Monday, June 26, 2017

Messing With The Founders--On 3Quarks

The Founders are having a collective posthumous fit—and it's not because of Donald Trump.

Yes, it's true, Trump is not ever going to be one of the guys on Mount Rushmore—unless he buys the place and converts it to a luxury spa and personal shrine. He's just not a Rushmore type. We want our Presidents brave, eloquent, decisive, visionary, caring, gracious. That's not Trump. They need to have the intellectual ability and knowledge to integrate multiple sources of information to facilitate making complex decisions in rapid real time. Still no. Plus the emotional pliancy to cope with wrenching moral choices as a surrogate for the nation, taking upon themselves the responsibility for life or death choices and providing absolution for the rest of us. Yet another no. And a thick skin that enables them to do all these things with equanimity as a polarized electorate and a media hungry for scoops and gotcha tear at them. Definitely, absolutely, not our Donald.

At the risk of offending roughly a third of the electorate, let me make an obvious point: Whatever his talents in business or otherwise, as a President, Trump is a disaster, utterly unfit to hold the office. To offend the other two-thirds, I am going to suggest something radical: Unless he literally blows up the world (admittedly, not completely impossible) it doesn't matter. The Trump Presidency is a temporary problem—a big one, likely to be remembered for emotional vandalism, a hard-right agenda, and some crushing disappointments for his loyal base—but a temporary one. His Presidency will end. We will have another election, pick someone new, rebalance ourselves domestically, and reintroduce ourselves to the world as the rich, powerful, and reliable partner we were before. And to be truthful, the world isn't going to have that much of a choice, because we are still the Indispensable Nation—and because we really can be the good guys when we try.

We will get through the Trump Presidency. I say this because I have faith in our system. The Founders anticipated a Trump problem and built into the Constitution a variety of checks and balances that would either keep him from office (through the Electoral College), remove him (if he merits impeachment), or legally constrain him and limit the institutional damage he could cause if elected. And if all else fails, he still has to face the electorate in 2020. Sooner or later, he's going to have to take his Twitter account and his golf clubs and go home.

So, why are the Founders spinning in their graves? Because of the one man who, under the radar, is doing a lot more damage to Madison's delicate mechanism than Donald Trump. That would be the Senior Senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell. He's the guy with the can of gasoline and the box of matches burning down Independence Hall.

McConnell is in the public eye right now for sending the Gang of Thirteen into the treehouse (Girls Keep Out) to decide healthcare for the country. Whatever you think of Obamacare, you have to admit that a little sunlight might have been useful before the GOP decided to move on something so critically important to so many people. Mitch clearly didn't agree. There were oppressed one-tenth of one percenters who desperately needed help, and far too many Americans living the good life in ERs.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics--On

We all have our "desert island" videos. Send me with a couple of John Ford Westerns, perhaps Fort Apache and My Darling Clementine. Download to my notebook the first Godfather and the first Star Wars, and add something serious like The Sorrow and the Pity, Z, or the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Make me laugh with The Philadelphia Story or Young Frankenstein or The Producers. Do that, and I can play quietly by myself for a while without disturbing the adults.

Yet, I belong to a secret order, The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics, and would insist on having that movie in my go bag. It's got everything: The CIA, FBI, MI-6, the Russians. Chases in trucks, cars, and airplanes. Gadgets. Appealing women with foreign accents. Exotic disguises. Even some gun-play. And music—fantastic music. It's the kind of film you could watch 20 times (or more, but who's counting?) and you would still be finding things to make you smile.

The storyline is fairly simple. A CIA field agent (Miles Kendig), who, admittedly, is a bit of an antique, is pushed into a desk job by his boss, the quintessentially boorish (and short) Meyerson. Kendig doesn't want to be benched. He shreds his file (literally, as there are apparently no electronic copies in the late 1970's) and walks out. He decides to write a book, Hopscotch, documenting some of the Agency's less glorious moments (and featuring Meyerson) and begins sending juicy chapters to interested, and sometimes horrified, readers. Kendig goes off in search of a publisher and to reunite with Isobel, his old girlfriend. Meyerson goes off (with murderous intent) in search of Kendig, dragging Kendig's protégé, Joe Cutter, and a couple of hapless CIA guys, along for the ride. We have stops in Savannah, London, Bermuda and Salzburg, plus various border-crossings and other points East and West, and do some serious damage to reputations, houses, and ears.

