal outhouses.

Khayelitsha is the outcome of social engineering by the apartheid government. Like the better known Johannesburg suburb of Soweto (which stands for South West Township), Khayelitsha was built close enough to the city so that laborers could get to work, but far enough away so that when they weren’t working, they were out of sight.

In the new South Africa, the one run by the black majority, the tragedy is that people are still trapped in places like Khayelitsha and Soweto, if not by law, then by circumstance.

On the upside, some South African blacks have used their freedom to grab the brass ring. They have leveraged their education and climbed the ladder and attained a comfortable life in the middle class. As one young entrepreneur said to me, “There’s equal opportunities for everybody, everybody has a fair chance, it’s just how you use it.”

But most haven’t figured that out, at least not yet. A white economist at Stellenbosch University explained it to me. “They inherited a very bad socio-economic legacy from the apartheid regime. The lower 50-percent was already very poor. Poverty was like a snowball rolling in its own momentum from a mountain. Perhaps they have succeeded to slow down the speed of the snowball, but not stop it or succeed to roll it back.”

But what I would tell the young people so unhappy today is that Nelson Mandela at least put the brakes on that snowball and created the foundation for a better life, beginning with the nation’s constitution. A man named Ahmed Kathrata, Mandela’s longtime cellmate from Robben Island off Cape Town, where political prisoners were locked up, once told me how the constitution came about. “We’d be chopping rocks in the quarry on the island, and at Nelson’s signal each of us would go to a different guard and tell him, ‘Gotta piss.’ Then we’d furtively meet in a limestone cave and steal ten minutes together to have our clandestine talks about the South Africa of our dreams.”

At Mandela’s insistence, those dreams became a constitution committed to equal rights for all. Not just all blacks, he argued, but all peoples of the nation. Then, he almost singlehandedly persuaded his fellow prisoners— who wanted to take revenge on their white oppressors— that their hunger for vengeance was the way to war, not peace. When I used to go down to South Africa during apartheid, it was expected that if a revolution came, the swimming pools of white South Africans would run red with blood. But it never happened. Ultimately, thanks to Nelson Mandela, the black majority chose reconciliation over revenge.

I would tell the young people of South Africa today to thank him for that.

But it’s still true that while the preamble to the constitution says, “We will heal the divisions of the past… and free the potential of every citizen,” too many people there still aren’t feeling it. And they blame that on the performance of the black majority that Mandela empowered. Sometimes they seem no better at improving the nation than the whites who came before them.

One of the greatest men I ever met, the late Bishop Desmond Tutu, told me why. “I think many of us, I think we were naïve, many of us thought that because the cause we were striving for, this cause against apartheid was such a noble cause, and during that, people were incredibly altruistic, but come freedom, these noble attributes and values would be transferred automatically to the post-freedom faith. It hasn’t happened.” Then he filled the room with laughter and said, “In fact we are human. Original sin has in fact also infected us.”

The University of Cape Town chancellor took it further. “Because we had the bravado of people who had fought our struggle and won our freedom,” she told me, “we denied the fact that we were wounded, we denied the scars of social engineering, and so we thought all we needed to do was put black people in charge of the wheels of government and things are going to move in the right direction. It actually takes a lot more than that.”

South Africa’s majority is free now from the shackles of the once-legal policy of racial separation, but many are still imprisoned by promises unmet and expectations unfulfilled.

Bishop Tutu summed up that conundrum: “Some crossed over the Jordan to the promised land, but many many others are still languishing outside the promised land.”

That today is the triumph and the tragedy of South Africa. What I would tell those young people is, before Nelson Mandela, the promised land was never even on the horizon. If they look today, maybe they can see it. Maybe their children will inhabit it.

Ignoring Serious Crimes, Investing More Money.

Donald Trump has now been indicted in a federal court for high crimes, not misdemeanors. The charges against him are conspiracy to defraud the government of the United States of America— the government he once led— plus conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy to deprive citizens of their civil rights, which are supposed to be protected by federal law and the Constitution. Tomorrow, we shall see the scandalous specter of a former president of the United States officially fingerprinted, booked, and charged with these felonies, all in connection with two of the most seditious crimes a president could commit: an effort to subvert the will of the voters and overturn a legal election and, when that didn’t work, exploiting the violence during the attack on the Capitol to achieve his aim.

If you read the charges and the explanations behind them, it’s hard not to conclude that the prosecutor, Jack Smith, has proof to convict Donald Trump. What you’ll see is, after losing the 2020 election, Trump did everything he could to cling to power. He was not delusional about claiming he had won the election. His own advisors were telling him he had lost. He was lying and knew he was lying. When Trump tried to pressure Mike Pence to help him overturn the election results on January 6th and Pence refused, Trump told him, “You’re too honest.” Trump knew what he was doing. He knew all of it.

Of course this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, so yesterday’s criminal indictment against a former American president is not the first. Just last month he was indicted in a different federal court for illegally moving top secret national security documents to his home in Mar-a-Lago, and for subsequently obstructing the government’s investigators trying to recover them. In an almost minor additional case, the district attorney in Manhattan has charged Trump in connection with hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election to hide his relationship with her. For good measure his company, the Trump Organization, goes to trial in three months in New York, accused of illegally overvaluing assets by billions of dollars. And everyone sees yet another indictment on the horizon in Georgia, where Trump lost to Biden in 2020, for pressuring authorities to overturn that outcome.

Legally the ex-president is in a heap of trouble. But politically, not so much. And this is where those of us who have been hoping against hope that all the charges against Donald Trump eventually will wear down his supporters have to accept that we have been knocking our heads against a brick wall.

In an exhaustive New York Times/Siena College poll just released, Trump is still the odds-on favorite for the Republican nomination and an even-odds pick to beat Joe Biden in 2024. Among likely Republican voters, the poll says, “Trump held decisive advantages across almost every demographic group and region and in every ideological wing of the party.” Even more astonishing to those of us who can see what a scam artist Trump is, 43-percent of Republicans have a “very favorable opinion” of him.

A week or so ago I read an article that tried to explain how— after his degrading profanity was heard in the Access Hollywood tapes, after maligning women and mocking the disabled, after being caught in a documented 30,000+ lies over his four-year term— this can still be the case. It was one pro-Trump evangelical preacher who said it all. “We don’t support Donald Trump for his piety. We support him for his policies.”

There was a time of course, long, long ago, when such an utter lack of piety would sink anyone seeking the highest office in the land. There was a time when Republicans wouldn’t tolerate criminal behavior by their own standard bearer in the Oval Office. In 1974, it was Republican leaders who traveled to the White House to tell Richard Nixon, beset by the scandal of Watergate, that he had to go. Two days later, he did.

Donald Trump even doesn’t have the morals of Richard Nixon.

His reaction yesterday when the indictments were announced? He made a comparison to “Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.”

So Trump has no morals and has no shame. Nothing— nothing— compares to the genocidal schemes of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Certainly not indictments against a former president whose alleged crimes are on public display. For Trump to compare his legal travails to the lethal tactics of the Nazis is a disgrace. And proof that his ego has no bounds.

And, almost no one in the leadership of today’s Republican Party has the spine of those leaders four decades ago. Even now, most of them rally around their standard bearer. The inflammatory chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, wrote on X (the former Twitter) after the indictments were publicized, “When you drain the swamp, the swamp fights back. President Trump did nothing wrong!” Speaker Kevin McCarthy endeavored to distract attention from the accusations against Trump by claiming on X that the indictments are actually an effort to “distract” from the scandal of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

What they all know but pretend to ignore is, it wasn’t the Biden administration that decided to bring Trump to trial. It was a grand jury. Fellow citizens. A jury of his peers.

Although characteristically Trump will fight to delay this trial as he fights to delay all trials, there’s a chance that it will end up being the first in which he must defend himself. Which probably means tens of millions more in legal costs. According to a federal report filed just yesterday, his “Save America” committee already has spent more than $40-million on legal fees just since the start of this year.

What’s predictable at this point is, he will fundraise on this newest indictment as he has fundraised on the ones before now and his loyal supporters will open their wallets and foot the bill. They have not only suspended critical thinking, they have suspended good sense.

Former ally and now low-odds presidential rival Chris Christie had a sardonic idea yesterday about raising the money: sell Trump Tower. What’s inexplicable is, Trump probably won’t have to. He will go instead to his faithful followers and ask them to pay. If history is any guide, they will.

In Ukraine, Neither Side Is Winning, Neither Is Losing.

I know what I want to happen with the war in Ukraine. An undiluted, undisputed victory against Russia.

But what I want and what I see are two different things. We have been hanging our hopes on the long-anticipated summer “counteroffensive” by Ukraine’s beleaguered troops. Last month, heroically, they launched it. But we’re roughly halfway now between the end of the last muddy winter and the beginning of the next one and while their army has pushed the Russians back along some of the war’s six hundred miles of embattled fronts, they haven’t sent them packing.

Ukraine isn’t losing. But it’s not winning either.

The Russians are dug in. They have slowed down the Ukrainian counteroffensive with fortified trench lines that have held up against Ukraine’s attacks. They have crippled the Ukrainians with landmines and anti-tank obstacles stretched out for miles at a time. They have fired on the Ukrainians when they’ve pushed forward with an arsenal of artillery and mortars, helicopters and drones that Ukraine can’t match.

On the upside though, as President Zelensky says, Ukraine is taking the war to Russia. In its latest drone attack— which officially it doesn’t acknowledge— three more homemade Ukrainian “kamikaze drones” made it to Moscow. This time they hit buildings in the Russian capital’s business district, just a few miles from the Kremlin, mangling the buildings’ exteriors and sending smoke and flames toward the sky.

But what difference does it make? A few people were hurt, a few buildings were damaged. These Ukrainian drones have anxious Russian citizens looking to the skies, but they are not likely to force any change in Russia’s tactics. To the contrary, this time they triggered a retaliatory missile attack against the hometown of President Zelensky, the city of Kryvyi Rih. Unlike Ukraine’s drones, Russia’s missiles killed six people there, including a ten-year-old girl. Almost 70 more were injured, some critically. They destroyed a nine-story apartment house and a school.

And all of this is on top of Russia’s relentless barrage of missile and drone attacks against civilian targets in many other Ukrainian cities, including the capital of Kiev.

And yet Russia called Ukraine’s drone assault in Moscow a “terrorist attack.” That’s the phrase Vladimir Putin used last month too when Ukraine attacked and temporarily disabled his cherished Kerch bridge, which connects the occupied peninsula of Crimea to the mainland of Russia. Putin called that attack “cruel” and “senseless.” Given that he and his forces have launched cruel and senseless attacks against Ukraine for nearly a year-and-a-half now, and have even destroyed tens of thousands of tons of Ukrainian grain that is desperately needed in other parts of the world, there is no debate about who’s the terrorist.

And it’s not just Putin.

Yesterday the former Russian president and current deputy chair of Putin’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, reiterated Russia’s nuclear threat. “Just imagine that the offensive… in tandem with NATO, succeeded and ended up with part of our land being taken away,” Medvedev wrote in an online post. “Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian Presidential Decree. There simply wouldn’t be any other solution. Our enemies should pray,” Medvedev warned, “that they do not allow the world to go up in nuclear flames.”

These are the people Ukraine is up against. This is the threat the world is up against. That’s why it’s not irrelevant to tie it to domestic American politics, because as if Ukraine doesn’t have enough trouble already, it’s getting threats from more than one direction.

At a rally last weekend in Pennsylvania, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump demanded that U.S. military aid to Ukraine be withheld “until the FBI, [Justice Department] and [Internal Revenue Service] hand over every scrap of evidence they have on the Biden crime family’s corrupt business dealings.” Until then, Trump said, “the U.S. Congress should refuse to authorize a single additional payment.” In other words, in a rerun of his impeachable effort in 2019 to withhold military help from Ukraine until its president dug up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden, Trump is back at it again, putting his political designs ahead of Ukraine’s interests and, by association, America’s.

Why does this matter? Because for tens of millions of Americans, Trump’s words are gospel. He alone won’t force a change in American policy but tens of millions who uncritically exalt him could have some influence on the politicians who represent them.

The new wild card in the war is the conference coming up this weekend in Saudi Arabia to contemplate what is being called a “peace plan.” Reportedly it has Ukraine’s approval. The United States is participating. Russia is not, although some of its allies will take part. Whether they produce anything meaningful or even make any sense at all is anyone’s guess.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, assessed the war the other day. “I think there’s a lot of fighting left to go,” he said frankly, “and I’ll stay with what we said before. This is going to be long. It’s going be hard. It’s going to be bloody.”

But Ukraine is willing to shed that blood. If it is, America cannot go weak on it. An undiluted, undisputed victory against Russia isn’t imminent, but neither is a Russian victory over Ukraine.

Trying To Change The Country In The Worst Of Ways.

At the rate it’s going, if the Republican Party has its way, we’re going to end up less as a strong nation with common norms and more as just a bunch of states going their own way. We won’t be a single nation of collective laws, we’ll be a swarm of states with their own laws. That’s because it’s not the Republican Party anymore, it’s the MAGA Party. They are extremists. They’re not looking to make America great again. They’re looking to break it up, banish the dissidents, burn the pieces, and bury the ashes.

An exaggeration? Yes, for the moment. But as other nations have learned to their peril, the dilution of a democracy has to start somewhere. You might have noticed over the past few years that some of the leading lights of the MAGA movement have had more praise for political leaders who have diluted their own democracies than for those who have fought to preserve them.

Here at home, MAGA has assaulted our tried-and-true traditions for years now, and four things have happened this month that take us farther down that slippery slope. Disrespect in Alabama for a Supreme Court decision about voting rights, contempt in Texas for federal and international law, the reactions of the MAGA minions to the indictment against ex-President Trump for conspiring to conceal national security documents and obstructing justice, which became even more damning yesterday, and unproven allegations against President Biden that have given rise to talk of impeachment.

First, Alabama. More than a quarter of the state’s population is black. More than a third of its people are Democrats. And yet the way Alabama’s voting districts were carved up, Representative Terri Sewell is the only black and the only Democrat among Alabama’s nine members of Congress.

A three-judge federal court— with two of its judges Trump appointees— saw something wrong with that, unanimously ruling last year that Alabama’s congressional delegation might be in violation of the Voting Rights Act because the way it got elected, blacks have “less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress.”

Alabama protested, but even the conservative United States Supreme Court agreed with the lower court— Justices Roberts and Kavanaugh joined the Court’s three liberals— and ordered Alabama to redraw the maps. The Court’s stated goal was to create a second district where blacks are either a majority, or at least close.

Alabama’s response? A defiant “No!” What the MAGA-dominated state legislature did instead was redraw Representative Sewell’s district to reduce its black population by about 5%, and added them to a second district where they will constitute 40%. That is not what the Supreme Court ordered.

But Alabama’s governor Kay Ivey all but told the Court to take a hike. She said in a statement, “The Legislature knows our state, our people and our districts better than the federal courts or activist groups.”

Isn’t that pretty much what they used to say about slavery? Isn’t that what Ivey’s long-ago predecessor, Governor George Wallace, used to say about segregation?

Then there’s Texas. Governor Greg Abbott, pushing beyond the limits of his state’s own power to control illegal immigration, rolled out razor wire and erected a floating barrier of huge buoys along the Rio Grande. He did that not just in violation of a federal law that regulates barriers in navigable rivers— it’s called the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act— but also in violation of an American treaty with Mexico that would prohibit it.

When the federal government asked Abbott to remove the buoys, he refused, which forced Washington this week to sue the state of Texas. Even a conservative member of the Texas House who represents the district where the buoys went up thinks the governor is wrong. “I think he’s gone overboard,” Representative Eddie Morales said. “It’s time that somebody put a check on our state government.”

But it won’t be Abbott. His response to the lawsuit? “Texas will see you in court.”

He wrote to President Biden that the Constitution allows states to expand their powers during a foreign invasion. That’s a straw man argument. You don’t have to be a judge to know, illegal immigration doesn’t rise to the level of a foreign invasion, nor did the founders have anything like this in mind when they created our governing document. In their day, this was a proud and productive nation of immigrants. Many of them were immigrants themselves.

This face-off has less to do with the effectiveness of Abbott’s provocative policies and more to do with whether his state has the right to flaunt federal law which, in matters of immigration, is supposed to prevail. And neither the situation in Texas nor the one in Alabama has to do with states’ rights, which give states the power to pass their own laws— guns and abortions are pretty visible if controversial examples today. What states’ rights don’t confer is the power to supersede, ignore, or usurp federal laws.

On the Trump indictment, it was strengthened yesterday by what appears to be hard proof of the ex-president’s criminal behavior: video and audio recordings confirming that Trump tried to “alter, destroy, mutilate, or conceal evidence” in the probe about the top-secret documents he unlawfully hauled down to Mar-a-Lago. But his defenders characteristically ignore the evidence and indict the investigators, using language right out of Trump’s playbook: this is “election interference,” the Justice Department has been “weaponized,” or as Trump himself charged last night, it’s “prosecutorial misconduct used at a level never seen before.”

He and the acolytes who back him up, politicians who raise hell about calls by left-wing extremists to defund police, are trying themselves not just to defund the FBI, but to dismantle it. Who are the extremists now?

Finally, those demands from the MAGA Party for the impeachment of the president. I won’t call them nonsense because we don’t know all the facts. But the thing is, neither do they. Yet under pressure from his hard-right flank, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday, “How do you get to the bottom of the truth? The only way Congress can do that is go to an impeachment inquiry.”

And he’s only on the tail-end of the extremists.

Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene said on the floor of the House, “What I’m demanding is that the Republican-led House of Representatives move forward on an impeachment inquiry on Joe Biden, because this type of corruption should never be allowed to stand. We must expunge President Trump’s wrongful impeachments, and we must impeach Joe Biden.”

Isn’t that rich! She is calling for Biden’s impeachment for corruption she can’t document, but would take the two impeachments against MAGA’s monarch Donald Trump and wipe them from the record. She’s missing a major difference. Trump was impeached first for “abuse of power” with his phone call to extort Ukraine’s president Zelensky to dig up dirt on Trump’s then presidential rival Joe Biden. The call was recorded. The House had the goods on Trump. Then after January 6th he was impeached for “incitement of insurrection.” That was recorded too, ad infinitum. The House had the goods on Trump again. His accusers only lost in the Senate trials because spineless Republicans there defended their party’s leader.

But Joe Biden? All they’ve got on him right now is wishful thinking. Yes, there is very clearly criminal behavior by his son Hunter— although hardly rising to the level of a threat to the stability of our democracy— but Joe Biden’s adversaries want so badly to connect Hunter’s exploits to the president himself that their strategy is, act now, find out later.

What they don’t mention is that all they’ve got so far from hearings in three different House committees is lots of innuendo, lots of insinuation. They’re trying to elevate Hunter Biden’s crimes to the level of his father and maybe they’ll find a connection but so far at least, they don’t have the goods. In fact after Iowa Republican senator Chuck Grassley released a document with unsubstantiated allegations about both Bidens accepting bribes, none less than one of Rudy Giuliani’s disreputable associates, Lev Parnas— himself sentenced to prison last year for fraud and campaign finance crimes— said the senator was spreading “conspiracy theories.”

MAGA’s minions are willing to abandon what has made America great to fortify their own personal power. If you don’t believe they would reshape the fundamental ways this country works, just look to places like Alabama and Texas and, if they proceed with a spurious impeachment, look to Washington DC. If you don’t believe they have totally co-opted what once was a reputable Republican Party, just ask Liz Cheney.

I feel sorry for citizens who have always been Republicans but find that their party has pulled away from them. The best thing they can do for now is pull away from the party.

Israel On A Dangerous Road.

The United States and Israel have always had one special thing in common: democracy. Both have treasured the democracies they built.

But we have something else in common today that overshadows that positive mutual interest: division. In America we are angrily divided by different beliefs about the best course for our nation. In Israel citizens now are angrily divided— maybe more than they’ve ever been before— about their democracy itself. The issue is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to weaken the ability of his nation’s Supreme Court to be a check and balance on government.

Israel’s president Isaac Herzog sounded an alarm several months ago. “Israel,” Herzog said, “is at the edge of an abyss.” He told Israelis who think that Israel would never will cross the line into civil war that they “have no idea.”

Today they do. Today they can see the abyss, even if they haven’t reached the edge. With yesterday’s passage of Netanyahu’s law, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in the nation of more than nine million people. A coalition of more than 150 key Israeli companies went on strike. Labor unions are threatening a nationwide strike. Thousands from the military say they’ll stop serving.

They all are angry because they think Netanyahu and the Knesset, the parliament he controls, have weakened their nation’s system of checks and balances. They think the law’s passage has diminished democracy. I throw my lot in with them, because that’s exactly what has happened.

In Israel— as in most parliamentary systems— the legislature elects the nation’s leader, so the legislative and executive branches go hand in hand. That leaves the Supreme Court as the only institution with the power to check government. Since Israel has no formal constitution, its Supreme Court is the closest thing. When it deems a new law “unreasonable,” it can strike it down. That’s why weakening the court weakens the democracy. There is no one to tell the prime minister and the parliament, “You can’t do that.”

Of course Netanyahu says it’s the other way around. He says since his parliamentary majority supported the new law, the majority’s will is the essence of democracy. That makes sense in principle, but a few things shade Netanyahu’s conclusion. First, his claim of a majority is compromised by the fact that even his defense minister, a member of the prime minister’s own political party, did not support the judicial overhaul.

Second, his coalition is woven together mainly from small far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that joined to have a voice in government and share the power rather than be completely shut out. In a parliamentary system, that doesn’t always equate with a majority. In fact when the dispute about Netanyahu’s plans began to gain steam earlier this year, the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute polled the population and reported that two-thirds of Israelis believe their Supreme Court should have the power to strike down unreasonable laws.

The third thing is, there is more to democracy than majority will. There is government answering to its people. The way it does that is through a system of checks and balances. Netanyahu’s new law turns that into a sham. If you need a stark comparison, think of two nations where autocracy is obvious. Russia’s President Putin doesn’t have to answer to his people because he has no constraints on his behavior from checks and balances. China’s President Xi doesn’t have to answer to his people either. The parallels aren’t perfect and maybe not even fair but in at least this one way, Netanyahu is moving his nation in the same direction.

There’s a fourth factor at play here too: Netanyahu’s own freedom. He says this new law is for the better interests of his nation but his detractors say he’s as transparent as Saran Wrap. Almost four years ago Netanyahu was indicted for accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust. Part of the new law would allow the prime minister to pack the Supreme Court with loyalists, who then might be expected to absolve him of those crimes if he is convicted.

There certainly have been times since Donald Trump (and Mitch McConnell) stacked the United States Supreme Court that I’ve wished we could pull back its reins. But we should never do that. Although the lifetime tenure of justices means that turnover is uncommon, eventually the pendulum does swing and a Court completely out of alignment with my goals for the nation will one day became a Court consistent again with my ideological beliefs.

I heard a former American ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, yesterday call the vote in the Israeli parliament “a dark day.” That’s all that need be said. Although sometimes Israel makes it hard, I have always been supportive for several reasons but one of them always has been, it is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is less of one now.

Trump’s Trial? It Would Be Wrong To Put It Off.

The date for Donald Trump’s first federal trial for crimes against our country— for allegedly putting our national security at risk, then conspiring to obstruct an investigation to uncover it— is set. It is not set in stone, because his lawyers already have made it clear that they will try to force long delays. They have suggested that in pre-trial hearings, they will argue that the Presidential Records Act permitted Trump to remove the controversial documents from the White House, that some of documents marked as classified shouldn’t have been, and that the prosecutor doesn’t actually have the authority to put Trump on trial in the first place.

But while the Florida judge assigned to the trial, Aileen Cannon, acknowledged that because of their pleas, the trial could be pushed back, for now she decided that ten months is enough for Trump’s legal team to go through the prosecutor’s “voluminous” evidence of a million-plus pages of unclassified documents, more than 1,500 pages of classified documents, recordings from electronic devices, and at least nine months worth of surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere in Florida. She set the date for the trial to start as early as May 20, 2024.

Needless to say, that puts it right up against next year’s presidential election. Most of the primaries will be behind us by then, but not all. So the question is, is the judge’s trial date fair? Is it fair to Trump? My answer is, yes, absolutely. Not that it won’t put a crimp in his campaign if his trial starts while he’s running for president— that is the reason his lawyers gave for postponing it until after the election. But here’s why that shouldn’t happen: every day people are inconvenienced in ways big and small because they have been charged with crimes and put on trial. Every day people have to walk away from their jobs to defend themselves in court. Right now Donald Trump’s job is running for president. To a degree, what the judge is saying is that Trump is no different than anyone else. He’ll just have to put the job aside to face justice.

Remember the two principles here: equal justice under the law, and no man is above the law.

I doubt that Trump’s lawyers could find grounds to argue that someone running for a seat in a state legislature, for example, or someone running for city council, should have a trial postponed because they’re busy running for office. Sure, in Trump’s case the stakes are a lot higher but the stakes for our system of justice are higher too. He is not a president any more, just a former president. Deferring to his desire to win public office again would put him above everyone else. His job should not take precedence over the job of the judicial system to try him for criminal acts which, if he’s proven guilty, would affirm that he knowingly committed up to 38 crimes, including violation of the Espionage Act.

Although Trump rants that these charges are the arbitrary action of his likely presidential rival Joe Biden— or of the prosecutor Jack Smith, who he characteristically calls “deranged” for doing his job— they’re not.

They are the conclusion of a grand jury, theoretically a jury of Trump’s peers, who decided that there is enough evidence to put him on trial. And it probably won’t be the last grand jury he hears from. Another one is meeting right now in Washington, considering charges in connection with January 6th. There’s yet another in Georgia, looking at evidence that Donald Trump illegally tried to change the outcome of the 2020 election there.

I do have some concern about Judge Cannon.

After all, she has Trump to thank for appointing her in 2020 to the federal bench. If she wants to she could tilt some decisions in his favor. That appeared to be the case last year when she issued a ruling that put some of the Justice Department’s investigation about the documents at Mar-a-Lago on hold while a special master would review them. A federal appeals court— with one judge appointed by President George W. Bush and the other two appointed by Trump— almost angrily overturned her decision.

But to be fair, if the lottery for assigning judges to trials had put this one in the lap of a judge appointed by a Democrat, there could have been a tilt in the other direction. Anyway, we don’t really know whether Cannon made that ruling last year favoring Trump because she is fanatically tied to him, or because she thought she was doing him a favor in return for her plum appointment. Either way, the eyes of America now are on her. That doesn’t always stop people bent on politicizing something, but the optimistic view is, it would give pause to some, particularly a federal judge those whose very job is to show even-handedness.

There is also concern about the jury pool. Judge Cannon will have the trial in her own federal courtroom in Fort Pierce, Florida, which means the jury pool will come from counties that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. The optimistic view is, prosecutors will have enough options to reject potential jurors who seem to be overt supporters of the former president, just as the defense will be able to reject potential jurors who seem to like Joe Biden.

All of this is uncharted territory. Everyone will be wrestling with whether or not to show any deference to Donald Trump at all, either because he’s a candidate for president or because he’s a former president. No one can predict the outcome of those decisions, let alone the outcome of the trial. But for now, Donald Trump has a date in court. It’s a decent start.

Wave Goodbye to “Of The People, By The People, For The People”

For those of us who see through Donald Trump, for those of us who see and fear his authoritarian ambitions, it has been hard ever since he moved from the fabricated setting of reality TV to the foul reality of his presidency to prioritize the worst attributes and categorize the worst threats of the man. During his four years in the Oval Office, there were many. Since he got booted out, there have been even more. Racism, sexism, lying, bullying. And above it all, an unrepentant disregard for the Constitution.

In a kinder world, we wouldn’t have to think about this guy any more. But that’s the next reality: we must, because it is not impossible that Donald Trump will end up back at the White House. If he does, our nation will be tragically transformed. In the newest sign of an autocrat-in-the-making, a story reported yesterday by The New York Times had the headline, “Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025.”

What would this mean? It’s no secret, because the Trump team is trumpeting it. His main campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung brazenly projects the day when they will “eradicate the deep state that works against Americans once and for all.” Forget about a diverse government of the people, by the people, for the people. Those deemed disloyal would be purged. Listen to the language of those who would be in charge: Russell Vought, head of the Office of Management and Budget during Trump’s time, told The Times, “What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them.”

These people could chill you to the bone.

They’re planning a power-grab that comes right out of the playbook of some of the world’s oppressive leaders: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, China’s Xi Jinping, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing.

Trump in the past has openly admired some of these dictators. They too “forged plans to increase presidential power.” And they preside over one-party states, which apparently is what Trump too would prefer. “We will drive out the globalists” he wrote on his website. “We will cast out the communists, Marxists and fascists. And we will throw off the sick political class that hates our country.” That might not sound so alarming if not for the fact that Trump has defined Democrats who simply oppose him as communists, Marxists, and fascists. We already know what he and his acolytes think about equal voting rights for all.

Toward his evil end to “demolish the deep state,” Trump would corral federal agencies long-independent of direct presidential control and put them under his thumb. We already know how he calls journalists “enemies of the people,” so imagine a less independent FCC reshaping media in the Trump mold. The Federal Reserve’s job is to control inflation and interest rates, so imagine a less independent Fed putting Trump’s political preferences ahead of fiscal policy and suddenly, for example, making it cheaper for voters to borrow money just a week before a key election. Imagine him impounding funds that Congress has appropriated and refusing to spend them because he doesn’t approve of their purpose. Imagine him firing federal employees from the Department of Defense, the State Department, the intelligence agencies, because he repeatedly says they are “the sick political class that hates our country.”

Those images aren’t far-fetched. John McEntee, a former Trump personnel chief who just joined what’s called Project 2025, an incubator for the plan at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, told The Times, “Our current executive branch was conceived of by liberals for the purpose of promulgating liberal policies.” The president of Heritage, Kevin Roberts, says it’s all about “dismantling this rogue administrative state.” They conveniently forget that conservative presidents, and conservative policies, still managed to prosper in this “rogue” state.

The images aren’t unique, either. The Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond, who tracks democracy’s global trends, wrote late last year, “The world is mired in a deep, diffuse, and protracted democratic recession.” Meanwhile, in its own survey, Freedom House reports that in 2022, “global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year.”

It might seem that the odds are against Trump winning and having his way, and maybe they are. It’s easy to believe that with every additional breach of the law, he sheds more potential supporters. It’s harder to believe that very many new ones sign on to his candidacy. One of his popular lines lately at rallies is, “I’m indicted for you,” as if he’s some kind of martyr. It goes down well with his sycophants but the reality is, the indictments and criminal counts against him won’t likely do him any favors with anyone else.

On the other hand, look at the assets he’s working with as he looks to election day.

There’s an incumbent president, Joe Biden, who has an impressive and indefatigable list of achievements but an unwarranted reputation for being tired and slow. There’s a Democrat with the eternal glamour of the Kennedy name running against Biden, who some analysts believe is being funded by Republicans and who will likely siphon off some votes. There’s a new effort at a third party, called No Labels, which could siphon off even more.

So we have to face the reality: if his stars align next year and he fends off the competition in his own party, Donald Trump could win. That’s why we still have to think about this guy. That’s why we still have to pay heed to everything that comes from Trump’s team and Trump’s mouth.

Prompting unnerving parallels to Joseph McCarthy and his infamous question in the 1950s, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?,” Trump has written on his website that he will “find and remove the radicals who have infiltrated the federal Department of Education.” He seems to think the Constitution supports him. “I have Article 2,” he declared when he was still in the White House, “where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” You might be comforted to know, he has that wrong. Most of Article 2 deals with who can run for president and vice president and how they shall be elected, and also, as Trump would be wise to note, how they can be removed. What it confers with the powers of the presidency are serving as Commander in Chief, nominating judges and ambassadors, and making treaties. It also covers the oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He already has failed at that.

I don’t know how else to look at it: from his actions and from his words, Donald Trump wants our country to be less like the democracy it has been and more like the authoritarian nations of Putin and Xi, of Kim, Orban, and al-Assad. I can only hope that come election day, most of us want something else.

The War Will End. The Question Is How.

How will this war end?

The late-June rebellion by the kingpin and his soldiers from Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group gave new life to that question. But since the life of the rebellion was so surprisingly short, any hope that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march toward Moscow would drive a change in Russia’s leadership quickly became moot. However, it is a question still worth asking because the outcome is anybody’s guess.

Although there are analysts who will speculate and extrapolate to answer the question about how the war will end, I think the wisest course is just to lay out the possibilities. So at risk of brushstrokes far too broad, here they are.

The most odious option is a total Russian victory. Although the shortcomings of its army have been unmasked and the quick collapse of its sovereign neighbor never happened, a total victory is still not implausible. Russia’s army might just outlast Ukraine’s. It has more men, it has more munitions, and while the West now has guaranteed that it will resupply and strengthen Ukraine’s arsenal of weapons, there are reports that Western production lines aren’t actually keeping up with the pace of the war. What’s more, Russia has patrons too: China and Iran. If Russian president Putin is determined enough to keep throwing cannon fodder into the war, he has a reserve of men to do it. Ukraine’s president Zelensky doesn’t.

Or, Russia could achieve a partial enough conquest to give it a path out of the war. What that would require is that it strengthen and secure its hold on the four Ukrainian territories it illegally annexed last year and, at the same time, not give up Crimea, which it took nine years ago. Putin’s “objectives” have changed since his invasion last year— at different times he said that he would “denazify” Ukraine, or that he would restore Russian citizenship to its Russian-leaning citizens, or that he would protect his motherland against the creeping intrusion of the West. But he could get out simply by declaring victory in those annexed territories— he just announced local elections for September— and insisting that his objectives have been met.

There is another possibility that could play into Russia’s hands. There are reports that there have been more than a dozen attempts on the life of President Zelensky, most of them in the early days of the war. He himself has joked about them, telling Axios in an interview, “When it becomes repetitive, do you remember that film, ‘Groundhog Day’? I wake up in the morning and it’s still the same.” But if his enemies tried before, they can try again and eventually, one might succeed. Although the Ukrainians have shown the world that they are unbelievably brave and spiritually undeterred by the merciless missiles from Russian guns, it is Zelensky more than anyone else, with his visits to the war zones, his appeals to Western advocates, and his nightly addresses to his people, who has held them together. If he dies, the unflagging spirit of Ukraine’s people could die with him.

Then there’s the possibility on which a lot of analysts lay odds: a negotiated settlement. Both sides have drawn their lines in the sand and the distance between those lines right now seems insurmountable. Zelensky told CNN at the beginning of the month, “We cannot imagine Ukraine without Crimea. And while Crimea is under the Russian occupation, it means only one thing: the war is not over yet.” Anything short of retaking Crimea, he said, “will not be victory.” But it’s conceivable that at some point, each side is going to lose its faith in a total victory, lose its taste for a years-long war, and give up on achieving its ultimate goals: for Russia, to absorb all of Ukraine and for Ukraine, to recapture every inch of what Russia has seized. In his book “Putin’s War on Ukraine,” Oxford international relations expert Samuel Ramani says, “Russia cannot win and cannot afford to lose the war.” But of course, those alternatives are incompatible because it can only end one way or the other and the thing is, it’s largely out of Russia’s hands. That’s why Putin might seek a settlement just to save face.

Or, negotiations could start and fail. Then, whether forced by political pressures or economic stress, each side’s backers might see no productive end to the war and so, despite their pledges of everlasting support, could abandon those pledges.

Of course just as there’s a plausible chance of a total Russian victory, there’s a plausible chance of a total Ukrainian victory too. It might be true that Ukraine’s current counteroffensive has not delivered the punch many expected, but it also might be true that its best is yet to come. This is only July. Western arms continue to come into the country and winter doesn’t start until December.

A Ukrainian victory might require some unlikely developments on the Russian side. There already has been a big one: the dissipation of the tenacious and treacherous Wagner army from the battlefield. And there could be another— for example, a palace putsch in the Kremlin by forces who decide to stop throwing good money after bad. But the most hopeful reason why Ukraine could prevail— besides steadfast support from the U.S. and other allies— is the spirit of its people. The Russians, at best, are fighting to reclaim land that once was theirs. The Ukrainians are struggling for the survival of their very homeland, battling for their very independence, fighting for their very lives. From my experience with war, motivations like those are not to be discounted. At least in the Bible, David had more to lose and he did beat Goliath.

No matter which of these outcomes we see though, it also is important to ask, what will the world look like afterward?

If Russia wins, it is probably emboldened. Vladimir Putin has made it very clear, he is determined to make Russia more powerful than it was when the Soviet Union fell apart. There are weak and vulnerable nations in Eastern Europe and Asia— mainly former Soviet states— that he might have his eye on. If not to absorb them into a Russian empire, then to create a wider buffer between his motherland and NATO.

On the other hand, no matter how the war ends, NATO is stronger, which was the last thing Putin wanted.

If Russia loses, Putin could be replaced by someone even more nationalistic, more paranoid, more hawkish than he is. Or, it could go the other way: a successor could be more amenable to peace and partnership in the world of nations. The most concerning prospect is, Putin might survive and take the nuclear shot the world hopes he won’t take, just to show that his deflated nation is not defeated.

Also if Russia loses, the Russian-Chinese “no limits” friendship might reach its limits and for the Western world become less of a threat.

Whether it wins or loses, Russia’s military is weakened. As with the Western weakness with weapons production, Russia is expending munitions faster than it can make them, and its flaws as a superpower fighting force have been exposed and exploited.

Cambridge historian Alexander Etkind takes it all a step further. In his book “Russia Against Modernity,” he sees a potential outcome where Russia’s one-time allies lose confidence in the superpower, walk away from their alliances, and the whole Russian federation falls apart.

There are worst-case scenarios at play here, and wishful thinking too. But one way or another, the war eventually must end. It is in our interest that it ends well for Ukraine, not for Russia.

Ukraine In NATO? A Calculated Risk Worth Taking.

What are they waiting for?

NATO’s 31 member nations officially declared at their summit in Lithuania, “Ukraine’s future is in NATO.” But actual membership? Not quite yet.

The trouble is, Ukraine won’t have a future if Russia prevails in its savage strikes against it. NATO’s Secretary General said it yesterday himself: “Unless Ukraine prevails, there is no membership to be discussed at all.” But while we’re generously sending advanced arms and ammunition to Ukraine, we’re not making the ultimate moves that might ensure a Russian defeat.

The best way to deter Russia, maybe at least to force Putin to negotiate for peace, is to send him the message he fears: you’re no longer only up against a battered nation that you outman and outgun. With NATO’s policy of “an attack on one is an attack on all,” you are up against the largest, most powerful, most unified military alliance on earth.

Putin can’t counter that. He doesn’t have the Warsaw Pact anymore, the Soviet-led alliance that was created as a counterpunch to NATO. Although I’m loathe to predict the outcomes of conflicts, Russia against the collective nations of NATO most likely would be no contest.

There is of course the fear felt by leaders clear up to President Biden— and to be sure, not a totally unfounded fear— that if Ukraine is given a fast track into NATO and suddenly Putin finds himself facing the Western alliance across almost every mile of his western borders, he might feel like he has no choice but to resort to nuclear warfare.

There’s no guarantee against that. Welcoming Ukraine as NATO’s 33rd member (Sweden soon will be its 32nd) would be a calculated risk. But here’s my calculation: however much a sociopath he may be, Vladimir Putin is not a suicide bomber with his nation strapped to his chest. He already was on the inside when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. agreed to arms control based on the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. He understands that. If he knows nothing else, Putin knows that if he strikes any member of NATO, he and the superpower he aspires to strengthen will be destroyed. He is a nationalist. His goal is a stronger motherland, not one that has to rebuild from scratch.

But still, the U.S. administration and at least some of our allies don’t want to admit Ukraine to NATO until the war is over. That might be too little, too late. Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan said yesterday in Lithuania that the commitments that were made at the summit, including a permanent pipeline of weapons, “send a powerful signal of the alliance’s support.” But the alliance already has been showing its support in powerful ways, yet it has not scared off Putin. I’m not a war-monger but with what’s at stake, we have to show not just support, but muscle. There is no more muscular deterrent and, if necessary, no more muscular fighting force in the world today than NATO.

The official excuse for denying NATO membership is that Ukraine still has work to do to reach “NATO standards”— further democratization, military integration. President Biden says Ukraine must keep working on “necessary reforms.” Yes, there is still corruption in Ukraine, but President Zelensky already has suppressed some of it, and since Ukraine otherwise has its hands pretty full right now, I’d cut them some slack. There are bigger issues to deal with these days in the besieged nation than reform. Anyway, it’s not as if member states like, for example, Turkey, live up to “NATO standards.” As for military integration, there is no more battle-hardened fighting force in all the world than Ukraine’s. It has proved, in the seventeen months it has been under merciless attack, that it is tough, it is resilient.

If a future Russia must be contained, it could be one of NATO’s more important assets.

A declaration came out of the NATO summit that says, Russia “is the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” So why are we putting limits on the resolve we need and even the risks we must take to meet the threat?

Russia’s response to this week’s summit was another wave of airstrikes against Kiev. If Russia prevails and wears down its enemy, it will be a boost to Vladimir Putin’s dreams of empire and a blow to the security of the West. A stronger Russia means stronger alliances with its allies, which are our adversaries. A stronger Russia means an emboldened Russia.

The clock is ticking. The longer we wait to put Putin in his place, the closer Ukraine might come to defeat. And the closer we might come to a weaker West.

The War Fought for 75 Years.

There are two wars being fought in the world right now that someday, somehow, will likely end. Sudan’s grudge war will probably end up with one side vanquished by the other. Ukraine’s grinding war also could end with one side or the other achieving total victory but perhaps more likely, each will claim some kind of triumph while giving up more than it admits.

But it’s the third war, a war that sometimes runs hot and sometimes goes cold, that will outlive them all. It’s a war that has long eclipsed the U.S. wars in Iraq, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan. It’s a war that American presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have tried but failed to settle. It’s a war far more ingrained in combatants on both sides than Sudan’s power struggles or Russia’s dream of empire.

It’s the war between Israelis and Palestinians. There has been a perpetual state of war since the creation of Israel in 1948, when virtually the entire Arab world lined up with the Palestinians and against Israel.

That’s 75 years without a lasting peace. 75 years of terrorists, of massacres, of rockets from one side and air strikes from the other. 75 years of targeted assassinations and clashes in the streets. It’s years of hopes lit, then extinguished for a two-state solution that might stop the killing.

And while each side has provoked the other to prolong the battles, there is something more basic behind them. From what I saw over the years that I covered these clashes, they are not fought by one generation, then forgotten by the next. On both sides, many members of each generation pass their resentments, their fears, their hatred, to the next generation. So each generation inherits hostility from the generation that came before. I’ll never forget many years ago spending a day talking with young Palestinians on the streets of Ramallah, then with young Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. I asked each group, “What do you have against the other side?” The almost uniform answer from Palestinians was, “When Israel was created, the Jews took our homes.” On the Israeli side it was the very same thing in reverse: “When Israel was created, the Palestinians fled rather than live beside us.”

There is some truth to both versions of history but here’s the real point: when I talked with these young people, it was more than 30 years after the creation of Israel. They weren’t even born when Israel was founded. They were telling me what their parents had told them, and what their parents had told them. I remember thinking, it was almost in their DNA. Now, three additional generations down the road, with more provocations and more deaths on both sides, the hostility has only grown.

And this summer the temperature has once again gone up.

In the past month, Palestinians have attacked Israelis and Israelis have attacked Palestinians and more citizens on both sides have died. In one ugly episode— one among many— two Palestinian gunmen shot and killed four Israelis near an Israeli settlement called Eli in the West Bank. The next day, several hundred Israeli settlers attacked a Palestinian town called Turmus Aya, near the West Bank capital of Ramallah, torching homes and burning cars and killing one. Palestinians retaliated, and the Israelis hit back, launching missile strikes on a Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Jenin, then sending in troops. The Israelis say they unearthed and seized weapons, explosive devices, and a rocket launcher. The Palestinians say Israel killed twelve people. In turn, a Palestinian gunman rammed his car into a crowd in Tel Aviv, then got out and started stabbing them. Eight were hospitalized.

None of this leads to peace. It only leads to more animosity and more attacks. According to the United Nations, last year saw the highest number of deaths on both sides in many years. If the violence continues at this year’s pace, the numbers will be even higher.

Looking back, Israel and its Arab neighbors fought three major wars— what are commonly called the War of Independence in 1948, the Six Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Collectively in those wars, according to casualty figures that authorities have been able to verify, about 10,000 Israelis died, while the Arab death toll was closer to 50,000.

But the last of those hot wars was 50 years ago, and unless the Islamic Republic of Iran decides to risk annihilation with an all-out attack on Israel, there’s not likely to be another. Egypt, once Israel’s most powerful enemy in the Arab world, was the first to make peace. Then Jordan followed. The other two military powerhouses that tried three times to wipe Israel off the map, Iraq and Syria, are weakened by their own internal conflicts and don’t have the resources to start another fight. Oil-rich Gulf states that could afford to finance another war with Israel are moving in the other direction.

The United Arab Emirates signed a peace treaty in 2020 — joining Jordan and Egypt, Bahrain and Sudan, Morocco and Oman, which have either treaties or “normalized” relations with the Jewish state— and it is reported that even Saudi Arabia might soon follow suit, abandoning its decades-long insistence on the creation of a Palestinian state.

But none of that changes the dynamic of this small sliver of the Middle East. The war keeps starting, then stopping, then starting again. Despite occasional initiatives to make peace, the war still persists and on both sides, people still die.

There are different casualty counts from 75 years of conflict, depending on which sources you use. But when you include those three major wars in Israel’s first quarter-century of life, the round figures seem to be that more than 90,000 Arabs have been killed or injured, and roughly 25,000 Jews.

The way the two sides treat each other today, the war will keep going hot, then cold, then hot again. And those casualty counts will continue to grow.

Thoughts and Prayers Failed Us Again.

Yet again, the thoughts and prayers of the gun lobby and its shameful supporters— the politicians, the donors, the manufacturers, the sellers— couldn’t spare us yesterday, on the nation’s birthday, from a headline like this.
Or the day before…
Or the day before that…

Or the three other mass shootings in America on the 4th of July, or the nine other mass shootings in the two days before that. And that’s to say nothing of the almost countless people gunned down in just those three days but where, since there were fewer than four victims, the definition of a “mass shooting” didn’t apply.

These people who build barriers to any kind of sensible gun reform keep relying on thoughts and prayers and keep hiding behind the 2nd Amendment, as if it was meant to allow even massacres like these. It wasn’t. Anyone paying attention on this Fourth of July to the founding of our nation and the meaning of our Constitution knows the words: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It was “a well regulated militia” that gave us the privilege of Independence Day.

But just as the First Amendment does not entitle us to shout fire in a crowded theater, the Second Amendment does not entitle us to arm madmen. Yet the heartless intransigence, the political cowardice of the people who take cover behind it has led to just that. The First Amendment is not absolute. Neither is the Second. Yet these people treat it and defend it as if it is.

For the record, yesterday’s slaughter in Philadelphia was America’s 340th mass shooting of the year, so far. Five years ago, at the same midpoint on the calendar, the number wasn’t even half that.

This week of all weeks, as we have just relived the reasons why we celebrate the 4th of July, it should be more obvious than ever that the 2nd Amendment was meant for a militia, acting in defense of our nation. It was never meant to allow this.

But do we get sensible reform from the gun lobby, reform that might save some lives? And I don’t just mean background checks and cooling off periods and red flag laws. I mean a ban on military style assault rifles. As we saw again in Philadelphia and elsewhere, they are weapons of mass destruction.

But no, the best we get from the people who defend the Second Amendment as if it’s sacred are thoughts and prayers. No apologies, no contrition, no compromise.

How do they sleep?!

Two Sides to Every Story.

In the final month of the 2023 session, the justices issued two rulings which will result in federal elections that are fair. Fairer, at least, than Republican legislators, who came up with all kinds of restrictions that would make it particularly harder for minorities to have a voice, want them to be.

One ruling says that while race should not be “the predominant factor” in drawing maps for congressional districts, it must be considered when the borders of those districts are decided. This was in a case from Alabama where the statewide population is a quarter black, but where the map drawn by the Republican legislature created only one district out of seven where blacks are in the majority. Now they’ll have to redraw it, and the Court’s decision will be cited by voting rights advocates in lawsuits against states from coast to coast that have stacked the deck against minorities.

The other ruling was in a case brought against North Carolina where the GOP-led legislature claimed that it has total power to tailor election laws. What the U.S. Supreme Court said was that the state’s supreme court has the right to review those laws and, if it sees fit, to strike them down. Writing for the majority, where three conservative justices joined the Court’s three liberals, Chief Justice John Roberts said that “state courts do not have free rein” to actually rewrite election laws themselves, but that it’s each one’s responsibility to ensure that the laws passed by a legislature are consistent with the constitution of that state.

For me, where the long-term import of equitable election laws transcends the import of verdicts about policy, these rulings were the best thing to come out of the Court. It is only with free and fair elections that policies favored by the majority, any majority, can be guaranteed.

But then, in the final days of the Court’s final week, came the rest.

The Court issued rulings about affirmative action, about student loan debt, and about religious versus gay rights.

I think I can see both sides to almost every issue in America. That doesn’t mean I agree with the other side but I usually see where they’re coming from and respect the perspective they bring. That is the case in all three of these final court decisions.

In the affirmative action case, the Court took the position that affirmative action policies discriminate against non-black applicants to colleges and universities. It ruled that they violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and that therefore, schools cannot continue to take race into account. Minority applicants can explain how their background shaped them, perhaps even how it might have put them at a disadvantage, but as Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, “the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual— not on the basis of race.”

In her dissent, the Court’s newest justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, one of the two blacks on the high bench, wrote that “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” She said that although we still don’t have a colorblind society, the majority’s ruling declared “colorblindness for all by legal fiat.” That brought a retort from the other black justice and the longest-serving member of the Court, Clarence Thomas. “As she sees things,” he wrote of Jackson’s arguments, “we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of Black Americans still determining our lives today.”

I think the truth is somewhere in-between. We still are not a colorblind society and although the civil rights movement made great strides for black Americans, many are still stuck with the legacy of the economic, educational, and geographical ghettos to which they were long consigned. However, that’s also true for people of any race, any ethnicity. Some come from families who motivate them, families who teach them, families who fund them, and some don’t. While I’m not oblivious to the continuing disadvantages that weigh down many black Americans, we do have a black minority leader in the House of Representatives, we have a black vice president of the United States, and we’ve had a black president. Twenty-five Fortune 500 CEOs are black. Lester Holt, the anchorman of NBC News, is black. Oprah Winfrey, a powerful force on television, is black. And of course, two Supreme Court justices. Although the numbers don’t necessarily match up to the numbers of blacks in the nation’s population, they do suggest that opportunities for advancement and achievement are out there for at least some who seek them.

The student loan debt decision, in my opinion, has two well-reasoned sides to it too. With the truthful rationale that tuitions have mushroomed and the crippling debt to pay them off impedes college graduates from reaping the fruits of their labor, President Biden made an executive decision last August to cancel as much as $400 billion in student loan debt. It would forgive up to $10,000 per debtor, with designated limits on the income a beneficiary could be earning. The Court struck that down. It called Biden’s decision “overreach,” ruling that such a consequential action requires the approval of Congress.

In the debate over Biden’s plan, the question came down to this: is it a remedy or a giveaway? The answer is, both. Supporters argue that if debt is partially forgiven, graduates can more easily move on to upgrade a car, purchase a home, start a family, all of it good for the economy. Opponents argue that it isn’t fair to Americans who’ve already sacrificed and struggled for years to pay off their student loans. They also argue that it would be unfair to focus taxpayer dollars on college-educated higher-income Americans, at the expense of those who never had the chance to reach that level in life.

The final decision: religious rights versus gay rights. The Court ruled that the state of Colorado cannot prohibit Lorie Smith, a website designer with a particular set of religious beliefs, from posting a statement online that her business won’t create websites for same-sex couples. My default reaction when I read that was, it was unfair to gay Americans, it perpetuates the pain of discrimination. In the early days of the battles for gay rights, many Americans argued that same-sex preferences were abnormal, sacrilegious, even “a choice,” and that therefore citizens who are gay should not be granted the same rights as everyone else. Now, most agree that those objectors were wrong. People who identify as LGBT deserve the same rights, are entitled to the same rights, and that includes the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual preferences and sexual identity.

But shouldn’t that go for religious rights too? If it violates the web designer’s religious beliefs, no matter how odious some of us might think they are, is it fair to prohibit her from saying she’ll turn down jobs that she considers odious? That was at the heart of the Court’s ruling. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the decision and argued, “The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands.” Although Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the Court’s decision “grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class,” Gorsuch maintained that “all manner of speech… qualify for the First Amendment’s protections; no less can hold true when it comes to speech like Ms. Smith’s conveyed over the Internet.”

I am torn on these rulings. The Court’s earlier decisions this month are a clear victory for fair elections and a blow against those who would manipulate election law to favor their own party’s candidates. Its later decisions are not as easy to reconcile but also, at least for me, not easy to irrefutably condemn. They didn’t go the way I would choose and from where I stand, they do more harm than good, but they are not entirely unsound.

But What About The Russian People?

Life in Russia is better than it used to be.

Something as simple as that might explain why, although Vladimir Putin has done damage to their lives— carving away at their short-lived freedoms, plunging their country into a costly and punishing war, and making their nation a pariah in half the world— the mass of the Russian people don’t appear, from what we’ve seen, to have turned against their president.

Not even in the flash of the moment when Yevgeny Prigozhin looked like he might seriously threaten Putin’s leadership.

Of course it might be the depletion of those freedoms, long-cherished and hard-won when the Soviet Union disintegrated, that accounts for Putin’s lasting power. First, because people these days can only publicly protest the president’s performance at risk of imprisonment or, as in a few cases the past few years, something even worse. And second, because the media inside Russia has reverted to its role in the era of Soviet rule, a tool of the state, which limits what people actually know about their country’s plights.

But from my experience when I went to cover news in the Soviet Union, and later Russia, there is a third explanation for Putin’s survival at the top of the byzantine Russian pyramid: history.

With the very brief exception of the Soviet Union’s collapse when freedoms flowered— when citizens could boldly speak their minds and demonstrate in the open, when political parties blossomed and media could speak out against the government— the Russian people have never had anything to smile about. From oppressive rulers to oppressive wars to oppressive weather, Russians have endured hardship on a scale that’s hard in the Western world to imagine.

Even in modern times— beginning exactly a century ago with seventy years of Soviet sovereignty— everything from the repressive rule of government to the inferior standard of living was a crushing weight on the population of the nation. Once I had to meet with a Soviet dissident in the middle of the night in a darkened warehouse to hear his grievances about the Communists who ran the country. Once I had a man crawl toward me along a riverbank, looking over both shoulders every second, to complain about inadequate funding for the fire station near the Kremlin where he worked. A trip to the grocery store was a seminar in shortages: vegetables were unappetizing and scarce, meat was unpalatable. If local residents or storekeepers didn’t plow snow from a sidewalk or side street during a blizzard, it didn’t get plowed.

Some conditions changed in the 30+ years after the Soviet Union disappeared. Socialism gave way to capitalism. Western brands, from Chanel to Louis Vuitton, from Nike to Apple to McDonald’s, became almost ubiquitous. Moscow, long a capital city of cheap cars and empty streets transformed into a city of streets clogged with costly cars— before the war in Ukraine, Russia was continental Europe’s biggest market for the Rolls Royce.

And repression gave way to forbearance. I’ll never forget about a dozen years ago when, driving with a camera crew through Moscow, we came across a small group of men with placards, protesting the construction of a building on dirt plot they’d used for a parking lot when they went to work. They were allowed their sidewalk protest, but were aware enough of the thin line of tolerance that they took care not to step on the grass that abutted the sidewalk, for that could lead to an arrest for trampling public property.

What also changed though was the embrace of the state. In Soviet times, citizens had a safety net. It was flimsy, but everyone had a job no matter how menial, everyone had an apartment no matter how shoddy, everyone had medical care no matter how deficient. Then came the collapse and a scramble for advantage. Opportunists who grabbed the brass ring and took control of Soviet industry became the oligarchs. But the government cut its subsidies and everyone else was left in the dust.

Vladislav Zubok, the author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, wrote yesterday in Foreign Affairs that for all its cultural and scientific achievements, there has actually been little change in Russia for half a millennium, since the rise in 1533 of the “sovereign of all Russia,” Ivan the Terrible.

“A nuclear power with a sophisticated urban population, robust digital economy, and resilient financial system,” Zubok writes, “Russia remains strangely antiquated when it comes to its sociopolitical structures and institutions, in some ways less modern even than the Soviet Union. Every time Russia begins to more closely resemble modern Europe, some jolt sends the country back to its medieval origins.” And he quotes a Russian writer in exile, Vladimir Sorokin, who wrote last year, “The principle of Russian power hasn’t even remotely changed in the last five centuries.”

It is a principle based on nationalism, which runs through Russia’s DNA. And today, it also is based on the ambition that Vladimir Putin proclaimed at a rally I once covered outside of Moscow: We were a superpower once, we can be a superpower again. Thus his meddling in the Middle East, his “friendship without limits” with China, his war in Ukraine.

When I met with that dissident in the darkened warehouse, he told me, “We don’t want everything you have in America because while you can be rich beyond our wildest dreams, you also can be impoverished beyond our worst nightmares. What we want that you have and we don’t are your freedoms.” Today’s Russia is not quite comparable to yesterday’s Soviet Union— or the Tsarist empire before that, or bloodthirsty reign of Ivan the Terrible— but it has been sliding in the wrong direction.

It is necessary to ask, even if he is hounded from power or if he dies in bed, who will follow Vladimir Putin? Even if Yevgeny Prigozhin had a chance to replace Putin, he has lost it, which might be just as well. Known for his own ruthless brutality, he would have been no prize. And what about Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president more than a decade ago when Putin became prime minister, then until three years ago was Putin’s prime minister again? No prize either. He has threatened to use nuclear weapons as often as his boss. “Our main goal is to deliver a devastating defeat to all of our enemies,” he has said on social media. ”It’s time for us to finally reclaim our lands and permanently protect all our people.”

Here in the West, we don’t have the slightest idea of what’s happening right now behind the imposing walls of the Kremlin. Anything you see or hear or read is at best extrapolation, at worst, guesswork. We don’t know if Putin is weak or strong, we don’t know if his generals are renegades or loyalists, we don’t know if Ukraine has yet to see the worst from Putin or whether his forces have already given it their best shot.

The head of a quasi-independent polling agency in Moscow, called Levada, once told me that when asked their perception of the tyrant Joseph Stalin, 40% of Russians thought that his iron rule had brought “more good than bad.” Meanwhile, Levada measured Vladimir Putin’s approval rating just last month at 82%. As an increasingly autocratic ruler, Putin may be riding Stalin’s strongman legacy.

Meanwhile In Ukraine……

All the questions the past few days have been about Russia. When the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin went on the rampage, was Vladimir Putin truly threatened? Is Russia’s instability unmasked? Will Putin survive? And what about Prigozhin himself: why did he turn back, where is he now, will he even live to see another day?

Good questions all— and each without an answer, at least not yet— but a question with equal import is, where does this leave Ukraine?

The Ukrainians aren’t saying so but they must be devastated by the quick collapse of Prigozhin’s prospective coup. There could be nothing more mouthwatering than to see two bloodthirsty warlords whose armies have ruthlessly attacked you suddenly turning on each other. At the very least, both would be distracted from the war against Ukraine. At the very most, their war effort would be gravely crippled. The longer the friction, the better for Ukraine.

But although whatever Prigozhin was up to this weekend fell apart almost as fast as it started, it did leave plausibly positive possibilities in its wake. First and foremost, what happens to the mercenary army employed by Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, which has been ruthless in its attacks?

The Kremlin says that aside from the rebel troops who were moving toward Moscow— who reportedly numbered around 25,000— the rest will be absorbed by the Russian Army, which is what Prigozhin bitterly charged, in an audio he released just this morning, was part of Putin’s plan even before the Wagner mercenaries began their short-lived march. What’s positive about that? Two facts, both of them almost inevitable outcomes of the face-off.

First, the fact that the army under Prigozhin’s control has been uniformly more bloodthirsty than Putin’s, if that’s even possible. In January, when an eastern Ukrainian city fell to Russia, a Russian radio reporter texted out this account: “Parts of Wagner stormed the… city of Soledar, which was occupied by the Ukrainian army, and killed all the invaders. Not exchanged, namely killed. Like mad dogs.” As we later saw with Bakhmut, also in the east, the Wagner forces didn’t just level neighborhoods, they leveled whole cities.

Now that bloodthirsty impulse might be blunted.

And second, the fact that Ukraine’s own frontline soldiers have told journalists that Prigozhin’s army was much more competent than Putin’s— better trained, better equipped. If they now fall under the command of Russia’s generals, whose tactics have not quickly crushed Ukraine as they clearly once expected, that has to be seen as a plus, because it’s not Prigozhin’s army anymore, it’s Putin’s, which despite superior manpower and superior force, hasn’t won much more than a stalemate.

Now the attackers might be reduced to their lowest common denominator.

Meanwhile, there are still those questions about what’s going on inside Russia and the biggest is, what will Putin do next?

With his authority so visibly challenged, does he feel the need to step up his attacks on Ukraine? Throughout his short crisis with Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s forces continued their drone and missile assaults on Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kiev, as well as artillery and mortar attacks elsewhere. Will he flex his muscles and punish them even worse? Might he use the crisis as an excuse to take the next step, whatever that might be, with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons?

He is, after all, still in charge, and if we’ve learned nothing else about the Russian despot since the invasion of Ukraine sixteen months ago, we have learned that he will do whatever he feels he needs to do to stay in power and win this war, damn the consequences.

The next question is about his power itself. The head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council speculated yesterday that what happened over the weekend was only “the tip of the iceberg in the destabilization process.” Coming from Kiev, that might be wishful thinking, but it’s not preposterous. On the occasions when I covered the Soviet Union, citizens were fed stories by Soviet media about American presidents literally breathing fire, and because it was the age before cell phones and the internet, people had no place else to go to learn otherwise. Today, even in a repressed society, information gets through. What that means is, when Yevgeny Prigozhin declared in a video interview last Friday that Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses because its claim about Ukrainian and NATO threats against the motherland were a lie, his words had to leak into Russia itself.

It’s not inconceivable that this could inspire further revolts against the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, we haven’t seen that happen and if history is any guide, Putin probably is arresting more dissidents right now and reinforcing his position of power.

So, can Ukraine use what just happened to its advantage? Probably not much.

On the battlefield, reports are that from trenches that protect Russian soldiers who are dug in, to landmines that repel Ukrainian soldiers trying to oust them, the Ukrainian counteroffensive, at least visibly, has not yet met expectations. Still though, in the past few days there are stories about Ukraine reasserting control over towns and villages along the front lines. Ukraine claimed yesterday that around Bakhmut, its forces destroyed major pieces of Russian equipment and killed some 200 Russian soldiers.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said today, “We are moving forward.” Apparently in some areas they are. But so far, their moves are measured in meters, not miles. At best it will take them months to push the Russians into indefensible positions. And there’s no guarantee that they can.

Which comes back to the confounding weekend of confusion inside Russia itself. There is no guarantee that the upshot of what happened will be a weakened, let alone chastened, Vladimir Putin and in fact it could go altogether in the other direction. But there is no guarantee either, that it won’t.

Putin Is Weakened. Russia Is Weakened.

Because I have reported from Russia, people sometimes ask me, “What do you think might bring Putin down?” This is one I hadn’t thought of.

A mercenary army, infamous for its brutality and led by a wicked man once close to the Russian dictator, now is in a battle with Putin and threatening his rule. The chief of the paramilitary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been badmouthing Moscow’s military leaders for months, complaining publicly that his private fighting forces helping the Russian assault on Ukraine were not getting the support— weapons, ammunition, air cover— that they were supposed to get from the Kremlin. What appears to have tipped the scales in just the past 24 hours are Prigozhin’s claim that the Russian military actually assaulted his troops, killing “a huge amount” of them. “We were attacked,” he says, “by artillery and then by helicopters.”

I never thought I’d be rooting for Prigozhin and his Wagner Group. They are a vicious band of mercenaries. They do the dirty work for dictators in the Middle East and Africa, and of course have been a merciless force in the war against Ukraine. But if this thing they’ve started mushrooms, you’ll hear me cheering. Not just because it might put Putin on the edge of a cliff, but because by pitting one Russian army against another, it might give Ukraine a gift beyond its wildest dreams.

Latest reports say that Wagner, which advertises itself as a “sabotage and assault reconnaissance group,” yesterday crossed the border from Ukraine, where they’d been fighting, into their own motherland, Russia, and took control with a column of tanks of a southern city 600 miles south of Moscow called Rostov-on-Don, which is the headquarters for the Russian army’s war against Ukraine. Reports say that Wagner could fortify its forces for further fighting by capturing Russian weapons that are stockpiled in the city.

And, according to the latest assessments, Prigozhin and Wagner didn’t stop there. In a video he released this morning, the Wagner chief said, “We are blockading the city of Rostov and going to Moscow.” Apparently the Kremlin has had to dispatch military equipment to the highway that connects the two, and local authorities have told civilians to stay away. New pictures show that a column of Wagner vehicles now has made its way to a town called Elets, more than halfway to the Russian capital.

The New York Times says it can verify videos that show active fighting along the road, “including helicopters and a destroyed truck.”

Meantime, reports are that Moscow now has sent Chechen troops, known for savage combat, to push Wagner’s army out of Rostov-on-Don.

And the war has even come to Moscow. Photos show Russian soldiers, with automatic weapons and body armor, taking up positions at the southern entrances to the city. A “counterterrorist operation regime,” which is double-talk for martial law, has been declared in the capital.

Early this morning, President Putin went on television for five minutes, admitting that the situation was “difficult” but vowing that he would take “decisive action” against those on a “path of treason,” and that Wagner would be crushed. “Those who organized and prepared the armed rebellion, those who raised weapons against comrades in arms, betrayed Russia,” he said, “and they will answer for this.”

But he can’t be sure because even for Putin, this is uncharted territory. His authority isn’t being challenged by a man with a political following like Alexei Navalny, who Putin has imprisoned along with some of his closest supporters. It’s being challenged by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man with an army.

It would be folly to predict the outcome. I’ve covered enough wars to know that at this point, many reports about who’s losing and who’s winning probably aren’t reliable. What’s more, it all might be changing as I write this. But for Putin, who has ruled Russia for a quarter of a century, the stakes have never been higher. Even if he does crush Prigozhin and erase the threat from Wagner, his territory has been at least temporarily conquered, his military has been diverted, his capital might be besieged, his dominance might be diminished. No Russian ruler has been challenged like this since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

The world would be better off without Vladimir Putin or Yevgeny Prigozhin. As Substack blogger Heather Cox Richardson wrote this morning, “There are no good guys in this struggle.” But there could be a good outcome. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry sent out a tweet last night that summarized in three short words the gift that Ukraine’s enemies have handed them: “We are watching.”

Putin is weakened. Russia is weakened. And Ukraine didn’t have to lift a finger.

The Biden Case, The Trump Case: There Is No Comparison.

“A slap on the wrist.” That’s what House Speaker Kevin McCarthy today called the plea deal struck with Hunter Biden. “If you are the president’s leading political opponent,” he said, obviously referring to Donald Trump, “the DOJ tries to literally put you in jail and give you prison time. But if you are the president’s son, you get a sweetheart deal.”

Trump himself had his own words for the plea deal: “The corrupt Biden DOJ just cleared up hundreds of years of criminal liability by giving Hunter Biden a mere ‘traffic ticket’.” Put aside questions about where he’s going with “hundreds of years of criminal liability” and we still have to deconstruct the comparisons made by the GOP’s leading lights between the cases of Hunter Biden and Donald Trump.

I’ll make that short and simple. There is no comparison. Hunter Biden is charged with filing his taxes late, a misdemeanor, and lying about his drug use on an application to buy a gun, called Form 4473. That is a felony and has landed people in prison, but here’s the first way any comparison between the cases falls apart: according to the National Criminal Justice Association, actual prosecutions for this crime, largely because cases about drug use usually don’t have a paper trail, are rare. CNN’s investigative unit reports that out of more than 12,000 similar cases six years ago, “more than 99.9% of those who were investigated escaped with nothing more than a warning.” In other words, a “slap on the wrist,” or as Trump put it, a “traffic ticket” for the non-violent crime of lying on Form 4473 is not uncommon.

And don’t forget: while we heard accusations yet again today that Biden’s plea deal is further proof that the Department of Justice has been “weaponized,” the prosecutor against Biden, the U.S. attorney who agreed to the “slap on the wrist,” is not a Biden-appointee, he is a Trump appointee.

Donald Trump on the other hand is charged with criminal obstruction of justice, and with espionage. Just on the face of it, those alleged crimes are as different as night and day from the crimes to which Biden is pleading. If the charges against Trump are accurate—and there seems to be damning evidence that they are— then he “willfully retained” top secret documents, revealed those documents to others, and lied to federal investigators about whether he even had them. And this is the second way the comparison of the two cases falls apart. Personally I believe Hunter Biden’s lawbreaking deserves a reckoning more severe than a slap on the wrist, but no one could argue that his crimes posed any threat to our national security. Federal prosecutors can and will argue that Donald Trump’s alleged lawbreaking did.

That’s why, typically, the DOJ does seek prison time and not just a slap on the wrist in a case like Trump’s. He complained after he was indicted that “the Espionage Act has been used to go after traitors and spies.” But it’s usually not that simple.

An Air Force lieutenant colonel named Robert Birchum was sentenced earlier this year to three years in prison for storing classified documents in his home and in a storage shed next to it. An FBI analyst named Kendra Kingsbury was sentenced last year to federal prison for storing national defense information in her home. A retired Army Special Forces sergeant named Jeremy Brown, charged with the same crime among others, got seven years. And there are others. None was convicted of betraying their nation. They were convicted of possessing documents with which they, or someone else, could.

And here’s the third way any comparison falls apart: Hunter Biden has agreed to plead guilty to the charges against him. If history is any guide, it will be a cold day in hell before Donald Trump pleads guilty to anything.

Of course the Republicans in Congress also are going after Biden— as a path to incriminating his father— for business dealings and handsome profits in both Ukraine and China. But we’re still waiting for them to “show us the money.” They’ve held hearings in both the House Oversight and House Judiciary Committees— where Donald Trump’s misdeeds don’t rate a mention— and they bloviate a lot about what they’ve got against the Bidens. But so far, if they have much more than dark suspicions, they have kept it a secret.

I’ve covered presidents off and on since Richard Nixon, and none has steered clear of scandal. Nixon of course had Watergate, for Gerald Ford it was his Nixon pardon. Jimmy Carter took grief for the way his own brother Billy worked for Libya. Ronald Reagan concealed Iran-Contra. For George H.W. Bush there was discrimination against African-American and Hispanic voters. Bill Clinton infamously lied that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” George W. Bush went to war on bad advice. Under Barack Obama the IRS targeted conservative groups.

But then along came Donald Trump, who made every predecessor almost seem like a saint. There have been scandals aplenty, culminating in his efforts to overturn the election, his part in the insurrection of January 6th, and his illegal hoarding of top-secret documents that could fall into the wrong hands, not to mention his unrelated conviction just last month for sexual assault.

The rationale for Hunter Biden’s penalty-free plea deal is debatable, and I for one don’t like it. But there is no comparison to the case of Donald Trump. No one deserves to get away with only a “traffic ticket” for what Trump apparently has done.

Thoughts & Prayers Haven’t Fixed It.

This afternoon, before I went out for several hours on a bike ride, I checked to get a quick peek at what was going on in the world.

Then I got back and, as a lifelong newsman, checked again. Here are the new stories that popped up:

All in the space of a bike ride.

But don’t worry, everyone’s going to be alright. The politicians who don’t lift a finger to stop this madness send their thoughts and prayers.

If Normalcy Survives, We Survive.


It is easy enough to ask, do we even know what that means anymore?

For most of us, the old normal— whatever that was— is gone. If the streets felt safe back when we were kids, they don’t feel safe for our kids, or our grandkids, today. Four-letter words that once were taboo in public places now are printed and paraded on t-shirts. America has more guns than people, there is unabated raw sex on television, drugs are sold in the open, beggars have moved from Skid Row to Main Street.

Fire drills in schools have been augmented by active-shooter drills. Terror used to be what happened in a movie theater, today it’s what happens in churches and nightclubs, stores and classrooms. Paintings, essays, songs, they used to verifiably come from real people but now, we have AI. Precious few Americans take jobs today where they expect to stay for forty years and retire with a pension and a gold watch. Many modern jobs, for most of us, weren’t even in our vocabulary when we were figuring out what we would do for a living.

By those measures and more, the old normal is gone.

We can even sense a shift in how people think. There used to be just one kind of fact. Now, there are alternative facts. There used to be widespread belief in the empirical nature of science. Now, according to an Associated Press-NORC poll, almost half of all Americans express “only some” confidence in science, 13% express “hardly any.”

And then, there’s politics. No matter which side has led the government over the years, its policies always have come under attack by the other side. That is nothing new. That is the old normal. But now, it’s the very system that generates those policies that’s under attack. Elections, civil rights, democracy itself.

Is this what has to pass today for normalcy?

Maybe not. Maybe many of us, including me, are too blinded by short-term assaults on the old normal to recognize the long-term normalcy of our nation.

I started thinking about all this when an old competitor and friend, former CBS News correspondent David Henderson, sent me a new collection of photos he has just taken at the U.S. Capitol. Photos that evoke the message, at least as a visible metaphor, that a more complex world, a more challenging world, a more threatening world, doesn’t mean normalcy is dead.

David, a gifted and avid photographer, got special access to take pictures inside the Capitol, where he first worked as a young Washington reporter. What he recorded, in a capital city that has changed immeasurably since George Washington chose its site along the Potomac, is a building that has not noticeably changed since it was rebuilt after the War of 1812, when the British burned it down. What he recorded is a building that, despite the heat and anger on January 6th, did not burn down again.

To see it through Henderson’s lens is to be reminded that after all the horror of that day— the horror of people dying there, while others called for the deaths of leaders they loathed— it is the same resplendent Capitol, in the same resilient democracy, as it has always been. It is a democracy in which almost every citizen wants the best for America.

The challenge is, we are divided by our definitions of what “best” actually means, and divided even more by our polarized notions of what it takes to achieve it.

Those are huge divisions. Some believe we get there only by ensuring equal opportunity for a diverse and inclusive population, with participation in society by every religion, every race, every ideology, every sexual orientation.

Some believe that’s precisely what will fracture us and dilute the power of our capital, our culture, and our country.

Some believe the best is yet to come. Some believe the best is past.

I have my own beliefs about what’s best for America, and after thinking about the Capitol we still see, I have confidence that while new normals replace old normals and we can’t all be happy with what changes, we still live with a long-term state of normalcy. When Henderson was that young Washington reporter, he freely came and went through the Capitol. Whenever I covered Washington, it was the same. This time, he went through metal detectors, his camera gear was x-rayed, and he was examined by an officer with a wand. That’s the new normal and we’ve all learned to live with it.

Because once inside, it is still the Capitol. Although recently riven with chaos, the flag still flies, the institution didn’t crumble. Commotion still fills the chambers of Congress, but normalcy survived.

Our streets aren’t as safe as they were, nor our schools nor our churches nor our grocery stores. But still, amidst sometimes terrible losses, we manage to survive. Our morals have taken a hit, our vocations have taken a hit, even our rights have taken a hit, but still, we manage to survive.

If we can say the same for democracy, we still might not rest easy, but we can rest.

Even Being Charged As A Felon Doesn’t Change Trump.

There are no surprises from Donald Trump. Not about his dishonesty, not about his indecency, not about his disdain for democracy. And last night, not about his defense.

After being arrested and booked at Miami’s federal courthouse, then delivering a plea to the charges against him in a federal courtroom— not just about keeping top-secret government documents that he wasn’t entitled to keep, but grave counts of espionage and obstruction— the ex-president stopped minutes later at a Cuban-American restaurant to bask in the adulation of his believers, as if he hadn’t just been taken into custody for compromising our national security.

Then he flew home to his New Jersey golf club to go on television and rattle off his litany of grievances and denials. He pleaded in court, “Not guilty.” He pleaded at the Cuban stop, “I think it’s a rigged deal.” Then he pleaded on TV, “Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of the country.”

We’ve heard it all before. It’s a “hoax.” It’s a “witch hunt.” The charges are “fake and fabricated.” The prosecutor is a “deranged lunatic,” a “raging and uncontrolled Trump hater,” a “thug.” The indictment is “another attempt to rig and steal another presidential election.” It’s “thugs and misfits and Marxists trying to destroy American democracy.” And of course, consistent with all the “perfect” calls he has made, which have led to both his impeachment and a potential indictment for trying to steal the election in Georgia, “I did everything right and they indicted me.”

When the trial gets underway, we’ll see the evidence and might find out.

Trump and his apologists would have you believe the indictment came straight from the desk of Joe Biden but the fact is, it came from the unanimous vote of a grand jury of ordinary citizens in Florida. If the charges didn’t have enough merit to convince those jurors, the former president never would have been hauled into court.

The same will be true at the trial. It won’t be Joe Biden who seals Trump’s fate, it won’t be special counsel Jack Smith, who came to the job after prosecuting war crimes at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, it won’t even be the Trump-appointed judge who drew the assignment and probably will preside at the trial. If Trump is convicted or Trump is acquitted, it will be another jury of ordinary citizens that decides. If the evidence against him is not convincing, the former president will be free.

But whether the man is guilty or innocent, lots of Americans are fed up with almost ceaseless coverage of Trump. I get that. But this is a big deal. Headlines like this have never been seen before.

Although the coverage can have consequences that bring even more chaos to this divided nation, the story cannot and should not be ignored. First, because he is a former president of the United States, and the first and only president ever to be formally charged as a criminal by the government he once led. Second, because he is a candidate for the White House again and the outcome of this trial inevitably will affect the outcome of the presidential election in 2024. Third, because he has a huge legion of fervent followers who hang on his every word and act on his every command— we saw what that led to on January 6th. And fourth, because if history is any guide, Donald Trump will assault everyone and everything that threatens him and so, along with him, democracy and justice also are on trial.

What complicates it is, leaders who should know better, leaders who once revered the rule of law, are actively undermining it. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a rare outspoken rebel in the GOP, said tonight that Republicans who are justifying Trump’s behavior are “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” Like Florida’s Marco Rubio, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who spoke on CBS about “the harm that this indictment does to the country.” What he failed to note was the harm it would do if Trump had not been indicted, the harm it would do if one man, thanks to his popularity and his position, were to be put above the law. That is why prosecutors had no choice but to charge him. And, given the stakes, why we have no choice but to pay attention.

If we don’t, Trump, propelled by the passionate support of his base, will command the content of the news. They will perpetuate his lies and sabotage our democracy. Alternative facts will dominate the conversation.

Not long after Trump left the courtroom, I tuned into Fox News to see what they were saying about what had just happened. But guess what they were talking about: Hunter Biden. To them, although they’ve still only presented conjecture about whatever he has done, he is the threat to national security. Trump is a scapegoat.

That’s Trump’s rallying cry. He has been picked out, and picked on. He is, he insists, being treated differently. Well, he was released without bond, his travel not restricted, his passport not confiscated. So yes, I guess if you’re charged with espionage yet not hit with those sanctions, you are being treated differently.

Of course he’s also talking about Joe Biden’s boxes and Hillary Clinton’s emails. Whether you’re a Trump critic or a Trump fan, read about both. There are no indisputable indications of espionage or obstruction. Simply put, there is no comparison.

What’s alarming, and the reason why we must pay attention, is that a former President of the United States has been put under arrest as an alleged criminal.

What’s alarming is that millions of Americans, like the ones who showed up to applaud Trump outside the courthouse in Miami, are ignoring what appears to be obvious evidence of his crimes and cheering him on.

What’s also alarming is that the whole story isn’t going away soon. Legal challenges by the Trump team in federal court are likely to consume months if not longer before the trial gets underway. And two other indictments, one for election tampering in Georgia and another for the outcome of January 6th in Washington, are likely to come.

There are no surprises about Donald Trump. The only surprise would be if even his acolytes stop believing him.

“Lock HIM Up?” It Might Start Tomorrow.

Donald Trump has a big day tomorrow. And we pretty much already know everything that’s about to unfold.

First, he has been ordered to show up at the federal courthouse in Miami where, unless the authorities make a special exception, he will be arrested and booked. Remember, this is the immediate past president of the United States of America, soon to be taken into custody like a common criminal by the very government he once led.

Then he heads upstairs to a courtroom to hear the charges against him. Charges of espionage. Charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice. It cannot be said often enough: this is our immediate past president we’re talking about, soon to be arraigned for obstruction of justice and espionage against the nation he once led.

Then he heads home to Mar-a-Lago, the estate he carelessly and cavalierly used as a storage locker— and sometimes a display case— for documents that, seen by the wrong eyes, could put the lives of American agents, American soldiers, and American sources in jeopardy. Documents that revealed, according to the indictment against him, “United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.”

It’s against that backdrop that Donald Trump will go on TV tomorrow night to address whatever part of the nation that chooses to watch. Just as we already know what will be said about him in court, we also know— because he already has broadcast it— what he’ll say at Mar-a-Lago: I AM AN INNOCENT MAN.

No surprise. When he tried to extort Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to find dirt on his rival Joe Biden— the starting point of his first impeachment— Trump insisted it was a “perfect call.” After he tried to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the wake of his loss in Georgia to “find 11,780 votes” to change the outcome, he had the same narcissistic excuse: “It was a perfect call.” So tomorrow night, we’re likely to hear again what Trump wrote on his website after the indictment, calling prosecutor Jack Smith a “deranged lunatic” and a “psycho.”

And we’re likely to hear once again, and in verbal all caps, that he himself is an INNOCENT MAN.

Who knows, maybe he is. He certainly is entitled to a presumption of innocence. But if you actually read the indictment, you know that federal prosecutors have witnesses, photographs, notes from Trump’s own lawyers and even tape recordings with his own voice that reinforce their allegation that once caught in the act of misappropriating top secret documents, this one-time president lied and connived to conceal them.

Trump’s rival Ron DeSantis laid out the rationale for putting the ex-president on trial. The one-time Navy lawyer said that if he had taken classified documents while in the military, “I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute.” Or as another former military lawyer, one-time Army judge advocate and now commentator David French wrote, “It’s hard to imagine a more brazen and irresponsible mishandling of our nation’s secrets.”

Of course you can bet that true to character, Trump will tell the nation that it’s all a hoax. He already got that ball rolling the day the indictment was announced, asserting that a photo of classified documents strewn on the floor of a room at Mar-a-Lago “clearly shows there was no ‘documents’ but rather newspapers, personal pictures, etc.” It reminds me of the classic quote attributed to the mid-20th-Century comedian Groucho Marx: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

What’s scary is how many Americans don’t believe their lying eyes. From news reports around the nation, Trump Republicans are rallying around the MAGA flag, including most Republicans running for president. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott proclaimed that the charges against Trump reflect “a justice system where the scales are weighted.” Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley declared, “The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics.” Former Vice President Mike Pence had the sense to say that “No one’s above the law,” but also the audacity to say, “I’m deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward.”

Are they telling us that because Donald Trump is a former president and a candidate for president again, he should get a pass?

That’s scary enough for our embattled democracy but none of it is as scary as this: on Trump’s speciously named Truth Social website, a disciple wrote when the indictments were announced, “It is time We The People exercise our 2nd Amendment rights and burn the corruption out of DC.” Arizona congressman Andy Biggs tweeted, “We now have reached a war phase,” which is what insurrectionists were saying before January 6th. And Biggs’s fellow Arizonan Keri Lake, last year’s defeated gubernatorial candidate who unashamedly maintains the fiction that she lost because her race was rigged and who some believe is unabashedly angling to be on the ticket next year with Trump, appeared at a Saturday convention of the GOP in Georgia, where delegates wore ball caps saying “God, Guns and Trump.” Her message? “For Merrick Garland and Jack Smith and Joe Biden… if you want to get to President Trump, you are going to have go through me, and you are going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me. And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the N.R.A.”

I’ll say this plainly: that’s the kind of provocative and incendiary rhetoric that gets people killed. And it comes from leading lights in a party that once revered the rule of law. But now, instead, they revere a man convicted last month of sexual assault, charged this month with espionage, and likely to be indicted in another month or two in Georgia with illegally seeking to overturn an election. Plus, probably waiting in the wings: federal charges of sedition in connection with January 6th.

Columnist Maureen Dowd summed it up well. After many years of Donald J. Trump v. United States of America, she said, the tables have turned. Now it’s United States of America v. Donald Trump.

In the same column in which former judge advocate David French said Trump had to be indicted because his behavior with the top secret documents could not have been more brazen, French also wrote, “Any other decision would place presidents outside the rule of federal law and declare to the American public that its presidents enjoy something akin to a royal privilege. But this is a republic, not a monarchy, and if the Justice Department can prove its claims, then Donald Trump belongs in prison.”

Predictions about prison for an ex-president, however, are new territory. But the one thing for sure is, the law is closing in. It was Trump himself who led the chant against Hillary Clinton to “lock her up.” Now the chant he’ll probably hear is, lock him up.

Donald Trump has a big day tomorrow. So does the nation.

The Epitome of Double Standards.

Donald Trump will be booked on Tuesday, then arraigned on charges under the Espionage Act. And how do his sycophantic supporters react?

Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House: “Today is indeed a dark day.”

Jim Jordan, the chair of the Judiciary Committee: “It’s a sad day for America.”

Sean Hannity, the reigning host on Fox: “It is a dark day in America.”

Interesting, isn’t it?! These guys were not so quick to condemn the traitors who tried to overturn the 2020 election on January 6th of ’21— some of their ilk have even praised them as “political prisoners.” And they were not so quick to hold Donald Trump accountable for one of the darkest days for American democracy. But they’re sure quick to jump on the bandwagon today.

Aside from a brief moment after the insurrection when McCarthy condemned Trump for his part in it before taking it all back, the right-wing of today’s GOP— which is most of today’s GOP— treated Trump’s attempts to actually overturn a free election as forgivable, even forgettable behavior, and now they want to treat the weighty federal charges against him the same way.

How soon they forget.

When Hillary Clinton was accused of hiding sensitive emails on her own private server, weren’t they part of the clique that shouted “Lock her up?” And wasn’t Donald Trump the one who led the chant? Wasn’t it Donald Trump who forcefully assured us as he ran against her, “No one will be above the law?” Her conduct, he declared, “disqualifies her from the presidency.”

Now the shoe’s on the other foot.

So they resort to prevarication and retaliation. “I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice,” McCarthy tweeted last night. “House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable.” Their idea of protecting the country from criminal conspiracies is to go after Hunter Biden.

