Who’s Going to Save America?

This is our coffee table last week just before we left for Boston. Messy, but it gives you an idea of how I’m coping with the present and thinking about the future.

It’s taken me 18 months to begin to come to terms with the election of 2016. I wasn’t a fan of Hillary’s, though I knew I could live with her policy decisions. She wasn’t the person I’d have chosen to lead the country but I voted for her because she was the safer choice and thought she would make reasonable decisions in the national interest until someone more visionary came along.

Instead, I got Donald Trump.

I’m not going to beat up on The Donald. Better writers are doing that and I’d only be piling on. Instead, I’m trying to make peace with a bad situation by staying informed and working for change. My take away from 2016 is that Trump has slapped us upside the head and created a come-to-Jesus moment in government.

The past year and a half has been real roller coaster ride. At times, I thought America was on its way down the rabbit hole with fragile democracies like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, countries who have allowed strong men and autocracy to creep in and take over. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries have fallen under the spell of bullies determined to limit democratic freedoms. Democracy is messy. One-man rule is simple and efficient. That’s why The Donald loves the “my way or the highway” approach, but as you can see from my coffee table I’m counting on his enemy – a free and independent press – to turn things around. Yes, it’s the Fourth Estate, the investigative journalists who dig for facts, the men and women who produce and publish what he fears and calls Fake News, who are going to save our bacon.

For 18 months I ranted, raved, raged, cried, and drank a little too much, but lately I’ve begun to see the Trump-era as that come-to-Jesus moment for America. It may take years to repair the damage this administration has caused but I have faith that investigative journalism is leading us back to a more centrist democratic platform.

Lately, we’ve been victimized by a rogues gallery of bad guys, bad girls and bad decisions including the gutting of environmental laws (EPA under Scott Pruitt), repeal of Dodd-Frank banking rules (Treasury under Steven Mnuchin), elimination of consumer fraud protections (Consumer Fraud Protection Bureau under Mick Mulvaney), scaling back wilderness and opening protected areas to oil and coal exploration (Interior under Ryan Zinke), turning college student education grants into loans that require payback (Education under Betsy DeVos), unqualified judges confirmed to the Federal judiciary and border ports of entry blocked for migrants seeking asylum (Justice under Jeff Sessions), and last but not least the cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrant children (Homeland Security under Kristjen Nielsen). But… those are repair jobs and we can make those repairs when we get a functional government. My faith is grounded in the public’s outrage and the diligence and perseverance of our free press.

I didn’t imagine that the Trump presidency would give rise to a Golden Age of journalism, but because our Founders knew the dangers of unscrupulous leaders and government by fiat they incorporated freedom of the press in the first of the ten amendments that make up our Bill of Rights.

241 years later, the free press is still alive and well. Journalists are prowling the halls of the Congress, the White House, Capitol Hill, and courtrooms across the country investigating and reporting on what our government is doing. They are providing a window on government. The thing about a free press is that every stripe and color of news is there to choose from. A free press allows us to weigh the evidence and make our own decisions about elected officials and the type of government we want.

We can choose conservatives, liberals, radicals, or fascists to lead us, but our choice is not dictated by the government. The election of Donald Trump happened because 49% of eligible voters failed to exercise their voting franchise. That’s criminal neglect. We have the right to choose but that doesn’t mean we can abdicate our responsibility. It is incumbent on each of us to investigate and interrogate the candidates. I think the Founders had that in mind when they gave us that freedom. To be good citizens we need to be discerning curious readers who evaluate sources and listen to all sides.

So… my coffee table is covered with the work of the Fourth Estate – the New York Times, Seattle Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, New York Magazine, Poets and Writers, Seattle Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Jon Meacham’s biographies of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, James Comey’s  A Higher Loyalty, a history of tequila, and my friend Delia Cabe’s delightful The Storied Bars of New York.

There is such a thing as truth. In spite of proclamations to the contrary, we do not live in a post-truth society where “alternative” facts are as valid as those that can be proven. So, chase down the truth. Fill your coffee table with newspapers, books, magazines – and books on tequila. If you do, you’ll arrive at your own informed truth. It’s not always easy. Autocracy and dictatorship are “easy.” The government makes decisions for you. Democracy, led by a free press, is harder. You have to find the truth for yourself… and your country. Good luck.

This is a rose from a friend’s garden. Also in our living room. Enjoy!

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Where Are Our Better Angels?

