Saturday, January 19, 2019

MLK's persistence of vision

NOW, 90 YEARS AFTER he was born and more than 50 years after he was taken from us, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s vision continues — persists — in a time that’s more antagonistic to that vision than ever before.

Even in our siloed, compartmentalized, deeply tribal era, with no one overarching voice to speak for black America (which is neither possible nor necessary in the first place), his belief system — a balance of spirituality and activism, the homiletic and the street, faith in the word and in the law — still animates our nation. The ethical pillars of his life and career inform our lives today, in what may be its darkest hour.

Witness the power of redemption and forgiveness: During the Jan. 4 WHEC weather forecast, which included a live shot of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, in Rochester, N.Y., weatherman Jeremy Kappell appeared to call it “Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Park.”

All hell, of course, broke loose. “As a result of that broadcast, meteorologist Jeremy Kappell is no longer with News10NBC,” said Richard Reingold, WHEC general manager, said in a statement. “We believe strongly in holding our reporters and anchors to the highest standard.”

Kappell, who had been WHEC's chief meteorologist since October 2017, said Monday evening that the incident had been "a simple misunderstanding" that arose because he “jumbled a couple of words.”

“I had no idea what some people could have interpreted that as and I know some people did interpret that the wrong way. That was not a word I said, I promise you that. If you did feel that it hurt you in any way, I sincerely apologize,” he said via Facebook.

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RISING ABOVE the howl for a scalp, the ritual din of condemnation ... a voice from the King family. “I believe that when these racial slurs occur, unless there’s a situation where it’s continual, that people need an opportunity to be rehabilitated,” said Dr. Bernice King, daughter of MLK, speaking Jan. 10 to TMZ. “We don’t focus a lot on rehabilitation in our society today. ...

“Yes there has to be some repercussions. I don’t think it should go as far in this particular instance, firing an individual. I think demoting, giving them another assignment off-air, do some training, some implicit bias training, re-evaluating to see where they are in a better solution in this particular instance,” she said.

Proposing justice and mercy be applied in more or less equal measure, a daughter of the preacher who changed the arc of American society embodies the ethics of her father. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, of course. But the better, more pertinent metaphor obtains: That stone you drop in the water yields ripples that move far and far, and it does it for a long time. Redemption and forgiveness needn’t be strangers to us, even in the ethical gray murk of Trumptime.

◊ ◊ ◊

And then there’s the power of collective strength, reliance on the institutions of American government, and the pursuit of justice.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the reliably obstreperous Iowa congressman whose racist language and ethically-denigrating perspectives have come to define him and his worldview in ways great and small since at least 2002, finally jumped his own shark earlier this month. In an interview with The New York Times on Jan. 10, the congressman, apparently with a straight face, posed to the reporter some rhetorical questions: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

He was soundly rebuked by members of the House where he now serves in the minority, to the point of suffering a resolution condemning his remarks. “The House Republicans denounce his language. We do not believe in his language, and we’ve decided that he will not serve on any” committees, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on Jan. 15.

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KING, IN HIS ninth term in Congress, also faced the ire of African American members of Congress, lawmakers who weren’t there in such numbers and influence in 1968, when Martin Luther King was slain in Memphis — and sure as hell not in 1929, when MLK was born, and when such representation in Congress was a distant fever dream.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, a top member of the Congressional Black Caucus, called for a full censure for Rep. King — a formal punishment. “As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated,” Rush said in a statement. Tim Scott, a black Republican senator, showed that the Iowa firebrand actually managed to offend sensibilities across the aisle.

“When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott wrote in a Jan. 11 op-ed in The Washington Post. MLK, the drum major for justice, wouldn't have said it any less plain.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today, the notion of a single figurehead symbolizing the hopes and aspirations of millions of African Americans seems quaint today; the idea has less credence now than it did before. Black America has too many flavors and styles, personalities and internal divisions to stand under one lightning rod. In truth, it always has.

But that doesn’t diminish the power of that once-figurehead’s ideas and values, his enduring momentum into our culture, and his equally enduring impact on our national self-image. Martin Luther King still commands our attention not necessarily because of what he was, but more because of what he insisted on.

We live in the time of that unique union of his singular attributes, not just now but into the future — starting with the days of the coming holiday weekend that bears his name.

Image credits: MLK top: unknown. Bernice King: via TMZ. King: Al Drago for The New York Times. King hoodie: © 2013 Nikkolais Smith.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Trump's grand box canyon

IT’S A TROPE of American western movies: the arrogant but hapless villains inflict their pain and do their damage, then seek to escape, riding across wide open spaces right into what they think is a wide-open avenue to freedom, only to find something ... completely different.

