Why Shouldn’t We Be President

In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement.  I was 74.  The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort.  And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so.  .  Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.

With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing:  Why did I think it best to pass the torch?

The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task.  It was time for new ideas and new energy.  There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me.  She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences.  Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.

At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice.  In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.

I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t.  Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?

The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think  “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.”  There’s an impossible amount to learn.  Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office.  That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.  You do the math.  “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said.  As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s.  So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.

You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point.  People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age.  Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.  Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.

Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime.  Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.”  “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education.  Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:

“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”

I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership.  Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism.  That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think.  But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives.  It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it?  And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.

What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service?  These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.

I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership.  Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual.  We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive?  Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability.  What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office.  For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office?  That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.

I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability.  Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.

 

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If it Looks Like a Duck: Appeasement in America

Franny and I are sipping our morning coffee, reading the Sunday NY Times, pleased as always with our little ritual.  About a half hour into it, however, I come upon Lynne Olson’s review of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Olson notes the “uncomfortable parallels” between this moment in U.S. history and the tumultuous 1930’s in Europe, calling the book “valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom…” As has become all too frequent these days, the news disrupts the morning’s calm.

With Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, Britain tried to avoid war at all costs.  He resisted activities that would tax her “Depression-afflicted economy” or expand her military, so necessary in protecting her increasingly vulnerable empire.  So Chamberlain, a former businessman, convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, “he could convince the Fuhrer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.”  We know how that worked out.

Though the analogy is surely a stretch and the danger not so great, I believe that we may find ourselves in a similar predicament if we fail to bring Donald Trump to heel–and soon.  Key American leaders in the Republican Party enable his anti-democratic campaign.  Many in the Democratic Party promote patience and decorum, acting as though there’s plenty of time to halt the progress of autocracy.  I think we need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  In that sense, those who “slow-walk” the opposition to our president, may, in the light of history, turn out to have been appeasers.

Let’s begin with the signs, and the increasing pace, of Trump’s assault on American democracy.   We have:

  • The assault on the free press
  • The weakening of Congress (or the House of Representatives), by bypassing the Senate’s ability to screen Cabinet Secretaries—they are now almost all “Acting Secretaries,” subject only to Trump’s direction; running roughshod over the House’s oversight capability by blocking and ignoring subpoenas; utilizing “executive privilege” and “executive orders” whenever Congress disagrees.
  • Hijacking of the Department of Justice, bending it to meet the personal needs of the President, thus building a protective shield for the president: through massive numbers of judicial appointments; by destroying, with Barr’s help, the independence of the Department of Justice; through the use of suits to delay and destroy efforts to convict the President.
  • Neutralizing the FBI and the CIA, by bypassing them and impugning their motives and patriotism, just as Hitler did, by criticizing and bypassing his intelligence agencies, and, more sinisterly, by “investigating” them when they threaten Trump’s rule.
  • The threat to extend his term past the date that it is officially completed;
  • Casting his lot, internationally, with other autocrats;
  • Bullying members of his own party with threats, mockery, and accusations;
  • Fueling racial divisions and animosity among white Americans, and assaults on refugees and immigrants, eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This centralization of executive power does not seem to bother enough American citizens. Increasingly, the pollsters and the pundits tell us that Trump’s chances of election—with the help of the anti-democratic process represented by the Electoral College—continue to rise.

The enablement of Trump’s growing power is clearly visible.  Mitch McConnell has been the leader, not allowing discussion of legislation or criticism of the President to even reach the Senate floor.  William Barr, the new Attorney General, has joined McConnell with a passion, distorting the Mueller Report, and serving as Trump’s defense lawyer to thwart efforts to curtail executive power.

Of course, McConnell and Barr have had plenty of support, extending far beyond the Freedom Caucus and the Evangelical right, who will support Trump even when he violates their most sacred tenets.  Think of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Rubio, Cruz, and, above all, Lindsey Graham, who Trump demeaned mercilessly.  At first they saw the evil he could do and condemned him.  Now they are like lap dogs, supporting any agenda he has, even when it waffles back and forth.  Think of all the Republicans who were supposedly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s behavior towards women yet now keep their mild criticism “anonymous,” publicly supporting him down the line.

