Alive and Kicking

The blog, which started in January, went on hiatus in June. Intended for 3-4 weeks, it has stretched to two months. I’ve had an occasional query and then a more pointed note from a friend this week. When I finished writing back, I realized my note might make a suitable update for the blog itself. For anyone interested, here it is:

Anyway, I got the gist that you were asking if I was ok, as it seemed I had fallen off the grid. The answer is yes, but this has been anything but a normal summer. Beginning in the first week of June, we turned our lives upside down when we decided to move back into Seattle. Except for 10 days in Vermont around the 4th of July, visiting daughter and grandkids, and coinciding with our house’s time on the market, virtually every day has been devoted to some aspect of selling our house and buying another.

Seattle house-hunting is crazy now, as you’ve probably heard. Finally, last Friday we were among 13 people bidding on a house in Ravenna/Roosevelt area and were successful. (I.e. successful at getting a house and at unburdening our children of any worries that we might leave them too much money.)

We leave tomorrow for a two-week trip to Ireland, come back with 5 days until our house closes and another week until we get into the house we’re buying. When we scheduled our trip, of course, we didn’t know we were going to enter the real estate zone. We cancelled the last 10 days of it, which would have been on our own in Southwest England, but couldn’t cancel the Rick Steves Ireland tour with friends.

As for the blog’s inactivity and disappearing from Facebook, time has obviously been an issue. But even prior to June, I had needed to hit the PAUSE button. One reason was a need to devote more time to the kids’ book I’ve been writing since January. Unintentionally, I had allowed the blog to crowd out much of the time I was devoting to the book. I had scheduled a (Wannabe) Author’s Visit with the 5th grade classes at Westhill, four days in June, and needed to make more progress on it. That was pretty fun.

But a bigger reason for the pause was a dawning realization that I couldn’t just continue to react to the Trump Diversionary Circus like I had been. Plus, I was getting the impression that the small readership I had was feeling the same way. So, I took a break to rethink the focus. And it happens that the decision to move into Seattle was influenced by my time writing the blog. I guess you could say all the “boomer conscience-raising” had affected how we were feeling about staying in our big comfortable suburban retreat. Grandchildren in the city and a desire to be more engaged in community were powerful factors in our decision to move.

So, we’ll get settled in our new home and then I plan to relaunch the blog, but with less focus on Trump himself and more on exploring what it is like to navigate life in an altered America.

Vandals in the White House

An oil refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa. The United States is the biggest carbon polluter in history. Credit Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

There are vandals in the White House. The past fortnight has made it clear. All it took was a little distance for perspective. A revealing trip abroad. A self-satisfied rejection of the Paris climate change accord, infused with contempt for 190 countries. Throw in a dramatic buildup to the announcement scheduled for the odd time of 3:00 EDT so it can play live, prime-time, in Europe.

There are vandals in the White House. The evidence has been there all along, but for me it took seeing it through eyes from outside this country to really get it. Our media paradigm can limit our understanding by its familiar narrative of left vs. right and our tendency to focus on national news, lacking a solid international context. It was unsettling, jarringly so, to read commentary and comments from Europe today.

I was embarrassed for our nation while Trump attended the NATO conference in Sicily. His signature heedless arrogance was distilled in the 20 second clip-gone-viral of his pushing past the Montenegro prime minister for the group photo. J.K. Rowling’s assessment, also viral, was apt: “What a tiny, tiny, tiny, little man.”

That was mere boorishness. More meaningful was his decision to substitute a scolding of the attendees for not paying their fair share in lieu of the requisite recommitment of the U.S. to the organization’s common defense. Even so, the European leaders managed to overlook his slights and obliviousness and tried to impress on him the overriding importance of remaining in the Paris climate change accord.

Yesterday my embarrassment was superseded by shame. The vandals in the White House smashed the agreement we had in collaboration with every other country in the world, save Nicaragua and Syria. But it was obvious today that the damage went well beyond that. Trump’s words, in his role of president, were so emphatically dismissive of any concern for the rest of the world’s population that they have been rightly seen as an abdication of moral and political leadership.

There are vandals in the White House. Like I said, the evidence has been there all along. Exhibit A is Steve Bannon and his ambition for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It looked for a time that Bannon’s star was fading, but the recent turmoil over the Russia investigations have resulted in his reinstatement close to the president’s ear.

Bannon was one of the advisors pressing Trump to trash the Paris accord. He has also talked candidly about the need for the administration to deconstruct via the elimination of regulations, particularly those that were put in place during the Obama presidency. He even plainly said that many cabinet picks had been made for the express purpose of dismantling the regulatory authority of their agencies.

Naturally, that was only stating the obvious. Consider first those whose background showed them to be hostile to the agency they would lead: Scott Pruitt for EPA, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, Rick Perry for Energy, Ryan Zinke for Interior, Betsy DeVos for Education. Then there is Ben Carson, whose obvious lack of qualifications make his effectiveness to lead HUD questionable.

Rex Tillerson was a controversial, but defensible, choice for State. But since his confirmation, the department has been decimated of experienced career staffers and managed in such a way that morale is reported to be at an all-time low. Tillerson himself has made it clear he has little interest in the institutional memory and protocol of the department.

