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The lion roared again yesterday.  John McCain returned to the Senate eleven days after undergoing brain surgery and receiving what is effectively a death sentence to cast an “Aye” vote on the motion to proceed with debate on the health care bill, and then to gently but firmly scold his colleagues for the way the Senate has been operating for at least the past seven years.

McCain didn’t play holier than thou, saying, “Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have.”  In truth, others (Harry Reid prominently among them) have been far more guilty than McCain.

McCain provided a much-needed appeal to the spine of his Republican colleagues: “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the President’s subordinates. We are his equal!”  The President’s need for a so-called “win” on this issue does not outweigh the Senate’s duty to debate and pass a responsible bill – not just whatever he’ll sign, but something that would be good policy.

He also provided a correction to the Democratic hagiography of how the Affordable Care Act came to be.  “The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare. And we shouldn’t do the same with ours.”  It was an honest accounting of what really happened, and a warning to Republicans to be better than their opponents.  It is an understandable impulse for Republicans to say, “If the Democrats street fight while we play by the Marquis de Queensbury rules, policy will slide further left than it would in a fair fight”.   But they should remember that the Democrats’ forcing through the ACA cost them the House for the past seven years and the Senate for the last four.  (It would have been eight had the 2010 Republican primaries not been a train wreck.)

Maybe most importantly he implored his colleagues to recognize how privileged they were to be in their position, to realize they are the stewards of a great old tradition and reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body, and to do their part to rescue that reputation from the refuse bin they’ve left it in during the past decade.  His words were far more eloquent than any summary of mine so I’m just including a few passages.  “I have a refreshed appreciation for the protocols and customs of this body, and for the other ninety-nine privileged souls who have been elected to this Senate.”  And … “The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries.  That principled mindset, and the service of our predecessors who possessed it, come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body. I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.” And … “The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America. This country – this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country – needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.”

I’m leaving out other memorable portions.  It was a great speech.  When McCain is eulogized someday, it will be one of the speeches mentioned, along with his 2000 Convention speech and his graceful concession in 2008.  The Twittersphere, predictably, ignored his message, ripping him for his vote on the motion to proceed to debate.  Some even called him a coward – just digest that one for a second.  A lion he is, but a cowardly one he demonstrably is not.  As that flawed but noble lion approaches winter, my hope is that his fellow senators take this latest (and possibly last) eloquent appeal of his to heart.  We need better than we’ve gotten.

1TF

 

 

So Sean Spicer is out as White House Press Secretary and Anthony Scaramucci is in as Communications Director.  Well, good for Sean. I suspect he’ll finally be able to slash his evening whiskey budget. The guy had to have taken a few stiff ones after some of those briefings. He was a regular Republican, not a President Trump loyalist. He was trying to please a demanding, distrustful, unappreciative boss.  And yet …

Spicer did see the legitimacy of some (not all, but a fair amount) of President Trump’s complaints about the White House press corps, and saw at least part of his job as pushing back against manifest unfairness. While it’s a safe bet that the majority of the press room hasn’t voted Republican in at least thirty years (and probably far longer), there was at least some modicum of evenhandedness , if only as a requirement of professionalism, when covering previous Republican administrations. Trump’s victory seemed to unleash a visceral reaction from the press corps, the members of which occasioanlly seem most concerned with impressing their colleagues in the room by being the most aggressive and/or confrontational with Spicer or his deputy (and presumed successor) Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Spicer gave them the rope to hang him with at that first press conference when he (at the President’s prompting) insisted that the Trump inaugural crowd was larger than Obama’s crowds – a statement that was demonstrably false to anyone who with functioning eyes. But that day aside, Spicer’s not Trump, and over the past six months, he tied mightily to square the circle of being straight with the press while aggressively defending his oft wayward boss. Alas, that was a task he could not accomplish. Maybe no one can.

Mr. Scaramucci is going to try. It’s almost defies belief that for his Communications Director, Mr. Trump chose a guy whose name translates to “little skirmishers”, and the singular of which was used for an Italian clown puppet with an expendable neck. You, dear reader, probably think I’m making that up; I’m not. Plus, Mr. Scaramucci has no press secretary experience, although he does have some skill at self-promotion on various business TV channels pushing his mediocre hedge fund.  I’ll be praying for him, but folks, this is unlikely to end well.