If anyone still had even a shred of confidence before now that the right-wing hadn’t sold its soul, it is gone.

There is just one principle at stake here and it takes the form of a question: What kind of country would this be if a jury of American citizens sees reason to bring criminal charges against a fellow citizen but, because he is a former president and a candidate for president again, he gets a pass?

Donald Trump will get his day in court. But he won’t get a pass.

Judiciary chair Jordan said last night after Trump’s indictment was announced, “God bless President Trump.” If there is a god, I don’t think he works that way.

Rivals To Be The Dominant Superpower.

“Probably the most consequential geo-strategic competition we’ve had since the early Cold War.” That’s what Dr. Jonathan Ward said to me at the very start of a program I moderated this week for the Vail Symposium in Vail, Colorado, and it got my attention. Because he wasn’t talking about the war in Ukraine and the wider conflict it portends between the Western world and Russia. No, this Washington analyst, who has advised everyone from the Department of Defense to major members of the Fortune 500, was talking about China, and what he called its overall strategy “to ultimately rise as the dominant superpower.”

“Dominant superpower” means more than it used to. Back during the Cold War, a superpower was defined by its military and to be sure, China’s is on the rise. It is building warships and warplanes like there’s no tomorrow. It already has the largest land army in the world, the largest air force in the western Pacific, the biggest missile force on the planet, and if projections are accurate, China’s navy by the end of the year 2030 will be the world’s largest, half-again bigger than ours. Former White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster calls it “the largest peacetime military buildup in history.”

Now though, as Dr. Ward writes in his new book “The Decisive Decade,” the dominant superpower will have to prevail in more than just the military sphere, for the competition today is about more than ships and planes and soldiers. We have to go head-to-head in a spectrum of contests: whose industries will lead the world, who will control technology, who will accumulate more allies, whose political ideology will prevail? Some analysts believe the answers to those questions all favor the United States. Tufts University professor Michael Beckley wrote in his book “Unrivaled” that the U.S. has “the best prospects of any nation to amass wealth and power in the decades ahead.” But Dr. Ward believes that despite well-founded American confidence, the answer to every question is still up in the air.

Here’s why: it’s not just China’s military that is on the rise. Although there have been speed-bumps in the road, its entire economy— industry, technology, agriculture— has been on a roll. More nations now count China as their biggest trading partner than count the U.S. In simple terms, China is building, while to compete in what some see as an existential contest, we have to rebuild. Former National Security Advisor McMaster told Congress in February, “We are in a difficult position because we have been underinvested in modernization for… a long amount of time,” which led him to conclude, “China poses a greater threat to American interests than did the Soviet Union.”

So what do we do about it? How do we prevent ourselves from losing that contest?

The answer might be in the subtitle of Ward’s book: “American Grand Strategy for Triumph Over China.” He proposes a grand strategy in this decisive decade to “design a very clear and effective economic strategy” as he put it at the symposium, because “if we win the economic game, we can convert those gains into military power, rebuild deterrence and get back to… peace through strength.”

Your first thought when you read that might be that he’s saber-rattling. But because of that word “deterrence,” I don’t think he is. Deterrence has been the foundation of America’s strength in the world since the end of WW2. For the duration of the Cold War, it was deterrence— by both sides, to be fair— that kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the policy I got to know covering arms control talks between the two superpowers in the 1970s and ‘80s: Mutual Assured Destruction, which unequivocally meant that one side could not obliterate the other without being obliterated itself.

So yes, we need a military that will deter China’s, especially with the growing tensions over Taiwan, a democratic Western ally that China insists is part of its own motherland. Dr. Ward’s argument is that China has to know that they don’t have a decisive advantage, that they don’t have a clear chance to attack and, to use their word, “reunify” Taiwan into China. As he put it at Vail Symposium, “We have a vote in this.”

Our vote is not benign. China involved itself on the side of our enemies in the Korean War, then the Vietnam War. Its army has had recent fatal skirmishes with neighboring India. And President Xi has been blunt about his willingness to go to war again if it helps China achieve the dominance it craves. Foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman wrote in April in The New York Times, “The smallest misstep by either side could ignite a U.S.-China war that would make Ukraine look like a neighborhood dust-up.” That got my attention too.

But Jonathan Ward’s point is, we also need an economy that will deter China’s. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, a Chief of U.S. Naval Operations in the Obama years, lays out this plan: “The call to action is for Washington, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street.” In other words, we need to win the contest for technological breakthroughs, for modern industrialization, for overall national wealth. We need to make money for America, not for China. We need to wean ourselves off China. I love my iPhone, but if Apple has to charge more to put it together here instead of in China, that’s a cost that in the long run we need to be willing to bear.

Twenty years ago China’s economy, its Gross Domestic Product, was a small fraction of ours. Today, it’s still smaller, but China is coming on strong and intent on leaving us in its dust. Chinese leaders believe that is their destiny. America’s grand strategy has to be to prevent it.

The challenge is, we’re not going up against an inert force because they have a grand strategy too, and that, as Dr. Ward described it to me, is “to surpass us, to displace us, to overpower us in the Pacific and beyond..” What’s more, although we can’t guess right now what role it will play, there is the friendship that China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin declared for their nations in 2022, with “no limits.”

There have been conflicts on the radar this year in the relationship between China and the United States. First the Chinese balloon— they say weather, we say surveillance and the evidence points to our version— that we shot down over the Atlantic in February. Then the brush-ups last month between their warships and ours in the South China Sea and between both nations’ aircraft flying overhead. It has created a climate of not just competition but confrontation.

That is the backdrop for the position in which we find ourselves today. Our principal adversary aspires to be the world’s dominant superpower. We have to stand in the way of that.

A Piece of the Counteroffensive That No One Saw Coming.

While covering the buildup in Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, I remember standing on tarmacs and watching with surprise as we brought in tanks and troops and planes in full sight of Saddam Hussein, whose troops we aimed to oust from Kuwait.

He and his army knew the counteroffensive was coming. They knew, but they couldn’t stop it.

Today, it’s Ukraine positioning its forces for a counteroffensive, in plain sight of the Russians. The outcome is anybody’s guess but it’s what they’ve been doing below the radar that’s intriguing: in the last few days, Ukrainians, or else pro-Ukraine Russians, have struck at targets in Russia. One reportedly was a drone attack on an oil refinery. Most were shells fired into Russian towns close to the Ukrainian border, forcing some evacuations. But in the most visible shock to Russia’s putative invincibility, eight drones penetrated Moscow’s airspace on Tuesday. Three of them struck apartment buildings in one of Moscow’s most elite suburbs. As you see here, the damage was minimal.

No one was killed and no buildings collapsed. But the drones made their point. Russia is vulnerable. Even in the nation’s capital, no one— not the politicians, not the oligarchs— is safe.

Could this be a calculated if unpredictable part of Ukraine’s counteroffensive? It might sound improbable but, given the spirit, grit, and innovation of the Ukrainians— even as they’re still outgunned and outmanned— it’s not implausible.

Of course Vladimir Putin has called these small strikes “terrorist activity” and accused Ukraine of a campaign of “intimidation.” In a normal world, it would be Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky making charges like that. But Zelensky’s reality isn’t Putin’s. From the first deaths of innocent civilians, it is Russia that has rained terror on Ukraine. From the first barrage of missiles against civilian targets, it is Russia that has waged a campaign of intimidation.

The statistics tell the story. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Russian missiles, shells, drones, air strikes, and out-of-control soldiers killed more than 8,000 Ukrainian non-combatants in the first year of the war. Almost 500 of them were children. Millions have been displaced. Livelihoods have been destroyed. All of this— attacking non-combatants— is the very definition of terrorism. On top of that, an estimated 150,000 buildings, including not just people’s homes but hospitals and churches, schools and stores are reduced to rubble. And half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is gone.

But this is not a normal world. This is a world where Putin is the invader but accuses Ukraine of being the aggressor. And he had the audacity to say it on the heels of yet another terrifying Russian missile barrage Tuesday against the Ukrainian capital of Kiev— the 17th bombardment in just the month of May alone.

If there is any good news coming out of Ukraine right now, it is that its long-planned counteroffensive evidently is imminent. As the nation’s foreign minister said early this month, “Despite the cold, darkness, and missile strikes, Ukraine persevered and defeated the winter terror.” Now it’s about to seize the initiative. It’s about to undertake battles to liberate provinces the Russians took in the earlier stages of the war. As we watch in the coming weeks, the most important thing to remember is, Russia is fighting for its pride. Ukraine is fighting for its life.

What the Russians have going for them more than anything else is manpower. With a population of more than 145 million people, they still can draw upon millions more men and force them into combat.

That doesn’t mean they would be strong soldiers, but they would give Ukraine a fight and be a formidable barrier to the Ukrainians taking back what’s rightfully theirs.

The Russians have more going against them. First, there has been brutal infighting, laid bare by the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has openly called Moscow’s top generals “fat cats” and “scum” and accused them of “high treason” for their failures in the fight to win the war.

Second, there’s the death toll of Russian soldiers. More than 20,000 of them by most estimates. Wagner’s Prigozhin said in an interview last week that if the losses keep coming, it can end “in what is a revolution, just like in 1917. First the soldiers will stand up,” he said, “and after that, their loved ones will rise up.”

Third, it would be naive to think that everyone in Russia sees through Putin and his phony rationales for the war. But at the same time, when drones hit civilian targets in Moscow, giving them even a small taste of their own medicine, and when some sanctions have begun to hurt the average Russian consumer, and with all those body bags, eventually support for the war might wane. Witness the public protests in America over Vietnam. Of course unlike a democracy where people push the government, Russia has become a fascist state where the government pushes the people. But even Russia might have a breaking point.

And fourth, their munitions. Russia’s prime minister yesterday told a government conference, “The defense-industrial complex is now operating under maximum pressure.” It might only be a small sign of shortages but he announced a ban on the export of cartridges for Russian rifles other than those in the hands of their soldiers. “The decision,” he said, “is aimed at ensuring the protection of the interests of the state.”

But munitions are at the top of the list of what the Ukrainians have going for them. Thanks to a new stream of allied weaponry, they have tools they didn’t have when the war started: long-range missiles and high-tech tanks, with F-16s on the horizon.

And they have the experience they’ve won through sacrifice and stress. Even the head of the Wagner Group said in that interview last week, “I believe Ukrainians today are one of the strongest armies in the world.” He called them “highly organized, highly trained, and their intelligence is on the highest level, they can operate any military system with equal success, a Soviet or a NATO one.”

What the Ukrainians have going against them is time. If they can’t push Russia out, Russia could grind them down. Beyond that, there’s the possibility that eventually, despite their rhetoric today, Western backers will tire of what might become a stalemate and NATO will lose its enthusiasm for having Ukraine’s back. Donald Trump sent an ominous signal the other day when he said that if he becomes president again, he will “fundamentally reevaluate NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”

Putin tells his people that they are fighting for Russia’s survival. In a larger sense, between Ukraine’s new levels of boldness and the expansion of NATO because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, maybe there’s some logic to that. But despite the strikes inside Russia over the last few days, and even if they multiply, survival isn’t exactly something the Russian people see threatened.

For Ukrainians of course, it’s a whole different story. Zelensky doesn’t have to convince them of anything. The proof is in their daily lives.

They are the underdog and their very survival is at stake. As we’ve seen in wars over the past half-century, often when the underdog is fighting for its survival, the underdog wins.

We Don’t Need Sharper Packaging.

Something grabbed my eye the other morning on

It was a story about cheese. To be specific, Kraft cheese, and to drill down to the gist of it, Kraft “Singles” American cheese. If it’s a while since you’ve put American cheese in your shopping cart, you’re not alone. A retail analyst told CNN that processed cheese sales have been in “long term decline for at least a decade.” Surprise, surprise, buyers have been opting for something less processed.

Which puts Kraft in a bind. They’ve added a reassurance on the wrapper that it’s “Made With Real Dairy” but still, it’s processed cheese, not natural cheese, and when people see “processed,” they see “artificial.”

That’s why, the story says, Kraft’s product is getting a makeover. Not the cheese itself— I guess it will be as processed as ever— but the package it comes in. First of all, the old package…..

..… has a new look, although to my eye, it doesn’t look a whole lot newer than the old look.

But it wasn’t the redesign of the package that got my attention, it was the redesign of the cellophane in which each slice is wrapped. They’re re-doing that too. Kraft says the biggest complaint from customers is their “inability to easily open the clear wrapper.” Translation: they can’t easily open the clear wrapper. It has a translucent flap that’s hard to see and when you do, it’s hard to get your fingers under it. Seems like a lot of trouble just to get to a slender slice of processed cheese.

So the flap has been redesigned. Kraft says they’ve added more texture, whatever that means, and made the wrapper thicker and sturdier so it won’t tear so easily when you open it.

When it comes to America leading the world in this century of computers and electric cars and renewable energy and artificial intelligence, this puts us over the top.

But I’ve buried the lead. Because it wasn’t Kraft “Singles” American cheese that pulled me to my computer to write about packaging. It was something else and I’ll start with a question: what do you need when you cut yourself and you’re bleeding? Answer: you need a Band-Aid, and you need it fast. That was me the other night. I was washing the grater from a blender and I nicked my finger. Not a big nick, although for a small one it bled copiously. But for the life of me (okay, a bit of an exaggeration but you get the point), it took the better part of a minute to open the wrapper to get out the Band-Aid. (Maybe it was longer. With the life draining out of me— oops, am I exaggerating again?— I had no time to look at a clock.)

First I had to find the split at the top of the paper wrapper so I could separate the front from the back. That should be easy, right? They designate it with a red stripe on which, in about 8-point font, it says “Peel.” (The other word in tiny font is “Decoller,” which is French for pretty much the same thing. Maybe the French cut themselves a lot with all that chop-chop-chopping.)

But when I peeled as recommended, which I assume you do the same way whether you’re American or French, the paper tore in the wrong place and the Band-Aid stayed stuck inside. I do understand the need to keep the bandage hygienically pure until it’s time to get it out but then, I need to get it out. Finally in frustration I pulled a second Band-Aid from the box and had an easier time of it. Maybe just half a minute.

Which brings us to the real villain in packaging: plastic. I mean, plastic so stiff you need a buzz-saw to cut through it. Consumer frustration has even led to a new term in the dictionary: “wrap rage.” Take a look at this axe-proof package of makeup for instance, the kind you’d find in a big box store.

Or these cheap drugstore eyeglasses, where they even use the protective plastic to protect the protective case.

In the retail industry they’ll tell you the hard plastic is necessary for a few reasons: to let potential buyers see a product without the barrier of a cardboard covering, to protect products during transport from factory to store, and mainly, in the case of the makeup for example, to keep shoplifters from snatching a few small containers and stashing them away in a hidden pocket when they leave the store. But that doesn’t explain the batteries.

What are they trying to prevent with packaging like this, where the batteries are in a heat-sealed blister-pack and you risk the partial amputation of a digit when you try tearing in to get a Triple-A? Seems to me, if someone sets out to shoplift Triple-A batteries, they’re going to grab the whole package of 36 and slip it in their pants. I mean, why think small? All the packaging does is make it easier for them to steal in bulk

You don’t have to wonder why they seal this machete in a heat-sealed blister-pack. But it raises a whole new question: if you don’t already have another machete, what are you going to use to open this one?

And children’s toys?

Would this kids’ set of walkie-talkies be a whole lot easier to conceal than the package that’s designed to protect it? If thieves want to find a way, they’ll find a way. Anyway, there are documented cases of honest buyers doing themselves serious harm trying to break into their own purchases with not just scissors and knives but razor blades, box cutters, even ice picks. And if your tool doesn’t hurt you, maybe the sharp-edged plastic itself will. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated one year that some 6,500 Americans hurt themselves badly enough while opening a package that they had to go to the ER. And that year was 2004. Now, almost 20 years later, there’s more plastic out there than ever before. Not so hot for the environment either.

There is another way that I think we’d all appreciate. Perforations in a package, or joints designed to tear apart. It surprises me that more manufacturers aren’t finding alternatives like these that would make our packages so much easier and so much safer to open. Maybe if they did, we wouldn’t spend so much time, after hurting ourselves, struggling to open a Band-Aid. About the only easy thing to open any more is the redesigned cellophane for a slice of American cheese.

Two Clown Shows, From Two Presidential Wannabes.

So the two presumptive frontrunners in the Republican race to the White House just gave us a progress report.

Or maybe “progress” is the wrong word.

First, there’s Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Yesterday he made his candidacy official. In an undisguised stab at ex-president and wannabe-future-president Donald Trump, he said “We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years.” Make no mistake, after the 2020 presidential election, which was a disaster for the GOP, then the 2022 statehouse and congressional elections, which were another disaster in many places where the GOP should have won (we’re looking at you, Dr. Oz, and at you, Herschel Walker, and at you, Keri Lake), the captain of that culture of losing is Trump. For good measure, in case we still didn’t know who he was talking about, DeSantis added, “Governing is not entertainment.”

The trouble is, for more than 20 minutes, no one heard DeSantis. He had made a deal with his richest backer, Elon Musk, to do his presidential announcement on Musk’s toy called Twitter Spaces, a platform to stream audio, with Musk as moderator.

But to his enormous embarrassment, DeSantis couldn’t deliver and neither could Musk. For the first 20+ minutes, technical glitches and periods of dead air made it virtually impossible to hear the stream. Maybe it’s true as DeSantis’s campaign claims that 650,000 people had tuned in to hear DeSantis say he was running, but by the time anyone could actually hear him say it, the number was down to 250,000. This is how it all turned out for a candidate who crows about his competence.

Of course the governor, who has an excuse for everything, had a ready excuse for the sloppy snafu: he said he “broke the internet.” But he also broke the invincibility of his pal Elon Musk. The New York Times reported that Twitter employees said no one had prepared for “site reliability issues.” Maybe after firing a full three-quarters of Twitter’s workforce after he bought it, Musk needs to hire a few of them back.

Then there’s Florida retiree and courtroom habitué Donald Trump. It came as no surprise to anyone on the planet that when DeSantis suffered his cringeworthy campaign launch— maybe the worst in presidential history— Trump danced on his grave. But Trump’s dance was more bizarre than Elaine Benes’s when she occasionally danced on Seinfeld.

Take a look at what the ex-president wrote on his untruthfully named Truth Social website.

I have to ask, with friends like Kim Jong Un, who needs enemies?

But that buries the bigger points here. For starters, while Trump surely knows the first name of his own state’s governor, he is so sloppy that he misspelled it and evidently couldn’t even bother to proofread his one crudely constructed sentence with a total of 142 characters. He’d have had more space to rant on Twitter.

For seconds, what’s with his burning desire to reignite his brief bromance with Kim Jong Un? Don’t forget, this is the guy who keeps lobbing long-range ballistic missiles through the airspace of our friend and ally Japan. This is the guy who had both his uncle and his half-brother executed when they seemed to threaten his leadership.

I’ve read that Donald Trump doesn’t drink and doesn’t do drugs but you have to wonder, what is wrong with the guy? Joe Biden flies off to meet with world leaders in Japan, then flies home to negotiate the next day to try to end the debt ceiling crisis, but all Trump can call him is a “low-energy individual.” Yet Trump doesn’t have the energy to turn out a single coherent sentence, let alone a single coherent thought that would inspire confidence that he’s fit to serve a second term.

By the way, there are other reasons to be scared of both these extreme Republicans who aspire to lead our nation.

Judging from his performance in Florida’s statehouse, Ron DeSantis would be the most right-wing president in modern American history.

He would ban books not to his liking as he has done in Florida, he would reduce the rights of racial and social minorities and of women as he has done in Florida, and would make boneheaded decisions like the one he made, despite his contention that he’s “pro-business,” to start a blood feud with Florida’s biggest employer and biggest draw, Disney. He even vowed in a radio interview yesterday that if he becomes president, he will think about a pardon for any federal charges brought against Donald Trump. He has become, in short, an extremist of the worst kind.

And Donald Trump? Judging from his performance in the White House and after he left, he would be the most dishonest, dangerous, undemocratic, unscrupulous president in maybe all of American history. Even more than he was the first time. You already know the details.

There are other declared candidates for the Republican nomination: South Carolina’s former governor Nikki Haley, the same state’s junior senator Tim Scott, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, and a wealthy venture capitalist named Vivek Ramaswamy who, if it’s even possible, lands to the right of DeSantis and Trump, and others. Mike Pence is waiting in the wings.

Although none of them would be the president I’d want, most are at least morally fit for the White House in ways that neither Donald Trump nor Ron DeSantis is. And none can be dismissed. I covered enough presidential campaigns over the years to have seen that the winner of the nomination sometimes comes out of nowhere— in my experience, Jimmy Carter is the best example. Bill Clinton is a close second.

And big names have been known to fizzle out. Remember Jeb Bush? Remember Scott Walker? Remember Jerry Brown? Remember Howard Dean?

When it comes to presidential politics, nothing is written in stone. All we can hope is, despite all the attention they attract right now, that goes for Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump too. If we didn’t already know it, yesterday proved a point: they both are flawed. Deeply.

Bad Bedfellows in the Middle East.

A dictator, a tyrant, a butcher have been welcomed back into the Arab fold. All in the form of one man: Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.

Ever since the ill-fated Arab Spring, when Assad ruthlessly put down protests against his rule, the man has been a pariah in the Arab world. The Arab League, some of whose member countries are no strangers to ruthless suppression themselves, kicked him out. The world stuck him in quarantine. Until last year, the only known trips he made out of Syria were to the capitals of his two allies, Iran and Russia, both of which helped him annihilate parts of his own nation.

It is a measure of Assad’s comradely connection to Vladimir Putin that when Russia held sham elections last year in four Ukrainian provinces, then annexed them to be part of Russia itself, Syria was one of only two nations to officially recognize the move as legitimate. The other was North Korea. Assad’s only other ally is Hezbollah, the terrorist group that rules much of Lebanon.

That’s the kind of company he keeps.

Who else but the likes of these despots would break bread with a man who waged war against his own citizens, a war that by some estimates killed more than a half-million Syrians, incinerated immense swaths of anti-Assad cities, chased more than 14-million people from their homes, and created a massive refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe? Who else would break bread with a man who tortured and bombed his own people, sometimes using banned cluster bombs to subdue seditious refugees in their camps and sometimes, although he denied it, unleashing chemical weapons.

When Trump was president,. he accurately called Assad an “animal.”

Who else would break bread with such an animal? Well, as it turns out, most members of the Arab League. For after being shunned and isolated for twelve years, this weekend Assad traveled again, flying to the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia. And he was brought back in with open arms. In fact before this official picture was taken of his handshake with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the host of the summit, the two men shared a hug.

It’s as if the Syrian civil war hadn’t happened. It’s as if Adolf Hitler, had he survived World War Two, would be welcomed back to the community of Europe. It’s as if Vladimir Putin, if he’s still around years after his vicious war crimes against Ukraine, would be welcomed back into the community of nations.

There were excuses, of course. Crown Prince Mohammed said he hoped Syria’s “return to the Arab League leads to the end of its crisis.” Reuters quoted a Gulf analyst who said, “Do we want Syria to be less Arab and more Iranian, or … to come back to the Arab fold?” Some Arab officials argue that now they can try to moderate Assad’s behavior. For his part, the Syrian president told his fellow Arabs as he was accepted back at the summit, “I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction.” As if his words about peace and prosperity carry any credibility after his savage attacks over the past twelve years. Peace and prosperity for Syrians became distant memories.

His savagery is no surprise though. His father was as bad as he is.

In 1982, Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion against his authoritarian rule in the city of Hama. Estimates are that he killed up to 40,000 insubordinate Syrians. Hama itself was reduced to rubble. Historians have called it the “single deadliest act” of violence by an Arab leader against his own population in the modern history of the Middle East.

That’s the kind of blood that runs through Bashar al-Assad’s veins.

I reported from an Arab League summit decades ago. It was in Fez, Morocco, and attracted the likes of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. They broke bread too but I’ll never forget, as I watched them, the looks in their eyes as they met. It was easy to see that between regional rivalries and disputed borders and ethnic and religious differences, their affection for one another was as thin as their smiles.

That’s the nature of many alliances in the Middle East.

But it helps to understand that many abide their antipathy because Bashar al-Assad’s pitiless regime is the nature of theirs too. In his speech to his forgiving partners, he showed his hand with words which would fall on the willing ears of other authoritarian leaders who also oppress citizens who don’t toe the line: ”It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage them.” In other words, what happens in Syria stays in Syria. I’ve covered enough autocrats like him that I can translate his code: “the country’s people” means “my people, the ones who side with me.” Given his way, he would liquidate the rest.

There have been warnings about the impact of Assad’s return.

In this opinion piece in a newspaper in Kuwait (which I had Google translate to English), a columnist named Hamed al-Humoud wrote, “Hopefully we remember the torment of the Syrian people when meeting al-Assad.” Dareen Khalifa, part of the International Crisis Group, told The New York Times, “The fact that Assad is coming back strong and untouched, it is sending a signal to Arab leaders… Assad having this victory lap in the region and dictators knowing you can get away with it.”

The question is, are today’s rulers really willing to let him? At least one had the backbone to signal that he isn’t. As Assad prepared to speak to the Arab League summit, Qatar’s emir walked out. Five years ago he called Assad a war criminal and evidently hasn’t changed his tune. But most stayed. Most broke bread.

They didn’t even force any preconditions on the president of Syria to treat his people humanely before seating him again as an equal. Bashar al-Assad is getting away with it. For shame.

Are Ethics In War An Oxymoron?

Hiroshima. It’s an apt setting for the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Japan, flanked by other Western leaders, to meet. It is a reminder not just of past horrors but, if someone goes mad, of future horrors too.

Coincidentally, several weeks before the Biden trip was publicized, Hiroshima became part of a debate with a friend about World War Two. In a way, the issues that came up could have been about today’s war in Ukraine, where the nuclear threat has been voiced.

It started when my friend asked me to name my five favorite presidents. I didn’t put Harry Truman in the Top Five but said he’s in my Top Ten. Why? Because for one thing, he had the plaque on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here,” and he walked the walk. If other leaders took that path, it would be a better world.

For another thing, because Truman made the heart-rending decision in August of 1945 to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima, then three days later on Nagasaki, to end the Second World War. He told the nation just hours after the first bomb dropped, ”Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.”

Japan had abused that power. It had to be stopped. I saw that as a good thing.

My friend agreed that ending the war of course was paramount, but he believes that what Truman did to end it puts him in the Bottom Ten, not the Top Ten. First, because the president had neither the legal nor the moral right to indiscriminately target the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no matter what it might achieve. And second, because whether you accept the military’s post-war estimate of around 110,000 dead in the two bombed cities, or estimates by anti-nuclear scientists of almost twice that number, the unprecedented and unfathomable death toll might not even be what finally forced Japan to surrender two weeks later.

A well-researched story in The Nation, on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima, concluded that the decisive factors at the end had been the firebombing of Tokyo earlier in 1945 and the entry of the Soviet Union’s Red Army into the war against Japan. Its headline was, “The War Was Won Before Hiroshima— and the Generals Who Dropped the Bomb Knew It.”

Some said so themselves. Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, declared two months afterwards, “The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” General Dwight Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that when he was told of the decision to drop the bomb, he had “grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” Truman’s own chief-of-staff, Admiral William Leahy, wrote five years later, “The use of this barbarous weapon…was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.”

But whether the A-bombs did or didn’t bring Japan to its knees, did President Truman, in the interest of protecting America’s forces from more Japanese attacks, have the right to drop them?

My own answer is more visceral than scholarly.

I reported from eight different wars over the years, and have long concluded that all were started for a handful of reasons: regional rivalries, territorial conflicts, irreconcilable ideologies, ethnic arrogance, religious dogma, economic ambitions, dreams of empire, megalomania, and greed. Think about every war you’ve ever known or even read about. You’ll see one or more of those motives at work. Sometimes, to be sure, a war is waged to stop bad people, whether terrorists or leaders of sovereign states. And sometimes it’s for self-defense. But those are the exceptions to the rule. Shaped in large part by what I’ve seen, I would be inclined toward aggression against a cruel enemy that starts a war. In the case of the war in the Pacific, after they hit us hard, we had a right to hit them back harder. Japan started that fight, we had a right to end it.

My friend didn’t buy that, particularly in light of how we ended it. He turned to the Geneva Conventions which, at risk of simplification, define what’s lawful in war and what’s not, what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not. To be fair to Truman, atomic weapons were not on the radar of the nations that originally wrote about the rules of war.

But that was then, this is now. In 1977, new articles were added. One says, when there are no legitimate military targets within reach, which was the case with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, direct attacks on civilians are prohibited. In other words, the rules of war forbid indiscriminate attacks. Shades of Russia’s blanket bombardments in Ukraine. Another says, if the scope of a weapon’s destruction cannot be limited, willfully using that weapon violates international law. In other words, under the Geneva Conventions, using a nuclear weapon when its devastation reaches far beyond military targets is a war crime.

In a broadcast on NPR on the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, Harvard Law professor Gabriella Blum elaborated. ”Under the current laws of war,” she said, “if you know you are going to impact civilians, you must provide warning, and you must take precautions to avoid harming civilians to the extent possible. There is no doubt none of that was considered, and none of that was seriously weighed in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The professor was objective enough to point out though that what is clearly illegal under the rules of war today wasn’t so clear back then.

But by another international principle known as the Martens Clause, A-bombing Japan was wrong even in 1945. Since the end of the 19th Century, the Martens Clause has underscored a fundamental set of ethics even in war. What it says is, civilian populations are protected by “the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience.” Of course that leaves another open question: if wars must ever be fought at all, what kinds of bombs are compatible with “the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience?”

Which takes us to Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of a sovereign neighbor is clearly illegal, under the terms of both Martens and Geneva. And beyond the brutal beating he has inflicted on Ukraine, especially with his strategy of pounding them from all sides, Putin several times has made threats to bring nuclear weapons into the war. In his latest he warned, “I signed a decree on putting new ground-based strategic systems on combat duty.” As if he hasn’t already violated the rules of war, that would complete the circle. Then the question is, if he breaks the rules, does Ukraine, and by extension its allies, still have to abide by them?

Legally, it’s unclear, although responding in kind would be a form of self-defense. It’s something each of us would have to decide for ourselves. Ukraine does have to defend itself, the West cannot tolerate unprovoked attacks on allies, Russia does have to be stopped. The question is, where are the limits? At what point do we go no further and let the aggressor win? Are our hands tied if the enemy shows contempt for the treaties that govern wars? I suspect on that one, my friend and I would still come down on different sides.

Some Are Too Woke, Some Are Not Enough.

There’s a fairly new word at the top of the culture wars right now. The word is “woke.”

But as much as it’s thrown around these days, what does the word actually mean? Well, three dictionaries essentially define it the same way. Colliers says being woke means being “aware of social and political unfairness.” Merriam Webster says, “Aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues.” The definition at is, “Having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices.” “Woke” was even a candidate for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016.

So I’ll admit it. A piece of me is “woke.” Not as much as some, but more than many others.

I abhor any discrimination, for example, against citizens who are gay or trans (or anyone else who call themselves LGBTQ). They are people. Not everyone’s comfortable with the conventional expectations for their gender. Who am I to tell them they should be? It doesn’t matter if I’m straight and have always identified as “he,” I don’t live in their skin. So while people and institutions are attacked these days for being “woke,” if the definition comes down to “open-minded,” consider me woke.

On the other hand, using plural pronouns for individuals who feel gender-neutral— like “they,” “them,” and “their,” even when we’re just referring to a single person— takes it too far for me. As I wrote here a year-and-a-half ago, there are other ways to handle it than to adulterate the English language (like, use the person’s name). I guess I’m just not woke enough.

Likewise, a current controversy in a few parts of the country is about the use of the word “squaw.” Among some Native Americans today, it is pejorative, no better than the “C” word. But erasing it from my vocabulary will take some doing because from my experience it wasn’t always a dirty word. In the 1970s when I covered the Indian occupation of Wounded Knee (and there’s another word, Indian, that went out of fashion), the men referred to the women as squaws and the women referred to themselves as squaws. But that was then, this is now. That’s why the California site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, long called Squaw Valley, has been renamed Palisades Tahoe.

I learned to ski there, my brain has called it Squaw Valley for more than six decades, but I’m trying to handle the change. Not because I want to be woke, but because I want to be respectful.

Likewise, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially came up with a new name for a popular mountain pass here in Colorado, long known as Squaw Pass. It’s now Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain. The website of Rocky Mountain PBS went all-in for political correctness when it wrote up the story this way: “What was once Sq**w Mountain is now known as Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.” It’s a mouthful and it might take me longer than it took to convert to Palisades Tahoe. But because I see no reason to provoke people for whom the old name is offensive— as long as I can learn to even pronounce it— I’ll try. Not because I want to be woke, but because I want to be respectful.

But there’s good woke and there’s bad woke. Which brings me to a form of wokeness that we don’t necessarily see in our daily lives, but if we read books, it affects us.

A friend of mine is a best-selling author, Richard North Patterson. He has written 22 novels, all thrillers. Sixteen of them have made the New York Times best-seller list. Suspense is a mainstay of his writing.

But novel #23, called “Trial,” this year ran into trouble. Not because it wasn’t up to the standards readers have come to expect from Patterson. To the contrary, the book review website Goodreads calls it “a richly woven story” and praises it as “a totally engrossing, thought-provoking, and ripped-from-the-headlines book.”

No, “Trial” ran into trouble because Patterson did not, as he puts it, “stay in my lane.” In his own summation in The Wall Street Journal, the novel is about “the televised trial of an 18-year-old Black voting rights worker, stemming from the fatal shooting of a white sheriff’s deputy during a late-night traffic stop in rural Georgia.” It tells the story through the eyes of three major characters, two of them black. It dives into issues like voter suppression, police abuse, and the challenges for black defendants in court.

And that, as he wrote in the Journal, became a red flag for publishers because of “a new phenomenon in publishing: the belief that white authors should not attempt to write from the perspective of nonwhite characters or about societal problems that affect minorities.”

Nineteen major publishers— including some from his own past who for years had profited from his work— turned “Trial” down. One said she only wanted to hear from “marginalized voices.” Another wrote that the book, and Patterson, were “too liberal for white people and too white for Black people.” Remember, these are publishers, whose very role in our lives should be to expand our boundaries, not restrict them. None, by the way, called the book racially insensitive or inaccurate— Patterson is a journalist and had done his homework. He traveled to southwest Georgia and interviewed black citizens who shared their struggles to secure voting rights and equal justice.

So what was the drawback? It was that only people personally subject to discrimination could be safely trusted to depict it. By that measure, the white author Dee Brown never would have written the definitive story of the 1890 massacre of Native Americans called “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.” Surely John Howard Griffen, a white author who actually darkened his skin to write about the Jim Crow South, never would have produced the groundbreaking novel “Black Like Me.”

The editor of The New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, has written that publishing is becoming “a fraught process with questions over who can write what, who should blurb and who can edit. Books that would once have been green-lit are now passed over; sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis; self-censorship is rampant.”

In other words, too woke.

It seems to me, it should be the other way around. The whole point of publishing is to bring readers experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have themselves, to expand the reach of their lives so that they might better understand the lives of others. What’s wrong with authors doing the very same thing?

Patterson did finally find an independent publisher for “Trial,” which comes out in a month.

As he recently wrote in his own space here on Substack, “People now have a chance to begin reading Trial for themselves, and to make their own judgment on whether I’ve succeeded in writing a human and compelling story about lives different than my own.”

For my money, if publishers don’t become the arbiters of who-ought-to-write-for-us, and if politicians don’t become the arbiters of who-ought-to-be-acceptable-to-us, our lives are better for it. Whether we are woke or not.

A Good Day For Justice.

This won’t take long. I just want to give a shout-out for justice.

Read the news today: three stories that remind us that for all the efforts to subvert it, justice sometimes still carries the day.

The biggest is the verdict against Donald Trump. He can call his trial “a scam” and “a witch hunt”— like his two impeachments, that’s what he calls all the investigations that target him— but a federal jury of his peers, not partisan politicians but common citizens, found him guilty of sexual abuse and defamation. The verdict was unanimous. Trump’s own crude conduct during the 2022 deposition the jury watched couldn’t have helped his cause. He was asked whether it was true about women, as he said in the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, that “when you’re a star,” you can “grab ’em by the pussy, you can do anything.” His response was, “If you look over the last million years I guess that’s been largely true. Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.”

Unfortunately or fortunately.

Who knows, maybe he takes solace that despite the allegation of his accuser, E. Jean Carroll, he wasn’t found guilty of rape, but sexual abuse is nothing to be proud of. And although his stalwart supporters will likely dismiss the jury’s damning decision that Trump’s a sexual abuser, just as they’ve dismissed all the earlier accusations against their idol, most Americans probably won’t. Sure, there are diehards like Alabama’s senator Tommy Tuberville who told The Huffington Post after the verdict, “It makes me want to vote for him twice,” but I have faith that myopic apologists like Tuberville are the outliers, not the mainstream. As New York Times political reporters Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan wrote today, “There is no world in which the result of that civil trial was a positive development for the project he is most focused on: the presidential campaign.”

Trump is appealing but for now, justice has been served.

The second biggest story today about justice is the indictment against George Santos. Remember, he’s the freshman Republican representative from New York who got himself elected by telling more falsehoods than truths about his past. But those lies, while contemptible from a candidate for Congress, were not at the heart of the federal charges. The thirteen counts against him are for real crimes like money laundering, wire fraud, and stealing federal pandemic funds. He is accused of raising cash for what he claimed was a political committee but then spending it to buy clothes and pay off credit cards. He is accused of applying for almost $25,000 in pandemic-related unemployment benefits even though he was earning in the six-figures from an investment firm. He is accused of lying on financial disclosure forms to Congress during his campaign for a seat in the House.

Naturally, Santos says he didn’t do it, not any of it. But since we already know the man lies as easily as he breathes, his denials have no credibility. And yet, in the spirit of Mr. Trump, Santos tweeted today after being released on a half-million-dollar bond, “WITCH HUNT!” Santos has so little shame that he already has announced his campaign for re-election but if he had any chance before, the indictment makes it slimmer because justice is being served. If he’s convicted, he faces up to 20 years. In prison, not Congress.

The third story of justice is about the sentencing today of a sergeant in the Army named Daniel Perry, who shot and killed a veteran from the Air Force named Garrett Foster who was participating in a racial justice rally in Austin, Texas, a couple of months after the death of George Floyd. Perry called the shooting self-defense, claiming that Foster approached his car holding a rifle, and that because he thought the protester was going to turn the gun on him, he pulled out his own pistol and shot him.

But Perry’s case was undermined by his own internet postings. Just a few days after George Floyd’s murder, when riots were roiling cities across America, he said in a text, “I might go to Dallas to shoot some looters.” In a message on Facebook a few weeks later, he told a friend that he “might have to kill a few people” who were holding a George Floyd protest outside his apartment. Other postings unmasked racial hate, all of which weakened his claim that he only acted out of fright. (The victim, like his killer, was white.)

What gives this case special weight though is the stance of Texas’s governor Greg Abbott. Although Perry’s sentence is 25 years in prison, Abbott argues that he was entitled to shoot Foster dead because of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. That’s why, shortly after the sentence was announced, Abbott asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to expedite their review of the case and to recommend that he set Perry free, which the governor cannot do without their blessing. Given the politics in Texas, and the number of political appointees who owe their power to the governor, justice eventually might be derailed but for now, it has been served.

Donald Trump wrote about his own case on his website this morning, “Hopefully justice will be served on appeal!” As in the case of George Santos if he’s convicted, and with Daniel Perry as well as with Trump, I share the same hope. We just hope for different outcomes.

Can We Still Trust The Supreme Court?

This is supposed to be a portrait of justice. A portrait of integrity, of principle, of trust.

These days though, for many of us, it is a portrait of doubt. And of suspicion. Our doubt, our suspicion about the ethics of the United States Supreme Court.

It matters, because reports in the past month about what appear to be ethical lapses by sitting justices, reports that increase our doubt and feed our suspicion, are not just in the abstract. Look at the far-reaching influence they have on the lives we live. These are the men and women who ultimately use their power to decide whether guns will be more ubiquitous in American society, whether a woman can get a safe and legal abortion, whether religion can pervade our public schools, whether the environment can be regulated, whether affirmative action for minorities is fair, whether voting rights are being suppressed.

We don’t have to like the justices who sit on the Court, we certainly don’t have to agree with them. But we do have to trust them. If they’re to have any credibility at all, we do have to believe that they are impartial when they make their decisions. Not ideologically impartial, because they are only human, which means it is inevitable that justices have honest differences of opinion, which lead to different interpretations about the constitutionality of the cases they hear.

But at the same time, we have to believe that the members of the High Court are influenced only by constitutional arguments and not by personal or political connections to the litigants who make them.

We have different expectations of the men and women we elect to the other two branches of government. Whether it’s Congress or the White House, we expect them to push an agenda, sometimes on the behalf of interest groups and lobbyists who pour money into their campaigns. What’s more, we have long come to expect conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, even corruption, in those other two branches of government.

But not the Supreme Court. Not until now.

Although he’s hardly alone in his ethical transgressions, Justice Clarence Thomas is the poster boy for the erosion of our trust.

Thanks mainly to Pro Publica, The Washington Post, Politico, Bloomberg, and CNN, we have learned over the past few weeks about the lavish lifestyle Clarence Thomas has led, funded by a man named Harlan Crow, a wealthy donor to Republican causes and Republican campaigns. In case you haven’t followed it, there have been fancy trips, fancy airplanes, fancy lodges, fancy yachts. Crow also bought a piece of real estate from the justice, the home in Savannah, Georgia, in which his mother has been living. And in the newest revelation, this same billionaire buddy paid private school tuition for a nephew of Thomas’s, for whom the justice is the legal guardian.

Does all this smell fishy? Only when you begin to add the numbers. Crow says what he did for Thomas was “no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends.” And clearly they are friends, depicted in this photo-realistic painting Crow commissioned of the justice and himself and a few leaders of the conservative movement.

But as it turns out, there was once a case before the Court where a company that Crow headed was being sued. It was in the company’s interest that a lower court ruling would stand. The Supreme Court let that happen. There is no record that Crow’s dear friend Clarence Thomas recused himself. What’s more, a federal disclosure law requires justices to disclose most property sales exceeding $1,000, like the house Thomas sold to Crow in Savannah. He didn’t.

Then there’s the report last Thursday that a one-time officer of The Federalist Society, which has long been influential in the Supreme Court choices of Republican presidents, funneled tens of thousands of dollars to Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni, a far-right Trump-aligned activist, as a consultant.

Curiously, her name was omitted from the paperwork, which at the time only listed a lobbying group that had a major case before the Court.

At this point, we don’t know that we’ve heard the last of the stories about very special favors from very special friends. For his part, in a rare public statement, Thomas explained it all away with this: “Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.” The trouble is, his friend’s company did have business before the court, and the property sale was reportable.

The Court claims it polices itself. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a letter two weeks ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee, to “reaffirm and restate foundational ethics principles and practices” and saying, “The Justices, like other federal judges, consult a wide variety of authorities to address specific ethical issues. They may turn to judicial opinions, treatises, scholarly articles, disciplinary decisions, and the historical practice of the Court and the federal judiciary. They may also seek advice from the Court’s Legal Office and from their colleagues.”

The problem is, it’s not working.

And it’s not just Clarence Thomas. A watchdog group called Fix the Court has dug up the failure of other justices across the ideological spectrum to recuse themselves from cases where they had some kind of personal— often financial— connection. From the left, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Jackson. From the right, Alito, Gorsuch, Barrett, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Thomas. In other words, all nine. As icing on the fishy-smelling cake, nine days after Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Court in 2017, the head of a law firm that practices before it bought a piece of property from the new justice.

Analysts say that because of the separation of powers, it is hard to see how anyone else can impose a code of ethics on the Court, let alone enforce it. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be one. There should. Now more than ever.

The justices are not above the law. But they have to be above suspicion. There needs to be a code of ethics stronger than whatever guides them now, because we need to have a Supreme Court we can trust. Right now, I’m not sure we can.

No End To The Shootings. No End In Sight.

We hadn’t even finished hearing about last Friday night’s mass murder of five people in a home in Cleveland, Texas— and about the suspect, captured three days later a few miles from the murders, cowering under a pile of dirty laundry— when it was shoved from the headlines by another mass shooting, this one yesterday, with five victims in midtown Atlanta.

It became the 191st mass shooting in America this year, but I have to qualify that with the inescapable words, so far. That’s 191 mass shootings— defined as four victims or more— in only the first 93 days of 2023. It’s an average of slightly more than two every day.

This might surprise you because you probably don’t feel like you’ve heard about 191 mass shootings this year. Which most likely you haven’t.

Did you know, for example, that just in the past week, when you add in the massacre in Atlanta, there were 18 of them? Tuesday alone there were two, one with four deaths in Lake Wales, Florida, another with two deaths as well as injuries in Stone Mountain, Georgia. You might not even have heard about those. And on Sunday? Four people died in mass shootings in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, four more in Mojave, California, with more gun deaths in Lawrence Massachusetts, Lafayette Louisiana, Athens Georgia, and Oklahoma City Oklahoma. The biggest death toll on that bloody Sunday was in Henryetta Oklahoma. A gunman killed six innocent souls.

If we’re not numbed by the cascade of gun violence, we are surely inured.

Remember that Sweet 16 party only two weeks ago in Dadeville, Alabama, where four kids were shot dead and more than 30 hurt? Outside of Alabama itself, it’s probably all but forgotten. Or the week before at the bank in Louisville, Kentucky, where a gunman walked into his workplace, pulled out an AR-15 assault-style rifle, killing five and injuring eight? You’d have to search to find a news story about it any more. You’d have to search harder to find an answer to the question, “Why?”

In a way, the motives don’t really matter. A workplace gripe, a dispute with a neighbor, a romantic rift, gang rivalries. The suspect in Atlanta, captured hours after yesterday’s shooting, reportedly was in the waiting room at a medical office when he opened fire. Either he went in intent on violence, or something set him off. But five people, all women, were shot, no matter why. What matters is, there is no stop to the bloodshed.

I’ve written twice this year about America’s obsession with guns. In February the title of the piece was, “Setting New Records for Mass Shootings.” In March it was, “Message to Gun-Loving Politicians: Your Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Working.” Now, this dispatch. The shocking thing is, given the gun culture in this country, there will be more. It’s horrible. But it’s inevitable.

The reaction of many Americans these days when there’s yet another mass shooting is to go out and buy yet another gun.

According to the National Institutes of Health, gun sales have picked up over the past ten years following both mass shootings and legislation passed in response to them. The University of Chicago’s “Nonpartisan and Objective Research Organization,” better known as NORC, says that in the past two years, one in five U.S. households bought a gun and out of every twenty buyers, one was making the buy for the first time.

I’m not naive enough to think that gun reform in the U.S.— what a lot of us call “reasonable” gun reform— would change that. The guns are out there— more than one for every person living in America. So are the NRA and a few other “gun rights” organizations that draw the line at the bloody bottom. And so are the politicians they pay to do their bidding. They have turned the American colonies’ revolutionary cry for liberty, “Don’t Tread On Me,” into a symbol of their resistance to any restrictions on guns. I even found this pistol for sale on the internet.

In states with open-carry or concealed-carry laws, you might have a gun like this right next to you at the stadium, in the market, at the doctor’s office, on the bus. Reasonable gun reform would reduce the kinds of guns out there in the marketplace, and in terms of age and personal history, the kinds of people who could get them.

Other western nations don’t suffer what we suffer, neither the intransigence of gun lovers nor the violence. Last month I was in New Zealand where four years ago, after a gunman killed 51 people in a mosque, their parliament did some soul-searching and made guns hard to get. Liberals and conservatives alike voted almost unanimously to prohibit the sale or ownership of virtually all semi-automatic weapons.

But in legislatures across America, the lapel pins on gun rights advocates tell the story: Don’t tread on me.

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, when I’d spend time in ABC News’s Moscow bureau, I’d turn on the TV with a Russian-speaking colleague beside me when the evening news came on. Each night they painted a dreadful picture of life in America. One night they’d show video of homeless people sleeping on a bench. Another night, unemployed people lined up at a soup kitchen. And on another, victims of gunfire, sprawled on the ground in their own blood.

It was not a pretty picture, but it was not an accurate portrayal of American life either.

Nowadays though, when it comes to the violence, I’m not so sure. Just look at Cleveland, Texas. Look at Henryetta, Oklahoma. Look at Louisville. Look at Atlanta.

Make America Great Again? More Likely They’ll Destroy It.

Here’s what we must never lose sight of now that the 2024 political season has launched: if the MAGA crowd has its way, they won’t make America great again, they’ll destroy it.

Of course their definition of what makes America “great” is different from mine. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the unrepentant matriarch of MAGA, framed theirs earlier this month when that 21-year-old Air National Guardsman was arrested in Massachusetts for leaking secret and super-sensitive Pentagon intelligence, which the Justice Department says might have “tremendous value to hostile nation states.” Rather than condemning the act, which compromised our security and antagonized our allies, Greene gave the accused leaker a pass and jumped to his defense. She implied in a tweet that he was arrested because he is “white, male, christian [sic], and antiwar.”

For the record, there’s no evidence that the man was arrested because he is white, male, Christian, or anti-war. He was arrested because he is suspected of espionage. He could have been black, female, Jewish, and a war-mongering hawk. He’d have been arrested all the same.

But being white, male, and Christian, according to Greene, “makes him an enemy to the Biden regime.” Fanatics like her believe we need traits like his— white, male, Christian, and straight— to make America great again. They make that obvious time and time again.

They make it obvious when they curtail minorities’ voting rights. When they attack gay rights. When they embrace anti-Semites. When they defend white nationalists (which from his internet postings, the guardsman appears to be). They make it obvious when they ban books that don’t paint their puritanical picture of America.

Greene’s crazed charge about the guardsman’s arrest was too much even for the supple senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, who through his unashamed alliance with Donald Trump bears his own guilt for the growth of MAGA. “For any member of Congress to suggest it’s okay to leak classified information because you agree with the cause,” he complained, “is terribly irresponsible and puts America in serious danger.”

As if the worst of the worst in MAGA even care about putting us in danger.

If they have their way and keep fighting common sense gun reform, we will have more assault rifles and more bloodshed, not less. If they have their way because their drastic budget demands aren’t met, they will let our nation default on its debt and trash America’s economy. If they have their way and cut aid for Ukraine, we could hand it to Russia and encourage more cold-blooded authoritarian conquests.

These are what put America in serious danger.

Remember, this is the crowd that has denounced American support for Ukraine

The latest disciple— lining up in fact with the international isolationist and Putin apologist Donald Trump— is Florida Governor and presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis. In response to a question last month from Putin propagandist Tucker Carlson (before Carlson was dropped like a cold stone from Fox), DeSantis said, “While the U.S. has many vital national interests… becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.” What he and the extremists in the MAGA movement fail to understand— which is shocking when you realize they want to run this country— is that Ukraine’s interests are Europe’s interests and Europe’s interests are America’s interests. What they don’t get is, what weakens our allies weakens us.

If President Putin is allowed to run roughshod over a sovereign neighbor, it is a green light to him and other powerful authoritarians— China’s has to come to mind— to take what they want. Liz Cheney, the conservative heroine of liberal America, put it well in a statement aimed at DeSantis: “Weakness is provocative and American officials who advocate this type of weakness are Putin’s greatest weapon. Abandoning Ukraine would make broader conflict, including with China and other American adversaries, more likely.” She also made it clear that the war in Ukraine is not “a territorial dispute.” She told DeSantis and his ilk, “The Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom. Surrendering to Putin and refusing to defend freedom makes America less safe.”

To their credit, other conservative leaders— from Mike Pence to Nikki Haley to Tim Scott to Chris Christie to Mitch McConnell—have stood up for America’s aid to Ukraine.

But here’s what’s scary: right now, three-quarters of Republicans who say they’ll vote in next year’s primaries say they’ll vote either for DeSantis or Trump. The isolationists. The apologists.

MAGA is not going away.

And if they have their way, neither are the guns.

For example in Michigan two weeks ago, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed two non-invasive new laws, one requiring that guns be locked up in a home with a minor child, the other requiring background checks for private firearm sales and gun shows. MAGA Republicans in Michigan’s legislature opposed them both though, and now are suing to overturn them.

In another blue state, Colorado, the majority of Democrats could not overcome Republican opposition to a bill that would ban AR-15 assault rifles, and had to let it die. Which inescapably means, more Americans will die.

This, MAGA’s crusaders would crow, will make America great again.

Here are a few more characters from the MAGA crowd who, given their will to fight everything from abortion rights to climate change constraints to cautions about Covid to the integrity of our elections, would destroy America.

In audio uncovered this month, a lawyer named Cleta Mitchell, who was part of Trump’s Machiavellian plot to overturn the 2020 election but now serves nevertheless as an advisor to the Republican National Committee, told a private meeting of major donors that “election integrity task forces” should be created to make it harder for college students— a bloc that backs Democrats— to vote.

The new chairman of the Republican Party in Colorado, a former state representative named Dave Williams, still maintains that Trump won re-election. The GOP chairs in at least three other states— Idaho, Michigan, and Kansas, as well as legislators spread throughout the nation— whistle the same tune.

And let’s not forget the super-majority of Republicans in the legislatures of both Tennessee and Montana. In Tennessee, distressed early this month that three Democratic members of the House had broken “several rules of decorum” during a debate about guns, the Republicans unanimously stripped two of them— both black— of their seats (until the commissioners in their local constituencies promptly and unanimously sent them back). Observers have noted that the third, who was not expelled, is white.

Then Wednesday in Montana, a transgender state rep was barred from the floor of the House for the balance of the legislative session.

Her sin? It’s all about decorum again. She “failed to do her duty” to “maintain decorum” when she told the Republicans, preparing for a vote to ban transitional care for transgender minors, that they will have “blood on your hands.” The hard-right conveniently forgets that for decades, they have used that same phrase about anyone playing a part in an abortion, but apparently it wasn’t inappropriate until now.

They forget too that for the life of his political career, between the bullying and the threats, Donald Trump has been the antithesis of decorum.

MAGA has saturated the GOP.

Then there’s the man whose Wall Street Journal columns Ron DeSantis started admiring early in the pandemic, Dr. Joseph Ladapo.

In his op-eds he discouraged reasonable precautions against Covid and even promoted as a cure the anti-malaria drug that Donald Trump was pushing, hydroxychloroquine, which flew in the face of top public health scientists who said it could increase deaths, not reduce them. But DeSantis, defying science and safe practices, appointed Ladapo to the position of Surgeon General in Florida. Now Politico has discovered that when the Florida Department of Health last year reported that any slightly increased risk of cardiac-related deaths after Covid vaccinations were “no longer significant,” Ladapo actually deleted his scientists’ conclusions.

These are the people who would destroy America in their crusade to make America great again.

But I don’t think they’ll win. From the two last elections, Americans are on to them and they will face a fight. Just as an influential “Never Trump” organization called The Lincoln Project was born in 2019 to counter the creator of MAGA, a new organization called Mission Democracy has just been formed specifically to “stop MAGA” in Congress. One of its founders said, “If we don’t do something now, if we don’t get these extreme MAGA members out of Congress, we stand to lose our very democracy.”

If we do our lose democracy, we will have lost America. They will have destroyed it.

When It’s Even An Embarrassment For Fox.

Remember Bill O’Reilly?

Yeah, that’s my point. In his prime, he was the Tucker Carlson of Fox News, the top-rated host on the “We Report, You Decide” network, a commentator who personified the ugly “isms” that divide America. But once sexual harassment allegations piled up against him, he was out on his ear… replaced in his prime time perch by Carlson. Sure, O’Reilly went from Fox to a streaming show called “No Spin News” but did you even know that?

Neither did I.

Remember Matt Lauer, Chris Cuomo, Charlie Rose? Yes, like O’Reilly, we can still pull up their names and their faces but really, do you have any idea what they’re doing now? Well, five years after getting kicked off CBS, Rose does celebrity interviews that only air on his own website. After CNN fired Chris Cuomo, he went on to anchor a little-known show on a lesser-known network called NewsNation and immediately fell to the bottom of the ratings. And Matt Lauer? He has entirely disappeared from public view, reportedly holed up on his 16,000 acre lakeside farm in New Zealand.

No, I didn’t know that either. None of it. Some anchors who descend in disgrace from their prime positions on television networks still go looking for public prominence, but I could count the number who regain their perch on the fingers of one hand… and I’d still have a few fingers left over.

It proves a time-tested point: the higher they are, the farther they fall.

And so it is today with Fox’s Tucker Carlson.

And CNN’s Don Lemon.

After months of controversy about sexist remarks that he was never able to expunge, Lemon was unceremoniously dismissed this morning with this statement from his network: “CNN and Don have parted ways. Don will forever be a part of the CNN family, and we thank him for his contributions over the past 17 years. We wish him well and will be cheering him on in his future endeavors.”

But that is only the second biggest story on the media landscape about “parting ways” today. The biggest is the even more unceremonious dismissal of Carlson. Here’s Fox’s statement about his departure: “Fox News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways. We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor.”

It was a front-of-the-website story on most other media…

But on Fox? It was buried in a box you had to scroll down to, the tenth story on It figures. He had been an embarrassment to the nation for a long time. Now, he had become an embarrassment even to Fox.

So, not so much as a gold watch, let alone a place at the family table, for the man who spoke to millions of viewers each night from his prime time position on Fox and made millions of dollars for his right-wing network.

But of course Carlson cost them millions too. Arguably hundreds of millions. Although the biggest hypocrite on a network packed with hypocrites told a radio interviewer last month that “I love Trump,” what he couldn’t expunge were his private text messages from 2021 which revealed that he didn’t. “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait. I hate him passionately,” he wrote in one. “There isn’t really an upside to Trump,” he wrote in another. On top of those unrepentant perspectives, texts and emails and depositions in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against Fox showed that Tucker Carlson and his fellow hosts as well as top management at Fox knew that Donald Trump’s claims of a rigged election were a lie. They just didn’t say so on the air.

Analysts believe that those sentiments, led and relentlessly amplified by Carlson, were a major reason why Fox was destined to lose the lawsuit. What they proved was, Fox knew full well that when it charged that the voting machine giant had rigged its machines in the 2020 election to turn Donald Trump votes into Joe Biden votes, the on-air purveyors of the charge knew it wasn’t true. The network had to concede as much in its settlement a week ago with Dominion: “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”

The settlement cost Fox $787.5 million. What they must be thinking at headquarters, reflected in their sparse announcement of his expulsion is, thank you Tucker Carlson.

According to CNN’s Lemon, he himself only got the news of his ouster indirectly this morning, after appearing on his morning show as if nothing was wrong, and he bitterly said so a few hours later on Twitter: “I was informed this morning by my agent that I have been terminated by CNN. I am stunned. After 17 years at CNN I would have thought that someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly.”

But maybe he should count his blessings. He got one last shot on the air.

Tucker Carlson didn’t. He signed off on Friday night saying, “We’ll be back.” But he won’t. Not tonight, not ever. Maybe he’ll try the O’Reilly route. May he be no more successful than his predecessor.

That’s Not What I Want To Lay (oh thanks, autocorrect).

Instead of sitting at my computer as I usually do to write any column, I wanted to try dictating this one. But something scared me off. It’s called “autocorrect.”

There’s a joke about the guy who created it which goes, “The man who invented autocorrect has died. May he roast in peas.”

Or another one based on a classic theme: “A priest, a minister, and a rabbit walk into a bar.” Yes, a rabbit, who then says, “I’m only in this joke because of a mistake in autocorrect.”

Some people confuse autocorrect with spellcheck. What spellcheck does is compare your misspelled word with every conceivable word that you might have meant, then it puts an alert on your screen telling you that you have misspelled something and offers the most likely correct versions. What autocorrect does is decide that you’ve gotten something wrong, then figures out what you meant to say by analyzing what words are most likely to be strung together, then makes the change without asking. Even if it doesn’t have a clue whether the change actually makes sense. Which it often doesn’t.

If you have encountered autocorrect, it doesn’t matter who you are. You can be rich or poor, black or white, female or male, young or old. At one time or another, autocorrect has sent you into fits of silent screaming. Or maybe, not so silent.

My worst fit was a few years ago when I was offering a ride to a friend to attend a memorial for her late husband. I wanted to warn her that “it might be coldish, so bring something warm to wear.” But that’s not what she got. In that irretrievable nanosecond when I looked at my dictated message as I was hitting “send,” I saw that what she was getting instead was, “We will be outside, and it might be cold, bitch, so bring something warm to wear.”

Thank you, autocorrect.

Sometimes autocorrect’s contributions bring no anguish, just exasperation. We’ve all got our stories to tell. The difference is, I’ve kept a few. So here are mine.

For years I wrote op-ed columns for The Denver Post and one day after the election of Donald Trump, I wanted to tell the editor I would be submitting an “inauguration column.” But after autocorrect did me no favors, what he saw was my warning that I’d be sending an “ovulation column.” Who knows, ovulation is not my area of expertise but maybe autocorrect is smarter than we think.

And speaking of Trump, a personal friend who shared my critical views of the man wrote me after another column, asking what I found the worst about him and my response that went back said, “I detest his disregard for the truth more than just about anything else. Anyhow, keep the faith as I shower.” “Keep the faith as I shall” would have made more sense.

And one more Trump story. I was dictating some thoughts for a column about the MAGA president’s bromance with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and wanted to make the point that “what the president doesn’t seem to understand is that Putin only wants to ‘make Russia great again’.” Autocorrect only got one word wrong: Putin. It came out, “Poop only wants to ‘make Russia great again’.” These days, that doesn’t seem far off the mark.

So I suppose it’s fair to give autocorrect occasional credit for inadvertent amendments that improve the message. Like my text to a PR agency that kept sending me political disinformation. What I wanted them to see was, “Please REMOVE me from your distribution list.” But what did they see after autocorrect had its way with it? “Please REMOVE me from your distortion list.” Which is pretty much what I meant anyway.

Sometimes when autocorrect twists what I say, I can only wonder, “What is it thinking?”, which might be the problem right there because although sometimes I want to wring autocorrect’s neck, I then have to remind myself, autocorrect isn’t thinking anything. Like Siri, like Alexa, like all the electronic friends a lot of us use in the course of a day, autocorrect is just a virtual brain, a bunch of 0’s and 1’s, a mass of artificial intelligence that’s sometimes more artificial than intelligent.

So yes, I understand that, there is no neck to wring, but still, I have to ask….

Why, when I suffered delay after delay one night trying to get out of a small airport in Michigan that had little more than vending machines for food, did autocorrect decide to turn a dictated text to a friend that was supposed to say, “If I’m lucky, the airport snack bar will have Hormels chili,” into one that said, “If I’m lucky, the airport snack bar will have whore Mel’s chili?” Mel, if you’re reading this, I’m really sorry.

And when I was texting a sarcastic remark to a friend and wanted to end it with the cliché, “I’m just sayin’…” why did autocorrect say instead, “I’m just Cayenne.” Whether he thought I was talking about a hot chili pepper or the capital of French Guiana, my friend must have thought I’d lost my mind.

Of course if I had proofread each and every text where autocorrect decided to rewrite me, those mistakes never would have been sent. When I catch one, I do learn my lesson… until I fall off the wagon and lazily let autocorrect take over again.

And that includes exchanges with my wife.

Once we were texting about two pieces of art we had seen and I wanted to tell her, “I wish we had them both,” but what she got was, “I wish we had two boats.” Turns out, she wishes we had two boats too.

Or the time when she was looking for something but I was out of town and couldn’t help in person, so what I dictated was, “My only guess is, the upstairs storage room, probably jammed behind other things on one of the upper shelves on the right when you crawl in or, on the back shelf of the downstairs storage room.” Only trouble is, the word “or” became “whore” and so, as they say, that’s when the trouble started.

Remember when autocorrect first came along and we thought it would be a force for wood? Oops, I mean hood. Darn, make that good. Nowadays it’s a nixed blessing. Oops, sorry again, a mixed blessing, which sometimes I’d like to nix.

The Drug War Is A Stalemate.

I’ve never forgotten what America’s senior agent in charge of the drug war in South America once told me. Holding his thumb and his forefinger horizontally in front of my face, he said, “We stay just this far ahead of the drug cartels.” The thing is, his thumb and forefinger weren’t an inch apart. They weren’t a millimeter apart. They were touching. There was no daylight between them.

That interview at the American embassy in Bogota was part of an hour-long program we were shooting in Colombia about the drug war. It shaped my opinion about the U.S. war on drugs. Each side has its wins. Each side has its losses. But the big picture is, it is a stalemate. It was then, and when you look at current statistics about drug use and drug deaths in America, it still is today.

That’s why I felt more than a touch of skepticism when I read this statement late last week from Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser: “Today, the United States is taking significant and historic actions to disrupt the trafficking of synthetic drugs, representing a major contribution to a government-wide effort to save lives and pursue justice and accountability.”

The trouble is, when we disrupt the cartels’ operations in one place, they pop up in another. When we disrupt one form of transport to the United States, they find another.

It’s not that we should throw up our hands in defeat. Deaths by overdosing on the latest plague, synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, are going up all over America. However, we have to be realistic. By arresting drug lords and indicting their collaborators and sanctioning the suppliers who contribute to the crisis, we sometimes slow them down. We don’t stop them.

Yet if we don’t fight the drug war, then the stalemate ends, the cartels win, and the importation and infestation of drugs to the U.S. gets even worse.

And make no mistake, it’s a real war.

In Colombia we spent several days going along on raids in the jungle with the nation’s drug police, known as the “Junglas.” They are a swat team on steroids. We train them, we arm them, and we pay for everything they use, from combat helicopters to M-4 assault rifles to uniforms to canteens. As one American agent told me, “Everything is ours, right down to their lip balm.”

They need our heavy help because the drug producers shoot back. The year we were there, the Junglas lost almost 200 men. Some were killed in gunfights, some were lost to land mines that the drugmakers plant around their jungle labs. It’s the mathematical equivalent to the New York City police losing an officer to gunfire every eight or nine days.

I saw how that can happen. On several days the Junglas took a camera crew and me on helicopter raids against drug labs deep in the southern jungles.

This is where coca leaves are soaked in cement powder, sulfuric acid, ammonia, and gasoline to create cocaine paste, the last step before it is refined into pure cocaine.

The labs are built on the jungle floors, concealed by the trees. But U.S. pilots fly light aircraft— with armor protecting their underbellies— low above the treetops, and when infrared sensors detect heat down below, they mark its coordinates to identify the site of the lab. That’s when the Junglas go in on their helicopter gunships.

Here’s how one raid worked: we landed in an opening in the trees, with a second gunship circling overhead and firing on the ground below to protect us, then on the run we followed the Junglas through a barely discernible trail that had been cut with machetes by the narco-traffickers. We reached the primitive lab, just a collection of stoves, firepits, and barrels of cocaine paste, and the bare belongings of the workers.

The officer in charge put his hand in the paste and told me, because it was still wet, the drug workers had probably only run away when they heard our helicopters approaching.

We hadn’t even finished videotaping everything we saw when another soldier ran in from the perimeter and shouted in Spanish something like, “They’re coming back, and they’re firing.” So along with some of the soldiers, we ran double-time back to the landing zone, our helicopter came back down to get us, and we lifted off.

That’s when we saw a dramatic sight from the air. Not thirty seconds after we left the ground, a fireball exploded toward the sky. The lab we’d just left was blown up. The soldiers who’d stayed on the ground had thrown grenades into the barrels of gasoline-infused chemicals. The second helicopter then swooped back in to pick them up.

That was a win. But what officials told me was, there would be a new lab set up someplace nearby by the very next morning. That is the stalemate.

In another part of the country, near the Pacific coast, some agents with the DEA took us to see a fiberglass vessel they had captured, something they called a “one-way” boat. It was built only to carry cocaine. It’s not a submarine, it’s a “submersible,” visible only about a foot above the water’s surface, driven by only one man and designed, depending on its size, to smuggle up to ten tons of cocaine to Central America, ideally as far as Mexico, from which it then makes its way to the United States.

It is estimated that between the cost to build these one-way boats, plus paying the people who man them, plus the security, the bribes, and the production of the cocaine itself, a typical boatload that makes it out of Colombia represents an investment of about a million dollars. But depending on the quality of the cocaine, a single ton can have a U.S. street price between $50-million and $200-million dollars. So after a single trip, the vessels are deliberately sunk. Moving up to ten tons of drugs closer to the U.S., they have more than served their purpose.

That’s just one of many ways the cartels move their fatal freight. The Department of Justice says they see “cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, supply vessels, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, automobiles, and private and commercial interstate and foreign carriers” employed by the cartels to transport their products.

Sometimes, they aren’t even moving consumable cocaine. To conceal it, they’ve been known to mix it with various powders and extract it on the other end. They even fabricate it into porcelain dolls and fiberglass benches and bricks. They’ve figured out how to extract it from those too.

The American agent who held his fingers squeezed tightly together told me, “The success picture for us is not that (drug) trafficking will completely end in Colombia. That’s not a reasonable end-state, there will always be some drug production.” But he justified the drug war by rhetorically asking, “How many thousands of metric tons of cocaine and hundreds upon hundreds of metric tons of heroin never reached the United States because of it?”

All true, but thousands of tons of cocaine and other drugs still make it out of Colombia. Realistically, no one expects to altogether stop it. And that’s because, if we are fighting to a stalemate down there, we are losing the war here at home.

When we got back to a forward jungle base after that helicopter raid on the drug lab, the Colombian major who led the raid said to me, “Tell your American people we are doing all we can. But we cannot fight consumption in your country. You have to do that.”

That part of the war is beyond the Colombians’ reach. And so far, beyond our control.

Biden Saw Peace, But Not A Perfect Peace.

About ten years ago, I was in Northern Ireland to shoot a documentary about how far they’ve come there after the end of “The Troubles,” the deadly warfare that started in the 1960s between Catholics and Protestants, which in the two decades that followed I covered for ABC News. During the shoot, I asked a trusted friend in Belfast to look at something I wrote. When he came to a phrase I’d used about “religious warfare,” he stopped. “It was warfare, but it was not religious,” he told me. “Most of the people who did the killing never darkened the door of a church.”

It’s probably true. To be sure, it was Catholic paramilitary groups like the Irish Republican Army doing battle with Protestant paramilitaries like the Ulster Volunteer Force. The attacks by each religion’s factions against the other’s made the contempt crystal clear. Over the years, I heard vile venom about religion from both sides. I likened it to the ugly religious hatred I’d seen in the Middle East.

But my friend was right. Those attacks, that contempt of each other’s religion, were a byproduct of The Troubles, not the cause.

The cause was economic.

When Ireland won its independence from Britain a little more than a century ago, the only concentration of Protestants in the predominantly Catholic nation was in the northern counties, known then and now as Ulster. There, they were the majority. So the Protestant North stayed loyal to, and officially a part of, Britain. And the Catholics became second-class citizens. Once when I asked a Catholic terrorist from the brutal terror group, the IRA, why he was at war with the Protestants, his answer was, “My people can’t get a job in the shipyards,” (which were the province’s biggest employer and where, incidentally, the Titanic was built), “they can’t get a job with the Royal Ulster Constabulary,” (which was the police force), “they can’t get a job anywhere that Protestants are pulling the strings, and they pull all the strings.”

It was flat-out discrimination and he was not far off. It was warfare over who would get the good jobs, who would police the population, who would control the government. The answer had always been, Protestants.

So the IRA and other groups set out to use violence to separate Ulster from Britain and reunite it with the Catholic Republic of Ireland.

In turn, Protestant paramilitary groups declared their allegiance to the Queen and, joined by the British Army— with 30,000 soldiers stationed in the province at its peak— fought back with violence of their own. Belfast in particular often felt like Beirut or Baghdad. Civil rights were suspended, barbed wire ran down the middle of streets, sandbags and steel barricades protected shops, snipers fired from hidden positions, explosive bombs were set off in pubs, firebombs were hurled at the forces of the other side. More than once my own hotel, where most foreign journalists stayed, was bombed.

During a riot following the death of a man named Bobby Sands, the first out of ten IRA convicts to die while protesting their imprisonment with hunger strikes, my camera crew and I jumped into an alleyway to avoid some crossfire and almost tripped over a group of young boys playing with miniature molotov cocktails, the way young boys in America would play Cowboys and Indians. Violence was a staple in their lives. Hatred seemed like it seeped into their DNA.

By the end of the warfare, some 3,500 people had died.

Thankfully for the overwhelming majority of both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, that is now history. Not just the deaths, but the hatred, the violence. Things have changed in such a positive way that a dozen years ago, National Geographic Traveler Magazine put Belfast on its list of the world’s Top Twenty tourist destinations. That’s what President Biden went yesterday to see.

And with a pact both sides signed 25 years ago called the Good Friday Agreement, leaders from both religions made a plan to share in the governance of Northern Ireland. In fact today, a political party called Sinn Fein, which grew from the IRA, emphasizes healthcare and education more than unity with the Republic of Ireland, and is the leading party in the province. The Agreement has had a rocky life but at least, since it was signed, the bloodshed that tore Northern Ireland apart has ended. That’s what President Biden went yesterday to celebrate.

While the status quo today is much more than just a truce, it falls somewhere short of a perfect peace. People who once might have ambushed one another now work together, dine together, play together, and maybe most important, share power together. Northern Ireland has traveled light years since The Troubles. But as an Irish journalist said to me, “We dance on a pinhead before declaring our allegiances, our identity, it’s in our DNA, and no matter how liberalized you wish to think you are, that sentiment is still beneath your fingernails.”

That’s why, now 25 years after The Troubles ended, you’ll still see murals around Belfast depicting armed militiamen, a way to mark out territory and make it clear that everyone hasn’t put the past behind.

You’ll still see walls originally erected to protect people from violence still separating some traditionally Protestant neighborhoods from traditionally Catholic neighborhoods. These days they call them “peace walls” but they are segregating walls nonetheless.

In the documentary, we asked whether these “peace walls” might ever come down. Everyone told us pretty much the same thing: if they do, it won’t be by government decree. It will be when the people who live on both sides of the walls feel safe enough to dismantle them.

The bloodshed in Northern Ireland is past. The bad blood isn’t. Not quite. Not all of it. It is a state of peace. But not a perfect peace.

My heart bleeds for Evan Gershkovic.

It’s official: Russia has charged Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovic with espionage. More like, Putin has charged him with espionage. When Russia plays hardball, it’s Putin who’s holding the bat.

There are three questions that must be answered about this story which, if it’s even conceivable, has sunk U.S.-Russian relations even deeper. The first question is, could the charge actually be true? Well, anything’s possible, but in this case it’s about as likely as tropical temperatures in wintertime Moscow. Five reasons for that.

First, if there was ever a time when American journalists reporting from Russia would know to err on the side of caution in everything they do, this is that time. When anyone can be arrested for simply (and accurately) referring to Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a “war,” only a fool would commit what Russia says Gershkovic has done, “espionage in the interests of his country.” From his résumé and from his work, the Russian-speaking Gershkovic is no fool.

Second, only a fool would ignore the case last year of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was convicted and sentenced to nine years behind bars for a much lesser offense than espionage, and only was released from prison after the better part of a year when the United States agreed to trade her for a Russian man convicted as an arms dealer and imprisoned in a federal penitentiary in Illinois.

Third, from my own experience periodically covering the Soviet Union, then once it changed, Russia, I always knew they were watching and listening to me. If I got in our ABC News car in Moscow to drive somewhere, the colors, letters, and numbers on my license plate identified my profession, my country, and my company, everything but my actual name. I’d come to a traffic light and see a policeman looking at the plate, writing it down, then calling ahead to the next cop at the next corner to say I was heading that way.

One of our staffers once flew to Finland to replace the car with a new one and when she was halfway back to Moscow but making good time, she blew past the exit for the motel she’d booked for the two-day trip. A police car caught up with her and stopped her to say she’d missed her exit. Evan Gershkovic knew all about Russian tracking and surveillance and more.

Fourth, the Russians arrested Gershkovic almost two weeks ago now but so far at least, they have not shown a shred of evidence that he was spying. By all accounts (except that of the Federal Security Bureau, which is the successor to the Soviets’ dreaded KGB), he was doing what journalists do: investigating a story. But the FSB makes it sinister, alleging that he was “trying to obtain secret information” about “the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” Of course in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, that alone might be called a crime. Putin himself is a product of the secret police, and suspicion was their default supposition.

And fifth, when a leader attacks a neighboring nation but says that the neighboring nation attacked him, he has lost his last ounce of credibility, if he ever had any. That also goes for the lesser leaders in Russia who fall in lockstep behind Putin and his war whether they believe in it or not because if they don’t, he can break them like a twig.

The second question about the story is, what does it mean now that they’ve charged that Evan Gershkovic is a spy? It means that no foreigner in today’s Russia is safe. It’s an object lesson in how low the threshold of freedom has dropped there, especially for journalists.

I never was permanently based there. I just went in for temporary assignments. But even in that context, I saw how careful citizens had to be about getting on the wrong side of their government, and knew how careful I’d better be as a reporter.

Like the sunny Sunday in the Soviet days when a Russian-speaking American colleague and I were picnicking on the banks of the Moscow River.

We noticed that a man, who had heard us speaking English, slowly and surreptitiously crawled toward us, starting and stopping, looking over his shoulder every few yards. When he finally reached us, he told us in a whisper that he was a firefighter based in a station near the Kremlin and that the fire hoses were frayed but no one was getting them fixed. He considered it important enough to risk arrest by openly conversing with foreigners. And we knew how perilous it was to be with him.

Or like International Human Rights Day one December when we’d gotten a tip that there would be a protest in a small plaza not far from the Kremlin about human rights in the Soviet Union. It was evening rush hour in the middle of a blizzard. When we showed up we didn’t know what to expect, until one woman stepped out of the crowd of commuters waiting for busses and began to place a small bouquet of flowers at the foot of the statue of a beloved Russian poet. But before she could gently lay the flowers all the way down, she was brusquely grabbed from behind. One KGB agent for each arm, a third to grab her legs and carry her struggling form to a waiting paddy wagon. Then came another protesto, this time, a man. Then another, and another. Their crime? The soil around the statue was surrounded by a low-hanging chain and by stepping over the chain to lay down their flowers, they had committed a crime.

Or like the line of about a dozen men who a camera crew and I came across one day while driving through Moscow after the Soviet Union had crumbled. In a silent protest, they had lined up with placards on a sidewalk abutting a dirt parking lot that they’d used for years when they went to work, but were soon to lose to a new government building. They were wary enough to ensure that when we pulled out our camera, they didn’t put so much as a toe on the grass that bordered the sidewalk for fear that they could be arrested for trespassing on government property.

The Soviet Union had crumbled, but its grip was not gone.

The third question about Evan Gershkovic’s espionage charge is, why?

The New York Times editorial board answered the question this way: “Vladimir Putin has drawn on many of the techniques of the Soviet secret police in which he was reared. Once again, people are being arrested and imprisoned not because they committed a crime but because they got in Mr. Putin’s hair, or he needed a hostage, or he wanted to send a signal.” Or, I’d add a fourth option: to get the last of the American correspondents out of Moscow. After Gershkovic was arrested, The Journal’s bureau chief left the country.

Gershkovic is quarantined now in Moscow’s infamous and notoriously isolating Lefortovo Prison, a product of the czarist era, and if the Brittney Griner story is any guide, he’s not likely to leave soon. You might remember that when the United States negotiated to get Griner out, it also tried to win the release of an American businessman, Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned there since late 2018. But while Griner had been convicted of smuggling a small amount of cannabis oil into the country, Whelan— who’d traveled to Moscow for a wedding— had been convicted of espionage. They let her go. They kept him.

My heart bleeds for Evan Gershkovic. And for the practice of journalism in authoritarian parts of the world. And for the people in the free world who depend on it.

Where Disorder and Dishonor Are More Urgent Than Death.

What’s the logical first step for the Tennessee House to take after three nine-year-olds and three staff members were shot to death ten days ago in a Nashville school?

Well, dominated as it is by a gun-loving Republican majority, their first step is to expel two Democratic members who, on the heels of thousands of schoolchildren marching to the state capitol after the massacre to call for better gun control, took to the floor of the House with a bullhorn to support them, demanding a ban on assault weapons. An AR-15 was involved in the Nashville shooting.

But according to the Republicans, this was “disorderly behavior” by the Democrats who brought “dishonor to the House of Representatives.” Apparently this is serious enough that they weren’t just censured, which might seem like a more appropriate punishment to fit the crime. No, they were stripped of their committee assignments in the House, then two of the three who were accused of disorderly and dishonorable conduct— the two African-American men who protested— were thrown out of it. (A third, a woman, narrowly kept her seat). Evidently in the minds of the majority, dishonor is a more urgent crisis to deal with than death.

This is contemptible on so many levels.

First, because what the right-wing Republicans didn’t do in the wake of the mass murder was take up gun control. Which is no surprise, really. Two years ago the Tennessee legislature decreed that citizens no longer even need a permit to pack a gun in public, whether out-in-the-open or concealed. People already can buy their guns in Tennessee with no requirement for a background check. Now there’s a new bill to lower the legal age to carry a handgun from 21 to 18. As for any legislation after the shootings, Republican leadership already has said it won’t happen this year.

But the Republicans wasted no time putting the Democrats on trial for breaking, as the Republican Speaker put it, “several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor.” In other words, when they went to the front of the House with a bullhorn, their crime was that they spoke out of turn. Their crime was that they didn’t have the Speaker’s permission. Their crime was that they disrupted the orderly proceedings of the House. Do you get it? They broke no law, they only broke a rule. But according to a tweet from the Speaker, “We cannot allow the actions of the three members to distract us from protecting our children.”

That would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The Speaker and his allies haven’t lifted a finger to protect the children. All they offered after three more died in Nashville was the now-familiar Republican remedy: more thoughts and prayers.

This was only the third time ever that the Tennessee House has expelled its own members. The first was a representative accused of sexual assault. That’s serious. The second was another representative convicted of taking a bribe. That’s serious too. But this time, elected representatives have been expelled for exercising their First Amendment right to protest inaction on gun reform. That’s what got them thrown out. Tennessee’s House Republicans are big fans of the Second Amendment, but when it comes to the First Amendment, not so much.

The Speaker sees it differently. He told a radio interviewer that the Democrats’ behavior on the House floor last week was designed “to incite riots or violence.” He even had the gall to compare them to the rioters on January 6th. “What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the Capitol.”

For the sake of precision, here’s that “insurrection” in Tennessee.

Compare that to the real one in Washington. The true colors of today’s right-wing Republicans have come out. Again.

One of the representatives who got expelled, Justin Jones, put it all in perspective yesterday on CNN. “It’s morally insane that a week after a mass shooting took six precious lives in my community here in Nashville, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, their first action is not to take actions to rein in this proliferation of weapons of war in our streets, but it’s to expel their colleagues for standing with our constituents.”

And not just incidentally, to deprive voters of representation by the people they elected to serve them.

If this isn’t an assault on democracy, I don’t know what is.

When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.

If truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, then this meme about a human resources executive interviewing a job applicant says it all.

But it’s not just Donald Trump proving the point about truth sometimes being stranger than fiction. It’s the tens of millions of Americans who actually want the guy to get hired. It’s the Americans who still fall for this con man. Exhibit A: Trump’s best day of fundraising since he announced his third presidential run in November came last week after his indictment was announced. His campaign sent out more than a half-dozen emails asking for money, with headers like “BREAKING: PRESIDENT TRUMP INDICTED,” “RUMORED DETAILS OF MY ARREST” and, “Yes, I’ve been indicted, BUT.”

Meantime, this indicted billionaire, who by his own swaggering accounts could pay every penny of the campaign himself, wrote on his website, “If you are doing well, which was made possible through the great policies of the Trump Administration, send your contribution to” And proving again than truth can be stranger than fiction, deluded dupes responded to the tune of more than four million dollars.

To be fair, he did give everyone an out: “If you are doing poorly, as so many of you are, do not send anything.” But they will because, since truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, they still like this guy. This guy who inspires people to racism. To homophobia. To misogyny. To insurrection. To violence.

In fact they love him. Consider the evangelicals of the Christian right. I read of one man telling a reporter while standing outside Trump Tower showing his support, “He’s the next best thing to God.” Evidently the actual behavior of the next-best-thing-to-God doesn’t phase this fervent fan. Remember when Trump infamously said in a conversation he didn’t know was being recorded, “Grab ’em by the pussy, you can do anything?” But he’s the next best thing to God and they love him anyway. His first wife Ivana divorced him when he was caught cheating with Marla Maples, who married him next. But he’s the next best thing to God and they love him anyway. He lies as easily as he breathes and couldn’t admit to a mistake if he tripped over it but still, they love him anyway, he’s the next best thing to God.

Speaking of lies, truth is stranger than fiction when an ex-president, who should be a trusted figure, says “I didn’t do it,” yet most Americans are more inclined to believe a convicted felon and disbarred lawyer like Trump’s former counsel Michael Cohen, who says he did. It’s even stranger that most Americans are more inclined to believe a former porn star than to believe an ex-president.

But according to polls, that’s the truth, not the fiction.

I just read something that reminded me about what Trump told every campaign rally in the closing days of his campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. It is an evocative example of truth being stranger than fiction. “Hillary is likely to be under investigation for many years, probably concluding in a criminal trial,” he told one crowd. “If Hillary Clinton were to be elected, it would create an unprecedented and protracted constitutional crisis,” he told another. The strange truth is, he was foretelling his own future, not hers. One commentator said something along the lines of, “Trump was right. I voted for Hillary Clinton and sure enough, we got an unprecedented and protracted constitutional crisis.” And sure enough, it now includes a criminal trial.

Then there’s yesterday, Trump’s day in court. His lawyers said he was “strong, remarkably tough, remarkably resilient.” But his face, once trapped in the defendant’s chair, told a different truth. Does this look like someone feeling strong, tough, resilient?

Even if he beats the rap, all of this— being charged with felonies, becoming the one getting the lecture instead of giving it— was a badge of dishonor. He was finally in custody, under arrest, the ink still fresh from his fingerprints in the booking office downstairs. He can pretend it’s all a badge of honor, but yesterday had to be one of the worst days, one of the most humiliating days, in the man’s life. He steered clear of the defendant’s chair for decades in lawsuits brought against him. But this time a grand jury of 23 American citizens— theoretically Trump’s peers— had reasons to conclude that he deserved to sit in that chair and not get off Scot-free.

Of course as we knew he would, he painted a different picture when he returned last night to his safe zone at Mar-a-Lago. He had the My Pillow guy there, he had Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene there, he had most of his kids there. Almost everyone who mattered except his own wife Melania. Given that a porn performer is at the heart of the charges against her husband, this had to be one of her most humiliating days too.