Jeff Sessions was an obvious pick for Attorney General only in that he was an early and loyal Trump supporter. His early pronouncements and orders have confirmed the suspicion that for him “Make America Great Again” really does refer to white America. Preferably pre-1960s.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s “Team of Vandals” will have any role other than demolition. Judging by the Vandal-in-Chief, it would seem unlikely. Coming up on 5 months into his term, there is little evidence of anything of substance that Trump proposes doing. Only what he wants to undo.

Of course, he talks in vague terms about infrastructure, tax reform, health care, and building a wall. But the only significant new policy he actually tried to implement, the Muslim travel ban, is still hung up by injunction due to its unconstitutionality. Infrastructure and the wall, tangible building projects that are at least somewhat connected to his past experience, remain nebulous and seem far off at best. His tax reform plan, when finally released, turned out to be a single page of bullets and tons of white space. But it had a White House letterhead. For months he claimed to have a really great health care plan. Naturally, he had no such thing, leaving it to the House Republicans to come up with it. He continues to demonstrate that, even now, he has little knowledge or interest in what is actually in the plan.

And so it is with the Paris accord as well. No one really expects that Trump has any meaningful knowledge of the pros and cons of the the climate change agreement. What we know for sure, though, is that he is offering nothing better. He said nothing during his speech about the threat of global warming. Nothing about the science. Nothing of our responsibility to future generations. Instead, his message was the equivalent of taking a can of neon spray paint to the agreement and scrawling  “USA! USA! USA!” across every page.

Way to go Mr. President. Everyone got the message.

 

Make America Great At Last

(Scott Threlkeld/AP)

A sense of our own greatness has always been part of the American psyche. And not without reason. A fresh start in a new land with unexplored but limitless potential. Manifest destiny leading us across a magnificent continent, brimming with resources– and pesky natives. Development of a robust economic engine, fueled in part by the labor and expendable lives of an enslaved population. The endurance of, and prevailing over: civil war, world wars, economic depression. The status of being the envy of the world for our democratic freedoms, standard of living, and independent, self-sufficient lifestyle.

A sense of this greatness diminishing was the basis for the Trump phenomenon in 2016. Trump identified the genuine and poignant plight of a segment of working Americans whose livelihoods and towns have been deteriorating in the face of advancing technology and world economic forces. He successfully exploited it with the time-tested strategy of scapegoating immigrants with different shade skin.

I first witnessed this strategy in action in January, 2016. My daughter lives in Vermont and has her office in Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. The Trump campaign chose this location, three blocks from Bernie Sanders’s campaign headquarters, for a January 7 rally. Stacy sent me links to coverage of the event, including a phone video that someone attending had recorded.

At that early date, the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign were already appallingly evident: the lies about crowd sizes (“25,000 people are in line outside” when it was actually 2,000); the xenophobic hate speech; the incitement to physical violence (“Get them out! Get them out!” to encourage physical removal of anyone suspected of not being a real supporter); the promise to make America great again.

The campaign unleashed racial resentment and hatred that had never disappeared from our society, but had been suppressed by judicial progress and evolving awareness and conscience among a majority of citizens. The victory in the election validated what the campaign had exposed.

We have seen this resurgence of racism in many forms. The emboldening of white supremacists. Violence and vandalism against Muslims and mosques. Physical and vocal antagonism in schools, north and south. Policies and budgets in Congress and statehouses that disfavor immigrants and the poor.

And it is playing out in the South over the issue of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces.

This is what I’ve been getting at. In an odd way, I wonder if there is a silver lining in the storm clouds. It is difficult to engage with attitudes that lie below the surface. But Trumpism has given “political correctness” a negative connotation, while simultaneously encouraging expression of long suppressed racial resentments. The controversy over the meaning of Confederate monuments is putting those attitudes on open display.

Charlottesville, VA, has faced protests to its recent decision to remove a prominent statue of General Robert E. Lee. State lawmakers have lined up on either side of the issue. About two weeks ago, white supremacist leader, Richard Spencer, led a protest in front of the statue, complete with torches but minus the robes. You may recall that Spencer achieved prominence with his “Hail Trump” appearance at a white nationalist conference in DC shortly after the election. This protest elicited many public denunciations and expressions of support.

Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy, has also revived its previously unsuccessful campaign to remove six Civil War statues from its famed Monument Avenue. Public polls and media commentary abound.

People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
People celebrating the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans on Tuesday. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Perhaps New Orleans presents the most interesting example of this public discourse. As you probably know, the city council voted to remove four statues  in different parts of the city and relocate them in a museum to provide historical context. Fearing violent protests, the first three were removed at night. The last, a 16 foot bronze figure of General Lee, was removed in the light of day on May 19. No violence occurred.

Not that some did not think that violence was called for. The next day, state representative Karl Oliver, Republican, made this Facebook post:

The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, “leadership” of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.

Let me restate that, to make sure you got it. A sitting state legislator called for the LYNCHING! of other public officials whose actions he disagreed with. Nicely symbolic form of execution, I’ll give him that.