The case for appeasement is a little harder to make but I believe it is coming into focus.  Let’s start with Robert Mueller, who is neither a politician nor a Democrat, but, a man  with great stores of public and political capital.  I’m writing this essay the day before he is to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.  So much has ridden on his reputation for prosecutorial acumen, courage, and integrity.  Every legal pundit who appears on TV bows low to him.  A man of unchallengeable integrity.  A marine.  A man who will speak truth to power.  The operational words here are “unquestioned” and “unchallengeable.”  Those attitudes have insulated him from the criticism I think he deserves.

Given what we know of his somewhat puritanical attitudes, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller doesn’t deplore Trump’s crass and lawless behavior.  The pundits have that right.  But Mueller’s inability to move beyond the narrowest interpretation of rules is, in my mind, both cowardly and selfish.  He is operating “by-the-book” at the expense of his country’s welfare.  He holds himself to standards that the more powerful Trump does not, and that discrepancy does not seem to influence Mueller’s decisions.  He fails to see or, at least, to act on moral principles that transcend narrow legal interpretation or the letter of the law.  In that sense he is no patriot.  His limited view has turned him into a coward.  And, almost as importantly, the CNN and MSNBC legal commentators who have failed to call him out, seem to me cowardly (or at least blind) as well.  Together, they are the appeasers.

I regret to say that I have begun to see Nancy Pelosi as an appeaser. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, who shared some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Pelosi shares none of Trump’s deplorable values.  And I have long admired her political acumen – her ability to martial Democratic votes for progressive causes.  But I have begun to wonder if, as the top Democrat in the nation—not just in the House—if she is up to today’s challenge.

Her basic strategy of holding the fort until we can vote Trump out in 2020 has a logic to it, and the majority of Americans may agree with her.  Along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers, she believes that she doesn’t have the votes for impeachment—and that a defeat of the Impeachment process would unleash a backlash against the Democratic Partly. Maybe that’s true.  But as we know from the way that Republicans turned on Nixon once the impeachment process began, judging the future by the present may prove a fear-based and overly conservative way to think.  Maybe Pelosi needs to take a risk.

Here’s what I most fear:  That Nancy Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Schumer, may be underestimating the momentum and therefore, underestimating the danger of Trump’s grab for power.  As Chamberlain hoped that he could wait Hitler out, I fear that Pelosi believes that she can wait Trump out.  In other words, Pelosi may be yielding to fear and failing to take the bolder course.  I see this position as appeasement – certainly not in intent, but, perhaps, in effect.

I don’t include the House Committee Chairs—Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, Elijah Cummings, and Richard Neal—in my analysis.  You can feel their pain about being held in check.  It’s clear they would move to impeachment if given the freedom to do so.

Finally, I’d ask: Where is our Churchill? Where is the person who is willing to risk it all to overthrow a tyrant before it is too late?

 

 

Keeping the Faith

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please.  No more!  I can’t stand it!  I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”

Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation.  Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged.  On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.”  Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left.  I’ll be damned if I’ll let that jerk dominate it.”

Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.

My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain.  At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective.  “This too shall pass,” I should intone.  I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits.   Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business.  What’s wrong with me?

The polling data are clear.  They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get.  Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behavior.”

But, of course, I’m not a general idea.  I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot.  Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit.  At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote.  “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted.  There was no let up from her.  I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.

In my family, politics defined character.  When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.”  Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented.  The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views.  If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people.  If you were Left, you were generous.  This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.

I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.

Politics was like religion in my family.  As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident:  that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”  We were patriots in that very literal way.

Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period.  We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith.  Others did. We were censored and ostracized.  But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.”  We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.

To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.”  The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents.  I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.

At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system.  He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time.  In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right.   We the American people need to do better.  We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.

There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values.  And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.

I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount.  But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?

