Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The sons of August 28


THEY STAND TOGETHER and decades apart, events on this 240th day of the year, events with deep resonance for African Americans, for better and for worse. It’s one of those repetitive coincidences of numbers, but a bit spooky just the same: the highs and lows, the joy and pain of the modern African American experience have been consistently distilled, over the long arc of history, into the events of one day, the same one day again and again. And here we are, where we’ve been before ... and where we’ve never been before.

It was on Aug. 28, 1955, when Emmett Till -- a black Chicago teenager visiting relatives in Money, Miss., was abducted from his uncle's home by two white men after supposedly whistling at a white woman (a woman who has more recently admitted she fabricated the whistling story). Till's body was discovered three days later, so badly disfigured that his face was unrecognizable. His death was among the first such widely documented, highly publicized atrocities in the era of the civil rights movement, a movement catalyzed — globalized — by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

MAYBE Emmett Till was on the organizers’ subconscious minds, or maybe it was just the luck of the schedule and the available date. Whatever it was, eight years later, on Aug. 28, 1963, King and other orators called America to account for the bogus check for opportunities undelivered, and wedded the American dream to those of its African American citizens.

In an address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, before at least 200,000 people, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, an accidental keynote address, set the rhetorical tone — and the stakes — for a movement still in its ascendancy.

FAST FORWARD 45 years: The torch of possibility had passed to a new generation, one of whom had the ... audacity to make hope something less evanescent than it had been, something more than an indistinct green light in the far distance.


On Aug. 28, 2008, Barack Hussein Obama, a Democratic junior senator from Illinois — a man with the courage and the nerve to attempt to occupy the White House as the president of the United States and not as the help in the kitchen — won the Democratic presidential nomination. The rest is history (the kind we wish we could relive right now) and current events.

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AND ONE audaciously capable man hands off to another. On Aug. 28 of this year, Andrew Gillum – son of a bus driver, previous resident of Gainesville, mayor of Tallahassee —confounded the expectations of polls, pundits and state history, winning the Democratic primary for the governorship of Florida, positioning him to be the first African American chief executive in the history of the Sunshine State.

A believer in classic retail, press-the-flesh politics and a full embrace of the progressive tradition of demographic outreach, Gillum stunned a game challenger with deep political roots in Florida. His campaign mantra might as well be one for everybody in the country: Believe it is possible and act accordingly.

August 28 clearly has a hold on both the imagination and the Gregorian calendar. It marks bitter with the sweet ... or sometimes, more bitter than sweet by orders of magnitude.

Return with us now to this date in yesteryear — way yesteryear — to see how the past is always intruding on the present. Thank The Independent (UK) for reminding us that it was on Aug. 28, 1518 -- 500 years ago — that the King of Spain, Charles I, authorized a charter permitting the transportation of slaves directly from Africa to the Americas, without stopping at a European port. Thus effectively ushered in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the financial rationale that supported it, and the myriad horrors that followed in its wake.

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From The Independent: “Charles’s decision to create a direct, more economically viable Africa to America slave trade fundamentally changed the nature and scale of this terrible human trafficking industry. Over the subsequent 350 years, at least 10.7 million black Africans were transported between the two continents. A further 1.8 million died en route.

“This month’s quincentenary is of a tragic event that caused untold suffering and still today leaves a legacy of poverty, racism, inequality and elite wealth across four continents. But it also quite literally changed the world and still geopolitically, socially, economically and culturally continues to shape it even today ...”

Some August 28th anniversaries we can do without.

Image credits: Obama at Invesco Field: Jeff Riedel, GQ Magazine. Gillum: Screengrab from Gillum TV ad. CharlesI; portrait by Bernard Van Orley, 1519.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A life of light and burning:
John McCain (1932-2018)


IN A NEW York speech in 1888, James Russell Lowell, refuted a once-abiding notion about the nation's prime operational document: “[A]fter our Constitution got fairly into working order, it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the Civil War itself but momentarily disturbed.”

Lowell, a poet, philosopher, critic and founding editor of The Atlantic, of course knew better, understood perhaps intuitively that the Constitution needs constant care and vigilant maintenance, that the “machine that would go of itself” was always subject to the whims and wiles of anarchists posing as mechanics. Lowell got that.

John Sidney McCain III got that too.

