Category Archives: Reviews

The Root of All Evil

A Biblical quotation worked its way into the popular vernacular a long time ago: the love of money is the root of all evil. The quote is often abbreviated to “money is the root of all evil.”  I have no idea whether the attribution to Apostle Paul is correct, but I also don’t care. I don’t believe either version of it is true.

The love of money, like the love of many other things, both physical and otherwise, can certainly lead to problematic outcomes. But the opposite of love can equally lead to problematic outcomes. There are just too many problematic outcomes to assign all the blame on love of money or just on money. When I think about this, I am reminded of the wonderful Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

In my view, ignorance is the real root of all evil. Donald Trump once said, “I love the poorly educated!” He knew something that had apparently escaped the notice of even experienced political analysts. It’s not that the “poorly educated” are unintelligent. Many of them are quite intelligent and can perform many tasks effectively. They can be successful in many lines of commerce and in life generally.

On the other hand, the “poorly educated” may be susceptible to believing misinformation/false information because they have not been exposed to the discipline of education and have not undertaken to study on their own. But they are not alone in that, so being poorly educated is neither explanation nor excuse, despite Trump’s claimed admiration for them. During the height of the pandemic, we saw nurses and doctors embrace conspiracy theories, promote quack remedies for COVID and resist vaccination. And many members of Congress who support insane conspiracy theories and engage in traitorous and illegal activities are highly educated.

The problem is more complicated than the simple explanation that the “poorly educated” mistakenly thought Trump as president would be good for them. In trying to understand this, I have read numerous books, articles, theories, and studies. Most recently I discovered Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor emeritum of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of many notable books. The book was a 2016 Finalist for the National Book Award. This work is based on her personal research conducted in post-Katrina, post-Deepwater Horizon coastal Louisiana. The date of publication, 2016, was just before Trump was elected president and all that ensued. The book nevertheless seems wholly predictive of everything that followed.

Hochschild defined her mission at the outset as an effort to explore feelings, the “emotion in politics.” Strangers at 15. Some of those feelings were disturbing – she notes that “reminders of the racial divide were everywhere.” Strangers at 20. She did not draw much on that fact of coastal Louisiana life but indirectly seemed to acknowledge its abiding and broad influence on political life there.

Strangers focuses on what Hochschild calls the Great Paradox, stated roughly as the massive disconnect between the economic and life interests of the local people and their devotion to the Tea Party which was in full flower in the period covered. The locals were adamantly opposed to regulation, especially federal regulation, that might help restore the opportunity to continue the livelihoods they had pursued for generations in fishing/hunting/farming the abundant natural resources of coastal Louisiana.

One of the Tea Party’s darlings was Bobby Jindal. As Hochschild notes at the end of the book, Louisiana was left a “shambles” after eight years of Tea Party-style leadership by Governor Jindal. Yet his support among locals never waned. They bought into the capitalism mythology completely. Such devotion also led to support for Republican congressman David Vitter who opposed all federal environmental intervention, voted to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency and more. Strangers at 48.

The author said she was struck by what political candidates avoided in their pitches to voters: “that the state ranks 49th out of 50 on an index of human development, that Louisiana is the second poorest state, that 44 percent of its budget comes from the federal government – the Great Paradox.” Strangers at 59. People with little to begin with worried more about what others were getting (“non-working, non-deserving people”) than about destruction of the environment or years lost to bad health conditions.  Somehow this was seen as a loss of “honor” and that was more important than more tangible issues. Strangers at 60-61.

They knew that Big Oil and Big Chemical had undeniably wrecked the local environment, but they adhered to the mythology that the companies also brought jobs and other economic benefits that could not be secured under any form of regulation. They concluded that the honorable thing was to muddle through, accepting their fate while continuing to assert their” principles.”

Hochschild notes three paths by which Tea Party believers arrived at their profound dislike for the federal government:

their religious faith (the government curtailed the church, they felt),

hatred of taxes (which they saw as too high and too progressive), and

the government’s impact on their loss of honor …. [Strangers at 35]

They bought into the belief that taxes went to lazy welfare cheats and “government workers in cushy jobs.” Id. They thought climate change was bogus science. They resented what they perceived to be bias against the “little guy,” meaning mainly the little white guy, and interference with the role of God in overseeing humanity. Strangers at 52. Those are easy myths for resentful people to embrace without having to make the effort to understand complex systems and ideas. Indeed, for many, the outcome was in the hands of their God and humans thus had little responsibility for outcomes.

In portents of things to come, Hochschild notes that at the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana meeting,

I heard a great deal about freedom in the sense of freedom to – to talk on your cellphone as you drove a car, to pick up a drive-in daiquiri with straw on the side, to walk about with a loaded gun. But there was almost no talk about freedom from such things as gun violence, car accidents, or toxic pollution. [Strangers at 71]

The perplexing reality is that people living with more pollution are more likely to believe in less regulation and more likely to be Republicans. Strangers at 79. This mental orientation set them up for manipulation and exploitation.

The initial tip to the problem of the book’s analysis comes at the beginning. Hochschild observes that the reason for population shifts in the United States had changed: people moved less to find better jobs, housing or (she didn’t mention this) education but rather to align more closely with people of similar political views. The sharpening of political division is, she says, attributable to the ‘right moving right.’ Strangers at 6-7. She recounts the dire economic conditions afflicting the southern states, Louisiana being among the worst of the worst:

Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help. In truth, a very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states – in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent – do come from federal funds. $2,400 is given by the federal government per Louisianan per year.