I’m happy to report that Rep. Oliver has been roundly condemned for his post by members of both parties and stripped of his committee chairmanship. Racism boldly, and baldly, expressed in public is rarely an attractive thing, save to other die-hard racists. That is why I have hope, albeit slim, that the Trump brand of nationalism could result in a greater number of Americans seeing it more clearly and rejecting it.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on May 19 regarding the meaning of removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

How might that look? New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a remarkable speech on the same morning the Lee statue was being removed. The vision he eloquently proposed is both aspirational and attainable. The entire speech is here. If you would like just some of the highlights, try here. But this is the part that best speaks to the point of this post (bolding is mine):

A friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

I am aware that in some places and circumstances, I could be pilloried for saying or even implying that America is not great. It’s just that saying it doesn’t make it so. Neither does a slogan on a baseball cap. Neither, it turns out, does electing the first African-American President. If only it were so easy.

No, there are many many things about America that are great. And she has, perhaps more than most if not all other countries, the potential for greatness. But to realize that potential, to become truly great at last, the potential must be equally available to all within her borders. Because when some are denied, oppressed, slighted, or attacked, we all fall short.

This Can’t Continue! Can It?

I cannot believe I’m saying this, but it may be time to start thinking about the 2018 elections. “Sure,” I can hear you thinking, “right after I finish hot waxing myself and listening to a 2-hour compilation of Kellyanne Conway’s most irritating interviews.”

But, any American citizen who is appalled at the spectacle of immense power in the hands of an “infantalist”, as David Brooks called him, needs to think in practical terms about what it is going to take to get Trump out of office. And whether there is anything we can do about it besides wish.

We are starting to see the term “tipping point” appear with some frequency in the “failing” NY Times and the “dishonest” mainstream media in general. The reference is to the question of whether the self-sabotaging president has racked up enough offenses– against ethical standards, the constitution, intelligence protocol, etc.– and exhibited sufficiently shocking, irrational, unhinged behavior to spur Congress to finally fulfill its intended role as a check on an executive branch that is abusing its power.

It is my belief that, if the current avalanche of jaw-dropping events does not push House and Senate Republicans over that tipping point, it is unlikely to happen. Journalists are reporting that those legislators are increasingly expressing their dismay and concern off the record. But only the occasional lone voice, and none of the leadership, will publicly stand against the president.

Why is that? Primarily, you can chalk it up to three factors.

First, Trump voters don’t agree with you. Polls are showing almost no slippage in support on one vital question. Sizable numbers register disapproval for certain traits or actions, resulting in somewhat lower approval ratings since January. But 96% of those who voted for Trump still say they would vote for him now.

Again, why is that?! I expect you know. Read the polls (e.g. something like 85% of Republicans place more trust in Trump to tell the truth than the media) and listen to Trump voters interviewed about their reactions to current events. You find that they buy into the narrative that the president is trying to do what he promised, is being thwarted by (fill in the blank), and is being lied about in the press and by opponents.

Second, as long as this base does not erode, Reps in Congress believe they can’t afford to anger them and end up getting defeated in the primaries next year.

And third, they still have an agenda they know Trump will sign if he doesn’t get in the way of passing it: repeal and replace Obamacare, tax “reform” i.e. cuts, budget cuts, and regulatory cuts.

What it will take

If the current majority party does not act, the 2018 mid-terms become a referendum to elect to Congress those who will defend our democratic institutions and traditions, to say nothing of the constitution.

Every Democratic seat must be defended. Every current Republican incumbent must find him or herself challenged by the highest quality candidate possible. The process of identifying, vetting, and supporting those challengers needs to begin now.

If Democratic infighting can’t be banished, it at least needs to take a vacation. Encourage great local leaders to run. And to run positive primary campaigns that result in a general election candidate that enjoys united support.

There may be places where an Independent candidate emerges as the strongest option. There may even be situations where a moderate Republican who is also appalled at what has become of the party and the presidency turns out to be the smartest vote in order to oust the Trump-enabling incumbent.

The point is this. The portentous possibilities that were forewarned in 2016 of electing a man so unfit and unprepared are materializing with growing speed and impact. It should not be allowed to continue, but it may. If it does, we can shrug, console ourselves with Colbert, and gradually become desensitized to the new normal.

Or, we do what we can do. Support and read a vigilant press, keeping our opposition informed and intelligent rather than partisan. And act locally, while thinking nationally, to help elect a Congress who will be willing to fulfill its responsibility.

I would like my grandchildren to grow up in a great America. But excuse me if I choose Lincoln’s definition over Trump’s. That would be an America where the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It survived the Civil War. I think it can survive Trump.

Avoid Difficult End-of-Life Decisions: Make Them Now

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Trumpbegone. Scanning the news of the last week for anything related to the Donald, I just don’t seem to find anything of significance. Well, there was some FBI flap, North Korea shooting missiles toward Japan, a Kissinger sighting and threats of White House “tapes” in case the firing wasn’t Watergate-ish enough already. Oh, and unplanned or not, the big f*** you to the country in the form of Oval Office smiles and back-slapping with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. Yes, the same ambassador that was meeting and phoning Trump campaigners during the election and transition. That was the next day after the humiliating purge of the chief investigator into Russia’s attack on our elections! Yada yada yada. Same old, same old.

So, it seemed a good opportunity for a break from the depressing topic of present day politics in America to talk about something marginally less gloomy– present day dying in America. I know. I must have a natural instinct for building readership.