Trump ranted, as he does almost every time he opens his mouth, about the 2020 election, always pointing fingers, never providing proof: “Millions of votes illegally stuffed into ballot boxes, and all caught on government cameras.” He ranted about the other indictments in the offing, including the one in Atlanta for illegal interference in an election, saying the D.A. there is “doing everything in her power to indict me over an absolutely perfect phone call, even more perfect than the one I made with the president of Ukraine.” The truth is, a phone call “more perfect” than the one extorting Ukraine’s president makes it even more anti-democratic. He even maligned the New York judge who will try his case: “I have a Trump-hating judge.”

Smart people don’t do that. But truth is stranger than fiction.

We don’t know what the future holds for Donald Trump or for our nation. This trial isn’t slated to start until December and the other investigations— for election interference, for obstruction of justice, for the insurrection— are still under wraps. But while it’s not proof of anything at all, I’m usually a believer that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. There’s a lot of smoke around Donald Trump. He’s not likely to stay out of the fire. The question is, how much of the nation will he burn down with him?

Heaven Help Us.

There is outrage on the right, the likes of which we never saw in the wake of the insurrection of January 6th, 2021.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says the indictment of Donald Trump “irreparably damaged our country.” But did he say anything like that after January 6th? No.

“Another political witch hunt targeting the people’s President” was the judgement of Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert. But did she ever complain that the January 6th insurrection targeted our very democracy? No.

Steve Scalise, the House Majority Leader, said the indictment is “one of the clearest examples of extremist Democrats weaponizing government.” Did he ever refer to extremists from his side of the aisle not just weaponizing but attacking our government? No.

The Republicans’ #4 leader in the House, New York’s Elise Stefanik, called this a “dark day for America.” Did she ever decry the darkness after the attack on the Capitol? No.

The explosive Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene announced that she will travel to New York, where the ex-president is due to surrender, to protest his indictment. The last trip she took that attracted attention was Friday a week ago when she traveled to the Washington DC jail in which January 6th defendants are held and told the world that these men and women who tried to undermine our democracy are “political prisoners.” Did she ever condemn what landed them in jail in the first place? No.

Not to be forgotten, there’s also Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who declared that “The rule of law appears to be suspended,” and had the dangerous temerity to say that this is “probably not the best time to give up your AR-15s.” Did this idol of the far right ever lift a finger to cool tempers instead of igniting them? No.

And finally there’s the accused criminal himself. Predictably, with his penchant for capitalizing every word when he’s angry, he called the indictment “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history.” Did this sick man ever, even once, refer to the insurrection that threatened the democracy of the nation he once led in such incendiary terms? No. Of course not. He doesn’t have it within him.

These are the kinds of people who purport to make America great again. Heaven help America if they are the ones who remake it.

Message to Gun-Loving Politicians: Your Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Working.

Unspeakable tragedy upon unspeakable tragedy. This time it’s Nashville’s. But some would say there’s some silver lining for the people of Nashville: they can mourn in the warmth of the thoughts and prayers of rock-solid gun-loving politicians who have the power to pass laws that might prevent massacres like this. But they don’t. They just pass along their thoughts and prayers.

Like Republican House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who told reporters at the Capitol, “The first thing in any kind of tragedy I do is I pray. I pray for the victims, pray to their families.”

How comforting.

Or like the congressman who actually represents the district where the shooting happened, Representative Andy Ogles. His first reaction was meant to sound heartfelt: he was “utterly heartbroken” and sent his “thoughts and prayers to the families of those lost.”

But it was heartfelt hypocrisy, for here’s the real Andy Ogles: last Christmas he sent out this blood-tingling card to constituents.

The warm holiday message that came with the family photo was, “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.” This did nothing to stop Americans’ obsession with guns. It did everything to stimulate it.

What Scalise and Ogles and others of their ilk conveniently overlook is this: their prayers don’t stop the insanity of mass murders in America. Their prayers don’t help the victims rise from their graves.

Even the chaplain of the United States Senate— clearly a man who believes in the power of prayer— understands this, saying yesterday on the floor of the Senate, “Lord, when babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers.”

But the issue isn’t really about thoughts and prayers anyway. It’s about politics. It’s about the gun lobby. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, yesterday mouthed the company line: “I believe in the Second Amendment, and we shouldn’t penalize law-abiding American citizens.” Left unsaid of course is this: by ignoring reasonable gun reform, the people we don’t penalize are those bent on harm.

When confronted with a question about actually trying to make it harder for murderers to put their hands on guns, Majority Leader Scalise also took the company line: “It just seems like on the other side, all they want to do is take guns away from law-abiding citizens.”

Wrong, Congressman. They want to take guns away from law-breaking citizens like the woman who shot up the school in Nashville. They want to make it harder, if not impossible, for maniacs like this to even get their hands on guns.

Some states are doing that. My own state of Colorado, for example, this week is passing three new laws aimed at making it harder. One would impose a three day waiting period to buy a gun. Another would impose a minimum age of 21 to make the purchase. A third would expand a red-flag law to inhibit someone with a firearm who is deemed dangerous.

These politicians who oppose reasonable measures like these, measures that do not “take guns away from law-abiding citizens,” are the epitome of disgrace and dishonor to the sacred office they hold, let alone the innocent Americans they serve.

Exactly 30 days ago, I wrote a piece here with the title, “Setting New Records for Mass Shootings.” On that day, February 27th, we were up to 86. Today, after Nashville, we stand at 130. No one would bet against that number going up more and going up fast. That is America today.

As it happens, I am not in America right now, I am in New Zealand, and yesterday I found myself sitting next to three local citizens who were talking amongst themselves and the first word that got my attention was “insanity.” It turns out, they were talking about Nashville.

These people don’t have a stake in the debate about guns in America. But what they do have is a stake in human life. What they see and can’t begin to wrap their heads around is, too many American politicians don’t.

Act Your Age.

You might have missed it, but President Joe Biden was declared by his doctor last month a “healthy, vigorous, 80-year-old.” Given his persistently punishing schedule, he must be, because he couldn’t pull it off if he weren’t. Just think about that trip he took a few weeks ago to Ukraine. Biden traveled through seven time zones— first across the ocean by plane, then ten hours by train through the war-torn country to Kyiv, then ten more hours on the rails to get back to safety again—and after that grueling odyssey, he held weighty talks with NATO allies in Poland.

It would have been arduous for any man half his age.

So is our 80-year-old president as healthy and vigorous as a 40-year-old? No, of course not, we all slow down. If an uber-athlete like quarterback Tom Brady could lose power by his mid-40s, the rest of us don’t have a chance. But compared to most people, Brady’s still healthy and vigorous and so is Joe Biden. And by the way, you know how supposedly we shrink as we get older? Biden’s doctor says that since the president’s last annual physical, he grew by about half an inch. If that isn’t healthy and vigorous, I don’t know what is.

Which leads me to the whole matter of age.

Some years ago, my mother came to Colorado for the graduation of one of my sons from college. Early each morning of her visit, I went out on my mountain bike before the rest of the house was stirring. Since it was Spring— what we call “mud season” here when the snow is melting and the slush is deep— I’d get back to the house each time splattered with mud. What she’d say when she saw me (and being a mother, she said it several times) was, “Gregory,” (that’s what she called me when I was in trouble), “you’re too old to ride a bike.”

I was 54.

What she was telling me was, “Act your age.” Which got me to wondering, how was I supposed to act at that age? Is there some magic number after which we should deliberately slow down, just because of how old we are?

For that matter, what actually makes anyone “too old to ride a bike?” Or to take a tough hike? Or to play tennis? Or to ski down a black-diamond slope?

The calendar? That’s how many in my mom’s generation saw it. There came a time when they’d look at the calendar and think, “Whoa, I’m just too old to do that anymore.”

To be sure, not all of them thought that way— my wife and her siblings gave their father a 20-speed bike when he was 80— but there’s a reason why Norman Rockwell, born in the late 1800s, portrayed grandmas as he did. Sensible shoes, hair in a bun, sewing, knitting, baking. Not biking.

Now I’m 76. I’ve been lucky, I’ve dodged a few bullets, so I still ski, I still hike, I’ve substituted pickleball for tennis (as have plenty of people half my age), and I still ride my bike up high mountain passes here in the Rockies. The time when “I’m just too old to do that anymore” hasn’t come. Why not? Because there is no magic number beyond which I shouldn’t. Unless your luck runs out and your body just gives up on you, there’s no reason not to keep doing what you used to do.

Mind you, just like Tom Brady, the older we get, we don’t necessarily do it as well. We have to make concessions to our bodies because we’ve been using them nonstop. Everything from organs to joints wear down. If we’re lucky, that doesn’t stop us, it only slows us down.

I talked to a friend my age the other day, a man who has been an active skier and golfer and tennis player all his life, who just had his shoulder replaced. His wife, equally athletic, is looking at two knee replacements. But he got the new shoulder and she’s getting the new knees because while they’ve both had to slow down, they won’t let the calendar make them quit.

An old-time comedian once joked, “First thing I do when I get up in the morning is read the obituaries. If I don’t see my name, I make breakfast.” So I get up every day of my life and make breakfast. As do a lot of my peers, who live equally active lives. And so does Tom Brady, so does Joe Biden (or at least they get up and eat breakfast even if someone else is making it). What we’d all tell you is, we are healthy, we are vigorous, and we are acting our age. Who’s to say we’re not?!

Trump Is A Story, Even If It’s A Horror Story.

Donald Trump has a knack for grabbing the spotlight. Even when it casts him in a bad light. He just never goes away. For his supporters, that’s a godsend. For the rest of us— and that means most of us— it’s like a plague.

But that’s what Trump’s good at, spreading a plague and sucking the oxygen out of the room. That’s why his social media post last weekend that he would be arrested on Tuesday— although totally inaccurate like most every word the man mutters— became the political story of the week. As Dan Rather put it in his own commentary yesterday here on Substack, Trump has “immense gravitational pull.” More’s the pity.

But it’s a fact, and because of that, although plenty of Americans say, “Just ignore the man,” he cannot be ignored. I’d even take it a step further: he should not be ignored.

Here’s why. For starters, the man has millions of minions in his movement. You can find a story in the news every day of the week about movements of thousands of people or even just hundreds who are trying to change society. This man has millions who stand ready to love, honor, and obey him, and change society more to his liking. By definition, that alone, however perilous to the nation, makes the man newsworthy.

Second, we cannot ignore him just because he’s a bad man, even a dangerous man. Vladimir Putin is a bad and dangerous man too. He has waged an illegal and immoral war. His missiles relentlessly strike a sovereign neighbor nation. But we don’t ignore him. Donald Trump has waged war against American democracy. He fires missives, not missiles, but it is in the interests of the American people to understand where his missives strike next.

And third, whether it’s a disgrace to democracy or not, the man is a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Forget the fact that he faces criminal indictments not just in New York but also in Atlanta and Washington DC. Forget the fact that he was impeached twice and it was only because members of his own party in the Senate had no spine for his vengeance that he wasn’t removed from office. Those might speak to his low character but they don’t change the fact that he still is a front runner for his party’s nomination next year. One could find reasons to ignore other presidential candidates too because their behavior is repellent, but that only raises the question, where do you draw the line?

Which raises the bigger question: at what point would we ignore a public figure like Trump?

In yesterday’s commentary, Rather asked three questions of his own about coverage of Donald Trump:

— How do you find the Goldilocks approach to coverage? Not too much, not too little, but just right?

— How do you bear witness to the outrages and injustices without allowing him to suck the oxygen out of everything else to which we should be paying attention?

— What is the tradeoff between reporting and amplifying?

Obviously the answer to the first question is subjective. Some would say that any coverage is too much, some that anything less than complete coverage is too little. To the second question, there is an obvious answer: cover Trump, but not onlyTrump. And third, from where I sit, reporting on any story amplifies it. It’s the nature of the beast. Journalists make decisions in newsrooms every day about what to cover and what not. When a former and now potentially future president speaks, for better or for worse, his words are important to some segment of the population. When newsrooms start making decisions based on who’s listening and why, let alone on whether a newsmaker is saintly or evil, they are taking us down a road we don’t want to travel.

Anyway, as it turns out, even the inordinate attention given to Trump’s pronouncement of a forthcoming arrest had what you could characterize as a positive outcome, positive because despite his call to his crusaders to “Protest, take our nation back,” they didn’t. Outside the Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday, there were more reporters than protestors.

That said, this former president of the United States probably will be arrested, and probably soon. Too many signs point in that direction to write off as rumor. He will, of course, use that to his advantage, and when you realize that his two biggest fund-raising days ever followed on the heels of the FBI’s search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, you realize that while he has lost some supporters ever since January 6th, the most zealous still stick to him like glue. They are a force we dare not ignore.

The more we know about them, the more we know about him, the better off we are.

Putin and Trump, In Mutual Disgrace.

Does everyone see the delicious deviancy here?

In the short space of 24 hours this weekend, President Vladimir Putin of Russia had an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The charge? War crimes for the “illegal deportation” of Ukrainian children to Russia. And, former President Donald Trump of the United States, suspected of deliberately and illegally falsifying business records to hide hush money to a porn star, prophesied an arrest warrant against him by the District Attorney of Manhattan. He made the prediction on his website with this angry and ego-laden ALL CAPS announcement: “THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE AND FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”

Part of his message fills me with fear. Although Trump’s grip on the nation’s most fearsome fanatics seems looser than before, we shall never erase from our personal memories or from our nation’s history the onerous outcome the last time he called for his disciples to protest his fate. Reportedly law enforcement agencies already are drawing up a game plan to deal with angry crowds at the Manhattan Criminal Court if he is indicted and does surrender, on Tuesday or at any time thereafter, for mug shots and fingerprints.

But the other part fills me with joy. Just imagine this treacherous and treasonous man finally doing a perp walk. Ideally it would be the first of several— another in Atlanta for illegally trying to change the outcome of an election, yet another in Washington DC for sedition.

Forgive me while I gloat.

What these two malicious men, Putin and Trump, have in common is the belief that they can get away with murder, literally in Putin’s case and metaphorically in Trump’s. But the crimes for which each is accused, and the degree to which each might have to face the music, are as different as night and day. In one way to Putin’s advantage, in another way to Trump’s.

It is gratifying to contemplate that the Russian president’s indictment and the warrant for his arrest put him in the company of killers like Serbian leaders in the Balkan war and Nazis during World War II. But odds are that unless Putin makes a serious misstep about where he travels and who he spends time with, he won’t ever actually go to trial. That’s the beauty of running a country where you write the rules. But since 123 of the world’s 195 nations are signatories to the International Criminal Court— including virtually all of Europe— the indictment and arrest warrant leave far fewer places than before where Putin can go without fear of arrest and deportation.

As for Trump, if he is right about a forthcoming indictment and arrest, it puts him in the company of two-bit punks who, since the beginning of time, thought they were smarter than the system. That’s no surprise. We’ve seen time and time again since he went into politics that Trump thinks he’s smarter than everybody. However, although he has always openly admired the authoritarian president of Russia, he doesn’t have Putin’s power to steer clear of liability. An arrest warrant, even for a comparatively minor charge in Manhattan of fraud, would end his decades-long avoidance of accountability in his personal life, his business life, and his political life.

So for the legacies of two men who have held the world in their hands, it was a very bad weekend. It is imaginable that neither might ever spend a night behind bars. But it is inevitable, if Donald Trump is formally indicted as Vladimir Putin now has been, that the picture they each want history to paint of them will be smeared by the memory of their mutual disgrace.

We May Not Like Oil Anymore, But We Do Still Need It.

Joe Biden made a promise about oil exploration when he ran for President: “No more drilling on federal lands, period.” His goal? Independence from fossil fuels.

Then this week he broke the promise. I think the nation’s better off for it.

Not that we don’t want to achieve independence from fossil fuels. We do. It’s a worthy goal and, for the sake of our climate and our health, it’s a vital goal. But we’re just not there yet. We’re just not ready.

Yes, the United States is a net exporter of petroleum, which means the U.S. is energy-independent, but we are not independent in our own lives of fossil fuels. We won’t be for the foreseeable future. Alternative energies including renewables are coming on strong, but we’re nowhere even close to the day when society can wean itself from oil and run entirely on alternatives. Only when that day comes can we kiss fossil fuels goodbye. What’s worse, the war in Ukraine and the Western world’s shift away from dependence on Russian oil make that kiss even more distant than before.

So when Biden’s Interior Department announced the decision this week to approve new drilling following exploration on federal lands, namely, a vast tract of tundra north of the Arctic Circle called the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska— at almost 25 million acres, it is the nation’s biggest remaining range of untouched territory— it was the right decision to make. Hard though it is to accept, Biden was right to break his promise. Our nation has to travel two paths simultaneously: continue the push for a society built on alternative fuels, but satisfy the demand for fossil fuels until we’re there. Unless we give up our cars and quit flying between cities and stop buying products from American factories and sit in cold rooms at home, those two paths are a necessary compromise.

There are three issues at play here. One is political: the broken promise. When he ran for president, Biden won the support of environmentalists because he gave his word and thought he could keep it but now, since he didn’t, they’re raking him over the coals.

The second issue is about the impact on our climate, our air, and our health when this Alaskan petroleum is burned from coast to coast. The government concedes that over 30 years, it would release between 240 and 280 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which will only elevate our position as the second biggest polluter on the planet. Even Interior itself issued an environmental impact statement a month and a half ago that said, “The Department has substantial concerns about the… project.”

The third is its harm to the tundra.

The president of an environmental group called Earthjustice said Biden’s decision “hands over one of the most fragile, intact ecosystems in the world” to ConocoPhillips, which will do the drilling. She is right. There will be consequences. But if we still depend on fossil fuels and won’t be fixing that problem tomorrow, I have to ask, what better place to get more?

Yes, it is isolated, yes, it is pristine, and yes, the Reserve is home to migratory birds and huge herds of caribou, which is another name for undomesticated reindeer. Would we be better served if more of Texas, or North Dakota, or New Mexico, or other petroleum-producing states were exploited for oil instead, with more rigs going up within 500 feet of people’s homes and children’s schools? I’ve been to Alaska above the Arctic Circle. There are native villages to be sure— the nearest to the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska is about 150 miles away— but by and large, while there will be pipelines and roads and the drilling pads themselves, it is because this land is so large and so remote that wells can be drilled with minimal human impact.

Twice on stories, I went to the oil field at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the largest in North America and just a hundred miles to the east of the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the other side). I’ve seen caribou wander into the Prudhoe Bay fields, despite the trucks and the noise and the activity that come with the project. The way I’ve always put it is, they probably don’t like the intrusion of the drilling rigs any more than we like it when a building is erected on open space, but that hasn’t stopped them from procreating and prospering.

The President’s visceral vision is for a society free of fossil fuels. It’s mine too. But as he said in an interview Monday night, “It’s not like you can cut everything off immediately.”

I wish it were otherwise. I wish we all had electric cars in our garages and solar panels on our roofs and wind farms outside every city and an abundance of water running through our hydroelectric dams. But we don’t. Until that changes, untapped fields like the ones just approved in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska will have to tide us over. With the potential for the production of 600 million barrels of oil, they are not the be-all-and-end-all. But they help us reach the day when we don’t need them at all.

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend… Until It’s Not.

The Middle East is changing, and fast. And it’s changing in once unthinkable ways. It’s a new iteration of the principle that has long governed alliances and rivalries in the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

It’s for better and for worse.

The first change was initially summarized in a headline two days ago in The Wall Street Journal: “Saudi Arabia Seeks U.S. Security Pledges, Nuclear Help for Peace With Israel.”

In all the years I covered the Middle East and in most of the years since, “Saudi Arabia” and “Peace With Israel” never would have been muttered in the same breath. So if Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States come to an agreement, it is a very big deal, the biggest since 45 years ago when Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, president of the most powerful Arab nation back then, shook hands at Camp David. They had fought three mortal wars against each other and for years after Camp David, Egypt was blackballed by virtually all the other Arab states. But the peace treaty held. Jordan ended its own state of war with Israel 25 years later.

Since then, other Arab states have established practical if not diplomatic relationships with Israel, for which the United States rewarded them: the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sudan, and Bahrain.

But Saudi Arabia? It is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If the Saudis come around, others will likely follow. Saudi Arabia has long dealt with Israel under the radar— with both Iran and Hezbollah as common foes, they share mutually beneficial intelligence and half a year ago, the Saudis even started letting Israel’s national airline El Al overfly their airspace.

But they want more. Last year the Saudi crown prince told The Atlantic, “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together.”

That laid a foundation and now, they’ve stated their stakes. According to The Journal, the Saudi bid for “nuclear help” means “Riyadh officials want U.S. support to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production system.” They say it would be for energy, not weaponry, although critics are not so sure. “Security pledges” means that “Saudi Arabia also wants firm guarantees that the U.S. will come to the kingdom’s defense when needed.”

And in return? A formal relationship between what is now the most powerful nation in the Arab world, and Israel, which is still, for all our differences over policy, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. That should be good for the United States.

But there are complications.

First, a second report of rapprochement, this time between equally unlikely parties: Saudi Arabia and Iran. The story’s headline yesterday in The New York Times carries all sorts of meaning: “Saudi Arabia and Iran Agree to Restore Ties, in Talks Hosted by China.”

Because of centuries-old blood feuds between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, the Saudis and the Iranians are age-old regional rivals in the Islamic world. An agreement to restore economic and diplomatic ties after they were angrily cut seven years ago would not be an agreement by either side to trust anything the other side does, but it would, as Iran’s official spokesman tweeted, “change the dynamics of the region.”

However, it’s the second half of the headline that portends bigger change in the Middle East: “… in Talks Hosted by China.” This is China flexing its muscle. Three months ago Chinese President Xi went to Saudi Arabia. Last month Iran’s President Raisi visited Xi in Beijing.

This restoration of ties is the end-product. China is a player now, and its goals in the region aren’t ours. This is not good for the United States. What China has set up, if history is any guide, is a potentially explosive relationship between one nation that has a nuclear program with another that wants one.

The second complication, in more ways than one, is Israel itself. The government led for the sixth time now by Prime Minister Netanyahu is the most right-wing government in the 75-year history of the nation. Not only is it moving in the direction of authoritarian rule by fighting to emasculate Israel’s independent judiciary, which threatens its very stature as a democracy, but it is presiding over an era of violence between Israelis and Palestinians that we haven’t seen since the fierce and fatal rebellions called Intifadas. So far, in this year alone, more than 60 Palestinians and ten Israelis have died in clashes and attacks.

Which brings us to the issue that once defined Middle East politics: the Palestinians themselves and their goal of an independent state. When I reported from that part of the world, Arab nations didn’t always walk the walk but they talked the talk like there was no other issue on earth. Today though, that’s just history. In February the Saudi foreign minister said that if his nation is to make peace with Israel, the deal has to “include the Palestinians, because without addressing the issue of a Palestinian state, we will not have a true and real peace in the region.”

Now it’s March, and from the initial reports, the Palestinians are an afterthought. Which probably means more clashes, more attacks, more deaths, and less chance than ever of a Palestinian state.

Nothing is cast in stone yet. Some of the plans for once bitter rivals to make nice might materialize but some might not. The Saudis are always mindful that if they want to lead the Arab world, they need other powerful players in that world on their side. Yet when they openly flirt with Israel, which is still anathema to the Palestinians and the most intransigent Arab states, they can lose as much support as they gain. Iraq, for example, recently criminalized any contact with Israel. And if Saudi Arabia shakes hands with Iran, there’s plenty of history to predict that it might not last which could make the region even more dangerous than before. If it does last, then a pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel will mortify many Israelis.

The Middle East is changing. For better and for worse. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Until it’s not.

Surviving With Only The Clothes On Their Backs.

I have to admit, I haven’t thought much in the past few days about that dreadful earthquake exactly a month ago today in Turkey and Syria. I haven’t thought much about the dead, I haven’t thought much about the survivors. My life has moved on.

But theirs hasn’t.

That’s why I’m glad that out of the blue last night, their lives came into full focus as I crawled into bed, positioned my pillow just where I like it, pulled the duvet tight over my shoulders, closed my eyes, and laid there suddenly thinking, they can’t do that. An astounding 1.7-million people, almost half of them still surviving in tents and many more crowded into repurposed shipping containers or even under tarpaulins out on the open street, can’t do that. They couldn’t do it last night, they can’t do it tonight, they won’t do it tomorrow night or for endless nights to come.

Their ordeal has hardly even started.

Those who are suffering in Turkey and Syria— whether they are rich or poor, conservative or liberal, old or young— are suffering the same sad way. Through no fault of their own, they ended up with only the clothes on their backs, huddled under blankets and rugs, sometimes with some stranger’s cot almost touching theirs. And all in the freezing cold. It isn’t because they backed the wrong side in a war, or voted for the wrong candidate in an election. They ended up this way because, as I’ve seen in other monstrous tremors, no matter who they are or how they’ve lived their lives, earthquakes don’t discriminate.

Their old world fell down all around them. In their new world there is a shortage of safe water and a scarcity of toilets, leaving them living in a petri dish for disease. Meantime, if their homes didn’t collapse, the earthquake rendered them too unstable to return to. Too dangerous to return to. More than a hundred thousand buildings are like that.

The New York Times ran a sorrowful story about a Turkish family of 14 who spent two weeks under a tarp outside their earthquake-damaged home. Then two engineers from the government’s Ministry of Urbanization came for just a couple of minutes, assessed the home, and told them they could move back in. But shortly after that, “the earth began shaking again.” The matriarch of the family told The Times, she heard a familiar rumble from the mountains and the walls began to shudder. “My legs went numb” she said, then she fainted “as the house crumbled at her feet.”

Here’s The Times’s photo, taken by Turkish photojournalist Emin Ozmen, of what’s left.

All that these people have left now is misery and grief. From my own experience, it is inevitable that with the death toll so high— now at 46,000 in Turkey, nearly 7,000 in Syria— almost all who survived lost a family member or a friend. Or on top of that, maybe their doctor died, maybe their grocer died, maybe their teacher died.

With searchers still combing the rubble before demolishing what’s left, those death tolls are likely to climb even higher.

What they haven’t found after the first two weeks are any more survivors. There were unimaginable stories of people pulled alive from the ruins— one couple and their 12-year-old son were rescued more than twelve days after being buried, although the son later died— but not long after that, Turkey’s Disaster Relief Agency announced that it was shifting its efforts from rescue to recovery.

Think about what you were doing during those twelve days— living, laughing, working, relaxing, eating, drinking, sleeping. In all that time, earthquake victims were still alive under the rubble. With no water, no food, no daylight, no hope. For every person pulled from the wreckage, others were buried in spaces even deeper and darker, also still breathing but their lives slowly and painfully seeping away from them.

Recently I heard an interview on NPR with an earthquake specialist in Southern California. What he said was, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria couldn’t have happened in a worse place— a densely populated region riddled with buildings “susceptible” to collapse and along one of world’s most unstable earthquake faults. And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. If it had struck a couple of hours later, a lot of people would have been away from their homes and out on the streets. But it was 4:30 in the morning. Virtually everyone was still home in bed.

When an earthquake hits, we don’t get to pick the timing. It was the perfect storm.

Now that I’m more mindful again of the misery and grief overseas after the earth shook, I can’t shake from my head the tragedy in June, 2021, when the Surfside condo complex near Miami Beach collapsed.

As The Miami Herald reported, “There was no earthquake, gas explosion or terrorist attack to blame.” It was just careless construction, poor design, and a failure to address them “that lined up like dominoes to create the perfect conditions for a deadly chain reaction,” killing 98 people just before midnight.

They were victims of another perfect storm.

We paid attention to that calamity for weeks, as well we should. But multiply that Florida death toll by well over 500 in Turkey and Syria. Multiply the loss of that building in Florida by more than a hundred thousand in Turkey and Syria. Add in half of those 1.7-million survivors still living rough because they have no alternative. Many in one moment had everything they wanted from life. Then the earth trembled. The next moment, they had nothing.

A month afterward, that’s still what they have looking forward: nothing. For what it’s worth, we with so much should not forget about them.

In case you are so inclined, my wife and I looked at several non-profits providing aid and comfort to earthquake victims, and settled on two to which we previously have contributed for their work in Ukraine. They are:

International Rescue Committee and Doctors without Borders

We’re the Saints.

In its own wars over the years, the United States has not been without sin. But this is 2023 and the war we’re talking about right now is Ukraine and there is only one sinner in that war: Russia. It illegally invaded a sovereign nation, it unselectively destroys schools and hospitals, water and electrical plants, its missiles indiscriminately kill innocent citizens, its soldiers inhumanely rape and torture non-combatants. Its strategy unreservedly is to scare and starve the population into submission.

By contrast, between rallying Western democracies to Ukraine’s defense and by giving more than $110-billion in aid— that’s military, economic, and humanitarian aid combined— the United States in this war is the saint.

That’s why it’s shocking to see that many Americans are reconsidering their level of support. The latest Associated Press survey shows it dropping from 60-percent of us in the early months after the invasion to less than half of us today. We know of course who’s driving that: short-sighted politicians who have become the disquieting face of the Republican Party, like Marjorie Taylor Greene who said unequivocally this week, “America needs to stop pushing the war in Ukraine.” And Matt Gaetz, whose “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution calls for the United States to cease its financial support. And presidential wannabe Ron DeSantis, who says of America’s help to reclaim lands Russia has stolen, “I don’t think it’s in our interest.” And Donald Trump, who coddled and validated Vladimir Putin when he was president and says without corroboration, if elected again, he will “end the Ukraine conflict in 24 hours.” And of course Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has praised Putin since the war broke out and wrote a week ago on the anniversary of the invasion that the “conflict… has nothing, strictly speaking, to do… with America.”

These deluded right-wingers are enabling the invaders and regurgitating rhetoric straight out of Putin’s playbook. On New Year’s Eve, with soldiers as his backdrop, Russia’s president said that “moral and historical righteousness is on our side.”

His foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that America’s shipments of arms to Ukraine exceed “all limits of decency.” His spokesman at the Kremlin complained that the U.S. is “adding fuel to the fire,” conveniently omitting the fact that this is a fire that Vladimir Putin set. And in the ultimate illustration of deceptive double-talk, Putin used his annual state-of-the-union address last week to blame it all on the West: “It was they who unleashed the war. And we used and continue to use force to stop it.”

“Alternative facts” aren’t just an American disease.

The truth is, Russia is doing nothing to stop the war. Another truth is, only with American help can Ukraine stop Russia. So this war has everything to do with America. Because Russia must be stopped.

For starters, the United States is the flag bearer of the free world and for that reason alone, there is a moral imperative to help innocent underdogs stay free. The persevering people of Ukraine have shown us time and again that against the prospect of living under Russia’s harsh hand, they will suffer for the sake of freedom.

But helping Ukraine is about more than just that moral motivation. I have written in the past about the time in Moscow when I heard Vladimir Putin tell a crowd, “We were a superpower once, we will be a superpower again.” That is the lens through which I gauge everything Putin does. So this war is about defeating a tyrant whose eyes look far beyond Ukraine. It is about stopping a megalomaniac bent on restoring a fallen empire. It is about defending democracy. It is about protecting the free world. It is, in an ironic way, about keeping the peace.

Our allies within missile distance of Ukraine certainly think so.

After calls in Russia’s parliament to overwhelm not just Ukraine but Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Poland, all once part of the Soviet Empire but now Western allies, a high Polish official worriedly warned, “If we don’t support Ukraine now, there will be new targets for Putin.” Moscow’s military already occupies a piece of tiny Moldova, whose president says the Russians there are stoking unrest. Sweden and Finland, which has Europe’s longest border with Russia, both are willing to forsake their long-treasured neutrality to join NATO.

If Russia isn’t stopped, it will set a petrifying precedent for those nations and others. It will create a new world order in which a huge country can make a smaller country disappear. And it will leave Putin thinking he can get away with even more. It will put our allies in his crosshairs, igniting the possibility that they can be subjugated by a man who is turning his own nation into a repressive facsimile of the Soviet Union.

And finally, since our fate is inextricably interwoven with our allies’, if Russia threatens their security, it threatens ours. Put another way, weaker allies mean a weaker America.

I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Critics complain that we already have spent a lot of money to help Ukraine. Yes we have, but it hasn’t broken our economy. They complain that by staunchly standing with Ukraine, we might provoke Putin to unleash nuclear weapons. From what we’ve seen though, if he’s going to use them, he’ll do it whether provoked or not. He knows though that if he crosses that red line, the West will respond.

Those who would stop American arms and aid seem to forget that it is Vladimir Putin who invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine, not us.

It is Vladimir Putin who bombarded its buildings and ruined its economy and stole its riches and kidnapped its soldiers and deported its survivors and killed its citizens, not us. It is Vladimir Putin who raised the stakes with threats about nuclear weapons, not us. It is Vladimir Putin who set the fires to Europe, not us. What they also seem to forget is, while the United States has sent tons of weapons to Ukraine, we haven’t fired a single shot.

A former editor at the conservative Weekly Standard wrote,“The West… is giving the conflict a momentum that may be impossible to stop. Should bigger guns fail to dissuade… they lead to bigger wars.” What he should have written is, “Should the West fail to keep assisting Ukraine, it may lead to bigger wars.”

That is part of our goal, to prevent bigger wars that might be impossible to stop. We’re the saints here. The Russians are the sinners.

Setting New Records for Mass Shootings.

I was pretty shocked to read that last weekend, in a span of only three days— February 17th through the 19th— there were ten mass shootings in America. 13 victims died, 46 were injured in the states of Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina. That’s just one weekend in February. In fact two states, Georgia and Missouri, had two mass shootings in that three-day span. And those figures don’t even include another just two days later in Florida where three more innocent people died— including a 9-year-old girl— with two critically injured. Or yet another the very same day in Alabama: another four people shot dead. Or two more the very next day in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

And that’s just “mass shootings”— defined as shootings with four victims or more.

On average, taking all the gunfire into account across America, there are more than a hundred gun deaths a day.

It’s crazy. It’s madness. A lot of us have been saying that for a long, long time. But it never stops and only gets worse.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, that three-day weekend with ten mass shootings brought the total in the United States this year so far up to 82 (and the four that followed brought it up to 86). At the same time last year, the figure was only 59, although “only” must be said with a deep degree of caustic contempt.

But contempt for whom? The shooters of course, the killers who pull the trigger.

But it’s contempt too for the irresponsible leaders who enable them, like Georgia’s GOP congressman and multi-millionaire gun shop owner Andrew Clyde, who has been glorifying the semiautomatic AR-15, many shooters’ weapon of choice, handing out these lapel pins to fellow gun nuts in the House.

Some of them even had the heartless gall early this month to wear them during National Gun Violence Survivors Week. Congressman Clyde said on Twitter, “I give it out to remind people of the Second Amendment of the Constitution and how important it is in preserving our liberties.”

What he conveniently ignores is, they also remind people of America’s place as the most heavily armed nation on earth. Serbia, Yemen, and Switzerland come next, but with more guns than people in the U.S.A., the others aren’t even close. Just for good measure, we also have one of the world’s highest per capita rates of death by firearm.

It’s contempt for rash leaders like Marjorie Taylor Greene, also from Georgia, who sarcastically tweeted last week that if Red State Democrats had their way, “they would immediately disarm their citizens of course because those bad guns get up and kill people by themselves all the time.” What she expediently overlooks is, those “bad guns” wouldn’t kill people if bad people couldn’t so easily get those bad guns.

It’s contempt for reckless leaders like Alabama’s Republican congressman Barry Moore, who claimed without foundation early last week, “The anti–Second Amendment group won’t stop until they take away all your firearms” and excitedly took to Twitter to announce his bill “to make the AR-15 the National Gun of America.”

If you need to be reminded, it was an AR-15 that cut down five people at Club Q in Colorado Springs. It was an AR-15 that killed ten shoppers at the supermarket in Buffalo, New York. It was an AR-15 that wiped out 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. An AR-15 executed 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. An AR-15 shot 49 people to death at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. An AR-15 mowed down 473 innocents, killing 60 of them, at a country music festival in Las Vegas.

But this Alabama congressman, just like the murderers in these shootings, would make it “the National Gun of America.” His co-sponsors include the likes of Georgia’s gun shop owner Congressman Clyde, Colorado’s gun-toting Lauren Boebert of Christmas card fame…

… and the unconscionably unshamable George Santos of New York.

This is hardly an honor roll, let alone an honorable roll, from the House of Representatives.

Congresspeople Clyde and Greene and Boebert and Moore and their fellow firearm fanatics cite the Second Amendment as if its meaning and intent are crystal clear. But they’re not and never have been. What it says is, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The gun lobby has always adulterated that language to minimize the significance of those first four words, “A well regulated Militia.” But that is what James Madison wanted to protect when he wrote the Second Amendment: a well-regulated militia, not every American who wants to be armed with an AR-15.

Tragically though, with their political pull, gun advocates have carried the day. Whether in legislatures or courts, reasonable regulation loses out more often than not.

Nor are they honest about the issue. Newsweek quoted the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s characterization of the semiautomatic AR-15’s users: “Hunters, competitors, millions of Americans seeking home-defense guns and many others who simply enjoy going to the range.” What it leaves out, of course, are the killers at Club Q and Uvalde and Pulse and all the rest.

These people would turn “gun reform” into dirty words. Like Congressman Clyde, they say it threatens our liberties. It doesn’t. Like Congresswoman Greene, they say it would mean the end of Second Amendment rights. It wouldn’t.

If better background checks could stop dangerous people from buying a gun, would that be a bad thing? If concealed weapon permits weren’t so easy to get, would that be a bad thing? If a waiting period helped some people cool off before going on a rampage, would that be a bad thing? If red flag laws kept unstable Americans from purchasing firearms, would that be a bad thing? If a citizen couldn’t buy a gun until the relatively mature age of 21, would that be a bad thing? If an assault weapons ban could dry up most of the market for AR-15s, would that be a bad thing?

Some bad people will still get around reasonable regulations on guns. Nobody is naive enough to think otherwise. But if fewer could get around them, would that be a bad thing?

No it would not. It would have been a very good thing in fact for the 13 people killed and the 46 injured in that three-day weekend last week. And for all who’ve been shot since then.

After One Year, The War Is A Stalemate

The second year starts tomorrow.

It’s the second year of the worst European war since WW2, a war that has taken the lives of over a hundred thousand Ukrainians and ruined the lives of tens of millions more. A war that has largely destroyed the infrastructure of an entire nation. A war that has cost western allies more than a hundred billion dollars. A war that has shown the cruelest colors of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. And weakened his economy. And killed or injured up to two-hundred-thousand of his soldiers.

So after all those losses on both sides from a full year of war, where does it stand today? It is a stalemate. Each side has some strong winds behind it, but each also has gale-force winds in its face. Predictions about who will win and how it ends are folly, but if we look at where it’s going on this first anniversary of Putin’s invasion, the trend lines seem to be going up for Ukraine, sinking for Russia. President Biden’s daring trip to Kyiv on Monday only reinforced that impression. After a year of Russian assaults on Ukraine’s capital, it was a heartening illustration that Biden got there, Putin didn’t.

However, it wouldn’t take much for any of those trend lines to change.

First, the trend lines for Ukraine. They haven’t always come easily but better tools, stronger tools, more accurate tools to fight the war are coming. Tanks, rockets, longer-range missiles, air defense systems, artillery shells by the hundreds of thousands. Eventually maybe even western fighter jets to replace the Soviet-era jets in the Ukrainian Air Force. The good news is, many of these weapons are in the Ukrainians’ hands now. The bad news is, others will require months of training— which also means the withdrawal of soldiers from the front lines so they can learn to use them— before they can do any good on the battlefield.

Since it appears that Russia is launching its winter offensive right now, that makes it a race against time for Ukraine. During a meeting last week of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, comprised of the 54 nations proactively supporting Ukraine, NATO’s secretary general said that the “current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production.” In other words, Ukraine is burning through ammunition faster than we can replace it. Countries contributing artillery rockets and other weapons, including the United States, are stepping up the pace of their production, but the secretary general called it a “race of logistics.”

So far though, the allies aren’t blinking. There have been a few twitches in the course of committing new weapons to Ukraine, but between diplomacy and a sense of self-defense, they’ve come to a meeting of the minds and made those commitments. And for all the bluster in the U.S. from some ultraconservative members of Congress, including the “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution introduced two weeks ago to “suspend all foreign aid for the War in Ukraine,” signs are that the United States will continue to lead the crusade.

But maybe the most important factor pushing Ukraine’s trend lines upwards has nothing to do with artillery or tanks or anything like that. Rather, there’s a single intangible motivator that could tip the scales: one nation, Russia, wants to reconquer lands it once possessed. The other, Ukraine, doesn’t want to be conquered. As Biden said after he left Ukraine and spoke in Poland, “A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never be able to erase the people’s love of liberty.” That helps explain why the Ukrainians have fought back with strength, with endurance, and with determination and grit that no one expected.

Few who made projections about the war a year ago expected them to hold out for more than a few days against Russia’s onslaught. They were wrong. General David Petraeus put it this way in an interview last week: “Ukrainians see the ongoing conflict as their War of Independence, and they have responded accordingly.” Ukraine, he said, is fighting “for its national survival.”

But when you see this grave in a Ukrainian village, the image of the buried soldier already fading ten months after his death, you see the unspeakable cost of Ukraine’s survival.

The trend lines for Russia aren’t as positive. Putin evidently believed a year ago that his forces would swoop into the country and capture everything they wanted with a minimum of cost. He was wrong. Although Russia still outmans and outguns Ukraine, it hasn’t had a major battlefield victory in months. Russia has seized some of the territory it wanted in the past year but not everything it attacked and has even lost some of it back.

So, like the Russian generals who have been appointed, then replaced in the past year, the Russian strategy has shifted back and forth. It had to. Now, it appears that they will try to use strength in numbers— as well as relentless missile attacks against civilians— to subdue Ukraine. From both satellite and battlefield surveillance, analysts believe Russia has positioned about 300,000 new troops near the front lines. The good news for Russia is, with a population more than three times as large as Ukraine’s, Russia has human resources that Ukraine can’t match. The bad news for Russia is, they’ll face Ukrainian forces who already are better trained and better equipped than they were a year ago. As those new Western weapons come in, they will be even stronger.

That is Russia’s race against time.

What’s more, who Russia’s sending and how they’re deployed doesn’t reflect the army of a superpower.

A prison rights group called Russia Behind Bars— surprisingly still permitted to operate in Moscow— estimates that by offering reduced time in jail or even commutations of sentences, Russia has upwards of 50,000 convicts who serve as cannon fodder in Ukraine. They have next to no equipment and next to no training. According to interviews with some who’ve been captured, they are told that if they disobey orders to advance on the enemy, they will be shot. Western governments say that as many as 70-percent of the convict battalions end up injured or dead.

When you see this graveyard in southern Russia, which local residents told The New York Times had about 50 graves in December but now has upwards of 300 with more being buried every day, you see Russia’s unspeakable cost.

What you can conclude from all this is, the Russians have had to downgrade the caliber of their battle force while the Ukrainians, with the help of their allies, have upgraded theirs. But General Petraeus is wary. He warns, do not underestimate Vladimir Putin, who has faith in the Russian people’s historical capacity to endure. “He still believes that Russia can ‘out-suffer’ the Ukrainians, Europeans, and Americans in the same way that Russians out-suffered Napoleon’s army and Hitler’s Nazis.”

As I write this, Russia is suffering more setbacks, plagued by poor planning in a battle for a large town in southern Ukraine called Vuhledar. Photo drones have recorded scenes of Russian tanks fleeing Ukrainian attacks in all directions, stumbling into minefields or exploding from direct hits and sometimes, in their frantic escapes, running over their own infantrymen. A former defense minister for the Russian-occupied region of the battle lamented on social media, “A lot of good tanks and the best paratroopers and marines were liquidated.”

But President Putin, at least publicly, is undeterred. At a ceremony last week, he said his army was “working as it should. Right now. Fighting heroically.” If so, that doesn’t bode well for whatever Russia has coming next. Putin might have big plans for this new offensive, but from the looks of things right now, his army doesn’t have the means to carry them out.

However, that doesn’t mean that Ukraine has the means either to finish the job against Russia. As columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote the other day, “We give Ukraine enough to survive but, so far, not enough to win.” James Stavridis, the retired supreme allied commander at NATO, added to that: “Putin is all in, and we should be as well. That means fighter aircraft, ATACMS, high-end anti-ship cruise missiles— the kitchen sink.”

That has to happen now, as the second year starts. It can’t wait long beyond that.

Jimmy Carter. On The Plus Side.

Jimmy Carter, the 98-year-old former leader of the free world, has gone into hospice. He will not be remembered in the pantheon of our best presidents, but periodically I got to report on him before his presidency, during his presidency, and after his presidency, and I’m convinced that he should be remembered as one of our best ex-presidents. He should also be remembered as one of our best men.

I want to tell you why.

The first time I linked up with Jimmy Carter, it was 1975, wintertime in Iowa, and he was campaigning for president. He was a southern-talking one-term governor from a Deep South state. He was going up against the last surviving icon of a political dynasty, Ted Kennedy. Nobody thought he had a prayer of winning the 1976 Democratic nomination, let alone of going on to knock off the incumbent president Gerald Ford.

Nobody except Jimmy Carter.

As a producer for ABC, I already had covered presidential campaigns four years earlier, when even in the early stages, candidates chartered 727s and traveled with a coterie of aides. My lasting visual from that first time I covered Carter is of him getting off a small propeller aircraft, carrying his suit bag over his shoulder with just two aides in tow. He held small coffee-klatches in the homes of local Democrats. He sometimes slept in their spare bedrooms. It was not just a grass-roots campaign, it was funded on a shoestring.

His campaign continued on that track for a long time until people began to see, maybe this guy has a chance. It had to be humbling, but he was a humble man.

Then when Carter won the White House, he saw an opening for American diplomacy in the Middle East that might bring peace between Israel and Egypt, who had fought three vicious wars since the creation of Israel. He rushed into that opening. I shuttled around the Middle East with the president, not just between Israel and Egypt but to other Arab capitals of influence in North Africa and the Persian Gulf. He was tireless, he was relentless. Eventually, he won what he fought for, something no president before him had achieved: a handshake and a signature between once bitter enemies, Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat.

The peace of the Camp David Accords has lasted to this day, and the sentiment that came from both Begin and Sadat— both of whom at different points wanted to walk out of the negotiations— was, it wouldn’t have happened without the dogged determination of Jimmy Carter.

I didn’t see him again until his ex-presidency, some 25 years later, when I went with a camera crew to Liberia, on the coast of West Africa, to cover the first presidential elections after a 15-year-long civil war that had left Liberia in disarray and in ruins.

In its role as a conflict mediator, the Carter Center had established the framework for a free and fair vote, and Jimmy Carter and his former First Lady Rosalynn came to see it through. One of the first things Carter did when he got there, after traveling commercially for 36 hours from Atlanta, was meet with the two leading candidates and convince them that democracy could take root there.

What Carter told me in an interview on the ground there was, “You can’t force democracy on other people. You have to give them an opportunity to define their own standards of democracy and their procedures for reaching a democratic government.” His force of personality was strong enough that when the two leading candidates met— a 38-year-old soccer legend with no political background and a grandmother and former finance minister— they shook hands, they smiled, and they chatted. After 15 years of brutality from border to border, there was none around the election.

What Carter preached was ballots, not bullets, and it was persuasive enough that on election day itself we saw people who traveled all night, some in bare feet, then stood for hours in long lines, to vote. Some had been there since midnight: people with no legs, people who couldn’t see, women with little babies on their backs.

We spent part of that day with the Carters themselves as they went from cinderblock polling place to cinderblock polling place, the ex-president’s humility showing yet again.

He was acting as a poll watcher, sporting a baseball cap with a clipboard in his hands and pencil on a string around his neck. It was hot and humid and the voting sites were packed with people at every stop, but to the chagrin of their small and less-than-thrilled Secret Service detail, the Carters cut a path straight to the lines of voters on rocky hillsides, to monitor and confirm that all the electoral rules were being followed. Here was Jimmy Carter, once the most powerful man on earth, but he didn’t demand a protective path eight feet wide, he didn’t require a red carpet, he didn’t have anyone holding an umbrella or waving a fan to mitigate the African sun.

A little anecdote: after the first couple of stops, I came out perspiring from head to toe, but Carter was dry as a bone and I asked him how it was that the heat and humidity didn’t get to him. His answer was, “Son, I’m from Plains, Georgia. This is just like home.” After maybe the fourth voting place though, Carter came out drenched with sweat and walked up to me and said with a smile, “You happy now?”

I was so impressed with how Carter handled himself— flying across many time zones to an equatorial nation where both water and electricity were still in desperately short supply, where neither decent hygiene nor surefire security was guaranteed, and whose civil war hadn’t even entirely ended— that I asked if I could come down to Georgia and do a long interview with him when we all got home. A couple of weeks later, I did, and when he answered a couple of my questions, I knew that when I decided that despite his often-plagued presidency he was a great man, I wasn’t wrong.

This was the first question: “You’ve participated in so many operations like the one in Liberia. And watching you it was hot, it was muggy, it’s dirty, it’s dysfunctional, it’s not the safest place on earth. You could be living the easy life. Why not?”

This was Carter’s answer: “Well it’s not a sacrifice for me. It’s a very gratifying experience. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, it’s unpredictable, it’s adventurous. And the culmination in the case of a destitute and bereaved and suffering country like Liberia of a successful election followed by an enlightened administration is an extremely worthy personal goal for me, and I hope and expect that’s what we can see. It’s been by far the best part of my life.”

But I still wanted to know why he didn’t feel entitled at his age, and after all his work, to just sit in a rocking chair on his front porch in Plains and relax. What he said sticks with me to this day, and it went pretty much like this: “I am in a unique position: I’m a former president of the United States of America. If I see a problem anywhere in the world, I can call a prime minister, a potentate, another president, and at least have a chance to be heard. Wouldn’t it be a pity to waste that?”

Other former presidents have. Jimmy Carter never did.

Abusing Artificial Intelligence: There Are No Silver Bullet Solutions.

When I was senior correspondent for Mark Cuban’s all-high-definition television network HDNet, I anchored the Democratic National Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston, then the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York. If you’d been watching (which few were), you’d have seen me behind my anchor desk high above each arena, with politicians and delegates and lots of balloons swirling on the convention floors behind me.

Except I wasn’t there. I was sitting on a tall stool— not even behind an anchor desk— at HDNet’s primary production studio in Denver. But you would not have known. What you were seeing was real, and in real time: the politicians, the delegates, even the anchor desk. We simply weren’t all in the same place. If I hadn’t said on each broadcast that I was actually reporting from Denver, you would have had no way to know otherwise.

But that was then, 2004, the age of innovative video overlays, which seemed at the time like pretty hot technology. And this is now, 20 years later: the age of artificial intelligence, more commonly abbreviated to “A.I.” It makes television technology from 20 years ago seem like child’s play, and in terms of both simple use and easy access, it’s coming at us at mach speed.

That’s both good and bad. The good parts are already with us.

Google Maps, with realtime routing suggestions, uses A.I. So does the home page on Netflix that offers entertainment suggestions compatible with what you’ve watched in the past. Likewise (although not always so good), those pop-up ads on your computer screen, reflecting some previous search you’ve made. And self-driving cars, which compile the conditions all around you and guide you, hopefully, to your destination. Even those vacuum cleaners that learn their way around a home, covering every corner without discreet commands, are a form of A.I..

But A.I. doesn’t have a mind of its own. In the simplest terms I can figure out to explain it, A.I. is the lightning-fast compilation of digitized data from every conceivable source to find a solution— from driving to marketing to vacuuming— without additional human input.

But high-tech specialists have been using A.I. to create those things for us because we couldn’t use it ourselves. Until now. Just three months ago, the leading commercial company in the field, called OpenAI, made artificial intelligence accessible to anyone who wants to try it. Then Microsoft, in partnership with OpenAI, made it available on its Bing search engine. The Chinese search engine Baidu is soon following suit. Google is not far behind.

What this means is, instead of just searching on the internet for one piece of information at a time and eventually combining the searches to come up with the solution we need, we can ask an A.I. program to do the heavy lifting without a specialist in sight. An easy example comes from Clare Duffy, a writer with CNNBusiness, who says, “I asked Bing to write me a five-day vegetarian meal plan. It returned a list of vegetarian meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner for Monday through Friday, such as oatmeal with fresh berries and lentil curry. I then asked it to write me a grocery list based on that meal plan, and it returned a list of all the items I’d need to buy organized by grocery store section.”

In the fields of healthcare and education, science and law, business plans and vacation plans, the implications are exciting. The information’s already out there, A.I. just puts it into usable formats, and fast.

But like I say, that’s the easy stuff. Thanks to public access to A.I., with just a few short instructions we can actually use our own computers now to write essays, to compose music, to produce art. It’s called “automatic content creation.”

For example, as part of a joint study by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, the Stanford Internet Observatory, and the company OpenAI, someone fed the following words into Google’s A.I. to see what it would come up with: “A raccoon wearing formal clothes, wearing a top hat and holding a cane. The raccoon is holding a garbage bag. Oil painting in the style of Rembrandt.” That’s it.

And this is what they got.

Likewise, you can tell an A.I. program to write a birthday song for a friend, and you can ask for it in the style of rock, the style of rap, the style of soul, the style of opera. And did you watch Sunday’s Super Bowl? An ad in the first half for E-Trade featured talking babies whose lips absolutely matched the adult voices that came from their mouths. A.I.

But here’s where the trouble starts. No matter what it’s creating, A.I. is drawing from existing data, which sometimes means drawing from resources someone else owns. Even more troubling, it can use those resources to create content out of whole cloth. The Georgetown/Stanford/OpenAI study illustrated the technical progress of A.I. by displaying eight faces, all compiled from real human faces but none of them real themselves.

These implications are more frightening than exciting, because when it comes to manipulation, to disinformation, the possibilities are endless. For example, in an A.I. field called “deepfake videos,” troublemakers created a video that seamlessly superimposed Michelle Obama’s face on the gyrating body of a porn actress who was stripping. In another, you could see and hear Ukrainian president Zelensky telling his troops to surrender to Russia.

These things can be produced by sovereign states out to influence public opinion, they can be produced by lone wolves out to smear someone they don’t like.

Then there is the issue of writing by A.I.. Feed in the right words— like they did to get the picture of the raccoon— and in mere minutes you can produce an essay that proves that Bill Gates is tracking all of us with the microchips he put in our Covid vaccines, or that there really was no WW2 Holocaust. As columnist Maureen Dowd recently asked, “Once A.I. can run disinformation campaigns at lightning speed, will democracy stand a chance?”

I got together the other day with one of my best friends from growing up, Rick Levin, who for 20 years was the president of Yale. I asked him what leaders in the field of education think about A.I., which perfidious students, a.k.a. students who are willing to cheat, can now use to write their papers. His answer was, “They’re scared stiff.”

But he also told me, “They’re working on it.” And they are. OpenAI just put out a tool to try to distinguish between what a human would write and what a computer would write. What it does is hunt not just for hidden markers like digital signatures, but for mistakes with the use of logic, grammar, phrasing, and other errors that a human would be unlikely to make. However, while no doubt the tool will get better, OpenAI currently concedes that “it is impossible to reliably detect all A.I.-written text.” Right now, it’s only catching just over 25%.

That Georgetown/Stanford/OpenAI report offers a sobering conclusion about the manipulation of A.I. for the wrong purposes: “There are no silver bullet solutions.” But at the same time, it also offers suggestions to mitigate disinformation and other negative uses of A.I. One is for A.I. developers to build systems that are more “fact-sensitive.” Another is to require what they call “proof of personhood” for A.I. users. Yet another calls for deeper collaboration between A.I. developers, government agencies, and social media companies.

However, even those ideas have their limits. The technology is changing so fast that it’s almost impossible to anticipate A.I.’s next generation. What’s more, those who will use A.I. to destabilize everything from business to politics to education eventually will build their own systems, which won’t be subject to anyone’s controls.

The train has left the station and there’s no stopping it. Artificial intelligence will be used for good but as we’ve seen with the evolution of the internet, it also will be used for evil, which means that ultimately, it’s up to each of us to figure out what’s fact and what’s fiction, what’s real and what’s not. It’s important to understand though that some of what we see, even if generated by A.I., is still true.

Those Who Would Compromise Freedom of the Press.

Some ordinary Americans would be hard-pressed to actually define “freedom of the press.” As it turns out, so would some lawmakers, some jurists, even some journalists themselves.

So I’ll give it a shot: freedom of the press means that journalists can circulate facts and opinions without the intimidating fear of constraint or censorship by their government. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Even when it’s abused— and sometimes it is— freedom of the press is a principal pillar of democracy. Without freedom of the press, governments can operate without watchdogs checking their power. Without freedom of the press, citizens can’t assemble the information they need to make educated decisions about public policy.

Most of the world doesn’t have it. The think tank Freedom House, which campaigns to make governments accountable to their people, cited egregiously bad examples like Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria and concluded in a report a few years ago titled “Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon” that only 13% of the world’s population lives with a free press. In all likelihood, that figure now has dropped even lower. Think Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, Turkey’s Erdogan. Erdogan visited his nation’s earthquake zone on Wednesday and said in response to criticisms of the government’s response to the calamity, “I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.”

Shades of Donald Trump’s mantra, now a motto of MAGA: “fake news.” It was Trump who borrowed menacing language from two of modern history’s most malicious despots— Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin— and declared that the news media were “the enemy of the people.”

Now, his autocratic copycats don’t want to stop with the rhetoric. They want to stop the media’s freedom, or at the very least, to stifle it.

This time it’s Florida’s governor and presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis. This doesn’t come as a surprise. Three years ago during the early stages of the pandemic, when he “reopened” Florida almost before any other state and his strategy was slammed in The Miami Herald, his response was to ban the Herald’s reporter from a news conference. Last year, when a journalist raised criticisms about how DeSantis handled the deadly and destructive Hurricane Ian, the governor’s response was “Stop, stop, stop,” scolding the reporter for “trying to cast aspersions.”

So now he’s on a new tear.

Last week, complete with a stage designed to evoke a television news set, DeSantis hosted a roundtable discussion about what his office labeled as “Legacy Media Defamation Practices.” To be clear, “defamation” means a statement that hurts someone’s reputation. When it’s oral, it’s called slander. In written form, it’s called libel.

What DeSantis told his audience was, “We’ve seen over the last generation legacy media outlets increasingly divorce themselves from the truth and instead try to elevate preferred narratives and partisan activism over reporting the facts.”

At best he got it half right. What he has seen is media outlets divorcing themselves from his truth. During the pandemic, his truth was that Florida could safely afford to reopen. After Hurricane Ian, his truth was that the state did a bang-up job with rescue and relief. One can argue the merits of his positions but the point is, plenty of citizens argued that his truth was wrong. So, were reporters who quoted his critics, or commentators who conveyed their contrary opinions, defaming him? Or were they communicating legitimate points of view, whether faultless or not?

Here’s where freedom of the press gets tricky. In a unanimous decision almost 60 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called “New York Times v. Sullivan” that the First Amendment to the Constitution limits the power of public officials to sue for defamation. The reasoning given was “to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.”

The result of the Court’s decision was this: if public figures like Ron DeSantis want to sue for slander or libel, they must prove not only that what was said about them was wrong and caused them harm, but also that there was “malicious intent” behind it, either because the reporter or commentator knew the information was false, or else recklessly disregarded the truth.

Those are high standards of proof but there’s a powerful purpose behind them: without those protections for journalists— in other words, if the penalty for unintentionally getting it wrong could be a stiff financial hit or even a stint behind bars— they will be less likely to offer criticism of public figures, whether it’s someone else’s assessment or their own, and they will surely be less likely to zealously investigate them. That’s a classic definition of a chilling effect. But from accounts of the one-sided roundtable about “Legacy Media Defamation Practices,” Governor DeSantis and his cohorts would carve away at those protections, urging the Supreme Court to revisit and at least partially revoke the free press precedent it set 60 years ago in “New York Times v. Sullivan.”

What I’ve always said about my own reporting is, I’ve never written or uttered a word that I didn’t either know to be true, or had good reason— based on sources or secondhand accounts— to believe to be true. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t sometimes still inadvertently get something wrong. Inevitably, every journalist does. It’s too simple to say you’ve got to take the bad with the good. But if that “unfettered interchange of ideas” is compromised, it could put us on a path to self-censorship and self-constraint.

Then, freedom of the press itself is compromised and the party that’s hurt is the American public.

Embrace the Miracles.

Two children were pulled from the rubble in a Syrian village after more than a day-and-a-half wedged between heavy slabs of concrete.

A newborn baby girl was rescued in another village, still attached by a dust-coated umbilical cord to her mother, who must have died after giving birth.

In a Turkish city of more than two-million people, rescuers scaled the ruins of a six-story apartment building and began dangerously digging down through concrete and metal and wood to reach a family of six who they believed were alive. Using saws and drills and a long metal hook, periodically shouting for “silence” so they could try to communicate with whomever was trapped, they extracted four of them alive, one by one. The father, the mother, the young twins.

Two more boys, 11 and 12, could not be found.

These are among the stories from reporters and photographers on the ground in the wreckage of Monday’s earthquake. Stories of heartwarming miracles among hellacious heartaches. But each miracle is a human life saved, so no miracle is small. But neither is the heartache. By the latest count, there are more than 17,000 dead, well over 60,000 injured, and countless tens of thousands out in the cold, homeless. And with conditions so crude, equipment so scarce, roads so impassable, rescuers so isolated, they won’t really know the final numbers for many days more. If at all.

But what we do know is, as each night fades into the dawn that follows, those numbers will only grow. The reality is, given the nature of an earthquake’s upheaval, many still living are hurt too gravely to survive, and for anyone still alive but impossibly trapped, time is running out.

Soon, the only numbers that will grow are the dead.

That’s what I have seen in earthquakes I’ve covered, the impossibility of survival as the injuries and, with winter weather taking no break for human agony, the elements take their toll.

I’ll never shake the memory of the poor souls I’ve seen who didn’t survive, but I’ll also never lose the memory of the miracles I’ve seen with every earthquake, and one stands out among them all. It was after a quake that killed some 2,000 people in Italy. I started my report for ABC that night saying, “Somewhere down there is a woman named Lisa.”

It was Day Three after the earth shook, and shortly after landing our helicopter in our second or third hilltop village of the morning, we heard a man shouting from atop a huge pile of rubble, then saw him frantically gesturing downward. He was shouting in Italian, but one member of our team knew the language and said, “He thinks he’s found someone alive.”

He had indeed. We scrambled with our camera gear to where he was at the top of the pile, which had once been apartments, and spent the next six hours there. Here’s how I wrote about it in Life in the Wrong Lane:

“The rescuer who had shouted that first alarm had heard a squeal— just a tiny, weak squeal, but it sounded human. It was. It was a woman who, we learned before the end of the day, had been buried about six feet down, trapped by concrete and thick wood beams, the body of her dead sister on top of her.

“For those six hours, we watched and recorded as rescuers got her out. They had to work painstakingly slowly. This pile of rubble was a house of cards; move the wrong stick or stone and the whole precarious pile could collapse, burying not just the survivor but the rescuers and, incidentally, us.

“Over time, the squeal came more often and eventually got louder. Rescuers delicately opening a passage to the trapped victim were getting closer and closer. But in all those hours, we never saw the woman; we only heard her. The only other noise was the dramatic sounds rescuers made as they warily snapped thin twigs and lifted small stones, wondering whether each would be the one to cause this pile to collapse upon itself.

“One rescue worker came up from the hole, his face cut to shreds, but said, ‘I touched Lisa’s hand, my blood doesn’t matter’.”

We didn’t see Lisa until the very end, when she was pulled from the hole and rushed to an ambulance waiting alongside the rubble, but we had heard every squeal, and every twig broken in the path to her crypt. An earthquake kills thousands with a monstrous blow. A single life is saved by small acts of heroism.

This week, miracles across hundreds of miles in Turkey and Syria haven’t mitigated the tragedy of the earthquake.

But for the brief moments when a newborn is saved in one village, a pair of young children in another, a family of four is lifted to safety— just for those brief moments— little else matters.

That’s how it was in Italy. Thousands died, but somewhere down there was a woman named Lisa, and she was alive.

Destruction and Death, This One Is Nobody’s Fault.

I’ve covered too many massive life-shattering earthquakes— including one in Turkey itself— to just dismiss as someone else’s tragedy what happened in the early hours of this Monday morning in Turkey and Syria.

I can’t do that when I know what it looks like there. And what it feels like. And sounds like. And smells like.

I can’t when I once saw whole families die together during a colossal earthquake that killed thousands in the Apennine Mountains of Italy, after their homes collapsed on top of them.

I can’t when I once watched weeping survivors of a monstrous earthquake in Yemen, digging in a drenching rainstorm with their bloodied bare hands through the sticks and stones of what once were their homes, hoping to find a loved one still alive but just as often to retrieve a body to bury.

I can’t when I picture one man in a mountaintop village there, cradling the mangled corpse of his baby son, crying toward the skies for a rationale that didn’t come.

As in Italy, whole families have now died together in Turkey and Syria. As in Yemen, survivors with bloodied bare hands are now digging through rubble and finding only death beneath it.

That’s why, from where I sit, I have to pay attention to this newest earthquake’s terrible toll. From the images alone, it looks like war-torn Ukraine. Thousands of human lives have been wiped out in a few tremulous shakes of the earth, and as in every catastrophe of this magnitude, the official death toll is far from complete. Thousands more have been gravely hurt, and according to reports from the ground on CNN, countless more Turks and Syrians are now homeless, reportedly “sleeping in the streets in the freezing cold.” It takes a horrific calamity to make them seem like the lucky ones.

What I put aside at moments like this is who they are. It doesn’t matter that they are on another continent. It doesn’t matter that they are citizens of nations with which we have our differences. In a way, I think of the sorry souls in the earthquake zone the same way I think of the ordinary citizens of Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine. The atrocities their governments commit in their names are not their fault. The Syrians and Turks, like the Russians, are victims of where they were born.

We’ve had our own sad share of earthquakes in this country, none deadlier than the infamous quake of 1906 in San Francisco, my home town. It is the only one in this nation’s history with a death toll in the thousands, rivaling what we are seeing right now in the Middle East. In fact, with estimates at 7.9 on the Richter Scale, San Francisco’s quake was stronger than the 7.8 recorded during the main shock in Turkey. Much of the destruction in 1906 though wasn’t because buildings fell. It was because, as gas lines broke, buildings burned.

The next worst in San Francisco was the one named “Loma Prieta” in 1989— that was the one that famously struck just as a World Series game was getting underway in the city. Throughout the Bay Area, it killed 63 people. One saving grace was a lower level on the Richter Scale— 6.9— but another was the advances in solid and sometimes earthquake-resistant construction in the 20th Century. These are advances that hadn’t reached much of the earthquake zone that took such a pounding today.

As a side note, I’ll always remember the fourth day after that California quake, reporting from Oakland amid the collapsed ruins of an elevated freeway that was flattened, where 42 of the 63 deaths happened.

Rescuers pulled a rugged longshoreman named Buck Helm, who had survived for 90 hours, out of his crushed car, alive. It seemed a miracle and in a way it was, but Helm had to be hospitalized and little more than one month later, he succumbed to respiratory failure and became that 42nd freeway casualty.

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But still, Helms’s rescue from the rubble is a common bond between citizens in a modern American city and citizens in primitive places like eastern Turkey and northern Syria. It doesn’t matter where it is or who’s been hurt. People pitch in to help with rescue, recovery, and relief.

And governments too. From the oil-rich Gulf states to Iran to the United States of America, equipment and aid and disaster experts already are on their way.

They’re not writing this off as someone else’s tragedy.

What Is Our Goal In Ukraine?

Is the aim of the United States and its allies simply to allow Ukraine to ensure its survival or is it to help it expel Russia from all its territory and to ensure the defeat of Russian President Vladimir Putin?

It’s an important question, because it makes us think about why Ukraine is fighting and why we’re supporting that fight. The question was part of a commentary yesterday by CNN analyst Stephen Collinson and for me the answer is almost a no-brainer: Ukraine could “survive” as a smaller nation, a gravely damaged nation, with both sides’ forces frozen in place where they are right now. But that would leave Russia in control of whatever territory it stole (and hasn’t lost back to the Ukrainians) when it invaded only three weeks short of a year ago. That would just be wrong. It would also leave Mr. Putin with the impression that he can get away with murder.

So the answer has to be defeat. Defeat for Putin’s ambitions, defeat for Russia’s army. And that leads to my own question: is defeat an attainable option?

True, the Ukrainians have fought fiercely and fearlessly.

They have surpassed every expectation. But the Russians still outnumber them and, so far at least— pending the delivery of a wide range of new weaponry from the West— the Russians still outgun them in the air and on the ground. Furthermore, although Ukraine fights with the intangible grit of an underdog, Russia has a weapon Ukraine hasn’t used: an absolute disregard for human life, not just the lives of Ukraine’s non-combatant civilians but the lives of its own conscripted troops.

How do you beat an enemy that aims missiles at civilian apartment buildings, an enemy that sends soldiers into firefights in human waves? As a Ukrainian commander said on television this week from Bakhmut, one of the eastern cities currently under siege, “They are just coming forward; they do not take cover, they are coming all-out.”

With the battles raging right now in that part of the country, new estimates— mainly based on satellite imagery and intercepted radio and email communications— put Russian casualties as high as almost 200,000.

But it’s important to note that more than eight million Soviet soldiers died in World War II, so for a nation steeped in a history of suffering, losing a few hundred thousand in Ukraine might not break Russia’s back. What’s more, Ukraine has a total population of about 44 million. Russia’s is 144 million, so it still has human cannon fodder in reserve.

There also are estimates of the number of new Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders for a Winter/Spring offensive. According to the secretary general of NATO, more than 200,000 fresh soldiers are positioning themselves for the next fight, “and potentially even more than that.”

Western strategists believe Russia’s goal in saturating the combat zone is to force Ukraine to redirect resources in one direction while it attacks from another. CIA director William Burns said this week, “The key is going to be on the battlefield in the next six months.” The head of Ukraine’s national security council predicted, “The main fights are yet to come.” President Zelensky said Thursday, “I think it has started.”

Which brings me back to the question, can we stop Russia? And the answer might be, not at the present pace.

That’s why former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul argues, we have to pick up the pace. He wrote this week in Foreign Affairs, “At this stage, incrementally expanding military and economic assistance is likely to only prolong the war indefinitely… It needs to be provided swiftly, so that Ukraine can win decisively on the battlefield this year. Without greater and immediate support, the war will settle into a stalemate, which is only to Putin’s advantage. In the end, the West will be judged by what happened during the last year of the war, not by what happened in the first.”

He’s talking about the artillery. He’s talking about the bombs. He’s talking about the missiles. He’s talking about the tanks.

Taking their cues from the United States, our allies have stepped up in their pledges to put more advanced weapons in Ukraine’s hands. McFaul’s point is, it isn’t happening fast enough. The Russians are about to throw all their resources at Ukraine and if we want to see them defeated, we have to step up the caliber of weapons and pace of deliveries even more.

And that includes airplanes. Ukraine is now also asking for F-16s to neutralize Russian artillery and provide cover for its troops on the ground. However, when President Biden was asked Monday if he’d be sending F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force, he said “no.” What that means is no F-16s from the U.S., and because any other country with F-16s would need American approval to transfer them to Ukraine, none from the allies either.

But “no” might not be the final word. Ukraine’s defense minister, mindful of hard negotiations to finally get advanced weapons like Patriot missiles and Abrams tanks, says, “All types of help first passed through the ‘no’ stage.”

Putin is back to issuing veiled threats about using his nuclear option, saying at a ceremony Thursday marking a key Soviet victory in World War II over Germany, which is now sending its best tanks to Ukraine, “Those who expect to defeat Russia on the battlefield, apparently do not understand that a modern war with Russia will be completely different for them. We are not sending our tanks to their borders, but we have something to answer with. And it will not end with the use of armored vehicles.”

If this war is to end at all, it will end in one of three ways: Ukraine will win, with or without an accelerated delivery of weapons, and Russia will retreat. Or, Russia will win, with or without a nuclear weapon, and Ukraine will disappear. Or, a stalemate.

And that, according to Ambassador McFaul, would be tantamount to defeat. “If the war in Ukraine drags on for years, so many more people— Ukrainians first and foremost, but also Russians— will die. ‘Stalemate’ on the battlefield is a euphemism for continued death and destruction. This is the cost of incrementalism.”

With the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion coming up on February 24th, pouring more help into Ukraine now, McFaul writes, “is the best way to avoid being in the same place when February 24, 2024, rolls around.” Ukraine depends on it. Democracy depends on it. The free world depends on it.

Heroes Aren’t Who You Might Think They Are.

It may be more important to be reminded of this than many realize: the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs is not a hero. Although he played yesterday with a sprained ankle yet still led his team to victory and, for the third time in four years, took them back to the Super Bowl, he is not a hero. Patrick Mahomes is an idol, he is an icon, maybe he’s the ideal of an athlete. But although fans salute him as a “hero,” a hero he is not.

Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’re not heroes either. They play heroes on the big screen, but aside from the macho stunts some of them do in their own movies, usually the biggest risk they take is that their box office receipts won’t live up to expectations.

Heroes don’t have to be bigger than life. Typically they’re not. Heroes usually are people you never heard of. People like Brandon Tsay. He’s a hero. And Richard Fierro and Thomas James. They are heroes.

Tsay is the guy who was working in the ticket office at the Lai Lai Ballroom in Southern California a week and a half ago when an older man who had just murdered ten people and injured ten more at another dance club walked in with a semi-automatic assault weapon and pointed it straight at him. As security video from the ballroom shows, Tsay jumped the gunman and in their struggle for the weapon, the gunman slammed Tsay in his face and on his head.

But Tsay kept fighting, later telling reporters, “If I let go of this gun, what would happen to me, the people around me, my friends, my family?”

That is heroism, risking your security to save others’.

Fierro and James are the heroes who took down the man who murdered five people and injured 17 others with a military-style assault rifle last November at Club Q in Colorado Springs. Fierro, a retired veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who was twice awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, was at the nightclub with his family, watching a drag show, when the gunman opened fire. Ducking bullets flying in every direction, he ran across the room, pulled the gunman to the floor, jumped on top of him, grabbed his pistol, and repeatedly hit him in the head with it. What he said afterward was, “I just knew I had to take him down.”

Thomas James was the next man in the melee at Club Q, helping knock down and pin down the killer and getting his guns out of his reach. The U.S. Navy Petty Officer was hurt himself and subsequently hospitalized but said afterward of his heroics at the gay nightclub, which had become his own haven, “I simply wanted to save the family I found.” Of course, everyone there wanted to. James did. The risks he and Fierro took, despite the deadly danger to their own lives, saved others’.

That is heroism. By my definition, the highest kind. But heroism comes in other forms too.

Like Ukraine’s President Zelensky. Almost a year ago now, just a couple of days into the war that Russia started, the United States offered to help get Zelensky out, where he could run a shadow government from a safer place. His response? “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

The moment he said those words, he had to know that he was pinning a target to his chest, that Russia would not rest until he was crushed. Although reportedly he no longer even sleeps in the same place twice and his family is in danger too, he hasn’t removed the target.

That is heroism.

Or Liz Cheney. The moment this rock-solid conservative took on Donald Trump, going up against what has become the cult of the Republican Party, she had to know it could cost her not just her leadership position in the House Republican Caucus but her very seat in Congress itself. And it did. After she accepted assignment to the January 6th Committee, her position in the leadership of the House was yanked away, her own party in Wyoming censured her, then her own voters deposed her. She consciously put everything she had worked for on the line. And lost it.

But she didn’t desist, she didn’t forfeit her integrity, she didn’t compromise her principles. What she did was defend democracy at the highest possible political price.

Defending democracy. That too is a kind of heroism.

Susan B. Anthony, who despite arrests wouldn’t forsake her crusade for women’s rights. Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars but wouldn’t abandon his ambition to end apartheid. Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t move to the back of the bus. Doctors and nurses, teachers and grocery store clerks, who wouldn’t renounce their responsibilities in the most infectious phases of the pandemic.

Too often in our celebrity-centric society, the wrong people are treated like heroes and the right ones aren’t. I once asked some average Americans who their heroes were for a story I was doing, and I got answers that made me cringe. They described sports stars and movie stars. But they couldn’t come up with a single name of someone who had put everything at risk to change a life, sometimes to save one. Like the real-life heroes in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 who put their lives on the line to save others at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then those who enlisted in the military to fight for their country.

During that terrible time, I heard an interview with a professional athlete named Todd Helton, the all-star first baseman for the Colorado Rockies. Although I must paraphrase his words because they have been lost over time, I’ve never forgotten the message behind them. It was that finally, Americans could see that a sportsman like him was not a “hero” for his triumphs at the ballpark because now, they could see who the real heroes were.

But we have forgotten before and we will forget again. Until another ordinary American, responding to an extraordinary threat, reminds us.

It Has Happened In My Life 2,608,538,400 Times (more or less).

I don’t know if you’d call this an “epiphany,” but it might be as close as I’ve ever come. It was a few weeks ago, when in the flash of a moment’s time I thought about the almost incalculable number of times my heart has beaten in my 76+ years on this earth. It this was an epiphany, it was about both the durability, and the fragility, of life.

To explain what happened if not why, I have to go back to the beginning. Not the beginning of those 76+ years— who can remember?!— just the beginning of my years as a heart patient.

Back in the year 2001, I had a small series of heart attacks. Not because my diet was full of fat and crammed with cholesterol, which it wasn’t, and not because I wasn’t fit— the most intense attack came while I was pedaling up a Colorado hill on a hundred-mile fundraising bike ride, which we call a “century.” The cause was heredity. Or as I’ve always described it to others, I chose the wrong father and grandfather.

So I had surgery, and ended up first with stents— that surgery is called an angioplasty— and when that didn’t seem to do the trick, I had open-heart surgery, also known as a bypass. Ever since then, I get annual diagnostic tests with the doctor I met when I got to the ER after that ill-fated bike ride: my cardiologist.

The most recent was a few weeks ago. It’s called an echocardiogram. Simply put (as if it’s even correct to call it simple, which it’s not), this is a high-tech procedure where a technician rubs an instrument back and forth across your chest and your abdomen. It converts the high-frequency sounds of your blood flow— they call those the “echoes”— into images of the structure of the heart itself. It’s looking for abnormalities in the organ’s chambers and valves, calculating the velocity and volume of blood passing through with every beat. Some medical practitioners call it an ultrasound of the heart.

I guess I’ve had the test more than twenty times, and each time, when the technician turns up the sounds of the blood pumping through my body, I get to hear them myself. But they’re kind of hard to describe. It’s not a “tick-tick-tick” kind of noise, nor smooth waves of sound. Although I’ve worked with words for a living, the best I could come up with when I started thinking about it was the reverberations of a plunger in a plugged-up toilet. But that really doesn’t describe it either. Thankfully, I asked the technician if he had any thoughts about how to describe it and he saved the day. He likened it to the sound of a washing machine when the cylinder is rotating back and forth: “Swoosh… swoosh… swoosh.”

And that’s what got me to wondering, how many swooshes have there been? So I did the math. A warning: do not try this at home, because you’ll probably find what I found, that your computer’s calculator can’t produce enough zeroes and you’ll have to do it all by hand.

But I was on a mission. So I began with a baseline of 65 beats per minute. Sometimes it’s even slower, and sometimes— particularly when I’m biking or skiing or maybe just nervous enough to elevate my heart rate— it’s faster. But we’ll go with 65 beats per minute.

What that means is, 3,900 beats per hour, 93,600 in a day. And now we get to the big numbers: in a year, my heart beats 34,164,000 times, and that doesn’t count leap years. Now, to jump from millions to billions, we have to multiply 34,164,000 by 76, for the years I’ve been alive, and between my most recent birthday and today, add 110 more days (that’s another 10,296,000 heartbeats) and add those nineteen February 29th’s I’ve been around (yet another 1,778,400 beats) to come up with a lifetime total of 2,608,538,400. And again, that doesn’t even count days when my activities have elevated my pulse for hours on end. Nor, by the way, my years as a child when the heart beats faster than an adult’s.

Of course you could subtract a few heartbeats from that ten-digit total to account for those heart attacks back in the year 2001, the reason I got into this in the first place.

But hey, who’s counting?!

And now back to what might be the epiphany. Not everyone gets to 2,608,538,400. Many don’t get anywhere close. Life is fragile. Hearing those swooshes during the electrocardiogram sent me a sign that my heart will give out some day. Everyone’s does. If a tumor, a stroke, or a bus doesn’t get us first.

Or in other parts of the world, a war, a famine, a preventable disease, an inexplicable act of terrorism.

I’ll never forget sitting in the ancient Grand Bazaar in Tehran one day many years ago sipping coffee with my camera crew when a man shuffled slowly past us, bent over at a 90-degree angle, bearing a heavy crate on the horizontal plane of his hunched back. Just beyond our table was a flat platform where he turned around and slowly let the crate slide to its surface. Then he turned again and shuffled out, free of the crate but still bent at 90-degrees. For him, after so many years hauling heavy loads, that was the permanent profile of his back. For him, life’s fragility was defined by the ability of his body to endure.

Yet for us, the most physically pampered generations in history, life is also durable. True, whether it’s the heart or the back or the hips or the knees, some of us punish our bodies in the pursuit of our health (and isn’t that ironic!).

Some day, and it might be some day soon, other generations will look back on our era and think our medical miracles were primitive, but for most of us now, conditions that not long ago would cripple or kill us can be fixed and we can get back on our feet. If that weren’t true, I’d never have gotten anywhere close to 2,608,538,400 heartbeats. But I did, and the heart’s still ticking.

So I still ski in the winter and cycle in the summer. More than ever before, harder than ever before. Every day is a blessing if we’re lucky, and if we live long enough.

A Cascade of Calamity.

t is not hyperbole to say, the world is a mess.

China has fired up its military. Iran has fired on its people. North Korea has fired ICBMs straight over Japan. Russia has set fire to Ukraine.

Meantime, deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians keeps flaring up and with Israel’s most right-wing government ever, that is likely to grow, not wane, while the prospect of any long-term solution for peace is likely to wane, not grow.

Between war and drought, people in African nations like Ethiopia and Sudan are starving (there is a ceasefire in the two-year-long civil war in Ethiopia, but food has been slow to make its way in). The Taliban in Afghanistan have dropped the pretense of granting even the slimmest of rights to women, and the world’s condemnations haven’t changed a thing. Myanmar is still hanging dissidents, sometimes even beheading them, and the world’s condemnations haven’t changed anything there either. Terrorists worldwide might currently be quiet but they have not been tamed. Economies from Sri Lanka to Lebanon are in a state of collapse. Refugees abound from oppressive places like Afghanistan and Venezuela, Somalia and El Salvador. And, of course, Ukraine.

Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor summed it up in a single sentence when he wrote a week ago about “a world buckling under a never-ending cascade of calamity— war, climate catastrophe, energy price chaos, inflation, epidemics of hunger and disease, political instability and widening economic inequity.“

In an editorial earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal offered only a shimmer of silver lining: “The contours of a new era are slowly taking shape, set against a landscape of volatility and unpredictability in virtually every realm: from energy to technology, geopolitics to local politics, and markets to the global economy. As a result, the probability of previously unthinkable events— good and bad— appears higher than it has been in many years.”

Maybe we can focus on the good.

But that doesn’t change the fact that right now, the world is a mess. It’s not clear who or what can clean it up.

In China, at last October’s conclave of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping promised the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and the cornerstone of that promise was for the Chinese military, the “People’s Liberation Army,” to “safeguard China’s dignity and core interests.”

In fact, he cited “national security” 26 times in his speech. China already has the largest navy on earth and the world’s second biggest military budget, second only to ours. And despite China’s self-inflicted economic downturn, the war machine continues to grow. Everything from aircraft carriers to next-generation Stealth bombers to nuclear missiles.

It is no secret who Xi is preparing, if need be, to confront. He has long openly resented America’s presence in what he considers China’s sphere of influence. He has turned Hong Kong into little more than another Chinese province, and has threatened that a democratic Taiwan could be next. He sent missiles flying on trajectories directly over Taiwan after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit there last August.

Xi told his Communist conference, “The next five years will be crucial.” Which makes those five years just as crucial for the United States.

In Iran, the protests against the harsh religious rule of the ayatollahs continue, and so do the executions. In a chilling memory of massacres I witnessed during the revolution there more than 40 years ago, unarmed schoolgirls shout “Woman, life, freedom,” and whether with live ammunition or teargas, soldiers from the Revolutionary Guards don’t shout back, they shoot back.

In case there’s any hope that the political wing of the government will moderate the military wing, the current Speaker of Iran’s parliament is a former commander of those same Revolutionary Guards. With the Arab Spring a dozen years ago as the most graphic example, the Middle East is replete with repressive regimes crushing grassroots crusades for reform.

At the same time, Iran is somewhere on the spectrum of not just nuclear power but nuclear weapons. For decades, as a menacing countermeasure in its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia (which is run by Sunni Muslims), Iran (run by Shiites) has had ambitions to be a nuclear power. Diplomacy for a time put brakes on those ambitions, but diplomacy has all but fallen apart.

That’s a mess no one has solved.

With North Korea, it looked for a short time during the Trump presidency like it might be ready to make peace. Trump had three summits with its Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, after which the American president said, “We fell in love.”

But in his book “The Trump Tapes,” journalist Bob Woodward says peace would have been a lucky accident. He asked Trump during an interview whether his threats about having a “much bigger” nuclear button had been meant to force the North Korean dictator to negotiate. Trump’s answer was nightmarish: “It was designed… who knows? Instinctively. Let’s talk instinct, okay? Because it’s really about you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But we do know what did happen: the friendship was fruitless, Kim became even more bellicose. Last year he launched 23 ballistic missiles— the most ever in his decade-long leadership of the hermit kingdom— including an ICBM that traveled more than 2,800 miles.

No one knows how to clean up that mess.

Then there’s Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Having done stories in Russia and the Soviet Union over the years, friends have asked me, “Why can’t someone just take out Putin?” My answer has been, in effect, more easily said than done. In dictatorial countries on different continents, I’ve seen leaders surrounded by security forces consisting of soldiers plucked from poverty and enriched by perks— nice homes, disproportionate salaries, college tuition for their children, life insurance policies for their spouses— and their only debt in return is to lay down their lives, if it comes to that, for the leader who gave them positions of prominence and power. Men like that protect President Putin.

Inside Ukraine itself, as its tenacious troops receive new western weaponry to push back against the Russians, the head of the CIA just made another visit to Kyiv and reportedly warned President Zelensky that the Russians, with their advantage in manpower, have their own plans for a new thrust. As The Hill reported, “Intelligence analysts and researchers largely agree there is an offensive brewing in Moscow, likely to come sometime in the winter or early spring.” The U.S. Director of National Intelligence told the World Economic Forum at Davos last week, the war is “not a stalemate but really a grinding conflict.”