But Mike S_____ doesn’t welcome that federal money and doubts the science of climate change. “I’ll worry about global warming in fifty years,” he says. Mike loves his state, and he loves the outdoor life. But instead of looking to government, like others in the Tea Party, he turns to the free market. [Strangers at 9]

He turns to the same “free market” exploited by Big Oil and others to wreak havoc on the state that Mike purported to love so much. Thus, again, the Great Paradox.

The other major theme in the book is the Deep Story, the myths by which social groups, or tribes, are developed and sustained. Strangers at 135. Here perhaps is the core principle at work. In coastal Louisiana the Tea Party promoted, and locals accepted, the idea that undeserving people were cutting into the line ahead of hard-working “true Americans.” While their perceptions of race are complex, older whites interviewed by Hochschild saw Blacks especially as a problematic class afflicted by special issues not shared by most white people.

Economic class distinctions tracked race and distinguished between “makers” and “takers,” with the latter being the “line-cutters” supported by the federal government, those people unfairly getting ahead of everyone else. This grievance was at the root of many white Louisianans’ attitudes unrelated to the reality of local social and economic standing. Strangers at Ch. 9, and at 157-159.

Despite noting the data showing that “the higher the exposure to environmental pollution the less worried the individual was about it” [Strangers at 253], Hochschild concludes that the continuation of the Great Paradox is not the result of ignorance. [Id.] But that view is remarkable because it’s not supported by most of the data cited in the book. One of dozens of examples is the belief that 40 percent of all U.S. workers are employed by the federal government. The actual figure at the time was 1.9 percent. Strangers at 161.

Such ignorance of economic reality was at the root of many local people’s vigorous resistance to all forms of regulation. Such interventions could have helped to restore the balance of nature and, along with it, the jobs and environment they claimed to cherish. Yet, by and large, they wanted none of it. Hochschild was aware of this because data in Appendix C to the book was often interspersed in the text to illustrate how the real facts refuted the central myths on which the resistance depended. Peoples’ explanations of their views were rife with classical political myths and massively wrong factual beliefs.

Locals that Hochschild interviewed appeared to believe that a woman’s role was to be completely subordinate to her husband. Strangers at 174. This attitude is consistent with the analysis of “what makes a Republican” in George Lakoff’s 1996 Moral Politics that, controversially, applies principles of cognitive science to politics. As summarized in Wikipedia:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family.

Conspiratorial thinking was also rampant among Hochschild’s subjects. Few people believed science had made the case for global warming. Strangers at e.g., 183. They did not understand what the lives of the seriously poor were like, rejected much historical truth, adopted phantasmagorical solutions dependent upon the “free market” and adopted what has come to be known more recently as “replacement theory.” Strangers at Ch. 14.

In the end, it seemed to me that the author was profoundly fooled by the mannered façade she experienced in her research with the locals whose “good-hearted acceptance” of her, their “great personal warmth and famous Southern hospitality,” misled her to conclude that

in human terms, the [empathy] wall can easily come down. And issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation. [Strangers at 233]

There is nothing in the buildup to the end of the book or in the data set out throughout it that would support such a conclusion. And, of course, the history under Trump’s presidency is the most profound refutation of the “we can all just get along” thesis. The author’s starry-eyed belief in future harmony and progress was, I believe, a grievous error by a researcher whose approach to her study was primarily based on just talking with locals, eating meals with them, and looking at the surrounding conditions that determine their lives and livelihoods.

The book confirms my suspicions in its treatment of the rise of Trump as a political power.

Three elements had come together. Since 1980, virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground, a fact that made them brace at the very idea of “redistribution.” The also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward. And they felt part of a demographic decline; “there are fewer and fewer white Christians like us….”        [Strangers at 221]

Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana – its companies, its government, its church and media – reinforces that deep story. [Strangersat 222]

Trump, consciously or otherwise, fed this sense of disaffection and loss.

His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated … in a state of rapture… no longer strangers in their own land. [Strangers at 225]

Rapture indeed. This degree of magical thinking is beyond imagining: a Pew Research Center 2010 study reported that “41 percent of all Americans believe the Second Coming “probably” or “definitely” will happen by the year 2050.” Strangers at 125. Hochschild labels them “victims without a language of victimhood.” Strangers at 131, a missing element that Donald Trump readily supplied.

My overall conclusion about this book is that the people it discusses suffer from a central fatal flaw: they mistakenly believed that the land belonged to them in the sense that the whole of it was their natural right. Anything that challenged that idea was alien, undermining their sense of “our land.” This, I think, is about as un-American a concept as you will find. It ignores history, economic reality, and the nature of democracy. The root concept that “this land is ours then, now and always,” meaning us God-fearing white people who have an entitlement that others are unjustly trying to steal, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the country, its origins, and its development.

This issue may be connected to education, but I suspect it’s much deeper than that. The possessory and superiority components of these cultural beliefs leave these people vulnerable to the “it’s ok to hate” message from a demagogue like Donald Trump who lacks any core value system of principles except greed. These people have less to fear from interlopers than from their own ignorance.