When the senior Arizona Republican senator, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and veteran of the House and the Senate died in Arizona on Aug. 25, days short of his 82nd birthday, the machinery of the American government lost one of its most capable goodwrenches, a lawmaker who brought integrity, intelligence, passion and (not least of all in a body that could use it) a sense of humor to the process of American governance. He could be infuriatingly infuriating. He was more often, more consistently, infuriatingly original.

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I won’t greatly go into McCain’s life in the military, or his time as a Navy pilot, or the five years, four months and 16 days he spent wounded and broken at Hỏa Lò Prison (the so-called Hanoi Hilton), a time and a period that solidified his sense of purpose and a fierce drive to survive the worst of circumstances. More, better, and more detailed writing has been devoted to that pivotal phase of his life.

I’m focused here on what came next: his time as a public servant on the battlefield of politics. For much of that time, McCain hewed the party line, did so well and often enough to have served for 35 years in Congress, 31 years as a senator. But there was an independent streak that ran deep. Sometimes his “Maverick” tag was richly deserved, other times not so much.

On the controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell issue, in October 2010, McCain said “I will filibuster or stop it [a repeal] from being brought up until we have a thorough and complete study on the effect of morale and battle effectiveness,” he said, in a stalling action that couldn’t have been more transparent. He called the day of the repeal’s passage “a very sad day.”

It was during that debate, of course, that he flat-out told ABC News: “I obviously have always been opposed to gay marriage.” Later that year, he came out against the DREAM Act, which granted conditional residency for immigrants brought to the United States as young children. In late 2014, he came out against Obama administration efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. And going very far off the rails, McCain accused President Obama directly for the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shootings.

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BUT THOSE generally ritual partisan reflexes ultimately gave way to something bigger, grander, wider.

In December 2014, McCain backed releasing to the public the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture. Conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. "The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it nonetheless.”

On July 25, 2017, in the midst of the furious debate over the health-care bill vote, McCain arrived in the well of the United States Senate and made an epic, 13-minute speech that should be a template for achieving deliberation and consensus in Congress.



On July 28, three days later, he returned to the Senate floor and cast the deciding vote against the “skinny repeal” bid to overturn Obamacare — a vote at odds with nearly all of his Republican colleagues in the Senate — in dramatic fashion befitting, well, a maverick.



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In August 2017, with a lapidary op-ed piece he wrote in The Washington Post, McCain put the toxic political discourse in perspective: “Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.

“That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.

“It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.

“That has never been truer than today, when Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct. We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people.”

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WRITING IN The Daily Beast of Aug. 25, John Avlon offered a trenchant remembrance of McCain that doubled as informed speculation on how the national trajectory would have changed If McCain had been president:

“It’s worth reflecting on how different the trajectory of modern America would have been if McCain had prevailed in 2000. Polls showed that the general election would not have been close, with McCain’s deep appeal to independent voters likely sparing the nation from a Supreme Court decision resolving a popular and electoral vote split. Despite positioning himself as the anti-Slick Willie, McCain would have continued the centrism that Bill Clinton ushered into office while corralling the far right. After 9/11, he would have been a pitch-perfect national father figure because of his personal sacrifice and military service. -- ”

We have to stop Avlon right there because of one implicit assumption he makes, innocently enough. In this scenario, 9/11 would have happened, right on schedule. I’d respectfully suggest that this wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Songbird Day


ALL DUE PROPERS to the great Maya Angelou: Now we know why a songbird sings — sometimes it’s to keep from being a caged bird for any longer than the law allows.

Michael Cohen — the longtime attorney, consiglieri and former Kevlar vest for candidate-now President* Donald Trump — has thus seen the error of his ways. That was the message delivered Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan as Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, two counts of campaign finance violations, and one count of making false statements to a financial institution. All of it, in the words of Robert Khuzami, the Southern District of New York deputy U.S. Attorney, “for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.”

The two campaign-finance violations were for those two hush-money payments — two big checks written to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, to get them to shut up about possible extramarital affairs they had with The Donald.

At his hearing Tuesday, Cohen said he took the campaign-finance actions — paying the two women $280,000 “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” Trump’s previously denied knowing anything about it. Cohen faces sentencing in December.