So, consistent with the axiom that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” that brings us back to China, Iran, and North Korea. From missiles to drones to cyber technology, it has been evident that Iran and North Korea have contributed to Russia’s campaign to crush Ukraine. In fact the U.S. has just declassified photos of Russian railcars traveling between North Korea and Russia, which the U.S. says carried missiles for the war.

China apparently has been more restrained, but until it speaks out against Russia, it is Russia’s de facto friend, which can blunt American influence in the world of diplomacy.

Yes, this world is a mess. But maybe all is not lost. A positive perspective comes from Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria, who reported last week in his summary from the Davos conference, “There are lots of problems out there, from Ukraine’s future to inflation to climate change. But the big story is the unity and resolve of the democratic world. Despite a series of severe shocks— covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, global energy and food crises, inflation— the West and its partners are stepping up, cooperating and forging a new way forward.”

If there is any hope that the mess can be cleaned up, that’s where to look.

Profiles in Courage Are In Short Supply.

You might think it’s wrong for commentators like me to put so much focus on the self-serving sins of just one serial liar, the newly seated congressman George Santos. I’ll argue, it’s not.

First, because fabricating everything from your college background to your work history to your family situation to your religion to your alleged charitable schemes to your alleged criminal behavior and even to your real name, all to get yourself elected, is no small sin. But more important, because the story’s not just about Santos. It’s about the Republican Congress in which he now serves. It’s about the party that has not, by and large, condemned him for his sins. It’s about the corruptible convictions of his leader in Congress, the Speaker of the House, a man just two heartbeats from the presidency.

Let’s start there. We saw earlier this month that Kevin McCarthy would sell his soul to the devil to win the Speakership. And he did. Not just by promising plum committee assignments to the most extreme elements of his caucus, proposing to populate the House Oversight and Accountability Committee with the unaccountable likes of Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene and other election deniers like Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry, Florida’s Byron Donalds, and Alabama’s Gary Palmer. I mean, really? These are the kinds of people McCarthy trusts with oversight and accountability??

Even Arizona’s Paul Gosar is back. Like Greene, who lost her committee assignments in the last session of Congress for being racist and anti-semitic, Gosar had been pulled from his committees after posting violent video threats against Democrats on the internet.

For good measure, McCarthy also gave a seat on the Homeland Security Committee to Greene, who along with these others was complicit in the plot two years ago to gut our homeland security and overthrow our government.

Which brings us to the unrepentant deceiver George Santos.

He didn’t do nearly so well. No plum committees for him! Just Science, Space, and Technology, and Small Business. Remember, this is the guy whose résumé was so full of falsehoods that we don’t really know what kind of business he ever ran, or for that matter, whether he has run one at all. All we know is that a man with a predilection for concocting business positions he never had and a reputation for incurring debts he never repaid said on financial disclosure forms that his own firm paid him $700,000, with another million or more in dividends, yet he couldn’t list a single client.

Then, there’s the latest: a Navy veteran named Rich Osthoff yesterday told CNN that Santos, who has claimed that he established a charity called “Friends of Pets United,” set up a GoFundMe for Osthoff’s pet, which had developed a tumor. But when Osthoff tried to access the money, he says, Santos never came through.

Even the non-profit itself says, “Our trust and safety team sought proof of the delivery of funds from the organizer. The organizer failed to respond, which led to the fundraiser being removed and the email associated with that account prohibited from further use on our platform.”

Taken as a whole, is all that enough to at least withhold any privileges from Santos in the House until an investigation proves him worthy or unworthy to serve? According to Speaker McCarthy, no. It’s a full month now since the disclosures about Santos’s deceptions and Kevin McCarthy hasn’t even hinted at denunciation. To the contrary, he has said that he will not put pressure on Santos to resign. His excuse last week at a news conference? “What I find is that voters have elected George Santos… They have a voice in this process.”

Of course his fellow Republicans didn’t feel that way about the voters’ will 25 years ago when they proceeded to impeach Bill Clinton.

Nor do they feel that way now about the voters’ will on Joe Biden, who was elected with a seven million vote margin. According to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll the middle of last year— and not just coincidentally concurrent with the majority of Republicans who have said they believe the 2020 election was rigged— two-thirds of Republican voters thought the House should impeach Biden for high crimes and misdemeanors. Some of the most extreme members of today’s House have said they intend to make that happen.

It must be said, not every Republican has turned a blind eye to the embarrassing disrepute of the new congressman from New York. They’re not all profiles in courage but to at least a small degree they are profiles in principle or, at the very least, profiles in pragmatism.

First, the Republican chair in New York’s Nassau County, where Santos was elected, said, “He’s disgraced the House of Representatives, and we do not consider him one of our congresspeople.”

Then the newly elected Republican congressman from the neighboring district, Anthony D’Esposito, said he would urge “other representatives in the House of Representatives to join me in rejecting” Santos. On the heels of that, five more Republican congressmen from New York did exactly that, with Long Island’s Nick LaLota declaring, “What he’s done is disgraceful, dishonorable and unworthy of the office. I think he should resign.” Even James Comer of Kentucky, the new chair of the House Oversight Committee who already is racing on all cylinders to savage Joe Biden, said, “I don’t approve of how he made his way to Congress, and I haven’t even introduced myself.”

Which brings us to the man who is still the most influential Republican of them all, Donald Trump. The Economist reports that the day before the unpatriotic uprising of January 6th, 2021, Santos spoke at a rally in Washington (wearing, according to a new revelation from The New York Post, a scarf he stole from a former roommate) and advocated for overturning the 2020 election, calling Trump “the best president in modern history since Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.”

The trouble is, that might not be good enough for Trump, who introduced himself in a video a month ago as “hopefully your favorite president of all time. Better than Lincoln, better than Washington.”

But then again, if he wants to win back the White House, Donald Trump needs Kevin McCarthy, and if he wants to hold onto his slim majority in the House, Kevin McCarthy needs George Santos.

There’s a time-honored truism that says, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” These days, “Politics makes sleazy bedfellows” is more like it. This photo from The New York Times proves the point.

All Is Not Lost In Ukraine. Far From It.

Killing at least 40 unarmed civilians this weekend in a nine-story apartment building in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro isn’t winning. It’s terrorism. Firing the missile from a faraway long-range bomber isn’t winning. It’s murder.

And, it’s counterproductive. Because for every attack the Russians launch, the Ukrainians dig in deeper. Their army, their population, their president. Against all odds, they have made it impossible for Russia to say, “We’re winning.”

Of course I’ve reported from enough wars to know that no single side wins every battle, no single side loses them all. I’ve seen enough to understand that every side magnifies its victories and every side minimizes its losses. Yet I’m actually beginning to feel optimistic about the possibility that Ukraine can not just survive but might kick Russia back across the border.

I have wanted to feel this way since the first Russian put his foul footprint on Ukrainian soil. But it has been hard. Russia has more soldiers, Russia has more aircraft, Russia has more missiles, Russia has more tanks, Russia has more wealth.

But Ukraine has a weapon Russia doesn’t have. It is defending its homeland. That first Russian invader and all who followed were fighting for their government. The Ukrainian defenders were fighting for their freedom. In wars I’ve covered, those who defend their homeland— even when, like in Afghanistan, they are the bad guys— have an incalculable edge.

So now, after seeing for almost eleven torturous months just how durable and determined the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian people are, it’s easier to feel optimistic.

But there are material markers too.

The first is yet another change of Russian leadership on the battlefield. A general known for his cold-blooded command in Syria was appointed only in October to run the Russian forces in Ukraine.

Last week, only three months into the job, he was replaced. Vladimir Putin would not have relieved him of the top spot if things were going well. The change is a tacit admission that they’re not. As one Russian military blogger wrote, “The sum does not change by moving around its parts.”

A second material marker that makes me optimistic is that the trend lines for Ukraine’s continued ability to fight are going up, while Russia’s apparently are sinking.

Last month, after President Zelensky made his lightning-fast visit to Washington, the United States sent its first Patriot missiles to Ukraine. They are superior to the Soviet-era defensive missiles Ukraine already has in its arsenal, with radar powerful enough to detect and target an enemy’s long-range missiles even when fired from dozens of miles away. The Germans then followed with their own shipment of Patriots. The Patriots will better protect Ukraine’s battered cities, and the infrastructure that Russia has so remorselessly pummeled.

After that, the U.S., along with Germany and France, agreed for the first time to send armored personnel carriers, known as APCs, to the battlefield. With Ukraine preparing to go on the offense against Russian forces dug-in during the winter, this will protect its troops as they move closer to the enemy.

And next, tanks. The ones dating back to Soviet times— the ones that Ukraine hasn’t already lost in battle— are wearing down. But now, finally, modern tanks are coming. With British Prime Minister Sunak declaring “the U.K.’s ambition to intensify” its support for Ukraine, it has just agreed to send Ukraine the weapon it has most assertively pleaded to get.

Poland also has committed to send some of its modern German-made tanks to Ukraine, pending approval by Germany. That should be decided at the end of this week. (The U.S., so far, has made no commitment.)

This could be inestimably good news for Ukraine. I’ve seen tanks in combat on a number of battlefields. When it comes to weapons on the ground, there is nothing more frightening, nothing more formidable. And, nothing more flexible. With months of winter weather ahead, they can move on their metal treads through terrain that will stop other vehicles in their tracks. What this means for Ukraine is an amplified ability to push Russian forces back, or at least keep them from pushing ahead.

That’s a picture of Ukraine’s weapons looking forward. Here’s a picture of Russia’s, the third material marker of the course of the war.

American military analysts say that Russian artillery, its most potent weapon for its onslaughts against Ukraine’s electrical grids, is dwindling.

U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin says Russia is suffering “significant shortages.” Several experts calculate that the rate of Russia’s artillery fire has dropped from roughly 20,000 rounds per day to around 5,000. Even more important, they say that Russia has exhausted almost all of its modern artillery shells and now is using some as old as 40 years. A military-focused website called DefenseOne predicts that Russia could altogether run out of artillery within months.

Then, there is the issue of Russian troops themselves. It was back in late September that Putin drafted a reported 300,000 men to go to the front lines. Russian law requires that conscripts get at least four months of training before they can be sent into combat. Russia’s Defense Ministry says that an intensive four-weeks of arms training with a “survival” course is “essential.” But after the mass conscription, the lead sentence in a story from The Moscow Times was, “Less than two weeks after joining the army, Ivan was on the frontlines of Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine and taking part in attacks on Ukrainian positions.”

More time now has passed, but the successful Ukrainian attack against a Russian barracks on New Year’s Day, which even Russia admits killed more than 60 troops (the Ukrainians say several hundred) suggests that in the rush to put men on the battlefield, the training for Russia’s new soldiers has been abbreviated if not ignored.

The war is far from over. The outcome is far from decided. Apparently unconstrained by conscience, Russia will continue to hit people’s homes and destroy people’s lives. But that isn’t getting it any closer to winning. Although analysts believe that Russia is planning a major offensive in the next month or two, in the past few months it’s been Ukraine taking back more land than Russia has seized.

With the determination and daring of people fighting for their freedom, the momentum seems to be Ukraine’s.

Do Weeks Get Any Worse for the President?

Joe Biden is having a bad week. A very very very bad week.

Not as bad as the week of our messy withdrawal in 2021 from Afghanistan. That had to be Biden’s worst. That week, thirteen American servicemen died. Those are a president’s most mournful moments. What’s more, Biden’s political popularity never fully recovered.

But this week could rank as second worst for the president, with a different death keeping him up at night: the conceivable death of his chance for a second term.

Today one could hear faint sounds of that death knell when Attorney General Merrick Garland did what he had to do, and what he should do, appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the classified— and according to some reports, “top-secret”— files that turned up first at Joe Biden’s think tank, then at his own home. How could the AG do otherwise, given that a different special prosecutor is investigating the symmetrical sins of Donald J. Trump?

It is a problem of Biden’s own making, not just his careless storage of classified documents that date back to his days as Vice President, but his damning denunciation of Trump for doing the very same thing, asking on CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in September how “anyone could be that irresponsible.”

From what we know so far, the details are as different as dawn from dusk. When Biden’s own lawyers found these sensitive documents while going through his papers at the think tank, they immediately notified and had them delivered to the presidential records division of the National Archives, which didn’t even know they were missing. Then when they found more in the garage of Biden’s Delaware home, they told the Department of Justice. That’s all in stark contrast to the case of Trump. The National Archives had to go after him. He and his lawyers resisted, obfuscated, and flat-out lied about what the ex-president had recklessly stowed all over Mar-a-Lago (and in a separate storage unit in West Palm Beach), leading to the possibility of federal charges of obstruction of justice.

But that doesn’t change the fact that whether he even knew he had classified papers among his personal possessions or not, Joe Biden now comes across as a hypocrite. And when a reporter asked him about the wisdom of storing them in his garage “next to his Corvette,” Biden didn’t help himself by insouciantly shooting back, “My Corvette’s in a locked garage, okay? So, it’s not like they’re sitting out on the street.”

At the very worst, it’s about irresponsible behavior on the president’s part, even if all these documents were merely “inadvertently misplaced” as a White House counsel said today (an argument far harder to make in the case of Donald Trump). But even at the very best, it’s about optics. Bad ones. Optics that allowed Ohio’s incendiary Jim Jordan, the new chairman of the newly-formed Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, to tell Fox News, “The double standard is obvious.”

It pains me to say it but he’s right. And the Republicans will use this to say, where there’s smoke there’s fire. Of course the smoke around Donald Trump is thick enough to choke on. In comparison, Biden’s looks like a thin haze.

ABC’s host Jimmy Kimmel got it right last night when he joked, “Any time documents are mishandled, top-secret documents, it needs to be taken seriously. That’s something Republicans and Democrats believe, although Republicans have only believed it since Monday.”

But that’s what we’re stuck with. Jordan’s “weaponization” subcommittee, and inevitably others in a House now run by the Republicans, will use this scandal with Biden’s documents to regurgitate the hypocrisy and reinforce their claim that the Democrats weaponized the federal government to act against them, including the infamous raid for Trump’s documents at Mar-a-Lago. Furthermore, in an unsettling sign that Jordan’s subcommittee may give a pass to the perpetrators of the January 6th insurrection— not just the mob that stormed the Capitol but the mob of politicians who enabled them— it includes “ongoing criminal investigations” in its portfolio of targets.

It’s a very very very bad week for Joe Biden.

The week before was bad enough. The new Congress was sworn in with a Republican majority in the House and its radical members— which these days means just about all of them— swore to go after everything with Biden’s name on it, beginning with his son Hunter’s profitable dealings with foreign companies back when his father was vice president. The president’s detractors say that it reeks of conflicts of interest— which it might— and although they haven’t produced the evidence, they say that when Hunter profited, Joe did too. That’s why the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, Kentucky’s James Comer, told a news conference that the pursuit of Hunter Biden is only a stepping stone to something bigger: “This is an investigation of Joe Biden.” Comer’s colleagues already are talking about “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

That is in tandem with a threat to put Biden in the hot seat if the worst of the hardliners don’t get their way with spending cuts and rebelliously put this nation in a league with unstable states of the Third World by defaulting on our debts. That would be an embarrassing depletion of America’s credibility and a crippling blow not just to America’s economy but to the world’s. And if history is any guide, whether it’s his fault or not, it would be laid on Biden.

From the day this new Congress was sworn in, Joe Biden’s battles shifted from a few recalcitrant members of his own party— the Joe Manchins and Kyrsten Sinemas of the world— to a Republican hard-right hellbent on blocking any landmark legislation he proposes. On top of that, after an unflinching and fruitful fight to sustain the heroic forces of Ukraine against the ruthless Russians, Biden now faces obstinate opposition from the far-right to the flow of military aid to Ukraine. He’s battling for national sovereignty and global democracy, they’re pushing back.

There are a few positives in this very very very bad week. Figures came out today showing that our annual inflation rate has slowed to a pace we haven’t seen since October, 2021. House Democrats have assured us that unlike the Republicans who boycotted the January 6th Committee, they will participate in the “Weaponization” hearings so that the radicals won’t completely control the narrative. And, as Russia appears to fade, Ukraine is still fighting back.

But none of that will take much pressure off the president. He’s just seeing the start of what you could call “the Republican Revenge Tour.” For Joe Biden, no good can come out of it. Maybe only an even worse week than the one he’s having now.

From the Fringe of Society to its Face.

How many times have you nonchalantly asked, “What’s this world coming to?”

It’s no longer an idle question. It’s no longer an indifferent answer.

What this world has come to is an intercontinental outburst of right-wing movements, feeding off each other and egging each other on. What this world has come to is an anti-democratic playlist of diehard grievances and diehard goals.

Wait a week and another paradigm might rear its ugly head but right now, there are two parallels. One is between reactionary zealots in the U.S. and reactionary zealots in Brazil, in both cases defacing democracy to keep two defeated presidents in office. The other is between a pair of principle-challenged political leaders, one in Washington and one in Jerusalem, each willing to elevate the most extremist elements in his orbit to preside at the apex of power.

First, Brazil. Almost two years to the day after American insurrectionists stormed and vandalized the United States Capitol and briefly put our democracy on a precarious footing, Brazilian radicals this past Sunday did the same with theirs.

In both cases, the gullible mobs were inspired by the willful lies of their leaders, Jair Bolsonaro…

… and Donald J. Trump.

In Brazil, their leader had predicted a rigged election even before it was held— “If I don’t win, it will be because the opposition cheated us”— as did ours. In Brazil, their leader refused to concede his election loss, as did ours. In Brazil, their leader’s son, Edwardo, pushed preposterous fictions about foreign forces meddling in the vote, as did our leader’s son, Don Jr. In Brazil, the leader’s lackeys urged the military to intervene and restore him to office. Two years ago, our leader’s lackeys did the same.

In Brasilia last Sunday, they sacked the home of their government, acting out the script that Trump’s people wrote for January 6th, 2020, in Washington.

Back when both Brazil’s leader and ours held their nations’ highest offices, if one said “fake news,” the other repeated it. If one downplayed the dangers of the pandemic, the other doubled down. If one evinced envy for authoritarian kingpins unimpeded by the pesky principles of democracy, the other was equally envious. They were like brothers from different mothers.

That’s why, when the Brazilian strongman was trying three months ago to win reelection, his narcissistic American apologist tried to help, writing on his website, “‘Tropical Trump’ as he is affectionately called, has done a GREAT job for the wonderful people of Brazil.”

What’s the world coming to? A state where if renegades can’t win what they want fair and square, they’ll try to take it another way. Trump apostle Steve Bannon even calls the Brazilian rabble “freedom fighters.” That’s eerily identical to what he called the mob at the United States Capitol.

The other parallel between right-wing movements bespeaks the symmetry of the American right and the Israeli right.

On the U.S. side, in his hunger to be Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy last week made concession after concession to the most hardline members of his Republican caucus. The result? Although far from a majority within the House, these members will hold everything they want over McCarthy’s head and from all we’ve seen, he will capitulate. When ringleader Matt Gaetz of Florida was asked why he finally folded his cards and allowed McCarthy to grab the Speaker’s gavel, he answered with swagger, “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.”

When another, Chip Roy of Texas, was asked if there will be more chaos like last week’s, he arrogantly answered, “I hope so.”

These guys aren’t just the fringe of Republican Party anymore. They are the face.

On the Israeli side, in his hunger to be prime minister for the third time, Benjamin Netanyahu also caved, abandoning any lingering pretense of centrism.

To win power once again, he created a coalition of extremist parties the likes of which Israel has never seen. In a parallel to the ultra-right in Washington, power now sits in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem. With Netanyahu’s blessing, they have reinforced their influence to have everything from gender-segregated beaches to exemptions from military service to stipends for religious study as a substitute for secular work. There is even an ultra-Orthodox demand to place limits on the “Law of Return” that gives citizenship to Jews from the diaspora, and another to settle certain kinds of legal disputes in the framework of ancient religious law. And, to antagonistically annex even more of the Palestinian West Bank.

Netanyahu has become more conciliatory toward the ultra-Orthodox and more uncompromising toward the Palestinians.

As with the ultra-right in the U.S., the ultra-Orthodox minority isn’t just the fringe of Israeli society any more, it is becoming its face.

The proud Israeli era of leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, Abba Eban and Moshe Dayan, has gone the way of the proud American era of leaders like Dwight David Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

That’s what this world has come to.

Lipstick On A Pig.

You can’t even put lipstick on this pig.

That’s the Republican Party today in the House of Representatives, trying to elect a Speaker. It’s a pig without makeup. It looks awful.

You’ve got a presumptive leader putting the whole Congress on the coals when he can’t even lead the 222 members of his own caucus. And who, although he picked up votes on today’s 12th bitter ballot, never once stood on the floor of the House and made a case for his own election.

You’ve got one member, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, who has been under investigation by the federal government for sex trafficking, nominating for Speaker a former president, who’s also under federal investigation for a whole laundry list of alleged crimes. And for good measure, Gaetz made his nomination after the idea was floated in a podcast by Steve Bannon, who already has been convicted of federal crimes and is set to serve four months behind bars. Birds of a feather.

Out of 220 Republican votes cast for Speaker on that ballot by the way, that fading former president got exactly one.

You’ve got the same former president— posting on his website in all caps, “VOTE FOR KEVIN, CLOSE THE DEAL, TAKE THE VICTORY”— failing to close the deal.

You’ve got the leader of the Democrats in the House, now the minority party, winning more votes on the first 11 ballots than the leader of the Republicans, who hold the majority.

You’ve got a Democratic party whose advantage in the last Congress— 222 to 213— was not a single vote greater than the Republicans’ advantage in this new one, but which nevertheless passed a plethora of major legislation with that slim edge. The Republicans, with the same edge after the November elections, can’t even agree on who should lead them.

You’ve got roughly 20 right-wing Republican renegades having shown their true colors, causing conflict and chaos, but that’s no surprise because their role model is the ex-president, and chaos was all he did.

You’ve got Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, the doyen of drama who has been persuaded with promises of power to support Kevin McCarthy, saying about the “Never-Kevin” clique, “I think the American people no matter how you vote are sick and tired of drama and this is nothing but drama,” and saying it with a straight face. And then, sticking a knife in her fellow drama junkie, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, who still supports anyone but Kevin, “I don’t think that’s leadership and I really see it as more obstruction than progress.”

You’ve got a new definition of “mainstream” in the Republican Party, most members defining McCarthy as mainstream while McCarthy himself negotiates for votes by giving away the farm to extremists, which will move the House farther from mainstream, not closer. For that matter, by those lights, you’ve also got a new definition of “leadership.”

You’ve got recalcitrant Republican rebels holding the would-be Speaker hostage to tighten the strings on U.S. funding for Ukraine’s courageous battle against a cruel Russian bombardment, and to let the United States government default on its debt obligations, which would throw not just the American economy but the world’s economy into turmoil.

You’ve got all this happening two years to the day after the violent insurrection against the United States government, which is the last time our foreign friends had reason to worry about our stability, and our foreign adversaries had reason to delight in what they see as the drawbacks of democracy. Now, both friends and foes must be thinking that way again.

You’ve got some House Republicans vowing to let the stalemate last as long as necessary to have their way, even though this is the longest an election for Speaker has dragged on since before the Civil War, when citizens weren’t watching the whole embarrassing episode on television and the internet.

And at the end of the day, what have you got? A Speaker who will make Hunter Biden’s laptop one of the top priorities of this new Congress.

What you’ve got is a pig without lipstick. Even when they sort it out as eventually they must, it won’t look any prettier.

The Nation’s New Circular Firing Squad.

It is bizarre.

On their first day in the majority, instead of going to war against Democrats as they’ve long said they would, Republicans in the House went to war against each other. Congress opened with Republicans fighting Republicans. As an exemplar of their dysfunction, in each of the six ballots so far to elect a Speaker, the leader of the now-minority Democrats actually got more votes than the presumptive leader of the majority Republicans.

As Dan Rather pointed out a few days ago in his own Substack commentary, the Republicans used to be seen as the party of stability. The Democrats were the ones who formed circular firing squads. Now those roles are reversed. The Democrats, who certainly have had their own ideological altercations between the middle and the far-left, have shown rock-solid unity. The Republicans, their ranks ruptured by extremists, have become the laughing stock.

I don’t know how it will work out. Perhaps no one does. The Not-So-Grand-Old-Party-Anymore probably will find a way to run the House of Representatives. They have to. There are tricks that could lower the threshold for Kevin McCarthy to win his coveted post. But from the looks of things so far, all they will do is run it into the ground. Because whether McCarthy ultimately grabs the Speaker’s gavel or somebody else does, the new leadership of the House is probably is going to have to cave and abide by the rules that these extremists have demanded to secure their support, rules that will mean they can remove a Speaker with just a handful of votes. The significance of that is, it’s not just a procedural change. It’s a change that would enable the fanatics, like highway robbers, to hold up any Speaker to get what they want.

And maybe “fanatics” is too weak a word. The core of this group, which after the 6th ballot still numbered 20, is in fact the core of what I’d call the congressional delegation to the January 6th insurrection. These are the ones who condemn law enforcement, not the rioters. The ones who plan to probe the committee that investigated the insurrection, not the politicians who played a role in it. They’re the ones who forced a promise from McCarthy to cut the Office of Congressional Ethics (which would sit well with newly-elected serial liar George Santos), and to refer to the mask mandates of the pandemic as “unscientific.”

If you need convincing that these Republican House members are hard-liners, look at an analysis The New York Times came up with today. Twelve of the 20 who have voted against McCarthy continue to deny that Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential vote.

But it’s even worse, because it’s fair to say that most of the Republicans in this new session of Congress, who of course served in the last session too, have already sold their souls. Don’t forget, on January 7th, 147 of them voted to overturn the legitimate Electoral College results. Then in the impeachment of President Trump for inciting the insurrection, 197 voted against impeaching him. In The Times’s analysis, a full 180 Republicans in the House have at least questioned the 2020 election results (except, of course, their own).

One of the remarkable things about all this is, the radicals are railing against Kevin McCarthy for being part of the “establishment.“ The reality is, neither he nor his loyalists even bear a resemblance to the establishment of the Grand Old Party that has ceased to exist. That was the party that sent a group of principled leaders to the White House to tell their own president who was chin-deep in the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon, that the gig was up and he should go.

In today’s Republican party, paragons of principle have been largely hounded out of office. What happened yesterday might be a glimpse of the future. Total discord, total dysfunction, total dishonesty. It’s not funny, but as I wrote a week ago, it’s still a clown show.

Yet it’s hard to know in today’s Congressional chaos which clowns to root for. Certainly not the fanatical right-wingers who are behind it. But Kevin McCarthy is no prize either. After briefly wiping his hands clean of Donald Trump following the insurrection that Trump inspired, he changed his tune and went crawling back to Mar-a-Lago to genuflect, apparently flushing whatever principles he had left down the toilet of the aircraft that flew him to Florida.

Who knows, maybe today or later this week, the fanatics will fold. But if you read between the lines of their rhetoric, it looks for now like the odds are against it. Especially after Tuesday night when word got around that despite his failure to win election as Speaker, McCarthy had presumptively started moving his things into the Speaker’s office, and renegade Representative Matt Gaetz wrote to Capitol authorities, “How long will he remain there before he is considered a squatter?”

The stated intent of the Republican House for the next two years is to defang the Democratic administration in the White House. Defanging their own majority is a strange way to start.

Russia Is Trying to Bomb Ukraine Back Into the Stone Age… But is Failing.

In the early years of the Vietnam war, four-star U.S. Air Force general Curtis LeMay infamously said that to defeat North Vietnam and avoid a war that would endlessly drag on, the United States should “bomb them back into the Stone Age.”

America didn’t altogether go down that path, but it looks like Vladimir Putin might. For as classic warfare has failed him, LeMay’s strategy evidently has become Putin’s. With rockets and missiles and drones, aimed not at military targets but at the hospitals and electrical plants and water supplies that keep civilians alive, he is trying to bomb Ukraine back into the Stone Age.

Even on New Year’s Eve.

We have grown accustomed to asking, “How low will he go?” We have our answer. To carry out his crusade to restore his nation’s status as a superpower, Putin attacks the Ukrainian people even on New Year’s Eve.

To be sure, in the history of war, holiday hostilities are hardly unique. Even George Washington, leading his Continental Army across the bitter-cold Delaware River just after dark on Christmas Day in 1776, attacked and captured German mercenaries fighting for Britain’s King George. It helped turn the moral tide of the Revolutionary War.

And to be sure, Ukraine retaliated against Putin just after midnight on New Year’s Day. It fired rockets into a part of eastern Ukraine that Russia occupies, Donetsk, hitting a Russian military barracks. Ukraine reported fatalities in the hundreds. Russia itself admits to more than 60.

Even if the lower figure turns out to be accurate, it is a mighty blow. To put it in perspective, the death toll on America’s worst day in Vietnam, at the start of the Tet Offensive in 1968, was 246. It made the American public realize, we weren’t winning. On the worst day in Afghanistan, in 2011, 30 died. America’s deadliest year in Iraq was 2007, when 904 Americans were killed. That’s 904 in a whole year. Russia might have just lost almost half that number in a single day.

It’s tragic that anyone, in any war, has to die. But Ukraine’s strike was against combatants, not civilians. Blame the deaths of those Russian soldiers on their president and his deputies, not on Ukraine. Even a spokesman for the Russian-installed government in Donetsk called it “a massive blow” on the Telegram messaging app. “The enemy inflicted the most serious defeats in this war on us not because of their coolness and talent, but because of our mistakes.”

Mistakes like densely populating a single building with troops. Mistakes like storing explosive ammunition in the very same structure. Mistakes like failing to stop their soldiers from using their cell phones, which made them easy to target.

The list of failures by what we once thought might be an invincible army grows longer.

Of course with Russia’s force of approximately 150.000 troops on the ground, the loss of even a few hundred won’t change its manpower advantage on the battlefield. But it will change, or at least reinforce, the pathetic picture of the Russian superpower’s vulnerability and vincibility. Vladimir Putin probably will never face massive American-style street protests against his authoritarian rule. His repressive government would crush them. But in this age of the internet, he can’t hide a catastrophe like this missile attack. If, thanks to the pain of sanctions and the immorality of invading Ukraine in the first place, many Russian citizens already are sour on the war, the death toll in Donetsk will only make it worse.

There was no strategic rationale for punishing Ukraine on the eve of the new year, yet Putin did, bombarding Kyiv and other civilian centers and claiming in his New Year’s Eve address from a military base near the Ukrainian border that “moral and historical righteousness is on our side.”

But to their everlasting credit, the beleaguered citizens of Ukraine still aren’t buying it. One news report from New Year’s Day quotes a lawyer in Kyiv saying that Putin “wanted to spoil the holiday with his fireworks, leave us without electricity and punish us because we do not want to be Russians.” Another quotes a retired transportation worker saying, “I just don’t have words.” In his own New Year’s address, President Zelensky brazenly called Putin’s strikes “revenge of the losers.”

CNN’s International Security Editor Nick Paton Walsh, who has reported from the war zone since the outset, calls the Russia he sees today “almost a paper-tiger.” But if Russia is actually weakened by the war it started and is on a path to losing it, does that give us something to celebrate or something to fear? If the missile attack in Donetsk makes Putin madder, will he become even more of a madman? Time now seems to be working against him. As Russia pounds Ukraine, Ukraine pounds Russia. What will the weakened Russian president do next? Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies warns, “Putin has no red lines.”

Out on the streets in a darkened capital on New Year’s Eve, President Zelensky told his people, “We’ve cried out all the tears.” Putin’s not conceding anything but neither is Zelensky. Which makes this a war of attrition. Who can outlast the other? Maybe it comes down to motive. Russia’s is to absorb part of a sovereign nation. Ukraine’s is to remain whole. As Zelensky said back when Russia started hitting vital infrastructure from one corner of his country to the other, “Without light or without you?” Then rhetorically he answered, “Without you.”

There is a difference between Russia’s bravado and Ukraine’s resolve. Zelensky and his people have not been driven into the Stone Age, at least not yet. They are sticking to their guns.

New Year’s Resolutions? Make ‘Em Easy.

After I sent a few thoughts to my immediate family yesterday about New Year’s resolutions, a sister-in-law in California sent her own personal favorite back to me:

If you should survive to a hundred and five, think of all you’ll derive out of being alive.

And here is the best part, you’ll have a head start, if you are among the very young at heart.

You might recognize those words. Written in the 1950s, they’ve been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra, to Shawn Colvin and Tony Bennett, to Tom Waits, to Jimmy Durante, to, yes, Donald Duck. My California in-laws have been in an awfully tough patch in their lives, so if they can live by those words, we can too.

Of course some New Year’s resolutions are much more easily said than done. That’s why, on the eve of the new year of 2021, The New York Times published a piece by a reporter who covers mental health titled, “Try Downsizing Your Resolutions.” A single sentence sort of sums it up: “For New Year’s resolutions to work, avoid pie-in-the-sky wishes and focus instead on goals that are doable and easily measurable.”

What that means is, it might be wise not to resolve to make a massive fortune or lose a massive amount of weight. Don’t put yourself in a position where you might be setting yourself up to fail. That doesn’t help anybody.

Maybe that’s why The Times on yesterday’s New Year’s Eve offered about a dozen readers’ resolutions that anyone can embrace. Resolutions that are more about how you act than what you achieve. For me, four in particular stood out, which I am slightly re-writing only for the purpose of making them consistent with the theme of a New Year’s resolution:

• “When you make a decision, ask yourself, ‘Does this light me up’?’”

• “Remind yourself when you’re having a bad day that your track record for eventually getting through bad days is 100%, and that’s pretty good.”

• “When the wrench is on the nut, tighten it. In other words, if you’re already touching a piece of mail, deal with it. If you see a thing you’ll need soon, buy it now. If an uncomfortable conversation comes up, have it rather than deflecting it.”

• “If there is an issue bothering you, think to yourself, ‘Will this still be an issue in one week or in one month?’ If the answer is no, it’s a small problem so let the stress go and move on.”

That last one is a variation of something I try to live by, my favorite word in any language: “Malesh.” It’s Arabic, and I learned about it during the years I covered the Middle East, where millions need to practice “malesh” every day of their difficult lives. An Egyptian writer says it means, “There’s nothing to it.” My own colloquial translation is, “Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control.” Whether you’ve missed a flight or you’re too sick to work or bad weather made you cancel plans for a picnic, just think, “Malesh.”

And while I hope you’ll resolve to add “malesh” to your vocabulary, I hope you’ll also resolve to drop two other words.

The first one is “worry.” Worry causes stress and doesn’t solve anything at all. If something causes concern, deal with it, but no purpose is served by stressing over what hasn’t happened yet.

The second is “regret.” The same principle applies. What happened has happened. Or to use a popular phrase, “It is what it is.” Move on. You can learn from regret, but don’t let your stomach churn over it.

Then again, maybe your goal this New Year’s ought to be not to make any New Year’s resolution at all. My wife yesterday spotted this on Facebook, by a woman named Donna Ashworth:

“Why do we start a new year, with promises to improve?

Who began this tradition of never-ending pressure?

I say, the end of a year, should be filled with congratulation, for all we survived.

And I say a new year should start with promises to be kinder to ourselves, to understand better just how much we bear, as humans on this exhausting treadmill of life.

And if we are to promise more, let’s pledge to rest, before our bodies force us.

Let’s pledge to stop, and drink in life as it happens.

Let’s pledge to strip away a layer of perfection to reveal the flawed and wondrous humanity we truly are inside.”

Which brings me back to how my sister-in-law closed out yesterday’s email, with another refrain from the song “Young At Heart”:

“You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams.”

We could all stand to try that. Maybe start with the next dawn.

Happy new year… from my very first minute of 2023.

The Truth Doesn’t Matter Anymore… and Lies Don’t Either.

I’d like to think that the new year will herald in a new era of truth.

Sad to say though, it won’t. Things are going in the other direction. The long-lived riddle that asks, “How do you know when politicians are lying” and answers, “Their lips are moving,” isn’t a joke anymore.

Even sadder, a huge chunk of Americans don’t seem to care. It’s not just that the truth doesn’t matter to them, but lies don’t either.

Some politicians deliberately lie about an election’s outcome. Some Supreme Court nominees deceptively lie about their views to senators whose support they need. Some commentators knowingly lie about facts that don’t fit their narrative— Fox’s Sean Hannity set a new standard when he admitted under oath in a deposition that when he slandered Dominion Voting Systems on the air for “rigging” their voting machines, he “didn’t believe it for one second.” And when it comes to holding truth in contempt, our former president is the poster boy without rival. The Washington Post’s fact-checking unit catalogued an unprecedented 30,573 deliberate misstatements or flat-out lies during Donald Trump’s four years in office. If you’re counting, that comes to an astounding average of almost 21 a day.

(If you start adding Trump’s lies about the “rigged election” since he got kicked out of the White House— echoed by countless candidates who wanted his blessing in their 2022 campaigns— the number skyrockets even higher.)

But, truth be told— excuse the pun— a total disregard for truth didn’t just come along with Donald Trump. What’s more, indifference for the truth isn’t the exclusive province of Trump and the Grand Old Party he twistedly transformed. In the last century, presidents and administrations from both parties lied to justify the war in Vietnam, then in this century, the war in Iraq.

In the recent history of Democratic politicians, President Bill Clinton infamously told us, “I did not have sex with that woman” when in fact he had. His wife, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, claimed she’d been shot at in Bosnia when in fact she hadn’t. Another presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, said she was Native American when she wasn’t. Joe Biden has told his own share of tall tales.

But none of them holds a candle to Trump. Save perhaps the newest exemplar of inconvenient truths: New York’s freshman congressman-elect George Santos.

He’s the guy— another Trump-allied election liar by the way— who lied about his life. Virtually his whole life. In his campaign appearances and on his campaign website, he lied about his professional background, he lied about his educational background, he lied about his charitable background, he even lied about his religious background.

After an investigation, The New York Times less than two weeks ago called him out on all of it. His response? In one interview, he merely “embellished” his résumé. In another, “everyone pads his résumé.”

Maybe not everyone but no lie there. However, exaggerations are one thing. Complete fabrications are another. At a certain point, this guy wasn’t just exaggerating or embellishing. He was unrepentantly putting out a panoply of pure lies.

Why does all this matter beyond the district which Santos won, where his soon-to-be constituents already have to wonder, “Can we even know who this man we elected less than two months ago really is?” First, it matters because ultimately it will help shape the new Congress that takes its oath in four days’ time. Wednesday, as part of his attempt at an apology tour, Santos sat for an interview on Fox with guest host Tulsi Gabbard. She called him out too. “These are blatant lies,” she told the congressman-elect. “It calls into question how your constituents and the American people can believe anything that you say when you’re standing on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

But here’s why it matters even more. Because unless a steamroller runs over George Santos between now and swearing-in day on January 3rd, he will stand on the floor of the House. A handful of lower-level Republicans have publicly pilloried Santos and said he should not be allowed to serve, but the party leadership? Silence. For one thing, condemning a congressman-elect who won a formerly Democratic seat— when they will already command a painfully thin majority in the new House— could come back to haunt them. For another thing, Santos has pledged to support embattled Republican leader Kevin McCarthy in his quest for the Speakership. No surprise, the presumptive Speaker doesn’t want to throw George Santos overboard. I guess even Pinocchio would get a pass if he promised to support McCarthy.

At one point in the interview on Fox, Gabbard rhetorically asked Santos, “Do you have no shame?” The same should be asked of his party’s leadership. If by their silence they don’t denounce his lies, they are a part of them. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is the campaign arm of the House, hasn’t scrubbed Santos from its website. It has only scrubbed the bulk of his phony résumé.

Lies have been told ever since George Washington’s father asked him if he had cut down a cherished cherry tree and the six-year-old Washington reputedly answered, “I cannot tell a lie.”

But according to the Mount Vernon Foundation, even that tale is a myth. Lying has always been around, and always will be. What’s disturbing today is, it feels like an epidemic. Politicians not only get away with lies, sometimes they are praised for them. For too many Americans, the truth doesn’t matter and lies don’t either. If there’s to be a new era of truth, it will have to wait.

There’s Nothing Funny about this Clown Show.

There are two kinds of clowns. They’re not all funny.

The first kind we think of is the happy kind, like Bozo the Clown, a dull-witted but warm-heartedly fun fixture on mid-20th Century television.

But there are sad clowns too, epitomized in the same century by Emmett Kelly, whose downtrodden persona was popular with the poor during the Depression.

I point this out because the Republican Party right now is a clown show, but there’s nothing funny about it. With every passing day, what was once the proud and distinguished Grand Old Party is even sadder than it was before.

An easy target when it comes to the clown show is Donald Trump, but never more than two weeks ago when he splashed “Major Announcement” on his website, only to reveal in a pitiably clownish video that his “major announcement” was the debut of an online store where for $99, we could buy a digital trading card, an NFT (whatever that is!) with his cartoon likeness on its face. There’s Trump as an astronaut, Trump as a western sheriff, Trump in a Superman shirt. “Very much like a baseball card, but hopefully much more exciting,” the-man-who-bewilderingly-was-once-our-president wrote on his website.

Remember, this was exactly one month after he declared that he is running for president again, after which he went silent. Yet his first “major announcement” was this. Even Trump’s partner-in-crime Steve Bannon found it anything but exciting, exasperatedly saying on his podcast, “I can’t do this anymore.” Since Trump released his video just as we were learning that the January 6th Committee would ask the Justice Department to prosecute him for insurrection, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” quipped only half tongue-in-cheek, “After this week I think he’s pretty much locked down an insanity plea.”

By the way, Trump dug deeper in that video, opening the trading card pitch by introducing himself as “hopefully your favorite president of all time. Better than Lincoln, better than Washington.”

That makes him even sadder than Emmett Kelly and more dull-witted than Bozo.

But it takes us to the next episode of the Republican clown show: within twelve hours of Trump’s announcement, all 45,000 trading cards sold out. Do the math: people spent almost $4,500,000 to enrich Trump. And make no mistake, the money didn’t go to his political party or his political action committee. It went to Donald Trump. (And it makes me wonder, how will he declare this as a loss to the IRS? If history is any guide, he’ll try). Add this to the quarter-billion dollars that Trump raised through emails and websites, according to the January 6th Committee’s report, in the weeks after he launched his big lie about the “rigged” election. Most of it was directed to his newly-formed “Save America” fund, which he is permitted to spend as he sees fit. Evidence shows that through the course of last month’s midterm elections, he spent precious little on politics.

What this means is, when the clown show goes on the road, there are millions of gullible Americans paying fool’s gold for a ticket.

In a different clown show performance, we’ve now learned that just as advisors privately told Trump after the 2020 election that there was no substance to his spurious avowals of fraud, his most avid acolytes in the media knew it too. In depositions for the lawsuit brought against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, which was slandered by Fox hosts when they spread the story about Dominion’s “rigged” voting machines, Sean Hannity was asked, under oath, if he ever actually thought the story was true. His response? “I did not believe it for one second.”

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, also under oath, “tried to squirm out of it,” according to Dominion’s chief lawyer.

Yet as another sign that circus showman P.T. Barnum was right when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Fox News for the 7th consecutive year is the top-rated cable news network in America.

Then there’s the Republican clown show in Congress itself.

Exhibit A: the QAnon-conspiracy-preaching congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene. She openly and eagerly cavorts with white nationalists and anti-Semites. Then again, why wouldn’t she, since the-man-who-would-be-her-president does too. But here’s the thing: almost no one in her party speaks up. To the contrary, the party’s leader and presumptive Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, shamelessly catering to extremists to win their support, apparently has promised Greene a “powerful” committee assignment and, as she herself boasts, “is going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway.”

Exhibit B: When the House passed a series of electoral reforms, some of which would prevent a future vice president from single-handedly overturning the results of a presidential election, as Trump wanted Vice President Pence to do.

The measures won with 229 votes but take note: 203 Republicans voted against them. Most of the nine principled Republicans who sided with the Democrats on the Electoral Count Act were the same ones who had voted for Trump’s impeachment after January 6th. The 203 who voted against election reform are the same ones who voted against the impeachment.

But the biggest clown show is yet to come: an investigation, probably several investigations, into Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop. That’s not to say that the incoming Republican House won’t find egregiously unethical and maybe even criminal behavior surrounding business transactions by the president’s son, then try to tie it to the president himself. A Republican strategist says they’ll look at “Who profited? Was the law broken? Was it not broken? Were there serious national security issues?”

But it is to say, no matter what conduct they uncover, nobody died. Don’t forget, Donald Trump encouraged a mob to go to the Capitol on January 6th where people did die, but the moment Republicans take power in the House, they will forget that, in fact their stated goal is to investigate the January 6th investigators. Furthermore, Donald Trump might be prosecuted for stealing, then recklessly storing top-secret national security documents at Mar-a-Lago, but these undemocratic diehard Republican representatives dismiss that as a partisan witch hunt, while they are sure to deduce dire threats to our security from Hunter Biden’s laptop.

It is a clown show, top to bottom. But there’s nothing funny about it. It’s sad, shocking, sometimes sinister. But there’s nothing funny at all.

Should Illegal Immigration Be Slowed?

Illegal immigration has long been an agonizing issue in America. When people have crossed the border without permission, should we let them stay while others patiently wait their turn to live here legally? Do these people take more from America than they give? Does America need them? Can America absorb them?

And, should the controversial rule known as Title 42, which kept immigration at a lower level during the pandemic but could open the floodgates if the Supreme Court so decides, be lifted?

No easy answers.

Conservatives generally will say I’m wrong, that there is only one answer and it is easy to reach: illegal immigrants are a drain on American society and should be sent back to where they came from. Of course Donald Trump encapsulated this when he first announced he was running for President and claimed, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”

There is an easy answer to that: he was wrong.

The headline of a collaboration for The Marshall Project by four universities that studied the relationship between illegal immigration and crime was, “The link between immigration and crime exists in the imaginations of Americans, and nowhere else.” They looked at the forty-year history of immigration and crime in 200 metropolitan areas, from behemoths like New York City to modest-sized cities like Muncie, Indiana. Their statistically-supported conclusion? “Most areas experienced decreases in all types of violent crime.” The ten places with the largest increases in immigrants all had lower levels of crime at the end of the period than at the beginning. In other words, proportionately, immigrants evidently commit fewer crimes than our own citizens.

Another argument against illegal immigrants is that they are an intolerable drain on America’s treasures.

Wrong again.

Although they are not here legally, they pay taxes. The libertarian Cato Institute studied their contributions and found that about half of them file— in keeping with IRS rules— tax returns. Many who don’t file still have taxes deducted from their paychecks. Several studies show that overall, on average, illegal immigrants pay about 8% of their incomes in taxes. For the record, that percentage is a far sight higher than what Donald Trump paid for several years, including as recently as two years ago.

On top of income taxes, if they don’t own their homes, they rent, which means that indirectly through their landlords, they still pay property taxes in their cities and counties and states. And of course just like the rest of us, they pay sales taxes on every penny they spend.

Yet they don’t get as much in return as we do. They pay into Social Security, they pay into Medicare, but they don’t get the benefits of either. And they only get help from Medicaid in an emergency.

You could argue that many of these immigrants aren’t the worst of the worst, they are the best of the best.

Think about why they come. Oppression at home, and levels of poverty that put their families’ survivals on the line. Think about what they leave behind: their own food, their own language, their own culture, their own loved ones. They exchange all that for life in crowded dormitories and back-breaking work from dawn to dusk. Think about what they do: they pick our vegetables, they repair our rooftops, they clear our plates.

Studies have long shown, they are not taking jobs from Americans. They are doing jobs Americans don’t want to do. I have friends who have hired illegal immigrants. What they tell me is, there are no harder workers on earth.

That’s the upside.

But there’s a downside too. If immigrants increasingly pour in, no matter what they give to this nation, there comes a point where we just can’t afford to absorb more. It looks like society has reached that point. Illegal immigration has become an epidemic, and with very few exceptions, nothing good comes from an epidemic.

El Paso has become the poster boy. With the pandemic-era Title 42 law in limbo, El Paso has had thousands crossing the Rio Grande in a single day.

The city’s mayor last weekend declared a state of emergency. If the Supreme Court sides with the Biden Administration and ends the prohibitive practice of Title 42 and allows the floodgates to open wider, they are looking at thousands more. Homeless shelters and food banks already are bursting. The numbers are untenable. There just aren’t the resources to handle a surge like that. And as some move on to other parts of the country, it mirrors the challenge in American cities now from coast-to-coast. In Denver for example, 1,300 immigrants have arrived without notice in the past two weeks and with temperatures now reaching a wind-chill level of minus-25 degrees, city officials are struggling to find safe spots to put them. The mayor said Wednesday, “We are at a breaking point.”

There are mean-spirited solutions, from Donald Trump’s cruel separation of immigrant children from their parents, to his ineffective border wall (which Mexico never paid for, by the way), to the three-mile barrier of shipping containers, topped with razor wire and stacked two high, that Arizona’s soon-to-be-former governor Doug Ducey put up.

Having been sued by the Department of Justice, he has just agreed to take it back down.

But letting the Title 42 law lapse is no solution either. Because as bad as it is that in this wealthy nation there are not enough resources to feed and house this many new people, there is also no sustainable strategy to deal with them, short-term or long. Neither political party has come up with a master plan, not just to handle the influx we’re seeing right now, but to reform our laws, to revisit both the system of immigration and the enforcement of border security.

As much as I believe these immigrants need help and in most cases deserve it, we are now stretched too thin in America. We’ve gotten to the point where some new arrivals have joined American citizens homeless on the street. That doesn’t do anybody any good.

It’s a bitter pill for progressives to swallow but there have to be limits. Not because illegal immigrants are bad people. The evidence points to the contrary. But there have to be limits because if thousands keep crossing into this country every day, the nation isn’t prepared to offer them the better lives they seek.

Cat Fights in the GOP.

I don’t even know who to root for.

First there’s the battle for control of the United States House of Representatives.

Sure, the Republicans won that battle in the November election, but which Republicans?

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy hopes it’s his. He appears to have craved the Speakership since he was an infant in swaddling clothes.

But his craving might be denied. A band of right-wing rebels even more conservative than he is have staked out their stance, which is “NO WAY.”

Like Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz. On Trump ally Steve Bannon’s fittingly named War Room podcast, Gaetz summed it up this way: “Kevin McCarthy has been holding up a shield to protect some of the dangerous elements of society that have harmed conservatives. And I don’t think that he has passed the test of leadership.”

Firebrand Lauren Boebert isn’t in McCarthy’s camp either, at least not yet. She says of the promises he has made to try to mollify this far-right faction, “There’s no accountability attached to the promises.”

Arizona hard-liner Andy Biggs calls McCarthy “a creature of the establishment status quo” and charges him and his “establishment” Republicans with a failure “to fight the radical Leftists” and “to put the brakes on the Left.”

So like a prostitute raising the hem of her dress, McCarthy has been offering meat to the far-right. Reportedly he promised anti-Semitic QAnon enthusiast Marjorie Taylor Greene not only that she would be able to reclaim positions on House committees which she lost in the current session of Congress, but that they would be “powerful” positions. Greene is now in McCarthy’s camp.

And just yesterday, to show his cred as an unbending right-winger himself, McCarthy tweeted that “when” he’s Speaker, bills from any senator who votes for the $1.7-billion bi-partisan spending package soon to be decided in Congress— including Republican senators— “will be dead on arrival in the House.” Translation: to win more support for the Speakership, the best interests of the country— even those perceived by fellow Republicans— be damned.

The reaction from North Dakota Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, no shrinking violet among conservatives who said earlier this year, “I would love to have four more years with Donald Trump,” was caustic: “Statements like that and statements coming from House Republicans is the very reason that some Senate Republicans feel they probably should spare them from the burden of having to govern.”

Likewise from Utah Senator Mitt Romney: “We’re enduring the silly season of a campaign. For most of us, that’s over after you get elected. But he’s running for speaker of the House, so the silliness is still evident.”

Cat fight.

And for McCarthy, it might be all for naught. Arizona’s Biggs, who opposed the party leader in an internal party caucus in late November, plans to oppose him again by running for Speaker himself.

His odds of victory are slim to none— in the November caucus, he lost to McCarthy 188 to 31. But here’s the conundrum for McCarthy: to be elected Speaker, he needs 218 votes. For the sake of party unity, many of the 31 who opposed him last month will likely come around next month. But Congressman Gaetz said on a recent radio talk show, “I’m not voting for Kevin McCarthy. I’m not voting for him tomorrow. I’m not voting for him on the floor.” If a mere handful of other dissidents stays as stubborn as Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy can’t claim his coveted post.

Another cat fight.

Does a take-no-prisoners right-winger from the unswervingly conservative House Freedom Caucus carve out a coalition? Does a comparative moderate bring the party together? Some have speculated that if McCarthy can’t assemble the votes he needs, it’ll give rise to a candidate who can actually attract votes from the other side of the aisle to make it over that 218-vote hump. Fat chance, but not unimaginable.

Then there’s the battle that broke out just yesterday: Marjorie Taylor Greene versus Lauren Boebert. Remember, these two have been allies on the fringe since they began their freshman terms two years ago. Both have become some of the biggest fundraisers for right-wing movements. They’re the pair who infamously heckled President Biden during his State of the Union address last March.

But it looks like they’re headed for divorce.

On a radio broadcast, Boebert mocked Greene’s baffling belief in “space lasers,” which she first blamed in a Facebook post for setting wildfires in California, then more recently turned them into “Jewish space lasers.”

Greene fired back, writing that Boebert “gladly takes our $$$ but when she’s been asked, Lauren refuses to endorse President Trump, she refuses to support Kevin McCarthy, and she childishly threw me under the bus for a cheap sound bite.”

To which the gun-toting Boebert shot back: “I’ve been asked to explain MTG’s belief in Jewish space lasers, why she showed up to a white supremacist’s conference and now why she’s blindly following Kevin McCarthy, and I’m not going to go there.”

Cat fight of cat fights.

Why Must So Many Die? It’s a Question Putin Has Never Answered.

It’s one thing for some foreign governments to support Russia’s motives in Ukraine. It’s quite another to support its methods. Which leads me to ask, how can any decent leader or any decent government stand up any more for Vladimir Putin, or even act as if it’s neutral in this fight?

Putin is a guy whose army, which outmans and outguns Ukraine’s and was expected to overrun the country in a cakewalk, has failed him. So he turned to other methods to have his way. Since October, he has unleashed nine nationwide blitzkriegs against Ukraine’s infrastructure, the most recent just yesterday. Each time, his forces have fired anywhere from seventy to a hundred missiles, from several directions at once, at critical facilities for electricity and sewage and water.

No corner of the country has been spared. As I write this there is only periodic power in parts of the capital, Kiev. In Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, there is no power at all.

And all this in temperatures in the teens.

Putin is a guy who is trying to scare and starve and freeze Ukraine’s people into submission. And it could work. Ukraine’s top military commander General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi told the British journal The Economist, “We are balancing on a fine line.” If the Russians eviscerate electrical power in the country, he said, “that is when soldiers’ wives and children start freezing. What kind of mood the fighters will be in, can you imagine?”

Putin is a guy who stood at a reception in the Kremlin a week ago for “Heroes of Russia”— clutching a flute of champagne— and commented on the attacks, as if Russia was the innocent victim of the war, “Yes, we are doing it. But who started it?” We know, of course, the answer. It started with Russian troops invading a sovereign next-door neighbor.

The date was February 24th, 2022.

Putin is a guy who gave a promotion to the military officer who, shortly after attacking Ukraine, was in charge of troops that entered the small city northwest of Kiev called Bucha, then when they withdrew, left more than 450 corpses strewn in the streets. The officer now is known as “the Butcher of Bucha.”

The European Union has added him to its blacklist of the worst of the worst in Russia, saying the troops under his command “killed, raped, and tortured.” Make no mistake, they weren’t killing Ukrainian soldiers. They were killing, raping, and torturing civilians.

Putin praised them all for “heroism and courage,” and promoted the bloodthirsty butcher who led them.

So how can any decent leader or any decent government show support any more for Putin?

Although most of the world’s nations—more than 130— have stood up against him, many have stood with him. What some say by way of an excuse is, they are dependent on Russia for everything from food to energy to weaponry for their own armies. I once did a story about Russia’s connections with India. Roughly two-thirds of India’s military equipment is built in, and maintained by, Russia.

Big powers like China and Turkey play both ends against the middle, which means they haven’t openly assisted Putin but haven’t harshly condemned him either. Am I crazy to think that at some point— and things have reached that point in Ukraine— morality should play a role in their alliances?

Nations like Eritrea, Myanmar, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, and Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus have explicitly supported Putin. That’s no surprise. Their leaders are as despotic and corrupt as he is.

And there are more. The Intelligence Unit of The Economist created this map just a month into Russia’s invasion.

As you see, the map includes plenty of nations on the African continent that are indebted to or dependent upon Russia for one thing or another, and if they aren’t proactively standing with Putin, they lean in that direction.

Maybe they need to reassess. Maybe they need to walk in the Ukrainians’ shoes and live through days with no water or power and nights with no light. Maybe they need to take shelter in the subways of the capital or sleep in the ruins of their homes. All in temperatures in the teens.

And maybe they need to read the story two days ago in The New York Times with the title, “A Russian Missile, a Sudden Death, and Unspeakable Grief.” It’s a personal piece about Dmytro Dudnyk, who had gone out to get a chocolate bar and was bringing it to his mother-in-law’s home near the city of Kherson as she started preparing lunch. But he only made it to the doorway. A rocket slammed into the yard and he never got across the threshold.

Multiply that by the nearly 7,000 Ukrainian non-combatants, civilians, who have died since February 24th, so far,

The Times in effect asked “Why?”, describing the village where Dmytro was killed as “a tiny settlement of little or no strategic value.” But “Why?” is a bigger question than that. For when Dmytro’s mother Irnya reached the house, she sobbed over the body of her son and asked, ““Why? Why? Why you?”

Vladimir Putin has told us why he invaded Ukraine. He has told us why he has made citizens suffer. But why have so many innocent inhabitants died as Dmytro Dudnyk did? That’s a question he has never answered. And apparently a question that some nations, those that haven’t stood up against him, haven’t asked.

Are The Morality Police At The Door?

Look at these two headlines, both from a single day last week:

“Putin Signs Law Banning Expressions of L.G.B.T.Q. Identity in Russia”

… and…

“Indonesia Outlaws Sex Outside Marriage”

The backstory on Russia is, it is now illegal to disseminate “information aimed at the formation of nontraditional sexual attitudes.” In case that’s not clear, “nontraditional” means anything but straight. It’s not a new idea in Russia. For a decade it has been illegal to spread such “propaganda” to minors. Now though, it’s illegal to spread it to anybody. No one will be celebrating Pride Day any more in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Not openly. Not unless they want to end up behind bars.

The backstory on Indonesia is, a unanimous Parliament, increasingly driven by the religious right— the Islamic right— has updated the nation’s criminal code, not only outlawing sex outside of marriage, but criminalizing co-habitation by couples who aren’t married. Violators can go to jail for up to half a year. As if it makes everything okay, the governor of the Indonesian resort island of Bali tried to reassure the world, “Bali tourism will not be affected by new criminal code.” But that doesn’t lighten the load for gay Indonesians. Because they will be most vulnerable to the new law when it takes effect, according to civil rights activists there, they are most likely to be the ones who end up behind bars.

But what does any of this have to do with any of us? At first glance, nothing, especially with the President signing the “Respect for Marriage Act” on Tuesday, guaranteeing protection for same-sex (and interracial) marriages. It is encouraging that with bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate, 12 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats to pass it. In the House, it got 44 Republican votes.

But that’s not the whole story. While 12 Republican senators voted for the act, 38 voted against it. In the House, while 44 were in favor, 169 were opposed. One conservative congresswoman from Missouri argued, “This bill only serves to further demonize biblical values.” Left unsaid: opposing it demonizes fellow Americans.

So here’s the connection: whether at home or overseas, the morality police of the religious right are alive and well. Where they have their way— places like Russia and Indonesia— people who are gay and trans face not just discrimination, but a prison sentence. And it’s not just Russia and Indonesia. In almost 70 nations around the globe, half of them in Africa, some form of gay life is a crime.

Here at home, it’s not. But when you see that there are still segments of society that don’t want LGBTQ Americans to have the same rights straight Americans have— as those negative votes in Congress bear out— you can’t blame citizens who are gay and trans for wondering whether the morality police might come for them next.

It doesn’t sound paranoid after a bulletin last week from the Department of Homeland Security. Citing online forums in which users have encouraged violence against gays and praised the mass murderer at the gay-friendly Club Q last month in Colorado Springs, DHS says the U.S. is in “a heightened threat environment.”

The tide keeps turning.

For the past couple of decades, while the odium never disappeared, it turned toward the welfare of same-sex couples. Civil unions, sanctioned marriages, survivor rights when a partner dies, eventually the adoption of children too. But now, with Republican rhetoric referring to the LGBTQ community as “groomers and abusers” as survivors from Club Q testified yesterday in Congress, and after the recent passage of anti-gay and anti-trans laws in several states— there have been more than 340 such bills, according to Representative Carolyn Maloney, from Florida to South Dakota, from Montana to Mississippi— the tide is turning back. Books with gay references are banned, law-abiding citizens are accused of pedophilia because they’re gay.

And now, depending on an upcoming decision at the United States Supreme Court, the tide might get even rougher. This headline, also from that same day when the Russia and Indonesia news came out, can’t be a good omen:

“Supreme Court Seems Ready to Back Web Designer Opposed to Same-Sex Marriage”

What that means is, your rights might be in jeopardy if you’re gay. Probably not to the point they’ve reached in Russia and Indonesia, but right-wing conservatives would like to chip away at what’s been won.

To be sure, the case of this Colorado web designer is not cut-and-dried. It’s a clash of civil rights versus religious rights.

The civil rights are clear: we have Constitutional protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. If those protections prevail, the web designer cannot refuse to design a wedding website for a gay couple even if they ask her to include a message that conflicts with her religious faith. During courtroom arguments Monday, liberal Justice Elena Kagan hypothesized the message, “God blesses this union.” The designer has left no doubt: she doesn’t want to write something like that if she herself doesn’t bless it.

The religious rights are clear too: we cannot be forced to say words, or to write words, that are at odds with our religious convictions. A Muslim cannot be forced to read the Torah. A Jew cannot be obliged to pray to Jesus. A Christian cannot be compelled to chant from the Koran. Seen that way, it’s an argument about freedom of speech: what we’re free to say, and what we’re free not to say.

So on several levels, this case is complicated.

In a similar case more than four years ago, a baker— also in Colorado— said his religious convictions compelled him to turn down a gay couple who wanted a wedding cake. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s protection of speech and religion gave him that right. The Court’s majority said that if ordered to make the cake, the baker would be subjected to “a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.” True, but that’s only half the story. By upholding his right not to bake the cake, the Court subjected the gay couple to a clear hostility toward their sexual orientation. In other words, a clear hostility simply because they’re gay.

Now, in the case of the web designer, what the Court has to do is walk a fine line between rights that might not coexist. And the complications go even deeper than that, for an underlying if unspoken issue is prejudice: if the web designer won’t work for a gay couple planning a wedding— whether it’s based on her religion or some other set of moral values— she has an implicit prejudice against gays.

That itself is not illegal, but imposing it on clients in a business open to the general public might be. That’s what the Supreme Court has to decide, which leads to the most complicated part of all: if the Court’s conservative majority rules in favor of the web designer and affirms that she has the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, how do they avoid the Pandora’s Box it opens? If they rule for her, do they open the door for other kinds of discrimination? Even conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett sees the pitfalls: “However we decide this case,” she said during oral arguments, “obviously applies to others.” Others who could face discrimination based on their race, their color, their disability, their national origin, their religion, their gender.

Don’t forget, when Roe v Wade was struck down back in June, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion, “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.”

Griswold is the case that established a couple’s right to use contraceptives. Lawrence was a ruling that decriminalized anal and oral sex. Obergefell legalized same-sex marriage. Would the newly-minted “Respect for Marriage Act” even survive against that?

It is not far-fetched to see this current case as the next step in putting Americans with “nontraditional sexual attitudes,” as the new Russian law puts it, in a different category from straight Americans. And in delimiting their defense against discrimination.

And although the scale is different, that would put us in some sort of alliance with Indonesia and Russia and those other oppressive nations around the world where if you’re gay, you’re something less than a first-class citizen. It’s not an alliance I would choose for my nation.

A Genuine Game of Russian Roulette.

Once in the early days of the Ukraine war, when explaining the risks journalists take in places like that, I wrote that in my own career in hostile countries I’ve been detained, arrested, and put in jail. I’ve been beaten, shot at, even chased by a gang with machetes.

But none of that was any scarier than being searched. Searched at airports, searched in pat-downs, searched with a machine gun pressed to my temple. I never had anything illegal with me— no drugs, no weapons, no pornography, no propaganda impermissible in the host nation. But I always knew that if I flew into Tehran or Tripoli or Damascus or Caracas or Moscow or a few other places on the wrong day, a day when the authorities needed to make a point, I could be the poor prey on whom agents plant something to produce a patsy and concoct a conflict with the United States of America, the fall guy who would languish in some wretched cell until my government saw fit to trade something for my freedom..

I thought about that back in February when I read the news that American basketball all-star Brittney Griner had been arrested in Moscow and accused of smuggling drugs into the country. I’ve stood there in the no-man’s land at Sheremetyevo, the airport where Griner was taken down, and nervously watched customs officials rifle through my belongings. I never smuggled anything, they never planted anything, but I knew that they could. A network correspondent would be a good catch.

So when I read about Griner, I could imagine her horror. As it turns out, apparently they didn’t have to plant anything because, although she says it was totally unintentional, she was carrying a third of an ounce of oil derived from cannabis, which is legal where she came from but not where she landed. Evidently her doctor here in the States had prescribed it for pain— a professional basketball player has a lot of pain to relieve. But her story is, knowing that it was forbidden in Russia, she didn’t even mean to pack it but that it got swept into her suitcase along with all the rest.

It was a comparatively minor infraction but that didn’t really matter. It landed her in a penal colony 350 miles from Moscow because, as we learned this past week when the U.S. freed a notorious Russian arms dealer to win her release, she was a great catch.

Her arrest also made me think about an American businessman who had been my seat-mate once on a flight from London to Moscow when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He made the trip a few times every year, and told me that he felt as comfortable flying into Moscow as he did flying home into Chicago.

Tragically, he spoke too soon. The second day I was there, the newspaper Pravda had his picture plastered across the front page. In what I look back on as a petrifying precursor to the plight of the currently imprisoned American businessman and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, he’d been arrested as a spy. As a journalist, especially since I felt a personal connection, I tried with the help of ABC’s local staff in Moscow to find out where he was and what they had on him. But this was the Soviet Union. I might as well have asked for the keys to the palace.

Let me add this: I wouldn’t purport to profess that the man with whom I shared a few hours on an airplane wasn’t a spy. There have been Americans over the years, masquerading in some other profession, who actually went to Russia to work as spies, just as the U.S. has uncovered spies among Russians who came to the U.S. under the guise of some other work. But knowing the Soviets’ disrespect for the rule of law, my guess is that my friend from the flight from London was just a fall guy who was framed when he flew in on a day when they felt the need to concoct a conflict. If I had to guess, the same is true for Paul Whelan.

Our government does try to warn us. Six months ago, in its periodic travel advisories for U.S. citizens going abroad, it added a new category of risk: the risk that some foreign governments could wrongfully detain us. The range of recommendations from the government runs from “Exercise normal precautions” to “Do not travel.” That one, the most severe, applies to China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Venezuela… and Russia. The United States doesn’t want to have another Paul Whelan… or another Brittney Griner.

So I was somewhat astonished to read estimates yesterday that more than 40 Americans play in Russian basketball leagues during the U.S. off-season, and roughly 30 hockey players do the same. And although the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia have cut deep into its ties with American businesses, it hasn’t altogether stopped them.

Mr. Putin must love what he considers the validation of American citizens still keeping any kind of relationship with Russia. But for whatever they get out of it, these Americans are playing a genuine game of Russian Roulette. If they stumble into the country on the wrong day, it can cost them, bigtime. As we saw with the negotiated release of Brittney Griner, it can cost all of us.

A Loss for America, or a Win?

Was it an even swap, getting a professional basketball player home from a Russian prison and in return, releasing a notorious arms dealer from an American prison and sending him home to Russia?

No, not even close. Russia convicted and sentenced American Brittney Griner to nine years behind bars for possessing and smuggling drugs after agents at a Moscow airport found a third of an ounce of cannabis oil in her luggage. She was no danger to anybody.

The U.S. convicted and sentenced Russian Viktor Bout to 25 years for conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing support to terrorists. Arguably, until his arrest, he was one of the most dangerous men on earth.

So the swap was utterly lopsided. And it was the right thing to do.

Unless you’re Donald Trump. Remember, if Joe Biden says day, he’ll say night. So on his oxymoronically-named “Truth Social” website, the ex-president lashed out at Biden for negotiating the trade. “What kind of a deal is it to swap Brittney Griner, a basketball player who openly hates our country for the man known as ‘The Merchant of Death’,” he wrote. Then he asked why American businessman and former Marine Paul Whelan, arrested in Russia in 2018 and imprisoned as a spy for 16 years, wasn’t part of the deal. “What a stupid and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!”

It’s no surprise that Trump doesn’t tell the whole truth on “Truth Social.” President Biden had long tried to make Whelan part of the deal. He said so publicly back in July. But the Russians repeatedly rejected the U.S. proposal to release two of their prisoners for one of ours. As an American official says, they called it “a non-starter” and what’s more, said the only release they’d consider was Griner’s.

So what it came down to was, in the words of a senior member of Biden’s team, “a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none.”

Does anyone want to argue that faced with the same choices, Trump or the other Monday Morning quarterbacks who have criticized the swap— Republican Representative Mike Waltz called it “shameful”— wouldn’t have done the same thing? For the record, Trump himself had two years after Paul Whelan was arrested to get him home. As you might have noticed, he failed.

What’s more, Biden’s political enemies might take him to task, but Paul Whelan’s own family doesn’t. His brother David was forgiving: “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

His sister Elizabeth understood Biden’s dilemma too. “We have a country, Russia, who is trying purposely to cause trouble over here, they weren’t going to, in my opinion, send both Paul and Brittney home at same time and give our president the win.” Seeing her brother still locked up in a Russian prison, she admits, is bittersweet, but she said her whole family is on the same page: “We are very pleased to see Brittney come home. Any wrongfully detained American that comes back from overseas is a win for America.”

In case the contrast is lost, the family of the man who’s still locked up calls today’s trade “a win for America,” not “a stupid and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!”

It also underscores the difference between Presidents Putin and Biden. As he has made crystal clear during the war in Ukraine, Putin’s regard for human life is low. Biden’s is high, high enough to see human life as an integral part of the nation’s interest. That explains the President’s wording in his clemency order for the arms dealer, who he freed after 15 years served to get an American hostage home: “It has been made to appear that it is in the national interest that the term of imprisonment… not be served in its entirety.”

It borders on tragic that a man as vile as Viktor Bout goes home to Russia. But his freedom bought freedom for an American who, at worst, was guilty of a very small crime, one that wouldn’t even earn a summons here at home.

What’s more, it still doesn’t inescapably mean that Paul Whelan has to serve out his 16 years. Today, President Putin told reporters that when it comes to continuing to negotiate prisoner releases with the United States, “Everything is possible.” There has been speculation that if Germany will work with the U.S., freeing Whelan, who the Russians call a spy, could be part of a deal Putin had sought earlier for the release of a Russian spy who was convicted and imprisoned last year in Germany for murder.

Putin also said that “a certain atmosphere” was created by today’s prisoner swap. “We won’t say no to doing more of this work in the future.”

Neither will President Biden.

Trump Is His Own Worst Enemy

I’m not as surprised as some might be by the news today that even more classified documents that Donald Trump stole from the White House turned up squirreled away in a storage unit in Florida.

Why aren’t I surprised? Because the guy is undisciplined. He is erratic. He’s dishonest. He’s disorganized. I mean, have you ever heard him speak? He doesn’t draw an arc from A to Z. He flies all over the map, shifting from boast to boast, from lie to lie, from grievance to grievance. This failing is not an excuse for Trump’s illegal possession of top secret material. There is no excuse.

But it might be an explanation. I go with the theory that he took this stuff into exile to gratify his unquenchable ego, something to show off to his star-struck supporters, kind of like the phony Time Magazine covers he had created for himself before his presidency that Time hadn’t even produced.

But for whatever reasons he unlawfully filched these papers in the first place, he might have just stashed some of it here and some of it there and forgotten where he put it.

From all we’ve seen of the man, that would not be unlike Donald Trump.

Then again, he might have purposefully concealed things in four different locations— Trump Tower in New York, his golf club in New Jersey, Mar-a-Lago, and the Florida storage unit— and figured, no one’s going to find it all. For all we know, the way new material keeps turning up, they still haven’t.

That would not be unlike Donald Trump either.

But whatever the answer, today’s news of newly discovered documents that Trump wasn’t supposed to have is one more sign that the walls are closing in.

I heard CNN’s Jake Tapper do a laundry list today of how fast those walls are closing. He cataloged the bad news for Trump since his declaration three weeks ago that he’s running yet again for President. And I’ll add to it.

First came the reaction of news organizations to his announcement itself, news organizations that once were his most strident supporters. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post buried its caustic report about it on Page 26, with this satirical start: “A Florida retiree made the surprise announcement on Tuesday evening that he was running for president.” Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Trump is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.” Fox News didn’t even carry Trump’s full hour-long speech— they cut away when they got bored.

Then the news kept getting worse.

• A special counsel was appointed to drive the federal investigations into Trump’s role in the insurrection of January 6th, and into his possession of those top secret documents he wasn’t supposed to have.

• More close cohorts were ordered by the court to testify to the grand jury in Atlanta that’s examining Trump’s efforts to alter Georgia’s 2020 election results. Michael Flynn and Lindsey Graham are only the latest.

• Trump lost his fight to keep his tax returns private and was ordered to surrender them to Congress.

• He dined two days before Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago with known anti-semites and to this day, hasn’t uttered a public word of contrition. He has taken heat from some in his own party for that.

Then, literally in the last few days…

• He urged the “termination” of parts of the Constitution, the same Constitution he once swore to uphold and would be required, should he win in 2024, to swear to uphold again. He has taken more heat for that.

• The Trump Organization was convicted, in a unanimous verdict, of seventeen counts of tax fraud and other crimes and, while Donald Trump was not a defendant, the implication that he was behind these crimes is impossible to ignore and what’s more, it might be hard for his companies to scare up new business ever again. Meantime the ex-president himself is still being scrutinized in New York for financial fraud and illegal payments of hush money after an affair with a stripper. Not to mention answering to a charge of rape. More trials ahead.

• The newly appointed special counsel in Washington sent subpoenas to Trump loyalists in three states where Trump looked to overturn their elections, demanding any and all communications they had with him, his allies, and his campaign.

• The January 6th Committee announced that based on what it learned in its exhaustive year-and-a-half-long investigation, it will make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. If you don’t think Donald Trump’s name will be at the top of the list, you haven’t been paying attention.

• Herschel Walker lost in Georgia. Not by a little, by a lot: almost a hundred thousand votes.

It underscores, as if we didn’t already know from Keri Lake’s loss in Arizona, Adam Laxalt’s in Nevada, and Doug Mastriano’s in Pennsylvania, how Donald Trump’s blessing can be the kiss of death.

Of course there’s one more thing I’ll add to the laundry list since Trump announced his candidacy three weeks ago: silence. There has been no roar from the crowd. There has been no crowd.

Remember when White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the January 6th committee that when attorney general William Barr declared that there had not been widespread voter fraud in 2020, Trump was so enraged that he threw his porcelain plate of food across the room and “there was ketchup dripping down the wall?”

My guess is, the walls at Mar-a-Lago right now are slathered in it.

Donald Trump probably isn’t sleeping very well right now. If life is fair, it won’t get any better.

Are We Watching Donald Trump Self-Destruct?

Maybe Donald Trump could not, as he once boasted, “shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it.” At least not any more.

His walls are closing in.

So much so that yesterday, in an unpatriotic new low even for him, he decried on his website once again what he continues to claim was the “Massive Fraud” of 2020 and called for “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” so that the “RIGHTFUL WINNER” can be declared.

Let me repeat that: He wants to terminate parts of the Constitution.

The good news is, his preposterous complaints don’t carry the weight they once did. Many Republicans are running away from him, not toward him any more.

He is no longer the shiny new object in the Republican Party. He is no longer the commander of a cult so dedicated, no one dares abandon it. All he is now is a loser.

He lost the White House. He lost the Senate. He lost the huge edge pundits expected his party to pick up in the House.

In his quest to be president yet again, he lost Chris Christie, he lost Rupert Murdoch, he lost Mike Pence. Even Ivanka wasn’t at his campaign announcement.

And he has been losing in court. At an astounding rate.

His dodge to delay the Justice Department’s investigation into the top secret documents he stole away, which could lead to federal charges of obstruction and espionage against the ex-president, lost steam a couple of days ago when a three-judge appeals court (two of them Trump appointees, all of them Republicans) said there was no justification for the “special master” Trump had demanded to slow down the process.

Another federal judge ordered two of Trump’s top White House lawyers to testify further in a grand jury investigation in Washington DC into criminal charges that the ex-president tried to overturn the 2020 election.

His fanatical short-lived National Security advisor Michael Flynn was ordered to testify to the grand jury in Atlanta that’s looking into Trump’s effort to reverse Georgia’s 2020 election results, and his former chief of staff Mark Meadows got the same order three days before that, joining their fellow lackeys Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, who also fought to avoid testifying but lost.

On top of all that, he had to turn over six years of his tax returns to the Democratic House. In that case, even the Supreme Court on which he thought he could rely for relief declined to rule for him.

He was even just sued in New York City for a long ago forcible rape.

There is no bottom. Just an ever-deepening cycle of disgrace.

Like the conviction for seditious conspiracy of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, who Trump has now defended for being “treated unconstitutionally.” Rhodes is the treasonous zealot who called for “combat here on U.S. soil,” the extremist who told Trump after the insurrection in case there was still a chance to overturn the election, “I’m here for you and so are all of my men.” The ex-president can screech and scream all he likes about the treatment of traitors like Rhodes, but his protests won’t keep them from living behind bars for a long, long time.

And that was all in just a little more than this past week.

The walls are closing in on Donald Trump. It has been a long time coming. It is a long time overdue.

And he doesn’t have a clue how to stop it. Following their dinner right before Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, where our former president hosted a couple of unequivocally anti-semitic bigots— rapper Kanye West and white supremacist Nick Fuentes— both men went on the far right program InfoWars Thursday night, showing their admiration for genocidal war criminals. Fuentes called himself “very pro-Putin, very pro-Russia.” West blurted out, “I like Hitler… we got to stop dissing Nazis all the time.”

And that has led to even more losses for the one-time president as many American Jews, although thankful for Trump’s affirmative treatment of Israel, have said that if he didn’t disavow anti-Semites like these, it would be the last straw. He didn’t.

If you’re known by the company you keep— the likes of Stewart Rhodes, Nick Fuentes, Kanye West— we now know Donald Trump better than ever.

Especially since whenever he has the chance to censure low-lifes like these, he takes a pass.

In fact Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present,” told The New York Times, he’ll more likely double down now. “For someone of Trump’s temperament, being humiliated by people turning away from him will only make him more desperate and more inclined to support and associate with the most extremist elements of society. There is no other option for him.”

People say all the time, “I just want Trump to go away.” But that’s a pipe dream. He craves the spotlight the way we crave air. Yes, the media could pull its spotlight off the man and never put it back but for my part, as both a former president and would-be future president who still has a weighty if withering following, the man cannot be ignored.

He is not going to go away.

But he might self-destruct. Yesterday’s demand to dismantle the Constitution sounded like he’s one step closer. One step closer to facing the law, if he shoots someone on 5th Avenue or anything else.

Holed Up In An Airport Hotel.

I feel like a leper, separated from human contact, a thousand miles from home.

Toward the end of last week in Austin, Texas, celebrating Thanksgiving with my wife’s family, I got sick. A cough so raspy it grated my vocal chords, a throat so sore it hurt to swallow.

And then came the test.

At the beginning I didn’t even think about Covid. After all, everyone gets sick, and although since the pandemic started I’ve been more careful than I’ve ever been before about what I touch, where I go, how I wash, even what I breathe, sickness was bound to strike.

Still, it seemed prudent the day before flying home to take the Covid test. Swab both nostrils, swirl the swab in a chemical concoction, drip the fluid in a small diagnostic device, wait 15 minutes, and you’re finished. I’ve done it a dozen times before, simply as precaution before being part of a public gathering, and it always has been negative. So, uncomfortable though I was with the cough and the throat, I didn’t expect this one to be any different. I mean, it always happens to someone else, right?

Until it happens to you. Instead of just one bar under the letter “C” for “control,” there was a second one under “T” for “test” (as in, sorry, this test isn’t good).

I was positive for Covid. Not a happy sight.

But as a sister-in-law pointed out, these home Covid tests aren’t perfect. A “false negative” is more dangerous than a “false positive” because it can mislead someone into thinking they don’t have Covid when in fact they do. But a “false positive” is a possibility too, misleading you into thinking you have Covid when you don’t. Statistics I looked up varied but somewhere between one-half of one percent and a full five percent of tests are false positives. So the consensus was, do a second test.

An unhappier sight. Nothing false about the second reading.

It was unhappy, but not cause for panic. The family flew home, but consistent with government guidelines, I didn’t. I took a room at an airport hotel and have hardly left. That’s why I feel like a leper. But it’s a far sight better than how things were during the worst parts of the pandemic when people who caught Covid went to a hospital, not a hotel. The virus in those days could be a death sentence and for almost 1.1-million unlucky Americans, it was.

None of us is likely to forget the harrowing nights in U.S. cities filled with the sounds of sirens, the semi-trucks converted into mobile morgues, the loved ones unable to give their last hugs and say their last goodbyes. Some people suffocated so fast, they didn’t need a 15-minute test to find out they were next.

Today, much of the world has returned to normal. Not all of it, as news from China attests. But most of us in the U.S. are vaccinated (although most aren’t boosted), which means we can still get sick but that’s as far as it’s likely to go. On the other hand, from what I see, most of us aren’t masking every moment of the day anymore. Personally, my wife and I still wore masks flying to Austin on Thanksgiving day, but when I try to pinpoint where I caught Covid, I realize that I spent time in a few stores, at a few restaurants, and in family gatherings with as many as 18 people. Unmasked for all of it. The virus was floating around out there somewhere.

And it is still floating around. It’s no longer headline news but people continue to die from Covid. The 7-day average for Covid deaths in Thanksgiving week was higher than you might think: 314 every day.

However, we are well past the terrible time when U.S. death tolls shot up past 4,000 a day, and we’re not likely to go back. That’s thanks to the vaccines rapidly developed under President Trump, the tests and shots rapidly administered under President Biden, and now, what I’m counting on: the anti-viral drug Paxlovid, which hadn’t even been a dream in a chemist’s mind before Covid hit.

There’s an interesting story behind that. On the day I continue unaffectionately to refer to as Friday the 13th— the 13th of March, 2020– the Pfizer pharmaceutical company did what most of America did: it sent everyone home. The lockdown began. But it gave an urgent assignment to a man named Dafydd Owen, one of the medicinal chemists who went home: develop a team to think about an oral drug designed not to prevent Covid— vaccines for which Pfizer would also help develop— but to fight it.

For 13 months in his makeshift home office, while his kids made chaos all around him and his team scattered all over the map, Owen with his team’s help created molecular compound after molecular compound, some 20 in all, and when they came up with the antiviral molecular structure of Paxlovid, it worked.

For many infected Americans so far, it has been a miracle. Now I’m hoping it’s a miracle for me. So I can go home.

When Hate Is On The Rise, People Die.

After the Saturday night slaughter a week ago at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Twitter exploded.

I wish I could say it only exploded with shock, the kind of shock most of us must have felt when we heard about the massacre. But I can’t. It also exploded with hate. Hate for people who are lesbian, who are gay, who are bisexual, who are trans. The kind of hate that could inspire a gunman to charge into a gay-friendly club and start shooting.

So sad. So scary.

Of course in this case, we don’t know for sure that that’s what happened. But with all the nightspots in Colorado Springs, is it mere coincidence that the shooter went on his killing spree in one that caters to gays? Prosecutors apparently didn’t think so. Their preliminary charges against him included not only murder, but “bias-motivated crimes.” What that means is, hate crimes. At his formal hearing in a week, we should find out whether those charges stay.

But whether the killer hated the people in the club, or hated himself, hate is hard to prove. Hard, but not impossible, and since the number of hate crimes in America is growing, that’s worth looking at.

The FBI defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” In the year 2020— the FBI’s most recent statistics— there were 7,759 hate crimes reported by law enforcement. That’s the most in a dozen years. A study of 52 major cities from California State University at San Bernardino says that hate crimes surged in those cities by nearly 30%. Some are anti-Black, some are anti-Asian, some are anti-semitic, but the biggest increase is anti-LGBTQ.

That coincides with an enormous increase in legislation targeting those who are LGBTQ. The Human Rights Campaign says 25 anti-LGBTQ bills have been enacted just this past year in 13 states. More than 145 anti-transgender bills were introduced in 34 states. It calculates that in this month’s midterm elections, Republican-aligned groups spent at least $50 million on anti LGBTQ ads.

As Colorado’s attorney general Phil Weiser said on NPR after the nightclub slaughter, “There’s more and more demonization based on who people are.”

Which brings us back to Colorado Springs. The shooter might have been a lone wolf, acting on his own. But if he was a denizen of the internet, he wasn’t really acting alone. He would have been aided and abetted— maybe altogether motivated— by other haters. Whether they actually inspired him or not, leaders in politics and media use everything from TV to social media to inflame people who are susceptible to arguments about the “decadence” of gay life.

That’s one word Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert has used when she fulminates against gay life: “decadent.” She is part of the drumbeat that keeps hate alive.

But she’s not the only one. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is another.

Not only was he the driving force behind the banning of books in public schools with any mention of a gay lifestyle— the authors’ organization PEN America says a third of all the books banned in the U.S. over the past year contain LGBTQ characters and themes— but he has gotten onboard with the far-right to counter what they claim is a threat to our nation called “grooming.”

The word used to refer to what perverted adults would do to befriend children for the purpose of molesting them. But in the last year or two, the far-right has perverted the word itself, redefining it to mean showing sympathy for the LGBTQ movement for the purpose of encouraging children to be LGBTQ themselves. That drove DeSantis to put his weight behind a piece of anti-gay legislation masquerading as an “anti-grooming” bill, and his press secretary to tweet, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”

As Dan Rather wrote last week, “Hate is learned, and it is being taught.”

