Who Gets the Last Word?

America is exhausted…

In the middle of the most devastating pandemic in 102 years, Americans watched the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. They learned of the police break-in and murder of an innocent black woman, Breonna Taylor, in Louisville. They watched as police used tear-gas and flashbangs to break up a peaceful protest in Washington in order to give the president a Biblical photo op. They saw unidentified federal troops dispatched to Portland and Seattle to quell “violent left wing” Black Lives Matter protests . 

The truth is there were no “violent left-wing” protests in Portland or Seattle that required federal troops. There were violent clashes between police and a few provocateurs, but federal troops were neither necessary nor requested by local authorities. In fact, their presence escalated the violence. They were sent so Trump could use video footage of the clashes for his “law and order” political ads. 

While all this was happening, on July 17, John Lewis, the civil rights icon who was arrested more than 40 times for his non-violent civil rights activity and who served 34 years in the US House of Representatives, died. A week of national mourning followed. There were memorial events in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, a lying-in-state in the US Capitol, and a final funeral ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta before he was laid to rest at South-View Cemetery next to Lillian, his wife of 52 years.

Donald Trump never even bothered to acknowledge Mr. Lewis’ death though the entire nation was mourning his passing.

The contrast is alarming; a man of peace and extraordinary virtue known as the “conscience of Congress” dies and his president says nothing about it. John Robert Lewis, Uncle Robert to his family, is an American saint, while Donald John Trump, his president, is heir to and godfather of a vast criminal enterprise.

John Lewis fought racism and white supremacy with his whole being. He had a scar on his forehead from the police beating he got on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Donald Trump, the bone-spur suffering Commander in Chief, was a racist and his family were white supremacists long before 1973 when they were sued and convicted for discriminating against African Americans in housing.

Donald Trump will continue to talk, but John Lewis gets the last word. Here is the Op-Ed he wrote and published posthumously the day he was buried:

Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

RIP John Robert Lewis

My CIA Interview…

Once upon a time there was a clear-eyed, wet behind the ears, 24-year-old who believed national service was honorable. He was a liberal arts college graduate and Marine Corps fighter pilot about to finish his active duty obligation.

He never planned to make the military his career as much as he loved the flying, but he wasn’t sure what was next. Life was open ended. He thought about graduate school in English and a college teaching career. Tweed jackets with leather patches and all that. But that might be too tame. 

He was also thinking of adventure, and the Israel Air Force was at the top of its game. He wasn’t Jewish but that didn’t matter. It had the best trained military in the world and some of the newest and best fighter aircraft, so he wrote asking if they were looking for well-trained fighter pilots. He got no response. 

Then, there was law school. At the time, business school was considered second tier to law school for those without a clear career path. His father said, “You can always use a law degree.” It was the dictum and next step for the aimless college graduate.

But, there was also the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA… America’s spy agency. If we’re talking adventure and intrigue in 1962, the CIA was the place to go. It was the height of the Cold War. Khrushchev was taunting America with his shoe banging at the UN. Allen Dulles had just retired as Director but Master Spy James Angleton was head of Counter-Intelligence. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just around the corner, so…

Not knowing what he was doing (or going to be doing) he impulsively sent a letter asking about employment. It was definitely, an after-thought, but it was all about covering bases.

I was that 24 year old and to my surprise, later that spring, I received an odd phone call. Without identifying himself, the mystery caller asked if I had requested an interview with a government agency? When I answered yes, I was told to be at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles at a specific time and date later that month. On arrival I was to notify the front desk and ask for a “Mr. Winter,” whereupon I would be directed to “Mr. Winter’s room.

Looking back, it was laughable.

On the appointed day I showed up at the Ambassador and was directed to “Mr. Winter’s” room. I was met by a tall, Waspish patrician with a full head of salt and pepper hair, navy blue Brooks Brothers suit, white Oxford cloth button-down shirt, regimental striped tie and black wing tip shoes. His appearance screamed Yale and his manner confirmed it.

“Mr. Winter,” obviously his spy moniker, led me to a drawing room adjacent to the sleeping area where he asked what I knew about “The Company” and what was behind my interest in becoming one of its “officers.” I don’t remember what I told him, but I was pretty gung-ho at the time and probably said something about spending time overseas and looking for a job that was exciting and out of the ordinary.

