Advice to Self…

Screen Time

Remember when “parental control” was a euphemism for discipline. We invoked it when we thought the kids were watching too much television. Now parental controls are built in to their devices. A much better idea – no nagging – way to manage their “screen time.” That’s great for parenting but we parents need to limit our own screen time. We’re are drowning in TMI, too much information. We need self-discipline to control the deluge.

John Lennon told us, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy.” And it isn’t. Look around. Watch people on the bus. Nobody’s talking. Everybody’s staring at their phones. They’re consumed. TMI. Look at all the morbidly obese people the next time you go to Starbucks. Too many Frappuccino’s. TMF. I probably shouldn’t wade in these waters, but too much political news is just as bad for your health as too many Frappuccino’s.  

Sometimes the effects are hard to grasp. I didn’t know how liberating it was to go without news until it wasn’t available. In 2011 M and I were living in Saigon where the only American TV we could get was American Idol, Glee, and Suzy Orman. No news is good news – no CNN, no MSNBC, no Fox News. It was liberating. 

That was in 2011 during the run-up to an earlier presidential election, and in that far off land without cable news our heads weren’t cluttered with polling data and other political detritus a year before the election date. Our days didn’t revolve around the daily squabbling between Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and Mitt Romney. Remember them? Romney is still a player, but the rest are part of a long forgotten sideshow. Today, there’s a new cast of characters jockeying for position on the Democratic side. I doubt we’ll remember their names 8 years from now.

Back in the USSR, I mean USA, as another election year rolls around the media blitz is in full swing again, and as curious as I am about the impeachment drama, the Democratic death spiral, and what should be the slam dunk burial of Donald J. Trump, I’m determined to exert my inner parental controls.

A basketball coach friend once told me, after winning his first three games, “Jack, it’s a long season.” The same holds true in politics. What I learned in 2011 is that the American elections last too long and cost too much. I don’t want or need to know Nate Silver’s daily rankings of the primary candidates. The election is a still a year away.

M and I take two newspapers, four magazines, have two TVs, two computers, two smartphones, two e-readers, and two radios plus Sirius XM in the car. The day starts with Morning Joe and coffee and ends with a glass of wine and Colbert’s LateShow monologue. I know Clint Watts and Nicolle Wallace, George Conway and Maggie Haberman as if they were old friends and cringe when Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity– emissaries of an Evil Empire made of their own polyester hold forth. By the time I’m tucked in bed watching Colbert, I’m too exhausted to appreciate how brilliant he is.

Colbert Musing

Here’s my Advice to Self: 

  1. Get a life.
  2. Stop obsessing over Trump’s tax returns. Yes, he cheated.
  3. Tell Nancy Pelosi to cool her jets over impeachment. It’s a long season.
  4. Keep the faith. Big Macs may do the job for us.
  5. Limit screen time on Fox News and MSNBC.
  6. Go to the gym.
    1. Do Cross-Fit or MUV Training. You’ll be too tired to change channels.
  7. Binge watch The Crown or Chef’s Table
    1. Don’t cheat and look back at cable news.
  8. Plan Date Night with M. 
    1. Drink a martini…maybe two…on Date Night.
    2. Talk to the people at the next table. She does it anyway. 
    3. Don’t ask about their politics.
    4. Call Uber for a ride home.
  9. Plan a vacation. Foreign travel helps you reset.
  10. Go for a walk or get a dog. Both will get you outside.
  11. Go an independent bookstore. Buy a book.
  12. Sit down to drink your latte.
  13. Disregard… it’s an unlucky number.
  14. Spend more time with your kids and friends.

It’s hard for me to acknowledge Donald Trump’s feral genius, but he has us all wringing our hands and chasing our tails, and jabbering about him. I’m opting out. I don’t care whether he’s impeached or defeated at the polls. I want him gone one way or another. I hope it’s humiliating, but he’s so shameless it’s probably too much to hope for. Regardless, I’m going to get on with my life and hope the internal controls keep my media/screen time within bounds.