James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs where the massacre took place, has equated gays to pedophiles. In writing an essay a few years ago titled “Protect your kids,” about the difficult controversy over students born as boys using girls’ bathrooms and vice versa, he said, “If this had happened 100 years ago, someone might have been shot. Where is today’s manhood? God help us!”

Would it be surprising if someone read that and picked up a gun?

Hate has always been with us, but it is on the rise. And more than ever before, it targets people who are LGBTQ. How different is it from hate toward Blacks, hate toward Asians, hate toward Muslims, hate toward Jews?

Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center created a horrifying “hate map,” documenting hate and extremist groups across the country, pointing out in its annual report that “these groups now operate more openly in the political mainstream.” The Oathkeepers and the Proud Boys are only the most infamous examples.

And they’re not just part of the political mainstream, but the mainstream of the internet. Just days after Colorado Springs, Elon Musk’s Twitter reinstated several accounts that previously had been banned for breaking what were then Twitter’s policies about abuse against the LGBTQ community. Tweets like the ones after Club Q evidently now will be tolerated.

My message to Musk and Dobson and DeSantis and Boebert and everyone else of their ilk is, we can’t legislate against hate. But you are proactively encouraging it. There must have been a time in your lives when you’d have condemned a crime of hate. Now your condemnations, your “thoughts and prayers,” seem hollow. So sad. So scary.

Thoughts and Prayers and Mass Shootings.

We should be comforted to know that after last night’s slaughter at a Walmart in Virginia, right-wing politicians who do whatever they can to prevent gun reform once again are sending their thoughts and prayers. As they have in the past, and as they also will the next time a mass shooting ruins more people’s lives somewhere in America.

This time they came from Virginia’s governor and presidential aspirant Glenn Youngkin, who assured us, “Our hearts break with the community.” He went on in his tweet, “Heinous acts of violence have no place in our communities.”

But evidently laws to curb the proliferation of guns have no place in our communities either. For when he was running for governor last year and was asked what gun reform proposals he would support if elected, Youngkin said with zero ambivalence, “I think we need to be fully clear: none.”

But still, his heart breaks.

It’s shades of Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert who, in the wake of the mass shooting at a nightclub in Colorado Springs only two nights earlier, had the temerity to tell us, “The victims & their families are in my prayers.”

This is a rabid gun rights fanatic who has packed a pistol into the United States Capitol, who calls gun reform part of the Democrats’ “radical political agenda,” and who advances the deceit that reform won’t work because “we cannot legislate evil.” Yet when she calls for lawless violence “to end and end quickly,” her solution is: more guns.

So the victims of the mass shooting in Colorado Springs are in Boebert’s prayers, but her 2021 family Christmas card rounds out the full picture of those prayers.

Broken hearts. Thoughts and prayers. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, “It’s what people say when they plan to do nothing.”

If mass shootings are defined by at least four victims in a single incident, then according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, we’ve had more than 600 mass shootings in this nation so far this year. Today’s New York Times published a partial list of those massacres, singling out just a relative handful, which I shall end with, since it paints a full enough picture of where “nothing” has gotten us.

• Last night, the Walmart in Chesapeake VA, 6 dead, 4 wounded

• Just two days earlier, the gay nightclub in Colorado Springs CO, 5 dead, 18 wounded

• Only a week before that, a parking garage at the University of Virginia, 3 dead, 2 wounded

• A month before that, a residential neighborhood in Raleigh NC, 5 dead

• September 7, several parts of Memphis TN, 4 dead

• July 17, a shopping mall in Greenwood IN, 3 dead, 2 wounded

• July 4, a parade in Highland Park IL, 7 dead, dozens wounded

• June 30, a convenience store in Newark NJ, 9 wounded

• June 20, a park in Harlem NY, 1 dead, 8 wounded

• June 4, downtown Philadelphia PA, 3 dead, 12 wounded

• June 1, a medical building in Tulsa, OK, 5 dead, several wounded

• May 24, an elementary school in Uvalde TX, 21 dead, 17 wounded

• May 15, a church in Laguna Woods CA, 1 dead, 4 wounded

• May 14, a supermarket in Buffalo NY, 10 dead, 3 wounded

• May 13, downtown Milwaukee WI, 16 wounded

• April 12, a subway in Brooklyn NY, 10 wounded

• April 3, downtown Sacramento CA, 6 dead, 12 wounded

• March 19, a car show in Dumas AR, 1 dead, 27 wounded

• January 23, a home in Milwaukee WI, 6 dead

Should We Stop Giving Donald Trump Oxygen?

Plenty of people say that we should stop talking about Donald Trump. Stop talking about him, stop writing about him, stop thinking about him. What they demand is, “Stop giving him oxygen.” As my friend Wayne Feinstein wrote in his own Substack column, “If they ceased to put his crazy claims on the front page… he’d be starved of the ‘oxygen’ he needs to live.”

Maybe so, but for three reasons, I think that’s wrong.

The first one I say as a lifelong journalist: for better or worse, I don’t think the media should arbitrarily ignore a former president of the United States, and especially one who is running for the office again. It would reinforce a bad precedent, pronouncing some serious candidates worthy of attention and some not. In my mind Donald Trump is anything but worthy, but like it or not he is a serious candidate and has serious prospects to win back the White House. What’s more, he still commands the cult-like loyalty of millions of Americans. Ignoring him is ignoring them.

The second reason is, Elon Musk has just lifted the ban that for almost two years now has kept Trump off Twitter.

The ex-president has suggested in the past that even if allowed to tweet again, he might not bother. Let’s just say, I’ll believe it when I see it. At his peak he had 90 million followers. For a man like him, that will be too tempting to pass up. What this means is, if we try to cut off his oxygen, he can make his own.

The final reason is politically pragmatic. If Donald Trump once had the ability to “read the room,” he has lost it. Americans have made it clear that two years of whining without evidence about the “rigged election” that he roundly lost is tiresome at best, dangerous to democracy at worst. Most of the candidates for major office who got on Trump’s bandwagon about the 2020 election lost. The more he lies, the worse he looks.

Here’s proof.

In the latest average of post-election polls compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight, his “favorability” rating still came in at roughly 41%, but his “unfavorability” rating was almost 54%.

What’s more, some one-time enablers are deserting him in droves. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an old friend of Trump’s and for a short time the leader of his transition team in 2016, said this weekend, “In my view, he’s now a loser. I don’t think there’s a Democrat he can beat because he’s now toxic to suburban voters on a personal level, and he’s earned it.”

Even worse for Trump, reflecting his fall from grace in the Murdoch media empire, the New York Post buried its story about his Tuesday night declaration of candidacy on page 26, with a satirical report worthy of Saturday Night Live.

Bitingly referring to him as “a Florida retiree,” the article said “avid golfer Donald J. Trump kicked things off at Mar-a-Lago, his resort and classified documents library.” The end of the terse five-sentence story said, “He has stated that his qualifications for office include being a ‘stable genius.’ Trump also served as the 45th president.”

That can’t be good for an unquenchable ego like his.

On top of that, when he made his low-energy low-impact announcement and claimed in his list of “achievements” that the tax cut he signed as president had been the “largest” in history, maybe he was counting on the fact that everyone listening wasn’t enough of a policy wonk to know it wasn’t. The reality, according to the Treasury Department, is that as a percentage of the economy, Ronald Reagan’s was history’s biggest. As a raw number adjusted for inflation, Barack Obama’s was.

When he claimed that “the wall was finished,” maybe he figured that everyone listening wouldn’t know that along our 1,900 mile border with Mexico, of the 453 miles of wall that his administration did build, not even 50 miles of it was new.

When he claimed that he has been persecuted over the top-secret documents discovered at Mar-a-Lago when “Obama took a lot of things with him” too, maybe he assumed that most people hadn’t read the National Archives statement affirming that it took possession of every single document from the Obama presidency when he left the White House.

But it was on the price of gas that Trump went off the rails. When he claimed “now it’s sitting five, six, seven and even eight dollars,” it didn’t take a genius to figure out that he was lying. All it took was a trip to your local gas station.

For the record, the national average that day was $3.76 and in California, which consistently has the nation’s highest prices, it was $5.43.

And there’s the price of Thanksgiving turkey too. In his ceaseless campaign to smear the man who beat him two years ago, Trump warned, “Good luck getting a turkey for Thanksgiving. Number one, you won’t get it and if you do, you’re gonna pay three to four times more than you paid last year.” Except you’re not. The Department of Agriculture says the average advertised supermarket price is 97 cents per pound, which is higher than last year but only by 10%, not “three to four times more than you paid last year.” It doesn’t take a genius to see that, either.

Another sign that Donald Trump might be cunning but not always so smart, especially since his first three motivations for almost everything he does are money, money, and money, is that by announcing his candidacy as unconventionally early as he has, he is forsaking any financial help from his own Republican National Committee to pay his legal bills, which are soon to be boundless. That would be considered “in-kind” contributions to the candidate and the party’s “neutrality policy” prohibits it. Doubtless Trump knew that, which underscores the likelihood that he announced anyway in the hope of forestalling Justice Department prosecutions against him.

That isn’t working either.

Friday, a “special counsel” was appointed to oversee the federal investigations of the ex-president: the documents he illegally kept at Mar-a-Lago and the seditious invasion of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Trump embraced martyrdom as he told Fox News, “I have been proven innocent for six years on everything… It is so unfair. It is so political.” Yet another lie. He hasn’t “been proven innocent,” he just hasn’t been convicted.

Wednesday night, President Joe Biden underscored the difference between a decent leader and Donald Trump. When the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was secured, Biden publicly congratulated presumptive Speaker Kevin McCarthy. If the shoe were on the other foot, can you even begin to imagine Donald Trump showing that kind of class?

The Moon, Then Mars.

At 1:47 a.m. eastern time yesterday, after a hydrogen leak delayed it in early September, then a hurricane later the same month, the United States finally launched the first Artemis spacecraft to the moon. The most powerful rocket in the history of the American space program turned night into day.

But beyond the spectacle….

…. why should we care?

The short answer in my mind is, because man was meant to explore. When I started covering the space program in 2005, I asked Michael Griffin, then NASA’s chief, essentially the same question: why should we care? His answer was, “Throughout history, the nations that put their men and money into ships that sailed across uncharted oceans became the leading nations of their times. Not to mention beneficiaries of the riches with which those ships came home.”

For more than half a century now, as those uncharted oceans have become uncharted skies, we have been one of those nations. For Americans, exploration— into a new kind of government, into new forms of transportation and communication and so much more— always has been a hallmark of our character. We always have been a people who were not just curious, but took risks to find out.

Space is just the most dramatic example. It stirs up qualities that distinguish man from every other species on earth: profound intellect, boundless invention, insatiable curiosity, bold exploration. I don’t ignore the adverse implications for America’s native peoples, but where would we be today without the inquisitive adventurers of centuries past who “sailed across uncharted oceans” and found new worlds?

True, after six manned missions reached the moon, we sailed no farther. Twelve men walked on the lunar surface, but almost fifty years have passed since the last ones landed and none has ever gone back.

Today, that begins to change because, as some argue, we need to. Those courageous missions a half century ago answered questions about science, and the missions now, beginning with Artemis, might actually answer questions about survival. (Artemis is so named, by the way, because in Greek mythology, she was the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the rocket was named more than a half century ago that took those men to the moon). As our population continues to expand, we might some day depend on what astronauts can learn about growing food on another planet. As we continue to age, we might some day depend on what they learn about developing medicines millions of miles from home.

And that begins with establishing a manned base on the moon as a launch pad for deeper space, with an eye on Mars. In terms of energy (which can be airlifted or even potentially beamed from earth to moon) and gravity (which has only about a sixth the pull it has on earth), spacecraft won’t need colossal quantities of fuel to blast off for the cosmos.

Yes, there are risks. There always are risks. The program manager for the space shuttle once held his hand about a foot from my face at the Kennedy Space Center, put his forefinger about a millimeter above his upturned thumb, and told me, “We are always about this close to catastrophe.” Nothing about that has changed. But from the first American in space to the astronauts now traveling on commercial spacecraft, the risks have been worth taking.

I remember the awe I felt, the awe everyone felt, when Alan Shepard became that first American to break the bonds of earth. He launched in a capsule not 12 feet tall that he named “Freedom 7.” His whole sub-orbital flight traveled just over 300 miles and lasted less than sixteen minutes from liftoff to splashdown in the Atlantic.

Now more than 60 years later, compare his rocket to the one that late Tuesday night launched the Artemis mission toward the moon. Shepard’s Redstone rocket was 69 feet high, weighed roughly 62,000 pounds, and reached a top speed of about 5,000 mph. The rocket for Artemis stood 322 feet high, weighed almost six million pounds, and already is speeding through space at almost 25,000 m.p.h.

But Shepard’s mission was brave and breathtaking for its day and what’s important to remember is, he wouldn’t have flown at all if he, and the American people, were risk-averse.

With the risks come rewards. When NASA chief Griffin talked to me about “the riches with which those ships came home,” he went on to explain about the riches, large and small, that space exploration has spawned. From robotics to satellite telecommunications, from cardiac tools to cancer therapies, from home insulation to fire retardants, from water purifiers to solar panels, from polarized sunglasses to freeze-dried foods, and last but not least, to the Dustbuster.

So we’re headed back to the moon. It has taken so long because scientists and engineers had to turn inventive again— new materials, new fuels— for long term travel. But that’s the goal, long term travel to distant bodies in the solar system, not just one more American flag on the lunar surface. I once asked Griffin’s successor at NASA, Charlie Bolden, himself a four-time shuttle astronaut, whether we’d ever go back to the moon and he said, “Yes, but we’re in no hurry. 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.”

So far, our record seems safe. China… and decades ago, the Soviet Union… have landed robotic vehicles there, but making spacecraft safe to put humans on the moon requires a magnitude of knowhow they evidently haven’t achieved.

Which puts the U.S. in the lead to land men on Mars.

Scott Carpenter, who was the second American to actually orbit our planet after John Glenn, once told me why Mars matters, and he spoke with the kind of pioneer spirit that got us to where we are: “Because it is inevitable that we will go there. That’s what humans do.” If you are an explorer, no more need be said.

No one alive on January 20th, 1969 will ever forget Neil Armstrong’s immortal words as he put the first human foot on the moon: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Today we are taking the next small step in the final frontier of space. The plan, by 2025, is to send two astronauts for a week-long stay.

That’s how we secure our place in the forefront of discovery. That’s how we secure our place as one of the leading nations of our time.

Why Would Trump Take The Risk?


In my haste last night to complete and transmit this column about Donald Trump’s third presidential launch, I accidentally omitted the very first line, which is key to what follows. This means that if you already have read the piece, something didn’t make sense. My bad. So with apologies for overloading your inbox, I am resending it with the line (in bold) that got omitted. If you haven’t yet read what arrived last night, please delete that one and just read this.

Greg Dobbs

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“I am running because I believe the world has not yet seen the true glory of what this nation can do.”

In an hourlong speech announcing his pursuit again of the presidency, a speech as loaded with boasts as with blueprints, more packed with hypocrisy than with honesty, more laden with fantasies than facts, that was the declaration tonight of Donald Trump.

But I don’t believe it. Since a theory is more than a wild guess but less than a hard fact, here are my two theories on why Trump’s running again for president.

The first is, he is running to insulate himself from all the charges, criminal and civil, currently leveled against him. Remember, he’s being investigated and could be indicted for a sweeping series of scandals and sins: his stewardship of the insurrection in Washington DC, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, his illegal possession of top secret documents in Florida, the crooked conduct of his businesses in New York, and issues in a Manhattan court concerning an allegation of rape.

This theory says he’s betting that politically, if not legally, it’ll be harder for the wheels of justice to roll over him if he’s a candidate again for the highest office in the land, because prosecutions against him would turn him into a martyr. And that might be a safe bet. After the FBI’s August raid to reclaim those government-owned documents from Trump’s estate at Mar-a-Lago, his capricious crony Lindsey Graham menacingly predicted “riots in the streets” if anyone indicts Donald Trump. We can’t discount that. After January 6th, 2021, anything is possible.

Whenever asked about the prospect of indicting Trump for crimes against the nation, Attorney General Merrick Garland has been consistent: “We pursue justice,” he told NBC News, “without fear or favor.”

In fact his mantra for a year now has been, “We will follow the facts and the law, wherever they lead.” Yet when it comes to bringing history’s first-ever criminal case against a former American president, Garland is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, politically and legally. As the Washington website The Hill points out, “Convicting an individual in a court of law is much, much more difficult than convicting someone in the court of public opinion.”

However, it’s not all up to Merrick Garland. If he is handicapped by anything from pragmatic impediments to political pushback, there are other prosecutors out there who won’t be. Like the District Attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, who has convened a grand jury to investigate Trump’s election meddling, and the Attorney General for the State of New York who has sued Trump for financial fraud, and the D.A. in Manhattan who is putting the Trump Organization on trial. They are all zeroing in on the ex-president, no holds barred.

The other theory is, he is driven not only by his hope for a reprieve from prosecutions, but also by his acrimony, his artifice, and his ego.

The acrimony came out last week, just the day after the elections, when Trump took aim at his most likely rival for the 2024 presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Trump warned that if DeSantis goes up against him, “I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody, other than, perhaps, his wife.”

Then on Monday, The New York Times reported on an interview with Trump’s second White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, in which Kelly says that Trump “repeatedly” told him “that he wanted a number of his perceived political enemies to be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.” This is only the newest revelation of the former president’s vengeful streak, which could intensify if he wins back the White House.

His artifice was on full display yesterday when the Arizona governor’s race was called and Trump’s election-denying favorite was the loser. “Wow!”, he wrote, “They just took the election away from Kari Lake. It’s really bad out there.” It’s as if the man can’t see beyond his own unending heap of fraudulent fictions.

As for ego, that requires little elaboration.

We know that Donald Trump is hungry for the spotlight, hungry for the adulation, hungry for the applause. When he steps on a stage and whips up an adoring crowd, his face explodes with elation. Airing grievances on his flailing website Truth Social doesn’t cut it. Moving back to the White House would.

But what’s the chance that it could happen? Lower now, it seems, than before last week. Once-loyal lackeys have pointed out that in all three elections since his one-time victory in 2016, he has dragged the Republican ticket down. Some have even done some trash-talking on Trump since Election Day. Texas congressman Troy Nehls, who once called him “one of America’s greatest patriots and presidents” now says, “There’s just a lot of negative attitudes about Trump.” Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, who co-chaired a group in 2020 called Black Americans to Re-elect President Trump, says that if he runs again, “I could not support him. I just couldn’t.” Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey says, “There’s a very high correlation between MAGA candidates and big losses.” The number two Republican leader in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, says, “You can’t have a party that’s built around one person’s personality.”

And, there’s the media. When Rupert Murdoch’s empire turns against Trump, it can’t bode well for the man’s future. The day after the elections, the headline on Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal opinion page was, “Trump is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.” On Fox News, commentator Michele Tafoya pleaded, “Please Mr. President, don’t run again.” Murdock’s New York Post ran a cover mocking the man it twice endorsed.

Can Donald Trump win the nomination in 2024, let alone the presidency, against all that? Remember, two years ago, he lost to Joe Biden by seven million popular votes, 74 electoral votes. It’s impossible to imagine, between his dishonorable conduct on and around January 6th and his drag on the ticket last week, that the man has more fans now than he had before.

In fact, probably fewer. Although surveys show that up to 70% of diehard Republicans still like Donald Trump, a September New York Times/Siena College poll showed that only 30 percent of voters overall said they’d back him if he runs again. And that was before last week.

On the other hand, as the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, Peter Baker, pointed out this morning, “Critics have counted Trump out before and lived to regret it.”

Of course his prospects also will depend, in part, on who he would be running against. President Biden said last week, “Our intention is to run again,” but he also hinted that it would be decided during a Thanksgiving week “family discussion.” His family, if not potential voters, might decide that as he’s turning 80 this week, he’d just be too old for another presidential campaign and another presidential term.

That leaves the question, if Biden doesn’t run, who’s on the Democratic bench? Vice President Kamala Harris? California Governor Gavin Newsom? Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg? Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer? Or maybe someone will come out of nowhere. An otherwise obscure Illinois state senator named Barack Obama went to the United States Senate in 2005. In 2008 he was elected President.

All we know for now is, Donald Trump is running again. But while practically speaking, his candidacy might indeed give him some protection against prosecution— the courts have never had to rule on a situation like this— it doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for any crimes he committed. Nor does it make him a better man.

And that’s no theory. It’s a fact.

So Much Better Than It Might Have Been.

Just two days ago, writing about Ukraine’s successes against Russia, I said they’re not decisive enough to pop open the champagne, but that a glass of wine wouldn’t hurt.

Today, with the outcomes of Tuesday’s U.S. election exceeding conventional expectations for the Democrats— with the Republican rout only turning out to be a Republican ripple, if even that— make it two glasses. Two to toast the wisdom of the American people. Two to toast the future.

This doesn’t mean that the chaos and craziness and subterfuge and sedition are over. The Trump Party’s normalization of lies, its contempt for science, its curtailment of civil rights, its control over women’s own bodies, its passion for guns, its proliferation of racism and anti-semitism and homophobia, its manipulation of election laws, its onslaughts against our institutions of justice, and its attacks on our democracy won’t disappear. Those people are still out there. Some with a twisted read on the Constitution and a warped vision of America’s future lost their election bids, but some still won. The citizens who voted for them haven’t gone away, either.

While a score of seats are yet to be called for the House of Representatives, odds still are that Republicans will win. If they do, although they will rule with a razor-thin edge, the take-no-prisoners Party of Trump will still have some sway, if not supremacy, over the affairs of the nation. What that means among other things is, after its intensive focus this past year on the crimes and causes of January 6th, the House will go blind. And if the most radical remaining representatives are allowed to influence its agenda, the conduct of the president’s son Hunter Biden will be investigated as if it has been a greater threat to our nation than the insurrection, and there will be ill-begotten efforts to impeach everyone from Attorney General Merrick Garland to President Biden himself.

But these people will not have their hands on the wheel of the ship of state, and they will not have the Senate to sanction their appalling ambitions. The ship will stay afloat. The governor of New Hampshire, the Republican governor Chris Sununu put it well, saying voters this year decided, “We can fix policy later, we’re going to fix crazy now.” The crazies still will be able to start a few bad initiatives, but they won’t be able to stop some good ones.

And for anyone who is not with the crazies and sides with the Democrats, here are four layers of silver lining.

The first is, with control of the Senate now out of play, it’s likely that Republican turnout will be diminished in Georgia’s special election early next month between Republican Herschel Walker and Democrat Raphael Warnock, giving Warnock an edge and improving the odds that Democratic leverage in the Senate will end up one vote stronger for this coming term than it was in the term now ending.

The second is, with Republican Mitch McConnell still just the minority leader, the Senate majority remains in the President’s party’s hands, which means he can continue to win confirmation for judges who are not Trump Party acolytes.

Third, if Donald Trump’s domination over the Republican Party is diminished— even if the narcissist himself remains unbowed— maybe some members of the minority party will decide it’s in their own interest, if not the nation’s, to work across the aisle to get things done.

Finally, even if Republicans control the House, there is an effective check on their worst excesses: the bully pulpit, which remains in the hands of a president who is not a bully.

Trump’s collaborator Steve Bannon said last weekend while campaigning in Arizona for Trump Party candidates, “The future is here on Tuesday.”

He was so right. It’s just not the future he had in mind.

Is This Something To Celebrate?


It might be short-lived but that’s the best word I can think of for the mood today in Ukraine. The war is far from over, the victor is far from clear, but for the moment at least, with Ukrainian troops retaking the southern city (and much of the region) of Kherson, the blue and yellow flag of their nation flies in the city again and the tide has turned for Ukraine and against Russia.

It’s sweet on so many levels.

First, symbolically. When Russia conquered Kherson eight months ago, only a week after it launched its attack on Ukraine, it became the first provincial capital— the equivalent of a state capital in the U.S.— that Russia controlled. That mattered to Russians, who are proud of their history, since Kherson was established almost 250 years ago by the revered Catherine the Great as the central citadel of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. As it turns out, of 24 provinces in modern Ukraine, Kherson was the only capital Russia conquered in this war. Now it has none.

Second, logistically. Situated at the mouth of Ukraine’s longest and most important river, the Dnipro, where it pours into the Black Sea, Kherson has been considered crucial for Russia’s conquest of the Black Sea’s coastline. But as the Mississippi bisects the U.S., the Dnipro divides Ukraine.

Losing control there makes it harder for Russia to move on the cherished and contested seaport of Odessa, and even to defend its illegally annexed Crimea Peninsula. It might ultimately mean the end of Russia’s dream to capture the whole southern part of Ukraine.

Third, militarily. Estimates are that in its retreat across the Dnipro from the city of Kherson, Russia had to move between 15,000 and 20,000 troops to safer ground. Even Moscow’s Ministry of Defense conceded in a public statement, “Kherson [city] and adjacent settlements in the current conditions cannot be fully supplied and function.” A hard pill for Russia because according to Western analysts, the troops they withdrew are among the army’s best, and not the ill-trained ill-equipped cannon fodder Putin conscripted for the war in his “partial mobilization” only two months ago. As for weaponry, the ministry claimed, “Not a single piece of military equipment or weaponry was left behind.” Photographs prove otherwise.

Fourth, politically. It was only six weeks ago that Vladimir Putin officially annexed four regions in Ukraine, including Kherson, and triumphantly trumpeted at the ceremony, “I want the Kiev authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me, for everyone to remember. People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever.”

Forever didn’t last long. Putin has been attacked in recent days in his own nation, one side saying he bit off more than he could chew, the other side saying he didn’t bite hard enough. Either way, for a leader known to micromanage most everything about the war, losing Kherson does not make him look stronger.

Fifth, geopolitically. Abbas Gallyamov, one of Putin’s former confidants but now an independent and increasingly critical political commentator, said as losses started mounting less than a month ago, “This will mean he will go down in history as a loser.” Now, he sees repercussions not just for Putin’s prestige but for Putin’s power: “He is the central pillar in the construction of the system, and if he is shaking, the whole system is shaking.”

Sixth, morally. The citizens of Ukraine, who have suffered so much and have so much suffering still ahead of them, now have something to celebrate. You might remember citizens in Kiev proudly posing a month ago in front of an oversized mockup of a special stamp that was created immediately after the bridge that Russia built as as link to Crimea was blown up.

Well now, there’s an even newer stamp, its slogan echoing the words of Ukraine’s president Zelensky today on social media: “Kherson is ours.” Watermelons, by the way, are a proud product of Kherson.

We have to be realistic. In terms of manpower and munitions, despite its losses, Russia still has the upper hand in this war. But as Ukrainian troops are showing us, it might take more than manpower and munitions to win. As I’ve seen in most of the wars I’ve covered, it might also take the will to win.

You’d think the Russians would understand that. You’d think the memory would still be fresh of their own Soviet Union’s humiliating defeat in the late ‘80s in Afghanistan, despite its massive advantage in munitions and manpower. What made a difference was, the Afghans had the will to win. The Russians did not. Today, the Ukrainians are fighting for their sovereign land. The Russians are not.

The course of this war is not so decisive that it’s time to pop open the champagne. But it’s sweet enough right now that a glass of wine wouldn’t hurt.

Something To Celebrate. Lots To Celebrate.

No, it is not too early to celebrate.

At this writing, many races remain undecided, control of the Senate could still flip and even more likely, control of the House. But if you’re not part of the Trump Party, it’s not too early to take heart in what we’ve seen so far.

Our world has not imploded.

A few days ago, Trump’s spokesman Taylor Budowich boasted, “At this point, the entire Republican Party, from fundraising, to data, to get-out-the-vote, is on Donald Trump’s shoulders and together they will deliver massive GOP victories come November 8.” He probably thought that making that promise was a safe bet, because historically in midterm elections, the incumbent president’s party usually loses, sometimes big-time. But those “massive victories” for Trump’s party didn’t happen. As I wrote on Saturday, despite discontent with President Biden, it hasn’t translated to a massive shift of Democratic voters backing Republican candidates.

Maybe most notably, in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman of the Democratic Party, even with questions about his abilities to serve after suffering a stroke, beat Mehmet Oz of the Trump Party for the United States Senate.

Oz has conceded. It is not only a repudiation of Trump himself, who campaigned for Oz this past weekend, but it flipped a Senate seat from the Republicans to the Democrats. For good measure, Trump also went to bat over the weekend for Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, one of the foremost election deniers among this year’s Trump Party candidates. But Democrat Josh Shapiro beat Mastriano— more like, shellacked him.

That’s the kind of thing that gives me hope, because while some of Trump’s acolytes won, just as many lost, or at least for the moment, are losing. Sure, election denier J.D. Vance won the Senate in Ohio, but unlike the Fetterman victory next door, all he did was keep the seat in the same party’s hands. Meanwhile, Trump Party candidates lost their races for the Senate in New Hampshire, and for the statehouse in Michigan, in Wisconsin, and thanks to Josh Shapiro, in Pennsylvania.

In Arizona, Donald Trump held rallies three times this year to boost the gubernatorial campaign of another election denier, Keri Lake, who has called herself “Trump in a dress.”

At this moment, “Trump in a dress” trails the Democratic incumbent in a dress, Katie Hobbs. Only about two-thirds of Arizona’s votes have been counted so far though— and characteristically, of course, Lake already has hinted at fraud— so things could change, but there has been no slam-dunk for the Trump Party. Likewise, although Arizona’s Senate race has not yet been called, incumbent Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, has a five percentage point lead at the moment over yet another rabid election denier, Blake Masters of the Trump Parry.

That’s the kind of thing that also gives me hope. My greatest hope there is that those leads last.

And although it’s yet another race still in the “undecided” column, the former bar owner and gun-toting Trump Party Congresswoman from western Colorado, Lauren Boebert, with almost 95% of the votes counted, is still slightly behind Democrat Adam Frisch, a former city councilman from Aspen. The front page of today’s Denver Post ran a picture of Boebert and her husband last night, praying.

May their prayers go unanswered. Hope springs eternal.

And come on, if you take an overall look at these outcomes and you’re not part of Trump’s MAGA movement, you have to admit that there is no small satisfaction in seeing that once again, Donald Trump is a confirmed loser. There are reports from his inner circle that this morning he was “livid,” even “screaming at everyone.” One sure bet is that our former narcissist-in-chief is screaming at everybody but himself. After all, how could it be Trump’s fault? He had just called over the weekend for “a humiliating rebuke” of Democrats. In other words, a so-called “red wave.”

And he did everything he could to make it happen, spending more than two-and-a-half million dollars from his fund-scamming PAC called “MAGA Inc.” in the closing days of the election to put his favored Senate candidates over the top in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia. But they have lost in Pennsylvania, are losing in Arizona, and Georgia is a tossup (and it’s confirmed, it will have to be decided in a runoff in a month).

We cannot overlook the fact that House is still up for grabs, and so is the Senate. But no matter how that all plays out, the red wave of “massive victories” didn’t happen. Late night comedian Stephen Colbert called it more like “a pink trickle.”

The future is still going to be rough, at best. But that’s still a whole lot better than what it would have been at worst. Which is why I celebrate.

If You Vote Tomorrow, Think About All This!

On this election eve, since Census figures suggest that almost one in three of you has yet to cast your ballot and will vote tomorrow, on Election Day itself, I’m going to go all partisan on you, and there’s a good reason why. We’re not dealing any more with Democrats vs Republicans. We’re talking about the Democratic Party vs the Trump Party. To say it plainly if alarmingly, we are choosing between one party, admittedly, that’s too liberal for many Americans, versus the other that’s downright dangerous for us all.

If you haven’t voted yet, that’s what you’re voting on: whether the Democratic Party or the Trump Party will secure control of Congress, and whether the Democratic Party or the Trump Party will win control of statehouses and legislatures where the future of free elections, and compliance with fair elections, will be decided. Having passed laws these past two years to make it harder for many citizens to vote while continuing without credible cause to contest the election of 2020, the Trump Party already has shown its disdain for all that.

If we were only dealing with traditional ideological differences, I’d try to convince you that the Democratic Party wants to keep creating programs that make our lives better and safer— cheaper healthcare, safer streets, modernized transportation, cleaner air, and an equitable system of taxation, not to mention the protection of civil and human rights. The Democrats don’t get everything right, and sometimes, hostage to their own left wing, they overshoot. But are your highways getting fixed, are your vaccinations free and accessible, are your prescriptions soon to cost less? Maybe most Americans these days aren’t big fans of Joe Biden, but there’s not an American alive who hasn’t somehow been the beneficiary of a program his Democrats have passed in the last two years.

By and large, the Trump Party would reverse a lot of that. The Trump Party pretty much wants to just take things away. Thanks to the conservative majority they confirmed to the Supreme Court, a score of states already have taken away a woman’s right to an abortion, they’ve annihilated the right of local communities to enact common sense gun reform, and in some states, they’ve even removed the right of school districts to teach a curriculum that recognizes the diversity of American citizens and American history. They’ve hinted at reducing more rights that have taken root in our lives.

Some of the Trump Party’s leading lights also have threatened to shrink or eventually even stamp out Social Security and Medicare. If you’re not old enough yet to be a beneficiary, the day will come, if they survive. They’ve vowed to stop spending federal dollars to battle the climate change that has been causing more fires and floods and deadlier storms than ever before. They’ve hinted at pulling back on American support for Ukraine in its oppressive war with Russia, as if letting Vladimir Putin get away with genocide isn’t a perilous precedent and as if geopolitically, a Russian triumph wouldn’t lead to more of our allies under threat from the Russian bear. It probably would. The risk for us is, anything that weakens our allies weakens us.

All of that is bad enough. But that’s not the sum total of the danger if the Trump Party takes control of Congress. Because what they’ll also erase is the legacy of the January 6th Committee, which has been getting at the root of the insurrection and looking for ways to not just punish those who took part but to deter like-minded subversives from doing something similar in the future. From what leaders of the Trump Party have said, apparently investigating the president’s son Hunter Biden, who might be criminally liable for his business associations, his tax reporting, and the purchase of a firearm, is far more critical for the security of our nation than investigating a ferocious attempt to overturn an election and carry out a coup. Donald Trump has even pledged, if he wins back the White House in two years, to consider pardons for every convicted insurrectionist. He said in a September interview, “I mean full pardons, with an apology to many.”

You’re voting on that, too.

No, Trump’s name is not on tomorrow’s ballot, but if the Trump Party takes Congress, it will likely nudge him that much closer to running again for president. And then those pardons, those apologies, could become a reality. And, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman posited last week, we could end up with a presidential cabinet from hell: “Imagine… that Donald Trump had been re-elected and chose Rudy Giuliani for attorney general, Michael Flynn for defense secretary, Steve Bannon for commerce secretary, evangelical leader James Dobson for education secretary, Proud Boys former leader Enrique Tarrio for homeland security head and Marjorie Taylor Greene for the White House spokeswoman.”

The petrifying thing is, we can no longer laugh at the prospect.

But we can laugh at what the chairwoman of Trump’s Party, Ronna McDaniel, said yesterday on CNN: ”If we win back the House and the Senate, it’s the American people saying to Joe Biden, ‘We want you to work on behalf of us and we want you to work across the aisle and solve the problems that we are dealing with’.”

It’s laughable because it’s so hypocritically transparent. Two years ago, the American people chose a White House and a Congress controlled by Democrats, in effect saying to the Trump Party, “We want you to work on behalf of us and we want you to work across the aisle and solve the problems that we are dealing with.” It’s no secret, that didn’t happen. To the contrary, both Senate leader Mitch McConnell and House leader Kevin McCarthy declared that their sole priority was to block Joe Biden and stop the Democratic agenda.

So yes, I’ve gone full partisan in this column. There’s so much at stake. Not only in this 2022 election, but in the 2024 election too, just two years from tomorrow.

Do We Look To The Polls (Again), Or To Something Else?

Late on election night in 1972, as the ABC News producer on George McGovern’s presidential campaign, I was ushered along with my correspondent Frank Reynolds into McGovern’s suite at the Holiday Inn in Rapid City, South Dakota, his home state. The Democratic standard-bearer was sitting on the edge of his king-size bed, slouched forward, his head in his hands.

All he could say was, “I didn’t see it coming. I knew I might lose, but not like this.”

The final tally would show him losing to Richard Nixon in 49 out of 50 states which, in the ensuing two years of unethical conduct in the Nixon White House, led to the joke, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.” As you might infer, Massachusetts was the election night outlier, the 50th state.

I know that is all ancient history, but it has some bearing on the election next Tuesday. Maybe we’re watching the wrong signs.

In McGovern’s case, notwithstanding polls that were forecasting his debacle, he had been steered clear by his handlers of the sight of defeat. So if he didn’t see a sign of disapproval, he took it as a sign of support. For months, almost everywhere we went, if there were pro-Nixon demonstrators out in front of a convention hall where he was due to speak or outside a hotel where he was due to stay, he’d be taken around to the other side. What’s more, Nixon already was up to his ears in scandals and McGovern’s people doggedly told their man that when it came down to the crunch, voters would reject the crook in the White House.

By a two-to-one margin, they didn’t.

It was a classic case of a candidate’s isolation in a presidential campaign— I’ve seen it in others, too— and, when everyone in your circle is telling you you’re doing great, a classic case of denial.

In today’s election cycle, if you’re a Democrat, recent polls have been discouraging. In the first months after the conservative Supreme Court cut down Roe v Wade, which most Americans had supported, Democrats had a heartening surge. But that was back in June and, in politics as in entertainment, you’re only as good as your last act. Like inflation, like crime. The Republicans have been pounding on those issues for the last couple of months and regardless of who or what is actually to blame, the preponderance of polls show them taking the lead. If those polls are to be believed, the Republicans will capture the House next week and maybe even the Senate.

But while obviously the polls could be right on the money, maybe they are the wrong signs to watch, because despite advances in technology, polling in George McGovern’s day, fifty years ago, was in some ways more reliable than it is today.

The simple reason is, it was a simpler time.

Pollsters called voters on their home phones— the only phones anyone had— and without today’s common feature of “caller ID,” when the phone rang, people answered. Most don’t anymore, which skews the pollsters’ assumptions about people who still do, and no one really knows how. What’s more, citizens had more faith and less skepticism about our institutions— it was before robocalls and ceaseless spam— and people responded to the questions they were asked. Most don’t any more. On top of all that, although individual campaigns did their own internal polling in those days, there was only a handful of non-partisan polling firms— Gallup, Roper— whose results got national exposure, and they usually got it right.

They did on McGovern-Nixon. McGovern just didn’t believe it.

His doubt would be more justified today. Polls are taken to push a particular candidate or cause, with too little disclosure about how they come to their conclusions. Yet despite their problematic biases, are included in the mix.

Finally, Nate Silver, the guru of opinion poll analysis with his website FiveThirtyEight (named for the size of the constitutionally established Electoral College), adds two more factors that make polling predictions harder to believe. One is, there is no longer a single gold standard in polling. Each firm has its own approach to balancing the electorate’s demographics and weaving through the variables of voters’ responses. As we have seen, sometimes painfully, they can’t all be right. The other is, since so many polling firms have been stung by their miscalculations in the past few elections, badly overestimating the vote for Democrats (Exhibit A: Clinton-Trump in 2016)…

… there is an incentive for them to pad the Republican count. As Silver puts it, “they’ll get a ton of grief if they miss high on Democrats again.”

So what signs should we be watching? Well, the polls still play a part because while they might be wrong, they also might be right. But also watch the early turnout. It’s not setting records everywhere, but in some states it is, like the intense battleground of Georgia. According to Gabe Sterling, the COO of the office of the Secretary of State, new records are being set right now in both early in-person voting and the early return of absentee ballots. Historically, early voters usually are Democrats, and while Republicans are motivated to take power, it might be fair to say that Democrats, faced with the risk of losing it, they have rarely been more motivated themselves.

Another sign? Surveys show that despite overall discontent with President Biden, it hasn’t translated to a massive shift of Democratic voters backing Republican candidates. Unlike the Reagan Revolution when the failures of Jimmy Carter’s presidency pushed Democrats into Reagan’s Republican camp, the surveys suggest that Democrats who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 would vote for him again if he runs in 2024, especially if he’s up again against Donald Trump. Don’t forget, Biden beat Trump by seven million votes. It’s hard to believe that between the disgrace of January 6th and the myriad ongoing scandals surrounding Trump, he has picked up seven million new fans himself.

Now it all comes down to the next few days: voters filling out their ballots and delivering them by the deadline, and voters who still love voting in person on Election Day itself. It’s crunch time, and both sides have their strongest ambassadors out campaigning this weekend. Donald Trump is stumping for MAGA candidates he has endorsed, while Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Jill Biden are out there for the Democrats. Where races look neck-and-neck, that could make the difference.

At this point it’s all about voter turnout. Fifty years ago, a bigger turnout still wouldn’t have put George McGovern over the top. But in today’s polarized and marginally close campaigns, it might turn the tide for the Democrats, despite new laws in about half the states that were designed to diminish the traditional Democratic vote. Or… it might not.

If Someone Says They Know What’s Going To Happen, Walk Away.

“What do you think is gonna happen?”

Whether it’s about the outcome of next week’s elections or the war in Ukraine, I’m asked that a lot. I suppose some assume that as a journalist who has covered wars and politics, I have some inside track on the variables that will determine the denouement of both.

I don’t. Maybe more to the point, no one does. In the war, Russia’s president’s temperament has been as unpredictable as Ukraine’s surprising successes. In the elections, preference polls have been as dubious as voters’ distressing decisions.

So what I usually say when asked to guess about how things will turn out is, “I don’t have a clue, I’m not in the prediction business.” As I wrote just four days ago in the commentary “Lies, Lies, and More Lies,” I always tried only to report on what I’d seen with my own two eyes, or at the very least, what I’d gotten verified by multiple sources I knew I could trust. There is a place in our lives for speculation, but there is a difference between saying “Here’s what might happen,” and “Here’s what will happen.”

Think of it this way: if your meteorologist says, “It’s going to be sunny today, or it’s going to rain,” that’s what might happen. If the meteorologist says, “It’s going to be sunny,” that’s a prediction about what will happen. Except, sometimes it doesn’t. And remember, weather forecasters are making predictions based on science!

There is no science about wars. There is no science about politics.

The trouble is, plenty of Americans with a megaphone— politicians, commentators, activists, even hard news journalists— too often pretend they do have a clue, and speak with certainty as if they do have science behind them. But usually, at best, their answers are based on extrapolation. Occasionally on inference. Periodically on utter guesswork. And worst and most dangerous of all, sometimes on advocacy for an outcome they are pushing.

Which leads me to a report two weeks ago from the credible polling firm Gallup. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Gallup found that only 32% of Americans trusted the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” the lowest trust figure it ever recorded. This year, it’s only two percentage points higher. So whether rounding up or down, only one out of every three Americans trusts what they hear or read in the news. And it doesn’t matter where they get it: this applies to television, newspapers, and the internet.

Digging deeper, Gallup says that even among independents— the people who presumably don’t have a powerful predilection for either political party— only 27% trust the news while more than 40% say they have no trust at all.

This saddens me. My business, television news, used to be most trusted news source in America. That’s how CBS News, which for years had the highest ratings of the three legacy networks, was able to promote its anchorman Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted man in America.” But that was before Fox News, Newsmax, InfoWars, Breitbart and Drudge and Bannon and Limbaugh and conservatives in general marshaled their forces to discredit traditional media. It didn’t advocate their narrative, so they went all-in on advocacy journalism of their own. For the purpose of balance, I’ll add that longtime critics have always charged that traditional “mainstream” media is an advocate for liberal causes, which only means that now, they say, the playing field is even.

But the problem with trust, and distrust, is more complex. At least some of the blame falls on social media. Take as an example last week’s attack in San Francisco on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the Speaker of the House. A rumor began to circulate within a day of the assault that Pelosi’s attacker was a male prostitute and Pelosi was his gay lover and the two men had gotten into a fight. From all reasonable indications— including statements to the police from the invader himself— it’s not true. The city’s police chief says, “There is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Pelosi knew this man. As a matter of fact, the evidence indicates the exact opposite.”

But the fiction of the malevolent canard didn’t stop it from spreading. Which comes back to trust. How can people know who to believe or what to believe when a story like that is disseminated, then even mocked, by prominent if increasingly disreputable figures in the public eye?

New Twitter owner Elon Musk is only the latest entry in these pernicious propaganda wars. Relying on a right-wing publication out of California that claimed during the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton was dead and had been replaced on the campaign trail by a “body double,” Musk retweeted a link to a story the same organization put out last week that Paul Pelosi’s attacker was a male prostitute and that the two men had struggled over the hammer that injured the Speaker’s husband during a drunken brawl. “There is a tiny possibility,” Musk recklessly added, “there might be more to this story than meets the eye.”

The Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, had the heartless gall, all in a single sentence, to connect the homicidal hammer attack on Paul Pelosi with his own partisan rancor toward the Speaker: “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.” The first half was the decent thing to say. The second half was a disgrace.

Donald Trump Jr., his father’s spitting image in more ways than one, pathetically put a portrayal on Trump Sr.’s “Truth Social” website the night before Halloween of a pair of underwear and a hammer with the words, “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.” Equally pathetic, he had more than 5,000 “likes” (and a thousand “shares”) almost immediately.

Once these things are out there, no one can put them back in the box.

A professor who studies extremism and polarization at American University in Washington, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, told CNN, “We have a population that is unable to discern what is true and what’s not, and this spreading of misinformation from credible sources undermines that.”

It’s probably fair to say, that’s their goal.

So what’s going to happen when the results of the election come in next week? Since we must be wary of disinformation and we can’t trust the polls, the only trustworthy thing I (or anyone else) can say to you is, I don’t have a clue. But there are poisonous forces out there who, in the interest of manipulating public opinion, will tell you they do. Don’t believe them. Wait for the science. Wait for the facts. From what we’ve seen, they’ll probably dispute those, too. But we’ll know better.

Lies, Lies, and More Lies.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Truth is not. A rhetorician might try to twist the definition of the word but at the end of the day, there cannot be two versions of the truth. Not in politics, not in wars.

One enduring joke in politics is, “How do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.”

The other is, “It’s unfair that 99% of our politicians make the other 1% look bad.”

Having covered my share of politics in Washington, what’s actually unfair is to paint all politicians with such a broad brush. Many don’t claim an alternate version of the truth. Many don’t lie.

But many do.

That alone is not news. Nor is it new.

Maybe George Washington told the truth to his father about cutting down the cherry tree— if that whole tale isn’t merely a myth— but since then, history records flagrant falsehoods or obvious exaggerations or dishonest denials from presidents through the ages. Including some we all remember. Like Richard Nixon: “I am not a crook.” Or Bill Clinton: “I did not have sex with that woman.” And Donald Trump on the crowd at his inauguration: “I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people.”

No, Mr. Trump, it was nothing even close.

We’ve always looked at the trustfulness of some politicians with an untrusting eye. But the malignancy of their mendacity is mushrooming. As someone recently put it, many politicians have no more than “a casual acquaintance” with the truth.

Analysts have calculated, for example, that the majority of Republican candidates in this year’s 2022 elections still lie about the last election in 2020. You know, the “rigged election.” No less than 345 candidates on next month’s ballots for legislative, statewide, and federal office, despite their interminable failure to produce proof of any kind, have been identified by the Brookings Institution as “perpetuating former President Trump’s assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.” Thursday’s headline on the political website FiveThirtyEight was, “60 Percent Of Americans Will Have An Election Denier On The Ballot.”

And some will surely win.

Dishonesty has permeated the DNA of the body politic. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon and it must be said, it’s not confined to the GOP. Heaven knows the Democratic Party has been soiled over time by falsehoods and fraud. Neither political party has a hammerlock on deceit. But today, in the cult that praises and parrots the personality of Donald Trump, it has gone beyond what his White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway once defended as “alternative facts.” It has pervaded the party of Lincoln. It has degenerated to the point, in fact, where you could begin to believe there are actually two different versions of the truth. The trouble is, if it’s truth, there is only one version that’s valid.

When it comes to two different versions of truth about a war though, that’s a tougher one. There still can be only one valid version, but in Ukraine, many of the charges each side hurls at the other, about who attacked what, cannot be independently verified. So while it seems very clear to me that Russia is doing a lot of lying about the war, we can only depend on our instincts to decide who’s truthful, who’s not. We aren’t there, we just cannot be sure.

In all the wars I covered in my career, I tried only to report on what I’d seen with my own two eyes, or at the very least, what I’d gotten verified by multiple sources I knew I could trust. But sometimes, where each side is trying to spin stories to its own advantage, there is no unimpeachably trusted eyewitness, no trusted source. So when it comes to conflicting versions of the truth, we’re left with logic. And common sense.

A current case in point: in the brutal battle for the logistically key port city of Kherson, occupied right now by Russian troops, the Kremlin last week accused Ukraine of shelling a ferryboat that was crossing the contested Dnieper River, killing and wounding many onboard. Ukraine insists that’s a lie. A spokeswoman for the armed forces maintained they were Russian shells, adding, “We do not attack civilians and settlements.”

What does logic tell you? What does common sense tell you? Mine tells me, Ukraine would not strike its own citizens, then blame Russia for the bombardment. The cost would simply be too high for the short term prize of the propaganda. But Russia? From what we’ve seen so far, beginning with the fact that it’s Russia that savagely invaded Ukraine and not the other way around, sinking a civilian ferryboat would be grotesquely consistent with the game plan it has played for the past eight months.

On the other hand, maybe someone on the battlefield just made a horrific mistake.

So who’s lying? As Fox News used to crow, “We report. You decide.”

Another dispute: there’s a dam on the same river which creates hydroelectric power and, with a reservoir behind it as big as the Great Salt Lake, serves as an essential source of water. Russia says Ukraine has been attacking the dam to cut off water to the nearby Russian-occupied territory of Crimea. Ukraine says Russia is planning to destroy the dam to let loose billions of gallons of water and inundate Kherson and other areas where hundreds of thousands of people live.

Common sense says, Ukraine won’t trigger a flood that inundates the homes of hundreds of thousands of its own people and tens of thousands of acres of its own land. It also says, from what we’ve already seen, Russia wouldn’t care.

Who’s lying? We can’t know for sure, but logic and common sense sure point the finger toward Russia.

And that’s nothing to say of President Putin’s lies themselves. They are countless. They are ceaseless.

So when he assured his marathon news conference on Thursday, “There’s no sense for us, neither political nor military,” to use a tactical nuclear weapon,” I wouldn’t bet a dime that he won’t fire nukes if his army’s fortunes continue to flounder.

Our world today is full of lies, lies, and more lies. The future of democracy depends on figuring out who’s lying and who’s not. The future of the world does too.

This Is No Time To Dilute Our Support For Ukraine.

Is this any time to pull back on our support for Ukraine?

Some Republicans seem to think so, and I’m sorry to say, so do some Democrats. But they are misguided. The answer to the question is an almost inarguable NO!

Not just because the Ukrainians are on a roll, repelling a Russian army that in several parts of the country outnumbers and outguns them, but because the catalogue of crimes the Russians are committing continues to grow longer and more loathsome. We cannot just stand by and give them a pass.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, a panel of legal experts assembled by the United Nations, last week painted an unpalatable picture of those repugnant crimes. They went to 27 towns and interviewed more than 150 people, both victims and witnesses. They also inspected “sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture.”

They documented “visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head, and slit throats.” Wherever they went, they received “consistent accounts of torture and ill-treatment” by the Russians.

Another of commission’s findings: “Horrific allegations of sexual violence against Ukrainian communities – including children – were also found to be based in fact.”

The U.N. panel condemned Russian soldiers for confining 365 civilians, including 70 children, for four agonizingly long weeks in a village called Yahidne. They kept them in the dank basement of a local school. With no showers, no toilets, no ventilation, no light. Some of the prisoners did not come out alive.

The commission’s inescapable conclusion? “We found that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.”

Now a personal perspective: if the Russians’ torture chambers are anything like what I saw in Tehran when revolutionaries broke into the infamous Evin Prison, or at Afghanistan’s dungeony Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul during a bogus political prisoner release, or in the subterranean caverns of Idi Amin’s deceptively named State Research Bureau during the war to oust the murderous dictator from Uganda, there is no punishment brutal enough for Vladimir Putin and his henchmen.

On top of that, after destroying countless homes and hospitals and schools and businesses— the World Bank calculates total damage in Ukraine at $345-billion so far— Russia has now doubled down in its air war, launching more missiles and weaponized drones. They no longer are attacking mainly military targets but taking out playgrounds, parks, and more homes, and pounding power plants, water supplies. and electrical grids, the infrastructure on which people’s very survival will soon depend. Ukraine is on the same latitude as Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic. I can tell you firsthand, those can be cold icy places in the wintertime. Ukraine is known for bitter winters and now, all the more bitter if people have to endure it without the critical creature comfort of heat.

And there is no sign of abatement. In fact if anything, Ukraine’s surprising strength on the battlefield has hardened Russian resolve. The leader of Chechnya yesterday posted this threat against Ukraine on social media: “Our response has been too weak. If a shell flies into our region, entire cities must be wiped off the face of the Earth so that they don’t ever think that they can fire in our direction.”

And yet, notable leaders in both political parties have signaled that they might want to put the brakes on American support for Ukraine. Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who aspires to be Speaker next year, infamously said last week that if his party wins power in next month’s elections, there will be no more “blank check.” Criticized by some of his own colleagues, he then tried to walk that statement back, but his intent to be more selective in how we support Ukraine was clear. Just for good measure, Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have questioned our continuing contributions to Ukraine’s defense, Ingraham even saying last week that “the US military is too depleted to be helping out other countries.”

For the record, it’s not. Also for the record, the United States has given Ukraine about $18-billion in military aid. That’s not a paltry sum, but it’s about as much as the Trump Administration demanded from Congress for his “big, beautiful wall.”

Meantime on the Democratic side, President Biden got a letter yesterday from the chairwoman of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House, co-signed by 29 progressive colleagues, “urging” Biden “to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” The letter acknowledged, “We are under no illusions regarding the difficulties involved in engaging Russia,” but nevertheless it could undercut the president’s determination— supported by most members of both parties— to stand steadfast and, along with our allies, show a united front. Diplomacy can be a constructive tool but if, after all the capital he has spent on the war, it requires concessions from a cornered rat like Putin, it’s a pipe dream. Like McCarthy on the other side of the aisle, caucus chairwoman Pramila Jayapal was roundly criticized by many in her own party and walked back what she’d written, quickly withdrawing the letter from consideration.

But the dye was cast. As CNN commentator Stephen Collinson wrote yesterday, “For months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has waited and watched, hoping for a fracturing of the remarkable Washington consensus built by President Joe Biden on the need to do everything it takes to defend democracy in Ukraine. Now, at last, the first cracks may be appearing.”

We cannot let those cracks widen because if we do and our support for Ukraine is diluted, it’s a pretty sure bet that our allies will do the same, and that could make a disastrous difference in the thin margin of chance between Russia conquering Ukraine and Ukraine chasing Russia from its land.

If Ukraine ultimately loses, it will set a petrifying precedent, that a huge nation like Russia can make a smaller nation like Ukraine just disappear (or that a huge nation like China can make a smaller nation like Taiwan just disappear). And equally bad, it could put our allies in Putin’s crosshairs. Since our fate is inextricably interwoven with theirs, if he hurts our allies, he’s hurting us.

This is Ukraine’s fight, our fight, for democracy, for morality, for freedom. Cracks in our solidarity only weaken it.

If You Blame Biden for U.S. Inflation, How Do You Explain the Rest Of The World?

Social issues, campaign issues, divide our nation.

Lots of us are for abortion rights, lots of us are against (although more are for).

Lots of us are for gun reform, lots of us are against (although more are for).

Lots of us are for safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security, lots of us are against (although more are for).

But inflation? No one is for inflation. You can be old or young, black or white, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, healthy or ill. No matter what class you’re in, inflation means you’re spending more than you used to for food and gas, heating and travel, clothing and furniture, cars and trucks.

And it’s not just our problem (although propaganda from political opportunists would have you believe we are the world’s worst case and that the Biden Administration is to blame). For the fiscal year just ended, the rate of inflation for the U.S. was 8.2%. That hurts, but they’re hurting worse in Europe. In Britain, the inflation rate last month was 10.1%— that’s more than 20% higher than ours. In Germany, it’s 10.9%. Across the European Union— between the cost of food jumping by 16% and the cost of energy by an agonizing 40%— the overall rate of inflation is 11%.

By those measures, we’ve got it good.

The New York Times’s Ashley Wu put together an uncomplicated visual last week, a chart comparing U.S. inflation with most of our allies’.

The Times also ran a story that serves as a microcosm of the global scope of the problem. A company called Moulins Bourgeois mills flour in France for about a thousand boulangeries (a.k.a bakeries). In a year, what it pays for wheat has shot up 30%. Its annual electricity bill has mushroomed from $48,000 to $195,000. With higher fuel prices, its delivery costs have skyrocketed. Even the paper to make the sacks in which the flour is shipped is more expensive than it’s ever been. The bottom line? The frenchman’s beloved baguette costs more today than it did a year ago.

It’s even worse from Berlin to Budapest.

Besides death and taxes, inflation is about the only thing we all share in common. Although oil companies report record earnings (which helps identify part of the problem), and airlines are reporting some of their highest-ever revenue per seat per mile (which helps identify another part), even those who profit from inflation see their spending eroded by it.

Yet as an election issue, it divides us right now every bit as much as abortion, guns, and the safety net. Not because some of us are for inflation and some are against, but because some are objective about its causes and some aren’t.

So what are those causes? Begin with the pandemic. It turned world economies, including ours, upside down.

Citizens stopped working, people stopped spending, businesses shut down, commerce was hammered. There was price-gouging, there were supply chain stoppages, which translates to people chasing fewer available goods, and paying more when they get them. Some of that has become the new normal. The world still hasn’t recovered.

Then look at the war in Ukraine, which has inflated the cost of living in several more ways. President Putin is punishing his enemies by creating shortages of energy in many parts of the world, especially Europe, and that pushes prices up. Ukraine itself was the world’s fourth biggest exporter of wheat but because of the war— the disruption to shipping, the destruction of processing facilities and the wheat fields themselves— wheat exports have dropped more than 40% from a year ago.

That helps explain the higher price of that Frenchman’s baguette. And it helps explain why we’re paying more for what we buy in the United States.

President Biden has taken measures to ease our pain, from engineering lower healthcare costs to releasing 180 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves, which puts more gasoline in the system and keeps gas costs from rising higher.

Yet only about a third of Americans approve of how the president has dealt with inflation. So the question is, if Biden is to blame for the painful cost of living in the U.S. right now, how do you explain even more painful inflation virtually everywhere else in the world? True, he pushed pandemic relief programs that triggered inflation here, but they also triggered survival for tens of millions of Americans who suddenly saw either a drop in or a total loss of income. For me, the tradeoff was worth it and now, by and large, those programs have ended.

So although obviously it’s more complicated than this, here’s a simple answer: Biden inherited the pandemic, which roiled the economy, and now has to endure a war, which has roiled it more. What we’ve heard from the president is, from employment to production to tax revenues, we have a stronger economy every day, and a lower federal deficit, and that all bodes well for the future. You be the judge.

But that means you also have to be the judge of the party trying to bring him down, and must ask the question: what solutions have we heard from the Republicans? They’ve offered plenty of denunciation against the party in power and have vowed to make the defeat of Democrats their highest priority, but have they offered any plan of their own to bring inflation under control? The answer to that question is even simpler: nothing.

Nothing Benign About Martial Law in Ukraine.

Martial law is not always a bad thing. In the history of the United States, according to calculations by the Brennan Center for Justice, it has been declared almost 70 times. Sometimes to bring peace when violence broke out between labor unions and management. Sometimes to protect property after a calamitous natural disaster. Sometimes to enforce laws meant to desegregate the South.

But in Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin has imposed martial law on the four regions he is trying to steal, it is a bad thing. A very bad thing. Especially since it’s not even forced on the nation by its sovereign government, but by its occupiers.

Martial law takes many forms, some more short-lived than others, some more benign than others. But in its most common configuration, it puts government in the hands of the military. This often means the end of civil laws, the end of civil rights, the end of civil justice.

It’s a sure bet that Putin’s martial law won’t be benign and won’t be short-lived. It will more likely look like what I saw in four nations I covered in the span of just three years where martial law was laid down. Pity the poor victims in Ukraine.

In Iran in 1978, to quell public demonstrations against the Shah, martial law was declared in the capital, Tehran, and in several other cities where protests were aimed at his government. Ironically as a precursor to what we see there today, shoot-to-kill became the government’s policy. I saw cases where more than a hundred unarmed civilians were gunned down. The law silenced the media and prohibited large public gatherings, but it was sometimes ignored and that led to more massacres of defenseless protestors.

In Afghanistan, shortly after I got there just days after the Soviet Union invaded on Christmas week of 1979, there were demonstrations against the godless Soviets, threatening enough to the new Afghan president backed by Moscow that he declared martial law. Every citizen who didn’t wear a uniform was ordered to surrender his weapons within 24 hours. People couldn’t gather in groups any bigger than four. A nighttime curfew was imposed. No one could leave the capital, Kabul, without a government escort. Violators weren’t ticketed, they were shot… unless they were foreign journalists like me, who were simply evicted from the country.

In Egypt in 1981, martial law was declared when President Anwar Sadat, watching a military parade, was assassinated by Islamic fanatics. By late that night I had landed in Cairo and almost immediately, after Egypt placed the blame for Sadat’s death on its neighbor Libya and Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi, I was dispatched with a camera crew to the Libyan border where a war was expected to start. We had a travel permit signed by the Minister of Defense but still, with travel otherwise forbidden, we were stopped and frisked and interrogated at desert checkpoints a half-dozen times. The war never happened, but the state of martial law, euphemistically called “emergency powers,” never lifted. The military could arrest civilians. Soldiers could shoot protestors. Civilians could be tried in military courts. Egypt’s parliament periodically has renewed the state of emergency ever since.

In Poland, later that same year, the Solidarity Trade Union led by shipyard electrician Lech Walesa— who years later won the Nobel Peace Prize and became Poland’s first democratically elected president— literally revolutionized the nation by creating the first independent trade union inside the Soviet bloc and signing up ten million workers who demanded workplace concessions from their Communist leaders. Initially the military government run by General Wojceich Jaruzelski negotiated with the union, but eventually he had to please his Soviet masters and bring in the tanks and arrest Solidarity’s leaders and shut the union down. With its borders closed, a nation that heavily depended on imported food became a nation that dined, night after night, on homegrown potatoes. Martial law lasted for two-and-a-half years. But people there told me they’d had a taste of democracy and were determined to taste it again. They did, but it was years more in the making.

And now it’s the turn of Ukraine. So-called emergency powers have been put in the hands of Putin’s hand-picked governors in the four regions he now calls Russia’s. It will be no surprise to see severe limits on travel, stricter censorship on media, harshly enforced curfews, government seizures of private property, and more brutal behavior by Russian soldiers and police. Analysts predict Putin’s martial law will lead to Ukrainian citizens being involuntarily deported to Russia, and tough treatment for those who don’t leave. The Russian despot already made it clear that political parties and other public groups cannot meet.

It is “to ensure Russia’s security and safe future, to protect our people,” Putin told his security council. We all know differently. It is to ensure an even more repressive rein on the Ukrainian people. And, since he also put new regulations in place in more than two dozen parts of Russia itself, it is to stifle dissent by his own citizens against the war.

The Ukrainian mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol this week called martial law “a new manifestation of genocide in the occupied territories.” The president of the E.U.’s European Commission called Putin’s latest wave of civilian-targeted attacks in Ukraine “war crimes.” The 46-member Council of Europe has declared Russia a “terrorist state.” President Biden earlier this year called Putin “a dictator who commits genocide.” There is a bipartisan bill in Congress to label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

With a terrorist like Vladimir Putin running this war, there will be nothing benign about martial law in Ukraine.

The Value of the January 6th Hearings.

“A staggering betrayal of his oath.”

That is how the January 6th Committee chairman Bennie Thompson today summarized ex-President Donald Trump’s actions, and inactions, before, during, and after the insurrection.

Truer words were never spoken.

As witness after witness told the committee, almost all of them on video and, as Thompson pointed out, “almost entirely Republicans,” Trump knew that his claims about a rigged election were a lie. As early as July 2020, four months before the election, Trump told people close to him, according to his former campaign manager Brad Parscale, that he would declare victory on election day, regardless of the actual results. And that’s what he did. Then, of course, he continued to tell what January 6th Committee member Elaine Luria rightly called “purposeful lies,” about more absentee votes than ballots, about suitcases smuggled into counting stations, even after his attorney general had told him none of it was true. And even after more than 60 judges rejected the phantom evidence his supporters could not produce, one federal magistrate calling it “nothing but speculation and conjecture.” All part of what Chairman Thompson described as “a multi-part plan… to overturn the 2020 election.” And why? As former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s aide Cassidy Hutchinson said, quoting the then-president, “I don’t want people to know we lost.”

What’s more, on January 6th itself, Trump knew from law enforcement intelligence that the army of acolytes he had summoned to the nation’s capital would be armed. One Secret Service email actually warned as January 6th loomed, “Their plan is to literally kill people.” Trump’s abettance is affirmed after his senior advisor Stephen Miller texted, “Fired up the base,” and thousands of violent threats started circulating online— threats that lawmakers might leave the Capitol “in a bodybag,” that his followers were “ready and armed, Mr. President,” that the Oath Keepers were “Standing at the ready should POTUS require assistance,” even that “Gallows don’t require electricity.” The assistant to Trump’s Chief of Staff told the committee, the president was actually angry at the Secret Service for barring armed supporters that morning from his rally. After all, these were his people. “I’d love it if they could be allowed to come up here with us,” he told the crowd. That would explain why, according to several of his aides, he sat for two hours and 40 minutes watching the violent insurrection on TV without lifting a finger before fecklessly tweeting for his people to go home.

In the meantime, video at today’s final pubic hearing showed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell huddled together with others in the Congressional leadership, pleading by phone for help. Help from the Defense Department, help from the National Guard, help from the local police. Leaders from both parties that day were doing what Donald Trump declined to do.

It is a stunning fact that Chairman Thompson pointed out today, that “all of this evidence” about Donald Trump’s culpability “came almost entirely from Republicans.” Unlike the unaccountable alternative facts that anyone can propagate without penalty, these were Republicans under oath.

And however reluctant some might have been to testify, it has been a big cast of Republicans, with big names, incriminating Trump.

Like his former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his former Attorney General Bill Barr, his former Transportation Secretary (and wife of Mitch McConnell) Elaine Chao, his former Labor Secretary (and son of the late ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice) Eugene Scalia, his former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, his former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, his former campaign managers Parscale and Bill Stepien, his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. For all we know, Ivanka and Jared aren’t even Republicans, but however hesitant they must have been, they too, under oath, implicated the former president.

Of course there were others from Trump’s circle who refused to talk. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, longtime confidante Roger Stone, conspiracy-pushing lawyer John Eastman, former Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark. They all took the Fifth. Former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and former advisor Peter Navarro refused to show up at all. If there is justice, they will pay for their contempt of Congress.

se hearings have painted a picture of an egomaniacal loser who just couldn’t bear to admit he lost, and would put the country through hell to perpetuate the pretense.

But that’s not the end of it, nor should it be. As committee co-chair Liz Cheney said at the beginning of today’s hearing, “Without accountability, it all becomes normal, and will recur.” There have been roughly 900 prosecutions so far against insurrectionists at the Capitol, but as Cheney also put it, “Our nation cannot only punish the foot soldiers.”

That helps explain the coda to the hearing, a vote to subpoena Donald Trump himself. If history is any guide, he will fight it with every resource at his command and drag out the fight in the hope that Trumpian Republicans take the House in November and put the committee, and its final report, out of business.

But the publicity from the hearings itself, and the repercussions of Congress subpoenaing a former president, might bring their own reward. A poll by Reuters/Ipsos, just before the committee’s final Summer hearing in July, showed that the number of Republicans who believe Trump was at least partly to blame for the insurrection had gone up 7% since the month before.

So it’s conceivable that after today, the percentage turning on Trump will rise again. The man who so staggeringly betrayed his oath deserves nothing less.

The Red Lines, If They Were Ever There, Are Gone.

In the past week we’ve had a pair of perplexing questions answered. Sad to say, the answers are appalling.

Overseas, in the war for Ukraine, we’ve all been wondering, how far will Vladimir Putin go, how brutal will he be, to win the war he started? Surely there is a red line that even he will not be willing to cross.

We now see even better than before, there’s not.

Here at home, in the war for decency and democracy, we’ve been wondering, do Trumpified Republicans have moral red lines that they won’t be willing to cross?

We now see even better than before, they don’t.

Let’s start with Ukraine, where after the attack on the multi-billion-dollar bridge that Russia built to connect its motherland with the Crimean Peninsula— rightfully Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula— Putin’s Cruise missiles and weaponized drones hammered every corner of the country.

Were they aimed at the Ukrainian military? At its soldiers, its weapons, its bases? Were they calculated to help Russia’s troops? No. They were only calculated to hurt Ukraine’s civilians. They were aimed at “infrastructure,” civilian infrastructure. And they hit their marks. In large swaths of the nation, people lost homes, people lost water, people lost power. And people lost their lives.

This is hardly a new tactic for the ungodly Russian president. In the week before the bridge attack, his missiles rained down on the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia. As I write this, the civilian death toll is 43. That came on the heels of the unearthing of yet another mass grave, in the eastern city of Izium. Some of the more than 440 corpses exhumed there showed signs of torture.

So no, this is not the first sign we’ve seen of Putin’s barbarity. But in the scope of his attacks, it is the biggest. Yet rather than repelling his supporters, it is inspiring them to call for more. A war correspondent for a century-old Russian newspaper called Komsomolskaya Pravda, which means “Young Communist League Truth,” demanded that his country “hammer Ukraine into the 18th century, without meaningless reflection on how this will affect the civilian population.”

So far, it seems, that is Putin’s playbook. Anyone but a madman might stop. But evidently that’s not on the table. Finland’s president, who has known Putin for many years, told a news conference Monday, “I think he is not capable of taking a defeat.”

There could of course be backlash for Russia. Despite their “friendship with no limits,” China’s foreign ministry said as Russia’s missiles bombarded Ukraine, “All countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity.” India, which has not severed its ties with Russia, declared that it is “deeply concerned at the escalation of the conflict.”

What’s more, a former speechwriter for Vladimir Putin, Abbas Gallyamov, said of the massive retaliation against Ukraine, “The response was supposed to show power, but in fact it showed powerlessness. There’s nothing else the army can do.” That will not move more Russians to rally around the flag.

It is moving Ukraine’s allies though, including the U.S., to send even better weapons systems even faster than before.

But there also might be backlash for the West. Namely, a nuclear strike. Whether tactical, with geographical limits, or strategic, with widespread desolation, the prospect is ghastly, but it no longer sounds like a red line a cornered warmonger like Putin wouldn’t cross. Or maybe better to call him a cornered terrorist. Russia’s first foreign minister after the Soviet Union collapsed, Andrei Kozyrev, called him as much yesterday, saying of Putin, “Terror is the only thing left, like for any miserable terrorist in the world.”

Then, on the domestic front, there’s the Republican party that panders to Donald Trump, denuded of its facade about family values by a former girlfriend of Herschel Walker, the party’s candidate for the Senate in Georgia. Last week she showed evidence to The Daily Beast that in addition to fathering one of her children out of wedlock (as he had other women with other children), he also paid for an abortion— even sending a “Get Well” card— another time she was pregnant. In case the point is lost on anyone, Walker, who claims he is a “devout Christian,” has gone all-in against abortions, likening them to murder and not even allowing for exceptions if a pregnancy comes from incest or rape, nor even to save the life of a pregnant woman.

Has this become a “Come to Jesus” moment for Trumpian Republicans, a time to choose moral strength over a political prize? Hardly.

”I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles” said former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, “I want control of the Senate.”

The day after Walker’s ex-girlfriend went public, an evangelical pastor at a Southern Baptist Church in Georgia, with the candidate by his side, urged his congregation to pray for Herschel Walker. It was described as the washing away of sin. Seems to me more like the washing away of conscience.

Another Georgia pastor, Jentezen Franklin in Gainesville, says he can write off Walker’s immoral past because “I always vote for policy more than personality.” Evidently more than character, too.

And right on the heels of the ex-girlfriend’s disclosure about Walker, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, which bills itself as “the leading voice for the family in our nation’s halls of power,” formally endorsed him, ignoring the dark shadow of the woman’s revelations but praising Walker’s story “about the power of grace, redemption, and the opportunity America still provides.”

A convenient case of denial when domination is the goal.

It’s worth remembering, incidentally, Walker is not running against a godless man. The incumbent Democrat he is challenging is Raphael Warnock, still the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. That’s the church of Martin Luther King.

The journal Psychology Today ran a piece midway through the Trump presidency titled, “A Complete Psychological Analysis of Trump’s Support.” It offered fourteen explanations why, even after Trump was heard saying on tape, “When you’re a star, you can do anything, grab them by the pussy,” people stood by him. The very first explanation was, Practicality Trumps Morality.

Remember, Mitch McConnell said after Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, “This is not about this president. It’s not about anything he’s accused of doing. It’s about flipping the Senate.” For that matter, remember that Trump himself said during the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

As it turns out, he got that right. The party he has proselytized would give him a pass. They’ve given one to Herschel Walker. They’ve given one to the January 6th insurrectionists.

Dan Rather summed it up in a commentary on his Substack site last week when he wrote about Trump’s allusion to violence against Mitch McConnell— the “death wish” posting— then Trump’s comment, “Must immediately seek help and advise (sic) from his China loving wife, Coco Chow!” Rather wrote, “If you had expected Republican politicians to rally in disgust around some version of ‘this finally crosses a line’, you would be disappointed. But I imagine few of you expected anything of the sort.”

It’s appalling that he’s right. Any wishful thinking that Donald Trump’s followers have a moral red line that they won’t be willing to cross is shattered. And if Georgia voters ignore family values and Herschel Walker wins his race there, then all our questions about the family values crowd are answered..

We Can See The Top Side Of The Clouds.

Late last month, after a breathtaking bike trip (pun fully intended) on the towering twisty climbs of Mallorca, a big Spanish rock in the middle of the Mediterranean….

…. my wife’s and my journey home began on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt and…. not to overstate it…. I had something of an epiphany. As a journalist, I have flown millions of miles, and looked down on countless clouds around the world, but the ones on which I gazed as we ascended that dawn (prompting me to pull out my iPhone) had a transcendence I don’t remember ever seeing before.

They made me feel small.

For while buried beneath those clouds was a scenic paradise, buried beneath clouds over another part of the very same continent is a war being fought where people die every day of the week. And beneath the clouds over other forlorn parts of the planet, people are starving, people are oppressed. Our own democracy is darkened beneath the storm clouds of politics.

But the clouds over Mallorca also made me feel big. Big, because for millennia, no one even knew what it looked like on the top side of the clouds. In only a teardrop of time since the dawn of mankind, we do know now.

For that matter, through the eons of human history, when people peered across a shoreline, only a fearless few— the Leif Ericssons, the Christopher Columbuses, the Ferdinand Magellans, even before them the Polynesians who plied the Pacific and the merchants who moved their wares by sea between the Middle East and India— only a fearless few knew what it looked like on the other side of the water.

But it was those luminous clouds that made me think about how much we’ve learned, how much we’ve seen, how far we’ve come.

Not 120 years ago, initially flying less than the length of a football field, the Wright Brothers’ wood-and-fabric airplane lifted itself no more than 14 feet above the ground. Just sitting on the tarmac, my seat on the Airbus A321 was more than 14 feet above the ground.

The Wright Brothers achieved the miracle of flight, but they didn’t likely even dream of breaking through the clouds.

A quarter century later, after clearing a tractor at the end of a New York runway by about 15 feet and a telephone line by about 20, Charles Lindbergh flew his Spirit of St. Louis farther and higher than the Wright Brothers ever imagined— 3,600 miles to Paris, staying above storm clouds at about 10,000 feet.

But on his 33-½ hour endeavor, Lindbergh might not have known enough to dream that one day, someone like me would sit amongst about 200 other people in a flying machine that weighs more than 50 tons but cuts through clouds with the ease of an arrow on its arc to a target.

It’s all on a par with the miracle of electricity, the miracle of television, the miracle of cars, the miracle of computers, the miracle of the internet. We abound in miracles. Most of us take for granted the miracle of clean water. Of a flush toilet. Of refrigeration. We’ve half stopped being amazed by the miracle of a spaceship slicing through the solar system.

And, the miracle of modern medicine. People suffered since time immemorial from diseases now prevented, even eradicated, by vaccines. People who otherwise would be permanently crippled by injuries now are repaired by outpatient surgeries. People’s failing hearts and lungs, which once would have been a death warrant, now can be repaired, even replaced.

Not many centuries back, when human life barely changed between birth and death, they’d have ridiculed the thought of it all. Now, with rapid-fire renewal in every facet of our lives, transformation comes every year, sometimes every day.

We haven’t cured everything in this 21st Century. Far from it. We haven’t solved everything, we haven’t fixed everything, we haven’t defeated everything. But we have seen more growth than the countless generations that lived before us combined, and living now in an age when we can see the top side of the clouds….

…. I believe that someday, we will.

Iranians Gave Their Lives 40 Years Ago, They’re Giving Them Again Today.

Although it’s good to see the Islamic Republic’s government challenged by nationwide protests right now, I can’t really smile about the rage that’s roiling Iran. Too many people killed, too many tortured, too many arrested.

But I kind of want to smile about what the protesters are doing. Provoked by the death in police custody three weeks ago of a young woman named Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the nation’s “morality police” for wearing her hijab too casually— photos of her comatose on a hospital bed showed facial bruises and blood dripping from her ear— the protesters are talking back to their dogmatic and despotic government. And not just talking back, they are fighting back.

Women are defiantly discarding their hijabs and showing themselves without the modesty the Islamic government demands. In some cases their only facial coverings are Covid masks.

Some are standing in the streets and cutting off their hair, an in-your-face way of saying to their government, “If you don’t want to see our hair showing, this should fix the problem.”

Some are setting fire to their hijabs.

What’s more, protestors in different cities have pulled down ubiquitous pictures of the longtime Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and of the stern Islamic icon who started the revolution more than 40 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini. The ceaseless chant we Western reporters had to hear for months on end when covering the revolution, then the crisis with hostages at the American embassy, has taken a new turn. Instead of “Death to America,” the streets now ring with “Death to the dictator.”

Tragically though, they do not protest without cost. Amnesty International got its hands on a government paper ordering military commanders to “severely confront troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries.” And that’s what they’ve done. Amnesty has recorded the names of 134 people killed in the protests, and says it has reason to believe the actual toll is “far higher.” Because the Islamic Republic has fairly effectively cut off the internet, no one on the outside can be sure.

But what is known is that they are dying brutal deaths. Amnesty says it can see from videos and photos that have made their way out that “most people were killed by security forces firing live ammunition,” sometimes metal pellets fired at close range. It documents at least one 16-year-old girl who died “after being severely beaten in the head with batons.” The majority of victims, Amnesty says, “were shot in the head, heart, neck and torso.”

That speaks volumes about the government’s determination, at any cost, to crush these protests.

Such reports give me shivers, because it’s deja vu to what I saw while covering the revolution that brought in the Islamic government. It was a revolution against the Shah. Although a friend of the United States, he was a dictator with a brutal force of secret police that ruined innumerable lives, and was introducing Western cultures that ordinary citizens found decadent and didn’t welcome. But it was the Shah’s forces with the guns back then, and on Friday after Friday, the Islamic sabbath, my camera crew and I recorded thousands of protesters gathered in large public plazas where sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds, were mowed down.

Now history repeats itself.

Of course I can’t be sure that my experiences in those explosive days in Iran reflect what’s happening on the streets today. But they are worth considering. Namely, that not everybody in Iran, although most were Muslims, ever wanted an Islamic government. What I concluded from my own reporting on the ground, including countless interviews over those years, was that most Iranians, although not religious fanatics, wanted to get rid of the Shah, so when Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the most powerful contender to replace him, they jumped on Khomeini’s bandwagon. But they got more than they bargained for.

Over the years, life for the ordinary Iranian has gone downhill. Whether motivated by Islamic repression, or Western isolation, or just the difficulties they have today buying meat or finding a good job, people in Iran evidently have had enough. The current turmoil may have been sparked by the death of Ms. Amini, but the anger has been festering for years. It is telling that we are two generations down the road since the Islamic Revolution, and Hassan Khomeini, one of the grandsons of the revolution’s founding father Ayatollah Khomeini, has publicly defied his government and voiced support for Mahsa Amini.

One could conclude that just as the protesters I covered more than 40 years ago, although initially unorganized and unarmed, eventually forced their dictator out, the protesters today can do it against a different kind of dictator, again. But there might be even more at stake today than there was back then, because from what I’ve seen over the years in other parts of the Islamic world, extremists like those who now run Iran can be even more dangerous when their dogma is denied. I liken them to suicide bombers with a nation strapped to their chests. In this case, it’s the second most populous nation in the Middle East. A nation that supports terrorists. A nation long bellicose to Western interests. A nation with a secretive nuclear program that already might be more lethal than we know.

So its own people are fighting back. I can only hope they can sustain the losses they’re suffering right now and somehow win this fight. They would have a saner nation. We would have a saner world.

Fighting For A Nation, Not A Paycheck.

There’s a difference between fighting for your nation and fighting for your paycheck.

A fight for one’s nation wins almost every time. Vladimir Putin is learning this lesson in the most painful of ways.

He should have learned it before. 43 years ago, when his Soviet Union was an even stronger superpower, it invaded Afghanistan. I covered that war. I was with rag-tag units of the Mujaheddin when they went up against the superpower. The Soviets were in helicopter gunships. The Mujaheddin were on mules. But at the end of the day, soldiers fighting for a nation were able to rout soldiers fighting for a paycheck.

It is premature of course to conclude that Russia actually is losing this war, maybe even wishful thinking, but it is not precipitous to say that after seven months of a conflict it evidently expected to wrap up in days, Russia isn’t winning either.

Long live Ukraine’s soldiers in this battle. They are outmanned and outgunned, but they are fighting for their nation. In parts of that nation— parts that Putin only three days ago formally declared a part of his nation, and which only yesterday Russia’s lower house of parliament formally voted to absorb after the preposterous pretense of a popular plebiscite— the Ukrainians have got the Russians on the run.

Although the invaders have been taught that Ukraine is led by a bunch of Nazis and that the land they’ve stormed rightfully belongs to Russia, their weaknesses make it look like they’re just fighting for a paycheck. At least right now, that doesn’t seem to be enough to win. In territory that Russia has occupied for months— in fact in three of the four provinces Putin now calls part of Russia— Ukraine’s forces are re-raising the blue and yellow flag in the wake of Russian retreats. They’re retaking transportation hubs, they’re retaking industrial hubs. Their flag. Their hubs.

Somewhat surprisingly— although maybe it’s a reflection of an age when firewalls are so porous that even an authoritarian like Putin can’t keep his humiliations a secret— the Kremlin has acknowledged that its “special military operation” is not going as planned. With Russian troops literally encircled on a field of battle, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense in Moscow admitted yesterday that “with numerically superior tank units… the enemy managed to forge deep into our defenses.” Those troops were being withdrawn, he said, to “more favorable positions.”

Clearly not part of the military game plan.

The Kremlin can’t even definitively say where the land it claims as its own actually starts and stops. Its official spokesman conceded it yesterday: “Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in terms of the borders, we’re going to continue to consult with the population of these regions.” So where are those borders that define the new lines between Ukraine and Russia? “We’re going to continue to consult with the people who live in these regions.”

Clearly not part of the political plan.

Nor is Putin’s military conscription campaign going as he obviously hoped. Reportedly up to a quarter-million Russians have rushed for the borders since the draft was announced.

The governor in one region of Russia says that roughly half of the residents who got draft notices had been “returned home because they did not meet the criteria for military service.”

Clearly not part of the personnel replenishment plan.

And political support for Russia’s war isn’t going as planned either. In light of reports that arms and food and supplies are not reaching Russian soldiers, a senior member of parliament openly lamented yesterday, “What is this, that the greatest country in the world cannot provide everything that’s necessary.” The leader of Chechnya, who has been full-throated in support of the war, complained about an “incompetent” general for whom military leaders had “covered.” He should be sent, the Chechnyan demanded, “to the front to wash his shame off with blood.” The head of the infamous army of mercenaries known as the Wagner Group, that has been part of Russia’s most merciless forces, wrote in an online post about the military leadership, “Send all these pieces of garbage barefoot with machine guns straight to the front.”

Clearly not part of the patriotic plan. Nor the morale plan either.

Make no mistake, Russia hasn’t ceded most of the land it captured, and Vladimir Putin can make threats that his Ukrainian counterpart can’t match. The reality is, Russia keeps torturing, Ukrainians keep suffering, Russia keeps shelling, Ukrainians keep dying. But if momentum counts for anything at all, and if the righteousness of the cause makes any difference in the determination of the soldiers fighting for it, Ukraine still has a fighting chance.

The Best Way To Help Ukraine.

If you still hold out some hope that Vladimir Putin will dig deep down and come to his senses and see what damage he’s doing and moderate his rhetoric and pacify the planet and stop the lies, you could not be encouraged by his speech yesterday in Moscow.

Becoming the poster boy for the worst types of hypocrisy and the worst traits of authoritarianism, Putin abandoned his last vestige of credibility… as if he had much to work with in the first place.

In the Kremlin ceremony recognizing Russia’s fraudulent elections in four Ukrainian provinces— some Ukrainians had to vote at gunpoint— and formalizing its illegal absorption of those provinces into the Russian motherland, Putin and four lackeys appointed to lead them chanted “Russia, Russia, Russia,” as if they were at a football match.

Before that, in menacing remarks about “the ruling circles of the so-called West,” which he unambiguously called “the enemy,” Putin took duplicity over the top: “Not only do Western elites deny national sovereignty and international law,” he said, but he accused Western leaders of “totalitarianism, despotism, and apartheid.”

The cliché here is, talk about the pot calling the kettle black! You want to say “the gall,” but we’re well past that point. Putin isn’t just impudent. He is putting a superpower conflict on the table.

He’s not only claiming that he and his powerful nation are the victims here, but that if he has to use nuclear weapons to have his way— Russia has the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal, even bigger than ours— he will. But again, although he’s the one who several times now has raised the prospect of a nuclear war, last week calling it “no bluff,” yesterday he framed the danger as a nuclear threat from the West: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.” He wasn’t just delivering a weather report.