The problem, however, is that someone so ignorant is usually unaware of his ignorance and simply feels put upon by the forces of change. He just wants what he thought he had before, notwithstanding that the oil-based economy was a complete fraud on coastal Louisiana society, wrecking the environment while failing to deliver the economic benefits that locals were sure existed. It’s also often true that the ignorant are unwilling to learn; they lack empathy and see others’ gains mainly as their losses.

I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person if I don’t feel sorry for that [sick African child on TV with Christiane Amanpour]” Strangers at 128.

But even those who fancy ourselves as “not ignorant” are capable of delusional thinking. I have confessed multiple times to having fundamentally misunderstood the degree of disfunction in the country. I thought the election of Barack Obama was a sign that, overall, the country had changed. That was wrong.

The essential proof is that despite his record of lies, incompetence and corruption, Trump received 74 million votes in 2020. Joe Biden received many more, of course, but the thinnest of margins remains in both houses of Congress. People with short term concerns about things like inflation, and no or limited understanding of its causes, may drive the country back into an abyss from which democracy may not re-emerge. It can happen here. Only the voters can prevent it.

I heard recently from a reliable source that many young people, in their 20’s and 30’s, may not feel they are much affected by what is happening in politics. That absence of perceived impact often makes them indifferent to the outcome of critical issues. If that is true, we are in even more trouble than I imagined.

Republicans are highly motivated by their grievances and can be expected to turn out in large numbers in the 2022 mid-terms. If Democrats stay home, it’s game over. You have been warned.

Trump Crimes Report

Apologies for the late arrival of this but it couldn’t be helped. I just wanted to call to everyone’s attention a new report released a few days ago from the Brookings Institution entitled, Trump on Trial: A Guide to the January 6 Hearings and the Question of Criminality. https://brook.gs/3Q91S7U

The Guide is like a study aid for the hearings that begin tonight at 8 pm on multiple channels (but, of course, not on Fox News) to present the findings thus far of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. I was working as fast as possible to highlight key passages, of which there are many. But time has run out, so I’m sharing the link to the original report. In a later post I will provide a method to receive the marked-up report for those interested.

One-Time Commercial Announcement

My readers/followers are aware that this blog has no commercial component — no ads or commercial promotions of any kind – and I intend to keep it that way. I did not undertake this work to make money.

I am, however, taking this one-time only opportunity to announce that I am today standing up Ruden Editing Service at https://www.rudeneditingservice.com If you have a need for the services available there, I will be pleased to provide them. If not, but you know someone who might benefit, feel free to forward the information.

You will not receive this promotion again unless you also in my personal Contacts list. If so, you may get it one more time, or you may see it once on LinkedIn or Facebook, but that’s it. No need to unsubscribe.

The themes of Ruden Editing Service are “where clarity rules” and “say what you mean.” I have chosen this line of work because I have long experience with it and believe I can do it well. The service covers virtually any work of written expression with a few noted exceptions. For example, I will not write papers for original student assignments. There are people who will do that, but I am not one of them. My goal is simply to help people express their written thoughts clearly.

While I am indulging in promotion, I want to put in a plug for my web developer. Deborah Newman at https://www.petitetaway.com This is the review I posted:

Deborah Newman took me from nowhere to a beautiful functional website in record time. She was always ready to address to my questions (including the really dumb ones) & responsive to everything I wanted to do. Took charge and walked me through the steps on related sites that I could never have managed on my own. Great experience in every way. Highly recommended.

 

Now, back to the blog. The next post will be entitled The Root of All Evil, but it’s not what you might think. Stay tuned.

Island Paradise

We returned recently from our twice-postponed [COVID] celebration of my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary. We have generally visited one or the other Hawaiian islands at least every other year. My wife lived there for eight years, and I have traveled there for business and pleasure many times. Hawaii remains one of the great travel experiences in the world.

The pandemic disrupted the rhythm of our visits and at a bad time. The second postponement was necessary because the Governor and health chief publicly announced that the islands could not handle a wave of COVID cases in visitors and, therefore, no one should come for a while. Extraordinary and sad for everyone.

Then the situation improved and off we went. The actual going and coming had some issues but we’ll just leave them unsaid. We want to share a few of the reasons Hawaii is special – photos of the birds, the flowers, the extraordinary trees and the “scenes.” These are a very small sample so, by all means, book yourself a dream trip. And while you’re there, book a birding tour with Oahu Nature Tours. It’s run by Michael Walther who is extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife and t geography/geology/history of the islands. He and his delightful partner Cecilia took on a great ride around the island in a Mercedes sedan. We went places you would never know about on your own and had a great day’s unique experience.

Donald Trump — A Gangster in the White House

I write to give you the gist of Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent True Crimes and Misdemeanors.

If there is anything to be disappointed about, it is that the book was published in early August of 2020 and thus does not address Trump’s (and other Republicans’) incitement of the January 6 attack and his second impeachment. But there is likely little that Toobin could add at this stage to what is known about that, given the stonewalling by most of Trump’s enablers and the apparent indifference of the Department of Justice to the entire matter.