The cast is terrific. Walter Matthau is Kendig, and while he may seem anything but the suave international spy, he's far smarter than anyone chasing him. Beneath that Oscar Madison exterior is someone quite creative with electronic and mechanical equipment, firecrackers, and paperclips.

Glenda Jackson plays Isobel, now retired from the Agency to "marry some old Nazi" who has since departed this mortal coil, leaving her with a very useful "Von" in her last name, an Austrian passport, and sufficient means to join forces with Kendig. This is the second movie the pair co-starred in, and the very offbeat, very adult chemistry they share is not unlike a good glass of wine…complex, but cuts grease. One could say it takes a great actress to make a sex symbol out of Matthau, but she likes the guy, for all his exasperating behavior. If Glenda Jackson likes you, you must be OK.

Rounding out the featured spies, Ned Beatty is Meyerson. He's thoroughly execrable, but doesn't turn the character into a cartoon. Sam Waterston sets intellectual women's hearts aflutter as Cutter (even Eleanor Roosevelt would have liked him), and Herbert Lom is a sly Yaskov, the KGB agent (you will love his omnipresent Boris Badanov hat, trench coat and mustache).

The film has some extraordinary assets beyond its leads. It was a very smart choice to hire Ronald Neame to direct. Neame brings a continental perspective to the contest between the two Americans. Meyerson is a stand-in for everything the Europeans disliked (and still dislike) about American power. He's a bully, he's unsophisticated, and, worst of all, he lacks manners. No one wants to play with Meyerson (he's one of the few characters who aren't even given a first name). But Hopscotch isn't political as much as it is a little subversive. Kendig (and Isobel, and Isobel's dog) take on stupid, ham-fisted bureaucrats who just happen to work for the CIA. If there's a Deep State, Meyerson is definitely part of it.
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Monday, May 15, 2017

Comey Comedy

In case you were backpacking in Borneo last week and hadn’t heard, the Most Powerful Man On Earth (and Grand Imperial Poohbah) fired his insufficiently loyal FBI Director.

That was the easy part. Trump was either always planning to fire Comey (after being outraged that Comey didn’t insist Hillary be indicted) or blowing kisses at him (literally and figuratively) after Comey’s yes-she-did-no-she-didn’t just before the election, or “furious” that Comey hadn’t set the entire FBI to the sole purpose of finding leakers, or whatever else he might have been thinking at any moment since then. You can check with his crack communications staff to get an annotated hour-to-hour sense of the Trumpian mood, with an approximate 50% certainty that it would be half right.

Exhausting, isn’t it?  Watching the Good Ship Trump is like chasing a gaggle of 4-year-olds after the video-game and candy-corn portion of a high-end Pre-K graduation party. The well-groomed parents practice their proud-but-tolerant-but-slightly-pained smiles as they watch the future heirs to the throne thoroughly wreck the place.  All while praying that none of this goes viral since there are still a couple of kids on Kindergarten wait-lists.

OK, we can leave the future grown-ups and return to the present superannuated children, because at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s always one big party, with Donnie hacking at the Twitter piñata, and Spicey playing hide-and-seek.  

And life goes on. Trump hires, Trump fires, Trump blurts out nonsense and threats, Trump signs an Executive Order mandating all Federal Employees wear MAGA sleepwear (manufactured in China), Trump invites strange people with Russian accents to the White House, Trump goes to his favorite safe spaces (Mar-A-Lago, Fox, Liberty University). Trump is just Trump-like.

Can’t something be done to stop this lunatic? Not really. Forget the 25th Amendment: Trump isn’t voluntarily stepping aside and, despite all the arm-chair psychologists out there, “shouldn’t be President” isn’t incapacity.  Impeachment? Lawrence Tribe has a piece in the Washington Post where he lays out a lawyer’s case for impeachment.  It’s well-written, but completely divorced from reality.

Let’s start with the legal hurdles. “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” lacks a specific Constitutional definition, but being a crass potty-mouthed bully doesn’t meet the standard.  Nor ignorance in policy, nor serial truth-massager, nor tawdry, nor just about any other pejorative you can lay on him. Even “grifter” isn’t going to be dispositive, since a lot of grifting is just “grifty” and not necessarily “emolumenty”.