It’ll be hard to wean myself from Nicolle Wallace’s Deadline: White House, but truth be told I’d rather read an Alan Furst or David Ignatius novel anyway. I might catch Brian Williams’ 11thHour but hope it’s after an episode of The CrownChefs Table or The Kominsky Method

Lately, I’ve been watching Book TV.  It’s my guilty pleasure. Who else do you know who watches Nerd TV? I love it. It feeds the inner nerd who loves books and author talk – but please Lord save me from the Donald Trump Jr. Jackie Gingrich drivel. Some people’s children shouldn’t be allowed in print.

Bottom line:

Live your life as if CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News didn’t exist. You’ll feel better, sleep better, and live longer.

Movies, Marriage, and Metaphor…

Every year around Thanksgiving M and I anticipate the release of new films hoping for an Oscar nomination. This year is no exception. In the last two weeks we’ve seen three – Scorsese’s The Irishman with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

I was prepared for gory violence in the first two, but nothing prepared me for the pain and emotional violence of Marriage Story. I knew it would a roller coaster. I had seen Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar and Francis Ha, his 2012 film starring his muse Greta Gerwig. Still, the characters in Marriage Story broke my heart because they and their story were so mainstream and tragic in their normalcy.

M and I are hopefully beyond the tragedy of Nicole and Charlie, the characters played by Johansson and Driver, but we’ve been there with our own divorces and children. We often look at each other and say “marriage is hard” – a heartfelt expression of reality and irony.

There are so many uncomfortable but familiar scenes in the film. I was especially uncomfortable watching the posturing, caricatures of Los Angeles lawyers played scathingly by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. Been there, done that… escaping their fate by virtue of having an alternative profession before I was in too deep.

The film chronicles a tug of war between two bright, talented artists and two distinct lifestyles symbolized in the film by New York and Los Angeles. Everyone engaged in their tug of war is a loser – especially their young son, Henry, who is loved to distraction by both but a victim and pawn in their private battle. 

Both Nicole and Charlie try to be reasonable when the rift between them begins to look inevitable, but different needs take them from wanting to work things out amiably to alienation and hurt feelings. Enter the lawyers–whose scorched earth tactics amplify the feelings of hurt and division but have nothing to do with fairness or the well-being of their clients. Soon, everyone is in tears except the lawyers.

There are many memorable scenes, but one near the end is especially poignant. Visiting a jazz club with friends, Charlie takes the open mike and sings a version of “Being Alive” the Stephen Sondheim song from Company. It’s done in close up, with the ending refrain “But alone/is alone/not alive.” I could hear people in the audience crying, and watching Charlie’s face felt like someone was rubbing sandpaper on an open wound.

It’s not much of a stretch to see Marriage Story as a metaphor for America today. Both Republicans and Democrats love the country and its promise, and both mean well. They want things to work out but disagree on how. They hope we’ll soon be able to patch things up and get back to business. But other forces, the lawyers (Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House) acting in their own self-interest are pulling them apart. Do we dare to be optimistic?

Donald Trump is a short sale. He’ll be gone before you know it, and when he’s gone the two sides will have to settle, divide the property, and get on with patching up the American marriage. Henry is collateral damage in the film, and our grandchildren are collateral damage in the American metaphor. 


Let’s not fail him

Murderers Pardoned…

Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher

You’re not alone if you missed this news last week. It was hiding on Page 15 of the New York Times and Page 4 of the Seattle Times – far less newsworthy than the frenzied presidential impeachment inquiry – but, standing alone, it deserved Page 1 treatment. Three American military officers charged with and/or convicted of murder by military courts were given full pardons by President Trump.

“Unprecedented” is a term often applied to this Commander-in-Chief’s actions and commuting the sentences of US servicemen convicted of war crimes by a jury of their military peers definitely meets that standard. This president, who never served in the military and is not a lawyer, feels he knows better than the courts. His justification for the pardons was “War is chaos” – suggesting a different standard should apply, even though the Uniform Code of Military Justice explicitly covers the situation.