And with today’s development, seeing Ukrainian troops outflanking Russian soldiers as they retook a key city in one of the regions Russia only yesterday declared its own, and seeing those Russian soldiers fleeing for the lives, those prevailing winds might get stronger, because increasingly, Putin will feel cornered. A former commander of NATO’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Forces, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told CNN, “As Putin’s conventional warfare is struggling in Ukraine, I expect the Russians to increasingly turn to unconventional warfare.”

There is a lot of speculation about Putin and what drives him. The East-West divide, the prospect of antagonists all around him, the quest for power, the glory of the motherland. Some even speculate that mentally, Putin has simply gone off the deep end. My own theory of Putin’s motives is based on what I once heard him declare at a rally in Moscow: “We were a superpower once, we will be a superpower again.” It’s what every Russian nationalist would want. But whatever drives him, Vladimir Putin is turning a nation with a rich history of power, culture, and innovation, his nation, into an impoverished pariah. In a column yesterday titled “Outcrazy Your Opponent,” Tom Friedman wrote, “I have known a Russia that was strong, menacing, but stable— called the Soviet Union.”

Who’d have thought we’d ever yearn for that kind of adversary?

That’s why, despite the worries of Western leaders that fast-tracking Ukraine’s application this week to join NATO might provoke Putin, they should do it. First, because Putin already has proved that he needs no provocation to raise the stakes. Second, because although the conditions for joining NATO mean showing that your nation respects democracy and the rule of law, and in the past Ukraine has come up short, it’s not as if NATO’s veteran members all show allegiance to those high standards themselves. Hungary and Turkey, both increasingly autocratic, are a case in point. Third, because Sweden and Finland both were fast-tracked this summer because of the Russian threat at their borders and in Ukraine, those borders already have been breached. And fourth, because Ukraine has earned it.

Putin has said that an attack on the regions he has just annexed now is an attack on Russia itself. But turnabout is fair play. If NATO were to fast-track Ukrainian membership, then consistent with its charter, an attack on Ukraine would be an attack on NATO itself. I’m not naive about the limits of power— just look at the outcomes of American force in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but it’s probably fair to say that if this war were to become a battle between Russia and NATO instead of a battle between Russia and Ukraine, it would be no contest.

Whether he’s crazy or just power-hungry, Vladimir Putin knows that.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky knows it too. In his nightly address to the nation Wednesday evening, with his military forces chasing Putin’s soldiers who have invaded his country, he switched to the Russian language and warned them, “If you want to live, run.”

That is the kind of backbone NATO needs. It is the kind of backbone the world needs.

Birds Of A Feather.

Has it struck you just how much Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump seem to have in common? It begins with this: despite costly reversals on the battlefield in Ukraine and the angry voices of world leaders telling him to stop— even China’s support seems to be fading— apparently Putin has the pomposity to think he can just win the war, as if he’s channeling Trump, by thinking about it.

That’s because what Putin can’t think about is defeat. It’s a reckless characteristic he has in common with Trump. As columnist Maureen Dowd puts it, both men are “driven by their dread of being called losers.”

But it goes beyond that.

Putin, like Trump, evidently believes he knows more than the experts. The New York Times reported this weekend that Putin is either ignoring sound advice from military commanders, or overruling them. Quoting U.S. intelligence sources, The Times says he is telling them that strategic decisions about the battlefield now will be made in the Kremlin.

That might make sense if his army— the world’s second biggest— were winning. But for now anyway, it’s not. The latest estimates are that at least 80,000 Russian troops have died or been injured in Ukraine, maybe more, and that half the Russian military’s tanks and maybe ten-percent of its fighter aircraft have met their end.

But like Donald Trump, Putin doesn’t try to correct course when he’s in trouble. He doesn’t look for a way out. Instead, he doubles down. Like Trump, Putin’s only response if you punch him is to try to punch you harder. It is a low quality of both men that in pursuit of their goals, neither cares who or what gets hurt.

Even when they threaten to throw those punches with nukes.

Last week, unable to win the old-fashioned way, Putin upped the ante in the war, as if someone else bore guilt and Russia is the innocent victim. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened,” he said in a nationally televised speech, “we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.” Again, shades of Donald Trump. Remember how, before his bromance with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump warned Kim that his belligerence could be met “with fire and fury, and frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” A month later he went to the United Nations and threatened that “if (the United States) is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

For decades, the pulverizing power of a nuclear arsenal was implicitly understood. From my own coverage of arms talks and the Cold War, I’m convinced that that’s what kept the peace. But that was before Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Both these men would rather wave their nuclear weapons like national flags.

The two even share a penchant for bogus ballots. With Putin, it’s the fabricated “referendums” underway right now in four provinces of Ukraine, where citizens are being asked if they want to secede from their sovereign nation and become a part of Russia. Given that ballots have been delivered by Russian riflemen and that people are voting under penalty of potential punishment and reportedly, in some cases, even at gunpoint, the outcome is preordained. With Trump, it’s his unethical and underhanded efforts to falsify the results of the 2020 presidential election everywhere from Arizona to Georgia to Michigan… not to mention inside the halls of the United States Congress.

If these guys don’t like the honest outcome of an election, they’ll do their best to engineer a different one.

Putin’s and Trump’s double-dealing personal qualities mirror their double-dealing politics. Both are untethered to moral principle. Both lie as easily as they breathe. Each says one thing and does another. Putin’s excuses for invading Ukraine have become a moving target, just like Trump’s excuses for keeping top secret documents at Mar-a-Lago. If one story is discredited, each man just moves on to the next.

Both are pig-headed. Each is driven by recalcitrance, ego, and imperial dreams. It wouldn’t much matter if major institutions weren’t at stake. But it does matter, because they are. Putin has put Russia’s military, its economy, and its once-powerful place on the world stage on the line. Trump has trampled on our rights, our democracy, our rule of law.

Both men are bullies. Trump bullies weaker people. Putin bullies weaker nations.

And neither tolerates dissent. When Trump’s own loyalists begin to push back on his crazier ideas, they become “losers.” When Putin’s do, they become “suicides.”

Both men have an authoritarian streak. The only thing that separates one from another are checks and balances that have stood in the way of Donald Trump’s most egregious excesses. Vladimir Putin doesn’t have those constraints.

The harm each of these men has done to his nation, the harm each of these men has done to the world, is huge. They have that in common. But Putin’s is on an even bigger scale than Trump’s. If it is the American people’s will— beginning with the November elections— we shall survive Trump’s assaults on what we hold dear. The Russian people who want no part of this war, and tragically, the Ukrainian people who are fighting for their lives, don’t have that peaceable choice.

Oh For The Good Ol’ Days of LOW Tech!

Bring back the buttons, enough with the high-tech already!

You know how, when you watch news coverage of a serious storm, there’s usually a shot of some poor ol’ soul’s car that got crushed by a fallen tree? Back in April, during unprecedented hurricane-force winds where I live, I was that poor ol’ soul. It was my car under the tree. Totaled.

Among the first things I thought of after it happened was that I had just spent 50 bucks filling the tank with gas but got only seven miles’ worth of driving out of it before getting back home where BOOM, just moments after parking out front, the tree blew down. Another was that I had struggled with the temptation to pick up a fast-food hamburger right after filling up, but I resisted it. Bad call! Had I stopped for a few minutes to buy that burger, the tree would have fallen when it did, but my car wouldn’t have been under it.

Still, I was lucky. First, because I’d gotten out of the car before the tree came tumbling down. And second, because despite the scourge of supply chain shortages, I was able to get a new one.

Of course it’s not as if the car that got totaled had been ready for the junkyard. It was almost brand new itself, model year 2021. The replacement is a 2022. But between ’21 and ’22, something changed.

The buttons. They’re almost all gone.

In the old car, my muscle memory knew how to direct my hand to where every control was, whether I wanted to adjust the fan, direct the airflow, switch to internal recirculation, heat the seats, or anything else. What’s more, once muscle memory put my finger at the right spot, a tactile button confirmed that it was where it wanted to be.

Almost one-stop shopping.

In the new car? It’s almost all on a touchscreen and as you see from the smudges in this picture, I’ve touched it a lot.

So instead of simply feeling the fan switch and clicking it up or down, I’ve first got to touch the screen to get the icons to show up— then again touch it where it says “Touch to turn screen on” and nowhere else— then I’ve got to visually find the function I want, then I’ve got to get my finger to the right spot but, without any tactile response, sometimes it’s the wrong spot, and then, even if it’s right, I’ve got to press it or slide it on a two-dimensional flat screen to accomplish what I want to accomplish.

All, by the way, while driving.

And here’s the catch: once I touch the screen to light it up, I have precisely 3.4 seconds to do all that. Really! I timed it three times. 3.4 seconds, then it goes dark, and if I haven’t managed to do what I need to do, I have to start the process all over again.

A friend of mine assures me my muscle memory will get used to the new system. Maybe it will, some day. But it’s been five months so far. It hasn’t yet.

Better life through over-engineering?

I don’t think so. Because here’s another catch: when I’m flying down the interstate highway, I really shouldn’t be taking my eyes off the road for 3.4 seconds. Let alone 3.4 seconds twice. Aren’t safety experts trying to get us not to look at our phone screens when we’re driving? So now we’re looking at our dashboard screens instead. What’s the difference?

I realize, this is the future. According to Consumer Reports, roughly 98.8% of all new cars in the U.S. have a touchscreen display. According to the literature, it’s a lot cheaper for automakers to provide a single screen controlled by software than a dozen dials and switches and buttons with separate wiring for each.

Motor Trend doesn’t seem to like this whole motor trend, complaining, “It’s significantly easier to locate a physical control than hunting through sub-menus.” On, automotive journalist Stephen Ottley is more caustic: “Car brands are turning dashboards into mobile computers, and it sucks.”

And none more than Tesla. The other day I had to go out of town and rented a Tesla at the airport. Almost everything, and I’m not exaggerating, almost everything is controlled on a centrally-mounted flatscreen display.

This means even the speed indicator is off at an angle rather than right in front of your nose. It took me several minutes to even find the faint arrows I needed to change the temperature inside the car. At one point I had to pull over but never could find the emergency blinkers. And the windshield wipers? A sub-menu inside a sub-menu. Not real helpful when the sky opens up. And again, all while flying down the road.

In fairness, like the curmudgeon I can be, I was complaining about all this the other day to the general manager at my dealership, and he told me something I didn’t know about my car: to adjust the fan or heat the seats— or tune to a new setting on the audio system or make a phone call or a bunch of other things— you don’t have to touch the screen at all. That’s because you can talk to it. You can tell the car to do what you don’t have time to safely do on the screen.

As it turns out, you can talk to your Tesla too.

So there is a go-around. But still…..

Meantime, it’s made me think about other marvels of high-tech engineering that, while they have their benefits, can drive me up the wall. Like the remotes for our TVs. Not long ago I was in a hotel, and wanted to watch a movie. Good luck! Like so many multiple-remote-control homes these days, it took not just one remote but two to even activate the system. These are the two remotes. Take a look at all their almost indecipherable buttons. I counted them so you don’t have to.

The remote on the right has 32 buttons. On the left, 47. Just to watch a movie. What ever happened to on/off?

But that wasn’t the end of it. After finding the right buttons to find the right screen, I had to make a bluetooth connection to my phone, and somehow pair my Netflix app to the hotel room. I went through the steps as instructed, but something still wasn’t working— granted, maybe it was my brain— but eventually I had to call the hotel switchboard operator to ask for help, hopefully some kind of old-fashioned go-around to reach my goal. Catch 22. He directed me to a YouTube video to show me how to do it.

Mind you, I’m not brainless about technology. I successfully use my share of high-tech devices. But maybe I’m not the guy to sing its praises. Back in the late 1980s, I did a feature story for Good Morning America from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in which Caller ID was shown as the next “big thing.” I did a wry if cynical report which basically said, “Oh, com’n, you’ve got to be kidding, you really expect us to believe that someday we’ll actually be able to see who’s calling us before we even answer the phone?”

Got that wrong. But still…..

And while we’re on the subject of high-tech, how about golf? Ever since it evolved from players hitting pebbles over sand dunes in Scotland to players hitting balls into sand dunes worldwide, it has been played pretty much the same. Until now. Rangefinders, which use GPS to tell golfers on a fairway how many yards they are from the flag, have caught on. They help them decide which club to swing and how hard to swing it.

Even the PGA last year allowed the big-money pros to use them. Early greats like Sam Snead and Ben Hogan must be rolling in their graves.

This is different than technology in other spectator sports, which is designed to make it easier for spectators to follow the game, not for athletes to play it. Our televisions can show us the first-down line in football, the speed of a pitch in baseball, the path of a puck in hockey. But that doesn’t make it any easier for the running back to know where the line is, the batter to know the speed of the ball heading his way, or the goalie to spot the puck. It just makes it easier for the viewer to watch. I don’t play golf, so it’s easy for me to say, but doesn’t it seem like using a rangefinder is sidestepping a traditional challenge of the game?

Then again, baseball has stepped over that dark line too. A device called PitchCom lets a catcher communicate the pitch he wants to an earpiece in the pitcher’s cap, without his fingers giving it away to the prying eyes of the other team. Yet stealing those signs is a tradition of the game. Is nothing sacred?

Not that low-tech is nirvana. It too can be over-engineered. Have you ever felt like you needed a chainsaw to open a package of batteries? Or a microscope to find the “easy peel” flap to rip open a stick of string cheese? At a reception desk the other day I picked up a sample-size packet of those little round malted milk balls called Whoppers.

I tried my fingernails to open them, I tried my teeth. They all failed! Sure, sometimes impenetrable packaging is necessary. A friend I had just been with called while I was writing this piece to tell me he tested positive for Covid, so immediately I did a home test. I know the test is a sensitive thing, so it made sense that I needed scissors to extract the tube from the test kit. But Whoppers? Do we have to carry scissors now just to have a Whopper?

Compared to real issues like inflation and politics, hunger and climate change and war, these are the epitome of First World problems. But the First World is our world, and I wish someone would sit up and take note: sometimes things are best the way they are, even if they feel like yesterday’s technology. Sometimes over-engineering— whether it’s a car or a candy wrapper— is a step in the wrong direction.

Who Wins, Who Loses?

Every game has a winner. And a loser. The trick is figuring out which is which before the game is over.

That’s what we’re trying to do right now in contests and conflicts around the country and around the world. In some, freedom is at stake. In others, the rule of law. And in even more, democracy.

The conflict around the world is the war in Ukraine. The latest news is encouraging: Ukraine’s forces have taken back land that Russia grabbed. People are flying the Ukrainian flag again in more than a thousand square miles of their nation.

But there’s a difference between winning the battle and winning the war. It’s only a thousand square miles that Ukraine recaptured out of somewhere between 17,000 and 23,000 that Russia had taken, beginning with its seizure of Crimea more than eight years ago. But the good news is, the land Ukraine reclaimed has been geographically vital to Russia’s invasion— airfields, military depots, staging areas that it has used to wage its war. Russia is weakened without it. And by all accounts, with troops abandoning their weapons and running from their crumbling lines, its retreat has been ugly.

However, even if Ukraine keeps advancing and Russia keeps retreating, a recent report on the damage already done there is almost unimaginable: roads and bridges demolished, factories and hospitals, stores and shopping malls, bus depots and train stations and airports, critical utilities like power and water, and the homes of nearly a million citizens. Estimates to rebuild— the cost to put this battered nation back together— go as high as three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

What’s worse, the longer the war wears on, the higher that figure climbs. There will likely be generous pledges but the reality is, who can pay for it— who will pay for it— is anyone’s guess.

Yet to hear President Zelinsky tell it, although outmanned and outgunned, Ukraine will not waver. “Read my lips,” he defiantly posted online Sunday in a message to President Putin. “Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Without water or without you? Without you. Without food or without you? Without you.”

Then there are the games people are playing here at home.

Begin with Donald Trump’s game with the documents designated “top secret” that the FBI seized at Mar-a-Lago.

That led our country’s mercurial onetime commander-in-chief to call the men and women of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, because they enforced the law, “vicious monsters.” In a filing yesterday, his lawyers dismissed the whole affair as “a document storage dispute that has spiraled out of control.” That’s like calling Bernard Madoff’s $65-billion Ponzi scam “an investment dispute that spiraled out of control.”

The ex-president won the first round of the game when a federal judge he’d appointed midway through his last year in office, who wasn’t even confirmed until after Trump lost his re-election, forced a delay in the Justice Department’s investigation by allowing a “special master” to examine the documents. As she reasoned in her ruling, without such an examination the ex-president might suffer “reputational harm.” In other words, “The stigma… is in a league of its own.”

What she left unsaid, of course, is that Trump’s unlawful possession of government property, let alone top secret government property, was in a league of its own. It’s as if this judge is replacing the time-worn American principles of “All men are created equal” and “No one is above the law” with the doctrine of what she calls “unquantifiable potential harm.” What someone ought to tell her is, too bad; the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Especially ex-presidents. On his Substack website Steady, Dan Rather put it clearly: “The truth is that the president of the United States is afforded many special privileges and powers. But they reside in the office and not the person. Donald Trump is no longer president.” But evidently in the mind of this federal judge in Florida, the bigger they are, the softer they fall, because some men are above the law, some men are more equal than others.

She has played right into the game being waged these days over the United States Supreme Court. Mindful of wide-ranging censure of the Court’s very legitimacy after it abandoned legal precedent— known as “stare decisis”— and overturned Roe v. Wade, Chief Justice John Roberts told a judicial conference last weekend in Colorado Springs, “Simply because people disagree with an opinion is not a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court.”

But on a CNN program Sunday, former senator Al Franken accurately argued that the Court’s legitimacy was undermined long before the repeal of Roe. He pointed to 2016 when Mitch McConnell blocked President Obama’s High Court nominee (current Attorney General Merrick Garland) from even getting a hearing to replace the deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, claiming that with a presidential election coming up a mere eight months later, “the American people should have a say in the court’s direction.” So we ended up instead with Trump nominee Justice Neil Gorsuch. And then along came Amy Coney Barrett, who Trump nominated only two months before the 2020 election after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McConnell and his party rammed that one through only a week before Election Day.

“They’ve stolen two seats,” Franken said. “The one that Merrick Garland wasn’t given a hearing for, and the one when Coney Barrett… was seated a week before the election. That destroyed the legitimacy of the court.” Chief Justice Roberts once rightly instructed Donald Trump that “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges… What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.” But against the backdrop of such raw political hypocrisy, coupled with the decision on Roe, that’s a hard argument to make anymore.

Finally, there’s the game that Trump and his acolytes are playing with democracy. Three examples from this week’s news.

First, according to the political website FiveThirtyEight, a full third of Republican nominees for major federal or state offices across the country faithfully profess that Trump won what was a rigged election in 2020. Those who win what they’re running for are a threat to future fair elections.

Second, a lawsuit has been filed in Michigan that would require the governor and the secretary of state to “work together to rerun the Michigan 2020 presidential election as soon as possible.” Like their right-wing cohorts elsewhere, they still haven’t offered a shred of substantiation that it’s necessary.

And third, just when you think Trump and his Trumpcolytes couldn’t get any more undemocratic, any more unpatriotic, you get the likes of Texas Representative Louie Gohmert. Friday, he honored a January 6th insurrectionist named Simone Gold, who was sentenced to 60 days in federal prison for invading the Capitol, calling her “a political prisoner,” and upon her release, presenting her with an American flag that once flew over the Capitol’s dome. Gohmert said her imprisonment was “something I never thought I’d see here in the United States of America.” Conspicuously he failed to say that an insurrection was also something he never thought he’d see.

If there is a winner and a loser in every game, heaven help our world if the wrong people in these games win.

The Midterms: Completely Unpredictable.

Although many Americans will vote by mail well before election day itself, we are exactly two months from the culmination of November’s midterm elections. With razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress— and for some state offices too— the outcome will be consequential, no matter which side you’re on.

So what’s going to happen?

People who know I’ve spent a fair part of my career covering politics sometimes ask me that very question. My answer to one and all is the same: “I’ve never been in the prediction business.”

But today, no one should be. In state after state, contest after contest, the midterms are too close to call. For Democrats and Republicans alike, seats that once seemed safe, if you can believe the polls, aren’t any more. The funding arms of both political parties are shifting their support in some cases from one state to another, depending on where they see wins on the horizon and where they’re losing hope.

Then throw in the traditional decline in the fortunes of the party in power, the Democrats, and the unfavorable ratings for President Biden’s performance, but counterbalance those with a long list of lasting legislation by the Democrats that should make our lives better. New roads and bridges, an attack against climate change, home-grown microchips, lower prices for prescription drugs, enhanced background checks for guns, and an economy that is strengthening and inflation (including gas prices) coming down.

It’s worth noting— and I can only hope that voters do make note of it— that when the bill came up a month ago for President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which lowers health care costs and attacks climate change and restores some equity to the tax system, all Democrats in the House and the Senate voted yes. All Republicans (who didn’t abstain) voted no. All of them. As commentator Farah Stockman recently wrote, “Some politicians seem to prefer seeing the country fail than helping the opposite party succeed.”

On top of that, polling almost across the board shows most Americans unhappy with the Republican-led Supreme Court’s ban on abortion and its equally conservative expansion of gun rights. Americans want gun control. Americans want abortion rights. Not to mention how each party has handled Covid. The New York Times just published a poll that asked Americans, have the Democrats or the Republicans handled Covid better? 45% said Democrats, 32% said Republicans. Of course after a president who told us maybe we should inject bleach in our bodies to stave off the virus, that’s not a very high bar.

Overseas, notwithstanding the messy albeit successful exit from Afghanistan, President Biden has a strong record too. He has resolutely rebuffed Russian aggression in Ukraine. After the Trump years, NATO is stronger again. And not just incidentally, Biden was the driving force behind the successful assassination of the al-Qaeda leader who helped Osama bin Laden plan the 9/11 massacres.

So where are we now? The Democrats have a lot to brag about, if only they can get the message through. Meantime, no matter how much its leaders might want to make us think about something else, the Republican Party cannot escape the anti-democratic disruptions, the never-ending lies, and the inexplicable grip on spineless politicians and incurious citizens of Donald Trump.

Longtime Associated Press special correspondent Mort Rosenblum put it all together in this week’s Mort Report: “Leaders are judged by their moment in time,” he wrote. “Considering what Joe Biden inherited and what he has managed to do so far at this perilous juncture in history, it is hard to recall a more effective American president. Yet a lot of voters want him gone.”

Then he issued a dire warning about Republicans who “choose to finish Donald Trump’s mission to turn America into a selfish one-party kleptocracy run by ideologues and plutocrats.”

Two months from today, that is what’s at stake.

The Ever-Changing Excuses From Donald Trump.

It’s enough to make you dizzy.

In the less-than-four-weeks since the FBI seized secret and unsanctioned documents from Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, the one-time president and his apologists have taken the nation on a roller-coaster ride of excuses. Dishonest, duplicitous, capricious, even contradictory excuses. That’s what a con man does.

You’ve probably been following it in bits and pieces, but at this stage it might be instructive to lay it all out in one fell swoop.

The first thing we heard from Trump’s people about the August 8th search was that his home was “under siege, raided and occupied by a large group of FBI agents.” Trump himself called it “unAmerican, unwarranted, and unnecessary.” Basically what he tried to feed us was that old bromide, “Nothing to see here,” because there was nothing important ever stored at Mar-a-Lago.

First fact check: it was not “unAmerican” or “unwarranted.” The FBI was executing a legal search warrant, approved by a federal judge who had to conclude that there was probable cause that a crime had been committed— serious stuff like obstruction, theft or destruction of government records, and violations of the Espionage Act. And it wasn’t unnecessary. As we learned last week, there was plenty to see there: 31 documents marked confidential, 54 marked secret, and 18 marked top secret.

That might explain why one of his lawyers shamelessly told Fox News shortly after the search, “I’m concerned that they may have planted something. You know, at this point, who knows?” Trump then built on that ugly smear, complaining that the FBI did not allow his people to observe the search to “see what they were doing, taking or, hopefully not, ‘planting’.”

Next fact check: the FBI doesn’t have to let anyone watch, and usually doesn’t.

Then, in case that didn’t take root, the Trump team turned to a new one: who doesn’t take work home with them? “As we can all relate to,” one of his lawyers said, “everyone ends up having to bring home their work from time to time. American presidents are no different.”

Except… another fact check here… he’s not president any more. TV host Trevor Noah said it best: “It’s not ‘taking work home with you’ if you no longer have the job.” And his “work” belongs to the nation. Under the provisions of the Presidential Records Act, it is supposed to go to the National Archives, not to a country club in Florida.

Then they put the roller-coaster in high gear.

One of Trump’s aides went on Fox and scapegoated the government: “The GSA has since come out, the Government Services Administration (my note: it’s the General Services Administration, and it oversees the National Archives), and said they mistakenly packed some boxes and moved them to Mar-a-Lago.”

Except… fact check again… the GSA has publicly said they didn’t. They oversaw the shipping of sealed cartons from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, but they didn’t pack them.

So Fox News tried to help Trump with a new “out”: he was so caught up in the “chaotic time” of January 6th and its aftermath that he never got around to sorting through what would go to Mar-a-Lago and what would stay.

Fact check yet again: the only thing he was busy with was continuing to subversively try to overturn the election.

Then the roller coaster took another sharp turn: after the first reports that sensitive classified documents were among the records seized, Trump told a tall tale on his website: “Number one, it was all declassified. Lucky I Declassified!” His office went on to claim that Trump “had a standing order… that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to the residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them.”

Except… another fact check… two of his former chiefs of staff and 16 other former aides publicly declared that they never heard of that. They used words, on the record, like “ludicrous,” “ridiculous.” and “bullsh*t.” What’s more, there is a prescribed procedure for a president to declassify sensitive documents. A “standing order,” with zero documentation to back it up, isn’t it.

As former Attorney General William Barr said the other day, “If in fact he sort of stood over scores of boxes, not really knowing what was in them and said ‘I hereby declassify everything in here,’ that would be such an abuse and that shows such recklessness, it’s almost worse than taking the documents.”

Furthermore, there are laws prohibiting the willful retention of national defense information, the obstruction of a federal investigation, and the concealment or removal of government property. They are crimes, whether the documents in question are classified or not.

But Trump kept the roller-coaster rolling and came up with a new one: “They could have had it anytime they wanted—and that includes LONG ago. ALL THEY HAD TO DO WAS ASK.”

This calls of course for another fact check: they did ask. For more than a year. Ultimately they had to serve a subpoena in January to collect more documents from Mar-a-Lago and after that, Trump’s lawyer attested in writing that there were no more of the documents at issue at Trump’s resort. Except… there were.

So then came yet another excuse: Trump said it should be no surprise that there were still classified documents in those boxes because they were presidential records. “Simply put,” his lawyers wrote, “the notion that Presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm.” Trump even had the chutzpah to claim that the National Archives had no right to anything he’d brought from the White House because, “It’s not theirs, it’s mine.”

Fact check: not according to the law. That’s the law called the Presidential Records Act, created after Richard Nixon’s scandalous presidency, to protect against another scandalous presidency.

The latest “nothing to see here” excuse, part of Trump’s newest argument last week before a federal judge, is that his failure to return all those controversial documents to the National Archives is on a par with “an overdue library book.”

Fact check. We’re not talking here about an overdue library book. We’re talking about documents that, if they should fall into the wrong hands, could compromise our national security. Documents “strewn,” as William Barr put it, “all over a country club.”

It is no surprise that while the dominant theme from federal law enforcement is, “What laws have been broken, what jeopardy are we in?,” the theme from Trump’s people is still, “Nothing to see here.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland a couple of days ago complaining that the Department of Justice “is proceeding in a manner that is eroding public trust and confidence.” No mention of the erosion of public confidence spawned by the insurrection of January 6th, no mention of the still baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged, indeed no mention of the possibility that by secreting government property at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump willingly broke some consequential federal laws.

The same Donald Trump, by the way, who said during his 2016 presidential campaign, “In my administration, I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law.”

Heaven help us if this roller-coaster doesn’t crash.

Gorbachev is Dead. Should We Mourn?

Mikhail Gorbachev was no saint. He put the world on a path to a more peaceful co-existence, and for that he deserves every plaudit history provides. But he was no saint.

I only met the man once, in Moscow— more a hale hello and a hearty handshake than a meeting. But for all his charm, I could never forget that he came up through the Communist system. Not just the Communist system, but the Soviet system. He didn’t reach the highest heights by fighting it. He got there by supporting it.

The Communist system, as we were taught if we grew up in the Cold War, was based on the principle, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” But the government owned everything, from every inch of land within the nation’s borders to the shoe shine kit of the guy outside the hotel where I usually stayed. So people’s needs and people’s abilities were whatever the government said they were. From the living conditions I saw whenever I covered news there, the needs of the shoe shine guy, I would guess, were assessed as very low.

But as unbearable as it was, the Communist system was not the most oppressive part of people’s lives. It was the Soviet system, a police state intolerant of any views but its own. As such, there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of political affiliation, no freedom of the press, and for those who fought for freedom anyway, there were the gulags. These days they call them prison camps but if you don’t think they still are gulags, just ask Putin’s imprisoned rival Alexei Navalny.

A few stories might help illustrate life in Soviet times, and here’s why I tell them: they don’t date back to early autocrats like Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. They are from the epoch of Gorbachev. Despite his permissive policies of glasnost and perestroika which deservedly won Western acclaim, these anecdotes clarify the boundaries for people stuck within the Soviet system.

Like the sunny summer day when a Moscow-based ABC News colleague and I had a picnic on the banks of the Moscow River. We were chatting away in English about covering news there when a man started crawling toward us, on his hands and knees, at snail’s pace. Even slower, really, because with every few feet, he’d stop and surreptitiously look over both shoulders to ensure that no one was paying attention as he approached.

When he reached us, having heard us speaking English and figured out that we were journalists, he told us in his own broken English that he was a fireman at the firehouse that protects the Kremlin, and that their fire hoses were fraying, but his unit couldn’t get anyone’s attention to replace them. In the United States, a fireman with a grievance like that would get his union to call a news conference and hope for a headline on the front page but in the Soviet Union, complainers were disciplined. This Moscow firefighter hoped that as western journalists, maybe we could put pressure on the Kremlin to get the hoses fixed.

He risked his freedom to send us that message. In the epoch of Gorbachev.

On a different day, this time a stormy snowy day in the middle of December, someone sent us a clandestine message to be at Gorky Square, not a half mile from the Kremlin, at 3 o’clock. No name, no reason, just a covert tip-off to be there. It turned out that the same message had been delivered to my colleagues at the NBC, CBS, and the then-new CNN bureaus in Moscow, as well as the BBC’s. It was International Human Rights Day, so this was a notice that none dared ignore.

In the heart of Gorky Square is a statue atop a pedestal of the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky, and on the ground all around it, a small plot of dirt for flowers in the summertime, surrounded by a wrought-iron chain. But there were no flowers growing in Moscow in December, we were in a blizzard and it was rush hour and people were dashing left and right to catch their buses when suddenly one woman stepped from the crowd to the foot of the statue. Just one woman, with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She walked up to the statue almost without notice. She raised her left boot above the level of the chain, which was about a foot-and-a-half above the ground, and stepped into the soil on the other side.

Before we knew it, three thugs grabbed her, one seizing each arm and a third lifting her legs, and carted her away. They were identically clothed, and identically outfitted with steel-toed shoes. The KGB. Then came a man with another bouquet, and more thugs to cart him away. Then a few more after that. (They also attacked us. One TV camera was thrown to the ground and destroyed. Another had its lens pulled off.)

That’s what you called a protest those days in the Soviet Union. Laying flowers next to a public statue. The government did all the municipal landscaping, so anyone who stepped onto forbidden government property and put down their own flowers inside the chain was usurping the government, and risking imprisonment.

These dissidents risked their freedom to protest the dreadful state of human rights in the Soviet Union. Still in the epoch of Gorbachev.

It was not uncommon in those days for westerners like us to therefore assume that everyone in the Soviet Union wanted to have what we had, that everyone wanted to be like us. As I learned during a cloak-and-dagger middle-of-the-night interview with a dissident on the run, that would be wrong.

Before meeting with him, we had disassembled our camera gear and with help from the dissident’s comrades, gotten the pieces smuggled into the basement of an apartment house on the outer edge of Moscow. Then, while my camera crew was putting it all back together, I sat with this man and to avoid getting into the topics I wanted to cover in the interview, I made what might pass as small talk, beginning with something stupid like, “You must wish you could just do this out in the open the way we can in the United States.”

His reply was more illuminating than the interview itself. “You Americans think we all want to be just like you,” he said. “We don’t. You can be richer than we can even dream of being, but you can be poorer too. We don’t have fancy houses like you do, but we also know we can’t end up out on the street. Our hospitals are bad but at least everyone can use them. The one thing you have that we don’t have is freedom. The only way we want to be like you is to be free.”

This man wasn’t free. Because he had openly denounced his government, he was on the run. It was still the era of Gorbachev.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, there was a brief flowering of freedom. Political parties blossomed, open assembly was allowed, news media flourished, speech was unrestricted, and it must indisputably be said, Gorbachev had set that tone. Sadly, before many years passed, Vladimir Putin fortified his power and, by awarding loyalists with the spoils of the new Russia, his power base. He slowly but surely put rigid restrictions back into place.

That wasn’t Gorbachev’s fault. As analysts say, he might not have intended with his policies to let the Soviet empire dissolve, but he did intend for a better relationship with the West. And notwithstanding the experiences I personally had, that could only come by diminishing the draconian constraints on people’s rights.

In marking Gorbachev’s death, Italy’s prime minister said, “He ended the experience of the Soviet Union and sought to build a new season of transparency, rights, freedom.”

To be fair, from what I saw, that is at least half true. If not for Putin, that short-lived season might still be Russia’s.

An Unpalatable Pardon for Donald Trump?

Pardon Donald Trump.

I never thought I’d take that up as a rallying cry, but the more I think about it, the more sense I think it makes.

It comes up because just last week, I wrote a piece asking, “If he has committed crimes, should Donald Trump go to trial?” What I concluded was, “There is no easy answer, there is no right answer, because there are risks to the nation, even to the point of civil war, if Donald Trump is taken to trial. But there are risks to the very survival of our democracy if he isn’t.”

So as outlandish as it might sound, maybe a preemptive pardon from President Biden is the third rail we ought to consider.

Politico, Bloomberg News, and The Washington Post all have run pieces about the idea in the past week. But out of all the potential byproducts of prosecuting Trump, what convinced me that a pardon might be the best of a bad lot was an email after my column from an old friend— and my former boss at HDNet Television— who wrote this: “Biden can wait to do it until Trump’s guilt is more clearly established, but before a trial. A pardon would effectively recognize Trump’s guilt, but avoid the civil disobedience, at best, and a civil war, at worst, that a successful prosecution would cause… let alone incarceration of the former President.”

Shades of Gerald Ford? A month after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, the president who succeeded him issued Nixon a “full, free and absolute” pardon for any crimes he committed while in office. Ford had declared on the day he took office that “our long national nightmare is over,” and while his Nixon pardon has been widely condemned for a long time, in retrospect it helped put that nightmare to rest.

In a Supreme Court case more than a century ago called “Burdick v. United States,” the high court said that a pardon carries “an imputation of guilt and acceptance of a confession of it.” If that “imputation of guilt” were to hit home with even a small percentage of Americans still (inexplicably) on the fence about Trump, it might be enough to ensure his defeat even if he does run for the White House again in 2024.

Not that the Trump nightmare would disappear with a pardon. He has spawned too many copycats and wannabes, at home and abroad, for the world to return to normal. I fear that Trump’s tactics are the new normal.

When a Senate candidate in Missouri puts out an ad showing himself with a shotgun, surrounded by others with assault rifles, saying they’re searching for disloyal Republicans, Trump’s influence has not died.

When a member of the January 6th mob writes (on Trump’s own social media website) “Kill the F.B.I. on sight,” Trump’s influence has not died.

When the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arizona fires up the base, calling the federal government “rotten to the core” and declaring “If we accept it, America is dead,” Trump’s influence has not died.

When the scaremongering chairwoman of the Republican National Committee feeds off the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and writes, “Trump Targeted by Biden Administration, and They Can Do It to You, Too,” Trump’s influence has not died.

When a pro-Trump internet site calls out the judge who issued the search warrant saying, “I see a rope around his neck,” Trump’s influence has not died.

Trump even retweeted a post himself that propounded civil war as a remedy for our “failing” nation.

I offer these examples because they fall into a frightening pattern, articulated by Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “If political aggression is set in the context of a war, ordinary people with no prior history of violence are more likely to accept it. Political violence can also be made more palatable by couching it as defensive action against a belligerent enemy.”

University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, who studies political violence, has overseen six nationwide polls that show that up to 20 million Americans believe violence would be justified to return Trump to the White House. Pape compares this to a dry forest with lots of combustible material on the ground. “All it takes is a spark,” he says, “to ignite the tinder.”

A prosecution of the ex-president could be that spark. Maybe a full-blown firestorm.

If Donald Trump has committed crimes, I want him held accountable and punished as much as anyone does. As I wrote last week, either we treat every citizen equally, or we don’t. Either we respect the rule of law, or we don’t. But a preemptive pardon would take us part of the way toward sustaining those sacred standards while possibly dodging the most calamitous consequences of a prosecution.

Whether stated subtly or blatantly, a pardon would send a message to future Trump wannabes about attacking our democracy and flouting our laws. It would be the next best thing to prison orange. In the words of Aziz Huq, author of The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies, such a pardon “can reflect the fact that someone broke the law while endorsing powerful reasons for not punishing them.”

Those powerful reasons are plain.

What’s more, if it had its intended effect, a pardon would preempt a dangerous potential precedent. As Damon Linker, who writes Eyes on The Right,” says, “Imagine, each time the presidency is handed from one party to the other, an investigation by the new administration’s Justice Department leads toward the investigation and possible indictment of its predecessor.”

If that happens, he argues, it is “the ringing of a bell that cannot be unrung.”

Mind you, the whole issue of a pardon might be moot. The same Supreme Court decision that said a pardon carries “an imputation of guilt” also said that a person pardoned by a president can reject it. If history with Donald Trump is any guide, that is precisely what he would do.

But still, after beating two impeachments, it would put a permanent stain on a man who, in both business and politics, has always shown disdain for the law.

No matter how this all turns out, no one will be satisfied. Not the Left, not the Right. There will be serious consequences whether Trump is prosecuted or not.

Over decades of reporting, I covered countless crises where there could be no happy ending. This might be one of them. Author Haziz Huq wrote, “There are no options on the table that don’t come with profound costs: The question is which is least bad.”

Maybe the answer is, however unpalatable, a pardon for Donald Trump. Or as my ex-boss put it, “The high road for democracy.”

If He Has Committed Crimes, Should Donald Trump Go To Trial?

Is our nation better off if Donald Trump is prosecuted for his alleged crimes, or worse?

There is no easy answer. There is no right answer. But it is equally true that there is no shortage of crimes for which Trump is accused. Serious crimes and, in many people’s minds, treasonous crimes: Interfering in an election. Inciting an insurrection. Espionage.

Yet even on the liberal side of the political aisle, there is no consensus.

Columnist Charles Blow of The New York Times frames it this way: “The questions before the Justice Department are not only whether there is convincing evidence that Trump committed the crimes he is accused of but also whether the country could sustain the stain of a criminal prosecution of a former president. I would turn the latter question around completely: Can the country afford not to prosecute Trump?”

Blow’s answer is no.

His counterpart at The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, agrees: “It will be bad if Trump is prosecuted, and worse if he isn’t.”

Why worse? Because, as The Boston Globe wrote in an editorial, “Norms in a democracy are only as good as our willingness to enforce them. It cannot be the case that there is no line— no hypothetical act of presidential criminality— that would not rise to the level of seriousness that merits setting aside our qualms.”

But in the case of Donald Trump, even among liberals, there are qualms. Colossal qualms. They are real and they are rational.

Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin points to one of them: “One mark of modern despotism is the legal pursuit of former leaders by current office-holders, and the United States has wisely avoided this cycle throughout its history. To be sure, this practice has its limits, and pervasive and obvious criminality by a President should be prosecuted regardless of this tradition. But if there’s a close call, restraint is the better course.”

The Brookings Institute’s Senior Fellow Elaine Kamarck, while allowing that “no one is above the law,” points out the possibility of radical repercussions if Donald Trump is brought to trial. “Prosecuting a former President of the United States whose followers maintain an almost cult-like loyalty to him is a decision with enormous consequences. Would a successful prosecution and perhaps jail time make Donald Trump a martyr and exacerbate the ugly divisions he has launched on the country?”

What’s worse, those ugly divisions are not just political. David Klepper of The Associated Press catalogued the poisonous divisions in a comprehensive piece on Tuesday:

• The judge who authorized the search at Mar-a-Lago has had his home address publicized on right-wing websites and death threats left on his phone.

• A man wearing body armor and armed with an assault rifle and a nail gun, after posting on Trump’s own “Truth Social” website that federal agents ought to be killed on sight, tried to break into the FBI’s offices in Cincinnati. After shots were fired, he was killed by police.

• A man was arrested in Pennsylvania after posting threats against the FBI on social media such as, “You’ve declared war on us and now it’s open season on YOU.”

• The words “civil war” increased tenfold after the FBI’s search at Mar-a-Lago. One post said, “You started this civil war. And others are going to sure end it for you.”

Some of these flames are fanned by Trump’s political allies. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, “Defund the FBI.” Colorado’s Lauren Boebert called the FBI search “Gestapo crap.” Arizona’s Paul Gosar wrote, “We must destroy the FBI.”

And some flames are fanned by the ex-president himself. “This is an assault on a political opponent at a level never seen before in our Country,” he railed without ratifiable merit on his website. “Third World!”

No wonder that University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq fears that prosecuting someone like Trump, “who continues to be popular, has the potential to make that person into a martyr and to facilitate and to enable— radicalize, even further— the movement they are associated with.”

That movement already has put ugly scars on American democracy: overt racism rising to levels unseen since the 1960s, menacing threats and mortal violence against the men and women sworn to preserve and protect, politicizing once-apolitical institutions like the United States Secret Service, subverting election laws to undermine the prized principle of one-man-one-vote, elected officials endorsing the lie about a rigged election. And most of all, the rabid insurrection of January 6th.

On a political level, The Los Angeles Times projected that if there is a Trump trial and “the prosecution is unsuccessful, he could gain more currency than he has now as a political loser.” The widely read Washington website The Hill ran a piece by political operative Keith Naughton that agreed: “Worst of all would be an acquittal. If Trump were tried and acquitted, he could just coast off that victory right into the White House.”

And yet there’s that nagging feeling that he’s already coasting. As his son Eric said on Newsmax the day after Liz Cheney lost her seat in Congress, “Last night, my father killed another political dynasty, and that’s the Cheneys. He first killed the Bushes, then he killed the Clintons. Last night he killed the Cheneys.”

Cheney’s defeat also led to worrisome warnings. In the Financial Times, Edward Luce wrote, “I’ve covered extremism and violent ideologies around the world over my career. Have never come across a political force more nihilistic, dangerous & contemptible than today’s Republicans. Nothing close.” General Michael Hayden retweeted Luce’s observation and added, “I agree. And I was (under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama) the CIA Director.” The Republican-founded anti-Trump Lincoln Project wrote, “Tonight, the nation marks the end of the Republican Party. What remains shares the name and branding of the traditional GOP, but is in fact an authoritarian nationalist cult dedicated only to Donald Trump.” Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman put it most succinctly, reporting that according to some of his own advisors, “Mr. Trump embodied Louis XIV’s phrase “L’état, c’est moi,” or “I am the state.”

But if Donald Trump is indicted and is prosecuted and is convicted of any of the crimes for which he is accused, there’s a dispiriting caveat: It’s Not Just Trump.

He has inspired a countless coterie of copycats. The well-known ones like Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott, and lesser-knowns who are winning elections at the statewide level and parroting the Big Lie.

Even if Trump is prosecuted, even if Trump ends up behind bars, they will still be around. They will still be a danger to our nation. Because whether they truly think this way or have merely seen that it resonates with a huge segment of American voters, they show no signs of backing off their attacks on the traditions, the norms, the institutions, even the laws that have kept us stable to this point.

For my part, putting the arguments for and against prosecution on a scale, I think if prosecutors can make an ironclad case that Donald Trump committed crimes, they should do it. Even Trump ally Lindsay Graham made the same case just last year, when Trump was impeached for the second time: “If you believe he committed a crime, he can be prosecuted like any other citizen.”

Yes, there are risks to the nation, even to the point of civil war, if Donald Trump is taken to trial. But there are risks to the very survival of our democracy if he isn’t. Either we treat every citizen equally, or we don’t. Either we respect the rule of law, or we don’t. Put that way, I see no choice. Like I wrote at the beginning, there is no easy answer, there is no right answer. Some stories just don’t have a happy ending.

I rely for hope on Liz Cheney’s words as she conceded her election Tuesday night in Wyoming: “Let us resolve that we will stand together— Republicans, Democrats, and independents— against those who would destroy our republic. They are angry and they are determined, but they have not seen anything like the power of Americans united in defense of our Constitution and committed to the cause of freedom. There is no greater power on this earth.”

As she has been right before, may she be right again.

Will Iran Swallow Its Plans and Its Pride?

Although the end is near, we don’t know how near we are to reviving a nuclear deal with Iran, or how far. By “we,” I include the diplomats who for more than a year now have been negotiating it. As the foreign policy chief for the European Union put it, “What can be negotiated has been negotiated.”

Yet apparently there’s still more to talk about. Today Iran’s foreign minister said his side is ready “to lose some things on the nuclear side to gain some things,” but only “if our latest points are met.” The State Department’s spokesman said that Iran still must drop its “extraneous” and “unacceptable” demands.

So is a decent and durable deal around the corner? The answer can only be “maybe.”

An advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last month, with just enough ambiguity to keep everyone guessing, “Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb.” The chief U.S. negotiator for Iran, Robert Malley, is more specific, telling NPR last Friday, “Iran is only a handful of weeks away from having enough fissile material for a bomb.”

Only a handful of weeks.

After the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 from what originally was known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” which left Iran’s nuclear program to its own devices, apparently that’s how close they are now to reaching that plateau to build a bomb. It’s also how much time they’ve got left to agree to what the EU foreign policy chief calls the “final text” from the new negotiations.

There are two things that might be decisive factors for Iran to strike a deal, but more that don’t. So if they do say yes, it tells me they’re desperate, because it means they must abandon some of their grandiose goals and comply with most of the original 2015 agreement, which amounts to putting their nuclear program in reverse gear.

One factor on the positive side for the Islamic Republic is the chance to start doing business again with the West, and win some relief from the squeeze that U.S. and E.U. sanctions have put on its economy. Then, a beneficial byproduct for them and us would be, more oil available on the world markets. However, there’s also a reason in Iran for hesitation: while sanctions do hurt a nation’s economy— Russia’s gross domestic product dropped by 4% in the first full quarter after it was punished with trade sanctions and corporate pullouts for attacking Ukraine— they rarely bring a regime to its knees. Especially an ideological regime like Iran’s, hellbent on its long-term goals.

The other factor is the wish of this well-educated, well-heeled nation to be a part of the global community again. But here too, there’s a drawback for Iran: limiting its own nuclear program might butt up against its longing to flex its muscles. Since I first covered the country during the Islamic Revolution more than 40 years ago, Iran has yearned to be at least a regional power— and the Shiite counterpart to Sunni Saudi Arabia— if not a global superpower.

I see more downsides over which Iran must be agonizing. The first is, Iran has always been deathly afraid that the Saudis will acquire nuclear technology— if they haven’t already— from the United States, which could be used against them.

A second is, the “Islamic Revolution” declared by the then-new Islamic Republic of Iran was just what the name suggests: it was the first modern revolution whose leaders’ stated goal was to export their dogma well beyond their nation’s borders. From when I first came across an Iranian-run training camp in northern Lebanon for a then-nascent terrorist group called Hezbollah, it has been obvious that they have drawn their lines in the sand in as much of the Middle East as they could. They provide arms and money to terrorist forces in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip. Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they also are closer than ever to Russia. As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote this weekend in The New York Times, “Tehran defines its own interests in opposition to the United States.” The canon in that part of the world is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

A third factor is, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has stirred up resistance to any rapprochement with the United States ever since he succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was the original driving force behind the revolution. When covering Khomeini’s revolution and then the American hostage crisis that grew out of it, I always felt from my own reporting from the street that many, probably most Iranians didn’t actually want the zealously Islamic government they got. What they wanted was to get rid of the Western-leaning Shah, who through their lens was bringing decadence to their nation and brutalizing those who opposed it. The Islamic radicals who took control of Iran were just the horse they rode in on. Then, it was too late to get off.

But if today’s Supreme Leader can convince his people that the West still is out to get them— retarding their economy, making them vulnerable to Saudi rivals, robbing them of their rightful place as a regional power— it could put more of the population on his side. As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.”

A fourth factor is what a European negotiator told the Carnegie Endowment’s Sadjadpour about Iran’s leaders: “They don’t want a different place in the world; they want a different world. It’s no good thinking you can change them.” For more than forty years so far, that has proved to be true. From my experience around the Middle East, where people culturally and historically have a different perspective than we do (in our quick-fix society) about the passage of time, they can suffer the short-term hardships of their isolation for the long-term aims of the revolution.

A final factor is, Iran isn’t just anti-American. It is anti-West. We are infidels. Seen through the eyes of the Supreme Leader, who sees the world through the eyes of Allah, capitulation has to be a last resort.

But if a last resort must be endured for a desperate nation’s survival, we might yet get a deal.

Whether a nuclear pact with Iran is better or worse for the security of the United States and our allies is a debate for another day. President Trump thought it was worse. President Biden thinks— with verifiable safeguards— it’s better. I agree. However, as with so many geopolitical decisions, ultimately everyone’s just making their best educated guess.

Hopefully the way I began, saying “the end is near,” means nothing more apocalyptic than the successful end of negotiations.

A Promising Day for America, a Perilous Day for America.

It’s a promising day for the nation. It’s a perilous day for the nation. It’s both.

The promising part is, it looks like justice is closing in on Donald Trump.

But I’m not naive. It’s not the first time he looked like he would be held accountable for defying rules of decency and rules of law, but managed to crawl out from under the condemnations. We thought “Grab ‘em by the pussy” would take him down as a candidate. And if not that, then his blatantly racist rhetoric, or his degenerate mockery of a disabled reporter. We thought once in the White House, his overt embrace of “alternative facts” would doom his presidency and if not that, his open admiration of White nationalists, his disparaging disdain for American alliances, or his cozy bromance with Vladimir Putin.

This time though, for those of us who believe that Trump should face consequences, there’s something about having your home searched for potential violations of the Espionage Act that sounds promising. Other weights also bear down on him: the investigation in New York into allegedly corrupt business practices where this week he pleaded the Fifth, the grand jury convened to examine his alleged attempt to influence Georgia’s 2020 election outcome, and the allegations that he incited the mob of insurrectionists on January 6th, then violated his oath of office by negligently declining to disperse them. Each of those could nail Trump too. But this one— the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago, the seizure of what are reported to be top secret documents that could compromise our national security and which, under the Presidential Records Act, he had no business keeping— might be the smoking gun. Legally, if not in the eyes of his “base.”

But that’s the perilous part. If we have learned anything by now, it is that tens of millions of Americans, egged on by elected officials driven by raw ambition to stay in Trump’s good graces, will have his back no matter what the evidence shows. Like he said during his first campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” That turned out to be truer than we thought. The tone was set at the White House itself, when former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo asked Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, “Do you believe this president has ever lied to the American people?” and her brazen reply was “No, I don’t think the president has lied.” As recently as this week, a Trump fan at a rally told a television reporter the same thing: “Trump never lies.” If at this point people still believe that, there’s no hope. And if polls are credible, Trump can still claim the support of the majority of Republicans in this country. To the Washington Post’s carefully collected catalogue of Trump’s dishonesty through the four years of his presidency— more than 30,000 “false or misleading” statements by their count— they would only say, “Fake News.”

Even more perilous, in the chilling spirit of the January 6th insurrection itself, internet threats by those who incorrigibly back Trump have gone from menacing to violent, some openly calling for armed warfare and civil war. I cited some of them the other day when news of the search warrant broke: “Lock and load,” “Buy ammo,” “Kill all feds,” with some calling for the assassination of the Attorney General who approved the warrant and the judge who signed it. On one site, the judge’s home address was posted with this message: “Let’s find out if he has children… where they go to school, where they live… EVERYTHING.”

These people are feeding on two things: the unconscionable utterances of politicians who, since the search was executed in Florida, have compared the federal government and its leading law enforcement agency to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, and, the fear-mongering words of right-wing media. One Fox News host said the day after the Florida search, “I feel violated. The whole country feels violated. This is disgusting. They’ve declared war on us, and now it’s game on.”

What’s perilous is, this is where Donald Trump has taken this nation. This is a former president of the United States fanning the flames, writing this about the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search on his social media website: “Everyone was asked to leave the premises, they wanted to be left alone, without any witnesses to see what they were doing, taking or, hopefully not, ‘planting.’ Why did they STRONGLY insist on having nobody watching them, everybody out?”

The answer is, that’s how search warrants are executed. The answer is, Trump’s lawyer on the premises signed papers acknowledging the items seized. The answer is, the whole thing could have been avoided if Donald Trump had complied with a subpoena for these materials last Spring. But he didn’t.

From where I sit, there is no choice but to prosecute Donald Trump for any crimes he might have committed. Not to would debase the definition of justice. But if violence-prone Americans think Trump has been “set up,” that the FBI “planted” the documents it seized, that the Biden administration has “declared war” on them, then justice will have consequences beyond the ones that seem promising. That’s the perilous part.

If You’re Innocent, Why Are You Taking The Fifth Amendment?

It used to be that taking the Fifth, which protects citizens from incriminating themselves during sworn testimony, seemed incriminating in and of itself. Even Donald Trump used to think so. “You see the mob takes the Fifth,” he famously said during his 2016 campaign for President, while talking about some of Hillary Clinton’s staffers who took the Fifth when questioned by Congress about the 2012 terrorist attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya. “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”

Good question, Mr. Trump.

But that was then, this is now.

Having relied on the Fifth for his refusal today to answer questions during a deposition in New York, where the state’s attorney general is investigating the former president for corrupt business practices, he turned to the vindictive brew that is the Trump trademark. “When your family, your company, and all the people in your orbit have become the targets of an unfounded, politically motivated Witch Hunt supported by lawyers, prosecutors, and the Fake News Media, you have no choice.”

Just for good measure, he also has accused Letitia James, the attorney general, who is Black, of being a “racist.”

Maybe Trump takes his cues from his cronies, so many of whom have refused to answer questions under oath in courtrooms and in Congress. His former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn took the Fifth. His former campaign manager Paul Manafort took the Fifth. His former political strategist Roger Stone took the Fifth. His former senior counselor Steve Bannon took the Fifth. His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen took the Fifth. His former CFO at The Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, took the Fifth. His own son Eric Trump took the Fifth. For that matter, Donald Trump himself took the Fifth once before, to avoid answering questions about adultery during his divorce from his first wife Ivana.

All of which underscore that excellent question Trump asked back in 2016: “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”

Of course hypocrisy isn’t an exclusive trait of Donald Trump, or of the party he has molded in his image. Nor is dishonesty. Democrats have shown more than their share of both, too. But this week, between the deposition in New York and the FBI’s probe of his home in Florida, Team Trump is taking them to new levels.

They call the search at Mar-a-Lago a “raid.” It wasn’t a raid. The FBI had to secure a search warrant, and to do that, they had to convince a federal judge that there was probable cause that a crime had been committed. What’s more, after verifying the warrant, the Secret Service let them in.

Trump’s attack dogs know that. But it didn’t keep them from chewing through their muzzles.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who once said “I’ve had it with this guy” but since then has gone all in for Trump, tweeted that Attorney General Merrick Garland, to whom the FBI reports, had better “preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” because if the Republicans win the midterm elections in November, they’ll be coming after him.

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley— the man who fist-pumped the insurrectionists on January 6th— called for Garland to be impeached.

Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon queen who in the past has denounced liberals who proposed to defund the police, tweeted, “DEFUND THE FBI.”

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis said that what took place at Mar-a-Lago is “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.”

Florida Senator Rick Scott, not to be out-hyperbolized, compared the FBI’s search to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany.

On one of Ohio Representative Jim Jordan’s Twitter accounts, this fear-mongering comment: “If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you.”

From Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed election denier who just won her primary for Governor of Arizona, “This is one of the darkest days in American history: the day our Government, originally created by the People, turned against us. This illegitimate, corrupt Regime hates America.”

And those aren’t even the scariest. As a CNN Twitter analysis reported, “There was a surge in tweets Monday mentioning ‘civil war’ — at some points more than one tweet a second.” On a Trump fan forum, one user wrote, “Lock and load.” Another said, “Kill all feds.” Yet another wrote that Attorney General Garland “needs to be assassinated.” A fourth posted a picture of the judge who approved the FBI’s search warrant and said, “I see a rope around his neck.”

And of course the former president himself had a few words to say about the FBI’s visit to Mar-a-Lago: “We are no better than a third world country, a banana republic.”

The only things we haven’t heard from almost any of these pliant politicians— including Trump— are castigation of these online threats, and condemnation of the insurrectionists he incited last year to overthrow our government.

No, we haven’t heard any of that. A search warrant and seizure of materials at Mar-a-Lago in connection with an alleged federal crime is going to destroy the Republic. But death threats, and the January 6th insurrection? Since the smoke cleared on that dangerous day, Republican politicians have called it “a false flag operation,” “a peaceful protest,” even “a normal tourist visit.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference just last week in Dallas, Georgia’s Representative Greene prayed for the welfare of the insurrectionists.

It’s a safe bet that sometime soon, Trump will take the Fifth again. Expect it if he’s indicted for the crime of allegedly violating the Presidential Records Act and taking sensitive documents, which belong to the federal government, to his private home at Mar-a-Lago. Expect it if he’s indicted for the crime of allegedly interfering with the 2020 election in Georgia. Expect it if he’s indicted for the crime of allegedly inciting the mob of insurrectionists, then negligently failing to try to disperse them, on January 6th, 2021.

We shouldn’t forget that it is his constitutional right to take the Fifth. But don’t forget this either: it is our right to read into it what we will.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Trump won’t take it again. After all, as the man himself once said, “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”

Good News from Kansas. But Maybe That’s As Far As It Goes.

Americans on the left had good news this week. It came from Kansas, which is a right-leaning, if not in some ways a right-wing state. Trump won there by nearly 15 percentage points in 2020. Both its senators and three of its four representatives in Congress are Republicans. Yet despite its conservatism, voters on Tuesday said no when asked to amend their constitution, which until now has protected a woman’s right to an abortion. In fact emphatically they said no, by almost a 60/40 margin. Had they gone the other way, they’d have opened the door for their lawmakers to impose ruthless restrictions on abortions, possibly even a total ban.

So I’m thrilled, but unlike many Democrats, I’m not excited. Yes, what happened in Kansas probably is a positive portent for abortion rights advocates in other states— California, Kentucky, Michigan, and Vermont are due to have similar referenda on their ballots in November— and it means one less state where a woman’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy can be taken away. But issues and candidates are two different things. A big turnout, a big blowout to support abortion rights might have little bearing on the prospects for candidates who support abortion. Which mainly means Democrats.

There’s a parallel with guns. In poll after poll, Americans want some kind of gun reform. But does that mean those same Americans will oust the politicians who fully support the NRA and its shamelessly inflexible positions? If history is any guide, the answer is no.

Passion for issues doesn’t always translate to passion for candidates. As Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told the Associated Press, “It’s much more complicated to run against a candidate than a single-issue ballot measure.”

And Kansas just proved it. On the same ballots voters used to protect the right to choose, they selected Trump-endorsed candidates for statewide offices. The winner of the Republican primary for attorney general, a guy named Kris Kobach, is an election-denier and what’s worse, he has been dubbed by the director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project as the “king of voter suppression.” The winner of the Republican primary for governor, Derek Schmidt, praised the Supreme Court when it killed Roe v. Wade. He got 100,000 more votes in his Tuesday primary than his November opponent, incumbent Democratic governor Laura Kelly, got in hers.

What’s more, as important as civil rights are in the minds of Americans, they rarely top the list of issues that drive people to the polls. Elections for seats in Congress and the statehouse are only three months away in all fifty states, and the problems that plague people in their everyday lives— crime, inflation, the economy— aren’t going away, even though President Biden has made inroads against each. Abortion in November will be an issue, but it’s not on everyone’s minds day to day. For many voters and probably most, it won’t be their top concern on Election Day.

Then again, if the vote in Kansas for abortion rights is not a game-changer, it might be a game-shaper. In a Forbes story titled “New Research Says Abortion Motivates Voters, Suggesting Kansas Election May Foreshadow Midterm Results,” the president of Kaiser Family Foundation says, “Lower-turnout midterm elections can be a game of inches.” So if the abortion issue motivates some abortion rights advocates not to sit this one out, it can help.

But there also is this caveat: it might just as likely motivate anti-abortion activists to turn out to protect the gains the Supreme Court gave them.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the morning after the Kansas rout, the political winds are “blowing at Democrats.” To be sure, with public sentiment about abortion on their side— two-thirds of Americans have told pollsters they opposed the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade— Democratic candidates will remind voters that they are the ones, including President Biden, who are fighting to combat the draconian decision to kill it.

But November’s midterm elections will be about a lot more than Roe. And while Americans support abortion rights, that doesn’t mean they support everything else the Democrats stand for. As a Republican consultant said on CNN, “The midterms are not going to happen in a vacuum.”

I can only hope that between the economy and climate change and healthcare and the muscle the U.S. is showing overseas, the Democrats can stay on the roll they’re on now. And that defending abortion rights will push voter turnout. And that the ever-spreading cloud over Donald Trump and those who enable him will continue to darken the prospects of copycat candidates. And that my pessimism is ill-conceived.

Taiwan Is Like Ukraine: We Defend It Or We Desert It.

So Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stopped in Taiwan, whose autonomy the U.S. supports. And China, which believes it owns Taiwan, is irate.

China’s U.N. ambassador says his nation will not “sit idly by.” Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Pelosi’s stop “has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.” The Chinese Communist Party warns that any move toward Taiwan’s independence “will be shattered by the powerful force of the Chinese people.”

The first sign of that force: the announcement by China’s People’s Liberation Army, just hours after Pelosi’s plane touched down, of “live-fire” drills Thursday through Sunday in waters all around Taiwan, some of which Taiwan claims as its own territory. China’s notice said, “The People’s Liberation Army’s struggle with Taiwan is going to intensify in frequency and it will escalate the scale of force to tackle the U.S. government’s provocations.”

The tone for all this incendiary rhetoric and conduct started with China’s President Xi when he spoke last week with President Biden, warning that if Speaker Pelosi were to make this stop, it would mean the United States is “playing with fire.”

I see it differently. I think it means the United States is fighting fire with fire. As it must. This isn’t just about the defending the sovereignty of an island. It’s about defending the sovereignty of a democracy. And, as with Russia and Ukraine, it’s about defying the lawlessness of an autocracy.

Of course, like most geopolitical calculations, it’s all a crap shoot. One school of thought says, China is a superpower now, China is proud, Xi rose to prominence on his determination to take back Taiwan, now he is angling for re-election by the Chinese Communist Party to a third term as president. Once he threatens force to absorb Taiwan, he cannot back down because he cannot lose face. “Face” is an historic concept in China. When you lose face, you lose dignity, you lose respect, you lose power.

This leads to the conclusion that in a game of chicken over Taiwan, the U.S. should pull away first, lest it provoke China into what could become a catastrophic conflict between the two superpowers.

The other school of thought says, the United States has to defy China and support Taiwan’s autonomy, Taiwan’s democracy, and that Pelosi’s trip is proof of our will to do that. Otherwise, we send a signal that we won’t act if China attacks Taiwan, and that we will let China dictate our policy and determine our alliances. What’s more, the United States has economic, political, and military interests in what China now sees as its own sphere of influence— particularly the shipping lanes of the South China Sea— and if we back down on the issue of Taiwan, we lose influence on everything else that matters.

Which leads to the conclusion that our reaction to this clash over Taiwan must be on a par with our reaction to the war in Ukraine. China wants to absorb a sovereign country, just as Russia is in the process of doing in Ukraine. We must stand with China’s prey, as we already stand with Russia’s. If we back off, other democracies might lose any faith they have that we will defend them if they need it. If we are weak, there might be no end to how far either aggressor will go to expand its own power on the planet. At our expense, and our allies’.

Of course after Presidents Xi and Putin declared last February in Beijing that their friendship has “no limits,” it is no surprise that Russia sides with China. The Kremlin’s spokesman said today that Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan “provokes the situation, leads to more tensions.” Given Russia’s patently provocative war on Ukraine, this is the quintessence of the pot calling the kettle black.

What’s more, Xi’s own saber-rattling rhetoric might not really be about Speaker Pelosi. Her visit might only be a scapegoat for his ambitions for a single China. He already made a major move in that direction with his incorporation of long-democratic Hong Kong into the autocracy of the People’s Republic of China, but it will not be complete as long as there’s a democratic Taiwan. Pelosi’s stop on the island doesn’t change a thing in terms of U.S. policy. The last equally high-ranking American leader to go there to show his support was Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House, 25 years ago.

However, there is this one difference. 25 years ago, sabers were about all that China had to rattle. Today, it can back up its threats, which raises the specter of a miscalculation, or even a simple mistake. It was reported on China’s state-run media that as Pelosi’s plane approached Taiwan, Chinese fighter jets crossed the disputed demarcation line between the Taiwan and China. Then only hours later, the bulletin about “live-fire” drills.

A common trait of virtually every geopolitical calculation is that it can end up as a miscalculation— by China, by Russia, by the United States— with costly consequences for every side. If you are a superpower, that goes with the territory. From where I sit, our calculations should come down how President Biden has framed America’s foreign policy: democracies versus autocracies. They should come down to which costs are greater: defending democracies or capitulating to autocracies.

Put that way, staying strong for Taiwan— as with staying strong for Ukraine— are the risks we must take. I think for our values, for our security, there is no choice.

What Is Democracy? Why Does It Matter?


Nowadays we talk about it a lot. Is it under attack at home? Is it worth advocating overseas?

The thing is, you really can’t answer those questions until you define democracy, and what you have to understand about that is, not everyone treasures it the way most of us do or even defines it the same way. Certainly not in other parts of the world and when you look at the insurrection of January 6th, not even in the U.S.A.

But if we have to know what democracy means before we know what it’s worth, we need to recognize that it derives from two words in Greek: “demos,” which means people, and “kratos,” which means power.

Demos kratos. Democracy.

That makes Abraham Lincoln’s definition of a democratic form of government, delivered on the hallowed ground at Gettysburg, as good as any: “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”

And his practical definition may be the best: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. Whatever differs from this… is no democracy.”

And yet that only applies to a democracy as we have long defined it: a system that permits the majority of citizens to elect representatives to do our bidding (which is what also makes us a republic), but protects the rights of the minority whose preferences have been repudiated.

Not everyone sees it the same way though, which is part of the reason why democracies rise and fall.

When the Soviet Union crumbled, democratic freedoms blossomed in the Russia that replaced it. I spent time there in those days and having long yearned for liberties they’d never had, suddenly people were free to speak their minds, the press was free to report alternative views, political parties were free to flourish. But once Vladimir Putin took charge, the flower died, petal by petal. He still claims his country has democratic elections, but they’re hardly democratic when the only parties permitted to field candidates for parliament are parties he has approved.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny not only was disapproved from politics, he was imprisoned.

Russia’s former World Chess champion Garry Kasparov knows this firsthand from when he retired from the game and became a political activist, declaring his intent in 2008 to run against Putin for president. He wrote about it in The New York Times: “I know what it means to have my opinion censored while every major media outlet is dedicated to vilifying me and my colleagues. While I traveled across the country to campaign, we would find venues suddenly closed for repairs, our flights canceled, our meetings shut down by the police. Nor did I quite manage to stay out of jail, spending five days in a Moscow cell for participating in an ‘unauthorized rally’.”

Kasparov concluded his op-ed this way: “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do. In system like that, by the time the voting begins, the game is already over.”

With all the maneuvering in the U.S. to control elections, America beware.

But in Russia it is no surprise, not after what one of Putin’s advisors once told me, that democracy is designed “to undermine authority.” Evidently that, is how Putin defines democracy.

Not that all the citizens object. When the Soviet state dissolved and democracy was introduced, the thin safety net that had protected people, albeit minimally, dissolved with it. Which meant unemployment grew, corruption grew, crime grew, homelessness grew. As an opposition politician (whose party Putin long ago decertified) told me in Moscow, “In most people’s minds, that became the definition of democracy.”

It might help explain why democracy in Russia is over and done.

As it is, after a short run, in Tunisia. When popular revolutions swept across the Middle East eleven years ago in what was known as the Arab Spring, democracy took root in several nations but eventually, like falling dominoes, it yielded again to dictators. Eventually Tunisia was the only democracy to survive. But sadly, I say was. In an election earlier this week, Tunisia’s president Kais Saied won voters’ approval of a new constitution granting him what amounts to one-man rule, the power to appoint his people to virtually every branch of government. He points with pride to the mandate: allegedly almost 95% of voters voted yes. But here’s the catch: most political parties boycotted the election and turnout was less than 30%. So 95% of less than 30% determined the future of Tunisia.

Democracy in the Middle East is over and done too.

Some democracies are hybrids. For example there are electoral democracies, where candidates and parties are not hand-picked by the leadership, but they’re not social democracies, which the Carter Center defines as, “An inclusive democratic society that respects human rights and laws, administers justice fairly, and encourages full citizen participation in government.” Iraq, as a case in point, has had reasonably fair elections and has come a long way from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, but is still in effect a winner-take-all democracy.

And some are the other way around. The comparatively tolerant and inestimably affluent Emirate of Dubai, which is ruled strictly by monarchs, is (in relative terms anyway) a social democracy but not an electoral democracy. I’ve openly consumed alcohol there, and seen women with all but their faces covered walking arm-in-arm with women dressed like Las Vegas hookers. One mid-ranking royal took a break from the camel races one day there to explain it to me this way: Income has priority over Islam, dollars have priority over democracy. If you go along, you get along.

In some countries democracy spreads almost by accident. China and Vietnam are good examples. Once they introduced capitalism, if only in their economic self-interest, they introduced democracy, because decisions are made by private citizens who are growing their businesses, not just by their governments. But that’s as far as it goes. Chinese president Xi Jinping told a People’s Congress conference last October, “Democracy, a shared value of humanity, is a key tenet unswervingly upheld by the CPC (the Communist Party of China) and the Chinese people.” He said it with a straight face. Yet in elections for local “People’s Congresses,” which are the only elections in China where citizens can vote for candidates, there is still intimidation when contenders run and intimidation when they serve. As with those who now oversee Hong Kong, which long enjoyed almost total independence, they have to toe the line, or Beijing will replace them with someone who will.

And democratic choices don’t always equate with democratic ideology. After corruption in the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, led to food shortages in the already impoverished Gaza Strip, the terror group Hamas moved in and got people fed, so that when elections were held, Hamas was triumphant. I know from my own reporting there that many who voted for Hamas did not support its ideology, but when it comes to a choice between an unwelcome ideology and a welcome plate of food on the table, there is no contest.

You can almost tell which societies have some form of democracy, and which don’t. If every eligible citizen is entitled to cast a vote and determine the outcome of an election, then for better or worse, there is democracy. If interest groups are allowed to lobby their government for the causes they hold dear, then for better or worse, there is democracy. If there is independence for everything from PTAs to Chambers of Commerce to Boy Scout troops, then for better or worse, there is democracy. If the internet is free and open for a full spectrum of views, then for better or worse, there is democracy.

There will be corruption, there will be dissent. But if corruption is not ignored and dissent is not stifled, there is democracy.

If there are no free elections, no independent interest groups, no self-governing organizations, no unrestricted internet… and no freedom of speech, no freedom of press, no freedom of religion, no freedom of assembly… and corruption is ignored and dissent is stifled… there is not.

Yet it’s not as simple as that. For as outspoken Colorado abortion rights doctor Warren Hern once told the Justice Department about violence committed against him and his colleagues, “The classic problem of democracy is that it grants great liberty to those who hate freedom.”

So it grants liberty to legislators like Representative Lauren Boebert from Hern’s own state, who told a religious assembly last weekend that she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk. The church,” she avowed, “is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.”

It grants liberty to Senator Josh Hawley, who encouraged the January 6th mob with a fist pump as they prepared to ransack the Capitol and murder the politicians they abhorred.

They and their ilk favor less democracy, not more. Just like the state legislators across the land who have manipulated election laws to make it harder, not easier, to vote. Just like the insurrectionists on January 6th, and the officials in the White House and Congress who egged them on. Just like the plotters who created lists of admittedly “fake” electors to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. That’s less democracy, not more.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used to say that America was democracy’s beacon and its crusader. It has always been our moral conviction. To a degree that is still true. Although bad actors are chipping away at the Constitution, they haven’t disfigured it. But we must not lose sight of what democracy means, and what it means to us, or they might.

I never tire of quoting Winston Churchill, who famously said (and graciously offered in the wake of his removal as Prime Minister mere months after winning World War Two), “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Which is why we must continue to champion it overseas to those who will listen, and defend it here at home against those who would exploit it— at our expense— to their own ends.

It’s Depressing. And I Don’t See Much Way Out.

Maybe there’s hope.

The picture that’s been painted of Donald Trump by the January 6th Committee evidently has been too much for even some of his most ardent advocates to bear. Two publications that have long backed him— both owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News— at long last have just declared that they’ve had enough. In a piece titled “The President Who Stood Still on Jan. 6,” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Character is revealed in a crisis, and Mr. Pence passed his Jan. 6 trial. Mr. Trump utterly failed his.” The New York Post this weekend was even more scathing, calling Trump “unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.”

If they can finally see it, maybe more everyday Americans will too. But there’s also still despair.

Between the divide on guns, the pain of inflation, the rightwing Supreme Court, and the millions of Americans who still swallow Donald Trump’s shameless lies, we’re not out of the woods. Not even close. I hate to say it but it’s depressing to be an American. And even more depressing to be a Democrat.

First, because for all his failings, President Biden does not deserve the low approval ratings he has right now, which threaten to bring down the whole party in November’s mid-term elections and give control over our lives to right-wing extremists. Even some Democrats are publicly besmirching Biden, which as columnist Frank Bruni points out, can be “to some degree self-defeating.”

Second, because so many Republicans— in some states, the majority of Republicans— are voting for zealots who, in the mold of Donald Trump himself, are doing all they can to undermine our democracy. It’s the better part of two years now since he lost the presidency by seven million votes, yet they still are regurgitating Trump’s egocentric, unabashed, and absolutely unproven lie that Democrats stole the election because, if they hadn’t, they surely wouldn’t have beaten Trump. And, they’re downplaying the insurrection of January 6th as “political protest.”

— What we are up against —

Third, because in almost every state controlled by Republicans, new laws make it harder, not easier, for typical Democratic constituencies to vote, laws that reduce the times and places to submit a ballot, laws that put election oversight under the control of partisan legislators which, according to a report released last month titled A Democracy Crisis in the Making, “would increase the risk of election subversion.” Once election outcomes are in the hands of a single party, there is nothing to keep them from tilting to the extremes.

And fourth, because going back a full fifty years to the first presidential races I covered, with only a few exceptions, Republicans have had few scruples about fighting fair. Remember how they falsely claimed Michael Dukakis had freed a killer from prison? How they stamped Vietnam vet John Kerry as a traitor? How they painted Barack Obama as a Muslim? They’ve always played hardball. Democrats haven’t, at least not as well. To their detriment, they still don’t.

It’s depressing, because short of a record turnout for Democratic candidates come November, I don’t see how to turn any of it around. Yes, Democrats are fired up about guns and abortion and civil rights and all the rest, but Republicans are fired up about their passions too.

In the case of the president’s low approval ratings, they began to tank with the pullout from Afghanistan. It was chaotic and, for thirteen members of the military targeted by a suicide bomber, fatal. But Biden gets little credit for taking on the nasty mess he inherited: an unappeasable Taliban enemy fighting on its own soil, a corrupt Afghan government which never fully armed the army we paid for, and an unworkable withdrawal on an unrealistic timeline irredeemably negotiated by his predecessor. Yet at the end of the day, almost 125,000 American and Afghan refugees successfully escaped, thanks to the evacuation this president orchestrated.

He gets little credit either for successfully battling the headwinds he inherited from the country’s battered economy, from its eroding infrastructure, and from the pandemic. After a record post-Depression high of almost 14.7% unemployment in the last year of Donald Trump’s presidential term, it’s now down to 3.6%. Employers are adding jobs again. Our economy right now is growing faster than China’s. Biden worked both sides of the aisle to win passage of the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” to modernize everything from roads and bridges, to drinking water and wastewater, to broadband and public transit. Then he won support the same way for victims of the pandemic economy. And he built upon the foundation of Trump’s vaccination program and made tests and vaccines available to every American.

President Biden also is getting pilloried for inflation, even though no president could have avoided it, because it’s largely a consequence of factors beyond his control: supply chain shortages brought on by the pandemic (which Biden has been mitigating), and the inescapable shockwaves of the war in Ukraine, brought on by Russia (which he has been tempering). Americans gripe about a nationwide average of more than $4 for a gallon of gas, and they hold it against the president. What they don’t seem to appreciate is, even at $4-plus, it’s still a bargain. In Europe, people have been paying $6 and more.

In the case of election laws, A Democracy Crisis in the Making identified 229 bills, almost all Republican bills “that would allow state legislatures to politicize, criminalize, or interfere with elections.” They are, as the report put it, “solutions in search of a problem.” And yet the Republicans pushing them are unrepentant. Basically, they don’t contest the integrity of races they win, they only seek to overturn the ones they lose.

Which brings us to the Americans who have bought into the copycats and wannabes and zealots who sometimes seem to almost out-Trump Trump.

These candidates aren’t winning every race, but they’re winning some. The other day I quoted Liz Cheney and it bears repeating: “The forces that want to drag us over the edge are strong and fighting.” Politicians who spout “Stop the Steal” are getting their party’s nominations. Case in point: QAnon queen Marjorie Taylor Greene has been renominated to the House from Georgia. A politician of principle like Cheney, by all accounts, is going to lose hers.

And finally, the Republican game of hardball. They’ve gotten so good at it that after I denounced the dark designs of Trump’s disciples in a column last month, a guy I know wrote to me, “I am not a fan of any of the politicians that you have pictured and found fault with. However, you left out the biggest of the scum balls. Hunter Biden is probably the worst of them all.”

Really??? We have citizens who attack our democracy, we have politicians who overtly join forces with racists and anti-Semites, but even if he’s as corrupt as they charge, Hunter Biden is the worst scum ball? Thanks to right-wing media, this is Republican hardball at work.

And of course there is the unified Republican refrain that Joe Biden isn’t running on all his cylinders. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman did his best to rebut it: “For all you knuckleheads on Fox who say that Biden can’t put two sentences together, here’s a news flash: He just put NATO together, Europe together and the whole Western alliance together— stretching from Canada up to Finland and all the way to Japan— to help Ukraine protect its fledgling democracy from Vladimir Putin’s fascist assault.” And, as Friedman points out, “not a single American soldier was lost.”

Biden isn’t one of our most articulate presidents, but he is one of the most productive. He hasn’t solved our nation’s problems, but he has taken action. Yet by changing the narrative, the Republican game of hardball inevitably will claim some wins in November.

Then, there will be less chance than ever of protecting a woman’s right to choose. And a greater chance of losing laws that safeguard interracial and same-sex marriage, a greater chance of laws prohibiting contraceptives, a greater chance of more banned books.

And there will be less chance than ever of gun reform, which means more slaughters like we’ve already seen this year in Buffalo, Uvalde, Highland Park. After the massacre at the elementary school in his own state, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, after professing that “We’re all completely sickened and heartbroken,” had the audacity to add, “Inevitably when there’s a murderer of this kind, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens.”

No, Senator, what we’re trying to restrict are mass murders.

Yes, Trump looks pathetic and his acolytes might suffer guilt by association, so maybe there’s hope. But by manipulating elections and misrepresenting Joe Biden, Republicans still might win big in November. If they do, there will be less chance that in our lifetimes, we will recover what we’ve lost. That’s why it’s depressing to be a Democrat. And in some ways, an American..

What Donald Trump Did and Didn’t Do.

The nine hearings about the insurrection so far have been explosive. A president out of control. A White House at war with democracy.

Last night was the exclamation mark. As CBS News’s chief political analyst John Dickerson pointed out, when Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination to be president— which I’ve just noticed was exactly six years ago, yesterday— he insisted that “I alone can fix it.” But while nothing needed fixing more than the un-American attack on the Capitol on January 6th, Trump fixed nothing. To the contrary, he summoned the mob, he commanded the mob, he praised the mob as patriots. What he didn’t do for more than three hours was tell them to go home. What he didn’t do was tell them they were wrong. All he did was ignore the appeals from his closest advisors to subdue his supporters. All he did was phone his henchmen on The Hill to urge them to keep fighting to overturn his loss.

All the while, the United States Capitol was stormed, police were ferociously attacked, people were dying.

This didn’t come from Trump’s political enemies. It came from tapes and tweets, transcripts and testimony from Republicans who had been loyal allies.

But at the end of the day, I ask with a pang of despair, will it make a difference? Which Americans were even watching or reading about all this? How much has really changed?

The answer is, not much at all, according to a just-released NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. It says, fewer than half of all Republicans in the country even paid attention to the hearings. Going into last night’s session, 40% of them described the insurrection as no more than “an unfortunate event, but one in the past, so no need to worry about it anymore.”

I’d say there’s still plenty to worry about, with the defeated former president still pouring gasoline on the fire, and with a fair share of candidates who toe the Trump line beating comparatively moderate opponents across the country and winning their party’s nominations for statewide office. The most recent was this week in Maryland. An unrepentant election denier named Dan Cox— who chartered buses to take people to Trump’s inflammatory rally in Washington and then tweeted during the attack on the Capitol that “Pence is a traitor”— is now his party’s choice for governor.

We’ve seen the same kinds of candidates pull out statewide victories in races from Pennsylvania to Nevada, Ohio to Georgia. It’s no surprise, then, that the poll also shows that January 6th Committee vice-chair Liz Cheney, one of the few rare Republicans showing any backbone, is favorably viewed by just 13% of her party. She’s on the right side of history, but odds are that in next month’s primary in Wyoming, it’s going to cost her her job.

Another 40% of Republicans in the poll called the attempted coup a “political protest.” I’ve covered political protests and I’ve covered coups. There’s a difference. When law enforcement is violently attacked, and people die— as five did as a result of what happened on January 6th— it hardly qualifies as “political protest.”

The final statistic is the most startling: just 12% of Republicans consider the insurrection a threat to democracy. Six months ago the figure was 10%. The hearings have barely moved the needle. This means, at best, that they just haven’t cared enough to follow the hearings and hear firsthand what Donald Trump did to undermine our republic. At worst it means that despite no evidence that Trump actually won the presidential election and irrefutable evidence that he inspired the insurgency and didn’t lift a presidential finger to stop it, they have thrown in their lot with an immoral, dishonest, undemocratic man.

And none have taken a deeper dive than Trump’s enablers in politics, at virtually every level of government. They haven’t just buried their heads in the sand. They have buried their principles. They have buried their devotion to democracy. Trump’s allies in Congress have made it clear that they think it’s far more important to investigate Hunter Biden’s ethics and his taxes and his contentious purchase of a firearm than to investigate an attempt to overthrow the government. They’ve already announced that if they retake control of Congress, hearings on Hunter Biden will be a priority, as if the president’s son were president himself. The January 6th Committee will be history.

At the first primetime hearing, Congresswoman Cheney took aim at her fellow Republicans. She was blunt and accurate: “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone but your dishonor will remain.” But with each passing day, it’s harder to believe that they care. It’s almost 90 weeks since Trump came in more than seven million votes behind Joe Biden, yet Trump is still pushing his treacherous lie that the election was stolen. After phoning the Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly just last week, urging him to overturn the 2020 results there, he’s still trying to corrupt public officials to spin his fabricated fantasy.

Yet more elected Republicans censure the hearings than censure Trump.

His deceit is not enough to convince everyone to condemn his contempt for the Constitution, but it’s enough to lead to those woeful findings in that NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. It’s enough to compel a 26-year-old Trump Republican in Texas to tell CNN, “Anyone with logic and reasoning could tell you something fishy happened, something illegitimate happened.” Trump’s lie has been refuted by honest Republican legislators and judges across the country. But it’s being incessantly regurgitated by his acolytes. Evidently logic and reasoning eclipse evidence and proof.

The other Republican sitting beside Liz Cheney on the January 6th Committee, Adam Kinzinger, ended his comments last night with an ominous warning: “The forces that Donald Trump ignited that day have not gone away.” And I’ll quote Cheney again, who in an interview this week pessimistically defined the perils we still face. “As a country, we’re at a moment where we really do have to step back from the abyss and it’s not totally clear to me that we’re going to. The forces that want to drag us over the edge are strong and fighting.”

In their shameless self-interest, those forces still are ignoring the facts of what happened on January 6th, and what Donald Trump did and didn’t do. He did encourage it. He didn’t fix it.

The Battered City By The Bay.

Maybe this photo is a microcosm, a metaphor for what has happened to my hometown, the unique and incomparable city of San Francisco.

It’s just a lousy parking space, but that’s the point. It’s a downright lousy parking space, in a public underground parking garage in what used to be the best part of The City— those capital letters being the signature of San Francisco, coined by a long-gone newspaper columnist whose love for The City was strong enough to capitalize each word. The scuff marks aren’t mine by the way (that’s my story and I’m sticking with it), but during a family visit to San Francisco on Friday, when I backed into this space in my compact-size rental car, I was just an inch from disaster on one side, only a foot on the other.

It is a typical space in the overcrowded, undersized, overpriced parking garage under a square block called Union Square (twenty bucks for the four hours I was there). Once, a premium price made sense. Union Square is at the foot of luxurious Nob Hill and always has been the center of San Francisco’s high-end retail universe. The best galleries, the best stores, some of the best hotels have been on Union Square or close to it. When I was growing up, it was Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or New York’s Fifth Avenue or L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard, but with respect to those other cities, classier. It is only a couple of blocks from the spine of what is still called, somewhat surprisingly in this day and age, Chinatown, immortalized by the song “Grant Avenue, San Francisco” in the Broadway play Flower Drum Song. It is flanked by Powell Street, the most popular line in The City of hill-climbing cable-clutching cable cars.