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Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, later told NPR that Cohen would never accept a pardon from Trump. “I know that Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from a man that he considers to be both corrupt and a dangerous person in the oval office,” Davis told NPR's “Morning Edition” on Wednesday. “And [Cohen] has flatly authorized me to say under no circumstances would he accept a pardon from Mr. Trump.”

And in Alexandria, Va., Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager and ostrichware enthusiast, was found guilty of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one count of failure to file foreign bank accounts. (Manafort attended the pivotal Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, with Cohen; a Russian lawmaker, Natalia Veselnitskaya; and Donald Trump Jr., eldest son of The Donald.)

Manafort faces from seven to nine years in prison — and another trial: he’s scheduled to appear to appear in federal court on Sept. 17 in Washington, to face charges of money laundering, witness tampering and lying to the FBI.

Tuesday marked the 579th day of House Trump; it was, not arguably but certainly, the worst in the history of a breathtakingly inept administration. Tuesday was the day when lie was put to Trump’s tireless “Rigged Witch Hunt” accusations. On two fronts, in two courtrooms 235 miles apart, at in practical terms the same moment, two of Trump’s once-trusted lieutenants were, by jury or by self-admission, guilty of various frauds and felonies, some of them directly implicating the President* of the United States in violations of federal law.

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THE SHORT-TERM impact of this one-two punch was first proffered in the media as a series of more or less equal events, but in short order, that changed. The songbird part of the story, its mea culpa dimension, had more weight than the narrative of a clotheshorse fixer going up before a jury of his peers. Manafort became the sideshow, the peripheral event. He was a short-term associate of the Trump 2016 campaign, directing the campaign for all of four months.

Cohen was the real deal. He's had the longer relationship with Trump (at least 10 years) and the more crucial one. As Trump’s personal lawyer, Cohen was in a position to know about everything, to deflect every problem, to minimize every impact.

The media adjusted its lens appropriately by Wednesday. Look at the Wednesday page one of The New York Times; it grasps the power of betrayal as a catalyst for drama, it gets the turncoat aspect that makes the twists and turns of this narrative irresistible.

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Now, of course, we can probably expect that, even with Tuesday’s seismic events, and the repercussions that haven’t even landed yet, it’ll be business as usual in House Trump, the Oval Office occupant will use what just happened as another opportunity to hunker down, to showcase the obstinate temperament honed and cultivated with his longtime mentor Roy Cohn, who instilled in Trump a never-settle mindset that slipped the confines of law and the courtroom a long time ago.

Trump can be expected to be in circle-the-wagons mode for a while, and certainly from now until November. And why not? He knows what’s at stake. And the power of the bully pulpit of the White House isn’t to be underestimated.

For House Trump, Tuesday’s events were just another routine attack against a president* used to being under siege, and acting accordingly. Look at the press briefing on Wednesday. The embattled White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, looking more and more like Ron Ziegler every day, tersely replied to reporters’ questions, trying to maintain the deadpan sang-froid that’s been her stock in trade since she started the job.



ALL OF THIS changes the trajectory of a presidency that’s been sorely challenged from the beginning. The reports of the mood from inside the White House have not been promising. The Washington Post reported that Trump was in “a foul mood” on Tuesday, after the Manafort-Cohen haymakers landed, and “slightly deflated” later in the day, at a rally in West Virginia.

Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey of The Post reported: “ ...[A]t least for now, at least for a day, Trump resisted lashing out in a dramatic and public way. Instead, Wednesday was a moment for calculation and conversation, a pause for a rattled administration, according to White House officials and outside advisers familiar with the discussions. Several advisers who spoke to Trump said he seemed more frustrated than furious, more sad than screaming.”

That’s likely to be the mood at House Trump for a while. As if Omarosa’s tapes weren’t problem enough, and they were and still are, now there’s the prospect of tapes from Cohen (more than the one released earlier in the year) — tapes that, unlike Omarosa’s, may not go into the public record right away, tapes that are likely to be the property of the Special Counsel’s Office. Tapes that House Trump can’t possibly refute because House Trump didn’t know they existed in the first place.

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One White House official not authorized to speak publicly told The Post: “We’ve been through everything; the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape when almost everyone walked away,” said. “This is nothing. He’s fine.”

This White House official is a master of self-deception. The canine-metaphor enthusiast occupying the Oval Office is not fine. This is not a locker-room-talk moment like the Access Hollywood tape; it’s not an overheated rhetorical screwup like the “shithole countries” crack. This is not nothing. What happened on Tuesday is more. This is existential, maybe not right away but soon and for months and months to come.