That limitation aside, this book, like the exceptional Where Law Ends by Andrew Weissman, displays throughout the gift of clear exposition. A complex tale told well. And, like Weissman, Toobin pulls none of his punches in judging the behavior of most of the participants in the criminal enterprise that defined the Trump presidency. If there is anything to complain about in that regard, it’s Toobin’s obvious fascination with and adoration of the role, style, and grit of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the only major player to come out of the Trump crime spree as a genuine hero in Toobin’s eyes.

The book reads like a true crime novel, and it is all about crimes. Sad to say, it’s also not a novel. It’s true. All of it.

So, where to begin? The book opens with a summary analysis of Trump’s survival despite the findings of the Mueller Report. There is plenty of blame to go around but much of it rests at the feet of Mueller himself:

Mueller’s caution and reticence led him to fail at his two most important tasks.  Thanks to the clever actions (and strategic inaction) of Trump’s legal team, Mueller failed to obtain a meaningful interview with Trump himself. Even worse, Mueller convinced himself – wrongly – that he had to write a final report that was nearly incomprehensible to ordinary citizens in its legal conclusions. [True Crimes at 8]

Toobin ends the opening with the observation that,

everyone – friends as well as enemies – knew what [Trump] had done. It was obvious to any sentient observer that he did what he was accused of in the Mueller Report and in the articles of impeachment. [[True Crimes at 11]

The book then narrates the story of how that happened, beginning with James Comey’s betrayal of the country by his decision to ignore FBI policy about disclosing details of investigations at all, let alone on the literal eve of an election, with the result that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was undermined at the last minute. The subsequent narrative will be familiar to everyone who was paying attention but the details, including many not previously revealed (to my knowledge) propel the story forward. Toobin concludes, “it appears likely, if not certain, that Comey cost Clinton the presidency.” [[True Crimes at 28] Indeed.

Toobin makes a compelling case that Robert Mueller was hyper-focused on bringing his investigation to a rapid close and thus failed to pursue “the single most important piece of evidence,” namely, the testimony of Donald Trump himself. But,

Mueller didn’t. He backed down. He couldn’t bring himself to launch a direct legal attack against the president of the United States. [True Crimes at 197]

Of all the mistakes made, and in truth every serious investigation of complex events will have some, the failure to force Trump’s testimonial hand stands out as the largest and the least understandable in light of Mueller’s assignment. Everyone – Mueller’s team, Trump’s lawyers – knew Trump would perjure himself if questioned under oath. He would have had extreme difficulty responding to skilled cross-examination of his conduct and motives. This is particularly important because Mueller believed that Trump’s “state of mind” was critical to bringing charges against him. For me, that will always remain a mystery. State of mind is simply never directly knowable, despite what we’ve seen in some phantasmagorical science fiction movies. It is inferable from conduct in context and circumstances, always.

Mueller made other mistakes. He should have squeezed Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer whom they had dead to rights on campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. Without ever asking whether his jurisdiction might include the Cohen issues, Mueller turned the case over to the Southern District of New York. Because those prosecutors, accomplished though they were, saw their role narrowly – Cohen was the target, not Trump – they never sought Trump’s tax returns or his financial records.

In a precursor to what was to come, William Barr, who had once been Mueller’s boss at DOJ, volunteered in June 2018 a 19-page memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had appointed Mueller as Special Counsel, attacking the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation. Barr argued that the president could, for any reason or no reason (the legal standard for “at will” employment firing), fire the head of the FBI (Comey) and such action could not be attacked as obstruction of justice. Barr also objected on constitutional grounds to any attempt to force Trump to testify. [True Crimes at 234-235]

Thereafter, negotiations over Trump’s possible testimony were postponed while Rudy Giuliani was brought in to lead Trump’s legal defense team. At a “get-acquainted” meeting with Mueller’s team,

Giuliani wanted to nail down Mueller’s commitment that he would follow the [DOJ Office of Legal Counsel] policy barring indictments of sitting presidents. Aaron Zebley volunteered that Mueller would. [True Crimes at 236, italics mine]

When I read that, I almost gagged. Zebley was Mueller’s former Chief of Staff at the FBI and his top aide in the Trump investigation. Zebley was the subject of much critical assessment in Andrew Weissmann’s Where Law Ends, discussed in detail here: https://bit.ly/3Jn8ye3

I can think of no plausible reason for Mueller or his team to offer such a concession at that point, or likely at any point, in the investigation without getting something of extraordinary importance in return. But, no, the point was “volunteered” away. Astonishing and inexplicable in my opinion.

Many key players in the prolonged saga of Trump’s presidency come in for harsh criticism in Toobin’s accounting, including Judge T.S. Ellis, the judge in the first trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair. Toobin notes the judge’s “partisanship and incompetence.” [True Crimes at 238] Strong words, indeed, but justified by the shocking events he narrates.