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Emma Lazarus’ words, engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, are a reminder that the United States is a land of immigrants. We shouldn’t need a reminder that our nation was founded by immigrants escaping political and religious persecution. Those immigrants, like the ones crossing our borders today, were looking for safety and opportunity. Our founding documents enunciate the principle that “all men are created equal.” So, how did we arrive at the cruel, sinister, and inhumane immigration policy known as “zero tolerance?”

On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions announced that, without exception, all persons illegally crossing the Southwest Border of the United States would be subject to criminal prosecution. The policy applies to ALL persons, including those seeking political asylum, and includes a provision that mandates the separation of parents and children. Adults are immediately jailed pending criminal prosecution and their children are removed and placed in detention pending assignment to foster care or “whatever.”

Attorney General Sessions explained that the separation policy is intended as a deterrant message to others planning to cross the border illegally.

On hearing the story, I was reminded of the plight of Romanian orphans under the murderous and abusive Communist regime of Nicolai Ceausescu. Of course, that situation was different from the one now facing America, but the effect on children separated from their parents is destined to be the same if it is not reversed. Children separated, isolated, and warehoused are destined to be damaged whether it’s Romania or America. Infants and toddlers suffer from sensory deprivation and older children have attachment and abandonment anxiety issues. Those Americans with a memory of what happened in Romania will recall how outraged we Americans were and how generous we were in arranging adoptions of these defenseless orphans.

“Zero tolerance” is so cruel, inhumane, and racist it’s hard to imagine it’s the official immigration policy of the American government. How would Attorney General Sessions react if his children or grandchildren were forcibly taken away from the family? What are Christian conservatives or conservative Christians thinking? Whatever happened to the Golden Rule? There is surely a humane way to deal with immigration, even illegal immigration, that does not involve separating families and imprisoning parents.

Two weeks ago, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), attempted to visit a child detention facility in Brownsville, TX to educate himself on the policy. Merkley’s staff had asked permission to visit the facility earlier in the week, but their request was unanswered. Border Patrol agents turned him away from the child detention center when he requested entry.

The senator’s best guess was that roughly 1000 children are being detained at the former Walmart store in Brownsville but he was denied entry and not given information regarding the detainees.

Yesterday (June 13), in an unusual instance of candor, the Department of Health and Human Services released a video of the the interior of the Brownsville facility while reporting that 1500 children being held at the euphemistically named Casa Padre. Nevertheless, Casa Padre is only one of 100 similar detention facilities scattered around the US. It is estimated that 11,200 children are being held in such facilities, although, to be clear, only a small portion of those are children recently taken from their parents at the border.

Locally, Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal visited a Bureau of Prisons facility near Sea-Tac airport where she met with 174 immigrant women being held there. Most were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence, or domestic abuse. Two days ago, overturning a precedent set during the Obama administration, Sessions announced that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence would not be considered for asylum. These are endangered human beings living in dangerous lawless countries. Where is our compassion?

Many of the women Jayapal spoke with had their children taken away when they asked for asylum. The first step in making a case for asylum is a “credible fear” hearing to determine if the applicant qualifies for asylum status. The hearing is to be held as soon as possible after apprehension, but several of the women had been in prison for over a month without such a hearing.

Of the 174 women Jayapal talked with, roughly 40% had children forcibly taken from them at the border and still knew nothing about their children’s whereabouts. It’s not clear how many of these children are in detention facilities or have been placed in foster care, but in 2017 the government acknowledged that they were unable to account for 1475 migrant children it had placed with sponsors.

I haven’t read it, but historian Jon Meacham has a new book called The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. As an admirer of Meacham’s it sounds uplifting, and I can use a little uplift these days. Maybe he can clarify how the soul of America condones and justifies OUR government taking children from parents. This is cruel, inhumane, un-American, and dead wrong. It brings back thoughts of Abu-Gharaib – another despicable American tragedy. Our better angels need to get to work. I have zero tolerance for the zero-tolerance policy.


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Love is Just a Four-Letter Word…

Bob Dylan wrote a song about it. Joan Baez sang it for us, and Robert Indiana turned it into art. Love is Just a Four-Letter Word.

But, as they say, it’s complicated, and no more so than in British writer Ian McEwan’s 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach. Set in 1962, the novel is now a film starring Oscar winner Saoirse Ronan and newcomer Billy Howle as the young couple who hold us spellbound as they attempt to be intimate for the first time on their wedding night.