This drama is a process, not an event, and it’s barely begun. Much of it over the last 579 days has played out in public. Some of it has played out in private, in cloakrooms and other confessionals, and, probably, in the blessed seclusion of a room somewhere in Washington, where Mike Pence has been quietly practicing the words of the presidential oath of office.

Image credits: Cohen: Yana Paskova/Getty Images. Manafort: booking photo. Trump and Roy Cohn: Marilynn K. Yee—The New York Times/Redux. New York Times front page: © 2018 The New York Times Company. Trump: tktktk.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Daughter of a preacher man:
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)


NEVER MIND singing right — singing to move people to screams and tears: The literal act of singing itself is one of the more complicated feats of human physiology. Sparked by a written or remembered series of notes (a melody) and an equally recallable series of words and phrases (a lyric), the lungs have to work with the diaphragm, the throat’s got to be in concert with the teeth, the tongue must be in a groove with the nasal passages — all of it’s got to be there and ready and available at the right time, again and again. I don’t mean humming. That’s not singing. I mean the full, open-throated experience of bringing a song to life (however well or poorly it’s done esthetically).

And then, after all of that ... you’ve gotta Say Something. The rote mechanical actions of the body must be in contact with and in service to that ineffable, je ne sais quoi aspect of emotion, spirit — the intangible but very real thing that makes singing worth listening to, worth doing, in the first place.

With music, like most things, it’s said, it’s best to learn it while you’re young. Mozart got that straight away, writing his first composition at the age of five. Leonard Bernstein found his “contract with life” in a hallway with a few strikes of piano keys. Duke Ellington started playing piano at the age of seven, earning the nickname “the Duke” for his uncommon dapper grace.

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Aretha Franklin was similarly possessed of a talent beyond her years. She Said Something from the beginning.

She got that beginning at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, singing at the behest of her father, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn (C.L.) Franklin, who broke her in as a featured soloist during Sunday services after Aretha’s mother passed. Aretha was 10 years old.

Word got around. No less a personage than Dinah Washington said, after seeing Aretha perform at the church, that the young Aretha, then 12-years old, was “the next one,” the next one to carry forward the lineage of the great singers of our time, bringing the blues savvy of Bessie Smith, the invention of Ella Fitzgerald, and the gospel chops of Mahalia Jackson forward to a new generation.

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MAKING THAT journey was hardly a straight-line event. Aretha had her life issues, like the rest of us, the complications that (as it turned out) were indispensable to her music being what it is. A baby mama at the age of 12, she had her second child, by a different father, at 14. She left Detroit for New York City at the age of 18, leaving the children behind. While in NYC, she met and married Ted White, who would become her manager, and the father of her third child.

There were deviations from the music that would power her to stardom. She signed an early contract with Columbia Records, which recognized her immense vocal talent and then misplaced it — placing Aretha in the studio to record music in a variety of styles, from jazz to ballads. Her first single for Columbia, “Today I Sing the Blues” (produced by the legendary John Hammond) came out in the fall of 1960.

She hid her stride in the mid-60’s, with a string of singles that established her as the voice to be reckoned with: "Chain of Fools", "Think", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "I Say a Little Prayer" all pointed to Aretha as a singular voice in popular music. But in 1967, one song (written by Otis Redding) made her a kind of North Star in both pop culture, feminism, and emerging social activism.

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OTIS REDDING said “that girl stole that song from me," and he was right: “Respect,” a song he wrote and recorded two years earlier, was a vastly different animal in Aretha’s capable hands. Re-recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967, the song was (like so many things) a happy accident that yielded results no one could anticipate, but whose power and impact exceeded expectations.

Unlike other songs that became feminist anthems, such as Helen Reddy’s position paper, “I Am Woman,” Aretha’s “Respect” was a genial hijacking of a song whose origins reinforced male authority. When she lifted it, and imbued it with a new arrangement and tweaked lyrics, it was a kind of poetic justice of the sexes.

NPR reported: “The track was actually a clever gender-bending ... [the] original reinforced the traditional family structure of the time: Man works all day, brings money home to wife and demands her respect in return.