This fun idea did not drop out of the blue. There was a recent article in the NY Times by Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, titled “We’re bad at death, can we talk?”  If you are a (SSA) card-carrying boomer, I strongly urge you to read this article. Preferably after finishing this one.

A Personal Perspective

Ann and I made the decision eight or nine years ago to see a family estate attorney in order to prepare documents that included wills, advance health care directives, and durable POAs (power of attorney) for health care decisions and finances/property.

What we thought would be a simple matter of signing some papers drawn from boilerplates turned into several days (our time, not billable hours) of enforced consideration. Given numerous document samples to work with, and the option to add and edit, we faced hypothetical calamities such as cancer, car crash, and Alzheimers. We also acknowledged the certainty of death. Not the someday we really don’t expect, but the one day we know will come.

If you’ve done this already, you understand what I mean when I say it was a positive experience. Assets in a will are easy. Get it done and you can check it off your list and congratulate yourself. But, considering the reality of your own death is major league stuff, as is who will speak for you if you are incapacitated and how you will know they understand what you would choose. First, you will need to know that yourself.

For us, the process I just described was a big part. The consultation with an attorney who specializes in family estate planning helped to broaden our thinking and realize the vital issues at stake. Reading, revising, and choosing what to include and what to exclude in the advance directive required that we confront some of our fundamental beliefs, values, preferences, and fears. For example, near the end, do you want to be kept alive under any circumstances with extraordinary medical intervention? Or, under certain circumstances, at a certain point, would you prefer to be kept as comfortable as possible and have as natural a death as possible? At home or in a hospital? What are those circumstances and what is that point?

Another factor in our thinking was what we observed in the gradual decline and deaths of our own parents, two with Alzheimers or dementia, along with second-hand observations of the same experiences of friends and friends’ loved ones. What we have seen has ranged from refusal to think or do anything about it to orderly and loving preparation. It goes without saying which approach has impressed us as preferable.

We ended up with a portfolio of documents, with paper and electronic copies for our children and medical providers, that are our best effort to come to terms with the later and last stages of our lives.

If you don’t have a similar set of papers already, here is why you should. Not someday, but now:

  1. It is a gift to your loved ones that cannot be overestimated. It is like the credit card commercial: attorney costs for us 8-9 years ago were about $1000, having it accomplished, priceless. (I’m only focusing on the health care directive and POA. The will and the financial/property POA were included and equally important.)
  2. If you don’t start it now, when will you? Answer: someday. That day might come too late.
  3. The choices that must be made when you are in a hospital are usually during either a crisis, when you are least able to think clearly, or you are unconscious. Thinking you will make these decisions “when the time comes” really means you are passing the buck to loved ones who cannot read your mind and who may not be able to think very clearly at that time either.
  4. You may find, like we did, that facing up to your mortality now, and all that implies, is good for the soul and instills the confidence that you will be ready to face it in fact when the time comes.

A National Perspective*

In the last 6 months of life, Americans make an average of 29 visits to the doctor. In the last 30 days, “half of Medicare patients go to an emergency department, one-third are admitted to an I.C.U., and one-fifth will have surgery.” This, in spite of surveys indicating that 80% express a preference to avoid hospitalization, especially intensive care, at the end.

We spend 6 times as much on Medicare patients in the last year of their lives than all other patients over 65 combined, and that last year accounts for 25% of all Medicare spending. That has been true for the past 30 years.

And yet:

Patients who engage in advance care planning are less likely to die in the hospital or to receive futile intensive care. Family members have fewer concerns and experience less emotional trauma if they have the opportunity to talk about their loved one’s wishes. And earlier access to palliative care has consistently been linked to fewer symptoms, less distress, better quality of life — and sometimes longer lives.     -Dhruv Khullar, M.D., NY Times

So, there is mounting evidence that most people want access to palliative (i.e. treating the symptoms, such as pain, of a condition) and hospice care and that such care produces better outcomes, a better quality of life…and death. There seem to be two main reasons it isn’t more prevalent.

The most obvious reason is that many people fail to make that preference known, either in the moment or with an advance directive. The other reason is that the hospital either fails to honor the preference or simply does not have the facility or resources to do so.

I don’t have data, but have read of the reluctance doctors and hospitals have to stop efforts to extend a patient’s life as long as there are any avenues remaining, even if the best that can be hoped for is a few more days at the expense of more suffering and more medical bills. This inclination is likely to become stronger as medical technology continues to advance. Our challenge as a society will be to weigh the benefit of the extended days against the quality of the person’s life and the right of that person to determine how it is lived and how it ends.

The individual’s choice becomes moot when living in a state or rural area where palliative and/or hospice services are restricted or unavailable. For example, nearly 90% of New England hospitals have palliative care services, whereas only about 40% of those in the South do. And, if a hospital does not have a palliative care program, it falls to individual doctors to discuss options with a terminal patient and family. Nearly 70% of doctors say they haven’t been trained in palliative or hospice care, with many uncertain of the distinction between them. And about half of doctors say they are uncomfortable discussing terminal illness.

Most of us can relate to that. It isn’t as much fun as, well, most topics. But that is not an excuse. Not for doctors. Not for boomers. We have lived our entire lives thinking the rules do not apply to us or we should at least get to set the rules ourselves. DT is a boomer, remember? Sorry, Donald. You– we– aren’t going to weasel out of this one. Or buy, bully, or bluster your way out of it.

