More Connecting the Dots



Quick: What is the most important thing the following people have in common?

  • Michael Flynn
  • Reince Priebus
  • Steve Bannon
  • Omarosa Manigault
  • Tom Price

Yes, they and many more like them were all fired or forced to resign.  But that’s not the most important thing, not the most revealing thing they share.

The correct answer: They were all hired by Donald Trump.  They were all people that Trump believed would help him carry out whatever mission he believes himself to be pursuing.

But in less than a year—in some cases much less—all of them and dozens more turned out to have been disastrously ill-chosen, judged not by Trump critics and opponents, but by Trump’s own lights.  And even the most extensive lists don’t really tell the tale.  They don’t include the walking dead: people like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump wishes would just go away.  And it does include alleged spousal batterers Rob Porter and David Sorensen, whom Trump hired and then fired (through John Kelly, the chief of staff whom Trump brought in to replace the fired Priebus but may soon be cashiered himself) but now bizarrely seems to think were dismissed without due process–which he himself, as their employer, could have easily have afforded them.

It’s an astonishing performance for someone best previously known for judging talent, someone elected in large part based on his success in business.

Of course, we all know that both those premises were delusional. Trump was no business genius.  Quite the contrary.   He doubtless went into the casino business under the assumption that any business whose customers know that they will almost all lose their money almost all the time must be governed by the axiom that a fool and his money are soon parted.  The axiom holds true; but the gamblers at Trump casinos were not the only fools in the transaction, and Trump was forced into bankruptcy—four times.*

In fact, the New York Times has reported, “Mr. Trump’s casino business was a protracted failure. Though he now says his casinos were overtaken by the same tidal wave that eventually slammed this seaside city’s gambling industry, in reality he was failing in Atlantic City long before Atlantic City itself was failing.”

The myth of Trump’s business acumen, especially in picking employees, was further inflated by his involvement in the long running “Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” reality shows.  But of course the Apprentice shows did not require Trump to serve as an actual executive, hiring and firing.  He wasn’t an executive—he just played one on TV.  According to one contestant, Trump didn’t even decide whom to fire each week.  “The show’s producers from NBC made those calls,” singer Clay Aiken, who competed on both Celebrity Apprentice and American Idol, told the Washington Post, “giving Trump instructions through a teleprompter on his desk that looked like a phone.”

In truth, Trump achieved business success and wealth, not by starting and running enterprises, but by fronting and licensing his name to businesses run by other, more capable, people.  (Perhaps he could even have been a modestly successful president had he followed that business model in the White House.)

How many customers and viewers believed that Trump was actually running Trump University or that he was really hiring and firing on Celebrity Apprentice?  It’s impossible to know.  But maybe at least one person believed the myth of Trump the successful businessman: Trump himself.  And maybe that contributed to his effrontery in undertaking the colossally bigger challenge of the presidency.



Bernie’s for it.  So is Elizabeth Warren.  So are Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley and the House Democratic caucus.  Is it too soon to say that the ayes have it and declare single-payer to be the policy, a litmus-test issue even, of the Democratic Party and of those, like Bernie Sanders, in its orbit?

Yes, it is.  Much too soon.  We know less about single-payer—how it would work, what it would cost, how politically popular it would be—than we knew about that Graham-Cassidy bill they tried to frog-march through the Senate a week before the deadline for simple-majority passage.

What don’t we know about single-payer?