“Franklin's version blew that structure to bits. For one, Redding's song doesn't spell out ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ like Franklin's does. It also doesn't have the backup singers and their clever interplay. So much of what made ‘Respect’ a hit — and an anthem — came from Franklin's rearrangement.”

And what started as a feminist benchmark took on other resonance in the crucible days of the civil rights movement. It was inescapably logical: if a black woman could demand respect from her companion, black people could demand respect from their country. The song’s title, and especially when you spelled it out letter by letter, dovetailed perfectly with the civil rights era (even as it beat James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” to the radio by more than a year).

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She’s always had a sense of timing, in the way she wrote a song or sang a song _ even in the way she made her exit from this plane, on Thursday, Aug. 16, of advanced pancreatic cancer, at the age of 76. Aretha passed the same day as Babe Ruth (in 1948) and Elvis Presley (in 1977).

For the longest time, the only one who could ever reach us was the daughter of a preacher man. And she’s not done reaching us yet. Her funeral is set for Aug. 31, after two days of Aretha lying in honor at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, in Detroit. All that comes before a planned all-star tribute concert set for Nov. 14, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

And NASA reminded us last week how much Aretha will be the celestial body, if not the sun, that brightens our lives into the future. The U.S. space exploration agency, “saddened by the loss,” tweeted late last week that “Asteroid 249516 Aretha, found by our NEOWISE mission and named after the singer to commemorate the #QueenOfSoul, will keep orbiting beyond Mars.”

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ALL RISE. The honorable court of public opinion is in session. It is the judgment of this court that on Thursday, August the sixteenth, the light of our lives was irrevocably dimmed and humbled by the passing from our time and space of one Aretha Louise Franklin, Regent of Emotion, Empress of the Spirit, Voice Among Voices, the Queen of Soul.

It is further the judgment of this court that, by acclimation, from this day forward, songs of any kind, make or description will pale by comparison, and that the symphony of our lives will never sound quite the same again.

So say we all.

Image credits: Aretha: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images. "Electrifying" album cover: eBay/Columbia Records. Respect 45 rpm label: Atlantic Records. Aretha tweet: @NASA. Theater marquees: @MMFlint.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Trump and the Omarosa tapes:
The hunter gets f****d-up by the prey


IT’S PROVEN: Black people watch more television than any other cohort of the national population, about 44 hours a week; Nielsen determined this last year. That almost certainly includes more of all kinds of TV, including reality TV, the enclave of the weird and improbable that largely skirts the censors’ knives because it’s real, not scripted, not subject to the vagaries and imaginations of those in the writer’s room.

Black Americans have a special relationship with the tube, and there’s a certain logic to that fact: It’s taken us so long to have any influence on the programming and production of what’s on the small screen, we tend to be possessive of the programs that move us. TV, after all, reaches us where we live.

Omarosa Manigault Newman understands this, intimately. As a child of the reality TV game from much closer to its beginning, she’s gone further, deeper and higher in that airless realm than just about anyone else. All the way to the White House.

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We all watched with jaws dropped when we heard that Omarosa — her first name has always been enough, like Oprah or Shonda — had been named by candidate Donald Trump as his director of African-American Outreach, a kind of black-person whisperer for the Trump campaign.

And when Trump assumed the presidency, she was named an assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, a lofty title for anyone toiling in House Trump.

She was widely reviled in the White House for various transgressions of decorum (imagine that) or policy. It all came to a head in December, when Omarosa was fired by Chief of Staff John Kelly, aboard a year after coming aboard the Trump train.

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FOR ANYONE else, that would have been the end of it — a less-than-stellar White House career morphed into an ignominious exile from public life. But Omarosa has, since she was fired by Trump in the first season of The Apprentice, in 2004, Omarosa has proven to be a capable shape-shifter, a survivor in the ruthless realm of pop culture.

And with the Aug. 17 release of Unhinged, her tell-all book of the inner workings of the Trump White House, she’s assumed the role of the new traffic cop at the intersection of politics and reality television — the form of reality TV that takes its cues from political analysts and former government officials.

She fired the first broadside from the book when she released audiotape of a must-hear event: Kelly firing her in the Situation Room, one of the more celebrated and pivotal locations in the White House.

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Then Omarosa made it known that she told friends that she’d taped a call she received from first daughter/consiglieri Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, after Kelly fired her. In the call, Omarosa related, the couple wished her well and denied knowing her job was on the chopping block.

