Inadequate to the stormy present

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Abraham Lincoln

This quote has been rattling around in my brain for the last week or so. This quote was sent by Abraham Lincoln in his letter to Congress on the state of the nation during the midst of the Civil War, before state of the union speeches became a tradition. A week later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which emancipated slaves in territories conquered by Union forces. It was a brilliant but unappreciated move by Lincoln, decried of course by the South, but was likely pivotal in winning the Civil War.

We could use an Abraham Lincoln right now. What happened to Lincoln is likely to happen to others that the radical right doesn’t like. The good news is that a year ago we got rid of Donald Trump but only barely was able to keep him from illegally retaining power. The bad news is that we elected Joe Biden, not a bad man by himself, but at least so far not the sort of leader we need for our stormy present. Joe is convinced that by providing pandemic relief and funding ambitious infrastructure bills America will somehow come back together and there will be a big kumbaya moment. It makes me slap my head with a big Homer Simpson “Doh!” I really hope he’s not this stupid.

What’s going on in our country now is revenge for the South losing the civil war. Republicans area pissed beyond belief that demographics are turning against them and that those people could exercise real political power. It’s going to get much, much worse but it will probably be a slow-moving horror. But if Biden and Congressional Democrats were to think anew and act anew, it’s possible much of it can be avoided.

The horrible gerrymandering and voter suppression underway has been unfolding for decades and has reached level 11. As bad as this is though, it’s not nearly as bad as the soft coup Republicans are unfolding for the 2024 elections. They plan to win the 2024 elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression if possible. But if not many states hope to enact laws that would allow their state to choose electors at variance to the popular will, or empower corrupt election officials who will claim that fairly run elections were not, and proclaim a different result. The Brennan Center for Justice summarizes the more brazen efforts currently underway. It’s depressing reading.

There are obvious things that urgently need to be done but little likelihood they will be done. For example, Congress could pass a law outlawing gerrymandering and protecting voting rights. We needed this months ago and some tentative rumblings in the Senate suggest something might happen, if two Democrats (Manchin and Sinema) can be coaxed to allow an exception to the Senate’s filibuster rule. Manchin is a maybe. Sinema looks like a no. Budget reconciliation rules allow avoiding the filibuster for budget bills, but don’t for something as fundamental as voting rights. But even if it can be done, there will be inevitable court challenges which makes it unlikely it could work in the 2022 election. That something this obvious can’t win the support of fifty Democrats indicates just how pointlessly dogmatic some of these dogmas of the quiet past are.

Make no mistake: Republicans are gunning for one-party control that can’t be changed because they will control the election levers that make it impossible, ending democracy, at least at the national level. It will be like voting in Russia when you know Putin will win because the ballot boxes will be stuffed and anyhow, they will control the ballot boxes. It won’t be true in all states and not all at once, but it will be enough to cement control.

The question then becomes: do Americans put up with it? It’s likely to be moot as when they have the lever of power, the crazies are likely to be in charge, so it will be retribution time. They will go after their political enemies and they will leverage as best they can the full power of the state and the courts to persecute, imprison, maim and kill those they don’t like or feel weren’t nice to them. And if they can’t do it, they will look the other way and let their vigilantes do it for them.

They say you don’t negotiate with terrorists, but Republicans are political terrorists. Bipartisanship is now a myth. Passing voting legislation is a possible way out of this but rest assured even if passed it’s likely to be stricken down by the courts on various pretexts. Even so you can count on hoodlums and vigilantes implementing de-facto Jim Crow laws to ensure whites vote disproportionately.

So essentially it’s unlikely there is any peaceful way to reach a kumbaya moment. Republican voters, egged on by hard right conservative media, won’t allow it. For myself, I hope that Covid-19 and what’s left of a functioning government, along with general disgust by enough people paying attention, that we can turn things around in the 2022 election. The odds are very long, but even if Democrats retain power, Republican states are working relentlessly to stack the deck in 2024.

Hang onto your socks, folks.