  1. With so many millions of people’s needs now met by existing programs, shouldn’t we see first to the needs of those who are currently not covered?  Proposals for college for all and Medicare-for-all suffer from the same flaw: they propose that the federal government, i.e., taxpayers, should absorb the costs of those who can already afford, and are in fact already receiving, health care or a college education.  In an era of tight budgets,* shouldn’t we look after the have-nots first?
  2. We don’t know enough about how it might work.  We especially don’t know what we don’t know.  An example from our Medicare experience, reported by NPR in connection with the program’s 50th anniversary in 2015:  A congressional staffer, I think it was, recalled that Great Society policy makers assumed that under Medicare, the costs of medical care for senior citizens, previously borne by private insurance, patients’ savings, or patients’ grown children, would henceforth be paid by Medicare.  But a few years in, policy makers realized that before Medicare, a sizable share of seniors’ medical costs had not been paid for at all; they had been provided gratis, eaten by the doctors or folded into the doctors’ overhead to be paid for by their paying patients.  Once Medicare took effect, those costs were billed to the new program, resulting in costs significantly higher than had been anticipated.  Our experience with every major federal program should prepare us to assume that there will be surprises as coverage is expanded: costs may be—almost surely will be—higher than projected, not all providers will accept the lower payments provided for by the new program to control costs, there may be serious glitches in the enrollment and payment systems.  Remember the enrollment foul-ups that almost sank Obamacare before it left the harbor?  Wouldn’t it be better to adjust to those surprises in smaller groups rather than with the country’s entire population?
  3. Politically, it ain’t gonna happen.  Working with a Democratic Congress, Barack Obama barely got Obamacare passed, even without a public option.  For that matter, working with a Republican Congress, one pledged in blood to repeal and replace Obamacare, Donald Trump has so far been unable to end it.  The chances of the kind of political earthquake that would install a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority in the House, and a liberal, filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate are close to zero.  The Republicans are now slogging through the self-inflicted, entirely deserved pit of misery that awaits those who make promises on which they cannot deliver.  Why would Democrats want to join them by committing themselves—as a litmus test, no less—to a program that will not pass, would be booby-trapped with unintended consequences if it did pass, and would likely be hugely expensive?
  4. There’s a reason that Obama didn’t propose to include single-payer in Obamacare.  Obama said that if we were starting from scratch we’d go single payer.  But he likened navigating through the health insurance landscape to looking for a parking place.  On a block with no other cars parked, it’s a cinch to find a space.  In a parked-up block, though, with just a few spaces open, it can be a challenge to find one large enough for your car and to back into it without dinging the cars ahead and behind.  That’s our health insurance “system”: Tens of millions without insurance.  But hundreds of millions of people with coverage, albeit a patchwork of coverage–employment-connected insurance–Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ insurance, health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts—that is far from perfect but that its beneficiaries may not like being jerked out from under them and replaced by the devil they don’t know.
  5. Single-payer is a radical solution at a time when the electorate may be looking for incremental change.  The emerging Democratic consensus for single-payer reflects a way of thinking much in vogue on the left: that the defeat of a centrist candidate like Clinton is evidence of a national hunger and thirst for a true-left candidate, like Bernie Sanders. Please.  Sanders lost to Clinton, who, we now know, was no political juggernaut. What makes us think that the national electorate wants a candidate, not somewhere between the two 2016 choices, Clinton and Trump, but further left than Clinton and further left even than Obama?  And what makes us think that the American people, whose representatives in Congress and the White House rejected even the public option in 2009 will go for a program in which the public option would be the only option?

Single-payer could work.  Or, as Cassidy-Graham would surely have been, it could be a disaster–operationally, financially and politically. But the way to find out is not to stampede it into litmus-test status for any liberal candidate for Congress or the presidency. Put it through what passes for regular order for parties out of power: Get detailed proposals out on the table.  Figure out how much they would cost and who would pay.  See how they play, first on Sunday talk shows and the PBS NewsHour, then in primary and general elections.  See if they can take a punch.

And above all, proceed with caution.  There’s time till 2018 and 2020, and more yellow and red lights flashing than green.



When the mob prepares for war between rival gangs, if “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” are to be believed, they call it going to the mattresses. When Donald Trump forms a new alliance they should call it going to the buses—as in the buses under which Trump will, all too soon, throw the people who are now his allies and will become his enemies.

I’m looking at you, Chuck Schumer. And you, Nancy Pelosi. Good on you, for striking at least temporary deals to raise the debt limit and maybe ultimately pull the whole debt-limit issue out of politics. And if you and President Trump expand your alliance to strike a deal to save the Dreamers—well, then good on you for that, too.

But don’t get used to the feeling. If the first seven-plus months of the Trump presidency are any guide, you may soon find yourselves under the bus.

What could happen? Almost anything.

Trump could simply renege on the deal. Maybe he turned to the Democratic leaders because the Congressional Republicans didn’t do what he wanted them to. Remember the scene in the Marx Brothers movie “Horsefeathers? We see Groucho, a college president, at the football stadium outlining a play to an attentive team, when his son (played by his brother Zeppo) comes running up. “Dad, Dad” he admonishes Groucho, “you’re talking to the opposing team!” “I know,” says Groucho, “but our team wouldn’t listen to me.”