Theirs is a complicated stew of young love, repression, class differences, dysfunctional family and almost Victorian modesty, and it will break your heart. It’s hard to believe today that 1962 could have been that different, but it had not yet reached the tipping point that launched the sexual revolution. The Beatles didn’t arrive on the Brit music scene until following year, the San Francisco Summer of Love was five-years in the future, and the birth-control pill wasn’t yet in wide usage.

For those of us who came of age at that time, the novel is a reminder of our own coming of age, of our first serious sexual experiences and of how lucky we are to have moved beyond the repression and strictures of that time. Younger viewers may feel for the characters but it’s doubtful they will ever be drawn into the story in the same way we are.

On Chesil Beach is the story of Florence and Edward, two recent university graduates, on their wedding day at a hotel on the English coast. Early in the film we watch their idyllic courtship unfold, full of hope and family drama. She is an accomplished violinist with a chamber group, he a history major with plans to write a series of books. We cheer them as they fall in love and move toward marriage, but they are both inexperienced and fearful. There are obvious stress lines. Following the wedding they travel to a seaside hotel for a short honeymoon where the crux of the novel plays out. There is a climactic scene at the hotel and a long attempt at resolution on the beach, but it doesn’t end well.

On a personal level, I identified uncomfortably with the characters. Their situation was similar in some ways to my own honeymoon. I was married on New Year’s Eve in 1958, 10 days after my 21st birthday. We only had three days before the start of my wife’s winter quarter at school, so we drove to the Oregon Coast and an almost empty seaside hotel where it was cold and lonely, not romantic. We walked on a windy desolate winter beach, swam in a cavernous indoor pool, and ate alone in the hotel’s large dining room. We also spent a lot of time in bed, but it was not the passionate, joyful experience we had expected and hoped for. We were not as clueless as Florence and Edward, but we too were inexperienced and didn’t know how to talk to each other, especially about sex. There were uncomfortable silences and differences that we ignored. We lasted longer than Florence and Edward, but in the end the things we didn’t know caught up with us. We loved each other and our son, Brent, was the gift born of that love, but ultimately we didn’t have the skills to keep the ship from sinking.

The novel, On Chesil Beach, is dense, and the film is slow and painful to watch, but both are worth the effort. I often find fault with movies based on novels, and this one is no exception, even though Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay for his own novel. I preferred the book’s ending but understand that film is a different medium and needed something more for dramatic effect.

It’s a love story until it turns to tragedy in the pivotal scene. Florence and Edward are soul mates who overcome class and family obstacles but can’t get out of their own way to overcome the fear, ignorance, and insecurity that is holding them back. They are tragic in the Shakespearean sense—their fate could have been avoided but ego and pride prevent them from finding a solution.

Toward the end of the book Edward realizes that their failure was avoidable. “At last he could admit to himself that he had never met anyone he loved as much, that he had never found anyone, man or woman, who matched her seriousness.”

“When he thought of her it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with the violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience—if only he had them both at once—would surely have seen them both through.”

The lyrics of Love is Just a Four-Letter Word help us think differently about love, but the conclusion of On Chesil Beach reminds me of another Joan Baez song that resonates with its tragedy. This is Diamonds and Rust https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MSwBM_CbyY







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Yankeedom Meets El Norte…

In the midst of today’s political turmoil it’s natural to cast about for reasons. How did we get here? In a post-truth environment have we seen the last of civil discourse, reasoned debate, and bipartisan compromise? Are American values outdated? Partisan politics has created dueling parties where tribal nationalism is at war with liberal globalism. Can our constitutional infrastructure withstand the pressure of a president’s autocratic impulses? Is America too big and too diverse to be governed democratically? Do we have an underlying unifying principle?

One of the most provocative books of recent years is Colin Woodard’s American Nations, because of its approach to the American experience. Woodard divides the country into eleven regional cultures in an effort to help us understand local differences – characteristics, attitudes, and preferences. Originally published in 2011, it wasn’t a blockbuster but I’ve found myself referring to it on a regular basis in order to explain origins, political leanings, work ethics, altruism, racial attitudes and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

I’m won’t wade into the Trump swamp, but Woodard’s book was very much in my thoughts as we rolled along on our Grand Tour of Texas last month.

Marilynn and I hail from Woodard’s Left Coast while our traveling companions, Gar and Mollie Lasater, have deep roots in El Norte (Texas et. al). We, like most left-coasters, are carpetbaggers compared to our fifth-generation friends from Texas, and though it’s rare to agree with an historian’s neatly crafted categories, I was astonished at the relevance of Woodard’s.