So, why not make our final curtain a class act? Set it up now. Do it right. Make it a farewell that is an expression of your love and care.

 

*The source for information in this section is the article by Dhruv Khullar, M.D., which was cited and linked above.

Just Turn the Lights Off: A Trumpian Metaphor

If it weren’t happening against the backdrop of a potential Constitutional crisis, it would be humorous. Well, it’s actually kind of humorous anyway. But it is also a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, as you will see.

On Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to match his boss’s classy behavior in notifying Director Comey of his firing via TV news, Sean Spicer and staff kept trying unsuccessfully to inform the press of the same news via an email statement, according to an article in the Washington Post. Finally giving up, after three hours of technical problems, Spicer stood in his office doorway and shouted an announcement to the reporters who were within shouting range. He then ducked inside and his staff locked the doors.

The White House was reportedly taken aback by the speed and harshness of the blowback, with criticism building from Republicans as well as Democrats. Having previously said there would be no more statements, Spicer and two staffers “were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox, and Fox Business,” where their reporters and camera crews did interviews with the White House itself as backdrop. Upon completing those, the intrepid press secretary was facing a conundrum.

It was now after sunset and Spicer found himself hiding in the hedges in the dark, wanting to hightail it back to his office. But between the bushes and the building were “a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI Director.”

After a few minutes, he sucked it up and emerged, telling the reporters he would answer some questions. But only with the cameras off.

“‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered. ‘We’ll take care of this. Can you just turn that light off?’ Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness…with more than a dozen reporters gathered around him.” After ten minutes of Q&A, he abruptly turned and escaped.

See what I mean? Metaphor, ready made. (If I thought the president might read this, however, I would definitely spell it out. You know what I mean if you saw the May Day interview of Trump in the Oval Office by CBS’s John Dickerson. Dickerson commented on the quote by George W. Bush regarding the office being oval and having no corners to hide in. Trump agreed that there are no corners, so the room has a certain openness and anyone outside looking in the windows would be able to see him, but of course no one could get that close. Dickerson started to explain that it was a metaphor, but gave up.)

But, back to Spicer’s metaphor. This anecdote unintentionally encapsulates the Trump administration modus operendi. Everything will be fine if we can just shed a little darkness on it. Fine for Trump. Not so much for our democracy.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

James Comey was just the most recent career law enforcement official to be fired by Trump while engaged in unwelcome investigations. Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for Southern New York, and Sally Yates, the acting US Attorney General, were let go with similarly suspicious timing. They, like Comey, had reputations for independence and integrity and were seen as threats to his independence.

An independent investigation of Russia’s influence on the Trump election by definition would shed much needed light. In spite of his erratic behavior regarding Clinton email, Comey’s FBI effort was seen as the best hope for that light and an honest report. On the other hand, the president and the Republicans on the congressional committees charged with that investigation have made their target anyone who can be found who has leaked information.

If these actions weren’t enough to prove the point, Trump tweets spell it out. With increasing stridency, he broadcasts his demands to stop the Russia investigation and find those who talk to reporters instead.

The battle lines are becoming clear. The Washington Post ran a front page article on Wednesday to give a more complete picture of all that transpired in the previous 24-48 hours. They cited 30 sources from the White House, Justice, and the FBI. Thirty. 3-0. These people don’t like what they are witnessing and want the rest of us to know about it.

Ah, yes. The press. To be fair, it is a thorn in the side, a pain in the neck (and lower) to all administrations. Their job, when they do it well, is to keep the government honest by keeping klieg lights on its activities. No one likes to be that exposed. But that is the price of democracy. And the media isn’t perfect, nor are politicians, so at times we just muddle through and count on checks and balances to keep the country on the rails.

What is brand new in 2017, totally unprecedented, is that this Oval Office occupant has declared war on the press and is waging that war daily. Consider:

  • Trump used his rallies and tweets for months to repeat epithets and slogans to demonize and undermine the press. This message became gospel for his congregation.
  • The ugly language and constant refrain of “fake news” aimed at the media continued and was amplified after assuming office.
  • In this environment, the State Department was stripped of most of its senior officers and staff, and a Secretary of State installed who refuses to engage with the press in any meaningful way.
  • The president’s spokespeople reflect his contempt in their own interactions with the “mainstream” media.
  • Numerous federal departments, under Trump appointees, instituted gag rules, prohibiting staff to communicate with the press or even with Congress. Some but not all of these have been walked back.
  • Access by the press to Spicer’s communications department has been restricted, at times with favorable access rewarding favorable coverage.
  • Updated item on May 12:        

I mentioned the Washington Post earlier. If you have read it in the past couple of months you have probably seen their masthead. Since February, they have added a motto for the first time ever. I was surprised to learn that it has been in the works for about a year, so was not a direct response to the Trump presidency. But it could have been and it resonates.

The executive branch clearly hates the glare of the light. The legislative is in the hands of a party that has shown little interest in flipping the switch yet. Fortunately the judiciary has so far shown a willingness to stand up to the challenges it has received. And the fourth estate is under attack. But, it seems that many in the press see this moment for what it is. A time to stand in the breach. A time to just turn the lights on.

