A Trump Allegory…

Over the years I’ve tried on several iterations of Christian orthodoxy–I was baptized Catholic (grandmother’s wish), then went on to Congregational Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Episcopalian versions. Sometimes my engagement was passionate, sometimes not, but I settled on being an Episcopalian 30 years ago because I liked the rituals – the smells and bells – Catholic without those politics. My attitude changed when a rigidly conservative vestry forced my friend, Robert Taylor, Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, to resign. He was a star, but gay, and that got under their skin. Since then I’ve felt a kind of benign indifference.

I include this personal history to give some credibility to what I’m about to write. I’m not unfamiliar with Christian apologetics and greatly admire some of its better writers – Diedrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karen Armstrong, and C.S. Lewis – but it’s Lewis that’s been on my mind lately.

He’s the author of the enormously successful, sometimes controversial, series of novels The Chronicles of Narnia (seven volumes of Young Adult fiction that includes The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobePrince Caspian etc.) and the subject of the award winning 1993 biopic Shadowlands.

The reason Lewis has been on my mind lately is an article by Garrett Epps in the latest Atlantic magazine in which the author uses Lewis’ fable The Screwtape Letters as an allegory for the Trump era. The Screwtape, of the title, is a senior devil and the book is a collection of 31 letters Screwtape sends to a junior devil named Wormwood advising him on how to reap souls for his master below. 

Epps does a masterful job of drawing the parallels. “In Letter VII, Screwtape, the senior demon, reveals hell’s long-term strategy for the modern world: to produce people who do not believe in God but do believe, in some vague way, in magic: ‘If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’—then the end of the war [against God] will be in sight.

That image—of those who worship force while denying spirit—has haunted me ever since; it epitomizes the dilemma of a human society in moral free fall because it has without knowing it, abandoned belief in its own pretended first principles.

In the age of Trump, we are seeing a legal incarnation of Screwtape—the lawless legalist who worships the law as force but denies the existence of its spirit.”

In this allegory, Epps sees Attorney General William Barr as Screwtape and The Donald as his Wormwood (how apt).

Screwtape (Barr) believes in an all-powerful dominating executive, secrecy, the absence of oversight, and abhors judicial review. “The president is not above the law; the president is the law.” This is the so-called “unitary executive” and Screwtape has been its biggest advocate since he was a junior lawyer in the Reagan White House. Wormwood laps it up. Two generations of able minds have “spun the fable” that the Founders intended the president to be a kind of dictator – though, of course, they don’t use that language. 

“Like Screwtape’s materialist magician, Barr, the lawless legalist, embodies force without spirit; constitutionalism without liberty; democratic form without self-government. For two generations, he and people like him have been working to bring this vision to reality. They are on the verge of victory.”

Let’s hope not. Wormwood is flailing. With 42 days until the inauguration, he is ranting like Mad King Ludwig and the courtiers are scrambling to find any possible way to keep him on the throne. 

The Trump era is probably the end of America as we knew it, but it is not the end of America all together. It can be rebuilt, but it will take time, energy, resources, creativity, cooperation, and patience. Screwtape and Wormwood have done immeasurable harm in the last four years. I don’t expect to live long enough to see the institutions fully restored, but my fingers are crossed for my children, grandchildren and beyond. Let’s send Screwtape and Wormwood back where they came from, just as they tried to do to millions of immigrants.

See Garrett Epps full article, Worshipping the Law While Denying its Spirit https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/cs-lewis-bill-barr/602623/

Some Pilots’ Pilots…

John Glenn died on December 8, 2016 – four years ago today – at age 95. Chuck Yeager died yesterday at age 97. I didn’t know either of them, but they were models for the kind of pilot and person I aspired to be. Extraordinary men who led remarkable lives and became legends in their own lifetimes.

It’s difficult to write anything original about them. Their biographies are exemplary and posted everywhere, but what strikes me today is the contrast between these citizen heroes and the cowards currently serving in Congress and the White House. These two giants were courageous, quiet, hard-working Americans who answered the call to service, delivered in multiple wars and later in peacetime. John Glenn served 24 years as a US Senator from Ohio following his career as a Marine Corps fighter pilot and astronaut.

My reflections on Glenn and Yeager were reinforced by a podcast I listened to over the weekend. Chuck Rosenberg, former Chief of Staff at the FBI and US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, is now an NBC contributor with a podcast of his own called The Oath. There, he interviews interesting people, some you’ve heard of and some you haven’t. Last week’s was an hour and a half with Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, another pilot legend.

“Sully” is not an unknown quantity. Following his flawless “miracle on the Hudson” landing, he became everyone’s favorite authority on aviation matters, and his no nonsense straight talk was always reassuring and refreshingly honest.