Or maybe he reached out to the Democrats in the first place just to get back at Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, to punish them for the dismissive and insulting way they’ve treated and talked about him, and maybe he’ll kiss and make up and when the snit passes—as it seems to have in the cases of Rex Tillerson and Jeff Sessions.

Or he could launch one of his Tweetstorms over Schumer’s or Pelosi’s refusal to back his tax “reform” ideas whole-heartedly enough, i.e. with unstinting and uncritical support. What would their calumnious Twitter-optimized nicknames be, I wonder: Chuck the F__k? That probably would get censored by Twitter. Schumer the Shirker? Naughty Nancy?

The point is that it is a mistake to see any given Trump move as part of an overarching strategy or plan to achieve some immediate or ultimate goal. He cares nothing about bipartisan policy-making, the debt limit, the Dreamers, immigration policy, repealing Obamacare, coal or much of anything else except TV-news airtime, settling scores with rivals—i.e. everybody—and channeling resentment.

So, Sen. Schumer and Rep. Pelosi, to borrow another movie line, from Scorcese’s “The Departed”: Act accordingly.

And remember the fable of the frog and the scorpion, which I circulated a while ago à propos the discomfiture of Sessions, Tillerson, Mattis et al when they discovered what their boss was really like. Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi should remember it.

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream, and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog demurs. “How do I know you won’t sting me?”

“I cannot swim,” replies the scorpion. “If I sting you we would both drown.”

Reassured, the frog accepts and the pair set out. But midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. Quickly the frog feels the onset of paralysis from the sting and begins to sink.

“You fool,” croaks the frog with its penultimate breath, “why would you do that?”

“It is my nature,” says the scorpion, “I could not help myself. You knew that. How can you be surprised?”


Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Trump

Trump has presented himself to the world as the caricature of the ugly American: loud, boorish and ill-informed.
–Dana Milbank, Washington Post

The bombastic chauvinism of the Ugly American seems to be everywhere, as personified by our …”
–Carrie Tirado Bramen, author of “American Niceness: A Cultural History.”

Trump is, in many respects, the archetype Ugly American, and possesses all the worst qualities that have come to be associated with the stereotype. The president is vulgar, anti-intellectual, arrogant, vain, materialistic, shallow, racist, sexist, loud, offensive and deeply ignorant.
–Conor Lynch,

Donald Trump, the ugly American. It’s a perfect fit, or so say Dana Milbank, Carrie Tirado Bramen, Conor Lynch and about 474,000 others in Google’s search results.

The Ugly AmericanThe term has its origins in a 1958 novel—or, more precisely, a volume of linked short stories—and a Marlon Brando movie.  Written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, it told the story of Americans who represent the US in Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country that looks a lot like pre-American-War Vietnam.  Americans like Ambassador Louis (Lucky Lou) Sears, a former senator who volunteers that he doesn’t work well with blacks and refers to the people of the country as “strange little monkeys.”  Or Joe Bing, the embassy public relations official, a man who “drives a big red convertible which he slews around corners [and has] exactly the kind of loud silly laugh that every Asian is embarrassed to hear.” Or George Swift, an embassy functionary who skips a call to a high Sarkhanese official to help the ambassador’s wife buy liquor for an embassy reception.

Actor Pat Hingle

Actor Pat Hingle, who played engineer Homer Atkins, the actual “ugly American” in Universal’s “The Ugly American.”

But none of these is the ugly American of the title.  That honor goes to Homer Atkins, played by Pat Hingle, an American engineer, whose hands–“laced with prominent veins and spotted with liverish freckles,[with] fingernails black with grease [and bearing] the tiny nicks and scars of a lifetime of practical engineering”—“always reminded him that he was an ugly man.”

But unlike many of the Americans depicted in The Ugly American, who saddle Sarkhanese villagers with technology that they won’t be able to operate or maintain once the Americans go home, Homer Atkins observes that villagers have an abundance of bamboo, bicycles and abandoned French jeeps.  So he designs technology they will be able to use: a system that uses bamboo for pipes, bicycle-peddling for power, and parts from the junked jeeps for pistons.