I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom.  But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom.  I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand.  At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina.  So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War.  Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.

As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation.  Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing.  Now is one of those times.

 

Optimism

Temperamentally, I’m an optimist, and have been for most of my life.  On the personal side, I was born with a sense of “can do”—a belief that if you try hard enough and long enough you can overcome any obstacle.  For a long time, this attitude proved a perfect partner to my political perspective.  In politics, I’ve simply believed that the world was growing more just, that the lives of the great majority were steadily improving, even though the pace has often tried my patience. In my mind, setbacks have been temporary regressions.  Over the long haul, I stood with those who proclaimed that “we will overcome.”

Buoyed by the extended civil rights movements for African Americans, women, LGBTQ’s, and people with disabilities, along with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, among other legislative victories, I came to believe with MLK that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  From the thousand foot perspective, I saw a strong, direct line between the Progressive Era to the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, and the future.

In more recent years, though, and as I’ve aged, a pull towards skepticism and pessimism has challenged my natural inclinations.  I’m not alone.  I know few people who have sustained the faith, as  it were. It’s not a matter of values.  Most of us have held firm in that regard.  But our belief that our ideals will be realized—or realized anywhere near as fully as we had hoped—that has waned.

You might say that we have achieved a “mature realism.”   And that the growth of political moderation has gone hand in glove with our own perceived decline, as though the world was magically growing old with us.

We began to see greater significance in the long periods when social justice has taken a back seat to conservative doctrine, individualism, and corporate greed: during the Reagan, George HW Bush, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton presidencies, for instance.  Even during the presidency of Barack Obama, conservative forces dominating the cabinet helped increase the gap between the rich and poor. And the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited flows of conservative financing into the political system tilted American society towards its own form of oligarchy.

We couldn’t help but notice how the assault on liberal democracy that has been rapidly taking hold throughout Europe, how the Chinese authoritarian system has successfully challenged American world hegemony, how a Russian dictator has, with some effect, declared “war” on our democratic processes, and how futile we have all been in the fight against environmental degradation.

Maybe the arc of the world doesn’t bend towards justice but follows endless historical cycles of optimistic striving and repressive reaction:  democracy and totalitarianism;  equality and class-bound societies; outward and innovative striving and defensive pulling in.  Maybe all of these impulses are true and none ever gets to declare a final victory.

I’m not happy with this kind of “realism,” however convincing it may be at times. I wonder if it has more to do with old age, with my own declining powers than what is happening out there.  And I despise the possibility that my days will end with a Trump presidency, a British Brexit, a Polish and Hungarian descent into modern incarnations of fascism. I hate the idea of a Hobbesian world in which our fear of our neighbors causes us to attack before we are attacked.  All my dreams thrown on the rubbish heap of cruelty and mistrust, in the name of ‘real politic.’

So I live with a good deal of  philosophical tension and search for ways to manage it.  Here’s one way: as we age, some of us focus our eyes on the distant horizon and grow philosophical:  “Oh well, that’s the way the world is.”  This approach feels flat and uninspired.  It’s not me.  Here’s a second approach: some of us withdraw into an entirely personal universe: “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do to influence all that.  And I’ll be gone within a decade or two.  I’ll just pay attention to my personal life.”  That has a comforting feeling and most of us adopt this approach to some extent.  But, for me, it also borders on betrayal.  I don’t buy the idea that we’ve earned our withdrawal.  How could I give up on hopes and ideals that have animated me during my entire life; how could I retreat into a totally selfish universe?

There’s a third way.  Throughout my life, when unsure, I have followed the time-tested adage: “Talk the talk until you can walk the walk.”  Act as though the outcome you want is virtually inevitable and that will give you the strength to make is so.  So we can look for signs of a better future in order to preserve some of our traditional optimism.

And a fourth way: According to Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, you must keep pushing the rock (of just causes) up the hill even if it keeps rolling down when you near the top.  You persist.  You hold out the possibility of success in order to feel true to yourself and your ideals. Trying, even in the face of almost hopeless causes—as the onslaught of Nazism and Communism may have seemed to Camus—is essential to maintaining our integrity.  And, even more importantly, by holding the fort in times of crisis, you prepare for the next wave of idealists.