Trump is all hat and no cattle

In case you haven’t noticed, our nation has been living in a Kafkaesque political nightmare. What a week it has been, a crazy week to somehow top all those other crazy weeks since Trump because POTUS. It’s like taking a bad tab of acid. But if you are like me then it’s not necessary because real life can hardly be a weirder bad trip.

I literally go to sleep every night with what I think is a comforting thought: “Well, as crazy as today was, certainly tomorrow can’t be worse.” And every day Trump proves me wrong. It’s like winning a game of improbable chance, like rolling snake eyes every time. But it’s impossible! This defies all common sense and the laws of probability! Surely there will be at least one day there when Trump comes off sounding reasonable, or doesn’t say or do something bizarre and totally off the wall!

The closest he came to this was his substitute for a State of the Union address and only because he read closely off a teleprompter. For almost a day press reports were positive. Then of course he reverted to form and hasn’t deviated since. Tonight he is off on a nine-day foreign adventure guaranteed to rankle both enemies and allies. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t want to go. He only wants to sleep at one of his properties, and there are none on this journey. He is avoiding foreign policy briefings and to the consternation of aides plans to mostly wing it. In Europe, leaders are preparing by keeping the agenda light, short and uncontroversial. It’s just as well because Trump’s ADD will mean after five minutes he will get bored, unless he is speaking of course. I am reminded of that scene from Airplane!

Air Stewardess: Would you like something to read?
Passenger: Do you have anything light?
Air Stewardess: How about this leaflet, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends?’

The best Americans can hope for from this trip is that Trump has a whole briefcase of these pamphlets that he can peruse when his attention wanders, which it will be most of the time. It’s not hard to predict though that he will spend nine days stepping on toes and generating more controversy, just like on Wednesday when we learned he is the most picked on president ever. This would be news to Abraham Lincoln who was called among other things (and this just by one New York lawyer) “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla”.

I do feel sorry, but not for Trump. The people I feel sorriest for are his White House staff. Even though he picked them, or delegated the job to people (mostly Pence) to pick them, they are always to blame for all of his screw-ups even though they do their best to parrot the message of the moment. Then of course they discover that Trump has said something completely contradictory and undercut them moments later. And it’s their fault!

The only mystery here is why they haven’t all quit en masse. Perhaps they secretly enjoy being abused and berated constantly. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The leaks that Trump would have preferred that former FBI director Comey investigate instead of Russian-Trump connections are a result of staff becoming unglued due to constant stress and his abuse. For Trump’s staff, it’s therapeutic to talk to a Times or Post reporter “off the record” and it paints a portrait of total dysfunction inside the White House. Walking and chewing gum at the same time is apparently way too complicated. Just chewing gum is pretty challenging.

The crux of the matter is that Trump is woefully unqualified to be president, the exact criteria that excited voters. He’s always been about image, but it’s abundantly clear now that his image is just bluster, something his supporters chose to ignore during the campaign. Like Bush II, he’s “All hat and no cattle”. Surely we didn’t need another politician, voters said last November. We needed someone to shake things up. In that sense and in that sense alone Trump is winning: he and his minions are spreading dysfunction across the whole federal government. So if you voted for anarchy, surely you are happy, which is probably why there are vodka toasts hourly at the Kremlin.

There aren’t a whole lot of glimmers of light from all this, but there are a few. Our courts in general seem to be interpreting the law rather than rewriting it, much to Trump’s consternation. (When they do he calls them “fake judges”.) Wednesday brought welcome news that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who himself seems to have played an unseemly part in FBI Director Comey’s firing) has appointed an independent counsel to look into Trump-Russia connections. The ink from the order was hardly dry before Trump of course claimed victimization and persecution, while assuring us there is nothing there. So why be ruffled?

Meanwhile though the Trump bull continues charging through the government’s china shop. It’s unclear how much will be left before he either ingloriously resigns or investigations lead to his impeachment and removal. I’m convinced that he won’t survive this. The only question is when he goes. Trump has a long history of business failures and cashing in his chips. To be true to form he probably will do the same with the presidency at some point, and likely sooner rather than later. When the hand becomes too poor, he folds and walks away complaining. Rest assured when he does he’ll say it wasn’t his fault. Hopefully this will happen before we become embroiled in another war or before a huge diplomatic crisis unfolds.