 

Fake Win

I was working on a post for the blog when I read this column today by Maureen Dowd saying much the same thing, only better. I hope you will read it. The thing is, Trump neither knows nor much cares what is actually in the Republican health-care-for-the-young-and-healthy/tax-cut-for-the-wealthy bill. He expects to keep getting away with claiming things are great that aren’t– and selling them. He needed a health bill passed. No matter that it hurts most those who most need help. A win for him is a win, regardless of the lives trampled along the way. That is the art of his deal.

Trump: Hazardous to Our Health – The New York Times, by Maureen Dowd

President Trump sprinkling flimflam dust in the Rose Garden Thursday to deflect attention from the health care bill House Republicans had just passed. Credit Carlos Barria/Reuters

Repeal, Replace, Regurgitate

After several attempts to start this post, I need to give up on trying to be clever or intellectually rigorous, disciplined, or even organized in presentation. I’m just too disgusted and need to get it out of my system. The ongoing spectacle to repeal Obamacare and replace it with We-don’t-care is reaching it’s absurdly noxious climax this week. We are being treated to one of the most nauseating demonstrations of legislative sausage-making I can imagine. Repeal, Replace, Regurgitate.

It looks very possible that an $8 billion ruse is going to persuade enough moderate (what the hell does that mean here?) Republicans to vote for the House bill to pass it.

How did we get here?

After sixty-some safe and symbolic votes over the years to repeal the Affordable Care Act, someone threw the House Republicans a curve in November and delivered all three Houses– Representatives, Senate, White– and a mandate to do it for real. Several problems presented themselves early on.

Republicans, including Trump, had done a smashing job of convincing their base that Obamacare was evil, awful, and a disaster. So much so that a large percentage of those voters entered 2017 not realizing that the health care they had and counted on actually is Obamacare. Once that began to sink in, views on health care became a little less partisan for real people. They liked and needed what it provided.

The new President had been promising for months that he was going to replace it with something better. He had a plan and it was great. Ready any day now. No such plan existed.

Republicans had been saying or implying the same thing for years. But, sorry, no such plan existed.

It turns out that the only thing that has been uniting Congressional Republicans on health care is the political strategy of opposing Obamacare. When it comes to providing health care, their enthusiasm wanes and is scattered all over the map.

Folks like Ryan and his cohort want mostly to get government out of health care and any other entitlement program ASAP. If they could privatize completely, they gladly would but see the need to proceed cautiously. The Freedom Caucus has similar goals but has little interest in compromising or being cautious, even within the party. The so-called moderates see some value in providing actual health care, whether they are motivated politically or sincerely.

So, when the House came up with their first bill, you’ll remember that the Congressional Budget Office scored it and determined 24 million Americans would lose insurance by 2027. Premiums would be 15-20% higher for the first couple years, then about 10% lower by 2026. Medicaid reductions would account for many of the people thrown off care. Tax cuts would result for wealthier people and businesses.

That wasn’t painful enough for the Freedom Caucus, so they voted against and scuttled it.

Recently, with both Trump and the House under extreme pressure to deliver on their promise to repeal Obamacare (or something sorta kinda like a repeal that they can sell), a deal was struck with the hard right members. Several of the popular features of Obamacare– e.g. no refusal or penalty for pre-existing conditions, a list of required provisions for all plans– can now be eliminated by states with a waiver. The states would be required to have a high-risk pool for people who have pre-existing conditions. It is widely understood that these high-risk pools almost always run out of subsidies, resulting in skyrocketing premiums and loss of insurance.

A particularly sensitive and touching explanation for the removal of the guarantee of affordable coverage for families with pre-existing conditions was given by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who said these people will “contribute more to the insurance pool that helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the costs to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. Right now, those are the people have done things the right way that are seeing their costs skyrocket.”

Contrast that remarkable statement with the one made a couple nights ago by Jimmy Kimmel. If you haven’t watched it, you should.

So, today a couple of the so-called moderates came up with an amendment to the bill that would add $8 billion over 5 years to supplement the insurance of people with pre-existing conditions. That is vastly less than the amount that will be required if, no, when many Red states choose to exempt themselves from full coverage for their people, which is inevitable perhaps for most states since the bill also calls for cutting and then limiting (block granting) money for Medicaid and for subsidies.

Conjecture is that this bandaid could be enough to assuage the consciences of a handful of legislators, enough to pass the bill on to the Senate.

What a hollow victory that would be. What a repulsive accomplishment.

Trump and Kindergarten Lesson 2: Play Fair

Lesson 2: Play Fair

Part 2 in a series      (See Part 1: Tell the Truth)

Every president since FDR has measured what they have accomplished in their first 100 days. We rate President Trump’s the worst on record, with no major legislative victories and a string of policy and personnel embarrassments. A common theme that ties these calamities together is a contempt for ethics. Trump’s conflicts of interest and other ethics troubles contributed to each of his major stumbles, and will continue to hobble his administration unless he takes corrective measures.   – Painter and Eisen, USA Today 4/26/17

Richard W. Painter is vice chair and Norman L. Eisen is chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is issuing a report Friday on Donald Trump’s first 100 days. The authors were chief White House ethics lawyers in the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively. Follow them on Twitter @RWPUSA and @NormEisen.

Can you remember playing a board game with a 5-year old son or granddaughter? If so, you should easily grasp the point I’m about to make.