Now, to the political. First is a straight-out numbers game. To impeach, you need a majority of the House and 67 votes in the Senate. Suffice to say that’s not happening any time soon. Impeachment wouldn’t even get out of committee right now. Remember, 90% of Republicans profess public support for Trump, and many of those believe that he’s being unfairly persecuted by a biased media and bitter Democrats. After 2018? Forget it. Even if Democrats take back the House (a longshot) they will be lucky to just hold their serve in the Senate.

Second, Trump is, on the fly, reinventing what normal is.  Previous Presidents of both parties displayed a certain public decorum and went by a group of largely unwritten rules about what was and was not acceptable. A visit to Trump-land rewrites every single one of them. More accurately, it covers them with graffiti to the point they become almost unrecognizable. In just four months, Trump has taken us past the point where we feel shock. We may never do this again with any other President, but as it applies to Trump, excesses are simply superfluous.

Why Trump? Yes, some of this is just political expediency—there’s no question that the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of the world are fully aware of the Faustian Bargain they have made. But with Trump’s real base, the ones he’s made an emotional connection with, there’s something different going on, almost a peculiar folie à deux, a sharing in a certain view of the world. “I just want to get things done”, I heard from a Trump supporter last week.   

In a nutshell, I think that’s what saves Trump. Trump isn’t Teflon—rather he’s an entirely different species that has rendered the term “gaffe” irrelevant. His supporters will not judge him the way they would just about any other politician. They aren’t really engaging in hypocrisy, they are just throwing out the script entirely.

Trump is acutely aware of this, and it liberates him to act the way he does, on impulse, with apparent disregard for the consequences.  But it has risks for him as well—he’s insulating himself from alternate views and ever-narrowing his horizon. He’s not paying attention to the details of what he signs—regardless of whether it would adversely impact the very loyalists who would go to the ramparts for him.  And he’s lost his ear for any music other than his own. 

The Comey firing is Exhibit A in this. Trump (and whatever advisors he happened to trust at the moment) assumed that this was comparatively risk-free. They whipped up a soufflé of a memo from Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy AG, coupled it with a solemn recommendation from the distinguished Jeff Sessions, and rolled it out there. They counted on (and got) mostly lockstep Republican support.  But they misjudged the Democrats, whom they expected to cheer. What they failed to realize is that Democrats don’t have lingering nostalgia for Hillary—rather they have a sense of being personally cheated. The Rosenstein Memo actually added fuel to the fire.  Comey made two seminal decisions—to break with Department policy with regard to Clinton’s emails, and to keep to Department policy with regard to Trump’s Russian contacts. From the Democrats’ perspective, Comey was bitter medicine they had to accept—and now Trump was pushing away the poisoned chalice before he had to take his sip.

There are a lot of Democrats who are convinced that the Russian angle will never be properly investigated. We won’t see Trump tax returns because Donald says no. There’s not going to be an Independent Counsel, because Senate Republicans won’t permit it. In the end, Judge and Jury are going to be picked by Trump. The “recused” Jeff Sessions will help select Comey’s successor. That successor, whomever he or she is, is going to take the job knowing full-well what The Boss wants, and that service is at the pleasure of an easily displeased President. As to the FBI itself, the general professionalism of the rank and file is beyond question, but every one of them will have a consciousness of the environment in which careers are made or sacrificed.

Is there hope for normalcy, post Comey? I’m pessimistic. There has been talk of a White House shake up, but it’s hard to see how Trump changes himself enough to be willing to bring in professionalism and voices other than his own. The drift of the Republicans in the Senate is to dislike Trump personally but to work around him so a legislative agenda can be enacted. They will run interference for him as long as it profits them, and that could be quite some time. Ryan has an entirely different problem—first, Devin Nunes embarrassed him more than he would admit. Second, he runs a Gerrymandered House caucus where the firebrands are calling the tune from safe districts, while more centrist Republicans are at risk next year.  And Ryan looks weak—lacking in integrity and stature. He may not have the juice to shift the House into a more independent mode when the time comes.

That leaves us with all Trump, all the time. Four years of him.

Where are the laughs?

May 15, 2017

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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