In the Unhinged book, Omarosa made comments about Ivanka’s relationship with The Donald: “As long as I’d known Trump, I’d observed the way he hugs, touches, and kisses Ivanka; the way she calls him Daddy.”

Omarosa continues: “In my opinion, based on my observations, their relationship goes right up to the line of appropriate father/daughter behavior and jumps right over it. I believe he covets his daughter. It’s uncomfortable to watch them.”

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ALSO IN Unhinged, Omarosa claims that Trump made a host of outrageous statements about African-Americans, Filipinos and other minorities, and was apparently subject to "forgetfulness and frustration"(which is frankly what we sorta figured out on our own).

“The person who could end up taking down the President of the United States is Omarosa,” Seth Meyers said on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Aug. 15, on NBC. “It took her 14 years, but she is finally getting revenge for Trump firing her in season one.”

As you might expect, the president has been up in arms about this, taking to Twitter, his weapon of choice, to call Omarosa a “lowlife” and a “dog” — especially pungent insults for an African American woman. Never mind the specifics and accuracy of her claims, all of which are incendiary enough. What’s really got Trump’s golden knickers in a twist is the fact of his being outflanked in the media manipulation game by a former lieutenant, an underling from the Apprentice universe.

Omarosa is matching Trump event for event, and doing it at the same dizzying, frenetic, breakneck pace that Trump has all but trademarked as a way of doing business. On most of the fronts that matter, Trump the ostensible master got schooled by Omarosa the avid student. The hunter’s been F’d up by the prey.

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And it’s been happening fast. Consider: Tina Nguyen wrote this at Vanity Fair on Aug. 13:

“It’s also possible that the far right’s hesitation to bash Omarosa proves the heft of her insurance policy: not even White House staffers know what she has on tape, and many may not want to attack her for fear of reprisals in the form of some audio kompromat. The possibility that she’s recorded Trump staffers making damning admissions, then, may have been enough to curb the right’s initial line of attack. But the relative silence from right-wing bunkers should not be mistaken for a sign that the president is in jeopardy. Though the recordings she’s released so far carry evidence of chaos within the White House, devoted Trump followers did not view Omarosa’s claims as a candid assessment of the administration.”

Friday, August 17, 2018

Election 2018:
The wannabe emperor’s non-coattails


OTHER BIG guns have gone off in August. More political pyrotechnics have been going on  where it counts this summer: in the voting booth. As possible bellwethers for the midterm elections 80 days away, some state races have pit the lie to Trumpian invincibility.

A lot of different flavors power the identity of America. We got a taste of some of them on Aug. 7; we should get ready to savor the results of the remaining state elections between now and the general midterm vote 11 weeks from now.

Some of these state elections stand out more than others as a barometer of the quicksilver, evolving voter sentiment; some of them could be flat-out anomalies. One of them took days to decide; the outcome of another one may take longer than that. But the picture starting to emerge is one that cuts hard against the Republicans’ dynastic mythology wielded by President* Donald Trump.

We’ve known for a while that the wannabe emperor has no clothes. He may not have any coattails, either.

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Democrats need to flip 23 seats in the House of Representatives to wrest control from the Republicans, and no one on the political scene has been more complicit in helping that happen then the president* himself, thanks to a series of breathtakingly inept and cynical actions, the most recent — Trump’s withdrawal of security clearances for former CIA Director John Brennan for speaking his mind, and threats to do the same to others he doesn’t like — managing to endanger free speech and imperil the national security at the same time.

Now with the election dead ahead, Trump has led the Republican party into his own version of the Steve Jobs reality distortion field, in this case a grim and sunless realm of handlers and supplicants where Congress is Trump’s rubber stamp and The Donald is ruler of the universe and not to be denied, anything, ever.

Trump is of course bringing the party base along for this horrible ride. Trouble is, there’s more and more evidence that no one beyond the base is buying this crap. Much of the latest conservative political analysis is all about “turning out the base,” but that prospect is, or should be, a given at this point.

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AS A TRADITION, or a political conditioned reflex, conservatives and Republicans show up at the polls. Indifference hasn’t been their strong suit. They’re funny like that. As a show of loyalty to the party and its principles, Republican base voters have had no problem navigating the cognitive dissonance of hating the candidate whose name is next to the R on the ballot, but voting for that candidate anyway because loyalty to the party always, uh, trumps loyalty to the person.