A 5-year old understands that the point of a game is to win. He understands it so well, he will likely invent rules, lie about spaces moved, or may even knock over the board in order to keep from losing. This is the right developmental time to teach him that for the game to be fair, and therefore fun for everyone, we all follow the rules of the game. Level playing field and all that.

That’s why playing games, and later sports, are considered great preparation for life. Be competitive and strive to win, but within the rules. Play fair. If you have ever followed professional golf, PGA or LPGA, you may have noticed the ultimate example of this principle. Players are expected, and do in fact, call penalties on themselves, even if no one else noticed the infraction. Seriously.

So, there are those of us who learn and embrace the importance of playing fair, who come to understand that this simple principle underpins such critical values as income inequality, social justice, equal opportunity, and ethical governance.

Examples also abound of those who believe themselves exempt. It may be that the drive to win overpowers the constraint of the rules. Thus, footballs get deflated and visiting teams’ signs are electronically poached and transmitted to the home team. Or, a businessperson cheats in order to beat a competitor, or takes advantage of clients to achieve personal gain.

It may also be that a sense of entitlement has developed to the point of believing oneself in a category where the normal rules don’t apply. Or, in the case of someone with a bent toward narcissism, believing one’s world is subject to his own rules.

Gosh, where could I be going with this?

The legion of Americans mystified by Trump’s election– with reactions ranging from head scratching to garment rending– have wondered how his voters will react if (when?) they find themselves in the same crowded boat as previous lenders, contractors, and Trump University students.

Well, the President’s track record of not playing fair is consistent, so at least he is unlikely to surprise anyone in this regard. Recent interviews of Trump supporters suggest most are willing to accept this trait so far. It will be interesting to see if they are in it for the long haul.

Meanwhile, he is treating the rest of us to an unprecedented presidential display of flaunting established protocol, traditions, standards, rules, and possibly laws. Some of this behavior is aimed at reinforcing his disingenuous populist image. Indeed, this was the election when both Left (remember Bernie?) and Right were fed-up with establishment politics and primed for an iconoclast who would blow things up.

But he hasn’t set out to blow up entrenched practices and policies that encourage corruption. Nor does he show any interest in “draining the swamp” of lobbyists and others who have made the unlevel playing field a playground for bankers, the wealthy, and large corporations.

Instead, the occupant of the Oval Office, the man from Mar a Lago, seems to be the magnetic north of his own moral compass.

Winning is clearly important to Trump, witness how often he talks about it and the lengths he goes to claim it. Everything he does has to be not just a win, but a big win. Getting elected was not enough. He persists in insisting that his Electoral College victory was the greatest since whatever (it wasn’t) and that he really won the popular vote because Clinton’s more than 3 million vote margin was due to illegal voting (nope.) His inaugural crowd was the largest ever, please ignore any visual evidence to the contrary.

After spending months pre- and post-election promising he had a great plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare, he revealed his hand was empty. He also proved he was willing to throw vulnerable Americans, including his supporters, under the bus with a series of capitulations in order to get a legislative win that never happened.

More sobering is how little regard Trump has for established norms designed to insure ethical practice. Contempt really. Inadequate attention to vetting has led to numerous appointments that are ticking ethical time bombs. Flynn already blew up but seems not to have run out of explosives yet.

We suspect he never did intend to release his taxes. He has taken so much political heat for this, some writers have speculated that what could be found in his tax returns must be worse than the political price is is paying to keep them private. That price will only become steeper now that he has released his one page tax “plan” and will continue to grow if actual legislation comes from it.

Where this contempt and the perspective of a narcissist takes us way beyond the pale is in the catalog of conflicts of interest being compiled. In November, sitting for an interview with the NY Times, Trump boasted, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That is sort of true sort of not, but with a telling twist from someone who always thinks it’s all about him.

The law says that the responsibilities of the President and Vice-President are so broad and far-reaching, it is not practical to expect them to recuse themselves from involvement in matters where a possible conflict might arise. Nor is it reasonable for them to be vulnerable to prosecution. Nonetheless, the expectation remains that the executive should strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety and undue influence through business interests. Before now, Presidents have been scrupulous to divest or otherwise separate themselves from such interests once in office.

Far from putting country above self, Trump has virtually paraded his conflicts of interest, giving the appearance of impropriety and relishing it. There is income flowing to the President and his family from near (Trump International DC and Mar a Lago, among many US holdings) and far (many business dealings in and with countries around the globe) that could easily intersect national interests.

Sooner or later, we will know whether or not Russia is one of those entanglements and to what extent.

He has chosen a not-so-blind trust for his businesses that appears to do little to keep him from accessing the assets or preventing involvement with the trustees, who happen to be his sons.

Which brings us to Jared and Ivanka. If they prove to be positive contributors, I will be glad. Yet, Trump’s making them such a prominent and powerful part of his administration seems an act of monumental hubris. They bring along their own portfolios of potential conflicts of interest and no government experience. But they are loyal family members and they reinforce the Trump doctrine that “I alone can fix it” and that special rules apply.

 

The Trouble with Trump? He Must Have Skipped Kindergarten!