One beef I have with Toobin relates to the central issue in the Mueller investigation. Mueller concluded that there was no evidence proving that Trump or his campaign “colluded” with Russia. Toobin accepts this finding, with the qualification that Trump and his inner circle certainly wanted to collude. [True Crimes at 269] Given the failure to examine Trump personally under oath or to subpoena his taxes and financial records, Toobin’s total acceptance of Trump’s innocence on the collusion issue is, I think, unjustified. Even more so because Trump’s answers to the written questions ultimately submitted to him by Mueller included 36 instances of “don’t remember” by the man who repeatedly claimed to have a genius level mind and memory. [True Crimes at 273]

Toobin holds nothing back in stating that Rudy Giuliani’s involvement in the Ukraine extortion episode “must rank among the most disastrous pieces of advocacy in the history American lawyering.” [True Crimes at 292] No doubt, but Toobin also holds nothing back regarding the Mueller Report itself. He correctly concludes that the Report established that “Trump committed several acts of criminal obstruction of justice.” [True Crimes at 300] Using his gift of snark to full advantage, Toobin paraphrases the Mueller conclusions on obstruction:

We can investigate the President, but we can’t prosecute the President. If our investigation determined that he was in the clear, we’d say that – but we’re not saying that. Nor are we saying that he’s guilty of anything. So we’re not saying he’s guilty – but we’re not saying he’s innocent either. Basically. [True Crimes at 302]

Toobin characterizes the decision to avoid saying whether prosecution was warranted as a “gift to Trump.” [True Crimes at 302] Right again.

For several reasons, a special mention must be made of then- Attorney General William Barr’s issuance of a second letter, two days after he received the 448-page Mueller Report, interpreting the Report to say things it did not say and drawing conclusions the Report did not draw. Or, as Toobin put it, Barr put “a stake in Mueller.” [True Crimes at 307] And then, one of the highlights of the entire book for me,

Many on Mueller’s team, especially at the lower levels, were incandescent with fury at Barr.” [True Crimes at 308]

I don’t think will ever forget that phrase, “incandescent with fury” that so graphically describes how I and many others felt when Barr’s treachery sank in.

The book goes on to cover Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme, the outrageous efforts of the White House and outside counsel to defend the indefensible, the refusal of Republican senators to hear the evidence through witnesses and their determination to protect Trump at any and all costs. Toobin is unsparing in his condemnation of these efforts, and all are worth reading.

The main thing that really surprised me in the book was an omission. I may have missed it, though I doubt it. There was no discussion of the fate of the full written report (I will not dignify it with the term “transcript,” since it was in no sense an actual transcript) on the Trump-Zelensky call that was widely reported to have been sequestered in a White House server to which access was extremely limited. I have seen no reports about whether the Biden administration has opened the server to discover its contents or whether the server was removed with by the outgoing administration to, again, protect Trump from further exposure of his crimes.

I also strongly disagree, as I have previously written, with the decision of the House managers (mainly the Speaker) to limit the impeachments to narrowly drawn issues, given the breadth and depth of Trump’s crimes in office. The House was not bound by the self-imposed limitations of the Mueller Report and, knowing, as the House did, that conviction of Trump was completely unlikely, they should have thrown the book at him, exposing for the watching world the range and importance of his crimes in office.

I also must record my fundamental disagreement with Toobin’s judgment about the proper role of the Senate in the impeachments. He says,

The senators were nothing more, and nothing less, than politicians were supposed to decide the president’s fate based just in part on the evidence at trial but also on their overall sense of what was best for the country.

That view is far too narrow and validates the refusal of the Republican Party to come to grips with the realities of Trump’s presidency. There remains, and history will confirm, no doubt that Donald Trump committed multiple crimes in office and that he committed crimes in attempting to stop the peaceful transfer of power to the Biden administration. To say that the Senate’s judgment was rightly based on a self-interested determination of “what was best for the country” makes a sham of the entire constitutional process. I do not believe the Founding Fathers, if they had been able to imagine a president like Trump, would have intended that the Senate could just say “it’s in our best interest to keep the leader of our party in power, so he’s ‘not guilty’ regardless of what he did.” I believe the Founding Fathers, whatever their other flaws, wanted and expected more when the extraordinary remedy of impeachment was brought against a president.

Toobin does not spend much time on Trump’s handling of the pandemic because that was not the primary topic of the book. But, as some of the Republican senators observed, the people would eventually render their judgment of Trump on election day in 2020. And they did. For reasons I still cannot grasp, Trump received more than 74 million votes, despite everything. But, fortunately for the republic and the world, Joe Biden won more than 81 million votes and a sufficient margin in the Electoral College to take the presidency. Then, Trump incited a coup to try to stop the transfer of power to the new president.

This was what Trump cared about the most. Toobin presciently notes,

Trump had no great passions on the issues, no policy agenda that he was determined to enact. For Trump, his presidency was more about him than what he could accomplish. For this reason, the only verdict that has ever mattered to Trump is the one rendered on Election Day.

Thus it was written and thus it was done.

You may recall Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress in which he likened Trump to a mafia boss. While Cohen’s handling of Trump and his legal affairs was problematic, to say the least, it appears that he correctly identified the central idea of Trump’s personal code of conduct.

The central question facing us now is, I think, whether the current Attorney General, Merrick Garland, is just another Robert Mueller. As an earlier post has discussed, the statute of limitations has already run on one of Trump’s obstruction crimes. Garland has publicly stated he will follow the evidence and the law even if it leads to Trump. More lawyers have apparently been hired to work on Trump matters.

Meanwhile, time marches only in one direction. The country waits for action. Trump’s crimes, and those of his enablers in the White House and Congress, stretch well back into his presidency, with the capstone being his incitement of the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, more than 15 months ago. The nation waits ….

Ballet in Hawaii – Oh Yes!!