I left the Ambassador and never heard another word from “The Company” or “Mr. Winter”. If offered the job I might have been flattered into it, but to the well schooled “Mr. Winter” I was obviously a terrible actor (liar) and would never have cut the mustard as a spy. There are those that are and those that aren’t. About 10 years ago I discovered that the wife of a good friend had been an undercover operative at the CIA for 30 years and all that time I thought she worked for the Department of Agriculture.

I’ve always been a big fan of spy literature – Len Deighton, John le Carre’, Alan Furst, and more recently David Ignatius – which probably explains my interest in the CIA back in the day. I love the twists and turns, but since Mike Pompeo’s tenure as Director the duplicity, suspicion, and untrustworthy characters have switched sides. Now it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. Real life intrigue has superseded the fictional kind for our attention. In the highly politicized Trump era I don’t trust anything, anyone, or any agency that’s touched the White House and that includes the CIA. I hope it’s an anomaly, but until the current cast of characters is dumped I’m putting my trust in fiction when it comes to spying.

Looking back at my job quest, I realize the decision was foregone. I rejected graduate school in English because I wasn’t interested in scholarship or teaching. I just liked books. And, the Israeli Air Force and CIA were not interested in me for undisclosed reasons.

“You can always use a law degree” was the obvious winner – sort of. My three years in Berkeley were three of the best years of my life, but my law career lasted less than a year. I was right when I told “Mr. Winter” that spending time overseas in an exciting out of the ordinary job was top of mind. 

After nine months at Loeb and Loeb in LA I quit. Next up was a pilot job at Pan Am including 10 years in Berlin. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Treason… It’s Personal.

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I think Donald Trump is unfit for office. I’ve offered a long litany of his faults, mistakes, moral transgressions, and failures, but it’s arguable that none of them rose to the level of Treason until last week when intelligence sources revealed that Russia was paying a bounty for US military scalps in Afghanistan. He denied having been briefed and did nothing. He called it a “just another hoax”.

Since then he has attacked the only black driver on the NASCAR circuit, criticized those who advocate for the removal of the Confederate flag and statues, and claimed that America is under siege from “left wing Fascists.” These are the latest shiny objects designed to distract us. Do not be distracted. Nothing in his presidency compares to this treasonous and reckless disregard for the lives of Americans in uniform. 

Two years ago, M and I were guests at a graduation ceremony at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego (above). We saw 650 newly minted Marine privates march in review on the parade ground and heard the Commanding Officer of MCRD celebrate their completion of boot camp. 

In April of 2019, three Marines were killed when a roadside IED blew their armored vehicle to smithereens (below). One or more of them could have been on that parade ground in 2018. Concern about Russian bounties gained attention this year after members of a Special Forces team recovered $500,000 in cash from a Taliban military camp. Members of the U.S. intelligence community have established that the money came from Russia through an intermediary to compensate the Taliban for killing Americans. Donald Trump scoffs at the charge and ignores the supporting evidence presented by his intelligence agencies in briefings and PDBs (Presidential Daily Brief) earlier this year.

Those of us who served in the Marine Corps will never be “former” Marines. We will always be Marines. Semper Fidelis, no matter what our civilian politics are. I have spoken to other Marines and we are all incredulous and apoplectic at the suggestion that the Commander in Chief did nothing but dismiss the Russian bounty charge as a “hoax.” I can’t imagine how Marine commanders in the field took this news, but I can tell you the first thing they thought about was “How can I protect my troops.” We learn from day one in boot camp that our primary responsibility is to protect the lives of our fellow Marines.

Donald Trump, the draft dodger who uses the military to make himself feel powerful, talks constantly about loyalty. He asked James Comey about his loyalty. He criticized Inspector Generals for being disloyal when they did their jobs without regard for politics. He accused Lt. Col. Vindman of disloyalty and treason for telling the truth in a Congressional hearing. 