But getting into that parking space, in that best part of San Francisco, I was an inch from disaster. And that’s my metaphor for The City itself. An inch from disaster with homelessness, with drug abuse, with crime, with political correctness, with dysfunction. And because of incomes swollen by fortunes from High Tech, an inch from disaster with wealth gaps wider than any city in America. They have forced middle class denizens out of homes they no longer can afford to inhabit, and with the domino effect that follows, raised rents for modest apartments to thousands of dollars a month. According to commentator Nellie Bowles, who wrote “How San Francisco Became A Failed City” in The Atlantic, a $117,400 salary for a family of four counts as low income.

That dank, dark garage under Union Square has seen its better days. Many now argue, between the economic cost and the social price people pay to live in The City, so has San Francisco.

It makes me sad because I was born in San Francisco, I did kindergarten through high school there, even went to college just across the bay in Berkeley, which is close enough that I could take my dirty laundry home on the weekends for my mother to lovingly wash and fold. (She too is long gone, or I wouldn’t be able to get away with the “lovingly” part.) Anyway, I don’t root for San Francisco’s teams any more— I’ve got my own in Colorado— and beyond family who still live there, I don’t have much stake in the success of The City. But through all the years when I worked for ABC News and New York City was my mother ship, I could only laugh at the insular attitude of New Yorkers, whose sense of superiority was epitomized in this New Yorker magazine cover from 1976 by the artist Saul Steinberg. Although a prettier, friendlier, easier city than New York, San Francisco was no more than an imperceptible pimple on the far side of the continent.

We who had ever loved it knew better. I was forever proud of my roots. Now, not so much.

Because it wasn’t just my parking place that pained me. It was what I saw in another, right around the corner.

This poor soul must have felt that it was safer on the cold concrete of the Union Square garage than any space he’d find on the street. When you look at encampments in every corner of The City, you might say he made a wise choice. San Francisco has no monopoly on homelessness, but statistics show that it now has the distinction of having, per capita, as many homeless as New York City.

When it comes to crime, the comparison’s not even that good. According to the demographic data base of Sperling’s Best Places, San Francisco’s violent crime rate is almost half again higher than New York’s, and for violent crimes, twice as high. Seven years ago, there were fewer than a hundred drug deaths in The City. Two years ago, there were 700.

San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in America, if not the most liberal. So to the degree that The City’s governing leaders let things slide too far— too tolerant of all the conditions that have degraded The City— it was inevitable that eventually even its most liberal inhabitants would become intolerant.

And they did. The District Attorney, demonstrably soft on crime, got himself recalled. Three members of the school board, demonstrably devoted to political correctness, got themselves voted out.

The school board became an interesting if ultra-sensitive issue in The City. At one point in 2020, it created a spreadsheet showing every school in the district, and elected to change the names of 44 of them. They wanted to give my high school a new name— the only public high school in San Francisco that admitted students based on tests, or to use a more snobbish word, merit— because it was named after a 19th-Century American poet named James Russell Lowell, who apparently got credit from the school board for being an abolitionist but lost points because “his commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years.”

For heaven’s sake they even wanted to take George Washington’s name off one public high school because, as we always have known, he owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln didn’t, but his name was slated for the dustbin because of his treatment of Native Americans. In other words, as the website Education Next put it, Lincoln and Washington were “insufficiently pure.” Forget the fact that in the larger context of American history, when you put their merits and demerits on a scale, these two men showed the best traits of a president and in each case, successfully held this nation together when others might have failed.

The school board recall reversed that whole fiasco about names but still, it represented the pinnacle of political correctness in San Francisco. The D.A.’s recall represented the pinnacle of progressive extremism.

In short, in the broad band of markers that make up a city, San Francisco is a mess.

You can’t take away the beauty of The City: the hills, the bridges, the bay…

… not to mention the best sourdough French bread this side of France. But the city Tony Bennett eulogized when he left his heart in San Francisco— “where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars”— has changed. Not for the better.

So has every city of course. None that I know of has found ways to successfully erase the scourge of drugs or crime or homelessness, at least not on a massive scale, which is what’s needed. But in San Francisco, whether by calculating statistics or by contrasting it to the city it once was, it all seems worse. This city of classic hills, where I once left my heart, has been going downhill. I can only hope it doesn’t reach rock bottom.

Biden Is Old, But Perfectly Competent.

A friend of mine— and this guy isn’t even glued to Fox News— told me a few days ago that having seen mental degradation in his own family for many years, he’s convinced that Joe Biden is “mentally incompetent.” He is convinced, in fact, that when Biden speaks out in public, he’s parroting words “he’s hearing in his earpiece.”

Can I guarantee that my friend is wrong? No. But I’ve covered, even traveled internationally with, five presidents— from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush (I only covered Clinton as a candidate)— and from what I saw of presidential performances over 35 years, I believe Biden is perfectly competent. He’s old, yes. But when it comes to his capabilities, and what he does in the course of a presidential day, arguably he’s more competent than a lot of us, no matter how much younger we may be.

And yet, because he’s 79, because he stumbles on words and sporadically speaks listlessly, because he’s sometimes slow and sometimes stiff, “stories” about Biden’s “mental degradation” abound. When rumors are recirculated often enough— I would even say regurgitated often enough— they take on a life of their own. They begin to be accepted as fact.

Conservative media had a field day, for example, with Biden’s bike mishap. The middle of last month, he was riding near his Delaware home, and when he came to a crowd waiting along his route, his foot got caught in a basket on the pedal as he started to dismount, and he fell.

So what?! I’ve taken my share of falls from bikes— the worst was when I was more like 49 than 79. And I didn’t have a hundred people with their eyes trained on me. Most men Biden’s age— probably most men ten years younger— couldn’t even get their leg over the horizontal bar of a bike, let alone ride it.

So yes, the man fell. It proved nothing about any “degradation.” If it did, then what can we infer from Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan each falling during their presidencies on the steps of Air Force One?

What people don’t always know, and therefore don’t always appreciate, is how hard it is— how exhausting it is— to be on public display from the moment each morning when you walk out the door. They don’t know how much energy Biden, or any president, has to conjure up when he’s in the public eye, always, as the center of attention.

Nor do they always understand or appreciate how hard a president works. What we can see, from a major policy address to commiserations with victims of mass shootings to awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a handshake with the Pig Farmer of the Year, is only a part of what a president does. He spends much more time being president behind the scenes, phoning legislators and strategizing with staff and reading policy papers and sitting through briefings. Not to mention those crisis calls in the middle of the night.

And Biden’s verbal gaffes? First, that’s hardly news. He was prone to stray from the script and garble his words when he was a young senator, let alone President of the United States. Second, as a child he had a speech defect and deserves credit, not condemnation, for how far he has come. And third, think about the odds of flubbing it if you had to speak publicly as much as a president does. Did Donald “Covfefe” Trump always get it right? George W. Bush? Even the eloquent Barack Obama? Hardly. Sometimes, quite simply, your mouth gets ahead of your mind. I spent eight years as a radio talk show host and was alternately amused or horrified when someone at the station played back my misshapen rhetoric. But spend four hours a day, five days a week behind a microphone, mistakes are bound to happen.

So it is for presidents. At any age.

Then there’s the travel.

As he did last month for a G-7 summit in Germany, President Biden flies off tonight to the Middle East. He’ll cross seven time zones, and almost immediately after stepping off the plane he’ll have to be alert enough to negotiate war and peace.

For decades as a network correspondent, I regularly flew across oceans and time zones, and wasn’t always alert enough when I reached my destination to negotiate a better hotel room. True, I could get off the plane, sometimes after two consecutive overnight flights, and go right to work. But you know what? I was in my 30s, my 40s, my 50s, at the very latest, my early 60s. What Biden does, for a 79-year-old man, is pretty remarkable, especially when you think about Americans who complain that they can’t fully function after we move our clocks forward or back by a single hour for Daylight Savings Time.

But still, despite all that, The New York Times released a poll just yesterday, asking Democrats who don’t want Biden to run for a second term, why? The plurality’s answer? Age.

You don’t have to cut Joe Biden any slack, but you should. It’s understandable that sometimes he looks a little tired, walks a little slowly, speaks a little unevenly. But he’s doing the job. Having come into the Oval Office on Day One with as many challenges as some presidents face in four years, I’d say he’s doing it pretty well, all things considered.

Yes, Joe Biden is old. At 79, there is no denying it. But out of it? Mentally incompetent? In my book, not even close.

Don’t Lose Focus On Ukraine. It Could Come Back To Haunt Us.

It was a dark joke after World War II that every Nazi captured by the Allied forces had an innocent explanation for his military service: “I was only driving an ambulance at the Russian front.”

Well now, with the war in Ukraine, Russia is turning that on its end. To hear Russia tell it, they’re the ones who’re doing nothing wrong. It’s Russia that’s saying, “I was only driving an ambulance at the Ukrainian front.”

That’s pretty much what you get in a 25-minute interview I just watched with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

He was questioned by the BBC’s Russia Editor, Steve Rosenberg, in Moscow.

For those 25 minutes, Lavrov restated the bromides time after time with a straight face.

— “We didn’t invade Ukraine, we declared a special military operation.”

— “We didn’t attack anyone. Russians were attacked in Ukraine.”

— “The Kyiv regime is shelling its own citizens.”

— “They’re bombing their own citizens.”

— Of Russian missiles and shells that destroyed a market, a maternity hospital, a train station, and so much more: “Fake news spread by the West.”

— Of the Ukrainian government, led by a president who lost Jewish family in the Holocaust: an “openly neo-Nazi regime.”

— Of the massacre in the city of Bucha, where a thousand civilian corpses were found, some with their hands bound behind their backs and shot at point-blank range: a “staged tragedy.”

It is chilling to hear. Because the man does a full Putin. Maybe he has simply drunk Putin’s Kool-Aid. Or maybe he is doing the only thing that a man in his position can do because, as I’ve seen in other authoritarian states, leaders don’t quietly retire to spend their remaining days relaxing behind a white picket fence. Either they stay at the peak of the pyramid, or they go into exile, or jail, or worse. And to stay on top, a lackey like Lavrov has to channel his boss, Putin.

Which means denying the death and destruction they’ve produced. And blaming it instead on their victims.

The leaders of a nation that has taken its invasion right out of Hitler’s playbook— murdering civilians, mutilating cities— call their quarry the Nazis.

But here’s the counterpoint. In a story this week by The Associated Press, a Ukrainian soldier tells of “torched forests and cities burned to the ground. Colleagues with severed limbs. Bombardments so relentless the only option is to lie in a trench, wait and pray.” Another describes his city, once home to a hundred thousand people, as “a burnt down desert.”

Yet in the ultimate epitome of hypocrisy, it’s Russia saying the Ukrainians are the Nazis.

Genocide and deception were part of Hitler’s playbook, and now they’re part of Putin’s. Not that he blanches at either. He claimed Thursday on government-run TV that the West is to blame for “encouraging and justifying genocide.”

What’s so sad is, as our focus is increasingly diverted by other issues— from mass shootings to inflation to insurrection hearings to the Supreme Court— Lavrov and Putin and the Russian state might be getting away with it.

That’s not to say that the resolve of Western leaders has flagged— they continue to do what they can to fortify Ukraine’s military— but the attention of Western citizens has ebbed and, as they focus on issues closer to their own homes, their leaders cannot safely ignore them.

Which could mean, eventually they ignore the ongoing appeals for help from Ukraine.

That would be a pity. The only thing that has changed since Putin pushed into Ukraine is that after the first few months of mishaps, Russia has figured out how to carve out what it wants. Its war has killed untold thousands, uprooted millions, destroyed countless buildings, and rained ruin on Ukraine’s economy. The director of U.S. intelligence told a conference last week that this war will likely become a stalemate, a “grinding struggle” as she put it, but to the sociopath who runs Russia’s war, evidently that’s of little concern. Putin made that clear yesterday when he said, the war can go on “until the last Ukrainian is left standing.” And if Ukraine fights on to expel Russia from its land? “Let them try.”

Yet the Ukrainians are still standing. President Zelensky repeated yesterday his position since the beginning: “Ukrainians are not ready to give away their land, to accept that these territories belong to Russia. This is our land.”

Or to take it down to the level of the soldiers in the trenches, one teacher-turned-warrior put it this way in that Associated Press story: “Who will defend my home and my family, if it is not me?”

Hopefully, the West will continue to help him and his countrymen save their families and defend their homes. Because as Zelensky told CNN, “It is on the battlefields in Ukraine that the future rules of this world are being decided.” Otherwise, the rules already are decided, and Russia wins.

No End In Sight For Slaughters Like Yesterday’s In Highland Park.

Although I live in Colorado, this could be— and after an internet search of newspapers around the nation, it is— this morning’s front page in just about every city and town in America. It is about what happened yesterday in Highland Park, Illinois, but it’s also about what can happen tomorrow in any other city and town in America.

As if that’s not shocking enough, The New York Times has a story today headlined, “The attack in Highland Park was not the only shooting over a violent holiday weekend.” In fact Highland Park was only one of two mass shootings in the Chicago area alone. “As of early Monday morning,” The Times reports, “at least 57 people had been shot in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, nine of them fatally.” That does not even include the six poor souls slaughtered at the parade in Highland Park.

But there’s more: there were shootings in Philadelphia; Minneapolis; Sacramento; Kansas City; Richmond, Virginia; Kenosha, Wisconsin. And still more in Mullins, South Carolina; Tacoma, Washington; Manassas, Virginia; Clinton, North Carolina; Haltom City, Texas; and New York City.

And it’s not just this holiday weekend. It’s this summer season… so far.

Of course if history is any guide, the gun lobby will point to Highland Park and say, “Illinois has some of the strictest gun regulations in the nation: safe storage requirements, red flag warnings, universal background checks. See where gun control got them? A mass shooting on Independence Day.”

What it then will say is, “If more citizens had been armed, this would have been prevented.” As if anyone was likely to identify the madman on the rooftop— and not get shot themselves— in the seconds it took him to mow his victims down.

Maybe more important, what it will conveniently fail to point out is, it does not have an assault weapons ban, which the NRA and all its enablers fight tooth and nail. The rifle the gunman fired from a rooftop caused what a doctor on the scene described as “wartime injuries.” He said victims were “blown up by that gunfire… blown up.”

Buffalo, Uvalde, now Highland Park. A nightclub in Orlando, a Walmart in El Paso, a theater in Aurora, a party in San Bernardino, a concert in Las Vegas. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine.

When will it end?

If the gun nuts have their way, never.

The Sun Won’t Set On The British Monarchy.

It seems only fitting on this Independence Day weekend— not to mention a welcome if brief relief from politics and pandemic and war— to think of the Queen. I mean Queen Elizabeth— formally known as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. The Queen from whose forebearers our forefathers tore away.

It’s fitting, because 1) she doesn’t tax us like they did, and 2) she’s a lot more forgiving than they were. Like, we get a new president, she’s the first to invite him for tea.

So I celebrated with the Queen’s subjects exactly a month ago when they commemorated her 70 years on the throne. It was her Platinum Jubilee. And quite a jubilee it was, a splendid spectacle of pomp and circumstance. For that alone, no one else on earth can match the British.

Not that they got it quite right. Elizabeth was formally coronated in June of 1952, 70 years ago, but she has sat on the throne since the day her father died that prior February. So arguably for the jubilee she was four months past. Maybe they opted for good weather over good math.

But still, they celebrated, and if public opinion polls are to be believed, “they” means most Brits. Queen Elizabeth has approval ratings at 90%, an apex any politician would covet. Especially her own politically teetering Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’s sitting right now at minus 15%, whatever “minus” means in a public opinion poll, but it can’t be good.

There is that other 10% of course, some of whom would abolish the monarchy tomorrow. Many are from the three countries in the United Kingdom that aren’t England— Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland— where many see subservience to England’s ritualistic royalty as a drain on their own ancient cultures. If you saw the television series The Crown, you might remember that until he reached adulthood, Charles, the Prince of Wales, didn’t even speak Welsh.

There are Brits who find their monarchy either crazy costly or appallingly anachronistic. Mind you, this is not just a new current of the 21st Century. I heard their voices, and those same arguments, when I lived in Britain more than 40 years ago.

The cost of the crown is up for debate. The latest calculations say that the government— translation, the taxpayers— supports the monarchy to the tune of $110-million per year.

Castles and palaces, let alone the more than 1,100 employees who serve the royals, not to mention salaries for what are known as the “working royals,” don’t come cheap— a payroll pared but only barely palliated by the withdrawal of the queen’s scandal-plagued son Prince Andrew and her fame-plagued grandson Prince Harry.

On the other hand, while it’s an imprecise calculation, the monarchy’s advocates argue that what the royals bring in from tourism pays the bills with money left over.

I’ve believed that’s true ever since being part of ABC’s live coverage of the nuptials of Charles and Diana on a sunny London day in the summer of 1981. For weeks before the wedding, tourists from around the world crowded the city just to get a whiff of the wonder to come, and to buy every form of trinket, from thimbles to trivets, sold in most every store.

On the wedding day itself, in a career where I’ve seen more than my share of colossal crowds, I’d never seen one as large as this, and haven’t since. The point is, tourists spend money. Millions enough, royalists maintain, to support the monarchy.

And the argument about the anachronism? No question, that’s what this monarchy is. But it’s also Britain’s rock, the continuity that connects Britain’s ancient history to the modern nation, the foundation that frames British life. We have our Constitution which is, although sometimes exasperating, our rock. But for the Brits, who have no formal constitution— basically governance derives from English common law and that’s whatever Britain’s Supreme Court says it is— the monarchy is their continuity, the Queen is their constitution.

I remember thinking about that when I was covering Watergate almost 50 years ago. Our government was in shambles but our Constitution was intact and thanks to that, so was our nation. In the U.S. and Britain both, governments come and go. The American constitution and the British monarchy outlast them all.

To be sure, Queen Elizabeth has fouled up a few times, most notably with her appearance of apathy toward the beloved Princess Diana, both before Diana died and after.

But while that frosty facade was a road bump in her reign, the Queen is back, about as popular as she’s ever been.

But she’s 96 now, and it only seems realistic to say that Charles is bound to replace her. Which might pose problems for the royals. Whether measured by those opinion polls or just intuition, Charles is barely half as popular as his mother is (although as an aside, I once was part of a small London luncheon with the prince, and he was both personable and articulate). But it takes tenure to grow in the hard-won esteem of the British people, and Elizabeth has had 70 years to nurture that growth. 73-year-old Charles— unless he lives to the age of at least 143— will not get anything close to that much time.

On the other hand, if Elizabeth dies and Charles succeeds her, you can bet that there won’t be riotous insurrectionists breaking into Buckingham Palace to forestall the transfer of the crown. Not because he will be so uncommonly admired but because, unlike the architects of political discord in America, he will not be widely abhorred.

And perhaps because, after all is said and done, the people of the United Kingdom appreciate the special place they still have in the world. They appreciate it because they know how their global influence has shrunk. The once redoubtable British Empire, which at its peak enveloped nearly a quarter of the world’s population and a quarter of its land on which they proudly proclaimed the sun never set, today is a tiny fragment of its former self where the sun sets every day of the year. That’s on those days, of course, when the sun shows up at all. But they know what their nation might look like if the monarchy went away. George Orwell in The Road To Wigan Pier summed it up: “The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes.”

Neither this monarch nor any monarch before her was perfect. In some cases, far, far from it. But there are certain sentiments that the monarchy bestows on its subjects that we don’t have. I wouldn’t want royalty for my country— our forefathers fought hard to get rid of it. But there are a few of its features— the pride, the pageantry, the noble parts of a sometimes troubled history— that I would gladly embrace.

I Believe Cassidy Hutchinson.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

If you believe in that as I do, then maybe Donald Trump is going down in flames. Ever since that dreadful day in 2015 when Trump said he was running for president, the smoke has been so thick, you could cut it with a knife. Now even a knife’s not enough.

That’s why, if there are a few challenges to the incriminating testimony against Donald Trump this week by former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who had a front-row seat on January 6th, they are lipstick on a pig.

She said Trump knew his supporters that day were armed but, confident that “they’re not here to hurt me,” he told them to “fight like hell” and encouraged them to march on the Capitol. No one has disputed that.

She said he had to know from planning sessions for the January 6th rally that violent groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers would be in the heart of the mob. No one has disputed that.

She said he wanted to join them, screaming at the Secret Service, “I’m the f***ing President, take me up to the Capitol now!” No one has disputed that he wanted to get there. To the contrary, the Secret Service has confirmed it.

She said he knew they were calling for his vice president to be hanged for refusing to violate the Constitution to keep Trump (and himself) in office but that Trump believed Pence “deserved” it. No one has disputed that.

She said he didn’t act for more than three hours to disperse the insurrectionists. When he did, he told them with a wink and a nod, “We love you.” No one has disputed that. We saw it.

A few have disputed the story about Trump’s wild behavior in his limousine but no one, save perhaps Trump himself, no one even in Trump’s orbit has said— especially under oath— that these other things, far more threatening to the future of our democracy, aren’t accurate.

They could have disputed them, of course. They’ve been invited to talk. But most won’t.

That’s why Trump’s complaint that the January 6th Committee hearings are one-sided is so hollow.

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy could have allowed his members who hadn’t acted to overturn the election to serve on the committee. He wouldn’t. Trump’s loyalists could have testified to the committee as Cassidy Hutchinson did. They haven’t. As Trump’s own former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney put it on CNN, “It’s hard to say that your side is not getting out there, your argument’s not getting out there, when your people won’t go and talk.”

But key aides have refused, some even have defied subpoenas. Like Mark Meadows, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro, Dan Scavino, Republican leader McCarthy and four others in Trump’s rabid corps of congressional apologists. Even Ivanka and Jared could come in, but they couldn’t.

Ginni Thomas— Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife who was proactively promoting the plan to overturn the election— Tuesday withdrew her offer to testify.

Trump’s first national security advisor Michael Flynn, who told a QAnon crowd a year ago that a coup like the one earlier that year in Myanmar “should happen here”— the verbal italics were his emphasis, not mine— he did appear before the committee, but he didn’t talk. Here’s how that went:

Co-chairperson Liz Cheney asked Flynn, “Do you believe the violence on January 6th was justified?” Flynn took the Fifth.

“Do you believe the violence on January 6th was justified morally?” The Fifth.

“Do you believe the violence on January 6th was justified legally?” The Fifth.

“General Flynn, do you believe in a peaceful transition of power in the United States of America?” Again, the Fifth.

Cheney wasn’t asking this guy if he had smuggled guns into the Capitol and plotted a coup d’etat. She was simply asking him how he felt about the attack. He couldn’t give a straight answer.

Cassidy Hutchinson, on the other hand, answered every question. And this woman, who New York Times columnist Bret Stephens describes as “a source from within the inner sanctum,” was credible. In fact unlike General Flynn, she not only answered questions, she answered them under oath, and under penalty of perjury. On top of that, as columnist Michelle Cottle has pointed out, she testified “knowing full well the abuse and threats that those who cross Donald Trump on even minor matters often suffer.”

The courage she showed is reinforced by reports that she and at least one other witness got intimidating calls before their appearances warning that Trump was paying attention to what they’d say.

The picture she painted is reinforced by reports that some of the key figures in the attempt to overturn the election— Trump’s chief of staff Meadows, his personal lawyer Giuliani, and at least six of his collaborators in Congress— asked for pardons even before being charged with crimes. Why would these people ask for pardons if they haven’t done anything wrong?

So whether or not our 45th president was so unhinged, when told by the Secret Service that he couldn’t personally join his gang at the Capitol, that he tried to grab the steering wheel of his armored limo and actually lunged at an agent in the front seat is almost immaterial.

The Secret Service says the agents in the car would testify that Hutchinson’s story isn’t completely true. But still— and I might regret saying this but I don’t think I will— still I believe her. First, because I don’t think someone astute enough to be a senior aide to the White House chief of staff would be stupid enough to concoct a tale like that, and even name others who were in the limo and told her the story. Second, because the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, Carol Leonnig, has described some of Trump’s agents as “enablers” and “yes men” who “were very, very close to President Trump”— the man who Hutchinson says told her the limo story, Trump’s deputy chief of staff, had been an agent himself and is one again. And third, because it’s not inconceivable that in denying that Trump “grabbed” the steering wheel and “lunged” at an agent in the front seat, they are parsing their words.

We’ll see.

But after all is said and done, this is about more than what happened in the limo. It’s about what happened at the Capitol. Who planned it, who encouraged it, who started it. All Cassidy Hutchinson did was paint a vivid portrait of what many others have corroborated.

If Donald Trump does go down in flames, it’ll be because even some loyalists who long took his side have had enough and heard enough. The Washington Examiner, founded as a conservative counterpoint to The Washington Post, wrote in an editorial this morning that Hutchinson’s testimony “ought to ring the death knell” for Trump’s presidential ambitions. “Trump,” it declared, “is unfit to be anywhere near power ever again…. Trump is a disgrace.”


A Cancer On The Presidency: Then And Now.

She is the John Dean of Donald Trump’s presidency: Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump’s chief of staff— who is also arguably his chief of collaborators— Mark Meadows.

I was in the hearing room 49 years ago when Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House lawyer, told the Senate Watergate Committee, “there was a cancer growing on the presidency.”

All of us who were there— journalists, senators, and everyone else— knew that this was a knife in the Nixon presidency. Public opinion took a sharp turn.

Now it’s Trump’s turn.

Testifying today to a hastily scheduled hearing of the January 6th Committee, Hutchinson blew the lid off the facade of the sociopath who spent four years in the Oval Office. And I don’t use the term “sociopath” lightly. When you look it up, you find one definition that says, someone who “tends to lie, break laws, act impulsively.” Another defines it as a person who “persistently has difficulty engaging appropriately with social norms.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you one Donald J. Trump.

A man who cares for the welfare of no one and nothing, except himself.

Hutchinson dropped her bombshells not only about Trump’s (and Meadows’s) callous disregard for the calamity unfolding at the Capitol— Meadows didn’t even lift his face from his phone when Hutchinson tried telling him how serious it was getting— but about their increasingly obvious complicity in the insurrection, and about the president’s bizarrely reckless behavior as he fought to join his fanatical followers there.

She reported to Congress what she either saw firsthand, or heard from credible firsthand witnesses.

•. That when she was involved in White House meetings to plan the January 6th rally, she heard the names of two far-right groups as part of the discussions, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

• That after Rudy Giuliani told her four days before the rally that “We’re going to the Capitol” and she reported his remark to her boss Mark Meadows, Meadows’s knowing response was, “There’s a lot going on, Cass, but I don’t know, things might get real, real bad on January 6.”

•. That when Trump was told that some of his supporters at the January 6th rally had weapons, he said something to the effect of, “I don’t F-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me’.”

•. That Trump even tried to protect his people trying to get into the rally with guns and knives, urging his staff to “take the f-ing mags away,” meaning magnetometers, better known as metal detectors.

•. That she heard Meadows say that Trump did not think the insurrectionists were doing anything wrong and that maybe Vice President Pence “deserved” the violent calls to hang him.

Then she got to the juicy stuff.

•. That four weeks after the election, when Attorney General William Barr publicly declared that the presidency had not been stolen from Trump, someone told her the president “threw a plate against the wall” and when she went down to look, “there was ketchup dripping down the wall and there’s a shattered porcelain plate on the floor.”

•. That Trump’s deputy chief of staff reported to her that when the Secret Service told the president it wasn’t safe to take him from the rally to the Capitol, he was “so enraged… that he lunged to the front of his presidential SUV and tried to turn the wheel, screaming, ‘I’m the F’ing President. Take me up to the Capitol now’.” Then, according to the deputy, Trump “reached up toward the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel,” using his other hand to “lunge” at the Secret Service agent in charge.

Just think of it: this maniacal man was President of the United States. This unstable sociopath, who would lunge for the steering wheel, had the nuclear button in his hands.

What John Dean also told the Senate Watergate Committee about Richard Nixon’s presidency was, “It was important that this cancer be removed immediately because it was growing more deadly every day.”

Now, that pretty much describes the cancer that is Donald Trump: “more deadly every day.” More deadly, because it still metastasizes through millions of myopic Americans.

Nixon was smarter than Trump. Eventually Nixon called it quits.

Trump only doubles down.

His latest, even before Cassidy Hutchinson finished dropping her bombshells, was on his insipid but insidious social media site “Truth Social”: “A total phony and leaker,” he called her, “Bad news.”

If you’re Donald J. Trump, you bet she is.

There is no guarantee though that any of this will matter.

Estimates are that three out of every four American homes tuned in at some time to those Watergate hearings. The January 6th Committee had its best audience for the first primetime hearing: 20 million Americans. The next best was 10 million for the second hearing, and the numbers— at least until today— haven’t gotten higher.

However, none less than Fox News had this headline this afternoon on its website after Hutchinson was done: “Trump lunged at Secret Service agent who said he couldn’t go to Capitol on January 6: aide.”

Even Fox News couldn’t ignore it. We’ll see if Trump’s other enablers do.

We’ve still got months before the next election to let the real face of Donald Trump sink in. And maybe, maybe, there’s even more to come.

Nominees Weren’t Honest. Now They Are Justices.

“Honest people can disagree.”

This is often said when two sides clash over controversial issues. Usually it’s true.

But not with abortion, because people weren’t honest, people who serve on the United States Supreme Court. It looks like they lied to get there. It looks like they lied to get their way.

Like Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. In the aftermath of Friday’s abolition of Roe v. Wade, two United States senators— one Democrat, one Republican— have lashed out at these two Trump nominees to the Court. According to Maine Republican Susan Collins and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the most Republican of all Democrats, each man assured them in their private meetings and their public hearings that they believed in the importance of precedent. They were talking about abortion, legalized by Roe v. Wade, a precedent in American life for almost 50 years. For two out of every three Americans, the protections of Roe are all they’ve known.

But as we are learning now, those assurances were lies. Collins’s notes show that Brett Kavanaugh told her when he was lobbying to be confirmed, “Start with my record, my respect for precedent, my belief that it is rooted in the Constitution, and my commitment and its importance to the rule of law.”

Collins, who ultimately voted to put him on the High Court, now says, “I feel misled.”

Manchin feels betrayed by both Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. “I trusted Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh when they testified under oath that they also believed Roe v. Wade was settled legal precedent and I am alarmed they chose to reject the stability the ruling has provided for two generations of Americans.”

All Americans should be. Especially the two-thirds who have told pollsters they were opposed to overturning Roe. My hope is, they’ll show their alarm at the ballot box.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his decision for the majority, “In 1973, this Court decided Roe v. Wade. Even though the Constitution makes no mention of abortion, the Court held that it confers a broad right to obtain one.” Left as an afterthought is, over the years, the Court has held that all kinds of rights should be enshrined in our lives, rights about which the original body of the Constitution makes no mention. The right of women to vote. The right of Blacks to own property, and to be educated in integrated, not “separate but equal” schools. The rights of Blacks, in fact, to be full American citizens.

The Constitution never mentions those. Would the current Court take them away?

Alito also wrote, “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” Translation: leave abortion policy to the states.

Forgive my cynicism, but some of these are the same states whose governors and legislators are perverting and diluting voting rights and civil rights and human rights before our very eyes. Unlike other issues, there is no distinction between women seeking abortion in one state and those in another. It is a common concern in all 50 states and where there’s an unwanted pregnancy, a common need. A woman desperate to terminate her pregnancy in Mississippi is no different than a woman in Massachusetts. The only difference now is, in Massachusetts she’ll have a chance. In Mississippi, she won’t.

Nevertheless, the spokesperson for the National Right to Life Committee said happily on NPR: “This is a day when Americans will be allowed to do what they think is best on a very critical issue.”

Except, of course, a woman who thinks it is best— for her mental health, for her household, for her economic survival, for any other reason— to abort her pregnancy.

The Court’s ruling killing Roe v. Wade came not 24 hours after it killed a restrictive New York State gun law. Liberal CNN political commentator Ana Navarro underscored the hypocrisy: “Apparently states are allowed to regulate my uterus, but not guns that kill people.”

Or as a friend of mine even more plainly put it, They’ll ban abortions but they won’t ban AR-15s.

With the ban effective immediately in roughly half of America, the pro-choice movement, supported by statistics from the American Medical Association, projects more botched self-inflicted abortions where women can find no alternative, and more children brought unwanted into the world.

That does not bode well. Already in America there are more than 400,000 unadopted children in foster care. Do abolition’s advocates honestly believe that with legal abortion abruptly struck down in roughly half the states, there will be fewer children born to that kind of life, rather than more?

A conservative commentator on CNN, Alice Stewart, says society can handle it. “There are crisis pregnancy centers set up across this country that are there to provide assistance, financial assistance, for expectant mothers.” But pressed on how they can handle a new surge of unwanted children, all she could say was, “There are a lot of factors that need to be ironed out.”

Tell that to those foster children already living without a parent.

Matt Ford, a writer at The New Republic, points out that the Court has said in decisions over the years that the concept of settled precedent ensures that rulings are “founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.” Friday, when Roe went down, Ford ruefully wrote, “Today, the proclivities of individuals rule.”

Individuals like Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

A man who reads my posts on Substack wrote in response to my Friday column condemning the Court’s decision, “Fixing bad law, vis a vis our Constitution, is not the end of the world, or the end of our Republic.”

No it’s not. But it’s another step in a disturbing drift. A drift away from precedent. A drift away from honesty.

We’re At More Than A Crossroads. We’re At A Point Of No Return.

There are good reasons why some women make the choice to end a pregnancy. Now, in the blink of an eye in much of America, that choice is gone.

There are good reasons why some citizens, angry in the heat of an argument or obsessed with the weight of a passion, should not be carrying a gun. But now, government has lost the right to decide who can pack a firearm in public places and who can’t.

There are good reasons why taxpayer money should not be used to subsidize religious schools when some have a history of discrimination against students who don’t conform to their benchmarks of what’s sinful and what’s not. But now, that’s where government funds will freely flow.

In the space of three days, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has turned a long era of social progress on its tail.

The irony is, when they abolished Roe v. Wade, they all but declared that abortion is murder— the word “murder” actually appears in the majority’s opinion twelve times. But not 24 hours earlier, when they abolished a gun licensing law in New York State, they abetted murder, declaring that the archaic gun-centric world in which the Founding Fathers lived, when the most lethal weapon in any man’s hands was a musket, is the world we must now inhabit in the age of AR-15s.

As late night television host Trevor Noah perceptively put it, “I don’t know about you guys, whenever I’ve been sitting in rush-hour traffic in New York with drivers screaming at each other and bikers cussing out the drivers and pedestrians wailing at the bikers and the drivers, the one thing I always think is, ‘Man, one thing that would calm this down is if everyone had a gun right now. Just a Glock or two would really chill the situation out’.”

Statistics, recent massacres, and that kind of common sense all tell us, the Court’s myopia means more murders on the horizon, not less.

This is the United States Supreme Court of 2022. It is America as of this moment, and for the foreseeable future.

The bad news on guns is, the lifting of restrictions doesn’t stop in New York. In his opinion for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas cited a guns rights case called Heller and wrote, “Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them.” That’s called “originalism,” as if the Founding Fathers could ever dream of the weapons almost anybody can easily buy today. As the chief counsel at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said after the ruling was announced, this reasoning will apply to “every sort of gun law going forward.”

Be on the lookout for an AR-15, strapped over a shoulder near you.

But there is qualified good news on abortion. A growing list of blue-chip American companies, like Apple, Tesla, and Disney, Starbucks, JPMorgan Chase, and Levi Strauss, are offering employees reimbursement for travel if they have to leave their home states to terminate a pregnancy.

What’s more, invalidating Roe will hurt women who don’t want to bring unwanted children into the world, especially poor women who don’t have the resources to go beyond their own states where in many cases even rape and incest won’t be grounds to end a pregnancy. But, political leaders in states where legal abortion has been codified have vowed to open their doors to those whose own doors have just been slammed shut.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul today declared her state a “safe harbor” for women seeking abortions and even moved last month— after Justice Alito’s draft opinion was leaked showing the Court’s intent— to spend tens of millions of dollars for reproductive health clinics to deal with the expected surge of women from out-of-state. California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted, “SCOTUS has stripped away liberties & let other states replace them with mandated birth.” He promised women needing an abortion, “We’ve got your back.” In Colorado, in anticipation that Roe might be struck down, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill back in April called the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which says embryos, fertilized eggs, and fetuses have no standing under state law, and proactively permits abortions not just for women from Colorado but for any who can get there.

But many can’t. So hold onto your wire hangers. From what the American Medical Association saw in the dark years before Roe v. Wade was enacted, they’re about to be in demand once again.

And here’s even worse news. In his concurring opinion to the decision to abolish Roe v. Wade, Justice Thomas yesterday wrote this: “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” Griswold is the case that established a couple’s right to use contraceptives. Lawrence was a ruling that decriminalized anal and oral sex. Obergefell legalized same-sex marriage.

They’re all on the table now. The right-wing Court is on a roll. This is America now, and for the foreseeable future.

I wrote just the other day that we wouldn’t have this Republican-appointed majority of six justices if not for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who cheated President Obama out of one appointment to the Court and unscrupulously fast-tracked another in the waning days of Trump.

For the record, it is worth deconstructing McConnell’s deceit, with a reminder that although he was the architect, his whole party bought into it. When he refused to hold hearings through the course of 2016 on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Court after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, McConnell said, “I believe the overwhelming view of the Republican Conference in the Senate is that this nomination should not be filled, this vacancy should not be filled by this lame duck president.” He said it on February 23, 2016. Obama, the “lame duck president,” still had 331 days— almost a full year— to serve in the Oval Office.

But on September 26, 2020, when Donald Trump was just 116 days from the door, he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. McConnell muscled the nomination through at Mach speed and she was sworn in one month later, less than two weeks before Trump lost the 2020 election.

That’s the definition of a lame-duck president. And of a two-faced politician whose low ethics know no bottom, a man who hopes to win a Republican majority, which he would lead, in November.

Unless we, the voters, stop him.

We’re at more than a crossroads. We’re at a point of no return. As President Biden said today, “Roe is on the ballot.” So are guns, so are election rights, so are civil rights, so are human rights. If Republicans take the midterm elections coming up in just over four months, there will be no turning back. Already the right-wing is talking about federal laws that would nullify state laws and outlaw abortion, and create a field day for guns, in every state in the union.

For now, an America that has moved to expand civil rights and human rights for 60 years has been put in reverse. Even if the Democrats hold onto Congress, which they must, the Court’s decisions, this week and in the future, won’t soon be reversed.

Somewhere Down There Was A Woman Named Lisa.

A thousand deaths in Afghanistan. That’s half the number of American deaths from hostile action in 20 years of war there. But this, just two days ago, was an earthquake. A thousand Afghans wiped out in a single savage shake of the earth.

I should say at least a thousand. In the major earthquakes I covered over the years— in impoverished parts of Turkey, Yemen, Iran, the Apennine Mountains of southern Italy— conditions are so crude, equipment is so scarce, roads are so impassable, rescuers are so isolated, they don’t really know the death toll for days. And sometimes longer. And sometimes, never.

But there always are two realities. First: as one day dawns upon the last, the number of counted dead inevitably grows. And second: we might have different religions, different cultures, different histories, different politics, but the tragic mix of love and grief are the same the world over.

I thought of that today as I watched a video of rescue efforts at the Afghan earthquake.

Men were digging through rubble with their bare hands. Others were digging mass graves for corpses already lifted from the ruins, with more sure to come.

People were wandering amid the wreckage of their houses, everything they once possessed buried or smashed, any vision of the future splintered like the homes they’d lost.

It reminded me of Yemen, where the death toll ended in the thousands. The epicenter of the earthquake there was more than a hundred miles south of the biggest city, Sana’a. Not easy to reach the catastrophe in a country that at the time had no paved roads outside the capital, and not easy to treat the injured when there were fewer than a half-dozen doctors within the borders of one of the world’s poorest nations.

We got to the earthquake zone on a Yemeni Army helicopter carrying blankets and water to the victims. We circled several villages and chose one at random, a village at the top of a hill. Like the others, it was a panorama of collapsed huts, frantic searches, praying fathers, wailing mothers, crushed corpses.

And it was raining. Biblical torrents of rain.

That’s where we came to a scene very much like what I saw in that video today from Afghanistan. Four Yemeni men digging with their hands. Removing stones the size of basketballs. This had been the home of one of them.

After almost an hour, they found what they were digging for. One father’s son. A little boy who couldn’t have been more than four. And would never get older.

He was mangled and bloody, but the father cradled him in his arms as if he were still alive. He kissed him. He rocked him. He hugged him.

Parenthood is universal. That is a lesson I learned many times in many places like this. It is a lesson you will likely learn yourself if you look at today’s landscape of misery in Afghanistan.

Earlier on that day in Yemen, we had seen a line of men praying. I asked an English-speaking Yemeni what they were praying for. “Help from Allah,” he told me. “What kind of help do they expect?”, I asked. “No more shaking. No more death. No more rain.”

It seems Allah didn’t hear them. The rain kept falling. The ground shook more. The death toll rose.

By our measure, the survivors had little even before the earthquake leveled their world to the ground. They had nothing after.

Italy’s earthquake was like Afghanistan’s in a different way. Dozens of towns and villages had collapsed, and ultimately the death toll also was in the thousands. But the metaphor in my memory is a single family in a single home to which we came on the first morning after the earthquake struck.

The adobe house had collapsed on the mother, the father, and two children as they ate their supper at a round table, covered in a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. It happened so fast, the victims remained in their chairs. The plates of food remained on the table. But there was no more life. Nor would there ever be again.

Scenes undoubtedly seen today in Afghanistan.

On the third day in Italy, we set our helicopter down in a different town, like Yemen also chosen at random since all were flattened in the very same way.

We weren’t there long when we heard a man shouting and saw him frantically gesturing atop a huge pile of rubble. He was shouting in Italian, but one member of our camera crew knew the language and said, “He thinks he’s found someone alive.”

He had. Along with rescuers, we scrambled with our gear to the top of the pile and spent the next six hours there.

The man who had shouted that first alarm had heard a squeal— just a tiny, weak squeal, but it sounded human. It was. It was a woman who, we learned before the end of the day, had been buried about six feet down, trapped by concrete and thick wood beams, the body of her dead sister on top of her, which created an air bubble, which kept her alive.

Her name was Lisa.

On this, the third day after the earthquake, we watched those rescuers get her out. They had to work painstakingly slowly. This pile of rubble was a house of cards. Move the wrong stick or stone and the whole precarious pile could collapse, swallowing not just the survivor but the rescuers and, incidentally, us. Over time, the subterranean squeal came more often, and eventually got louder. Rescuers delicately opening a passage were getting closer and closer.

For six hours they warily snapped thin twigs and lifted small stones, wondering whether each would be the one to cause this pile to collapse upon itself.

But when a rescuer was pulled feet first from the opening with his face all bloody but said, “I touched Lisa’s hand, my blood doesn’t matter,” momentarily, nothing else mattered. Thousands died, but somewhere down there was a woman named Lisa, and she was alive.

There is no logic to disasters like this. Hurricanes and tornadoes, fires and floods. And earthquakes.

We should use them as reminders of how lucky we are. Especially when we see the suffering of those who aren’t. No matter where.

The Supreme Court, The Texas GOP. Part Of A Pattern.

The Supreme Court in Washington is off and running. It is running far to the Right with a Republican-appointed majority of six (two of whom wouldn’t be there if Mitch McConnell hadn’t cheated President Obama out of one appointment and unscrupulously fast-tracked another in the waning days of Trump).

So is the Republican Party in Texas, off and running, and I don’t mean just a collection of Republicans off the street, nor even some unofficial gathering of Republicans who inhabit the warped world of Donald Trump. After its weekend convention in Houston, I’m talking about the Republican Party of Texas. The official Republican Party of Texas.

They’re both off and running roughshod over long-established rights and settled law. They’re both running our nation into the ground. And signs are, they’re not finished.

The latest from the Court? Endorsing the erosion of the separation of church and state, releasing its ruling today permitting taxpayer money to fund religious schools. Ultimately what this can lead to is, taxpayer money, our money, being used— and some critics consider it inevitable— to subsidize discrimination if some schools choose against students of whom they don’t approve.

Next up? Abortion. If Justice Alito’s draft opinion about Roe v. Wade, leaked in early May, becomes reality, it will be legal no longer in wide swaths of America. We shall find out soon.

And yet the Court is no match for the Texas GOP. Just when you think these people can’t drive our democracy deeper into the ground, they come up with a spine-chilling platform that further corrodes the social and electoral progress of the last 60 years or more.

Just look at what was posted yesterday on the party’s website: “We reject the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

“Acting” president Joseph Robinette Biden! This is sixteen months after he lawfully was elected to the Oval Office.

It passed with the overwhelming endorsement of more than 5,000 Republican delegates in Houston to make this insanity official, despite the conclusions from more than 60 courts— some with Trump-appointed judges— that the 2020 vote was valid, and despite the declarations of election officers across America— many of them Republicans, some of whom actually testified today to this very judgment in the January 6th Committee hearing— that the election was legitimate.

If you need specifics, one of them was Ruth Hughs, the Republican-appointed Texas Secretary of State in 2020, who described the election as “smooth and secure.” She is not the Secretary of State any more.

But wait, there’s more. “We’ve made election integrity a top priority,” the party says, “to ensure Texas never goes the way of Pennsylvania, Georgia, or Arizona.” It was Arizona, in case you’ve forgotten, where in an ill-begotten effort to reverse the results of the election, the Republican legislature wasted more than $5-million on a recount in Arizona’s biggest county by a company called “Cyber Ninjas” that eventually had to concede that Joe Biden got 99 more votes than the original tallies showed, while Trump got 261 less.

But still, the Republican Party of Texas doesn’t let facts get in the way.

The party chairman says, “We refuse to let Democrats rig the elections in 2022 or 2024.” So does that explain why Governor Abbott last year joined other anti-democratic states in manipulating laws to make it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies to vote? Who’s rigging whom?

Anyway, Texas did not go the way of Arizona and those other states. Trump won there in 2020. So did senior Senator John Cornyn, although the party has gone so far Right that Cornyn himself is out of favor now, because he has the gall to be the Republicans’ chief Senate negotiator to find some level of bipartisan agreement (albeit transparently impotent) on gun reform. He was booed by the delegates and berated in their platform: “Whereas all gun control is a violation of the Second Amendment and our God-given rights”— yes, they now hang guns on God-given rights— “we reject the so-called ‘bipartisan gun agreement,’ and we rebuke [Sen.] John Cornyn (R-Texas).”

Interestingly, a convention delegate from Ft. Worth, saying she was embarrassed when Cornyn was booed, was quoted explaining, “I don’t believe that booing is polite.” But apparently it is not impolite to reject the election of President Biden, putting her and her party in league with the mob of insurrectionists of January 6th.

Of course condemning Cornyn might come as no surprise when you learn that the delegates in Texas also codified this: “Repeal and/or nullify… the Gun Control Act of 1968.” If you’re wondering, that’s the one that makes it illegal for a felon to buy a gun. Evidently in a state where the Republican legislature last year already made it legal in public places to pack a handgun in a holster, whether out-in-the-open or concealed, the sky’s the limit.

They also voted to protect “the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God.” But of course they’re talking about abortion. For the 19 children gunned down last month in the Texas city of Uvalde who also were “created in the image of God,” the sanctity of human life seems to take a back seat to the sanctity of firearms.

All told, there are 270 positions in the official party platform, and all point away from the strides of the 21st Century.

One says, homosexuality is “an abnormal lifestyle choice”— they even banned the gay group “Log Cabin Republicans” from setting up a booth.

Another says, transgender people suffer from “a genuine and extremely rare mental health condition.” One delegate, embracing a return to the lawless days of the Texas Territory, shouted at a GOP congressman who has not gotten onboard with the Big Lie about the election, “Dan Crenshaw is a traitor. He needs to be hung for treason!”

The platform even floats the far-fetched fantasy of secession: ”Texas retains the right to secede from the United States, and the Texas Legislature should be called upon to pass a referendum consistent thereto.”

Some of us might say, “If only you Republicans secede, be our guest. And take Ted Cruz with you.”

But this is the Republican Party of Texas today. The scary thing is, it’s not an anomaly any more. It’s not a one-off. Others aren’t far behind. Whole state party machines have drunk the Kool-Aid. And not just a small sip.

We are dealing with a metastasizing pattern— in courts and in legislatures, in the states and in the nation’s capital— to upend honest elections, to upend traditional rights, to upend protections we have come to take for granted. Interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, legal contraceptives, which books are allowed in libraries, which lessons are allowed in schools. If some aren’t safe, none is.

These aren’t just theoretical fears any more. Fanatical calls to restrict rights in every one of those areas have come from the far Right.

We used to think we could protect ourselves by waving the Constitution. Now we have to wave our ballots on election day, to protect what’s left. To try to, anyway.

You Can’t Blame It All On Biden.

When economies are good, presidents often get the credit. When they’re bad, they get the blame. But economists on both sides of the aisle will tell you, most of the time it’s neither.

Neil Erwin, author of The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire, has written, “Presidential economic records are highly dependent on the dumb luck of where the nation is in the economic cycle. And the White House has no control over the demographic and technological forces that influence the economy.”

Forces like war. Like politics. Like pandemics.

Right now though, while most markers in an economy that had sunk under the weight of the pandemic have been good and getting better under President Biden, inflation is a killer. So the Republicans, always looking for a fuse to light, have lit that one. They blame Biden. They hang it on his pandemic relief bill, the Covid relief package formally called the American Rescue Plan.

It pulled 1.9-trillion dollars from our Treasury and put it back into our hands. Left unsaid is, the economy was staggering, the Covid relief package helped save it.

What the Republicans overlook— no accident, you can bet— is that Biden’s wasn’t the first pandemic relief bill to come out of Congress, and if one is inflationary, they all are. The first two, for more than $3-trillion, were signed by then-President Trump. The trouble when Biden moved into the White House was, the pandemic was only getting worse. Society needed another boost.

So Biden’s bill provided stimulus payments for most families in America, to make up for income lost to the lockdown, although some economists argue that like the relief bills before it, by putting more money in people’s pockets, it provided too much stimulus, which can be inflationary in and of itself. It extended compensation for unemployment as people abruptly were out of work. It made special grants to businesses, including restaurants, that had lost their customers to the shutdown. It increased the child tax credit, which put food on the table in low-income homes and according to surveys, actually reduced the rate of hungry children by almost 25%. It returned money to state and local governments to make up for tax revenues they’d lost. It put funds into schools to help them reopen.

Simply put, it kept the economy alive. And by subsidizing programs to test and vaccinate for Covid, it also kept many Americans alive. The economy depends on healthy buyers and healthy workers.

True, the outlay was one of the largest in history, and there’s no denying that spending that much, as both Trump and Biden did, contributed to inflation. But what Republicans don’t mention about Biden’s bill is, the economy would have been a whole lot worse without it.

Furthermore, pandemic relief was hardly the sole cause of inflation and others have nothing to do with the president. A few facts: the global supply chain, impeded in particular by the pandemic downturn in China, is a clear culprit. Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has strained global energy supplies and global economies, is another. And with profit margins at publicly traded companies even higher now than before the pandemic, price-gouging is a suspect.

But for Republican politicians these days, facts aren’t part of the playbook.

They just blame Biden, and for their minions enmeshed in the myopic bubble of rightwing media, it’s sticking.

They omit other facts too, because the playbook does not permit it

One is, Biden inherited Trump’s tax cuts, which not only took the deficit to record levels but led to more personal spending. Which led to demand chasing supply. Which led to inflation. That’s Economics 101.

Another is, arguably the Federal Reserve kept interest rates at record lows for far too long, meaning, until only two months ago, it did nothing to discourage inflationary spending by making money more costly. Demand chasing supply again. Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday when he announced the biggest rise in interest rates in almost 30 years, “We are highly attentive to the risks high inflation poses to both sides of our mandate, and we are strongly committed to returning inflation to our 2-percent objective.” Too little, too late?

But what Republicans most egregiously omit is that what a president can do, Biden’s doing. On Tuesday, for example, it was reported that he is eyeing a rollback of President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods. Since you barely can make a purchase any more without a “Made in China” stamp on the product, that should make those products cheaper.

He has issued executive orders to relieve supply chain shortages, which have squeezed the balance of supply and demand and, where products have been hard to get, pushed prices up. The heart of the president’s program is to move more manufacturing and production back to the United States, so we’re not dependent on foreign suppliers. From healthcare supplies to microchips to cutting-edge technology, even rare earth materials.

After the nation’s largest domestic producer of infant formula shut down to combat contamination in its product, which made baby formula scarce, the president put flights together to import 4-and-a-half million bottles from abroad.

And then there’s gas. Even at record prices here in the U.S., it’s worth reminding that it still is cheaper than what people have paid— even pre-war, pre-pandemic— in Europe. But yes, higher gas prices do hurt because it’s not just about what we pay at the pump, it’s about everything we buy, from food to furniture to frying pans, that has to be delivered from Point A to Point B. The higher price of gas means a higher price for delivery which means, of course, a higher price tag for the end product.

Here too, Biden’s not to blame. In her daily blog here on Substack, Helen Cox Richardson cited an analysis in the newsletter Hoaxlines by E. Rosalie, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. U.S. production of crude oil during Biden’s first year, Rosalie points out, was actually higher than it was in Trump’s first year. Furthermore, in the interest of increasing domestic production, Biden’s administration has issued more permits on federal lands than Trump’s did in his first three years.

Biden’s moving right now to control fuel prices, next week meeting with oil company executives, next month with the Saudis. This is where a president’s bully pulpit might project some power.

And, it’s worth mentioning, he is indefatigably trying to shift energy to renewals, so this doesn’t happen again.

So when the Republicans try to lay inflation entirely on Biden, where’s their case?

Months Of Groundwork, Coherent Conclusions

An article raced around on conservative websites this weekend and the headline is, “Trump Committed NO CRIMES.”

It’s based on an interview, after the first televised hearing of the January 6th Committee, with Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. Yes, the same Alan Dershowitz who defended Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial, the one for “incitement of insurrection.” The same Dershowitz who defended O.J. Simpson too.

His conclusion after that first night of hearings? “Donald Trump committed no crimes.”

Here’s the disconnect: the hearings had barely gotten started. If you compare the first night to a courtroom trial, you could liken it to the prosecutor’s opening statement.

But without hearing more— and without the formal judicial process that still might come in a court of law— Dershowitz already says with certainty, “Donald Trump committed no crimes.” Trump World is eating it up.

They’re complaining that there wasn’t equal time for Trump’s defense. No there wasn’t, and in today’s second hearing and those that follow, there probably won’t be. They’re complaining that the committee’s conclusions about Trump’s culpability are one-sided and biased. You bet they are, and they probably will continue to be. They’re complaining that the committee is out to “get” Trump. I think they’re right. Anyone who saw what the committee showed should be too.

But here’s the thing: Republicans had the chance to have more than two members of Congress—Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger— on the nine-member committee. If balanced justice was their goal, they could have had it. The trouble is, after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made his nominations for membership and included two congressmen who actually had voted to overturn the 2020 election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected them. How can the committee investigate the so-called Stop-The-Steal movement when some members are a part of it? But McCarthy didn’t nominate other Republicans to replace Pelosi’s rejects. He withdrew all his nominations and said the whole thing was “a sham.”

So yes, the January 6th Committee is stacked with members and staff who have heard more than a thousand interviews in connection with the insurrection that day and studied more than a hundred thousand documents and countless hours of video and concluded, Donald Trump is guilty. Guilty of conspiring to obstruct the work of Congress. And guilty, through the ceaseless circulation of lies about election fraud when even trusted advisors told him otherwise— his long-loyal Attorney General called it all “bullshit”— of conspiring to defraud the people of the United States of America.

He didn’t have to actually march on the Capitol— although he did deceitfully promise his followers he would— to conspire to attack it. To be guilty, he only had to spearhead the insurrection, taking part in planning for it and issuing encouragement to the mob that violently executed it. As a former United States Solicitor General put it, “A crime requires two things — a bad act and criminal intent.”

The January 6th Committee concluded that it has both and yes, there are consequences in that judgment and they’re not good for Trump. Representative Kinzinger rightly said on Sunday’s Face The Nation, if Trump “truly believes the election was stolen, he’s not mentally competent to be President.”

A guy I know, opening a window to the minds of millions of hoodwinked Americans, declared his belief in an email that when the Capitol was attacked, Trump “had no part in the inception of it, had no part in the origination of it, had no part in organizing it, and certainly had no part in conducting it!”

Those interviews, videos, and documents say otherwise.

But in the spirit of “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”— which also happens to be the spirit of Fox News— this guy called the committee “a kangaroo court” and declared it unfair that a finding of criminal fault “would in all likelihood render Trump unfit and unable to run for the POTUS again.”

If only.

But don’t blame the messenger. Trump has rendered himself unfit, and never again ought to be allowed anywhere near the White House.

But that’s just me. And the committee. None of us has the power to prosecute. That is up to the Department of Justice. If it makes that call, Donald Trump will get his day in court. Then, there will be equal time for Trump’s defense. There will be arguments that won’t just be one-sided and biased. There will be lawyers out to acquit Trump to rebut prosecutors out to “get” him.

That is how Donald Trump should be held accountable.

There is no dispute that between pressure on state officials and strategies to replace legal electors and coercion to have his own Vice President declare the 2020 vote invalid, Trump acted to overturn an election that universally has been declared by more than 60 courts to be honest and fair. One federal judge called his schemes “a coup in search of a legal theory.”

At the heart of it all, Trump lost. To the tune of 74 electoral votes and more than seven million popular votes.

Alan Dershowitz said in that interview after seeing the committee’s recitations of crimes attributed to Donald Trump, “It would be the same if a leader of Black Lives Matter… stood up somewhere on the west coast and made a firebrand speech saying, ‘You know, we’re going to bring down this, we’re going to do that, and then people went out and burned buildings’.”

No it wouldn’t. Trump didn’t just make a firebrand speech. He got people there to hear it. He told them to heed it. “If you don’t fight like hell,” he said at his so-called Save America March on that fateful day, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Some of his disciples have since testified that they took that as a call to action, a command from their commander-in-chief.

And he didn’t know?!?

Of course his defenders point out that he also told the gang “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

But you can’t tell people to fight like hell, then tell them to fight nice. You can’t claim your election was stolen, then come up with nothing to prove it. You can’t facilitate a violent attempted coup d’etat, then wait hours to stop it.

You can’t say Trump committed no crimes, then condemn those who say he did.

The battle cry of Trump’s 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton was, “Lock her up.” Whatever she did or didn’t do, it pales next to what we know Trump did do. If anyone needs to be measured for prison stripes and locked up, his name is Donald Trump.

“If It Would Only Save One Life, Wouldn’t It Be Worth It?”

A couple of days ago I had an epiphany. I was probably late to the game.

The epiphany was, gun reform is going nowhere.

It came to me as I was riding my bike, which is when I do some of my thinking, and it struck me that I wasn’t thinking any more about the school slaughter two weeks ago in Texas, or the massacre ten days before that in Buffalo, or any of the other gun violence before or since. For the record, there have been twenty more mass shootings just since Uvalde.

What I realized was, already my mind had moved on. The public hearings of the January 6th committee were finally coming up, the war in Ukraine was taking a turn for the worse, the Republican assault on honest elections was gaining steam, and inflation and the stock market both were going in the wrong direction.

What I realized was, the shock after last month’s shootings was going the way of the shock after Sandy Hook. “I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” President Obama accurately observed on that dreadful day almost ten years ago when a 20-year-old man killed 20 little kids (and six adults) at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. “As a country,” he went on, “we have been through this too many times. We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

I remember hearing that and thinking, “Yes we have, maybe we will.”

We haven’t, and we won’t.

That was hammered home by a vote the day before yesterday in the House of Representatives. It was on the “Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act,” one of the seven separate bills advanced by Democrats to make it harder for murderers to get their hands on guns. This one, specifically, was for a “red flag” law that would give police the power to confiscate guns if they can cite credible claims before a federal judge that those who possess them pose a danger to themselves or others.

It won, but with only five Republican votes. It was considered the most likely of all seven House proposals to pass, but only five Republicans got behind it, and the reason is revealing: of those five, four had gotten on the wrong side of Donald Trump and, facing the fury of his followers, made the difficult decision not to run for re-election.

So they could vote their conscience, not their commission.

Here’s who they are, and why they dropped out: Representative Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio had the gall to vote for Donald Trump’s second impeachment which led to threats against him and his wife and his children. Representative Fred Upton of Michigan had voted against Trump too, and evidently an equal sin, he’d voted for President Biden’s infrastructure bill, after which one caller’s message said, “I hope you die, I hope everybody in your f***ing family dies.” We know about Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who got on board as the only Republican to join Liz Cheney on the January 6th Committee, which put an end to his chance for reelection. Representative Chris Jacobs of New York faced what he considered an insurmountable backlash after the massacre in Buffalo when he broke ranks with his party and voted for a ban on semiautomatic rifles and a new minimum age of 18 to purchase firearms.

If Trump will turn on his own daughter as he did yesterday after her acknowledgement was made public that Joe Biden won the election fair and square, there is no limit to how low he will stoop to savage others.

For six years, between long stints at two television networks as a correspondent, I was a talk show host at KOA Radio, the 50,000 watt station in Denver. With five shows a week, I debated on every controversy under the sun. And on almost every issue, I thought I understood where the other side was coming from. Those who would ban abortion believe the practice amounts to murder. Those who would put religion in government believe the Constitution condones it. Those who oppose gay rights believe the Bible (parts of which of course they conveniently ignore) says it’s immoral. In every case I ardently disagreed, but saw how they came to the principles they promoted.

Not so, on guns.

Many who oppose even the most moderate reforms are driven by an irrational and illogical set of fears. They argue either that they need guns in their homes to ward off predators, or to stave off a government that’s coming to get them, which carries its own dose of irony since on January 6th last year, many who make that case were coming to get the government.

Their arguments also are inaccurate. The journal Scientific American focuses on everything from health and technology to the mind and space, but not politics. But two days after Uvalde, it published a piece that puts the lie to the logic that we’re safer with more guns, not less. “By 2020,” it said, “about eight in every 100,000 people died of car crashes. About 10 in every 100,000 people died of gun injuries.” Then it quoted a study comparing gun deaths in the U.S. to nations in Asia and Europe: “Our homicide rate in teens and young adults is 49 times higher. Our firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.” It cited research from the Harvard School of Public Health: “States with higher gun ownership levels have higher rates of homicide.” The most telling statistics came from here at home: “Assaults with a firearm were 6.8 times more common in states that had the most guns, compared to the least. More than a dozen studies have revealed that if you had a gun at home, you were twice as likely to be killed as someone who didn’t.”

And yet, gun reform is going nowhere.

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, one of Donald Trump’s most incendiary acolytes, wrote that the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” which would address everything from safe storage of firearms, to making them traceable, to a purchaser’s age— the killers in both Buffalo and Uvalde were only 18— “would place significant burdens on Americans’ Second Amendment rights while failing to meaningfully prevent gun violence or to improve public safety.”

That’s hogwash. The 18th-Century Second Amendment never was meant to provide the protections it provides today. There is no good argument against measures that would make modern weapons of war harder for hell-bent civilian warriors to get. The best way to keep guns out of the hands of mass murderers is to make it harder for them to get those guns. Period.

Back during that interval as a radio talk show host, I occasionally was paired for debates against the house conservative at the station, and when gun reform measures came up, you could choke on his cynicism when he delivered his favorite line: “If only it would save one life, wouldn’t it be worth it?”

My patent answer was, “Sometimes, yes, yes it would.” Because measures to make it harder to get guns and ammunition— especially guns and ammunition that can mow down dozens of innocents in a single volley— would save some lives. Maybe many lives. Certainly not all, but some. Measures on the table right now would not confiscate law-abiding owners’ guns. They would just mean it takes longer to get more, and require protections to keep them out of the wrong hands.

So yes, it would be worth it. If only more Republicans had the guts to vote their conscience and make it happen.

“Your Dishonor Will Remain”

I have to pinch myself every time I find myself praising Liz Cheney. Almost everything she stands for, I stand against. Almost everything I stand for, she stands against.

Except one thing: keeping our democracy honest and alive.

If the daughter of the widely-reviled Vice President Dick Cheney were doing to her father what Ron Reagan Jr. and his sister Patti Davis have done to theirs, speaking out and sometimes even denouncing his policies when holding such power, it would be a big story. But politically, Liz is on her father’s side. She was before, she is now. (And to his credit in the case of condemning Donald Trump, he’s on hers.)

To wit, for her votes in Congress, she has a lifetime favorable rating of 76.6% from the American Conservative Union. Heritage Action for America rates her even higher, at 80%. Ironically, that’s 30% higher than its rating for Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who replaced Cheney in the #3 Republican leadership position in the House when Cheney fell out of favor and lost her job

Maybe the most telling testament that Liz Cheney is a true conservative is that in the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, she voted with him 92.9% of the time.

But did you hear her indictment of the former president at the first televised hearing of the January 6th Committee after she recited the list of particulars against him? “President Trump,” she said in summary, “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”

As columnist Frank Bruni wrote, “While nearly all the other Republicans in Congress keep changing their tunes to harmonize with Trump, she refuses to sing along. She’s all in and she’s all steel.”

By flying in the face of her own party’s orthodoxy, Liz Cheney is not renouncing her credentials as a conservative. She is reinforcing her credentials as a patriot.

Patriotism and principle both, tragically, no longer are trademarks of Trump’s Republican Party.

The non-partisan website The Hill interviewed a Republican member of the House who told them that Liz Cheney’s exile from the modern mainstream of the party “is about Liz Cheney being completely out of synch with the majority of our conference.” When you look at the dishonest, duplicitous, dissembling direction of the GOP conference, that is a badge of honor.

Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who belongs in a straightjacket, not in Congress, called Liz Cheney “a snake.” That too is a badge of honor.

Donald Trump calls her “a smug fool,” and, “worse than any Democrat.” Coming from a man like him, that’s the most precious badge of honor of all.

Earlier this week, we got a chilling look at some Americans’ appalling attitudes about January 6th. It didn’t come from the usual suspects, unprincipled politicians twisting themselves into pretzels to keep their jobs and ward off Donald Trump’s vengeful wrath, but from a coach with Washington DC’s recently renamed football team The Commanders. His name is Jack Del Rio and when talking with reporters, he compared the insurrection to the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few years, complaining, “People’s livelihoods are being destroyed, businesses are being burned down. No problem. And then we have a dust-up at the Capitol. Nothing burned down, and we’re going to make that a major deal?”

If you’ve seen video of the attack, whether previously aired or, in the case of some of the video shown at the hearing, never seen before, it wasn’t a “dust-up,” it wasn’t what some of the whitewashers in the GOP have minimized as a “tourist visit” to the Capitol on January 6th There wasn’t, as Trump preposterously claimed half a year later, “love in the air.”

The only thing in the air was insurrection. An attempt to subvert our democracy. An attempted coup d’etat.

“On the morning of January 6th,” Congresswoman Cheney said in her opening remarks, “President Donald Trump’s intention was to remain president of the United States, despite the lawful outcome of the 2020 election and in violation of his Constitutional obligation to relinquish power.”

As columnist Bruni wrote, “I keep waiting for Liz Cheney to flinch. But no.”

That’s why she’s now an official non-person in the Republican Party. She’s willing to assert what shamefully few of her fellow Republicans in Congress are willing to admit. She’s a non-person because she calls them out on it.

That’s why she ended her remarks with a wholehearted warning to them: “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone. Your dishonor will remain.”

I hope— because of her principles and despite her politics— so will Liz Cheney

It’s Easier To Look Away. We Shouldn’t.

Between war in Ukraine and shootings in America, I hear friends say, “I have to tune it out, I just can’t watch any more.”

I get that. But I think it’s a mistake.

So does Kim Phuc Phan Thi, whose name you don’t know but whose photograph you can never forget. She was the nine-year-old girl from a village in South Vietnam whose image, running burned and naked after a napalm air attack, became one of the most famous photos from, and a metaphor for the gruesomeness of, the Vietnam War.

As she said today in The New York Times, the photo plagued her for much of her life. “I grew up detesting that photo,” she wrote from Canada, where she moved as a young adult. “Why was I the only kid naked while my brothers and cousins in the photo had their clothes on? I felt ugly and ashamed.”

But she also came to feel proud, “proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace.”

That is the power of a picture.

“It is easier to hide from the realities of war,” she wrote, “if we don’t see the consequences. That picture will always serve as a reminder of the unspeakable evil of which humanity is capable.”

In the present day, pictures are how we see the merciless injustice of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

And of the utter illogic of militant guns rights advocates in America.

That is why, whether it’s battles overseas or butchery here at home, I think people should look.

Photographer David Hume Kennerly, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his own work in Vietnam, quotes journalist Nicholas Kristof, who once summed it up this way: “Photos move people the way prose never does.” And they can move decision-makers too. “Evocative images,” Kennelly contends, “can affect policy, spur action, and every now and then alter the course of history.”

What stronger example than the murder two years ago in Minneapolis of George Floyd. It was hard to watch, but how would you know what to think if you didn’t?

Here’s another very strong example that I take personally. A friend of mine and fellow correspondent at ABC named Bill Stewart, with whom I had recently worked during the revolution in Iran, was then sent to cover the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. One day during a battle, Bill walked up to a demarcation line, unarmed and holding his press ID, and asked a Nicaraguan soldier for permission to cross. But the soldier, evidently resentful of flagging American support for his government, forced him instead to lie down on the pavement. Then he kicked Bill in the ribs, paced for a few seconds, lifted his rifle, and shot Bill dead.

Video of the murder, recorded by Bill’s camera crew— not knowing of course what the soldier was about to do— aired worldwide. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance harshly condemned the government we were backing, which was run by a right-wing dictator. Not long after, President Jimmy Carter stopped backing it altogether.

That is the power of a picture.

There are of course persuasive arguments for restraint when it comes to airing or publishing pictures of carnage. The slaughter of those 19 schoolchildren in Texas the week before last is a case in point. NYU journalism professor Susie Linfield has written an essay with the title, “Should We Be Forced To See Exactly What An AR-15 Does To A 10-Year-Old?” My answer is no, we shouldn’t, we should not be forced. But we also should not be protected. And professor Linfield makes a good argument for that. “A violent society ought, at the very least, to regard its handiwork, however ugly, whether it be the toll on the men and women who fight in our name, on ‘ordinary’ crime victims killed or wounded by guns or on children whose right to grow up has been sacrificed to the right to bear arms.”

In fairness to the families of the children gunned down though, she goes on to ask, “How to balance a family’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know?”

The answer isn’t black or white. I always have fought for the public’s right to know, but there are credible concerns about privacy, about sensitivity… especially when we’re talking about children. I believe that on a scale, the family’s rights weigh the most.

But there are unpersuasive arguments too, and I had to deal with them many times. What’s more, they sometimes came from the producers and editors of the very broadcasts for which I worked. During the war to oust dictator Idi Amin from Uganda, we had one egregiously gruesome shot of a huge stack of bodies piled up behind Parliament, massacred by Amin’s soldiers as they fled Kampala, the capital. It encapsulated the savagery of Idi Amin’s regime. But back at ABC headquarters, they took it out. “Too bloody,” I was told.

After an earthquake in Yemen, we recorded a pitiful scene of a sobbing father cradling his dead daughter in his arms. He had dug through rubble with his bare bloodied hands until he found his little girl, mangled by the boulders that had buried her. It was a symbol of the thousands of deaths the earthquake had triggered, and the thousands of survivors who grieved. But that too had to come out. Why? “It will unnerve some viewers.”

In Iran during the revolution, we documented a massacre by the Shah’s Imperial Guard against unarmed protestors near the university in Tehran. Upwards of a hundred were shot down. But in the story that aired, closeups were removed. I was given the “too bloody” excuse again but because the United States still was on the Shah’s side, I always suspected it was political.

And after a devastating earthquake in the Apennine Mountains in southern Italy, we were witness to a heart-rending scene when the then-brand-new Pope John Paul II landed by helicopter in a village where we happened to be.

He walked amidst the ruins of a church that had collapsed during Mass, then stopped two men carrying a corpse on a crude gurney, pulled back a dirty sheet from the victim’s face, and planted a kiss on his disfigured forehead. But it never made air. What a producer told me was, “We can’t upset our viewers at dinnertime.”

Oh yes we can. We can and we should. It’s about the reality of life… if not ours, then someone else’s. And sometimes it might make a difference. A photographer, a publisher, a producer can’t know which way a picture might swing public opinion. But the public itself can’t know which way to swing if it isn’t given the chance to look.

To be sure, news organizations have become more permissive about this reality. They’ve had no choice. People are appallingly inured to brutality by the 21st-Century culture of violent video games and movies and all the rest…

… and by an internet that makes graphic images accessible to anyone who wants to take a look.

The key question is, how can we make wise decisions about public policy, or simply about personal empathy, if we just turn away? As photographer David Kennerly says, “Photographs are a direct line to people, over the heads of officials, pundits and disinformation.” That’s true whether they undercut the lies of a Russian president or of American politicians trying to distract us from our disgust about mass murders.

That’s why I think it’s a mistake to say, “I have to tune it out, I just can’t watch any more.”

Whether I agree on certain controversial issues or not, I extend the argument to other movements to show the outcomes of public policy. Like proposals to require tobacco companies to include graphic images of lung cancer in their marketing. Like campaigns by opponents of legal abortion to show explicit images of aborted fetuses. Even like televising the executions of condemned killers because if some of us, for a variety of reasons, support capital punishment, then we ought to be willing to watch it.

Seeing these things might soften some people’s minds about the righteousness of their positions and harden it in others. But whether we’re talking about fighting wars abroad or fighting on the fronts of social issues in America, it’s the only way the public can see what it’s being asked to oppose or support.

That is the power of a picture.

As David Kennerly puts it, “The best photographs… might make us want to look away. It’s imperative that we do not.”

Putin’s Punishing Not Just Ukraine, but Russia Too.

“A return to Soviet-era scarcity.”

If you ever crossed the Iron Curtain as I did many times during the Cold War, that will put a chill in your bones.

But in reporting on the war in Ukraine, that’s how The New York Times has portrayed the possibilities for the near future: “A return to Soviet-era scarcity.” However, it’s not painting a picture of war-torn Ukraine, whose population we already know is suffering in unimaginable ways. It’s painting a picture of Russia itself.

This is how, in pursuit of his megalomaniacal goals, Vladimir Putin is punishing his own nation. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, scarcity was a perpetual punishment in daily life.

Despite that, we do see signs of support for Putin’s war from everyday Russians but it’s probably fair to remind ourselves— just like the days when I reported from the Soviet Union where Tass and Pravda had a monopoly on people’s minds— Russians don’t have CNN and Fox News, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They live today in an increasingly inhibited information bubble of Putin’s making, and the only lens through which they can see the war is his.

So with that speck of sympathy, here is a piece of just one report about scarcity from inside Russia….

“Basic items, from paper to buttons, are in short supply.”

So short in buttons that clothing manufacturers can’t complete their products. So short in paper that banks are putting less information on customers’ receipts so that each one they print can be smaller.

This has to come as a shock to Russians in the post-Soviet era, who had learned to take quality and abundance for granted. They thought short supplies and badly produced food and consumer goods were behind them.

For example, in the heart of Moscow, right across Red Square from the Kremlin, there is a department store called “GUM,” an acronym for “Glavnyy Universalnyy Magazin,” which we would translate to “Main Universal Store.” In the Soviet era, it had poor selections and poorer service. I once went in for a pair of shoes and walked out empty-handed. Of the starkly limited styles strewn on the floor, in the main department store in all of Moscow, none was my size.

But when the Iron Curtain collapsed and capitalism caught on, GUM was transformed into a collection of luxury boutiques. From New Balance to Burberry, from Leica to Levis, from Swatch to Samsung, more than a hundred shops indulged Russians’ long-stifled appetite for Western goods.

Now, those companies and more— like Hermes, like Prada— have pulled out of GUM and out of Russia, either indefinitely suspending operations or abandoning the nation altogether.

In a television appearance last month, Putin tried to put lipstick on the pig: “Sometimes you look at those leaving and think, ‘Maybe thank God that they are’.”

But that’s easy for him to say. Plenty of Russians, long accustomed now to Western luxuries and Western ways, won’t agree. Their affluence, like their fleeting flowering of freedoms after the Soviet Union disappeared, might turn out to be no more than a blink of an eye in the hard history of their nation. They might be looking now at a painful return to the austere standard of living they suffered in Soviet times.

They might be looking at a return to Soviet-era scarcity.

A piece of another report: “In Moscow, shoppers complained that a kilogram of bananas had shot up to 100 rubles from 60, while in Irkutsk, an industrial city in Siberia, the price of tampons at a store doubled to $7.”

At some point, citizens can’t afford to buy these things, and Russia can’t afford to make them or import them. Which could conceivably mean a return to the severely stocked shops of Soviet times. There were days when squash, cabbage, and spoiling lettuce were about the only produce on the shelves at a grocery store.

One day my wife and I went to Moscow’s only farmers market, run by collective farmers permitted small plots of private land to make a little extra money beyond what they got in their paltry government paychecks. Their grapes, although meager and tasteless in the grocery stores, were juicy and rich at the farmers market. But costly. You’d point to one grape, then to another, then maybe a couple more, and pay by the grape.

And of course, as part of the Western boycott since Russia’s invasion or the outright sale of assets by a thousand global corporations that stopped doing business there, there is no more McDonald’s, no more Starbucks. In the Soviet era, you could count the number of palatable Moscow restaurants on one hand with a finger or two left over. People might have to start counting again.

But a potential return to Soviet-era scarcity is about more than just cravings and conveniences for consumers.

“In a survey of health care professionals in April,” a report says, “60-percent of respondents said they had experienced shortages already. Among imported products, the items missing most included disposable gloves, catheters and suture materials.” What’s more, hospitals are having trouble replacing parts for dialysis machines and ventilators.

And the shortages don’t just plague Russian civilians. The Times ran a report last weekend about private citizens “crowdsourcing” critical goods for Russian soldiers at the front. Their warriors are short of everything from shoes and socks, to batteries and headlamps, even to insect repellent. Even more dire, their field hospitals in Ukraine urgently need anesthetics and antibiotics, wheelchairs and crutches.

If Russia is running short of anesthetics and antibiotics, batteries and tampons, paper and buttons, its future isn’t looking bright. While a return to Soviet-era scarcity is not inevitable— mainly because of the still impressive income from Russia’s vast reservoirs of energy— it is not beyond the realm.

None of this begins to compare, of course, with the suffering of virtually every Ukrainian today, which in the history of Europe after World War II has no parallel. But still, it is not what every Russian citizen deserves. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin deserves far worse. If the Western world maintains its solidarity and perseverance, inflicting punishment on the Russian despot is not beyond the realm either.

WE’RE Adding Fuel To The Fire???

I don’t know whether to call this a new high for audacity or a new low for hypocrisy.

Vladimir Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, today complained that President Biden’s shipment to Ukraine of an advanced weapon called the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which fires satellite-guided rockets, goes beyond— remember, these are the words of one of the highest officials in Russia— “all limits of decency.”

As if he and his boss even know what “decency” means any more.

Lavrov then had the gall to call the shipment a “direct provocation,” as if his nation’s baldfaced invasion of Ukraine— after calling Western warnings just days before the attack “hysteria”— was anything less. And as if Putin needs further provocation to inflict further devastation on the nation he ambushed. He’s doing it anyway.

Meantime, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the U.S. is “adding fuel to the fire,” conveniently shrugging off the fact that this is a fire that Vladimir Putin set.

That’s what the world, and maybe Americans in particular, need to remember. Putin has invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation, we haven’t. He has bombarded its buildings and ruined its economy and stolen its riches and kidnapped its soldiers and deported its survivors and killed its citizens, we haven’t. He has raised the stakes with the mention of nuclear weapons, we haven’t. He has set the fires, we haven’t.

Yet former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued last week to the World Economic Forum that just as Russia demands, Ukraine should trade land for peace— in other words, concede land to Russia that it already illegally occupies in exchange for promises of peace from a despot who already has made clear that Ukraine has no right to exist. If Kissinger’s way of thinking prevails, that will give Putin the gift of every inch he has stolen. With no accountability for every city he has ravaged, every life he has taken.

That’s why Ukraine’s President Zelensky angrily snapped back that Kissinger is living in 1938, referring to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s naive belief that, after winning concessions he demanded, Adolf Hitler would abide by agreements at the Munich Conference and there would be no bigger war.

Hitler lied. The world paid the price.

With that in mind, Stephen Blank of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote for The Atlantic Council, “As any student of WWII will tell you, attempting to appease genocidal tyrants with territorial concessions is not only morally repugnant but also strategically nonsensical.”

But Kissinger isn’t the only one. In an essay titled “The war in Ukraine may be impossible to stop and the U.S. deserves much of the blame,” a former senior editor at the conservative Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell, argues about sending arms to Ukraine, “The West, led by the Biden administration, is giving the conflict a momentum that may be impossible to stop. Should bigger guns fail to dissuade… they lead to bigger wars.”

Bigger wars? As if, allowed to get away with what he already has done, Putin won’t start “bigger wars” himself? It is not the conflict that may be impossible to stop. It’s Russia’s president who may be impossible to stop.

Sweden and Finland seem to agree. They’re fearful enough to forsake their long-cherished neutrality to apply for military membership in NATO.

Former Weekly Standard editor Caldwell also writes— neglecting to notice that Russia has not tried to minimize the loss of human life from Day One— that “thousands of Ukrainians have died who likely would not have if the United States had stood aside.”

He confuses his culprits.

But why don’t we stand aside? Why don’t we just walk away and let Ukraine dissolve into a Russian state? President Biden answered that question in his Tuesday op-ed in The New York Times: “If Russia does not pay a heavy price for its actions, it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries. It will put the survival of other peaceful democracies at risk. And it could mark the end of the rules-based international order and open the door to aggression elsewhere, with catastrophic consequences the world over.”

Those who would have us stand aside, as if it would pacify the killer in the Kremlin, not to mention those who blame us for making this war worse, need to remember a key fact: we haven’t fired a shot. We have provided everything from weaponry to intelligence to humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but we haven’t fired a shot.

We’ve been very careful about that. President Biden and the alliance he assembled are aware of the risk of escalation. They have struck a balance— delicate though it is— between helping Ukraine uphold its sovereignty, and “standing aside” to avoid “provoking” Putin.

Because if we do stand aside and let Putin believe he can get away with this— mindful that this megalomaniac has called the loss of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”— he might not stop. And then, our allies have even more to worry about. When President Biden says in his op-ed that retarding Russia “is in our vital national interests,” he’s saying that weaker allies mean a weaker America.

But ultimately it’s up to Ukraine to decide whether to keep fighting back. It’s up to Ukraine to decide whether to keep its nation in one piece, or at least as much of it as it can.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov added this to his rant about the advanced American weapons system coming to Ukraine: “There are politicians who are ready to go into this madness in order to satisfy their ambitions.”

The man should look in the mirror, because maybe without meaning to, he underscored the audacity and hypocrisy that’s coming from the Kremlin, and underscored exactly what many of us fear: more madness instigated by Vladimir Putin to satisfy his ambitions. That’s why we have to oppose him now, and not give him an opening to satisfy even more.

This War Is Right Here At Home.

We are at war.

But not a war for which, on this Memorial Day, we honor the 1.3 million women and men in uniform who, in the course of American history, have died overseas in service to us.

No, this is a war we’re fighting here at home. A war over guns. Guns that can only be defined as weapons of war, guns that our Founding Fathers, who knew of no more than muskets, never could have foreseen when they framed the Second Amendment.

Weapons of war from which nineteen little kids and their two heroic teachers in Texas this past week were casualties. Weapons of war from which ten harmless shoppers in Buffalo the week before were casualties.

Weapons of war from which the victims for too many decades have been innocent Americans from sea to shining sea. From a Christmas Party in San Bernardino, California to an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. From a Walmart in El Paso to a movie theater in Colorado. From the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, from a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas to a black church in Charleston, from a supermarket in Boulder to the campus at Virginia Tech, from the army base at Fort Hood to a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip.

Every casualty was a victim of this war. Every casualty was murdered by a maniac with a weapon of war. Yet despite decades of campaigns for moderate gun reform, there’s still next to nothing to stop them. The last meaningful measures passed in Washington were almost 30 years ago. One was full of loopholes. The other was left to expire.

Which leaves us where? This year alone in the United States of America, there have been 213 mass shootings. So far. We’re not even at the halfway point. We know there will be more.

Because despite popular support for change, politicians beholden to guns rights groups won’t lift a finger to make it harder for these madmen to get their guns.

Remember, these aren’t guns in the hands of homeowners. They’re not guns in the hands of hunters. Nor target-shooters or collectors. Those are just straw men in the rhetoric of the radicals. No, they are guns in the hands of madmen. Guns the madmen found deplorably easy to get.

This is a war with the gun rights groups, first and foremost the NRA, and with the pig-headed politicians whose elections they support, who in turn dependably support them. They support them by finding all kinds of scapegoats for the madness— this week it’s insecure schools and mental health. They support them by parroting their perfidious mantra, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” conveniently leaving the other half out: that people kill people with guns.

It’s a war we are losing. How else to say it when so many people purchased weapons of war in just the last two weeks that the value of stock in the companies that make them shot up as much as 15%? How else to say it when we already have more guns in this country than people, and yet our countrymen bought almost twenty million more last year? By way of a contemptible comparison, the nation with the world’s next highest ratio of guns to people is Yemen.

People of like mind ask me, how do we fight this war? How do we wage war against the people who profit from it? My only answer is, support the politicians who fight on our side. Support them with your voice, support them with your money.

Otherwise, on Memorial Day a year from now, we’ll have more war victims to honor, more casualties who died in schools and supermarkets, not in uniform.

What Are They Thinking At The NRA?

How do you think the leaders of the NRA first reacted Tuesday afternoon when news reached them of the elementary school shootings in Texas?

Would you guess that their first reaction was, “Oh my god, what a horrible tragedy this is for those families?” Or, “Oh my god, what a horrible tragedy this could be for us. How can we fight off the inevitable new calls for gun control?”

I seldom speculate, but indulge me here: it was the second reaction, not the first. Yes, the NRA’s uncompromising leaders and its militant members must surely also mourn the deaths of those children, but if history is any guide, their first instinct when more got gunned down Tuesday was to protect what they define as their unbridled, unchecked, unimpeded Second Amendment rights.

As we know from the sorrowful saga of massacres in America, the NRA gets its talking points out to its followers almost as fast as the murderers pull their triggers. We heard those talking points within hours of Tuesday’s shootings.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz cried crocodile tears and professed, “We’re all completely sickened and heartbroken,” but then went into battle mode: “Inevitably when there’s a murderer of this kind, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens.” Just in case it strikes you as relevant, Cruz got $300,000 from the gun lobby for his last campaign, more than any other congressional candidate in the country.