You probably recall the experience of being invited to the home of a relative or friend to see the “slides” of their vacation somewhere. If you were fortunate, enough alcohol was served to get you through the seemingly interminable photos of places you hadn’t been and people you didn’t know, but you were sure a grand time was had by all. And how can I gracefully get out of here? If the internet had existed back then, the “slide show” would surely have been a popular meme.

I recall that because I did it, mostly to relatives who, I had convinced myself, were interested in what we had seen and done on the many trips I took for business and pleasure. I now doubt they were interested but tolerant enough.

That said, if you have followed this blog for long, you know that I occasionally post photos of places and sights that I think are worth sharing. The good news is you don’t have to look.

But I hope you will look at these few shots because they represent the future of ballet in Hawaii and these young people are genuinely amazing and deserving of support. What? Ballet in Hawaii? Indeed.

Our recent, twice postponed (pandemic) vacation/anniversary/wife’s birthday trip to Honolulu let to a surprising and inspiring discovery. As usual, we had planned many elements of the trip, but we found ourselves on the first day with … no plan! We had expected to be jet-lagged and not much into activity, but upon looking for something to do, we came upon https://ballethawaii.org. Their final studio performance was the next day, so we bought tickets and took an Uber to the studio.

What a wonderful surprise! These young and gifted people put on a show to remember. Short pieces involving different members of the group and covering the full range of classical and modern themes. Their commitment to the discipline of ballet was evident in the quality of their dancing and their obvious enthusiasm for this difficult art form.

These are two professional shots of the group that they kindly shared with us.

Below are a few of the shots I took. I wanted to capture some of the dancing, but the setting was too intimate for me to be clicking away while they did their thing.

You can see the Performing Ensemble up close here: https://ballethawaii.org/performing-ensemble/  Note them well. Someday, we’re sure, we’ll be seeing some of these names in major dance companies around the country.

Strong At Every Position

The title of this post is a phrase often used in sports journalism to describe a team that has highly rate players in every position on the starting team. It is a gross understatement as it applies to the American Ballet Theater dancers and others involved in producing Don Quixote last night at the Kennedy Center. The program can be seen here: https://bit.ly/3J4cFeI

The evening began when Devon Teuscher, principal dancer with ABT, emerged on stage to announce that the evening’s performance was dedicated to Ukraine and its fight for independence. She then invited “those who are able” to stand for the playing of the Ukraine national anthem. The audience roared its approval and virtually everyone was on their feet. A wonderful moment.

The performance that followed was extraordinary as well. From the spectacular stagecraft to the dancing itself, words almost fail. The ballet has three acts, the middle one being somewhat slow but with elegance that reminded me of scenes from Swan Lake. The first and third acts were just high-energy explosive displays of artistry, discipline and skill. The unison of the dancing groups was surreal.

The leading role of Kitri, the heroine whose affections are the subject of the main “contest” for her hand in marriage, was performed by Christine Shevchenko, a native of Ukraine, making the evening’s dedication even more poignant. Her extraordinary biography is here: https://bit.ly/3u2yvek and last night she lived up to her credits, dominating every scene in which she appeared. Phenomenal in every way. That is not to take away from the other dancers. Everyone was exceptional in their assigned parts.

The evening ended with another surprise. Shevchenko, having taken her bows with the others, ran off stage and returned with the Ukraine flag, producing another roar of approval from the standing crowd. This is the photo, hurriedly taken with a cell phone to capture the unexpected moment.

New York City Ballet company is coming to the Kennedy Center in June. That too will be spectacular. There are likely seats left. Get yours before it’s too late!

 

DC – Be More Like Hawaii

We have returned from a twice postponed and much-needed vacation in Hawaii. We spent the entire week in Honolulu but, in our over-priced rental car, we toured the island as we always do, stopping for garlic shrimp at one of the local huts on the North Shore and marveling at the amazing scenery. We had a wonderful birding experience, about which more in another post.

The point now is to highlight an aspect of Hawaii life that we would do well to emulate here in the District of Columbia. It’s not hard to do and would contribute measurably to the quality of life here. Elsewhere as well.

I refer to the fact that virtually no one honks their car horn at other drivers in Hawaii. It is frowned upon as extremely discourteous, rude and … unacceptable. Associated with this wonderful custom is the concept of sharing the road. Traffic on Oahu, the island of which Honolulu occupies a big space and has most of the population, is, well, heavy. And on the few interstates, traffic tends to move fast when fast is possible. It resembles the interstates on the mainland in that regard. If you’re going to survive, you must pay attention to the road and other drivers and not so much the highly distractive surroundings.

That said, when it’s time to exit, giving a signal of your intentions reasonably in advance will almost always result in someone in the lane to your side allowing you to enter that lane and exit. The same is true for changing lanes to get into one whose speed is more comfortable. At congested points within Honolulu, and there are many, drivers, with rare exceptions, alternate with each other at choke points. You don’t have to force your way into the traffic. Other drivers seem to understand that they have been where you are and yield to you, if not willingly, still pretty consistently.

This degree of courtesy on the road can take some getting used to, but it doesn’t take long to realize that this is a culture change, a way of getting along with others who are all trying to do the same thing — reach their destinations safely.