If you live in a city, you call it a “dead end.” If you live somewhere else where Realtors use highfalutin language, you might call it a “cul-de-sac.” But if you now or ever paid attention to the topography of westerns, you know a box canyon when you see one.

President* Donald Trump, who says he knows everything, may not know what a box canyon is, but he’s in one: a place with an entrance that doubles as an exit, and otherwise inaccessible and inescapable. With his sad, deflated performance in a nine-minute prime-time address from the White House on Jan. 8, Trump made history with the first Oval Office address about an issue of national security that does not exist.

By doubling down in his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern border (despite clear evidence that the demand was politically motivated) or he would continue the shutdown of the federal government (a shutdown he created himself), Trump locked himself into a rhetorical course of action that he apparently can’t escape, trapped by his own tweets and his ego, confronting the naked politics behind the emptiness of a campaign promise he never should have made.

◊ ◊ ◊

From the start of the address, his first from the Oval since June 2017, it was clear there was an absence of substance, of any real reason for the speech even happening in the first place. Looking like an animatronic facsimile, The Don read from a script he didn’t want to read in the first place, and reinforced the vacancy of his claim of a looming “national emergency.”

I’ll spare you the specifics of the speech; if you want it, here’s the link to the video. Knock yourself out. But the shorthand of the address, its gist, is fairly easy to discern. It’s nine minutes consistent with the Trumpian anti-immigration party line:

With a dour, mechanical delivery more common to the principal of a hostage video, Trump conjured a parade of horribles, a modern hellscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: ruthless drug gangs, caravans of stolen children, border checkpoints groaning with undocumenteds, coyotes assaulting women on the brutal march to the north — all of which would be resolved with a multi-billion dollar commitment to The Wall.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT WAS a magical-thinking response to what Trump shrewdly described first as a “humanitarian” crisis and secondarily as a “security crisis,” the exact opposite of the White House’s priorities, and intentions, in the region.

At MSNBC, Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee head, called it “the quintessential definition of a nothingburger speech.” And Rep. Jerry Nadler, the incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that “the walls are closing in on the president.”

Monday, January 7, 2019

Adult deficit disorder: Mattis and Kelly
exit the building. Who’s next?

This is Crazytown. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.
          —  John Kelly, as quoted in Fear by Bob Woodward

A NEW YEAR, like a new broom, sweeps clean. Two former principals of House Trump’s axis of grownups know this all too well. For James Mattis, once Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, once the White House chief of staff, the arrival of 2019 was a welcome departure from the slough of despond otherwise known as 2018.

But it’d be a mistake to think the consequences of their departures ended with those departures. The bigger existential questions for the Trump administration have only shifted from one year into the next. Even though their exits are chronologically the property of last year, the farewells of Kelly and Mattis — putatively the adults on the White House playground — presage things to come at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

With major decision makers in an “acting” status (the attorney general, the secretary of defense, the chief of staff, the EPA administrator, and probably others we’ve briefly overlooked), the only reliable administration permanence rests with the man in the Oval Office. Which is unfortunate.

And as bad as the exodus from Trump has been ... we haven’t even heard from Robert Mueller yet.

◊ ◊ ◊

The country was blindsided Dec. 20, when Trump accepted the resignation of Mattis, with a resignation letter that was a clinic in elegant, eloquent rebuke. With the scholar’s touch he was known for, Mattis schooled the presidential asterisk on geopolitics, military posture, and the United States’ place in the world.

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.

“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. ...

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”

◊ ◊ ◊

MATTIS CONTINUES: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. ...”

It was masterful; in official Washington, it was a mike-drop with the impact of a howitzer barrage. In a “clear-eyed” expression of his understanding of the boundaries separating his world-view from Trump’s, Mattis made clear his principal objections: Mister President, you’re all too willing to make friends of our enemies and enemies of our friends. I’m not down with that anymore. And I never was.

Mattis, class act that he is, offered to stay on until Feb. 28, to help with the transition, ease the handoff to the next one in the turret, and take one last global victory lap, in a well-deserved long goodbye to friends abroad. The Don wasn’t having it. He ordered Mattis to clear out by the end of the year.

◊ ◊ ◊

Mattis, of course, was preceded in excommunication by John Kelly, the Marine general turned homeland security chieftain turned into the air traffic controller more commonly called “White House chief of staff.”

Kelly knew what was coming. If he didn’t, Peter Kuper, a well-known and spot-on cartoonist for The New Yorker, sure as hell did. In July 2017, during the runup to Kelly assuming the White House gig, The New Yorker ran a pitch-perfect cartoon by Kuper, a fixture in the magazine for years. In the cartoon, a man in uniform, rifle at the ready, crouches behind his desk amid sandbags and concertina wire at his lonely outpost somewhere in the West Wing. The omniscient caption reads:

John Kelly takes his position as the new White House chief of staff.