The only loyalty Donald Trump understands is sycophancy. His shameless disregard for the lives of US soldiers is a violation of his oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Any field officer who acted in this way would be accused of dereliction of duty and relieved of command on the spot. Trump has betrayed his sacred trust, the very definition of treasonIronically, he has reminded us on more than one occasion, “treason is punishable by death.” 

By ignoring the well-established evidence of this bounty claim, Trump is undermining military authority, weakening morale, and allowing Russia to proceed with this and other crimes including election interference against American citizens. 

I don’t understand how Congress and the Department of Defense can sit on their hands with clear evidence that Russians are paying to have American soldiers killed. Congress has oversight responsibility for the protection of American lives and Trump is clearly endangering them. Why are these people who should be holding him accountable such cowards? What does Putin have on Trump that makes him so confident and so contemptuous of established protocols in world affairs?

Regardless of his response: This is treason.

Tin Pot Dictator…

In 2016, we self-absorbed, righteous, liberal Democrats laughed when Donald Trump, the failed businessman turned entertainer, staged a theatrical made-for-TV moment on the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president. It was jokish; Melania, the beautiful accessory trailing dutifully behind. He told us he was running because Mexican rapists and criminal elements were invading “our” country and that he could return America to greatness.

Today, on the 5th of July four years later, it seems appropriate to put that event in some kind of historical context. No one imagined a Trump victory in 2016 but it happened, and here we are in 2020 faced with an emboldened, delusional Donald Trump asserting that left wing, liberal, socialist elites are relentlessly campaigning to undermine his legitimacy and the democracy of “our” founding fathers.

His bombastic message delivered at the foot of Mt. Rushmore on Friday night claimed “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children, with angry mobs trying to tear down statues of our founders, defacing our most sacred memorials, and unleashing a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

We know the “founding fathers” were flawed men – all men, all white men – but men of good will who envisioned a new kind of government. Jefferson and Madison, both slave holders, declared “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Their statement may have been hypocritical, but it was aspirational. After deep study they were determined to form “a more perfect union,” with citizens choosing their leaders and ruling by consensus. Aspiration is key to understanding their hope for the new nation.

This time we can’t be smug or complacent. Trump needs to be taken seriously. This time it’s not a joke. He occupies the most powerful office on earth and wields the power of that office. In four short years, this ignorant, inarticulate, uninformed, xenophobic, white supremacist has taken control of the American government and, through his mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, killed more than 130,000 Americans. Yes, make no mistake about it, he has killed 130,000 Americans. In those four short years he has become the tin pot dictator many of us knew he aspired to be. 

It’s still hard, given all he has done, to take him seriously. He’s a bully who has difficulty with his native tongue. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t understand the American system and structure of government but that doesn’t matter to him either. He has the power of the chief executive and isn’t afraid to use it. He’s inspired a cult of followers that are zealous in their devotion to their Dear Leader. I struggle to find a reason or corollary. There are still legal constraints on his power, but Attorney General Barr is working tirelessly to remove them. 

Unlike Stalin and Hitler who were guided by perverse political philosophies and diabolical world views, Trump is guided only by his own sociopathic ego. He is neither as vicious as Stalin nor as malevolent as Hitler. He is more like Mussolini – a braggard and a fool – dumb but dangerous. Mussolini was an avowed patriot and coward, who like Trump with his bone spurs, escaped to Switzerland to avoid military service and returned only when deserters were given amnesty. 

Mussolini became the Prime Minister but by enacting a series of laws, removing his political opposition and outlawing labor strikes he and his followers consolidated government power and transformed Italy into a one-party dictatorship – much like what Orban has done in Hungary in the 21st century.

Mussolini stayed in power for 20 years, but when Italians could no longer put up with his mismanagement of the government, former colleagues in his own Fascist government overthrew and imprisoned him. He was then rescued by German commandos but was eventually recaptured and shot by Italian partisans in 1945.

I don’t want to see Trump shot by partisans, though I wouldn’t mind seeing him overthrown and imprisoned by the Republicans who have knelt before him as he dismantled our government. Maybe, him like Mussolini’s fascist supporters, they will come to their senses and realize the threat he poses to our democratic system.