The Rosenberg podcast interview, like the one he did with Special Counsel Robert Mueller this week, is less about his newsworthy history and more about how he was prepared for his decisive moment in the spotlight. It’s an inspiring story. Like John Glenn’s wife Annie and Joe Biden, Sully stuttered as a child. He overcame the handicap through hard work, by speaking slowly in front of a mirror, and with the wholehearted support of his family. I remember Colin Firth doing the same in The King’s Speech, the Oscar winning film about Queen Elizabeth’s father George VI.

I’ve been an admirer of Sully’s since “the miracle,” but not so much for his airmanship which was perfect but for his leadership following the water landing. He calmly directed his crew and passengers to disembark using the evacuation slides, and when they were all safely off he made a final walk-through of the cabin to make sure no one was left behind. He was last person to deplane. That’s what calm, courageous leadership looks like.

In the interview with Rosenberg, he details his normal childhood in Denton, Texas, where there was an Air Force base nearby. Even as a child he was fascinated with aviation and determined to learneverything he could about it. His first piloting experience, as a teenager, was in a taildragger that required him to hand crank the prop and then hop on the wing to get to the cockpit.

The podcast is particularly interesting when he talks about the lessons he learned as a child and later at the Air Force Academy. Solid values of honesty, hard work, attention to detail and devotion to duty.

Unlike John Glenn and Chuck Yeager, neither Sully nor I served in a war. I flew the same airplane as John Glenn (F8 Crusader) but left the Marine Corps before the Vietnam War expanded. Sully, who flew the F4 Phantom, didn’t finish flight training until the war was over.

Chuck Yeager is credited with 11.5 kills in WWII and John Glenn shot down 3 MIG-15s in a ten day period in Korea. Neither Sully nor I were tested in battle. Sully’s test came in 2009 when a flock of Canada geese flew into the engines of his Airbus A320-214. Shot down by a flock of geese. How humiliating…but a life-or-death emergency, nevertheless. Sully’s quick thinking and superb airmanship saved 155 lives that day. I was never tested in these ways.

I loved the Marine Corps, just as Sully loved the Air Force. They gave us unprecedented opportunities to fly the world’s best fighters, but there is life after the military and we both moved on to commercial aviation.

After a movie was made about the first group of astronauts, Chuck Yeager was asked if he thought he had the “right stuff.” His answer was simple, “All I know is that I worked my tail off learning how to fly and worked hard at it all the way. If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting then it is experience.” The same might have been said by Colonel Glenn, Captain Sullenberger, or even me if asked the same question.

These three are aviation legends. All three are leaders who demonstrated courage and leadership under stress. Going back to the beginning of this essay…note the contrast between these three and the cowards now occupying the White House and Congress. Are the Republicans in Congress so fearful that they won’t stand up to an ignorant sore loser who’s undermining our democratic institutions and the integrity of our elections?

It’s shameful. C’mon now; mask up, do your homework, pay attention to the details, and learn to work with your colleagues. We need leaders, men and women, who know right from wrong and are not afraid to call it out? Trump wanted his Roy Cohn; I want my Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, and Sully Sullenberger. Mask up folks. Get to work. This may take a while.

Paying it Forward…

You’ve got to admire a friend so eccentric, so eclectic, that his magazine subscriptions included The National EnquirerNew England Journal of Medicine, Popular Mechanics, The New Yorker and How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot). Dr. Fred Terry Simmons was that friend – a Boston brahmin, graduate of Exeter, Yale, and McGill University Medical School and all-around tequila loving polymath. 

In 1975 I sold him my 1967 Volkswagen Squareback. He named it F. Potato (yes, that F), re-registered it, drove it home to Los Angeles, ordered a vanity plate, kept the Idaho registration until they stopped renewing by mail, and drove it until it rolled down his steep driveway and self-demolished. Whereupon he bought an identical Squareback, named it The Biscuit, and drove it until he died and it was towed away in 2014. I often fantasized he might choose to be buried in it like one of the Pharaohs.

When he wasn’t fine tuning The Potato, my friend practiced hepatology (liver medicine), taught at both UCLA and USC medical schools as a recognized liver transplant authority. He never married but when he died his partner of almost 40 years, Karen aka The Chief  (of pathology at Kaiser Permanente in LA), was tasked with winding down his estate. It was not a simple job although Terry left very specific instructions. His estate was to be liquidated with the proceeds to endow scholarships for young African American men to attend Exeter and Yale.

By the time the probate was completed, Karen had managed to secure two fully endowed scholarships for African American men to Exeter, one to Yale, and fund four additional four year scholarships to Yale through Jackie Robinson Scholars, a program Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, established at the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973. In addition, there was enough money left to give grants to AA males through Prep for Prep, Fulfillment Fund, Partnership Scholars Program and the ACLU Los Angeles Education Program with a little left over for Doctors Without Borders.