“A prototype Peace Corps couple,” the Times dubs Atkins and his wife.  And indeed Lederer and Burdick close the Ugly America with a call for a “small force of well-trained well-chosen hard-working and dedicated professionals…willing to risk their comforts…who speak the language of the land of their assignment.”  Two years after The Ugly American was published in 1958, my old boss, Milwaukee congressman Henry Reuss, proposed a study of a proto-Peace Corps idea that he called the Point Four Youth Corps, and Sen. Hubert Humphrey proposed the Peace Corps itself, which was established by President Kennedy in 1962.

And Donald Trump, whose name, in a perverse kind of historical appropriation, now is so closely identified with the phrase, “the ugly American”?

His current budget would cut Peace Corps funding by 15 percent, the largest reduction in forty years.

The ugly American?  Trump doesn’t deserve the sobriquet.  Where are the real ugly Americans when we really need them?


The Assembling of the Trump Team

If you’re a Democrat, a liberal or a progressive, there is no good news in the unfolding identities of the Administration that Donald Trump is selecting: just bad, ugly—and unsurprising. Not because his appointees are crazies and fanatics from outside the Republican mainstream, but because they’re part of it.

We can be thankful that Trump’s vaunted loyalty to those who backed him in the campaign turned out to be, like so much else about him, a shuck. So the loyalest of the loyal, Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich were left twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, without even the face-saving dignity of claiming that they had removed themselves from consideration to spend more time with their families.. Meanwhile Nikki Haley, a staunch Trump opponent, got the United Nations, and Mitt Romney, who seemed to be on the verge of a third-party run, was in the running for Secretary of State till the end. Apparently Trump’s loyalty is a one-way street.

But it is important to look closely at just who Trump has selected to run the government. For while it is tempting and oddly reassuring for liberals to see the cabinet-designates as men and women in Trump’s own image—political renegades and pirates—he has in fact selected a cabinet that, for the most part, would have been unsurprising picks in any Republican administration.

That’s bad news. Remember, it was Republican administrations that savaged New Deal/Great Society economic and social protections, cut taxes on the wealthy, submerged us in debt, and blundered into ruinous and devastating wars that we cannot win and from which we cannot yet completely extricate ourselves.

Most of the Cabinet is straight from Republican Central Casting. Corporate executives like Exxon chief Rex Tillerson? Eisenhower—he who warned us about the military-executive complex—turned for his defense secretary to the head of General Motors, Charles Wilson, who declared that what was good for General Motors was good for the United States. Generals like Trump’s choice for Defense James Mattis? Remember Colin Powell and Alexander Haig? Cabinet secretaries who didn’t believe in the missions of the departments they headed? Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt; EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch. Token officials of color, like Ben Carson, with little qualification to run their, or any, agencies? Reagan HUD secretary Samuel Pierce—the one whom the president, encountering him at a reception, took for a mayor.

Nor do Trump’s nominees venture far from Republican policy orthodoxy. Unwavering enmity to Obamacare? Check. Pledged to roll back Obama-era regulations? Check. Commitment to cut taxes for the rich but keep the minimum wage right where it is? Check and check.

The only real wild cards in Trump’s deck are the people Trump has picked to work with him at the White House. There’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, whom conservative columnist Kathleen Parker has described as a “racist, xenophobic misogynist [and] anti-Semitic nationalist.” And Michael Flynn, the cashiered head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who rose from the ashes to become a conspiracy theorist and a paid personality for Russia Today, the Kremlin-supported network, and scourge of Islam.

What does it mean that Trump has hewed to orthodoxy with his cabinet appointments but left the reservation with his White House appointment? One obvious meaning: cabinet secretaries must be confirmed by the Senate; Bannon and Flynn might not have been able to clear that hurdle. Beyond that, who knows? Are Bannon and Flynn there to back Trump in intramural battles against more conventional-minded cabinet secretaries? Are they the tribute he must pay to the alt-right as the price for continuing extremist support and political energy? Or are they there to stoke the Twitter machine and fan the flames while the government is placed under adult supervision?

Whatever role Flynn, Bannon et. al. will play, the cabinet secretaries and agency heads are not crazies, not outliers, who have ridden Trump’s coattails to take over the government their party will now control. They’re just Republicans.