The New Yorker has an enviable history of nailing down the national sense of things in the inescapable visual vernacular, of which we’re all captives. But Kuper’s cartoon was more. This is no case of art imitating or distilling life; this was art predicting the life to come, in the metaphor of combat that the Trump White House embodies, and embraces, and richly deserves.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kelly would certainly say that now himself. On Friday, Dec. 14, President* Trump announced that Kelly would be leaving the chief of staff post at the end of the year. Trump thanked Kelly for services rendered; there was the ritual veneer of politesse. But the former Marine general’s departure from the free-fire zone in the West Wing comes amid backbiting and skullduggery within the White House, actions that Kelly finally decided he wanted no more of.

From the start of his misadventure, and up to right now this minute, inquiring minds have been asking: Why? What unusually dogged-blind sense of duty would compel a decorated former Marine general to sign on to the train wreck of the Trump administration?

Maybe it was no more than that: Duty to the country, and to what he may have believed then was a fractured, breathtakingly dysfunctional White House that could use a Marine general’s approach to order and discipline. In that, Kelly could be forgiven; he saw a problem he thought he could fix.

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VOX REPORTED on Dec. 8: “Kelly saw his first order of business as installing a more rigorous process and structure to the infamously chaotic White House. He saw no use for bombastic, Machiavellian advisers like Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, both of whom he pushed out within weeks. Others who stayed in the White House saw their access to the president restricted or their responsibilities reduced.”

“While Kelly did get credit for stabilizing the White House’s internal functioning, one thing he didn’t do — and really, didn’t even try to do — was change the president.

“In fact, it soon became clear that those hoping Kelly would be a mainstream, establishment figure who’d help moderate the administration were sorely mistaken. In his hardline views on immigration, his traditionalist instincts on cultural issues, and his willingness to compromise the Justice Department’s independence, Kelly turned out to bear a great deal of resemblance to Trump himself.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It also became clear to Kelly, at some point not far into his relationship with the prevaricators, mountebanks, mushwits and fools of the Trump White House, that the order he believed he was there to achieve was the exact opposite of what his boss, the president*, really wanted.

That fact has permeated every aspect of the Trump administration.

The biggest obstacle to the work of a Trump chief of staff is that the job’s current reality is at odds with its very reason for being. Kelly was there to establish order and discipline, something he got used to and knew well after years in the Marines. Kelly went to work in a White House with no use for order or discipline.

Trump doesn’t embrace order or discipline as operational means to an end; he values chaos and disorder, and the ability to keep people off-stride. Kelly, a master of order in his past professional life, faced down a boss who is inimical to that which Kelly knows and believes in. With such a basic division between them, parting ways was inevitable from the day Kelly moved into his bunker — uh, office — in the West Wing.

◊ ◊ ◊

KELLY’S replacement in the Don Patrol is Mick Mulvaney, a man who’s long established himself as the Trump White House Swiss Army knife. A former member of Congress (in the House representing South Carolina), Mulvaney was Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, until last year. He's keeping his other old job, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. On Jan. 2, he started the new chief of staff gig as a darling of the president*, one who's been also willing to put in trigger time as Trump admin spokesman on the Sabbath gasbag programs.

He’s hit the ground moving fast. But Mulvaney, no fool he, accepted the position on the basis of his being an “acting” chief of staff — in an administrative context a bit like being the acting air traffic controller at LAX or Heathrow two days before Christmas. In this way, Mulvaney pulled a fast one that could be repeated by others now considered for the numerous posts still unfilled in the White House, and the administration in general.

Mulvaney shrewdly set the terms of his own departure from the administration, a strategic move that, among other things, screams a lack of full confidence. Face it: You don’t pack a chute and sit next to the fuselage door if you think you won’t have to jump out of a perfectly good administration.

If it is a perfectly good administration.

◊ ◊ ◊

Word is out about the pitfalls and sorrows of working in the Trump White House, and that it’s a toxic, terrible place to work. Mulvaney got himself the closest thing to an insurance policy you can get working for Trump. Kelly and Mattis stepped out on faith, which lasted until The Don stepped on them.

Kelly and Mattis may be two figures in the national rear-view mirror, but their frustration with and absences from a deeply, willfully dysfunctional White House is a matter of looking through the windshield — a look at what’s yet to come for the White House, and what’s ahead for America. The incomplete roster of functionaries needed to run the government will likely stay incomplete, as long as President* Trump keeps ... well, acting up.

And just think. We haven’t even heard from Robert Mueller yet.