Did I mention his eccentricity? Imagine how good this Boston WASP must feel for giving dozens of young African American men educational opportunities they might never have had but for his out of the box generosity.

This past summer under pandemic quarantine, my grandson Ben Westerman and I weren’t able to get together, so we made a plan to choose a book and Zoom once a week to discuss it. I asked if he knew who Jackie Robinson was and though his major interest is soccer he knew all about Jackie. We chose a Young Adult biography called Jackie Robinson: Breaking Barriers in Baseball as our book and met on Zoom all through the summer and fall. We supplemented the book with The Jackie Robinson Story and 42, two excellent films about Jackie’s life.

The book was a good choice. It was the summer of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, pro and anti-racial protests and a news cycle full of racial tension. Ben knew it and though Jackie’s life was the focus of our discussions we talked about what was happening on the streets of America today too. The racism that surrounded Jackie Robinson at every point in his Hall of Fame career helped us talk about race in a different way and showing the classy way Jackie dealt with it was inspiring to both of us.

Ben is such a beautiful child; with skin the color I tried to achieve every summer. But, being a child of color has drawbacks. We’re all aware of them, and his parents have already had “the talk” with him about how, as a child of color, wearing hoodies might not be smart in some situations. 

If you’re wondering how these two very different people came together in my life, it’s because the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, is GivingTuesday, a day of charitable giving created in 2012 to “encourage people to do good.” That day caused me to reflect on the intersection of their lives–that as Terry left my life Ben was entering it and that by giving to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and United for Aid, the foundation that supports Ben’s youth soccer program I was honoring my old friend and paying it forward for my grandson.

That definitely feels good. Hail to Terry and the Chief!

He Went to Jared…

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a secret meeting with Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince. All three parties denied the meeting occurred but lately their story has sprung leaks. 

This triad of unsavory characters – MBS, who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Netanyahu, under indictment for bribery, bank fraud, and breach of trust at home in Israel, and Pompeo seeking support for a presidential run in 2024 – are doing Trump’s dirty work by establishing an anti-Iranian alliance they hope will undermine the incoming Biden administration.

Then yesterday, following the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist (widely understood to have been the work of Israel) we learned that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is headed back to the Middle East to resolve a dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and to “quiet tensions” amid Iranian threats to retaliate. What could possibly go wrong?

Best guessers think Pompeo’s secret meeting was intended to prevent the Biden administration from rejoining or renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear treaty signed by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union that Trump withdrew from in 2018. Whether the US was involved with Israel in the Iranian assassination (remember Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January and was silent on the murder of Khashoggi) Iran vowed today that “it is not going to ‘fall into the trap’ of scuttling any future talks with the Biden government following the assassination.” (Bloomberg News)

This is a scary game of chicken. Iran will surely retaliate against Israel. The port of Haifa with its strategic significance and a large civilian population is the most likely target. With wars in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, tensions in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran, the entire Middle East is a tinder box. Surely, Kushner is the man to clean it all up.

I have a theory about this flurry of activity in the Middle East. The Donald is not a strategic thinker. He really doesn’t care about the Middle East unless it impacts him and his bottom line. Kushner is smarter but mans the other oar in the same boat. My theory is that they’re scared to death of the future. Both are highly leveraged with all that debt coming due in the next few years. 

We know that no respectable bank will loan to Trump. Deutsche Bank bailed him out last time – probably with laundered Russian money – but DB is unlikely to step up for the next bailout while they are under investigation for bank fraud and money laundering. Kushner was saved from a $1.4 billion default on his 666 Fifth Avenue property when a Canadian investment bank backed by the sovereign fund of Qatar stepped in at the last minute. 

So, where will they go for money next time to keep their pyramid schemes from imploding? Trump is beholden to Putin for something. We don’t know exactly what, but he’s been Putin’s “useful idiot” for four years because of it. Loyalty is the password in Trumpworld, but not in Putin’s. Despite his offer to “gift” the Russian president the penthouse of a glitzy new Moscow Trump Tower, I’m betting Putin will throw him under the bus as soon as his “useful idiot” is no longer useful.

Under the circumstances, my best guess is that all this last-minute activity – selling out the US to support Netanyahu’s claim to the West Bank and Golan Heights and the sale of extensive military hardware, including missiles and maybe even F-35 fighters to Saudi Arabia – aims at getting Trump/Kushner a lock on Saudi money (maybe even UAE money) in the future. This unholy alliance of two centuries-old Middle Eastern enemies is designed to handcuff the US in its dealings with Iran, legitimize Israel’s land grab on the West Bank, rehabilitate MBS’s reputation following the Khashoggi murder, and give Trump a tiny bit of revenge against Biden for the loss of the election.