With the presidential primaries over but the nominating conventions not yet upon us, news coverage and speculation now shift to whom the nominees will pick as their vice-presidential running mates. The Washington Post has already put out medium-list pools of possibilities from whom the candidates might choose, and a short list of the most likely choices—Newt Gingrich, Mary Fallin, Chris Christie, Bob Corker and Joni Ernst for the Republicans; and Julian Castro, Sherrod Brown, Tim Kaine, Tom Perez and Amy Klobuchar for the Democrats, if you’re curious*—all subject to the ancient caveat that those who are talking don’t know and those who know aren’t talking.

What gets people onto the lists? First and foremost, one hopes, the belief that they could, if needed, step in and run the country. Right behind that, a willingness to have his own policy and personal predilections subsumed in his boss’s. And the desire to balance the ticket: ideologically, geographically, stylistically, temperamentally and experientially. (Or not: Bill Clinton picked Al Gore, like Clinton a Third-Way southerner; if Trump picked Christie, he’d be doubling down on his own blunt-spoken, tough-guy persona.)

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have one more criterion that should guide them in nominating a vice presidential candidate and, for that matter, in selecting people for prominent positions: fresh blood.

I can’t be the only person who watched the two parties’ presidential debates and was struck by the contrast: In the Republican debates, in addition to Trump, an array of mostly forty- and fifty-something A- and B+-listers, sitting governors and senators, the scion of a famous political family and former crucial swing-state governor, candidates who had some success in ’08 and ’12, back for another crack at what they hope is a weaker Democrat; and, yes, a couple of has-beens and never-wases. Sixteen candidates who thought their party’s nomination was so worth having that they were willing to put their lives on hold for more than a year, panhandle millions of dollars from friends and supporters, and subject themselves to the often-unfair criticism and obloquy that is part of a presidential primary campaign.

The number of Democratic candidates who thought their party’s nomination was so worth having that they were willing to put their lives on hold for more than a year, panhandle millions of dollars from friends and supporters, and subject themselves to the often-unfair criticism and obloquy that is part of a presidential primary campaign? Two. One almost 69 years old and four years past her last job, the other almost six years older than that. And waiting in the wings, the 73-year-old vice president, and a 74-year-old potential third-party candidate.

Now don’t get me wrong: on their worst day, any one of the four Democrats would make a far superior president than any of the Republicans, now or ten years from now. And all of them seem strong and vigorous.

But for pity’s sake: the Republicans looked like the GOP all-stars. The Democrats looked like Old-Timer’s Day.

It isn’t just about appearances. People born during FDR’s third term, people who came of political age in the era of the Great Society and Viet Nam (a cohort that includes me, by the way), look at politics, policy and life through a different prism than those whose earliest political memories are of Reagan. The world increasingly belongs to people who don’t regard using an iPhone during dinner as a Class A misdemeanor, who reach out to Uber before they reach for the car-keys, and who don’t remember when employers provided defined-benefit pensions and health insurance. If Democrats want to win elections and govern cities, states and the country, they need to field candidates who know the challenges of this century because they’ve faced them personally, not because they’ve read about them in newspapers and magazines and heard about them on the TV news.

That means starting now to groom the candidates of the future, the way baseball teams develop players. That means picking a 2016 vice presidential candidate who can help win the election, run the country if called upon—and be young enough to run for president himself or herself in eight or four years. It means, after the new Democratic administration takes office, appointing cabinet members and recruiting House and Senate candidates ambitious enough to look in the mirror and see a future president and young enough to have no personal recollection of rotary-dial telephones or Gary Hart and Donna Rice.

In other words, it means envisioning the next round of Democratic primary debates, whether in 2020 or 2024, and seeing not just two or three contenders who can be literally described as party elders, but at least a basketball-team’s-worth of candidates, some or all of whose most recent occupations don’t include the word “former” and are not yet old enough to qualify for Social Security.

And then, making it so.



Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders
Photo: Marc Nozell

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton
Photo: Keith Kissel

Donald Trump

Donald Trump
Photo: Gage Skidmore

As the Democratic convention draws nearer, Hillary Clinton will say what she needs to say to make Bernie Sanders and his supporters feel that they can support her—the specter of President Trump having already convinced them that they must support her—without betraying the commitment that drew them to Sanders in the first place.

By saying that she will say what she needs to say, I don’t mean to imply that she will say anything she doesn’t believe. I think that there is little real policy daylight between the two Democrats. But Sanders and his posse will want to hear Clinton paint herself into a corner from which the prospect of support, financial and otherwise, from Wall Street and big business cannot extricate her.