I think I may see that next wave on the horizon.  In 2018, Millenials supplanted the Baby Boomers as the largest voting age group in the United States.  They are the first post World War II generation to experience diminished economic and social prospects.  Privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for the rich have bitten deeply into public services, leaving pitted roads and ineffective public transportation, unaffordable child care, and a rapidly warming earth.

But the millenials seem to be fighting.  They sing a progressive tale to pollsters: that the shortchanging of Black and Brown people must stop; gay people must have the right to marry; immigrants, who make our country stronger, must be supported not rejected; health care should be every citizen’s right; and climate change is the greatest threat to humankind.

I have been watching the generation’s young turks, people like Alexandria Octavia-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg as they challenge the current order and gather support among the Boomers, as well.  I have no part of me wanting to modulate their message, as many pundits propose, in order to broaden their base.  I think it’s possible that their values as well as their passion and commitment may turn out to be more convincing than moderation.  I think they have a good chance of renewing a progressive wave aimed at fulfilling the ‘self evident’ truths that this country was built on.

As I age, I tell myself more and more to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be, yet here I am, excited once again, by a group of dreamers.  But isn’t dreaming one of life’s real experiences?  Isn’t the attempt to make the world better a real effort?  The current progressive wave may not last forever—it won’t—but while it lasts it is as real and exciting as any other way of relating to the world.  It makes me feel alive and worthwhile.

Trump in Prison—Fake News

The latest edition of the Daily Beast shares a picture that Trump passed on to his base.  The picture shows Hilary Clinton, Barak Obama, Robert Mueller, and many other “enemies” huddling behind prison bars.  This infuriated me and released me to publish a brief flight of imagination that I’ve long wanted write:  Imagining Donald Trump in prison.  I hope you like it.

 

Breaking News:  Trump in Prison.  Donald Trump, who was found hiding on his Florida golf course, munching on some French fried potatoes and sipping a giant frozen milk shake, has been arrested today.

At last, justice has been served and he is now behind bars—likely for the remainder of his tawdry life.  Only vegetables will be served in prison.  No television will be permitted.  He will remain in isolation for most of each day, with no one to scream at.  There will be an enforced hour of exercise outdoors with his co-residents.  He is wearing striped prison garb and his head has been shaved.

The crimes are too many to name but let me name a few:

  • Collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election. Of course, collusion is a mild word, and some would argue that the real crime is Treason: conspiring against the American democratic system for personal and political gain.  Finally, prosecutors and Congress agree that he has gone over the edge in committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
  • Obstruction of justice. The instances are innumerable and have become increasingly blatant, beginning by firing James Comey and now offering his former campaign chief, Paul Manefort, a pardon in exchange for withholding the truth about Russian interference.
  • Using the Office of the President to prosecute his political “enemies,” a primary tactic used by all dictators, especially those Trump admires, such as Putin, Saudi Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, Erdogan of Turkey, and Philippine strongman, Duterte, to name a few.
  • Emoluments Using his office to make millions, if not billions of dollars.  This has never been in question.
  • Lying publicly, chronically, despicably about issues that are vital to the American public’s ability to assess policy and vote intelligently.
  • Tax evasion and money laundering. This goes back decades.
  • Assaulting and then paying off women, with whom he had affairs, to make sure they didn’t hurt his presidential campaign.

I’ll stop at these, though it is obvious that we could go on and on.

News sources also indicate that Donald Jr, Ivanka, Jared Kushner, and other members of the Trump clan are soon to join their loving father in the clink.

One fun and galling little addendum: The IRS has discovered that Trump is actually bankrupt.  He has been moving his money around, borrowing to cover debts at an increasing rate, and depending on Deutsche Bank and Russian Oligarchs to keep his organization afloat.  As a result of this discovery, Malania and her young son, Barron, and her parents have fled to the Balkans.  Their current location is unknown.