It has at least ended at last for Sean Spicer, and I’m actually happy for him. He’ll pick up what’s left of his reputation – (and that’s not nothing; most reporters know he was in an impossible position) and probably move on to the land of corporate communications, where hopefully he can find a position that will allow him to feel good about going to work again. This writer wishes him well.

1TF

Last night, I learned the sad news that Senator John McCain has a glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. While McCain is 80 and has already lived a remarkable life of consequence, it still makes the breath catch a little in surprise. McCain’s a fighter, and he’ll answer the bell on this one too, but there’s no getting around the fact that a glioblastoma is usually fatal.  It is just such a malady that felled McCain’s former colleague, Sen. Ted Kennedy.

McCain’s condition appeared to manifest itself last month during his awkward questioning of former FBI Director James Comey. Listening to the questioning is painful; something was clearly not right. Were McCain well, he and Comey probably would have hit it off. The two have distinct similarities. Both are pragmatic Republicans originally from the northeast (McCain’s family background is really more Pennsylvanian than anything), mainline Protestants (one formerly Catholic and the other nearly became one as a child), somewhat religious but not especially so. Both have been accused of moral narcissism on occasion, because both are apt to follow their conscience, party loyalty be damned.

Opinions on both from partisan members of both parties have careened from approval to disgust and back again. My own opinion of both, however, has remained steadfast – while each has his flaws, both are principled, pragmatic men far better than the average public servant. In an age where society and its issues have become so complicated that many people just throw up their hands and retreat to their own corners, McCain and Comey have wrestled those issues head-on, engaged and found common ground with people different than them. And each has worked out his philosophy for himself, so each arrives at a final position from a strong philosophical foundation, not from the herd mentality of the intellectually confused and politically frightened that habitually roam DC. Those who bounce back and forth in their opinion of McCain and Comey say more about themselves than of those two lions. The government is the lesser for Comey’s forced departure from it. It will be reduced further when McCain’s health forces him to take leave of it.

1TF

I was struck by a pair of articles I read yesterday.  First, in Business Insider, the columnist Josh Barro argued that for Democrats to start winning again, they needed to become “less annoying”. He said that having largely won the culture wars, liberals were pressing their opinions into the way people conducted daily life, ie. telling folks to eat fewer hamburgers to save the planet, and it was annoying to a broad swath of middle of the road Americans.

Second, I came across a Politico article from back in May by Michael Kruse called, “The Secret Weapon the Democrats Don’t Know How to Use.”  It’s about Congresswoman Cherie Bustos from Illinois’ 17th District; she’s Illinois’ only Democratic Member of Congress from outside Chicago and its suburbs.  I was struck by this passage:  “Nancy Pelosi chose Bustos to be a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, after which she was elected by her peers. Her assignment is to teach other members of her caucus essentially how to talk to people like the shoppers she encounters by the bananas at the Hy-Vee.”

The Hy-Vee is a supermarket.  Are the Democrats really so out of touch that they need someone to train their members how to speak with people at the store?  I would think that was Politics 101.  Then again, there was that time early in the 2016 campaign when Hillary Clinton met just a ‘regular person on the street’, who turned out to be a campaign volunteer.  Her staff didn’t trust her enough to interact with an actual citizen.  They didn’t want her to meet the people; they just wanted her to rule them.  But it’s hard to do the one effectively without the other.  I give Ms. Bustos credit, but find myself perplexed as to why she is the exception and not the rule.

1TF

 

Postscript:  One last note – the captions under the photos in the Politico piece don’t refer to Rep. Bustos as such, but as “Cheri”, like she’s the author’s buddy.  One can not really see Politico referring to any Republican in a photo simply as “Paul” or “Mitch” or “Lisa”.

 

 

 

The death of Otto Warmbier is an outrage. Mr. Warmbier was a University of Virginia student, apparently with some wanderlust and a sense of curiosity. So he arranged to go on a tour of North Korea. The North Korean government made him out to be an enemy. For what? For briefly considering stealing a poster.