Then she can turn her attention to bridging the gap that separated her from Sanders and separates her from Trump: not the gap between policy proposals, but the anger gap.

It’s the anger gap that has kept Sanders afloat as long as he has been. On paper, it should be an easy choice for Democrats. Given the similarity of their policy positions, the superiority of Clinton’s background, both legislatively—as a senator, Clinton mastered the legislative process, while Sanders, in both the House and Senate, planted flags—and as an executive: Secretary of State vs. mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

But Clinton has never matched Sanders in righteous indignation. I say “righteous” advisedly: The policy choices that dug the steep-walled ditch we call the Great Recession—the leaving of moneyed financial interests to their own devices, the failure to put malefactors of great wealth at the only risk that matters to them, the risk of imprisonment, and the consequent economic and social misery—were more than misjudgments. They were heedless blunders. They deserved—still deserve—anger.

Clinton is notoriously hard to read. She may very well recognize the ravaging for profit of the economy’s most vulnerable Americans for the outrage that it was. But if she does she doesn’t show it.* And her failure or inability to display anger leaves people free to assume that she views her fellow Americans’ immiseration with an equanimity that might blind her to dangerous policies in the future.

As misfortune would have it, Clinton will face in Trump a candidate who is defined by the anger he manifests and inspires. His misogyny is naked and undisguised. Both the nativism of his great-wall immigration policy and the xenophobia of his imprecations against free-riding foreign countries are betrayed by their very impossibility of execution. These are not proposals meant to be executed but to stimulate grievance. And it has worked. As came close to happening in Clinton vs. Sanders, as happened in the Republican primaries, emotion trumped policy.

Tant pis, as the French say. So much the worse. Because too much emotion, especially too much anger, is an unreliable and often dangerous factor in making almost any choice and in making political choices in particular. Sanders’ righteous anger obscures the fact that such concrete proposals as he has made are like early-winter lake-ice: liable to crack when any weight is placed on them. And Trump’s pseudo-proposals are likely to generate a lethal combination of despair and rage when their inevitable failure is blamed not on their impracticability but on stabs in the back by the groups they were meant to bring to heel.

Which makes it incumbent on Clinton to do two things. First, abstain from trying to woo Trump voters by simulating anger. She is awkward enough manifesting emotions she actually feels, much less those that are foreign to her nature. But second, lead voters who are legitimately angry–at what Trump is and what he represents, and at the policies that a Republican Congress and president will visit on the country—not to waste their indignation on Sanders-style flailing and railing but to harness it holding Democratic nominee and President Hillary Clinton’s feet to the progressive fire.



Bernie Sanders Ralley at the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie (between Dallas and Fort Worth) on Saturday, February 27, 2016

Bernie Sanders Rally at the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie (between Dallas and Fort Worth) on Saturday, February 27, 2016. Photo: Steve Rainwater

This is the way an insurgent campaign ends.

John Cassidy captured the mood after the New York primary:

[U]pset, angry, and disillusioned. Some are blaming voter fraud, others are blaming the media, and others are simply aghast. On Facebook, one Bernie enthusiast asked, how can so many people have voted for Hillary? I didn’t meet anybody who was voting for her.

Upset, angry, disillusioned, aghast. It reads like the first four of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Everything except acceptance.

It’s a familiar pattern to anyone who’s followed these political prairie-fire campaigns. The starry-eyed young supporters getting their first taste of campaign-induced euphoria, the improbable and unexpected early successes, the phantasm of victory almost within their grasp—a product mostly of isolation within the bubble of believers—the creeping realization that it’s not going to happen. And the conviction that, in the immortal words of the ‘thirties-era boxing manager Joe Jacobs, “We wuz robbed.”

It’s often a delusion of those who are young and/or new to politics, who believe with Galahad that their strength is as the strength of ten, because their hearts are pure. Their noble purpose is their sword and buckler. They can’t lose—not legitimately.

In campaigns, though, your strength is only the strength of the number of people who vote for you under the rules. Rules that can be arbitrary—Why is it three strikes and you’re out? Why not four strikes, or two?—but more often aren’t. Like, in fact, the super-delegate rule, which was instituted in 1982 precisely to keep the Democratic Party from nominating prairie-fire candidates who burn through the primaries but turn out to be, to borrow from Cole Porter, too hot not to cool down—candidates like George McGovern, Jimmy Carter*, and Bernie Sanders.