In that sense I am rooting for his failure, and sooner rather than later. At this point the most patriotic thing Trump can do is resign and hope that by resigning any criminal charges get dropped by prosecutors or pardoned by Mike Pence. The Trump brouhaha though will outlast Trump and will likely tar those on tap to succeed him, certainly Pence who let Mike Flynn into the administration but likely Speaker Ryan too, the next in line.

Are we really living a Kafkaesque political nightmare? At least after Trump goes, I’ll be willing to peak out from under the covers again. What comes next won’t be much fun, but it is likely to be more like entertainment than nightmare, which will mean throwing a bag of popcorn into the microwave instead and hope it settles my queasy stomach.

Book Review: Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald

Abraham Lincoln was our president that we cannot get enough of. Asked to name a famous American president, and he is as likely, if not more likely to come to mind than George Washington. Washington won the Revolutionary War, but Lincoln saved the union. Arguably, the latter was a far more challenging task than the former.

Like reading the Bible cover to cover, reading an in depth Lincoln biography has been on my list of things to do for decades. As a Washingtonian, his presence is inescapable since I cannot enter Washington from Virginia without seeing his towering memorial. Does Lincoln truly deserve his almost god-like status? He would seem to be a president to be singled out for ridicule. He got plenty of ridicule in his own time from his high-pitched voice to his incredible height, emaciated appearance and pitiful taste in clothes. Lincoln would be the first to admit that he was not particularly handsome. Age only made him uglier. Most sophisticated people thought he was an uncivilized bumpkin. He was often treated like Jimmy Carter was by the establishment crowd.

Part of what makes Lincoln compelling is because he is the closest example we have of a true rags to riches figure. It is hard to imagine any American born in more humble circumstances, although he was typical for his time. Born in Kentucky, he spent much of his childhood in Indiana, then a territory. He endured a childhood that would appall even our most impoverished Americans today. He essentially had no schooling. How does a log splitter with at best a first grade education become a lawyer? He does it by fanatical focus. Lincoln made friends easily and used his family (he was particularly attached to his stepmother) as teachers. Mostly he was self-taught and devoured any book he could get his hands on, including a handful of law books. Since he never graduated even elementary school, he obviously never went to law school. He was mentored by a senior lawyer and became a real lawyer when he convinced the Illinois Supreme Court to let him practice law. He was intensely political, and found it took only a couple of campaigns to be elected to the Illinois state assembly. He was a passionate Whig, which was a political party of the mid 19th century, who were roughly the Democrats of their time. As for the Democrats, they were today’s Republicans concentrated, as now, principally below the Mason Dixon line.

Lincoln, by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David Herbert Donald provides a biography with a new perspective on Lincoln. Principally Donald had access to many private and unofficial papers that Lincoln, his friends and enemies had written. He meticulously worked his way through all of them and assembled something of a backstage collage of Abraham Lincoln and his times. The biography is roughly divided into two parts: Lincoln’s childhood and adulthood through becoming president, and his presidency.

Of the two major stories, I found the first half more interesting, perhaps because it is not as well known. Indiana and Illinois were at the time emerging into states from territories. As a lawyer, Lincoln spent much of his time following a southern Illinois state circuit court. Circuit courts are essentially appeal courts, but their name at the time was very apt because appellate judges circuited around their large jurisdictions hearing appeals. Lincoln was one of a number of lawyers who followed the circuit. There were no Hampton Inns in those days. The roads were often close to impassable. The grub was bad, the accommodations for travelers almost nonexistent. Lincoln seemed indifferent to these trials, raised as he was on hardship.

He eventually settled in Springfield where he made friends with nearly everyone, eventually becoming the senior partner in a two-person law firm. He married Mary Todd principally because of her connections. She married him for his potential. Mary was also very sociable and encouraged her husband’s forays into politics. She was also temperamental, often flying off the handle and capable of keeping lifelong grudges.