We regret to add that during Trump’s one hour free from isolation, he has been bullied by inmates who, in a former life, were wrestlers and coal miners.  They have left him bruised and begging for help.  For unstated and maybe unknown reasons, guards failed to break up the fights.  Though, Trump’s use of the N and the K word may have something to do with their reluctance.  Even before we asked, he called that Fake News.

Well folks, that’s it for today’s news from Gotham City.

 

It’s Complicated

Even now, having seen so much in life, after having many expectations confounded or foiled, I still yearn for certainty.  I want a predictable world, so I can determine where and how to dedicate my energies.  But, of course, the years have also tempered my need for certainty and I am equally drawn to life as it is.

Cancer, for example, has been a great teacher.  Both Franny and I seem to have survived ours, but our ideas about mortality and old age have had to be revised.  Child rearing has provided another classroom.  I love how my children have turned out but I can no longer deny that other children, raised in ways I didn’t agree with—arrogant as that was—have turned out wonderfully, too.  The political arena has also proved humbling.  The socialism of my youth, for instance, has yielded to a preference for mixed economic systems, with public ownership and individual incentives intertwined.

At any moment, I might argue vociferously for the ‘right way’ to do things but then I step back and conclude that, first of all, there are probably many ways to succeed and, second, the way I choose will probably be influenced, moderated, changed by choices others make. Solitary and binary thinking, an emphasis on right and wrong, hasn’t gotten me very far in this complicated world of ours.

Once again, last Tuesday’s elections put me to a test.  I had warned that these were the most consequential elections in a century.  They would either check the powers of Trump and his Congressional enablers or they could set free neo-fascist forces with the potential to take down our democracy.  The Democrats took the House and, with so many of my fellow Americans, I sighed in relief.  But that night and the next morning I also struggled to understand the results and to find comfort in them.  We won! Phew.  We lost the Senate!  Damn!  But didn’t we expect that?  Isn’t it enough to have regained some power?  There was more relief than triumph in victory, and is sat alongside the sorrow and anger and fear that partial victory might not be enough.

A week later, though, I feel clearer, better.  We may have won enough to protect our nation.  We may have fired up a grassroots movement that will win big in 2020.  People may be coming together.  A new period of progressive politics may emerge in response to Trump, McConnell and the Freedom Caucus.  A wave of common ground, a collective feeling joined to optimism, has emerged and may have gained enough momentum to continue.  Even a temperamental absolutist like me can cheer.

But there is a deeply ingrained part of me that still yearns for moral certainty, for a less compromised ground to stand on.  With that thought in mind, the very next day, Franny and I attended a lecture at the Harvard Law School entitled Identity, Faith, and Public Responsibility.  The question was this: How do values inform your decisions, particularly in heated, complex public arenas.  The lecturer was Jack Lew, formerly United States Secretary of the Treasury, White House Chief of Staff under President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources under President Clinton.  An accomplished man, to say the least.

Lew, a tall, thin, neatly dressed man, with a pleasant face and a surprisingly unassuming manner, talked at length about how religion—he’s an Orthodox Jew—informed and influenced his work.  He quoted the Talmud, the Torah, and Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings passed down from Rabbi to Rabbi over the centuries, to demonstrate the values he brought to key decisions during the US-Iran nuclear deliberations and the Clinton public welfare reforms.

I was eager to learn how a clearly religious man could navigate the roiling world of national and international politics and still be true to a clear cut set of values.  But, to be honest, I didn’t feel that I learned much during this part of the lecture.  He frustrated me by continually backing off the direct application of values.  In instance after instance, Lew said, in effect, “it’s complicated.”  He recalled his disapproval of Clinton’s withdrawing funds from the safety net for new immigrants, but assuaged his conscience because the funds did support programs for working mothers.