His colleague, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, also a beneficiary of NRA largesse, was more explicit about Republican intransigence on guns: “What we need to avoid is the reflexive reaction we have, to say this could all be solved by not having guns in anyone’s hands.”

Oh yes it might. That’s called common sense.

Arizona’s far-right Representative Paul Gosar— he’s the one who tweeted a meme last year showing him killing liberal Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez— even went beyond the conventional NRA rubbish and had the gall to shift the blame, tweeting that the shooter was a “transsexual leftist illegal alien.” He wasn’t.

But the hypocrisy of these people was epitomized by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made a floor speech today depicting the shooter in Texas as a “deranged young man” and a “maniac”— all tragically true. How else could you describe him? Within a week of his 18th birthday, as he posted his evil plans on the internet, he was able to legally purchase two assault rifles and 375 rounds of ammunition. But did McConnell offer a single suggestion that would make it harder for a maniac like this— or the one who killed ten people the week before at a supermarket in Buffalo, or countless others— to get their hands on these weapons of war? No. Not a word.

Do you know the last time Congress actually supported a major bill about guns? It was the year 2005, the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” but here’s the irony: as the name implies, it wasn’t written to make us safer from guns, it was written to make gun manufacturers safer from us, preventing us from suing them if we’re the victims of the guns they make. President George W. Bush signed it into law.

The last major legislation to control the epidemic of guns? You have to go back to The Brady Handgun Violence Act of 1993, which required background checks before a licensed dealer or importer or manufacturer could sell a gun. But loopholes persist to this day. Then in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the assaults weapon ban. Ten years later though, it expired, and despite several attempts, never passed again.

Nor has anything else.

So kids like the school shooter in Texas, and the supermarket shooter in Buffalo, and a long line of murderous maniacs before them, can put their hands on weapons suitable for a slaughter. As President Biden rightly asked Tuesday night after his 17-hour flight home from Asia, “What in God’s name do you need an assault weapon for except to kill someone?”

Which raises these questions: is society safer with more guns, or fewer? Right now, there are more guns in America than people. Are we safer when criminally-minded citizens can easily get their hands on a gun, or the other way around? Are we safer if a little extra bureaucracy for law-abiding gun buyers means a little extra burden for those intent on murder? Are we safer if our society is flooded with guns like no other society on earth? Or are we safer if there is some sensible effort to manage the floodgates.

The NRA’s appalling answer is, the more guns, the better.

Its mantra is, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Ironic, isn’t it then, that when Donald Trump addresses an annual NRA conference this Friday in Houston— only hours from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas— no guns will be allowed in the room. Maybe, if the NRA is right, it’s people they shouldn’t allow.

Just last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed seven laws loosening the limits on gun ownership and bragged, “Texas will always be the leader in defending the Second Amendment.”

That tells you what we’re stuck with. He and his ilk care more about protecting the Second Amendment than they care about protecting victims shot by the very weapons the Second Amendment supposedly safeguards.

A Curse, and Only in America.

In his address from the White House, President Biden said that when he heard about the Texas school shootings during his 17-hour flight home from Asia, “What struck me was, these kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world.”

“Why?” he asked.

“They have mental health problems. They have domestic disputes in other countries. They have people who are lost. But these kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency that they happen in America.”

We know the answer, but too many American politicians, beholden to their benefactors and their base, won’t say it out loud.

So, for only the second time since writing on Substack, I’m turning over this page to someone else: my friend and former colleague Dan Rather. He has said everything I would say, but better, about our ceaseless cancer of gun violence. More than 140 mass shootings this year alone… and it’s only May.


The tears flow. Anger, a deep and pervasive anger, wracks the body, and the soul.

We knew there would be an “again,” but the pain is never lessened by the foreboding.

There is so much to say. And nothing left to say.

There is so much heartbreak and loss. So much loss. And trauma. And emptiness. And rage. And a knot of mixed emotions that propel us to a sadness that defies our attempts to rationalize these horrors. As they come, once again, in quick succession.

We like to think of ourselves as a “can-do” country. But we can’t do anything about this plague on our children? The fabric of communities torn apart?

We like to think we are a special country, and when it comes to gun violence we are— for all the wrong reasons. For reasons that can be measured in graves, and empty desks in classrooms, and lives that will not reach their promise. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of children who have witnessed school shootings. And the millions who have had to imagine and prepare for horrors like these. No other country that matches us in wealth or privilege has this problem. Not even close.

How can this be acceptable? How can we do nothing? How can we choose to make this horrific pain part of our national birthright?

There are answers to all of these questions. But they don’t add up to any semblance of sense.

This is senseless. And all who condone it, all who offer meaningless “thoughts and prayers,” all who say the answer is more guns and fewer restrictions, are complicit in the carnage.

I do not think that is a majority of Americans. Not by a long shot. There is a lot more common sense and empathy in the population at large than in the elected leaders who offer fealty to the most extreme interpretations of the Second Amendment. There are measures that can make us safer. There are steps we can take.

There are no perfect answers, but to accept the unacceptable must never be acceptable.

There Is No Winner… But Putin’s The Big Loser.

People jumped on Joe Biden for the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan. I was one of them. Although ultimately successful on an unprecedented scale, it was messy and, for thirteen members of the U.S. military, deadly.

Vladimir Putin should be so lucky. Even if ultimately he holds onto the pieces of Ukraine that he craves the most, his invasion has been a disaster.

For anyone who condemns Putin for waging this wicked war, this is good news.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence last week issued this brutal assessment of Russian casualties: “Russia has now likely suffered losses of one-third of the ground combat force it committed in February,” which is when it launched its attack.

And, after spending hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize its military— at the expense of almost every other lagging sector of society— Russia has lost countless missiles and tanks, helicopters and warplanes. Even the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea naval fleet, was attacked, and sank. Up to 250 Russian sailors died.

So Putin can goose-step his way through Red Square on Victory Day every year with a show of force, but from the performance of his military in Ukraine— the pathetically planned supply lines for his infantry, the failure of his air force to control the skies, the compromising retreats from original goals of the invasion— that’s what it is: a show.

Equally devastating losses can be logged for the nation on the world stage. It has gone from superpower to pariah. Although Ukraine’s European allies don’t all agree on the range of military assistance to the embattled nation or on the scope of sanctions against Russia, they’re all on the same side. With Ukraine, against Russia. There is solidarity we haven’t seen in a long, long time.

And Putin personally has lost standing at home, despite his best efforts to muzzle critics. Russian bloggers, some embedded on the battlefield with their country’s forces, have broken through the barriers and given citizens with access an uncensored picture of the war. After the misadventure a week ago when, according to the Institute for the Study of War, almost 500 Russian soldiers died when Ukrainian forces bombarded their pontoon bridges, one blogger wrote, “Because of the stupidity of the Russian command— at least one battalion tactical group was burned, possibly two.” Another told his audience that vital equipment “is catastrophically lacking on the front.” A third charged that Russian commanders who staged the river crossing were guilty of “not idiocy, but direct sabotage.”

Meantime a former colonel in the Russian army went public Monday night on none less than the Russian equivalent of 60 Minutes on Rossiya, Russian state television. “The biggest problem with our military and political situation is that we are in total geopolitical isolation,” Mikhail Khodarenok said. “And the whole world is against us, even if we don’t want to admit it.”

Not exactly what Vladimir Putin wants to hear.

No one knows for sure what really drove Putin to attack Ukraine— a longing for the greatness of Soviet power, protection of the people in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking provinces from “Nazification” and “genocide,” or his fear that NATO will expand, which from his writings Putin sees as an existential threat.

Probably some of each. But since Russia has been broadly denounced, not glorified for its invasion, its power is diminished, not strengthened. So Putin has failed. Its hold on those Russian-speaking areas still isn’t firm— the Pentagon just today predicted it will never be. So Putin has failed.

And after their leaders’ visit today to the White House, Finland and Sweden are on track to abandon their longtime military neutrality and join NATO. So Putin has failed big-time. Rather than reinforcing his buffer against NATO nations, it looks like he’ll soon have NATO aircraft and armaments lined up along an additional 800 miles of his nation’s border. As late-night television host Stephen Colbert put it, this is “good news” because it’s “bad news for Russia.”

By the way, Vladimir Putin also has achieved something that by current standards, few would think possible: he has brought Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress together. Today, by a lopsided vote of 86 to 11, the Senate approved an additional $40-billion in aid for Ukraine.

And it doesn’t end there, because there is no end to the punishment Putin has laid on his people. Like trashing their economy.

Inflation in Russia is between 18 and 23%, almost three times as high as ours. Interest rates are at 14%, whereas analysts see ours going as high as 3% by the end of the year.

And the production of goods and services? According to the Yale School of Management, almost a thousand western companies, including key players in Russia’s energy industry, the main source of its income, now have closed down their operations there. McDonald’s was an early one, temporarily shuttering its 800 restaurants right after the invasion. Then this week, citing the “humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine,” it announced that it’s selling every store.

I’ve been to one of the Moscow McDonald’s and it was mobbed. The Russian people won’t be happy.

Russia was even excluded from last Saturday’s culturally cherished Eurovision Song Contest. Adding insult to injury, the musical folk-rap group from Ukraine won.

But the pitiful reality is, there is no winner here. Parts of many Ukrainian cities are rubble. Economically, everything from factories to farms have been decimated. Untold thousands are dead, millions displaced.

All because of the merciless aspirations of a megalomaniac.

Vladimir Putin has squandered much of what is important to Russia. In a democratic society, he would be finished. But Harry Truman’s famous slogan, “The buck stops here,” never reached the Kremlin.

Still, take heart. Putin might end up winning some of what he wanted when he went to war, but he is losing much of what he lives for.

No, there is no winner. But by many measures, the big loser is Russia.

Are The Dark Ages Coming Back?

This looks like a return to the Dark Ages.

It’s no surprise if you’re not sure whether I’m talking about Afghanistan or the United States of America.

These days, it could be both.

In Afghanistan, the Dark Ages rarely have been pierced by light— my everlasting if grisly metaphor is the sports match I came across long ago near Kabul where teams were playing polo with the head of an enemy.

Now, the Dark Ages there are turning even darker. Early this month, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—that’s the reinstated name for the short-lived Ministry of Women’s Affairs— announced that allowing women seen out in public to merely modestly cover their faces, their legs, and their hair is no longer good enough. A new decree demands, they must cover themselves from head to toe.

What this means is, the only parts of a woman that now can be seen in public are her hands, and the shoes on her feet. According to a spokesman for the ministry, only when she drapes herself in a burka— with a woven screen covering even her eyes— will a woman be safe from any “disturbance.”

It mirrors what a Saudi prince— a U.S.-educated Saudi prince— once told me on a flight across his country in a private jet when I asked about his own nation’s treatment of women: “Everything we do, we do for them, we do it all to protect them.”

In Afghanistan, that kind of primitive “protection” extends to proclamations that prevent most women from working, that disallow them from taking road trips without a male relative, that forbid them from even just sitting in a vehicle without a veil, and the darkest of them all, the rule that bans Afghan girls from school after sixth grade.

And why? “We want our sisters to live with dignity and safety,” says the man who leads the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. It seems they didn’t ask many women.

Which brings me to the U.S.A. If I were to write about “a Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” in our nation, you might be excused if immediately you think about the governors and senators and representatives… and even the Supreme Court justices… from the far Republican Right. To say nothing of the legions of legislators at the state level.

No, they’re not issuing moral decrees about women in public places. They’re issuing decrees about women in private places. They are trying to impose their moral standards— even if some only embraced such standards to get themselves elected— on darned near everything. Most alarmingly right now, they would eliminate a woman’s right to choose, a woman’s right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would abolish Roe v. Wade, which almost fifty years ago affirmed that constitutional right to choose, might only be the first step of our own American descent into the Dark Ages.

NYU law professor Melissa Murray read the Roe v. Wade draft, written by Justice Samuel Alito, and told the news site Vox what she sees coming for other established rights. “Although Justice Alito insisted that the draft opinion’s antipathy for settled precedent was limited to abortion, the opinion was littered with casual references to Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 decision decriminalizing same-sex sodomy; Obergefell v. Hodges, a 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage; Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that legalized contraceptive use; and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 decision legalizing interracial marriage.”

We can disagree ourselves about which practices seem palatable in modern American society, but by and large, each is an expansion of every citizen’s civil rights, every citizen’s human rights. Same-sex relations? It’s not for all of us, but who are we to tell someone else that it’s not for them either? Contraceptives? Woe be the world where every couple produces a dozen offspring. Interracial marriage? If that were illegal, Justice Clarence Thomas might be a bachelor.

What’s more, in her analysis, Professor Murray didn’t even include other issues under attack. There are laws or legislation in Republican-dominated states to censor lessons to schoolchildren about our nation’s harsh racial history, to limit the rights of everyone who is LGBTQ and even of anyone who dares to discuss LGBTQ issues in elementary and middle school classrooms, and in the spirit of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, to ban what these self-proclaimed moral icons consider offensive books from libraries— not just school libraries, but public libraries too.

This is what America’s Dark Ages might look like. It is an age where there is no bottom.

And abortion? The first step, if the High Court affirms the draft opinion next month, would enable individual states to prohibit it. In some cases, it would be banned even when a pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, which used to be acceptable exceptions even in conservative legislation.

But the next step is even more authoritarian. There are moves afoot to codify a nationwide ban on abortion. If the day comes when far-Right Republicans control every branch of the federal government, such a ban can become reality.

The Dark Ages? Louisiana recently threatened to take us all the way down that dystopian path. Before its state legislature decided Friday that there is a boundary they choose not to cross, there was support for a bill that would make abortion a criminal act, and open the door to charging women who terminate their pregnancies with murder.

Before Roe, women with no safe way to terminate a pregnancy had to quit a job— and lose an income— to have that child. Some terminated anyway, resorting to crude instruments like coat hangers to force the abortion. Many died. Advocates for the elimination of the right to choose evidently would prefer to return to those Dark Ages in America.

Even anti-abortion advocate Matthew Walther, editor of a Catholic journal called The Lamp, admits that there is a dark side to abolishing abortions. “I believe that those who oppose abortion should not discount the possibility that its proscription will have consequences that some of us would otherwise regret. No matter what we do, in a post-Roe world many children who would not otherwise have been born will live lives of utter misery, and many of our fellow Americans will be indifferent to their plight.”

Indifferent, indeed, to the plight of those children, and to the plight of every citizen who until now had reason to believe that his or her rights were guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America.

“Imagine,” The New York Times rightly hypothesized in the lead sentence of an editorial, “that every state were free to choose whether to allow Black people and white people to marry.”

Imagine that every state were free to choose whether to ban books. Or to make it hard again for minorities to vote. Or to reinstate slavery.

I had thought we were past that. Maybe not.

The purpose of having a constitution for the whole nation, a constitution that sometimes supersedes those of the states, is to enshrine rights for every American, not just those in states that choose to respect those rights.

If our Constitution and the rights it protects aren’t respected, the Dark Ages come next.

Are South Africa’s Rights Safer Than Ours?

I just read that this is the anniversary in South Africa of what one news report called “another step from apartheid to democracy by adopting a constitution that guaranteed equal rights for blacks and whites.”

If the past informs the present, then we could use a few more guarantees about equal rights ourselves.

We learned last week that a woman’s right to choose looks likely to be unconscionably crushed, and with that on the horizon, that right-wing politicians and commentators already are saying they would use the principle that has been cited to abolish abortion rights— the disingenuous principle that such rights are not expressly permitted in the Constitution— to challenge gay rights, marriage rights, voting rights, racial rights.

To hear these people thirsting to return to a nation of white, straight, Christian, authoritarian dominion, the sky is the limit.

Which brings me back to lessons from South Africa. Lessons I learned occasionally covering the country as a reporter.

For at least two decades, most Western news organizations maintained bureaus in South Africa, not because there was so much news to cover there on a daily basis, but because it seemed inevitable that as black protests grew against the restrictive regimen of apartheid, there would be a war. The government of the white minority would not give an inch, and the black majority would not forever tolerate its official classification as third class citizens. There were predictions that blacks would choose revenge over reconciliation, that the swimming pools behind white-owned mansions would run red with blood.

Their anger was no surprise.

The first time I ever traveled to South Africa to spend time in ABC News’s bureau, I checked into my hotel in downtown Johannesburg after the long overnight flight from London, then went outside to get some fresh air. Just across the street was a department store where a good-sized crowd had collected in front of its picture windows, all black people, peering at appliances on the other side of the glass.

I then taxied to the bureau and happened to mention the department store crowd to a local staffer, and she explained it. Johannesburg blacks were confined to living in the township called Soweto (which simply stood for South West Township)… but because they were third class citizens, the government hadn’t bothered to run electricity into Soweto. So these people were longingly looking at appliances that they could never expect to use. She said it was as if they were looking at Mars which, like electricity in their homes, they were never likely to see for themselves.

In another story of black life during apartheid, a correspondent for a British newspaper who I happened to know flew in to substitute for the vacationing resident correspondent, and stayed in the resident correspondent’s home. But since the visitor always parked in the driveway, he didn’t enter the garage until he’d been there a week and when he did he was flabbergasted by what he found: the maid who normally served the home’s owner was cowering in a large cardboard appliance crate. Because she didn’t have a pass permitting her to even be on the street, she was afraid to leave the garage.

That was the burden for black women and men in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela suffered mightily trying to change that. In 1964 he was sentenced, along with other anti-apartheid revolutionaries, to life imprisonment at hard labor, and spent 18 years of his punishment on Robben Island, the Alcatraz of South Africa. It was within sight of the gorgeous city of Cape Town, but nonetheless, for political prisoners, an impossible distance away.

That’s where he was the driving force behind that constitution in place for 26 years now that today guarantees equal rights for all.

I found out how, 12 years after apartheid finally faded out. I had gone back to do an hour-long program about post-apartheid South Africa, and as a part of it, I interviewed a man named Ahmed Khatrada. On Robben Island, he was Nelson Mandela’s cellmate during the intermittent periods when prisoners were not interned in isolation.

What he told me about equal rights in South Africa, and how they came about, should inform the present.

As prisoners chopped rocks in a limestone quarry on the island, Mandela would go to a guard and tell him, “I gotta piss.” To which the guard typically would say, “Go into that cavity in the quarry but be quick about it.”

Meantime, others in Mandela’s circle would go to other guards and do the same thing.

They didn’t have but minutes at a time in the cavity, but while secretively assembled there, they would talk about a South Africa without apartheid, the South Africa of their dreams. And they’d talk about the constitution in a South Africa like that. Although some thought it ought to deprive whites of their rights the way blacks had long been marginalized, it was Mandela who pushed against them, arguing for equal rights for all, black, white, and in-between. Eventually, on scraps of paper they had to hide in their clothing, they furtively wrote passages for that constitution, passages about a nation not only where the long-dominant whites no longer would be favored, but where the newly empowered blacks would not be favored either.

A South Africa where all would share in its fortunes, and in its future.

Things haven’t worked out the way they dreamed. Last time I was there, about a half-dozen years ago, there still were massive settlements where many blacks only had thin slats of wood for their walls and tin or tarpaper for their roofs. Plenty didn’t have electricity and many who did had pilfered it by running wires from someplace else. Nor did everyone have running water. People had to survive with what they called the “bucket system,” filling buckets from public taps and hauling these heavy loads of water back home. In one settlement called Khayelitsha, there was one concrete communal toilet for every 106 inhabitants.

Not the South Africa of people’s expectations. Not the South Africa of people’s dreams. And yet, although it still has a bitter taste for some, people are free. On paper and, in principle, they have equal rights. They still are oppressed by their poverty, but not by their constitution.

Here in the United States, today, we are looking at a return to our own state of oppression, thanks to a narrow and obsolete view of our Constitution, and, albeit a minority, a self-serving passel of politicians who have forgotten the sacrifices that won us our cherished Constitutional protections in the first place. With the composition of the Supreme Court and, according to current polls, the composition of the next Congress, that minority might soon be in the driver’s seat.

It makes this year’s elections all the more important. Supporting honest candidates, getting out the vote. Because any rights they take away— any guarantees we once felt were foolproof— won’t soon be restored.

Give Putin An Inch, He’ll Take A Mile.

With thousands dead in Ukraine so far, and the incomparably costly and almost irreparable ruination of its cities and towns and villages so far, and with its railroads and runways pummeled and its main sources of income, both industrial and agricultural, largely demolished, there is a good argument for President Zelensky make the hard call and end the war, and let Putin keep what he has taken. Especially since without that, as is now crystal clear, it will all only get worse.

But hard as it is to say, I think there’s a better argument against it.

In a larger context, President Biden framed the argument last week: “The cost of failing to stand up to violent aggression… has always been higher than the cost of standing firm against such attacks.” A simpler form of the same theme is what my mother used to say: “Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.”

Putin wants a mile.

Mark Elovitz, Director of the Centre for Strategic Geopolitics, reached a different conclusion. He has written, “Matters may come down to a seemingly simple question: Should Ukraine’s unbridled nationalism, vaunted patriotism and the uncommon valor of Ukraine’s military trump the sheer survival of Ukrainian troops and the earthly existence of that nation’s desperately beleaguered citizenry?”

But I propose a different question, with even more cataclysmic potential consequences: If Ukraine surrenders the land that Putin has grabbed and insists on keeping, where does it stop? Can anyone feel safe? Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia, all of which were part of Putin’s beloved Soviet Union and all of which share borders with Russia? What about Poland which also shares a border and which once was part of the Soviet bloc? Not to mention Norway and Finland, the Western nations that border Putin’s land.

As well as the rest of Ukraine itself. How do we know, President Zelensky asked last week on CNN, that if Ukraine agrees to Russia’s terms and lets its guard down, “they won’t come back… towards Kyiv.”

If Zelensky were to agree to cede territory to end the war, could we trust Putin to abide by any such agreement? Zelensky himself certainly has no reason to trust him at all. As he put it to CNN, mincing no words about Putin’s “special military operation,” “Look what happened in Bucha. It’s clear that is not even a war, it’s a genocide. They just killed people. Not soldiers, people. They just shot people in the streets. People were riding bicycles, taking the bus or just walking down the street. There were corpses lining the streets.”

Who could ever trust a man who would do things like that?

Don’t forget, during his first term as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin declared in a State of the Nation address that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

This doesn’t sound like a man who is satisfied today with his nation’s diminished power and smaller profile on the world stage. It suggests a man who wants a return to glory, a man who I once saw tell a rally in Moscow, “We were a superpower once, we will be a superpower again.” It suggests a megalomaniac who might not stop just with Ukraine. Which brings us back to the question, if he does get away with carving out parts of a sovereign nation and returning them to Russia’s fold— which he already did eight years ago with Crimea— what’s next? Who’s next? Can anyone feel safe?

On the day in late February when Russia launched its brutal attack, Putin warned Western nations that if they tried to stop him, there would be “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” Then when reports came out that that long-neutral Finland and Sweden might join NATO, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s first successor as President and now the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, added fuel to Putin’s threat, saying that if they did, there could be no more talk of a “nuclear free” Baltic.

Putin plays the nuclear card as if the concept that kept the peace through the Cold War, “Mutual Assured Destruction,” was mere folly.

Mark Elovitz from the Centre for Strategic Geopolitics argues that the deciding factor for Zelensky ought to be the oft-cited adage, “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who is dead!” But that ignores a crucial contradiction: for Vladimir Putin, war is the price of power. War with Ukraine, war with anyone else who stands in his way.

A piece of President Zelensky must want to do anything to save his nation from even more destruction and even more death. But the other piece is what resonates with me: if you don’t fight this war now, you fight a worse war next.

Sometimes, when decisions are tough, we have to put things on a scale. Mine puts more weight on Zelensky standing firm and giving Russia nothing. Thankfully there are parts of Ukraine that have not been destroyed but still, given the scope of decimated lives and the scale of economic destruction, whoever wins will rule over rubble. Better the Ukrainian people than the Russians.

If “Trump Is Forever,” Heaven Help Us

On a newscast just last night, I saw the future: a sign at a rally in Ohio with the chilling words, “Presidents are temporary. Trump is forever.”

And then, within hours, the future came. The news site Politico reported that despite almost fifty years of established precedent, five Republicans on the United States Supreme Court, maybe even all six, have voted to void the legal foundation for abortions in America, Roe v. Wade.

Not to soften it, not to weaken it, but according to the report, to trash it. And not because the Constitution expressly forbids abortions, but because it doesn’t specifically permit them. So if Politico’s exposition is accurate, they will overturn settled law because they wish it weren’t. They will allow states to criminalize a woman’s right to choose.

Trump is forever.

Plenty has been said in the past six years about the dangerous direction of today’s Republican Party, encouraged by Donald Trump: turning the other cheek to racism, turning the other cheek to violence, turning the other cheek to Un-American assaults on fair elections at every level of government, and, in the most perilous part of the party’s de facto policy, not just turning the other cheek but proactively doing their damndest to dismember our democracy.

Now add the Court. If Trump is forever, what other institutions will it uproot? What other rights will it outlaw?

Maybe voting rights come next.

Last week, two prominent never-Trump Republicans raised alarms. Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, surveyed her own party’s push for election-denying candidates for Secretary of State in states across the country, an office long ignored but now seen as a gateway to control elections: “This is an effort… to change the rules to make the results come out the way they want them to.” And an influential member of Michigan’s GOP hierarchy named Tony Daunt took off the gloves, calling Donald Trump an “undisciplined loser” and “a deranged narcissist,” criticizing fellow state leaders for “encouraging his delusional lies… ensuring their continued hold on power.”

What they’re talking about are people who are conspiring to destroy democracy. If they’ll conspire about something as fundamental as that, what won’t they conspire on?

And what about the politicians at the party’s forefront? Not just Trump, but the younger copycats and wannabes and acquiescent acolytes who would epitomize that sign saying “Trump is forever?” When Donald Trump is long gone, they’ll still be around. Heaven forbid, these are the kinds of people who aspire to lead us. Heaven forbid, these are the kinds of people who would shape America’s next era.

People like Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has been blatantly racist and homophobic and antisemitic since the day she took office and whose latest conspiratorial outrage, spurred by Catholic support for refugees and migrants, was to declare last week, “Satan is controlling the Church.” If crusades persist to impose conservative “Christian” dominion on this nation— let alone the madness of QAnon— she will be at the forefront.

People like Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida— still being investigated by the way for sex trafficking— who shamelessly gave a thumbs up to the January 6th insurrectionists and said afterwards on a podcast, “We’re ashamed of nothing.” If we lose the principle that justice is blind, he will be the first to remove his glasses.

People like Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, whose passion for firearms is so fanatically strong that in a country where guns already outnumber people, she festooned her young family for last year’s Christmas card not with boughs of holly, but with more guns. Big ones. If common-sense gun reform gets shot full of holes, she will have her finger on the trigger.

People like Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who just can’t stay out of trouble. After claiming a month ago that he’d been invited to Congressional cocaine-laced orgies, photos then emerged of the congressman himself at a party wearing women’s lingerie, followed by his detention last week at the Charlotte airport when he tried to take a loaded Staccato C2 9-millimeter handgun onto an airplane. He’d already been stopped last year for essentially the same thing at the airport in Asheville. When character no longer is a common qualifier for high public office, he will be the poster boy.

And since his name is being bandied about as a presidential candidate in 2024, I have to include people like Fox commentator Tucker Carlson, whose true character was laid bare last weekend in an exhaustive profile in The New York Times by a montage of his soundbites with one theme and one theme only: if you’re a white man in America, you’re in trouble and you’d better fight back. If there’s ever a race war, Carlson will strike the match.

These are examples of what “forever” has in store for us.

But people like these are just the low-hanging fruit.

There’s also Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, head of the House Freedom Caucus, who just weeks after the 2020 vote was called for Joe Biden, tried to use Government to achieve political goals by getting the National Security Agency to investigate never-substantiated claims of rigged voting machines, then by getting the Department of Justice to overturn the election.

And Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who also abused his authority by threatening Twitter— which of course kicked Donald Trump off its service for inciting violence— with a federal inquisition if it didn’t sell out last week to Elon Musk, who has hinted that he might allow Trump back on.

And one cannot compile this list without the likes of Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, who put an animated video on social media showing him killing New York’s liberal Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who bedecked himself in bulletproof body armor and spoke before Donald Trump at the so-called “Save America” rally on January 6th, assuring the crowd that it was “the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

That’s exactly what they did.

And of course there’s the would-be Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of California. He flat-out lied late last month about a news report quoting unflattering comments he’d made about Donald Trump, calling it “totally false and wrong”… until audio leaked proving it totally true and right.

Liars across the landscape. Trump is forever.

Then there are the forever-Trumpers in the statehouses of America. Like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who in a hyper-hypocritical dismissal of conservative disdain for Big Brother in government, has banned books he deems dangerous. And Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who in a bonehead move that financial analysts say cost his own state more than $4-billion and the United States almost $10-billion, initiated border-blocking “enhanced inspections” on thousands of trucks— legally carrying perishable food for American consumers and high-tech components for American factories— crossing in from Mexico.

This story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the ten unpatriotic Republicans in Congress who last week voted against legislation that would allow the United States to get more weapons more quickly into Ukraine. Or the seventeen who voted against a resolution vowing support for Ukraine’s neighbor, tiny Moldova, which could be the next sovereign nation in Vladimir Putin’s crosshairs.

President Biden laid out the stakes on March 28th: “The cost of failing to stand up to violent aggression in Europe has always been higher than the cost of standing firm against such attacks.” Sad to say, these congressmen stand up only for themselves.

If “Trump is forever,” and these are the people who perpetuate his legacy, we are in trouble.

Because of the three rock-ribbed right-wing Trump appointees to the Supreme Court, who currently are its youngest members, it will be a while before the Court can be resurrected as an equitable intermediary for the American people. But we have congressional and gubernatorial elections later this year. That is where mainstream Americans, whose sign should say “Democracy is forever,” must take their stand.

Inspiring Stories of Inspiring People Helping Ukraine

An uplifting story just caught my eye. Uplifting, even though it’s about Ukraine.

In a newspaper called The Mountaineer in Waynesville, North Carolina, writer Carol Viau tells about a local citizen who has put his life on the line to help a nation being torn to shreds by a barbaric and pitiless aggressor.

His name is John Culp, an explosives specialist. He retired as a Lt. Colonel from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, then did the same work with explosives as a civilian for the federal government. And then, in the spirit of better-known non-profits like Doctors Without Borders, he became a part of Bomb Techs Without Borders. Its mission? “To prevent casualties caused by landmines, IEDs, and other explosive remnants of war.”

Heaven knows, Ukraine today is Ground Zero for that.

Bomb Techs Without Borders is not part of any government program to help Ukraine. The bomb techs, like Culp, are volunteers, so much so that he has donated not only his time and expertise, but his travel expenses, to get into Ukraine to defuse bombs. As Viau writes, he starting seeing social media posts about firefighters and police taking on the dangerous challenge of “safing” unexploded ordnance— needless to say, not part of their basic training— and decided not just that he could help, but that he should help. The army vet told one interviewer, “I feel it’s an elemental struggle between good and evil.”

The first ordinance he worked on wasn’t even fired, it was in the remnants of Russian tanks after they were destroyed early in the war by the Ukrainians. “I feel like Ukraine is fighting the war we were planning to fight 30 years ago,” he says, and told Viau, “The cold war is now hot. I’m going to do my bit.”

From what I see, a lot of us want to “do my bit.” But how?

Well, other stories also have caught my eye. One is about a Syrian-American surgeon from Edinburg, Texas, who already has traveled to Ukraine several times to lend a hand in its severely stressed medical system— severely stressed because so many hospitals and clinics have been bombed, and because so many Ukrainians, bombarded in Russia’s blitz, need medical help.

His name is Monger Yazji, and sometimes he has been part of more than a half-dozen surgeries in a single day. “As a physician first,” he told CNN, “it’s our duty and our ethics to help every needy person in the war.”

Then there’s Malcolm Nance, who was a national security analyst for many years on MSNBC but when the war started, the longtime television talker got into Ukraine and enlisted in a multinational volunteer unit with the Ukrainian armed forces. “The more I saw of the war I thought, I’m done talking, it’s time to take action.”

Ukraine says there are about a hundred Americans who have taken action as Nance has done, and thousands more from other nations.

And here’s an inspiring story from near San Diego, where thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been entering the U.S. from Tijuana, Mexico. Members of a church in Chula Vista, only about eight miles north of the border, have offered at least temporary homes to thousands who’ve fled Ukraine. “Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself,” the pastor explains. “Right now, these are our neighbors.”

But maybe my favorite story— because it’s something we all can relate to— is about a guy named Erich Priester in Tubac, Arizona. As a supporter of Ukraine, he’s showing the flag. Literally.

Priester is cutting rectangular planks of wood and in his garage, painting them the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Dozens of them and more to come. Then he goes to his neighbors and asks them to show the flag, just like he does.

Many have said yes. Moral support counts for something too.

Stories like these are the silver lining of this unspeakable war. But of course most of us don’t have the means, or the skills, or the unstinting devotion to do what these assiduous Americans are doing. We don’t have to. Because in smaller ways, whether they’re literal or symbolic, we can show our own support for Ukraine.

We can donate to relief agencies to help the ill-starred refugees— including those still stuck in Ukraine— who’ve done nothing to deserve Vladimir Putin’s punishment. We can let our elected officials in Washington know that our country’s contributions to a democracy fighting to stay alive is a small price to pay for that beleaguered nation’s sacrifices. And we can endure higher gas prices without complaint, because every time we drive to the pump, we can simply tell ourselves, every Ukrainian is having a tougher day than we are.

Ginni Thomas, Clarence Thomas, They Matter

“A week has gone by and I’m still aghast.”

Columnist Frank Bruni wrote that seven days after news broke late last month that Ginni Thomas, whose husband Clarence is the longest currently-serving justice on the United States Supreme Court, supported, encouraged, arguably even urged the overthrow of the democratic process, culminating in the insurrection of January 6th.

The news was that in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral defeat— in some cases just days after the election was called for Joe Biden— Mrs. Thomas sent almost 30 texts to Trump’s chief-of-staff Mark Meadows with messages like, “Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!,” “Save us from the left taking America down,” “Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History,” and “We just cave to people wanting Biden to be anointed?”

The news was that the spouse of a Supreme Court justice, as NYU law professor Stephen Gillers put it, was “part of the team,” the team that tried to overturn the legitimate presidential election of 2020.

But as columnist Bruni bemoaned, the news about Ginni Thomas’s un-American exploits faded away almost as quickly as it broke, pretty much replaced within a week by the Oscar-unworthy slap by Will Smith.

“Let’s please, please move past Will Smith… and reallocate our attention to her behavior.”

If only. Because we might already have moved past Ginni Thomas too. As law reporter Dahlia Lithwick wrote in, “The Thomases, who have not offered up one word of explanation or justification for this new apparent conflict, yet again surf the wave of public outrage to the peaceful shore of ‘Nothing Matters LOL’.”

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course. Everyone is entitled to advocate for whatever they like. But Ginni Thomas is not your everyday advocate. She founded and runs a political lobbying firm in Washington. She was part of a group of Republican politicos who met nearly monthly in the Trump White House. She personally was at the fateful “fight like hell” rally on January 6th from which insurrectionists descended on the Capitol (there are reports that she even helped organize the rally, although she denies it). And although she insisted to the Washington Free Beacon that “Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work,” her most egregious eminence is that she is married to a justice of the Supreme Court, a justice before whom cases have been heard over the years in which his own wife’s clients have had an interest, these clients in some instances actually filing briefs about which her husband would sit in judgement.

Now, there will likely be cases before the Court about the insurrection itself.

There already has been one, the fight over the release of White House documents from the National Archives that Donald Trump tried to block. Eight justices voted against Trump, including five of the Court’s conservatives. Only one voted in his favor: Clarence Thomas.

No one can say for sure whether his dissent was in deference to his wife’s fervor for Trump. But one can say for sure that, as law professor Gillers put it, Justice Thomas “has an understandable interest in protecting” his wife and that therefore, “his impartiality might reasonably be questioned, which the law says requires recusal.” One also can say for sure that morally, if not legally, Ginni Thomas should not have played any part in the counterfeit campaign to overturn the election. “What a terrifying moment,” Frank Bruni wrote, “in which the wife of a serving Supreme Court justice unabashedly exploits her insider access, ignores the idea of checks and balances, (and) promotes conspiracy theories.”

But since she and Meadows are on the same side, here’s how he responded to her texts imploring him not to “cave to the elites”: “We will fight until there is no fight left. Our country is too precious to give up on. Thanks for all you do.”

As we all know, they didn’t give up. They did everything they could not to “cave.” Ginni Smith is in the thick of it.

Yet today, if you’re not reading anymore about Will Smith, you might be reading about Ben Affleck and JLo. Or perhaps, as columnist Maureen Dowd recently pointed out, about Kim Kardashian.

“Please, Kim Kardashian, don’t elope with Pete Davidson,” is how Dowd sarcastically started her piece. Her point wasn’t that she cares about their nuptials. Rather, what she cares about is our collective attention span. “Can we find ways to keep our attention on things that require our attention? Do we have any mental discipline at all?”

Things like Ukraine. Things like Covid. Things like our democracy. Things like Ginni Thomas.

The realistic answer is, maybe not. As Dowd wrote, “We live in a world of endless distractions.” I have no doubt that more people this past month were talking about Will Smith and JLo and Kardashian than about Ginni Thomas. Most might not even know who Ginni Thomas is.

They should, because we’re not talking here about other insurrectionist enablers, not even the likes of Donald Trump Jr. whose texts to Mark Meadows two days after the election, claiming “We have operational control,” explored ways to steal back the presidency. Donald Trump Jr. does not share pillow talk with a Supreme Court justice. Ginni Thomas does.

Although federal law says that a judge should recuse himself or herself from a case when a spouse has “an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding,” Supreme Court justices pretty much police themselves. They are the sole arbiters of whether there’s a conflict of interest with the cases they hear.

So if cases about the insurrection or the election itself do make it to the High Court, what will Clarence Thomas do? That’s up to him. Hopefully he understands that the Court’s legitimacy rests not only on the Constitution but on trust of the people it protects. Even the appearance of impropriety— and I’d argue that this is more than just “appearance”— erodes that trust.

Should we hear more about any role Ginni Thomas might have played in the insurrection? Absolutely. But an even higher priority is that if more cases about the election or the insurrection come before the High Court, we shouldn’t hear from Justice Thomas at all. Because he should not, in good conscience, even be in the room.

The Depth of Loss, The Unforeseeable Future. No One Knows. Anything.

Many news stories ought to end with “No one knows.” Certainly every story about this war.

No one knows the depth of loss still looming over Ukraine. How many more citizens will die? How many more cities will be crushed? No one knows how long Ukraine’s courageous but outgunned forces can hold off the Russians. Keir Giles of Britain’s Conflict Studies Research Centre says the odds aren’t good: “Russia has time on its side.” No one knows how far Vladimir Putin will go to get what he wants. No one knows, not for sure, what he wants.

All we know is, every time we think to ourselves, he just wouldn’t go that far, he does. Then farther.

Another thing no one knows is how far the West eventually might go to stop Putin. Beyond support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, what will the West do if he ignores international treaties and, as some say has already happened, he uses phosphorus weapons in cities. Or worse, chemical weapons. Or worst of all, nuclear weapons?

And while there is talk about some day putting Putin on trial to answer for his atrocities, no one knows how.

From all appearances, he doesn’t even seem to care. Costly miscalculations, crippling sanctions, threats, isolation, none has changed his behavior.

Nor has the growing chorus of global condemnations. As Russia’s war machine murderously marauds through Ukraine, the rhetoric grows rougher— Putin has been called a terrorist, a war criminal, then on Tuesday, President Biden’s charge of genocide. Biden’s calling it what it is, because among other things, genocide means someone’s striving to destroy a national population, which is what Putin is doing as he tries, however futilely, to turn all Ukrainians into Russians, or as Biden put it, “to wipe out the idea of even being able to be Ukrainian.”

French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Biden for raising the heat, saying “an escalation of rhetoric” might escalate tensions. Monsieur le President, tensions already could not be higher. If we have learned nothing else in the 50 days of this war, we have learned that diplomatic niceties won’t move Putin. Ukraine’s President Zelensky applauded Biden, saying, “Calling things by their name is essential to stand up to evil.”


No one knows about the indiscriminate impact on Ukrainian children, although it can only be awful. Some have seen horrors, some have been displaced, some have been orphaned, all have had their lives disrupted.

One mother in Mariupol, named Kristina, said of her scared and hungry children, “The fire was gone from their eyes.” Another named Oleksandra Makoviy hand-wrote vital information on the back of her diapered daughter Vira, age 2, so that “if my husband and I died, Vira could find who she is.”

And if a picture is worth a thousand words, 6-year-old Vlad Tanyuk’s face speaks for all the children of the nation. He was photographed by the Associated Press behind his home, beside the grave of his mother Maryna, who died of starvation during a siege near Kyiv.

President Zelensky this week said what everybody sees: Russia has destroyed “any basis of normal life.”

How can life be normal when time is on the side of the abuser, not the abused?

How can life be normal when there are scenes like this, with a caption in The New York Times saying, “Burying bodies in a cemetery in Bucha?”

Because cemeteries now are everywhere. They bury bodies behind the fences of home-grown gardens. They bury bodies in the grass medians of roads. They bury bodies in the plazas of public parks. They have too many bodies to bury only in cemeteries. They bury bodies in the nearest available space.

How can life be normal when no one even knows if Putin will stop with Ukraine? Apparently he hoped his invasion would be a warning to NATO not to expand, but now two historically neutral nations, Sweden and Finland, are talking about joining the military alliance, which ironically Putin precipitated. So he has just gone a step further, threatening to move nuclear weapons closer to his two neighbors and warning them, if they proceed, of “the most undesirable consequences.”

The prime minister of Estonia said last month, “Mr. Putin cannot win this war. He cannot even think he has won, or his appetite will grow.” His appetite for territory, his appetite for control. As the leader of a former Soviet republic, she would know better than most. But no one knows what would sate his appetite.

Centuries ago, Genghis Kahn and his Mongols swept across Asia, then Europe, leaving nothing but death and devastation in their path. Decades ago, Hitler tormented all of Europe with the same diabolical disdain. As Poland knows so well.

In the 21st Century we thought we were past this. Now, no one knows.

A Landscape Of Horrors

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, people have asked me, “Do you miss it? Do you wish you were there?” My answer is yes, because while covering catastrophes certainly isn’t fun, it is fulfilling because it gives you a front row seat to history and an opportunity to share your distinct and hard-won perspectives with an audience that wants to understand what you’ve come to understand. But I’m too old these days to be there myself, so like everyone else, I have to depend on the gutsy journalists who are there, on our behalf, now.

That’s why, for this post, these three paragraphs of prologue are the only ones that I myself am writing. The rest is from a staggering story published today, written and photographed by brave journalists from The New York Times. In the many years that I have written commentaries— for Scripps-Howard Newspapers, for The Denver Post, now for Substack, I have never before turned over my space to others, but both the portrayals and the photos from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, which the writer calls “a landscape of horrors,” merit the widest possible audience.

What they show is what former British prime minister Gordon Brown yesterday profoundly described as levels of death and destruction that are “not byproducts of war, but actual policies of war.” As the story says right at the top, “The following images depict graphic violence.” Yes, they are hard to see. But it always was my view when I was the one disseminating such discomfiting words and images that in some tragedies, things ought to be hard to see, all the better to support and sympathize with the victims.

Here is the New York Times original article:
A Landscape of Horrors

Is A New Iron Curtain Coming?

“A new Iron Curtain?” That was the question in a recent headline of The Christian Science Monitor.

It mirrored Ukrainian President Zelinsky’s alarm on the very day Russia invaded his sovereign nation. He called it “the sound of a new iron curtain.”

I worked behind the Iron Curtain. It is a frightful sound.

If there is a new one, it could separate Ukraine from the West. It could even separate the entire East— as much as Russia can chew off— from the West.

But it also could be a new Iron Curtain for Russia itself. Not so much to keep its people in, but with Vladimir Putin’s almost complete suppression of free speech, to keep authentic documentation of the war out.

It might be the only way, in what is otherwise an age of instantaneous information, that Putin as president can survive.

During the Cold War, I traveled in and out of the Soviet Union. At our Moscow bureau I’d watch evening newscasts on Soviet TV, with a translator telling me what was being said. Every night there would be a story about the USA. One night it would show homeless people sleeping on park benches. The next night, jobless people in unemployment lines. The next, a murder victim lying in a pool of blood on an American city street.

Then, in an endless cycle, they’d run again.

That was the picture people got of life in the United States. The only picture. It was not so much a vacuum of information as it was a vacuum of accurate information.

The vacuum was so impermeable that for many years, American presidents were only portrayed as devils, with fire spitting from their lips, horns growing from their heads.

But when President Ronald Reagan held his first summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, it was shown live on Soviet television and Soviet citizens, long isolated from the realities of the outside world, saw Reagan up close and unadulterated for the very first time.

I covered the Moscow angle of the summit and at an appliance store across from our bureau, people were lined up outside on the sidewalk, two and three deep, watching the summit from TV sets inside the store. I went over and asked why they were braving the icy November cold, even though they couldn’t actually hear the program. Their answer was, they wanted to see the real thing.

The question for Russia today, more than 35 years later is, is “the real thing” a relic of a vanishing flurry of freedoms? Is this a new Iron Curtain coming down?

In a way, yes. In another way, no.

Yes, because in a distressing duplication of Soviet control, Vladimir Putin has cut his people off from accurate information about the bloodthirsty barbarity of Ukraine. The simplest and most obvious example is the euphemism he created for what is a full-scale war: “special military operation.” He’s telling his people that their armed forces are in a fight, but what he’s telling them about the fight— what he’s keeping from them about the fight— is a lie. By and large they are stuck with what state-run media wants to tell them.

So they know precious little about the Russian butchery in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, where the latest count of slaughtered Ukrainian citizens is 164.

They know precious little about the Russian rocket that killed more than 50 two days ago at the railroad station in Kramatorsk, where refugees had been boarding trains to get someplace safer— the Kremlin called stories of the attack a Ukrainian “provocation” that “absolutely do not correspond to reality.” They surely wouldn’t be allowed to see this raw and revolting report from CNN, in which Russian soldiers are recorded urging indiscriminate murder.

Writer William Doyle has been interviewing Russians who have just fled to Finland from Russia. One described his countrymen this way: “They are very isolated, with no communication, only their television. They work hard all day, come home exhausted and the TV is their only source.”

That might explain the view of Luka Chernykh, a Russian man in Siberia who was interviewed by phone by The New York Times. Although his own 22-year-old soldier son died in the war, Chernykh told The Times, “If America didn’t supply weapons to the Ukrainian Nazis, then there would be no deaths of our young guys. I know the Russian spirit and I know that Russians do not shoot at civilians. Only Nazis could do that.”

But no, an Iron Curtain as impenetrable as the old one can’t be built again, because the curtain can’t be made of iron any more. Inevitably, information does seep through. Not all of it, and not to everybody, but plenty of Russians find their way around Putin’s restrictions and then, if by no more than word of mouth, spread the word to others.

Of course that carries its own risks, which limit the spread. There are reports of Russians, across its eleven time zones, being fined and sometimes arrested for even the smallest infractions of Putin’s new laws prohibiting even the use of the word “war,” let alone actually protesting in the smallest ways. Shockingly, there are even reports of Russians turning on, and turning in, fellow Russians who aren’t supportive of their nation’s “special military operation.”

Shades of Stalin.

No surprise, since Putin called a few weeks ago for a “self-purification” where citizens could “distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths.”

More shades of Stalin.

Russians are nationalists. They revere what their nation has accomplished: its history, its culture, its fortitude, its power. They have a lot of things to make them proud. If they ever learn the full scope of this ruthless war though, it won’t be one of them.

If they ever learn. A new Iron Curtain might mean, they won’t.

How Much WORSE For Ukraine If Trump Were Still Around?

Here’s a spine-chilling question about the war in Ukraine: How much worse would things be if Donald Trump were still president?

If history is any guide— if as Shakespeare wrote, the past is prologue— they would be immeasurably worse.

Exhibit A: When he was president— even before he was president— Donald Trump never showed any inclination to doubt Vladimir Putin, let alone challenge him. So when Putin assured the world— before Russia invaded Ukraine— that Russia would not invade Ukraine, Trump most likely would have taken Putin at his word. Remember their Helsinki summit? U.S. intelligence had concluded that Russia had meddled in the presidential election, but when Trump was asked if he believed that assessment, he stood with Putin, declaring, “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” effectively throwing his own intelligence agencies under the bus.

Therefore it is a safe bet that if he were still president, Donald Trump would not have done what Joe Biden did so effectively, publicly revealing the extraordinarily accurate assessments by U.S. intelligence about Putin’s plans for Ukraine, potently shining a bright light on his lies. It’s more likely that Trump would have left the gate wide open for Putin.

Exhibit B: When Putin’s troops did launch their attack, what was Donald Trump’s first reaction? “This is genius,” he said. “Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine… as independent, and ‘we’re gonna help keep peace.’ You gotta say that’s pretty savvy.”

Did we hear any words of condemnation for a superpower pummeling an outgunned neighbor? Not a one. Only the envious admiration of a wannabe American authoritarian for an authentic Russian authoritarian. No surprise, since President Trump had nicer things to say about the likes of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (“We fell in love”) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (who he congratulated for “an unbelievable job” for having drug dealers murdered) than anything he said about America’s closest allies.

Exhibit C: Donald Trump never showed any inclination to support Ukraine.

To the contrary, in 2014, before Trump even became president, the Russian ruler invaded Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and made it part of Russia, which came right on the heels of Russia’s Olympics in Sochi. Shortly afterwards, Trump made a speech at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, and had nothing but praise for how Putin pulled off that unlawful land grab. “So he has the Olympics, the day after the Olympics he starts with Ukraine, the day after, how smart, you know, he didn’t want to do it during the Olympics, boom, the day after.”

Was there an ounce of outrage from the eventual President of the United States? Not for a moment. Like a tool for the Kremlin’s own propaganda machine, Trump later said on ABC’s This Week, “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” In case the point is lost, “where they were” was Ukraine.

Then, of course, there was Trump putting pressure on Ukraine’s President Zelinsky to dig up dirt on the Biden family by withholding some $400-million worth of military aid that Zelinsky needed to fight the insurrection in eastern Ukraine, which has now blown up into a full-on war. Remember his so-called “perfect call?”

It was all in pursuit of his own selfish and arguably unpatriotic political ambitions.

What this said to Ukraine was, “The President of the United States does not have your back.”

Not then, and if Trump were still in power, not now.

Exhibit D: Think about President Biden’s tenacious campaign to create a coalition to punish Russia, rallying a range of nations to put the pain to Putin. He united nations threatened by Russia and nations that weren’t, nations democratic and undemocratic alike. Plainly put, even if Trump had tried, he’d have failed, because although our European allies sometimes humored him, they didn’t like him and certainly never trusted him.

That takes us to President Biden’s trip abroad late last month, which underscored his success in regaining the trust of our friends in America’s most essential alliance, NATO. The president of the European Council— comprised of the heads of state from the European Union— told Biden, “Your presence here and your participation in this European Council meeting is a very strong signal.”

Imagine if that were Trump, not Biden. Nicholas Burns, an American ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush, wrote in The Atlantic while Trump was still president, “Trump… seems to relish going after the Europeans in full view of the rest of the world.”

Exhibit E: If you’re known by the company you keep, Donald Trump keeps company with disciples who have supported Putin’s unprovoked attack and skewered the United States for coming to Ukraine’s defense. The likes of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, commentator Tucker Carlson, and white nationalist Nick Fuentes, along with their fellow travelers.

In Greene’s case, after Putin claimed that his “special military operation” was for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, she tweeted Moscow’s talking points about Ukraine’s “possible Nazi militias that are torturing innocent people, especially women and children.”

Fox’s Carlson has regurgitated claims from Russia’s state-owned television network RT about bioweapons labs in Ukraine, among other things, which RT has then dutifully re-aired in Russia. Fuentes has praised Vladimir Putin for “liberating Russia.”

All self-professed fans of Donald Trump, as he has proved himself fans of theirs.

Exhibit F: Trump’s not finished. In an internet interview last week, in the midst of the ongoing slaughter in Ukraine, his sole self-serving focus was on presidential son Hunter Biden’s past business dealings there, and whether they were corrupt. It might be a legitimate issue for sure, but for Trump, it was the only issue. ”I would think Putin would know the answer to that,” he said, virtually appealing to the butcher of Ukraine for help. “I think he should release it. I think we should know that answer.” As if that’s all we need to hear right now from Vladimir Putin.

Exhibit G: Putin’s not finished either. A host on Russian state television last week urged Americans to “change the regime in the U.S…. and to again help our partner Trump to become President.” They’re not even hiding it any more.

And no wonder. Trump and Putin operate from the same playbook. The core of both men’s support is ultra right-wing and rural. They both appeal to ideologues zealously hostile to homosexuality and abortion. They both charge their detractors with “fake news” and show their disdain for freedom of the press.

Yale professor Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny, recently compared Vladimir Putin’s deceptions to Adolf Hitler’s: “Tell a lie so big that people will not believe that you would ever try to deceive them on such a grand scale.”

Not to equate Trump to Hitler— that would be unfair and a vulgar affront to the millions murdered by the Nazis— but is it irrational to compare Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election to Putin’s about Ukraine, as lies “so big that people will not believe that you would ever try to deceive them?”

So how much worse would things be for Ukraine if Donald Trump were still president? Would he be more likely to stand firmly and act strongly to punish Putin for waging an unprovoked and merciless war? Or would he be more likely to stand with his base and broaden his bromance with Vladimir Putin?

If history is any guide, the answers are spine-chillingly clear.

One Day The Dentist, The Next Day War

“One day you are driving to the dentist. The next you are whispering with strangers in a dark basement.”

That is how it sometimes starts. That is how the life of an ordinary, law-abiding, family-focused citizen can be indecorously upended. By war, and sometimes too, though with more weeping than whispering, by a natural disaster.

“It is the shocking realization that suddenly, unwillingly, you are a refugee,” correspondent Sabrina Tavernise wrote for The New York Times after interviewing dozens of women, many with children, who had escaped the war zone of Ukraine, each now “dependent on the generosity of strangers, no longer a middle class person in charge of your own life.”

Now multiply by ten million. That’s the current count of Ukrainians displaced by this dreadful war. Ten million and growing.

What they’re going through, I have seen in war zones and natural disasters both. One day you have a home and a place to earn a living, a store to buy your food and a school for your children’s education, a hospital for health care and a theater for entertainment. The day after, it is all gone, as if it’s been wiped off the face of the earth, and you see no future beyond your very next step.

But a step in what direction? Toward what target? With what fate awaiting you on the step beyond that?

When we see or read about refugees in the news, we don’t always think about all that.

I have covered wars and the refugees they beget. In Lebanon’s civil war, if they couldn’t leave the country, people in Beirut had to leave their neighborhoods if they lived on the wrong side of the Muslim-Christian divide. In the war for black majority rule that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, those in the line of fire had to move entire villages from one part of the country to another. In Iran, if you’d supported the revolution, you could stay. If you’d supported the Shah, or even merely worked for Americans who were presumed to be tied to the Shah (which was a black mark on every Iranian who helped U.S. news organizations, very much like what you heard about in Afghanistan), you had to get out. One friend of mine walked with his family almost the length of the country, all the way to Pakistan, to escape. The alternative was the certainty of imprisonment and the possibility of execution.

Given the unfathomable side of human nature… and the unpredictable side of Mother Nature… there will always be refugees.

But the image of refugees forever imprinted in my head is from right here at home during one of our nation’s major natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina. On the first day after the wind stopped blowing, a cameraman and I floated in a swamp boat with a two-man rescue crew into the worst-hit part of New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward, where a levee had been breached. The water came clear up to the street signs, and more chilling, clear up to the rooftops. It had risen so fast— past the first floors, then the second— that residents had literally punched holes through their roofs and climbed out on top to stay above the flood. That’s where we found them. That’s where we took them off. That’s where we got them into the boat.

Men, women, and children. A few dogs too. We’d pull away from what had been their homes and most wouldn’t look back. What they’d left behind would be uninhabitable. Most every piece of furniture, most every stitch of clothing, most every electric device, most every pot and pan, irreparably water-logged, or coated in erosively thick mud.

In the flick of a hurricane’s eye they were down to nothing. They were refugees.

Most I’ve met— in that disaster and others— have told me that for all they’d lost, they were still grateful because their families had survived, they still had each other. That is the indomitable human spirit. But as we dropped boatload after boatload of these Katrina refugees at a levee still intact, to be transported on flatbed trucks to the fetid Superdome and from there, to some distant city willing to take them in, I found it hard to share the positivity of their spirit. All I saw were these poor souls, having lost everything but their loved ones, climbing out from our boat and stepping onto the levee with small children on their shoulders, older ones held by the hand, and only the wet clothes on their backs.

Each time we pulled away to rescue more refugees, I watched the load we’d dropped on the levee take those first steps into a world unknown, into a future of starting from scratch, into a life they could not possibly predict. Though the circumstance was different, the result in some ways was the same as in a war. Luckily they were in a nation that seeks solutions for people whose luck has been cut short, but otherwise they were little better off than the refugees from Lebanon, from Zimbabwe, from Iran.

A few days later, I rode with a busload of Katrina refugees for the first hour of their flight from the flood. And I couldn’t shake those questions: in what direction were they headed? Toward what target? With what fate awaiting them on the steps beyond that?

Right now, as you read this, those ten-million-plus Ukrainians face the same questions, taking steps down that same unsettled path. According to the United Nations, six-and-a-half million or more are thought to be displaced but still within their nation’s borders, at least until they can make it out. Another 3.8 million have made it out, with more than two million now in Poland, hundreds of thousands in Romania and Hungary, Slovakia and even tiny Moldova, and many more in most of the rest of Europe. President Biden has rightly pledged to bring a hundred thousand war refugees to the U.S.A.

It was little more than a month ago that they were driving to the dentist, but the day after, whispering with strangers in a dark basement.

We should be sympathetic. We should be charitable. We should count our blessings that it’s not us.

Could We Face a Cyber Armageddon?

We’re all aware of the nuclear threat that Vladimir Putin put on the table when he menacingly said at the start of the war that Russia “remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” and put his nuclear forces on high alert, and warned that if the West “tries to stand in our way,” there could be “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.”

We are less aware of the cyber threat that’s also out there known as a “cyber apocalypse,” a bombardment of malware, ransomware, and other malignant machinations to either dangerously slow, or altogether shut down, a nation’s civilian infrastructure. Some use an even more chilling name for this threat: cyber Armageddon.

Imagine if Armageddon comes.

Imagine how bad it would be if your electricity, your heat, your water stopped working. Imagine if you couldn’t make a phone call, or send a text, or get an email, or access social media. Imagine if your credit cards didn’t connect, your bank accounts were irretrievable, your stock holdings were frozen, or your medical records disappeared. Imagine if food producers stopped producing, pipelines stopped flowing, and hospitals stopped functioning. Imagine if you couldn’t pump gas and busses couldn’t run and planes couldn’t fly.

If the war in Ukraine escalates to that level of cyberwarfare, we won’t have to imagine it. We’ll be living it. Because all those critical needs and more— our digital information sources, our weather forecasting tools, our military’s communication networks— are dependent these days on computers, and computers are vulnerable to the threat of a cyber Armageddon.

So when President Biden warned earlier this week that U.S. intelligence agencies see “preparatory activity” by Russia that targets American infrastructure, that’s what he was talking about. To the degree that our intel on the whole Russian campaign has been reliable so far, this seems more than a theoretical threat. Rather, as Biden put it, “It’s part of Russia’s playbook.”

This could bring a war that is otherwise being fought thousands of miles from our shores, right up to our doorsteps. As a friend of mine profoundly put it, if Putin escalates to cyber or nuclear, “The miles don’t matter.”

We are not ill-equipped to deal with it, but we are not perfectly well-equipped either. The good news is, we still are the dominant force in the technology world— think Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others. The bad news is, what are known as “cyber defenses” are in the hands of each infrastructure provider— each water and gas and electricity utility, each cell phone company, each bank and brokerage, each hospital, each airline, and all the rest.

A case in point in this week’s news: federal prosecutors have just charged three Russian agents, who they say have “a decade of experience going after U.S. critical infrastructure,” with hacking with a dangerous malware called Triton into a privately owned nuclear power plant in eastern Kansas. One cybersecurity expert called it “a new leap in what is possible.”

A former senior official of the Department of Homeland Security, Tatyana Bolton, is confident that some of our critical companies are prepared for whatever could come: “The J.P. Morgans of the world spend more on cybersecurity than many government agencies.” But her confidence is tempered by the possibility that Putin has “pre-positioned malware” in our energy sector— like the nuclear plant in Kansas— and elsewhere and that under pressure, he might finally activate it.

It might also be tempered by the realistic appraisal of Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, about the limits of his ability to stop what’s coming: “We are a company, and not a government or a country.”

It’s equally realistic to consider the cybersecurity limits of our government. When the president issued his warning, he acknowledged that “the federal government cannot defend against this threat alone.” Glenn Gerstell, a former general counsel for the National Security Agency, confirms that. “The federal government, even if warned by companies like Microsoft of incoming cyberattacks, doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure in place to protect American businesses from many of these attacks.”

In short, no one— not in tech, not in government— can build an iron curtain to block a cyber apocalypse and protect us from every attack Putin might launch.

We know he could do it to us. We also know we could do it to him. Which raises the unnerving concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. In a nuclear confrontation, each side has defensive missiles that would shoot the enemy’s missiles down. But each side has enough offensive missiles that many would still get through.

In a cyber confrontation, each side has defenses, but not necessarily enough to insulate infrastructure from a crippling collapse. Not necessarily enough to prevent a cyber Armageddon.

So far, Vladimir Putin has not lit the fuse. But he does have the match.

I Thought I’d Seen It All. Putin Proves Me Wrong

I used to think I’d seen it all.

In my career, I’ve been detained in many places, arrested in some, jailed a few times, and deported from dictatorships. I’ve been beaten, shot at, even chased by a gang with machetes. I’ve been shelled by Iranian artillery and strafed by Soviet helicopters. I’ve had machine-guns held to my temple by boys too young to grow a beard, and worst of all, seen journalist friends killed close to me, twice right next to me. I’ve covered wars and revolutions and monstrous terrorist acts.

I used to think… in modern warfare, in modern times… I’d seen it all.

Not any more.

The Russian war on Ukraine exceeds all that. Citizens are displaced with indifference. Lives and livelihoods, hospitals and neighborhoods, even life’s basics like food and heat and water, are destroyed without pity. Ukraine’s president Zelinsky yesterday mournfully described the bomb-battered southern city of Mariupol as “just ruins like armageddon.” It is as if Vladimir Putin wants to bomb its people back to the stone age. The Russian assault is indiscriminate on a level I never would have imagined.

In the conflicts I covered, those who were brutalized were members of the wrong ethnic group, the wrong religious group, the wrong tribe. In Ukraine, the only sin for which people are being punished is that they are Ukrainians.

Not that it’s the first place I’ve seen where cities have been leveled and citizens have suffered. But it’s different than the rest.

In Beirut during the civil war, buildings caught in the crossfire were reduced to rubble.

The difference today in Ukraine is, they are targeted. In Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen stopped to bury their dead. In Ukraine, it’s sometimes not safe enough to collect the bodies, so they are left, of necessity, on the street, then buried in the nearest empty space.

In Belfast during The Troubles, people were blown up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The difference for Ukrainians today is, there is no safe place to hide. Every place is the wrong place.

One of the last international reporters in Mariupol, Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, spoke for all the sad souls whose lives have been forever upended. “I… witnessed deaths at the hospital, corpses in the streets, dozens of bodies shoved into a mass grave. I had seen so much death that I was filming almost without taking it in.”

Even as one who has seen so much myself, I never would have imagined.

Nor would Ukrainians, who must waken each night from their unsettled sleep asking, Why us? What did we do to deserve this?

The answer is, they sided with democracy. They supported democracy, which is antithetical to the doctrines of a dictator. And which might help explain, in fact, why parts of the world don’t see what we see, why parts of the world applaud the aggressor and not them.

What we see are harmless citizens, non-combatants, dying from relentless bombardments. What we see is the ungodly man behind the attacks, rightly branded by President Biden as a “murderous dictator.” We see a scenario of good and evil. We see war crimes.

But condemnation is not universal.

The lead paragraph of a recent piece in The New York Times read this way: “To an independent filmmaker in Hanoi, Vietnam, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is a ‘wise leader.’ In Rio de Janeiro, a former restaurant owner said he was convinced that Ukraine had hired actors to fake war injuries. And a 27-year-old doctor living near Nairobi in Kenya questioned how Americans could be outraged over the Russian invasion when ‘for so long, they had a monopoly over anarchy’.”

Less shocking but more unsettling is that other autocrats, threatened by a democracy movement like Ukraine’s, side with Russia’s ruthless ruler. That’s because in their societies, you’re either at the top of the heap or the bottom. American leaders leave office and build presidential libraries, make millions giving speeches, and metaphorically at least, live in peace behind a white picket fence. What despots understand is, if forced from the top of the pyramid, no lower level is safe. There is no picket fence to protect them.

So they hold on, no matter the cost.

Vladimir Putin, whose own life can be on the line, probably will finish what he started, and continue to wage a war I never would have imagined. A war we never would have imagined.

What I saw over those years of my career was the anguishing antithesis of child’s play. Yet it didn’t bear the heart-breaking brutality of Putin’s playbook. I thought I’d seen it all, but with the unrivaled sorrow of Ukraine, I hadn’t.

What’s Putin Thinking? Many Are Guessing, No One Knows

What is Vladimir Putin thinking? Why is Vladimir Putin doing what he’s doing? Is he a cunning calculator, a blundering miscalculator, a cold-blooded psychopath, or so cut off after two years of Covid that he’s removed from reality?

You don’t have to look hard to find analyses that purport to answer those questions and they’re important questions to ask, because the man has barbarically bombarded civilian populations, attacked targets dangerously close to the borders of NATO, threatened the nuclear option, and persisted with a crusade— despite losses to his own nation’s economy and army— that has no foreseeable finish. It’s what Dan Rather today called “Putin’s unknowable endgame.”

But here’s the thing: everyone who addresses these questions, no matter how much expertise they bring to the table, everyone is only guessing. The only accurate answer to the questions about Putin’s mindset is, maybe all of the above, some of the above, or none of the above. Prognostications in a situation like this, and about a man like this, are a fool’s folly. There is greater wisdom in laying out the possibilities than in guessing at which one is true. We are dealing with too many wild cards, especially when trying to discern not only Putin’s frame of mind but the outcome of the war itself: there are Ukraine’s ability to sustain such hellish losses, escalations or constraints in American and allied responses, China’s conflicting considerations, and the possible effect of internal deprivation and discontent in Russia, as well as what’s going on in the napoleonic mind of Putin himself.

When then-Vice President Biden met Putin ten years ago, he looked him in the eye and told him, “I don’t think you have a soul.”

One thing we do know is, Putin hasn’t turned back, and based on his pitiless playbook in the past— in Chechnya, in Syria, in Crimea— it looks like he won’t. Through our lens, the deaths of so many and the destruction of so much might make us rethink our objectives. Just in the now-besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol alone— where Russia has now demanded a Ukrainian surrender— between bombs that destroyed a maternity hospital, then a theater being used as a shelter (with “children” clearly painted in Russian outside for Putin’s pilots to see), and yesterday an art school where hundreds more sought safe haven, if we were in Putin’s shoes we might alter our battle plan and curtail civilian casualties.

Putin only presses on.

The Pope, calling the invasion “a senseless massacre” during his Sunday address, described two injured children he’d just visited who’d been transported for treatment to Rome: “One of them is missing an arm, another one wounded in the head, innocent children.”

But Putin only presses on.

Another thing we know is, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, the former partner of an oligarch known as “Putin’s banker,” has known Putin personally and was right when she told CNN that he has a “complete lack of sort of normal human morals.” From what we’ve seen so far, that’s not guesswork, it’s a fact.

How else to explain a man who claims to be stopping the “Nazification” of Ukraine but, in mimicking Nazi viciousness, is the personification of Naziism in the 21st Century? Not only because he is ruthlessly ravaging a neighbor nation and committing murderous war crimes against its people, but because he even speaks of his own countrymen— those opposed to the war he is waging— as “scum and traitors,” threatening to “spit them out like a fly.” Such words could have been lifted from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. If Putin’s call for “self-purification” doesn’t send chills up your spine, nothing will.

A third thing we know— at least from the intelligence arms of several allied nations including ours— is that Putin pretty clearly miscalculated his campaign. It appears that he didn’t expect the resistance of Ukraine’s defiant population or its outnumbered army, that he didn’t expect the punishing economic response of most of the world’s sovereign nations and many of its global corporations, and that he didn’t expect the weaknesses of his own military, weaknesses summarized by commentator Heather Cox Richardson: “Lots of bells and whistles but outdated food, a lack of support vehicles, conscripted and confused soldiers, and compromised communications.”

What it comes down to is, Putin evidently thought invading Ukraine would be a one-sided offensive. As it turns out, it’s more of a brutal brawl. As General David Petraeus put it last week, “It is going to be an endurance contest between the Russians’ willingness to destroy cities and the Ukrainians’ ability to survive such destruction.”

Look at what Russia’s ruler has reaped for Russia so far: a devastated economy, a damaged military, unprecedented protests at home, pariah status overseas, a united response by global leaders of all ideological stripes, and as General Petraeus satirically said, “Instead of ‘Making Russia Great Again,’ what Putin has done is to ‘Make NATO Great Again’.” All is counterproductive to what Putin, by his own words, set out to achieve. Even if ultimately he savagely strong-arms Ukraine into submission, he will have unified against him the very people he aspires to govern, and given birth to an insurgency that will make an occupation hellish.

And he will rule over rubble.

This is the greater Russia that Vladimir Putin seeks? As one correspondent wrote from the war zone, “Even if Putin does think he can get his old empire back, how do these days of savagery make that happen?” Whether he’s a cunning calculator, a blundering miscalculator, a cold-blooded psychopath, or removed from reality, they don’t.

Putting the Hurt on Putin

Give Joe Biden some credit.

Back in 1990, President George H.W. Bush turned over every stone to create a coalition of 37 nations to kick Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. I spent some of that time myself in Saudi Arabia, watching planes and troops and tanks pour in, but no one knew how long it would take for the war to start.

It took almost six months.

When Russia threatened Ukraine, President Biden put together a coalition in weeks, a coalition of countries with a broad range of ideologies from every inhabited continent. There are nations led by democratic leaders, and nations run by autocrats. There are former Soviet republics and Iron Curtain captives, and nations long free. There are nations on the far side of the world, and nations on the very edge of the war zone.

Just stop and think how amazing that is. Only a month ago, few would have foreseen it.

The European Union, countries that at different times have been economic, political, and military rivals, is unanimously on the side of Ukraine. The United Nations General Assembly is almost unanimous too; it condemned Russia’s invasion by a vote of 141 to 5. Maybe most impressive is the specter of prime ministers from Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic taking their perilous train trip yesterday across the war zone to show support for President Zelinsky in Kyiv.
Nations of all stripes have come together over Ukraine. And it has been orchestrated by the president of a reinvigorated superpower, the United States of America. His coalition is not just fortifying Ukraine’s military forces, it is punishing Ukraine’s unlawful oppressor.

And what has made Biden’s job even harder than George H.W. Bush’s is, he has asked governments and corporations to act against their own self-interest— to forsake exports like energy from Russia, to relinquish investment income from Russia, and not just incidentally, to potentially provoke a menacing megalomaniac like Putin to retaliate.

Against an enemy army eight times the size of its own, Ukraine might still lose, but because of the economic hurt Biden’s enterprise has put on Vladimir Putin’s nation, Russia loses too.

The Yale School of Management has been compiling a list of companies that have stopped, or at the very least slowed down, their business with Russia. 380 of them, and counting. What Yale rightly calls “a mass corporate exit.”

Big names we all know about, restaurants like Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks; retailers like H&M and Ikea, Nike and Adidas; manufacturers like Caterpillar and Philip Morris; energy giants like Exxon Mobil, BP, and Shell. Credit cards from Visa, Mastercard, and American Express won’t work any more in Russia. All four of the big accounting firms— Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC— are pulling out. Google, including YouTube, have gone off the Russian grid. Likewise Sony, Apple, and Microsoft. FedEx, UPS, and DSL have stopped delivering, Airbus and Boeing have stopped sending parts.

And maybe most woeful to everyday Russians: no more Heineken beer, no more Carlsberg. No more Netflix.

And no more McDonalds or Burger King. No more Coke or Pepsi.

The cola wars take a back seat to a war far more serious.

So as a coalition to punish Putin, it is an unprecedented success. Almost universal condemnation from the outside world, almost universal economic pain inside Russia. But there are two downsides to these measures.

One is, the people most hurt in Russia are the ones who have nothing to do with this war but can least afford to absorb its economic blows. They not only have lost the creature comforts they only acquired about 30 years ago when the Soviet Union crumbled, but the value of their money— the ruble— has dropped, so that an item that might have cost a thousand rubles before the war now costs 1,200 or more.

The other downside is, these measures might put Putin’s back to the wall to the point where he lashes out and destroys even more than he’s already doing.

If Vladimir Putin is hellbent on denuding and defeating Ukraine, then the withdrawal of Western businesses and the sanctions against Russia’s banks and oligarchs still might not change the outcome of the war— sanctions fail to alter nations’ behaviors as often as they succeed— but it all weakens Putin’s position of strength. Hurting his nation’s consumer sector might not change the outcome either, but it weakens Putin’s base of support. Some analysts believe that discontent over the disappearance of creature comforts that citizens have gotten used to— McDonalds and Netflix and all the rest— could be Putin’s undoing. How can he convince his citizens that he is building a grander empire when the empire is cracking in every direction?

Back when I reported from the Soviet Union, then from Russia, there were reminders wherever I looked of its long hard history, of suffering under Stalin, under the Communists, under the tsars before them. The short way to put it is, the Russian people have never had much to smile about.

Now denied their creature comforts and their nation cast as a pariah, they still don’t. But if President Biden and his coalition are going to hurt Putin, they have to hurt his people too. For me, that’s tolerable, because Russia’s pain doesn’t hold a candle to Ukraine’s.

When We Never Imagined The Unimaginable

Today is an awful anniversary: the anniversary of Friday the 13th, two years ago. For me, that’s the touchstone date for the pandemic’s first punch. For others it will vary by a day or two but in my calendar, it was on that aptly-named ill-fated day in 2020 that the coronavirus began its malignant sweep across our nation.

Two years ago, today.

Its startling speed was mirrored by a poignant personal ordeal. Someone my family and I loved had died, and we had plans to meet in California for a memorial. All told, some 200 people, family and friends, would gather at a local art center. But as alarms about the virus began to sound, county-wide restrictions were laid down to limit attendance to just a hundred, then to only fifty, and then, before that even sank in, to close the center and cancel the memorial. All in the short space of two days leading to Friday the 13th.

For my family and me, that’s when the world changed, but it wasn’t only us. Across America, our rueful ritual was repeated and before we knew it, we were all in a free fall. Without a clue about what would lie ahead.

We never imagined, not at the outset, that this virus would fundamentally alter how we live. That it would lead to abandoned offices and empty restaurants and shuttered stores, to airplanes grounded and stadiums closed and streets deserted. We never imagined that we’d suffer shortages of everything from computer chips to toilet paper, and that solid businesses would go bankrupt. We never imagined that we’d see schools shut down and students missing months of an irretrievable education, or hospitals bursting with patients on the edge of death and when they died, that they’d die alone. We never imagined that society would recognize that grocery clerks and teachers and truck drivers and medical workers were the heroes who arguably kept us from civil unrest.

On a trivial level, we never imagined that we’d be washing our groceries. On a tragic level, we never imagined that in the United States, almost a million people would die from the virus, six million worldwide.

We never imagined.

We never imagined that parents would turn a blind eye to restrictions they’d carefully crafted on screen time for their children. Or that people would let warning signs of heart pain play out rather than go to the hospital. Or that we’d fear the proximity of strangers. Or that we’d stop shaking hands. Or that we’d go so unendurably long before being in the same room again with loved ones. Or that we’d spend the better part of two years wearing masks, let alone that we’d be fighting about them, as if a pandemic is political. We never imagined that a virus that knows no difference between one ideology and another would morph into angry arguments about who has the right to protect us. We never imagined that science would be shunned.

There has been a lot of anger. There has been a lot of angst. There has been a lot of tears.

To be sure, some rejoiced at the new normal: the slower pace of life, the easier choice of wardrobe, the discovery of simple pleasures, and for families who weren’t separated, the togetherness that the old normal rarely allowed. But others saw the new normal— the lonely isolation of the lockdown, even the impersonal communication on Zoom— as imprisonment. One commentator wrote six months into the lockdown, “Yesterday was a long year.”

Just a couple of months into the pandemic, I wrote about one poor woman, a friend of a friend, whose husband had lung disease and whose five-year-old granddaughter had a compromised immune system. They were imprisoned by their bodies before the coronavirus even struck. When asked how anyone might help with her burdens, she simply said, “Catch my tears.”

But there also has been a lot of resilience, a new iteration of the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Resilient citizens innovated to keep their sanity. Resilient educators innovated to keep their students learning. Resilient businesses innovated to keep their heads above water. One futurist called it, “The acceleration of ideas.” Distance learning, ghost restaurants, e-sports, telemedicine, streaming entertainment, videoconferencing and more, becoming daily realities and going mainstream.

And there has been humor. Early on, a joke went around about an offer to swap a four-bedroom home for a 12-pack of toilet paper. Another described the newest sales pitch for real estate agents: “Can’t you just see yourself quarantining in this beautiful home?” Someone wrote about how he had just seen his homebound neighbor talking to his cat, thinking the cat actually understood, then he explained, “I went back home and told my dog about it. We had a good laugh.” Someone else quipped that dogs were having the time of their lives during the pandemic because for once, people weren’t shutting the door and leaving them alone from dawn to dusk. They got more walks than ever. Who knows, maybe it’s the dogs who started this mess.

We have learned a lot, we have suffered a lot, we have battled a lot, we have cried a lot. What we don’t know is, have we seen the worst? We see no surge for now, so vaccine requirements and mask mandates have been falling by the wayside, but still, as the head of the American Public Health Association reminded us this week, “The virus has fooled us every time.” A more menacing reminder: almost 1,300 people in the U.S. still are dying every day from this virus.

Is this the last anniversary we shall need to note? I always tried to avoid the cheap journalistic trick of ending a story by saying, “It remains to be seen.” But with this pandemic, there is no other way to put it.

The Risks The Journalists Face In Ukraine

If a bullet can strike a civilian in Ukraine, it can strike a journalist. If a missile, a rocket, a bomb can kill a civilian, it can kill a journalist.

That’s why reporting from Ukraine is a risky business. Reporting from any war is a risky business. So when you read, watch, or listen to journalists’ reports from this war, it might be useful to understand the risks and the challenges they face.

And to understand how they manage them.

I covered eight wars over the years— typically with a two-man camera crew who had to depend on my judgement as I depended on theirs— and albeit a simplification, there were two things we had to calculate every time we found ourselves facing gunfire or hostile mobs: how far to go without going too far, and how long to stay without staying too long.

Of course the deaths of journalists in every war underscore the fact that such calculations aren’t even close to foolproof. If a journalist had been at that maternity hospital in Mariupol that was just hit by an air strike, it would have been a rational calculation gone bad. But short of withdrawing from the field of battle, making an educated guess is the best you can do to stay alive.

Then add another risk, not unimaginable in Ukraine’s current state of martial law: the risk that soldiers— Russian or Ukrainian— try to stop you from doing your job. You can’t just wave a copy of the Constitution in their faces and assert freedom of the press. They’ve got the guns, you don’t. In too many places I’ve been, they’d just as soon stomp on our First Amendment as abide by it. In some, they’re happy to stomp on reporters too.

Another risk is telling the good guys from the bad guys. From what I’ve seen so far in Ukraine, that hasn’t been a challenge for journalists but since it is a nation where many have Russian roots, it’s not implausible that two soldiers in camouflage with similar ethnic features fight on different sides of the war. So knowing who will welcome you and who will threaten you isn’t always easy. In Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war, where two militia were in a lethal fight for control of a neighborhood, they didn’t carry different flags so we’d know who we were dealing with; everyone looked alike. In Tehran during the revolution, uniformed soldiers switched sides in the midst of the fighting, and we had no way of knowing who was who. In Belfast during The Troubles, Catholic terrorists and Protestant terrorists were all citizens of the same nation, and indistinguishable.

A cardinal challenge in journalism is not to be cheerleaders for one side, even when the difference between good and bad in the war in Ukraine is so obvious. Journalists on the ground there can be empathetic about the suffering and loss all around them. It’s only human. But their job is to report on what they see, not on how they feel. It’s challenging, but in the interest of solid journalism, necessary. Here at home, from what they tell us and show us, we can figure out which side we support.

They also can’t lose sight of the fact that every side puts out propaganda. An example is the casualty count of Russian soldiers. Ukraine claims more than 10,000 have been killed. Russia says it’s only in the hundreds. The U.S. Department of Defense gives a range between two- and four-thousand. Some claims might seem more credible than others— Ukraine has good cause to inflate the numbers while Russia has reason to minimize them— but unless a journalist can count every corpse, each claim has to be reported with attribution, if not also a dose of skepticism.

Then, even in the best of circumstances, there’s the unremitting challenge to get your story right, and anyone reporting from Ukraine is not blessed with the best of circumstances. Social media in this 21st Century can be a bountiful source of information, which can give journalists in the middle of a war plenty of help. But it also can be a dangerous source of misinformation, which makes the journalists’ job harder.

Still though, it’s an improvement on the pre-cellphone 20th Century. I saw a case in point on the PBS NewsHour Tuesday night. After reporting on the war from inside Ukraine, a correspondent transitioned to reporting something that President Biden had said about the war in Washington. Not long ago, that couldn’t have happened. We could be cut off from the outside world for days on end. We had to report only on what we could see with our own two eyes. No help from social media, no help from headquarters.

The best thing today’s journalists have going for them in a difficult environment like Ukraine is actually getting their stories out to the world. They have 21st Century technology as a tool for speed, and whether it’s the transmission of words and photos or a television broadcast in real time, here at home we have 24/7 access to what they’re reporting.

That’s in contrast to the days when we had to be a little more innovative to get some stories out. One night in the Soviet Union, for example, after we had captured remarkable video of KGB agents roughing up Soviet citizens on “International Human Rights Day,” we wanted to transmit it to the United States. But the censor in the control room at Moscow TV sat with her finger on a button to cut us off at the first offense, and the only way to distract her was to set off a small explosion— our Moscow-based video editor fortuitously was a former U.S. Army explosives expert. It worked. The censor leapt from her chair and along with the rest of us, fled from the building. I got kicked out of the country, but our story got on the air. In Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, we used a lower-tech technique to bypass suffocating controls, removing videotapes from their cassettes and spooling them tight around a pencil and paying a king’s ransom to civilian couriers to conceal them in their clothing and deliver “the package” to our people on the outside.

Journalists today in a place like Ukraine don’t have to do things like that. But that’s almost where the differences end. They’re still vulnerable to the same dangers my generation faced and, more important, the same dangers every besieged Ukrainian faces. They can manage the risks, but they can’t escape them.

What We Can’t Even Imagine

This is as much about emotion as analysis. For I can’t stop asking myself, why is Putin punishing civilians, non-combatants? Why is Putin punishing children?

One thing is increasingly obvious: the horrible scenes we see from Ukraine— families bloodied, children dead— are not what euphemistically we sometimes describe in wars as “collateral damage.” I’ve seen collateral damage. Where civilians are caught under a building collapsing after artillery fire, that’s collateral damage. Where civilians are caught between enemy factions exchanging gunfire, that’s collateral damage. Even where civilians are caught in a cloud of toxic gas meant to kill enemy soldiers, that’s collateral damage.

But what we’re seeing in news reports by this generation of gutsy journalists is more than collateral damage. By most accounts I’ve read, civilians appear to actually be indiscriminately, maybe even deliberately, targeted. Or at the very least, they are shown no sympathy as entrapped bystanders to a battle as Putin pursues his internationally illegal goals.

CNN‘S international security editor Nick Paton Walsh yesterday opined from Odessa about one nearby attack, in which the Russians “seem to just be lobbing rockets into the city’s suburbs.” It prompted him to say of the terrible toll of damage and death, “Even at the most generous assessment, it was through carelessness so extreme it was surely criminal.”

For good measure he also reported “three instances where apparent cluster munitions had landed in residential areas. NATO confirms that cluster bombs, which explode in mid-air and send small lethal projectiles in every direction, have dropped from Russian planes. Cluster bombs have been banned for a decade by the Oslo Convention. So for much of the world, that’s criminal too.

It’s almost as if the Ukrainian forces destroyed by this Russian assault are the collateral damage, while civilians are the ones directly in the Russians’ sights. It would make any rational government with a defiant but inferior force quiver. It also would make almost every step in Putin’s relentless bombardment a war crime.

As I watch, strangely sorry not to be seeing it all firsthand to best understand it as I used to do, I try to put myself in the shoes of the victims of these crimes, as I also used to do. Like any of you, from a safe distance thousands of miles from the war now, I can only try to imagine how it must feel to be a free country one day and under attack the next. I try, but I probably don’t even get close.

I try to imagine how it must feel to have your home pulverized, or equally scary, to wonder if it will be. I try to imagine how it must feel to have your work shut down and your income cut off, the prospects of renewal in a suddenly war-torn country dim. I try to imagine how it feels to see your schools and your hospitals and your bridges reduced to rubble. And how it feels to lose water and power and heat in the dead of winter with no switch to turn it all back on.

I try to imagine how it feels to be told for a third time now that your assailant will open corridors of evacuation from cities under siege, when the first two promises quickly collapsed under a barrage of shellfire.

I try to imagine the destitution of the refugees— UNICEF says there are 1.7 million so far and half of them are children. I try to imagine how defenseless Ukrainian parents must feel as they try to do the profoundly paramount job of a parent, to shelter their children… in normal circumstances from sickness and hunger and harm, but now from the bullets, from the bombs, from the trauma that every war triggers.

And I try to imagine these poor people wanting to ask Vladimir Putin questions that none can accurately, let alone logically, answer: “What did we do to deserve this? What did we ever do to you?”

I try to imagine how it feels to be attacked by a man with no scruples, a man who abandons international norms, a man whose ambitions for his own nation leave not an ounce of sympathy for the aspirations of another.

And a man whose personal history suggests no chance of contrition. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carlos Lozada just wrote in The Washington Post about First Person, the book Putin composed more than twenty years ago as he was rising to power