So it was throughout the primaries, and so it will be at the Democratic Convention. Hillary’s victory was not because of party rules, or her dynastic status or her campaign war-chest. As The New Yorker’s Cassidy put it, “the main reason that Clinton won is that she racked up big majorities among some key constituencies of today’s Democratic Party—women, blacks, Hispanics, and affluent, highly educated whites. Sanders carried the under-thirty demographic and white men—and that was about it.”

In other words, she got more votes.



Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, cuts a slice from the U-2 incident of 1960–in which an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, its pilot was captured alive and later exchanged for a Soviet spy—and builds it to feature length. The movie has almost finished its theatrical release and can be streamed on Amazon.

Soviet leader Khrushchev and wreckage from shootdown of U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers

Soviet leader Khrushchev and wreckage from shootdown of U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers

“Bridge of Spies,” is not—and does not purport to be—the complete account of the incident.   The part of the U-2 story that Spielberg focused on was a triumph for American diplomacy and the American way, as incarnated in the everyman insurance lawyer, played by Tom Hanks, who finds himself thrust into the Cold-War faceoff.

The full U-2 story? Not so much of a triumph.

Google “U-2 Incident” and you’ll get over 40 million results. There’s a 4,500-word Wikipedia article. Or you can get the essence of the episode and a laugh to boot, in less than 250 words, from my old friend Esther Greenleaf Murer’s “Talking U-2 Blues,” at the bottom of this post.

President Eisenhower, in the last full year in office, had been allowing American Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance jets to fly over the Soviet Union since 1957, at altitudes beyond the reach of Soviet fighter planes, sometimes flown by British pilots–for “plausible deniability” of American involvement in case one was shot down—other times by Americans. And it was an American, Francis Gary Powers, who was in the cockpit when a U-2 was dispatched to photograph Soviet missile launch sites on May 1, 1960, just two weeks before a four-power—the US, USSR, Britain and France—summit meeting was scheduled to open in Paris. To borrow a line from a song by Esther Greenleaf Murer (about whom more anon) the trouble starts right here.

The Soviets had been monitoring the U-2 flights, and after several failed interception attempts, brought the plane down with a surface-to-air missile. Powers ejected, parachuted to the ground, and was taken into custody. Four days later, without knowing that the U-2 and its pilot had been recovered, a NASA press release described the flight’s purpose as weather-related and said the pilot had reported experiencing oxygen difficulties, even releasing a photo of another U-2 painted in NASA’s colors to (to borrow another lyric, this one from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado) corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. But Eisenhower’s lie was exposed when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev revealed that he had both the plane and its pilot.

Like a fish on a hook, the US thrashed around, floating one evasion after another trying to save the summit or at least Eisenhower’s credibility in the waning months of his presidency.   The Russians had no room to talk, it was said, not when they had submarines cruising the Atlantic. Khrushchev had known about the U-2 spy flights but forebore action until the summit was imminent to embarrass Eisenhower and the US. In the end, however, the lie was exposed and summit was launched, but ended early.

It was a humiliating note on which to end a presidency: the president who shepherded the World War II alliance with the Soviets and who had kept the US-Soviet relationship from exploding through eight years of the Cold War, mousetrapped by a Soviet leader under attack in his own country.

But that’s not why I’m writing about it now. It’s because seeing “Bridge of Spies” brought to mind an old college friend, Esther Greenleaf, now Esther Greenleaf Murer after marrying another college friend who had lived in the University of Wisconsin cooperative where I lived and that Esther, in those pre-coed-housing days, frequented. I have not seen Esther, who is now a published poet, since then. But I remember her fondly as a friend of high intelligence, great good nature, and a wit and creativity comparable to Tom Lehrer’’s.

And I remember a talking-blues-type song that she wrote while the U-2 incident was still in the headlines.

Talking U-2 Blues

American spy shot down today,
And the whole world glowers at the USA.
The State Department looks at its toes,
Sends the Russians a note, and here’s how it goes:

“Oh, don’t you blame us, Mr. K!
Our good faith, don’t you doubt it.
It warn’t our fault it happened this way,
‘Cause we didn’t know nothin’ about it.”

A senator says, “From an undisclosed source
I have a report (unconfirmed, of course)
Of Russian subs seen in the Atlantic.
I’m shocked that we’d stoop to a comparable antic!”