But the Republican base isn’t growing, it’s ageing and shrinking, and Trump and the GOP have gone out of their way to alienate all of the very people they need to have a future. And that’s why in recent days we’ve seen a growing consensus that Democratic gains in November will exceed the modest numbers that have been, to now, as much a hope as a statistical possibility.

Some of the Democratic candidates seeking state offices are coming to politics from the ranks of everyday people, and in a country sick to death of professional pols, or orange rank amateurs masquerading as professional politicians, few things could be more refreshing. Stacey Abrams is shaking up the governor's race in Georgia. Beto O'Rourke is terrifying Ted Cruz, now in the fight of his political life in Texas.

In Illinois, Democrat Karen Underwood has lately been raising more money than Rep. Randy Hultgren. And in the New York 14th congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a lightning rod for the political left since she stopped Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley early in the summer.

Serious, credible people are even talking about Democrats taking back the Senate, or at least making it competitive.

There’s been talk that the phrase “blue wave” might not be enough, might not invoke the right metaphor for what some seers say is coming — in a “blue flood.”

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Any such true believers got a huge assist from Rashida Tlaib, the young Palestinian-American political upstart who is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, after her narrow win in the Michigan 13th congressional district.

Tlaib defeated Brenda Jones, Detroit’s City Council president, in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary race to replace Rep. John Conyers. Tlaib, a Detroit native, is running unopposed in November, although Jones won a special election to serve out the remaining months of Conyers’ term.

On Aug. 14, Ilhan Omar secured a Democratic-primary victory in Minnesota's 5th CD, a win that has the Somali-American poised to join Thaib as the other Muslim woman in Congress.

In the Kansas 3rd CD, Sharice Davids, formerly a mixed martial arts fighter, kicked ass in her primary, stopping five Democratic challengers in her primary win. Davids, a lawyer, a lesbian and a former White House fellow in the Obama administration, will face incumbent GOP Rep. David Yoder in November. Davids relishes her sexual preference as a point of leverage in decision-making on Capitol Hill.

“Having L.G.B.T. people sitting in the room while decisions are being made, and sitting there as peers, will shift the conversation,” she told The New York Times. “I think it’s important that the lived experiences and the point of view of L.G.B.T. folks be included in conversations that affect all of us.”

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PARTLY BECAUSE of the usual gravitational pull of American politics, and partly because of the violations of political physics specific to Donald Trump, we’re also seeing Democrats positioned to make strides in November that the defeats of other Dems in August would have suggest weren’t possible. By razor-thin margins — the number of people you could fit in a bowling alley — Republicans have won, but they’ve eked out wins, victories that aren’t nearly resounding enough to make them feel comfortable. And with good reason.

The highest-profile congressional race in the country has had to wait awhile for a final chapter. The Ohio 12th CD is where Democrat Danny O’Connor has been locked in a statistical dead heat with Republican Troy Balderson for a seat in the House, since Aug. 7.

The Ohio primary outcome’s still unknown. Only about 1,500 votes separate the two, and the race won’t be called until Aug. 24, when absentee and provisional ballots are all counted. As of Aug. 17, Balderson is the unofficial winner, but there’s still vote out there.

◊ ◊ ◊

And this dead heat gets way more interesting when you look at the race in its broader context. In 2016, the Ohio 12 (long a Pantone-red district) was all in for Trump; he beat Hillary Clinton there by 11 points.

Now, two years later, in what should have been a commandingly comfortable precinct for Trump and whatever knucklehead he anointed, Balderson (whom Trump personally endorsed at a campaign rally and in tweets) finds himself in a major dogfight with a young, game Democratic opponent in a district that hasn’t gone for a Democrat since 1980. What should have been a walkover, given Trump’s big win in 2016, has turned into what may be a GOP November nightmare: a nailbiter that shouldn’t be one.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The big guns of August


OF ALL THE MONTHS on the calendar, August always bears watching as a kind of pivot-point  month, a transitional buffer between the chronically overheated days of July (when both tempers and temperatures reliably tend to flare) and September, when the first whispers of autumn announce themselves, giving us just a hint of the change of seasons to come.

It’s not always like that in August, but it’s true often enough. It was sure as hell like that 44 years ago.