The absence of routine angry horn honking and the common and almost universal courtesy of drivers yielding and sharing space with you makes for a quieter and calmer driving experience and general atmosphere. In DC, where we live now, I am convinced that the propensity of drivers to think they are somehow more important than everyone else and show this with blasting horns and insanely dangerous driving habits, leads to a kind of follow-the-leader atmosphere.  Horn honking leads to more horn honking. Hesitation at a light is not tolerated and often no space is given at merge points without forcing one’s way into the line of traffic. The more of this that occurs, the more it becomes the norm. Bad behavior begets bad behavior.

We can do better. Hawaii is proof that we can learn to accommodate each other, at least in this one respect, so that good behavior begets good behavior. You don’t have to visit Hawaii to figure this out, although it will do you a world of good to spend some time there. More about that in future posts. [I took over 1,000 photos in one week there.] Meanwhile, DC, try to be more like Hawaii.

Why I Hate the Snow

We had fair warning even though my two weather apps had drastically different predictions of how the second snow of the year would play out. Until the snow had already exceeded predictions, both said it would amount to little, somewhere between a dusting and three inches. Not that big a deal. And anyone who has lived a while or read books about weather will know that predictions are highly uncertain. Fine, as far as that goes.

My tale.

My wife is flying back to Washington DC from California, scheduled to land at National Airport (DCA to we cognoscenti) at 4:53 pm, a few hours after the snow was expected to start but given the predictions, we should have no issues. I drive a Ford Escape Hybrid that, in addition to extraordinary gas mileage, has front-wheel drive. It’s really a computer on wheels, with multiple sensors around the perimeter (aside: on road trips it will often suggest, by flashed dashboard message, that I am tired and should take a “rest”).

I set out from our apartment in the West End of DC at 4:30, plenty of time given that my wife checked her bag on the return flight. I am monitoring the flight’s progress on a cell phone app that, it will later appear, provides way more information than anyone could need, making the key information very hard to read while also trying to stay on the road whose lane markers have long ago disappeared.

Indeed, traffic is very light, although it’s apparent immediately that the car in front of me has no business being out in this weather. I carefully navigate Washington Circle, one of the cruel gifts of the original French designer of the city’s layout, and proceed down the hill to the Memorial Circle (site of the iconic Lincoln Memorial) and cross the Memorial Bridge to the George Washington (yes, that one) Parkway leading to the airport. Road conditions are not great but I’m moving right along and arrive at the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary parking lot, a short hop from DCA. I join a handful of other cars hopefully waiting to proceed to the airport where the cellphone “waiting” area is very small and the other places to stop and wait are patrolled regularly by police with guns.

[Aside No 2: According to the Washington Post, Roaches Run is named that because “The stream that feeds the lagoon is named for the family of James Roach, who ran a nearby brickworks and owned a mansion, since torn down, called Prospect Hill.” https://wapo.st/3KhGU3R Do not read that article because you will then be tempted to read the Comments where you will find yet another unnecessary war of words between two readers set off by an allegedly “off topic” comment and followed by “you’re one – no you are – no you…”]

After a while, I glance at my phone and see that the flight arrival is being pushed back. Not surprising considering the weather, runway clearing, etc. My weather app now changes as well – we’re now looking at 3 to 6 inches. No problem. Even had I known that before departure, my plan would not have changed. After all, I drive a Ford Escape ….

I wait. I look at the phone again and BOOM, I now see that the flight has been DIVERTED to Dulles International Airport (IAD to we cognoscenti) which is about 27 miles away and road conditions are deteriorating fast.

I depart Roaches Run, drive into DCA, and go around by the arrivals terminal so I’m now driving north on the GW. There are a few options for routes to IAD, but I choose to stay on the GW Parkway. I know the road well and traffic is sparse though road conditions are deteriorating fast. Several of the cars that also chose this route for whatever reasons are regretting the error as they slide around and, in some cases, get stuck in the mounting snow/ice/slush.

Undeterred, and in any case irrevocably committed to my chosen route, I forge ahead. I believe I am racing against a jet airplane that could be in final approach. Road conditions are deteriorating fast, but it could be worse. Only one driver does something really stupid, forcing me to brake suddenly to avoid him. I do. It’s all good.

I reach the Capital Beltway (the ring road around DC known to cognoscenti as 495), which is the link to the Dulles No-Toll superhighway that takes you straight to IAD. Traffic is much heavier on 495. Why? Is it really necessary for all these people to be driving on a Sunday night in a snowstorm when road conditions ….? Dumb question.

Still, I’m making good progress until the exit for the Dulles No-Toll Road. Here the snow has apparently melted near the pavement, the plows have missed the area and several cars are having that uh-oh moment of realization that they are now spinning in one place. Even my chariot is having a lot of trouble maintaining forward momentum.

But I ease around the floundering cars, leaving them in my dust (very figuratively speaking) and make it onto the No-Toll road. I could take the Toll Road that parallels (literally right next to) the No-Toll Road but why pay when you can drive for free (the Devil whispers in my ear)? I think I will make it to IAD in plenty of time because the government usually keeps the No-Toll Road pretty clear, and traffic remains light. I am maintaining a nice steady 20 mph on a road designed for 55 and often driven at 65 to 70 by many (other people).

Once clear of other cars and with open (figuratively speaking) road ahead, I glance at my phone for a time check. WHAT???? The flight has been RE-DIVERTED back to DCA!!!!