When told the president was planning to take this action, Four-Star Army General Barry McCaffery (Ret.) wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post cautioning Trump that, “A pardon for military personnel who have been convicted of battlefield crimes or are pending general court-martial would be enormously damaging to the values of the US armed forces. He should not take this action.” Nevertheless, he did it.

In our era, with an all-volunteer military and 18 years of consecutive war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, but murder can never be excused or pardoned. In theaters of war there are articulated rules of engagement that can be confusing, but murdering unarmed civilians is always a war crime.

These three pardons were given to:

  1. Major Matthew Golsteyn, a Special Forces Green Beret, was indicted for killing an unarmed civilian he “thought” was a bomb maker in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s pardon of Golsteyn, prior to his court-martial trial, denied the Green Beret an opportunity to clear himself. Most of the facts in his case are undisputed but a pardon before the trial is unheard of.
  • 1st Lieutenant Clint Lorance, on the other hand, was convicted by a military court of ordering his men to shoot three unarmed Afghan civilians approaching them on a motorcycle without determining their status. His order was questioned by his men but he insisted and his men shot them. Lorance had only been in Afghanistan for three days and was inexperienced in battle. When pardoned, he was serving a 19-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
  • Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a decorated Navy Seal, is the third and perhaps most egregious case for a pardon. He was tried for a string of war crimes, including murder, but convicted of the lesser charge of posing over a dead combatant with a hunting knife in his hand. One of the original charges was stabbing the deceased in the throat with that knife. 

Recently, there has been widespread conversation about “the rule of law.” These pardons are in violation of that principle. In our democracy each of the primary institutions has a discreet role. The three branches of government may, at any one moment, be controlled by either one of the two political parties, but the military is by its mission and charter explicitly not political. Its mission is the defense of all Americans regardless of party. I proudly served the country as a Marine Corps fighter pilot. My son, Douglas, served as a Green Beret in Afghanistan.

Doug at Work

Mr. Trump’s pardons have tarnished the military image and smeared the lines. Like his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the convicted racist sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and Scooter Libby who outed covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, Trump has, by his pardons, sided with those engaging in the lawless disregard of America’s justice system(s). Military jurisprudence is a specialized branch of a justice system uniquely equipped to administer justice for a complicated and categorically different American institution. It’s meant to deliver justice and promote discipline and order.

Dear Mr. Trump: Neither the Joint Chiefs of Staff nor I welcome your ignorant meddling in either of the parallel legal systems delivering justice in America. You don’t know anything about them and leaving your fingerprints on them diminishes the respect they deserve. Your only military experience was as a cadet in high school. You have zero experience or understanding of how a functioning military or how our justice systems work. With all due respect, leave it to the professionals.

Epilogue: The saga of CPO Gallagher continued following publication of this blog. Despite criticism from military leaders including the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Trump overruled their decision to proceed with a review of Gallagher’s demotion and ordered him reinstated. The Secretary of the Navy was then fired by the Secretary of Defense for negotiating a side deal with the White House. Following his firing, he posted an Op-Ed in the Washington Post decrying the decision to reinstate Gallagher, pointing out the impact on discipline and order in the ranks.

Cowardice – the Latest Superbug

America today is not the America I grew up in. It is not the America whose flawed but aspirational history I studied in school. It is not the America whose founding principles I knew and understood. It is not the America I served for seven years as a Marine pilot.

Today, America is a country whose leadership choses to ignore science, a country where facts no longer matter, and a country where the truth is under attack. It is an America where elected and appointed officials have allowed the President to engage in outrageous, dangerous, and morally reprehensible behavior without the courage to challenge or censure him. They have ignored facts, behavior, and consequences in the defense of the indefensible.

Under earlier Republican administrations this could never have happened. The party stood for principles of small government, fiscal frugality, strong national defense, and global stability. Today, those principles are nowhere in evidence, because these representatives have sacrificed their honor and integrity to defend a despotic bully who cares for nothing but himself and his clan. In an unforeseeable abdication of their responsibility, Republican leadership has chosen loyalty to Trump over loyalty to the American people. The reason for their changing loyalty is an epidemic of viral cowardice, a superbug that repels the conventional remedy of truthful open inquiry and public disclosure. As a consequence, the absence of an antidote has allowed the superbug to attack and undermine the institutions and personal protections that have made this democracy the gold standard among nations.