That was the month in 1974, in the halcyon doomsday summer of Watergate’s crescendo, when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency. Thursday, Aug. 9 (the 44th anniversary of the official resignation) was the day that marked a capstone to a season of relentless upheaval, as the scandal of Nixon’s creation, or at least his acquiescence, finally overwhelmed him.

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A lot can happen in the tree-ring time of 44 years; we’ve seen numerous opportunities for politicians to learn from the mistakes of the past. But when a mistake keeps happening, it’s not a mistake anymore. It's on purpose. Past may yet be prologue: What’s playing out in Washington and America this August is a fresh visitation of Santayanan wisdom.

In more and more inescapable ways, President* Donald Trump is facing the artichoke/Russian doll disaster of his proximity to, or complicity in, an attempt to subvert the American electoral system in the service of a foreign power. He is the point man of a White House angrily obsessed with the ongoing investigation into that subversion, and the role that Trump, his minions, lackeys and stooges may have played in it.

Every day, Trump has taken to Twitter, his soapbox of choice, to complain about the speed of the inquiry conducted by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller. Faster, faster, The Donald would say, get on with it, get it over with.

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IF ONLY the rest of government ran as methodically: Mueller, appointed Special Counsel in May 2017, has been to this point conducting a master class in ethical, painstaking, circumspect prosecution. Releases to the media have been unflashy and all-business. No breast-beating, no Friday afternoon news dumps, no interviews every other day. And all of it done in a remarkably leak-free environment.

Now, though, as summer grinds on and patience at House Trump (already in short supply) gets rarer still, it’s somewhat easier to surrender to a gut feeling that we may be nearing an endgame on Mueller’s investigation — like really nearing an endgame — and it’s not because Trump demands that it be so, it’s because of the way Trump reacts when he discovers the Mueller probe won’t be subject to his demands in the first place.

There’s a lot of August left (whether Congress gets to take any part of its storied August recess or not remains to be seen), but it’s possible, and with an election coming up, maybe even prudent, for Mueller to show more of the cards he’s holding sooner rather than later.

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TRUMP’S growing exasperation over all this is obvious. You saw that on Monday, when news surfaced about House Trump leadership calling on the president* to stop posting tweets related to the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. He’s getting more and more emotional about everything. There’s a manic edge in his statements of late that suggests someone actually unhinged, the frantic work of an administration fully at odds with itself.

Nothing else explains the schizoid aspect of the Trump White House as when Trump himself called the media “horrendous” and “horrible,” on Aug. 2, the same day that First Daughter/consigliore Ivanka Trump said, convincingly, that the media was not “the enemy of the people,” as her old man had tweeted some time before that.

Nothing else would account for what happened that same day, when his top intel specialists — National Security Advisor John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command — collectively blamed the Russians for meddling in our 2016 election ... and Donald Trump ignored their assertions outright, or countered with his very unpatriotic own.

◊ ◊ ◊

And it’s about to get more interesting for Team Donald. News has surfaced that Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam” who once serviced high-profile clients in New York City, has been subpoenaed to testify before the Mueller grand jury on Friday, Aug. 10. Davis is the friend and confidant of a man Mueller is increasingly interested in:

That would be chalk-stripe suit enthusiast Roger Stone, the former Trump political advisor and conservative fixer known to have been in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the online persona of the 12 Russian agents thought to be responsible for hacking into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee and then leaking the findings to Wikileaks, after opening a backchannel with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Davis once ran a novelty campaign for New York governor; Stone was her campaign adviser. And Stone has already admitted that he’s the unnamed person in the Mueller indictment against the Guccifer hacking crew, which was looking for dirt against Hillary Clinton — dirt to be used by the Trump 2016 campaign.

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A lot can happen in 44 years, and not much at all. The same hubris, the same thirst for power at the expense of ethics and morality that played out in 1974 is unspooling again. The past was the prologue we're living through today.

And while the endgame for the Nixon White House came this month, the Trump White House is still fighting to hold on, pushing back hard against the political history it is, despite its best efforts, already a part of.

And other guns besides those described here will go off in the distance. And Donald Trump will snarl, and tweet, and bully ...

And worry. And flinch. And look at the calendar to see: August is just getting started.

Image credits: Nixon: public domain. Commissar Trump: The author. Mueller: tk, Stone: tk.

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