Image credits: Mattis: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. Mattis and Trump: Via The Economic Times. John Kelly cartoon by Peter Kuper: © 2018 The New Yorker. Kelly: Joshua Roberts/Reuters.  Vox logo: © 2019 Vox Media. Mulvaney: ABC News. Trump: Benoit Tessier/Reuters.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The People’s House for real: The 116th Congress begins

THIS IS WHAT American democracy looks like, whether the American Republican president likes it, or believes it, or not:

A Native American lesbian mixed-martial artist with a law degree from Cornell University. A Latina now the youngest person elected to Congress in history. Two Muslim women. Two former CIA officers. The first black congresswoman elected from Massachusetts. The first Korean-American elected to Congress in a generation. The first Ecudorean elected to Congress in a forever. And more. And more.

The members of the 116th Congress were sworn in on Thursday, Jan. 3. What came together in the House of Representatives was the most diverse congressional representation of the American population in the history of the country. They wore hijabs and Kente cloth, pantsuits and pueblo dresses. They’re African American, Muslim-American, Native American, Palestinian American, LGBTQ-American, Young American ... American American.

And they’re impressively, refreshingly women Americans. Some 89 Democratic women took their seats last week in the House. They will be led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who resumed her position as the Speaker of the House, replacing the lamentable Paul Ryan as speaker, the first to reclaim the office in more than half a century.

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What’s more important is the geographic breadth of the Democratic recapture of the House last November. It wasn’t centered on any one part of the country. Sure, Ayanna Pressley, who is African American, won a congressional seat representing the People’s Republic of Massachusetts — perhaps to be expected. Likewise Jahana Hayes’ victory in neighboring Connecticut.

But a deeper dive into the new House makeup tells a story that should have Democrats more widely encouraged. Kyrsten Sinema won a Democratic seat in deep-red Arizona. Sharice Davids won her seat in Congress hailing from Kansas (the Pantone-red state where the Republican secretary of state Kris Kobach did all he could to curb or hobble minority voting in the midterm election).

The Senate demographic is about as white as it’s ever been; the GOP gained seats in the midterms. But the House more fully illustrates the evolution of our hyphenation nation. MSNBC made that clear last week in a graphic that put all these firsts in perspective.

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IN A STARTLING measurement of inclusion in the 116th Congress, MSNBC determined that the diversity reflected in the new House of Representatives is as close as it’s ever been to a full-on representation of the country as a whole.

Women, who represent 51 percent of the national population, account for 23 percent of representation in the House. African Americans, 13 percent of the population, make up 12 percent of House membership.

And in a heartbreaking triumph, Native Americans — a tender 1 percent of the population — account for one-half of 1 percent of the House (thanks to Davids of Kansas, and Deb Haaland, newly elected to the House from New Mexico.

◊ ◊ ◊

This didn’t come from nowhere. Democrats have been nurturing this transition, cultivating it steadily in off-year elections and state races in recent years. It didn’t get a lot of coverage in the media, but Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez was prescient, telling us this would happen more than a year ago when he referenced two statehouse victories that amounted to a seismograph for what happened on Jan. 3.

“The last time Democrats won the governors race in Virginia and New Jersey, in the same year, was 2005,” Perez told the Washington Examiner in November 2017. “You know what we did the following year? We took the House of Representatives! That’s what we’re going to do next year.”

That confidence was thoroughly justified. Unlike the aftermath of the 2014 midterms, when the Democrats lost the Senate, there’s been a serious effort by Democratic leaders and grassroots organizers to get things right this time.

Truly populist candidates like Pressley, Sinema, Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race, Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial contest, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York congressional race lead the way as candidates who engaged people as full-throated, unapologetic Democrats making no apology for carving out the distinctions between themselves and Republicans — and building on those distinctions, asserting both their identity and their legacy.

And people bought in, in unprecedented midterm numbers. Even when candidates didn't win (Abrams and Gillum fell short, but by the smallest of margins), they made their cases well, often in states that Republicans have historically taken for granted.

◊ ◊ ◊

AND THAT may be the biggest, most enduring takeaway from the 2018 midterms, and the new House of Representatives from those elections: Democrats have learned the hard way that nothing should be taken for granted.

No more conceding states and electorates because history says a Democrat can’t win. Spread the field. Expand the map. That’s the message Dems got in 2018. It’s knowledge they’ll build on for 2020.

School’s in session. For the freshman class of 2018, that means the obligatory first-days-of-school shenanigans, the inevitable first blush of victory. But once they know where the bathrooms are, once they master the dance of creating legislation, the new House of Representatives will be about business, being what it’s never been before: substantively inclusive, demographically reflective, the People’s House for real.

Image credits: Ladies of the House: @BarbaraLee. Badass ladies of the House: @AOC. House diversity snapshot: MSNBC. Stacey Abrams selfie: Stacey Abrams. Pelosi sign: Twitter.
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