“So don’t you blame us, Mr. K” (etc).

“Of these goings-on I was unaware,”
said the President.  ” ‘Tain’t my affair.
For efficiency we’re organized;
Our intelligence is centralized.

“So don’t you blame me, Mr. K” (etc.)

“The Russians are trying to monger war,”
Said the press.  “They’ve seen our planes before,
but they waited to mention it till today –
With the Summit only a week away.

“You’re playing dirty, Mr. K,
And your good faith, we doubt it.
We’ve been spying on you for many a day,
And you knew all about it!”



It Can't Happen Here
Donald Trump speaking in Mesa, Arizona
  Photo: Gage Skidmore

At book club not long ago, a friend called our attention to a piece in The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” humor space, a one-page joke whose premise was that all of Donald Trump’s outrages—the one about Mexican immigrants, the calumniation of John McCain, the insults to Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly—were not campaign gambits at all, but were calculated to extricate himself out of the presidential race and propel him back into popularity as a TV personality.

Only it wasn’t working. Instead of making him too hot to handle politically, his stunts backfired, making him an even stronger candidate.

It’s a not-unamusing premise, not-unamusingly executed—well worth the minute or two it takes to read it. And a worthy contribution to the growing body of efforts to laugh Donald Trump out of politics.

But here’s what’s really funny: The book club gathering at which my friend recommended the New Yorker jape was convened to discuss It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a megalomaniac senator–modeled on Huey Long but, as Wikipedia puts it, “less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation”–who gets himself elected president and institutes a brutal authoritarian regime. The novel begins as a seriocomic satire, but ends up deadly serious—like the contemporary political figure who inspired us to read this 80-year-old novel, not one of Lewis’s best, at this particular point in time.

This isn’t to say that a President Trump could be expected, like It Can’t Happen Here’s President Windrip, to put opponents into concentration camps or drive them into exile, organize Brown-Shirt-like militias, reorganize government along corporatist lines, or provoke war with Mexico—although the last two don’t seem quite as fantastical as they did when I started this paragraph. This is not 1935, not the depths of a Depression. Hitler and Mussolini are not ascendant in Europe.

It is, though, to point out three parallels between Lewis’s scenario and today’s reality.

First, Trump could win. For both valid and not-so-valid reasons we feel ourselves vulnerable and insecure. As the generations that lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam and Watergate age and leave the scene, fewer Americans remain who lived through those crises, so to them, this looks worse than in historical perspective. We are frightened and angry, and—like Lewis’s President Windrip, “a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation”–Trump is a master at playing on those fears and amplifying that anger.

Second, a President Trump could take major strides toward carrying out his radical agenda. It is hard to imagine that the kind of wave election that could sweep him into office would not maintain Republican majorities ready to follow his lead; I mean, as an outsider presidential candidate with just a third of the base before a single vote has been cast, Trump has already pulled his opponents into his orbit. How much more powerful would be his gravitational pull as an elected official?

Even without a compliant Congress and Court, Trump might be able to work his will. Do we see Trump as a man who, balked by legislators or judges, would take defeat graciously—or at all? If Obama could, in effect, exempt young undocumented “Dreamers” from deportation through executive action, why couldn’t Trump hire more immigration agents and increase raids and deportations, including those of families long resident and productive in the U.S. If Obama can admit thousands of tempest tost Levantine refugees by executive action, couldn’t President Trump bar all Middle Eastern refugees?

None of which is to say that Trump is inevitable. The stars incline us, they do not bind us. The continuing strong polling results by the two not-particularly magnetic Democratic contenders show that the basic Democratic proposition still retains considerable national support. Electoral College math strongly favors the Democrats. The country emerges from the Obama years much more strongly than it went in. Although the Obama administration has not yet solved Syria, neither has anyone else. And the U.S.-Iran nuclear arms agreement and prisoner, the Paris climate change agreement and the TransPacific Partnership suggest that other countries, even those fundamentally at odds with the US, will respond to patient negotiation more readily than to a knuckle sandwich.

But Trump will not be satirized into submission. He is a smart and potent candidate. He speaks to the fears of millions of voters. He could win the nomination and put up a stiff fight in November. If he were to win, he could be within sight of carrying out much of his campaign agenda.

He’s no joke.

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