In the three years of his presidency, Mr. Trump has, with the complicity of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, without serious Republican objection

  1. Prevented the Senate from addressing the threat of foreign (especially Russian) interference in American elections – despite the consensus of 17 American intelligence agencies and the findings of the Mueller Report that Russia was a significant actor attempting to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
  2. Withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that the world is threatened by a global climate crisis. 194 nations, including Russia and North Korea, are signatories. Syria, Nicaragua, and the United States are the only non-signers.
  3. Withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commonly known as the Iran nuclear treaty leaving France, Germany, UK, Russia, and China unsupported by the US and allowing Iran to rebuild its nuclear capability.
  4. Withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty with Russia allowing the resumption of a nuclear arms race between the two countries that already possess the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
  5. Withdrawn Special Forces in support of the Kurdish militia opposing ISIS thereby giving permission to Turkey to drive the Kurds from their homes and Russia to become the dominant foreign power in Syria.
  6. Rolled back environmental regulations, decreasing the acreage of protected Federal lands and allowing the expansion of fossil fuel and other extractive industries.
  7. Gutted the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and brought a federal lawsuit asking it to be declared unconstitutional thereby eliminating protections against predatory consumer finance practices.
  8. Brought a lawsuit to have the Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional which would deny coverage to the 20 million newly covered ACA insured.
  9. Imposed draconian restrictions on foreign immigration – a decrease in the number of tourist visas, a decrease in the number of H1B work visas, a decrease in the total number of visas, limitations on asylum seekers, and a blocking tactic to restrict asylum seeking migrants from applying at the border
  10. Failed to bring HR-8, a bipartisan firearms background check bill, to a Senate vote in a year that has seen 38 mass school shootings.
  11. Failed to acknowledge the constitutional wrongdoing a president who withheld congressionally authorized military support for Ukraine in order to obtain an investigation into a domestic political rival.
  12. Engaged in shadow diplomacy in Ukraine using Rudi Giuliani, an untrained campaign donor-diplomat, and two profiteering thugs to manipulate a foreign head of state into granting a personal political favor and thereby bypass normal State Department channels and protocols.
  13. Disparaged, demeaned, and fired non-partisan American intelligence, law enforcement, and foreign service officers who dared speak candidly about how he is undermining their institutions and smeared their reputations.
  14. Violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution in order to profit personally by continuing to operate his businesses while in office.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are currently engaged in an impeachment inquiry, seeking to establish whether Mr. Trump engaged in activities that violated his sacred trust that would warrant his removal from office. Republicans have opposed the inquiry with a defense that relies on procedural objections. They have criticized the testimony of non-partisan witnesses because they claim it’s hearsay evidence and inadmissible in a criminal trial. 

There is ample evidence of wrongdoing in this case and every first-year law student knows there are significant exceptions to the hearsay rule, but there is another simpler answer to their objections – bring forward the people with firsthand knowledge. Bring forward the people who participated in the alleged wrongdoing. Interrogate Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, Rudi Giuliani, Gordon Sondland, Lev Parnas and Igor Furman. Let the principals testify and provide the documents that support or refute the disputed testimony. So far, the administration has blocked the production of documents and ordered administration officials not to comply with congressional subpoenas. Nevertheless, several career officials have testified in defiance of the order. We now know a good portion of the truth, but if we want the whole truth let’s hear from the others.

When scientists want to counteract a virus they investigate, analyze, strategize and experiment to find a remedy. Superbugs are difficult. Pathogens become resistant and adapt to previously effective remedies. The American people need to resist and adapt to the Republican’s defense. Cowardice is a virus and the antidote is courage. Let’s demand it of our elected leaders. Let’s ask them to challenge White House obstructionism and restore bipartisanship in defense of our democracy. Shine a light on the president’s actions and behaviors. Bring forward his best defense and let us decide if he has violated the Constitutional standards our Founders put in place.