Lincoln served only one term in Congress, but failed at other attempts at higher office. When the Whig Party eventually collapsed, the remnants of it and other minority parties formed the new Republican Party. Lincoln was their first nominee for president. He won the nomination principally by being a terrific public speaker as well as being well versed on the issues of the day. He was very much a constitutionalist. While he personally disliked slavery, the fact that it was in the constitution made it tolerable, as he saw it more important to be constitutional than to be just. His views on the necessity of emancipation for the nation’s slaves evolved very slowly. He advocated policies that now seem incredibly naïve. His solution to slavery was to foster a country for blacks to govern and to send them there. For much of his life he saw the United States as a country by and for white people only. This was not unusual. It was the accepted norm of his time, unless of course you were not white.

Lincoln may have been bipolar. He could go from exuberant to deeply depressed. The impression we get from our history books is that he was a serious man, but he was also a very engaging, lighthearted and a perennial jokester always with a half dozen fresh anecdotes to share. He was also very realistic. He did not think he would become president and after winning doubted he could win reelection, which at the time rarely happened.

It is fair to say that for much of his first term, Lincoln was a poor president. Politicians today now praise his “cabinet of rivals”, but in reality, it worked poorly at best. Lincoln liked to delegate. He knew when issues were beyond his ken. He was particularly intimidated by his generals, and deferred to generals like McClellan time and again, even after they continuously lost major battles. He fired generals only reluctantly, gave firm direction rarely and seemed at times more like a kite buffeted by the wind than a leader. It wasn’t until close to the end of his first term that he really grabbed the reins of his power and directed government and the war competently. Yet, it is also probably true that few other politicians of the period could have done better. The Civil War was uncharted territory for our nation. While Lincoln stood firmly on certain principles, he was a political creature and sought the middle path when possible. Unfortunately, there were so many people on the extreme of both sides that he rarely made anyone happy. The only thing he was fixed on was that the union had to be preserved at any cost.

Although he often seemed clueless and ineffectual, Lincoln was certainly principled and most importantly dogged. If something did not work, he would try a different strategy repeatedly until he got it right. He did not shrug off the burdens of office. It is likely that no president had to deal with more difficulty and stress, a stress that extended into his personal life with the loss of two sons, a spendthrift wife, and a son who was likely mentally retarded. Like him or hate him, everyone agreed that Lincoln was honest. He was singular as a president in that he never thought of himself as an exceptional human being, just a common man navigating himself through extraordinary times. His humility was innate.

Donald’s 1996 biography is full of interesting detail about both Lincoln and his times. We learn of his close friendship with Joshua Speed, perhaps his best friend with whom he shared a bed for many years, when such things were practical and accepted. Our country was a far different and much poorer place in the 19th century. Anyone could pay the president a visit and he met most of them. They often came with petitions for federal jobs, and he found this part of his job very annoying. In his time, there were no civil service laws, so he ended up hiring much of his government personally.

Lincoln was our first president to be assassinated. At most there was one guard between a citizen and the president, and no one checked visitors for weapons. Both Lincoln and his wife often took carriage or horseback rides alone around Washington. During the war, Lincoln spent much of his time down the street at the telegraph office, where he went unguarded. With the war moving toward a conclusion, there were many concerns expressed for his safety. He largely ignored these concerns, convinced in the goodness of his countryman. On the night of his assassination, there was plenty of concern that he was targeted. As usual, Lincoln dismissed these concerns. You might say his foolishness helped kill him.

Read Donald’s biography for insights likely unavailable in other biographies, as well as to survey the history of a remarkable time in our nation’s history. Despite the six hundred pages in length, this book is still a survey of a remarkable man and his times. It tempts me to learn more about the Civil War. The downside of Donald’s biography is that it has a flat and unemotional tone. The book likely sees Lincoln through a clearer glass than most biographies but, alas, our true view of the man will likely always be somewhat obscured.