On the other hand, it might be more appropriate if he contracted the Covid-19 virus he calls a hoax and had to ride out the kind of long-suffering painful illness he’s been responsible for inflicting on so many other Americans. I doubt it would result in a come to Jesus moment, but it might be cold comfort to the rest of us who have been living sequestered lives according to the guidelines his task force has stipulated but he continues to ignore.

Mask up until it’s over!

Photos courtesy of Time and Vanity Fair magazines.

Remembering Wake Island…

“When we got up, a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put up the signal for the men at the station.”  Orville Wright’s Diary, December 17, 1903

That was the day of the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. I was born the same day (December 17) thirty-four years later, and in 1960 the Chance-Vought Aerospace Company gave me a pin for flying one of their F8 Crusaders 1000 mph. It seems impossible that time could collapse so dramatically in 57 years.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am, at the remarkable coincidences that miraculously come together to connect the pieces of our lives as we drift toward our final destination. I had another one of those experiences last week.

Following WWI, 27-year-old Juan Trippe a Yale graduate and global visionary, who had trained as a Naval Aviator but never saw combat, founded what would become the world’s greatest and most important airline. It was never part of my grand design, but fortune smiled on me as I was trying to escape life in a big Los Angeles law firm. Pan Am offered me a way out and I latched on. I stayed for 20 years. 

Sadly, poor management government animosity and predatory competition drove Pan Am into bankruptcy in 1991. The Pan Am Historical Foundation is the last vestige of its remarkable legacy. Now, thanks to the generosity of its members and a number of generous donors the Pan Am story has been dramatized and is currently showing on PBS in a three-part mini-series called Across the Pacific.

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Basically, I’m an introvert. I don’t like crowds, cocktail parties or reunions. I love my friends – grade school, high school, college, law school, military Pan Am – and work hard at keeping up with them. We correspond regulary by email, text, Instagram, and Facebook. I know what they’re up to, and they know follow me by reading the blog, But, my Pan Am friends have a special place in the heirarchy for several reasons. It was a special time in our lives; we were young, mostly single, and shared adventures in some of the most exciting and exotic places on the face of the planet. A special group of people at a special time in our lives.

One personal story… While we were watching Episode 3 of Across the Pacific the other night, the story focused on Wake Island –the missing piece in Juan Trippe’s Trans-Pacific puzzle. No airline had figured out how to cross the Pacific. None of the aircraft in production, not even Pan Am’s Clipper Flying Boats, had range enough to do the job. The key was to find a spot to land and refuel in the mid-Pacific. Wake Island is tiny coral atoll midway between Hawaii and Guam just big enough to support a small maintenance base with an interior lagoon to that had to be cleared of coral heads in order to land a Flying Boat. It’s a great story.

My story isn’t that big, but it includes Wake Island. Because of the winds (prevailing westerlies) and lack of navigation aids I was sometimes assigned as a navigator on the 707 flying between Hawaii and Tokyo that stopped for refueling at Wake. Because they didn’t need me on the leg to Tokyo, I got off at Wake Island and stayed until the return flight 24 or 48 hours later. Wake was an important staging area for the B29 raids on Tokyo in WWII, but there was nothing but a weather station, runway and a couple of Quonset huts by the time I got there. There are no beaches. It’s all rough coral although the water is crystal clear. I walked around the island, swam in the lagoon and ate in the Navy mess hall, but I found something there that still has a place in our bookcase. M didn’t know the story but midway as we were watching I told her the story.

In one of the rocky coves on the island I discovered this remarkable example of nature’s ingenuity. It’s a tiny conch shell encased in a pyramid of coral. The shell is very fragile now. It was more intact when I found it, but it’s still a miracle that millions of tiny organisms could, over time construct this perfect artwork.

I’ve loved all the jobs and phases of my life, but the Pan Am years were particularly rich – so many interesting people, places, and adventures. Wilbur Wright wrote the eulogy for a friend and aviation pioneer named Octave Chanute, which David McCullough quotes in his Wright Brothers biography. It might equally apply to Juan Trippe who deserves much more space than I’ve given him here.

“His writings were so lucid as to provide an intelligent understanding of the nature of the problems of flight to a vast number of persons who would probably never have given the matter study otherwise… In patience and goodness of heart he has rarely been surpassed. Few men were more universally respected.”