In 1950, seven Republican Senators broke with the party and spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s bullying anti-communist crusade. In a “Declaration of Conscience” the seven, led by Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, declared “As an American, I am shocked at the way Republicans and Democrats alike are playing directly into the Communist design of “confuse, divide and conquer.” As an American, I don’t want a Democratic administration “whitewash” or “cover-up” any more than I want a Republican smear or witch hunt”. Let’s hear it for MCS – no whitewash and no witch hunt. Let’s find out the truth by attacking the cowardice virus.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith

Berlin, 30 Years Later…

The Death Zone

We were euphoric. On October 3, 1990 I walked through the Brandenburg Gate, the barrier dividing West Berlin its other half in the East. It was the official day of German re-unification. A year before, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall had been breached, and within months the Soviet Union imploded, the Cold War ended, and the West declared victory for its values and the institutions of liberal democracy.

In the 1970’s and 80’s I lived and worked in West Berlin. And, occasionally during those years I would make a wrong turn while looking for an unfamiliar address and end up facing The Wall. It was always disarming. I was living an ordinary life – except that I couldn’t walk, bike, or drive out of the city without running the East German gauntlet of checkpoints, blockades, and restricted rest stops. Life seemed normal enough – get the kids to school, go to work, shop at the local supermarket, hang out in trendy bars and cafes, and run in the Grunewaldwith the wild boars. For the most part it seemedlike a normal life. But… there was always The Wall.

For twenty-eight years the Wall divided the city – East from West. It’s been thirty years since then, and I’m remembering those turbulent days – students dancing atop the Wall, chipping away at the concrete with hammers, singing songs and waving flags. And, I’m recalling the speed with which reunification of the two Germanys was accomplished barely a year later. I was there with tears in my eyes walking through the Brandenburg Gate.

November 9, 1989

Today, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of its fall, our euphoria and optimism are tempered by current realities – Germany’s acceptance of more than one-million refugees from failed states in North Africa and the Middle East, the failure of a re-unified Germany to deliver the West German Miracle to all former East German citizens, the re-emergence of Russia as a  political force, the rise of autocratic governments in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, as well as America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear treaty, the Russian nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and President Trump’s disdain for NATO and the European Union layered with his affection for dictators like Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, and Orban in Hungary.

I admire Chancellor Merkel and the German electorate, their willingness to accept displaced refugees and her unflinching leadership in the EU. She grew up on the other side of The Wall. She knows what political repression and the lack of freedom feel like. Despite pressure on her from the right, I have faith in her ability to navigate the challenges of a Europe that no longer can trust America to honor its military and economic commitments as a full partner.

Today, with pressure growing for his impeachment, due to Rudi Giuliani’s abortive shadow diplomacy“ drug deal” in the Ukraine, Trump sent Secretary of State Pompeo to Berlin to represent America at the celebration. Pompeo is walking a tightrope. He’s trying to avoid the press while Trump is digging himself a deeper hole, and my guess is he will bail soon to hide out as a Senate candidate in Kansas next year. 

But, Pompeo’s remarks in Berlin surprised me; he called out Putin as “a former KGB officer stationed in Dresden” and Russia as a country that “invades its neighbors and slays political opponents.” I’m not sure the boss agrees, but the boss has his hands full with the hot breath of the impeachment dragon scorching his neck. 

What happened after The Wall came down was unpredictable. Like so many situations, there was good news and bad news. The good news was Western democracies no longer had a monolithic foe in the East, the former East Berlin became a vibrant artistic and business community, and the historic buildings of “old Berlin” were integrated with some of the most adventurous and creative new architecture imaginable. The bad news is Russia’s resurgent aggression, the Middle East’s turmoil, and America’s abdication as a reliable partner.

Sony Center, Berlin

M and I spent a month in Berlin last year. We loved it. It is without doubt, the most exciting city in Europe. Today, we join with all Berliners as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Wall’s destruction. Let’s hope our optimism can be renewed and America’s European alliances renewed, restored, and healthy again.