With the exception of indigenous people, everyone in America comes from somewhere else. Texans are no exception. The family dynasties of Texas all migrated from elsewhere – some from Yankeedom, some through Greater Appalachia, and many directly from Europe, most notably a large German migration in the mid-1800s.

To begin with, though our friends were born and raised in South Texas, both went East to Yankeedom (another one of Woodard’s eleven “nations”) for college – she to Vassar, he to Princeton – and the legacy continues with their children and grandchildren. According to Woodard, Yankeedom values education and the common good more than the other nations, while El Norte puts a premium on hard work and self-sufficiency. I see a blending of both in our friends’ family values.

Writers often refer to “old money” when they write about family dynasties of the Northeast like the Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies. Surprisingly, many of the South Texas dynasties predated the “old money” of the Northeast and are just as generous with their wealth. The original Texas fortunes were based on land and cattle (oil came later) rather than steel, shipping, banking or railroads, but like their northeastern peers the great families of South Texas developed their own culture, a unique blend of frontier grit and mannered gentility.

Our friends, Gar and Mollie, are no exception. Their families, the Lasaters and the Lupes (Mollie’s family), are genuine Texas aristocracy. Over time, through marriages and business ventures their ancestors created an immense spider web of blended families, business interests, and combined wealth in South Texas.

These families began with ranch holdings linking back to an earlier Spanish land grant legacy. Mollie is descended from the Bennett and Armstrong clans, two of the oldest South Texas pioneer families. Her great-grandfather, John B. Armstrong III was the Texas Ranger who arrested the notorious outlaw John Wesley Harding (remember the Bob Dylan album?) and used the $4000 reward to purchase the 50,000 acre plot that became the Armstrong Ranch (the same ranch where Dick Cheney shot his hunting companion in 2006).  During the same mid-19th and 20th century period, Garland’s family was on a mercurial boom-bust-boom ride that saw their holdings go from 350,000-acres with the world’s largest herd of Jersey milk cows, through a bankruptcy that took all but a 200-acre homestead that served as home to their world-famous Falfurrias Creamery, and back again under Garland’s father to a  50,000 acre spread. You’ve got to give it to them, Texans are risk takers who think big.

Garland and I met as young Marine Corps fighter pilots, and in those days we were more interested in raising hell at the Sandpiper Lounge in Laguna Beach than building a better world. Today, after successful careers in law, business and public service, Gar and Mollie are doing their part to build that better world.

It’s true that their ancestry is an asset in Texas, but the Lasaters are a hands on couple when it comes to building a better world, and ancestry will only be part of their legacy. When I visited them in Fort Worth 25 years ago, Mollie had just retired as Board President of the Fort Worth Independent School District and was assuming a leadership role in the Fort Worth chapter of the I Have A Dream Foundation. IHAD’s mission is to empower children (“Dreamers”) in low-income communities to attend college by equipping them with the skills and knowledge to succeed in postsecondary school and removing financial barriers. She managed that program for 14 years and helped hundreds of students from low income families achieve their college dreams.

Not satisfied that they were making a big enough difference, the Lasaters embarked on an even more personal project in 2007. Their close affiliation with Phillips Academy Andover (where Gar went to boarding school and Mollie served on the board) acquainted them with a program called (MS)2, Math and Science for Minority Students or MS Squared for short. The Andover program gives scholarships to low income students who exhibit an aptitude for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), disciplines often under-emphasized in these communities.

Using (MS)2 as their model and relying on Mollie’s experience with IHAD, they designed a new program called (HS)2 (High School High Scholar). They recruited faculty and used the facilities of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) in Carbondale, Colorado, as their campus. Students selected for (HS)2, from low income communities across the country, spend three summers at the school immersed in STEM studies with personal counseling to prepare them for the college experience. Many are the first in their family to attend college. To date (HS)2 has enrolled 210 students from low income communities, including 75 currently in the program, and 135 graduates, all of whom have gone on to college–74% of them STEM majors or graduates.

I love my friends’ wide-ranging interests and civic involvement. In addition to (HS)2 the Lasaters are involved with a number of other programs. Garland’s interest in astronomy led him to partner with the McDonald Observatory, a West Texas research facility and home to the world’s 3rd largest telescope where they underwrote the science exhibit in the main hall of the McDonald Visitors Center.

And closer to home, Mollie serves on the board of the Fort Worth Symphony, the Museum of Modern Art (where another modest plaque celebrates their generosity), and The Cliburn, a non-profit that honors Fort Worth’s most famous citizen, pianist Van Cliburn.