Over and again, he compromised: losing a bit to gain a lot; or losing a lot to gain at least something.  But—and this was his point—he never participated in decisions that centrally, and as a net result of considered analysis, contradicted his values; and he always struggled to bring decisions closer to them.  In a way, Jack Lew seemed like exactly the kind of insider I’ve been skeptical about for my entire life.  A good guy who compromises too much in order to maintain his position.

But the more I listened, the more I began to sense at least a partial answer to my wish to feel more comfortable with complexity.  I was drawn to the openness and integrity with which he struggled with problems that challenged his values.  Every time he was asked a provocative question, Lew hesitated, thought, then said something like this: Here is where I began—the bedrock of his values—and here is where I questioned myself and my ability to hold them tight.  When decisions seemed particularly fraught, he questioned whether he should resign.  In my job, he said, I had to represent the interests of my country but sometimes feared that my values and my country’s interest could diverge.  Even at such a precipice, Lew struggled to bring decisions close enough so that he could live with, even affirm, them.

Lew seems to live comfortably with partial victories, which, after all, are the messy basis of democratic governance.  Not in a lazy way — not without first testing how far he could move off his particular values — but with great, hard won, self-awareness.  That awareness, along with his humility and his willingness to struggle, every time, to achieve the best under the circumstances—maybe that’s what I admire most in him.

At this point in my life, finding truth and comfort in complexity and ambiguity is the Holy Grail.  I will never get to that zero place of Buddhism and postmodern philosophy.  I will never think that ideas and values are just illusions, mere human creations.  Policies and particular values remain at the bedrock of my spirit.  There are some truths for me — like the importance of kindness; like those great political truths trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence that feel “self-evident.”  But I know this: Those truths can be interpreted and pursued in many ways, and I need to loosen up and acknowledge those alternatives — and the people who argue for them.

I have vowed to practice the kind of humility I found in Lew:  his capacity to hold his ideals clearly and to strive towards their realization even as he knows that they won’t be fully achieved in any pure sense, taking comfort in the effort and in the partial solutions.

After listening skeptically and, at first, rejecting Lew’s compromising ways, I may have discovered a model, a hero and a goal.

 

 

 

 

The Most Consequential Election Since 1932

Today we may be engaged in the most consequential election in recent history: at least since 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to reverse the devastation of the Great Depression; and maybe since 1860, when we chose Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves and to save the Union.

After visiting Hungary, David Leonhardt of the New York Times, observed that he’s hard pressed to distinguish Orban’s quiet dictatorship from the current Trump and Republican regime.  By taking control of the press, Parliament, and the judiciary, Orban has eliminated systematic opposition.  Isn’t Trump trying to do the same.

If the Republicans consolidate their majorities in both Houses of Congress, this is the likely outcome: building a judiciary ever more sympathetic to the interests of rich men and antagonistic to the rights of women and people of color; increasing tax breaks for the rich, leading to the financial decline of the poor and middle class; normalizing gun violence; dismantling or, at least, weakening of social security, affordable health care, educational opportunity, and further institutionalizing racism by such means as mass incarceration and the disenfranchisement of young people of color.  Victory will embolden Republicans to extend their control into future by making it harder for people of color to vote.

Like Orban, Republicans won’t require active military interference—though it might be there in the background, as it is on the Texas border—or violent revolution, as in the emergence of European, Soviet, and Chinese autocratic regimes.  The Republicans will have been voted in.

If the Democrats win the House, they will be able to check movement towards an authoritarian state.  The ability of the House to subpoena Trump and his allies and to support an even more robust Mueller investigation may bring him down.  Turning the tide of local elections—State and Federal—may allow Democrats to dismantle gerrymandering and other methods of limiting and slanting the vote towards the Republican minority.  Victory may mark a turning point away from Tea Party populism and nationalism, and accelerate the fight against “dark money” and the ability of American Oligarchs to exercise their power from behind their velvet curtains.

A Democratic triumph may prove the turning point for people of color, finally taking their full place in American leadership.  And victory may catapult women into power so that fifty years from now we look back on 2018 and say: Why didn’t we figure out how to more fully empower women, with their more collaborative and non-violent ways, until that fateful year.