[Part 1 in a series]

We are sent to school to be civilized—to be introduced to the essential machinery of human society. Early on in our lives we are sent out of the home into the world. To school. We have no choice in this. Society judges it so important that we be educated that we must go. It is the law. And when we get to school we are taught the fundamentals on which civilization rests. These are first explained in language a small child understands.

Across the course of our lives we will wrestle with questions of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. Again and again and yet again, we will come around to that place where we came in—to that room where the elemental notions about humanity were handed to us with great care when we were very young.

Of course it wasn’t literally all you really needed to know. Certainly not. But if you didn’t get this basic stuff to begin with, you and society will pay a heavy price for your failure. If you did learn it and do practice it, then all the rest of what you needed to know has a lasting foundation.

“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum

We all know people who obviously missed or have forgotten those early fundamentals. At least some of them. We could all use reminders. The consequences of such lapses may be minor for us and irritating for those around us. Or they may be major and, as Fulghum says, we and the society in which that person moves pay a heavy price.

But how heavy might that price be if the person who “didn’t get this basic stuff to begin with” occupies the highest and most powerful office in the country? Arguably the most powerful in the world? The initial answer to that question may be coming into focus in these first 100 days of the Trump presidency.

Yesterday’s post suggested that this president poses the challenge of learning how to filter out all the intentional static he generates in order to distract and manipulate. This will be an ongoing challenge, as long as he is in office. To focus on what he does rather than what he says. To direct our own responses constructively. Still, executive orders and legislation, however objectionable or damaging they may seem to some of us, can be tempered or reversed down the road. This is the way of politics in a democracy.

The deeper danger, the more serious threat– to our society and our democracy, to the global community, even to the planet itself– is posed by the exercise of presidential power and influence by someone who evidences a profound lack of those “fundamentals on which civilization rests.” Starting today and with the next few posts, we will look at the effects of Donnie skipping kindergarten.

Lesson One: Tell the Truth

Donald Trump is a liar. Donald Trump lies. There it is. Not exactly a newsflash nor an original observation. But for our purposes we need to be clear. No point pussy-footing around. Sorry, poor choice of words there. No point beating around the bush. Shoot, not good either. Let’s just say it is important to label him bluntly because this fact may be his most obvious defining characteristic.

No point throwing stones either. Who among us qualifies to pick up that first one? We all lie sometime, at least in some way. We all expect politicians to lie. So what sets Trump apart? Why and how does this matter? This isn’t about condemning, it’s about understanding that one of “the fundamentals upon which civilization rests” is under attack and is already seriously injured.

Lying and politics have been natural bedfellows forever, elevating to a profession something that we civilians practice as amateurs. But, this profession has normally been governed by rules that define the distinctions between lying and telling the truth. Rules that impose penalties when the lies are of a certain kind or trespass certain limits.

Once, practitioners of this profession mostly adhered to the rules. The truth remained a valued standard. It might have suffered plenty of stretching, but it was still recognizable.

That began to change a couple of decades ago. While other factors have contributed, the explosive growth and reach of cable news and the Internet have played a crucial role. In that time, news outlets have proliferated, diluting the influence and authority of the major networks we Boomers grew up with, with Fox News making the greatest impact. Further, web-based campaigns from email to Facebook to Twitter, have become primary sources of “information” for many millions, never mind where they originate.

This environment, where support and “proof” for any opinion or bias is just a click away, was fertile ground for Donald Trump. Decades of honing his skills in the tabloids of New York City were the dues he paid to enter this era’s political arena. His trial run was the false campaign to delegitimize the first African-American President. Finding that obvious lies were no obstacle for millions who wanted to believe them, he did what he does even now: he doubled down on the lie. He ran for President.

Is Donald Trump a greater liar than any other politician? Than a president like, for example, Richard Nixon? I don’t know how to gauge that. But, I do know that we are seeing something we have never seen before. This president lies as easily as you or I might discuss the weather. He lies so often, I suspect that neither supporters nor opponents take his words seriously and the supporters shrug while the opponents rage.

Worse, we may start to accept the lying as normal and stop giving weight to it at all. It may have been his strategy all along.

I have begun to believe that his lying is so much a part of him that Trump himself may not always keep track or care whether he is lying or not. Losing the ability to know the difference is truly an ominous situation when we are talking about POTUS. Not only do we worry whether he can distinguish his own truths and lies, we have to seriously question whether he has the capacity to discern when an advisor or a foreign official (cue Russia red alerts) is being honest with him. Bizarrely, the Commander-in-Chief, with the most extensive intelligence apparatus in history, tweets impulsively based on baseless conspiracy theories he finds on TV or the Internet.

All right. Time to check in on our theme. Children learn the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The lesson was the importance of trust and how it is lost through lying and that the results can be devastating, even fatal. (Sheep can die!) Tell the truth!

That’s the price. Trust. Remember the original question? How heavy might the price be for our president to have gotten an ‘F’ in Tell the Truth? To have missed Kindergarten altogether?

Think of it. The leader of the free world is widely believed to be a liar. How do we, citizens of the United States, follow someone whose word we do not trust? How can our allies trust our participation in the alliance, let alone have confidence in our leadership? What response is prompted in our enemies? How can our diplomats, if there are any left, negotiate in good faith?

Oh, and remember. There was something else lost in the story beside trust. Yeah. Some sheep died too.