I’m not sure what the right answer is with North Korea. But the “strategic patience” route. doesn’t appear to be working. There needs to be a serious consequence for Mr. Warmbier’s senseless death, and I don’t think simply tightening economic sanctions on the whole country would be effective. It’s not the government that gets hurt by those sanctions, it’s millions of innocent, already abused people. I’ll leave it to others to speculate on what specific actions we could take, but I’m sure the State Dept. and the Pentagon have a menu of measured, proportional responses – without resorting to overt military conflict that would needlessly harm innocent people – to get America’s point across to a man with a luxurious private island and a $7 million yacht. I recognize this is complicated by the fact that the North Koreans have other prisoners, but doing nothing or doing something weak, will only invite further outrages. The North Koreans must learn that thuggishly beating one of our citizens to death over a poster is not worth it. This is not how civilized countries act.

Mr. Warmbier was a young man, full of promise, and empty of malicious intent. Kim Jong Un chose to send a message to our government by murdering him. We need to send a strong message back that even he can understand.

1TF

A last thought on the general election in the United Kingdom.

Take a good look at the Labour party ads, particularly two that went up near the end of the campaign. The first one uses the a cover of the Keene song “Somewhere Only We Know”. The visuals look like a takeoff on the old Reagan “Morning in America” ads, but whereas the narrator in the Reagan ads talks about how far America had come in four years, these ads had an aspirational quality, “Look who we are, look who we can be, and look who really cares about us.” The song strikes a sad but hopeful tone; if it’s patriotic, it’s of the “look what we could be” variety.

The second has candidate Corbyn quoting Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy”:
“Rise like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number ,
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
That in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many,
They are few.”
That first line “Rise like lions …” is an inspiring summons of the trumpet, and then the commercial builds with scenes of teeming crowds gathered for Corbyn. He starts the poem alone, but by the time he gets to the end, some in the crowd are reciting with him. The ad makes you feel the momentum of the Labour campaign, and the tag line, “For the many, not the few” is an effective way of making a class-based argument. Without being angry itself, it appeals to the same rage that motivated the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump movements in the United States.

The ads wouldn’t work if there wasn’t an actual groundswell; those teeming crowds shown in the ads are real. I still find it hard sometimes to see the appeal of a candidate as far to the left as Corbyn. I think that, like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn is peddling a utopian economic plan where the numbers don’t work. So I for one underestimated him, or maybe overestimated the policy realism of the British public. But it was something to see him increasing in both strength and confidence near the end. And – other than Brexit where he switched to being pro-Europe – Corbyn’s been offering the same political philosophy for decades. In an age where people are desperate for authenticity, that sort of consistency can be attractive; it turned his stale bread socialism into French toast. He didn’t win – people seem to have forgotten that – but he wildly exceeded expectations, strengthened his party (especially his wing of that party) and weakened his opponents. He is to be congratulated.

I return to the ads to say this – Americans take note of them. You’re likely to see ones quite similar to them in our country next year. They were quite good.

-1TF

Reputation

Over the coming weeks, we may be getting an object lesson in the importance of a person’s reputation. Reputation matters. Reputation is something that is built up by years of discipline and habit. Reputation is not character – character is what you are; reputation merely what people think you are. However, if one is in the public eye enough, so that the public has had a sufficient amount of actions to judge a person by, than reputation can serve as a rough approximation of character.

James Comey has a strong reputation built through three decades of diligent service in the law. Perhaps the most dramatic example of James Comey’s independence and willingness to go where the evidence lay was in 2004 when as Deputy Attorney General, he faced down the White House Counsel and Chief of Staff and refused to agree to the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program

I’m not a President Obama fan, but I was impressed by his decision to appoint James Comey to the FBI Directorship; it showed Mr. Obama was serious about the FBI investigating alleged crimes without fear or favor. Mr. Comey had built a reputation for fair play that both parties appreciated.

Then there’s President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has built a reputation over the course of the last three decades too. It’s one of brashness, attention-seeking and ignorance.

Yesterday, Mr. Comey said accusations the White House had made about him and the FBI “were lies, plain and simple.” Today, Mr. Trump answered in kind, saying what Mr. Comey said wasn’t about their meeting wasn’t true. Whom to believe? It’s times like these that you wish you had built up a reputation for integrity and truthfulness. Mr. Comey has; Mr. Trump hasn’t. And in the next few weeks, Mr. Trump may come to wish he had.

-1TF