Since reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I’ve been intrigued by families and new research underlying the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Pinker argues for evolutionary psychological adaptation. The data is not conclusive but whether it’s nature or nurture my friends in Fort Worth combine the best of both worlds with a nod to Yankeedom’s emphasis on education and the common good and El Norte’s brand of hard work and self-sufficiencyAt a time when the political environment seemed gridlocked it was a treat to hear reasoned opinions on everything from Tex-Mex to Trump from friends with such a different heritage.

We loved traveling with the Lasaters – arguing politics, discussing books, looking at the stars, and listening to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #1 – we’re lucky to have such good friends. Good in every sense.


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Along the Borderline…

On our recent Grand Tour of Texas, just upstream from this spot there was a boatman offering to row us across the Rio Grande so we could have our passports stamped in Mexico. It’s a novelty, of course, but the Boquillas Border Crossing is one of the 48 official crossing points on the US-Mexican border.

I didn’t bite on the boat ride or buy a handmade trinket from the young Mexican sitting in the shade of a spindly tree along the trail, but it felt surreal to be there on the dusty edge of the Chihuahuan desert peering into the mouth of Boquillas Canyon while hearing in my head the mean-spirited chatter about rapists, drug dealers, and other criminals swarming toward the US border determined to steal our jobs and destroy our heritage.

Despite its geopolitical importance, the Rio Grande is disappointing as rivers go – shallow, muddy, and barely a trickle at points – though the canyons it’s cut through the Chisos Mountains on its way to the Gulf of Mexico offer a dramatic landscape barely known to most Americans. Located midway on the 700 mile stretch of West Texas highway that links El Paso and San Antonio, Big Bend National Park is an amalgam of rugged mountains, limestone canyons, desert savanna, and the all-important borderline river.

Big Bend gets its name from a big S-curve the river makes along that stretch, and it’s mountainous terrain an exception to the otherwise flat, barren topography of West Texas – beautiful in its way but difficult to appreciate until you’ve seen it up close.

I went through advanced jet training in Beeville, south of San Antonio, and flew that expanse between Corpus Christi and El Paso many times. In the summer, there is always a line of towering cumulus building on a north-south line just west of Fort Stockton. I’ve looked up at the tops from 44,000’ knowing I couldn’t get over them and wondering if I’d ever find a way around them. Would anyone ever find me if I had to eject there in the middle of nowhere?

Those days are behind me and driving that stretch of highway today my thoughts are decidedly different. I was struck by how wasteful, almost criminal, it is to see our government expending vast resources to keep desperate exiles from crossing this scrubby waterless plain in search of a better life. Their lives must be truly intolerable if the West Texas desert looks like a better choice than the homes they are leaving.

The Rio Grande marks the US-Mexican border from east of El Paso all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. US 90 angles along, 20 or 30 miles to the north but roughly parallel to the river until the two meet in Del Rio. Alongside that highway for 174 miles from Marathon to Del Rio there is a bulldozed strip of white limestone dirt that plays the same role as the old Berlin Wall. There are literally hundreds of armed Border Patrol agents in vehicles combing this barren strip for FOOTPRINTS.

Every day these agents, in green and white patrol cars, pull tires behind their vehicles to rake and smooth the strip so they can check later for the fresh footprints of “illegals.” Never mind that the border is 20 miles south or that the Chihuahuan desert is so inhospitable that it would be an act of pure desperation to attempt a crossing. In the picture above, the Mexican border is beyond the flat line of the horizon. Is this really an intelligent, viable solution to illegal immigration? It must seem so to USBP and ICE given the number of cars, trucks, and Border Patrol facilities we saw along these 174 miles of US 90, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t a better way to deal with the problem.

Today’s New Yorker magazine (April 23, 2018) has an excellent article by Nick Paumgarten about his recent canoe trip from Boquillas del Carmen to Brownsville, the history of the Rio Grande, and how ridiculous it would be to attempt to build a wall along the Texas border. See:


Nick’s article is worth reading, not only for the perspective it gives on the border wall but also as a call to action for the preservation of our natural treasures. We don’t need a wall. We need smart people working together to craft intelligent human solutions to difficult problems. Are we going let immigration issues continue to divide us or can we come together, acknowledge the issues, and start crafting a legislative solution that protects our country as well as the lives of the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants now living in fear of deportation. We have solved more difficult problems than this one but it takes solid intelligent leadership and a bipartisan desire to find solutions.

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