Now, for those who don’t know, the thing about the No-Toll Road is that, because it’s free and might be abused by commuters who want to escape the frequent congestion on the parallel Toll Road, once you’re on the No-Toll Road you may not exit until you reach the airport. Aaarghhh!!!

There are, of course, a few “Official Vehicles Only” exits with dire warnings about high penalties, gates, red lights, and other reasons not to use those exits. Once entering one of those lanes, you might not be able to get out and the police are around trying to help motorists when the can.

Soooo, I chicken out and keep driving – allllll the way out to IAD where I circle through the airport. My computer-on-wheels is now flashing all manner of dashboard warnings to the effect that the sensors that tell you when you’re about to crash and burn are blocked. I am a bit concerned that the computers may simply shut the engine off, so I stop in a no-stopping zone at the end of the terminal, exit the car and try, unsuccessfully, to remove the ice caked all around the lower perimeter of the car (where, naturalement, the sensors are located).

To hell with it. I get back in the car and head back onto the No-Toll Road back toward DCA, still 27 miles from where I just came. I can’t be sure, but it appears that my wife’s fight is still circling DCA so I’m still good on arrival time.

Indeed, the snow is turning to rain/sleet (a miracle?) and while it’s cold as hell (world class mixed metaphor), the rain is clearing the road of snow much better than the snowplows could. I am traveling 40 mph at times. I stay on the No-Toll Road until it merges with I-66 (known to cognoscenti as The Road Where Cars Go to Run Out of Gas While Idling in Traffic) and miraculously arrive in Crystal City (don’t ask if you don’t know). The phone rings — my wife is in the terminal with a large group of people awaiting delivery of their luggage, running back and forth from one carousel to another (Guess Which Carousel If You Can – a favorite game of the baggage handlers at DCA). I slow down, arrive in the “road” that serves as the airport pick-up zone for arriving passengers, acquire my wife plus luggage and head back to DC.

She is starving because she believed that having been served a meal traveling west, she would also get one coming east. She had, after all, paid for an upgrade to Premium Economy. In reality, enroute from LAX (Los Angeles for cognoscenti on a flight that exceed five hours, she was served a … cookie. Meanwhile, my total driving time was almost as long as her flight, so there’s that.

All’s well that ends well, of course, and the ride from DCA was uneventful, I didn’t get a ticket for the U-turn I didn’t make on Pennsylvania Avenue to acquire carry-out at the local Thai place, and we settle in to watch a blood-soaked movie starring an aging Pierce Brosnan who, miraculously, fought like a twenty-something.  There is hope.

 

 

Steaming at Blues Alley

‘Twas a wet and blustery night

With cold descending on the town,

But the smoke was pouring hot

From the best jazz club around.

It was Saturday night and Kenny Garrett’s sextet was playing at Blues Alley, the premier Washington jazz club in the heart of Georgetown. The club is really located in an alley, which adds somehow to its charm. Inside, it’s the real deal. Tightly packed tables seating 140, surrounding a compact stage that is crowded on a night like this because the sextet has a lot of instruments.

We booked late, a bit unsure about attending such an event indoors, but we had seen Garrett several times before and the attraction of live jazz again, just a few blocks from our apartment, was too much to resist. Very wisely, the club has a firm policy: proof of vaccination to enter and masks-on when not eating or drinking. Even Garrett wore a mask before starting to play. All the audience seats appeared to be occupied as a few late walk-ins arrived to take the few remaining.

The traditional tools of the jazz trade jammed the stage: piano (baby grand, I think), drum kit (everything you can imagine), full-size bass, many microphones and, in this case, a full set of bongos, sound devices whose names I can’t guess and, in the center, a small electronic keyboard. In the hands of musical masters, these instruments enable the creation of the magical place a jazz club can be when a master of the art accompanied by others of surpassing talent are at the top of their game.

The people attending this event were primed for some top-level stimulation and they got it. Garrett’s sextet included: Vernell Brown Jr.: piano; Corcoran Holt: bass; Ronald Bruner Jr.: drums; Rudy Bird: percussion, snare; and Melvis Santa: vocals and keyboard, among other things. Those folks can play. For me, the drummer stood out, driving the music forward with powerful strokes and extraordinary energy. Few people can play like that for so long. But in truth the whole ensemble was a unit in an exceptional display of jazz at its most powerful.

At the end, Garrett called on the audience, already fully tuned up by the propulsive sound, to rise up and “work it out” to the closing number … and they did. I have never seen anything quite like that after attending many jazz performances over the years. Dancing in the aisles, even where there were no aisles.

Garrett’s style may not be for everyone (the first number lasted probably 15 or 20 minutes) but the crowd Saturday night was totally into it, as were all audiences in prior shows we saw. Typically, his entire body rocks back and forth to repeated riffs of sound. Maybe it’s how he keeps time. Doesn’t matter. The man can blow. He never seems to tire. His saxophone dominates the music, but the other instruments have their time as well when the tunes go from post-modern bop to Latin, Cuban, Afro something something, who knows. It’s all great.

At the end, Garrett dismissed each performer by name. The crowd erupted in appreciation and one-by-one the musicians exited. Garrett departed next-to-last, leaving the drummer, playing, for him, sedately. Then, he stopped and just walked off. It was all over but the vibrations. The steam subsided … until the next set.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s shows at 8 and 10.