There is something about this last 55 days of Trumpworld that has the feel of Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Don’t worry. He went to Jared…

Disclaimer: It gives me no pleasure to write about Trump and his posse, but I think it’s important to show what I believe to be the depth of their wrongdoing and the geopolitical consequences. I try to give it a spin that’s interesting and sometimes even darkly funny, but I can’t wait to see the end of this nightmarish period in our history.

The Grift that Keeps on Grifting…

Fifty-eight days and counting… but the criminal enterprise shows no signs of slowing. It’s not Rudy Giuliani’s creepy, pathetic “voter fraud” claims, or the Republicans’ silence on the presidential election, not even that America’s biggest loser skipped work to play golf during the G-20 Summit. No, it’s all the other mean spirited obstructionist activity surrounding the Grifter-in-Chief.

So much attention has been devoted to his reluctance to acknowledge Biden’s victory that much of the grift is still below the waterline. Nevertheless, his enablers continue to do damage that will limit the incoming administration’s ability to act in critical areas. Here are the most recent and egregious examples:

  • Last week, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced his intent to “claw back” unspent Congressionally allocated funds from the Federal Reserve. These funds were to provide emergency loans to medium-sized businesses and municipalities in order to stabilize markets. Reclaiming the unspent funds will make it more difficult for the incoming administration to address these problems. Mr. Mnuchin’s action, clearly retaliatory, came only after it was clear Mr. Trump had been defeated.
  • This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is touring of seven European and Middle Eastern countries at US taxpayers expense. The unannounced purpose seems to be to undermine the incoming administration’s ability to stabilize and restore balance in the Middle East. To that end:
    • Last night, he and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia to finalize a secret anti-Iran alliance with Mohammed Bin Salman who, let us not forget, murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Their purpose–to subvert Biden’s interest in renegotiating the Iran nuclear treaty. 
      • While there is no legitimate State Department purpose for this eleventh-hour tour at government expense, it works well for him to establish Middle Eastern support for a 2024 US presidential campaign.
      • In Israel, he bestowed United States’ blessings on West Bank settlements, recommended goods manufactured in Palestinian areas be labeled “Made in Israel” rather than “Made in the West Bank.” In addition, he visited the disputed Golan Heights, which taken all together “is tantamount to the US recognizing Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.”
        • These actions by the American Secretary of State, though unofficial, undermine 50 years of US and European policy in favor of a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. 
  • Earlier in the week, before Pompeo and Giuliani sucked the air out of the room, the Federal Register, promoting another Trump environmental obscenity, posted the Interior Department’s intention to sell oil drilling leases to 1.5 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area bordering on the Beaufort Sea and until now off-limits to oil exploration. The Secretary of Interior said he thought sales could begin before the end of the year, but opposition by environmental and Native American group spokespersons indicate January 17, three days before the new president is inaugurated, is the earliest the sales could commence.
  • With all of this in mind, it’s obvious to a majority of Americans that the country’s reputation has suffered in the Trump years. Trump apparently thought so too, and in September 2019 he appointed Michael Pack to be CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media (parent organization of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, etc). 
    • Prior to his appointment, Mr. Pack claimed Voice of America was a “nest of foreign spies,” and vowed to rid the historically non-political agency of them while reshaping the agency’s message to deliver messages in support of Mr. Trump’s agenda and restrict the free speech of VOA journalists.
    • On Friday, in a suit brought by several former VOA journalists, a federal judge issued a series of preliminary injunctions against Pack and other government-funded news networks, effectively stopping the appointee’s efforts to reshape international broadcasts. The ruling late Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell, in Washington was a setback for Trump and Pack and a victory to journalists’ free speech protections. (Washington Post)
      • Lee Crain, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs, said Judge Howell’s ruling ensures that journalists at the agencies can “rest assured that the First Amendment protects them from government efforts to control” their reporting. “They are free to do exactly what Congress intended: export independent, First Amendment-style journalism to the world.”

These are last-ditch efforts of Trump allies to disrupt the new administration’s transition and create obstacles as they prepare to take office. Some, like Michael Pack’s position at USAGM, can be quickly reversed. Others, like the West Bank initiatives and the secret alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia are more problematic. Others, such as the ongoing travesty at the Post Office and ICE, will take longer to remedy.

The Biden team was doing what it could without GSA funding and the approval and support of a majority of elected Republicans. Now he can proceed, but the transition funding delays have hobbled the endeavor. Fortunately, the President-elect and many of his staff are familiar with government operations and should be able to affect a smooth transition.

In the midst of a global pandemic it is disgraceful that the outgoing President remains such a sore loser. There is no doubt that Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021. They won’t go away, but it’s time to move on and leave the grifting crowd behind.

“When they go low, we go high.”