Reflecting On My President – MLK Day 2017

January 16, 2017
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A new arrival at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008

As I watch 60 Minutes and their interviews with President Obama I realize how I admire his thoughtful tone and quick wit. I’m going to miss him. He is the president of my children’s adulthood and I have found him to be both pragmatic and diplomatic. I admit I am at a loss for the vitriol thrown at him. I wish he had done more, but I still am proud of what he did accomplish against the constant tide of false accusations and roadblocks. What accomplishments I hear my naysayer friends demand. I can explain.

Let me set the stage leading up to this man’s presidency – not the two wars and the crashing economy – I want to get more personal. My family had been denied health insurance coverage due to pre-existing conditions when I changed jobs and our family planning decisions were altered because of the religious affiliation of my wife’s workplace – their conditions for insurance. My previous employer was being taken over by a corporation from Singapore and was being shut down. We had grown at a time of housing loans granted at 120% of a property’s value so customers were installing very profitable for us home entertainment systems based on the idea their home value would always go up, but that bubble had burst. I was losing my job and my 401k was in the toilet.

For me then it is easy to find this administration’s success – My 401k is back better than ever, I am employed in a new career after going to school using the extended benefits for retraining and gaining experience under the Obama stimulus package. My children were able to be insured under our family plan until age 26 under the ACA, and now, if we need to change jobs, we still get coverage. No longer are career choices being held hostage to a workplace whose insurance covered us before those “pre-existing” conditions show up. My children are able to follow their own paths – my son works for a biotech company and my daughter is in nursing school – free of that burdan. I couldn’t be prouder.

But my admiration for the Obamas goes deeper than that. My nephew, Kelley, worked on his campaign and, later, worked in the White House Office of Correspondence. Through him I heard the stories of the First Family, sitting Sasha and Malia, helping with the White House Easter egg roll. One of the most amazing things he showed me was where he worked – not in the White House proper, but in rented office space a few blocks away.

Into this space poured millions (literally) of pieces of mail that had to be read, sorted, and catalogued. Some letters had serious concerns about healthcare or the economy, others, less serious, like second graders learning how to address an envelope and a letter to the president in one lesson. All received the same treatment coming in, but a few were selected each week to move on to the desk of the president. Those letters were chosen to give an overall sense of what was motivating people to write, be it good or bad, and a few picked because they had problems the President could solve. Mr. Obama would hand write replies to these regular Americans who took time to write to their president.

Through my nephew I was able to visit the White House a couple of times (and even got smooched by Bo!) and toured the West Wing. On display in the halls was student artwork and photographs of various events across the country. They were changed often to remind those occupying the offices in that wing who they really worked for.

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Kelley was able to get my wife and I on the lawn for a Marine One take-off. He told me I needed a suit coat and tie as a guest of a White House staffer. We raced around DC that morning trying to find a place open to buy the requisite outfit and when we arrived we were ushered onto the lawn and lined up. Then, from around the side, came forty or fifty folks in tee shirts and shorts randomly selected from the tourists taking pictures of the White House. They were lined up in front of us. Kelley told me that we had to stand behind the tourists because the staff were all instructed to be sure they never used their positions to advantage themselves above the people they were there to serve.

This all happened during a time when I visited D.C. often. The school I worked for sponsored an 8th grade trip to Washington and my son was living there, working for companies that contracted to the State and Defense departments. When I was chaperoning the school trips Kelley would come to meet our middle school group on the blocked street behind the White House. He would bring an auto-pen signed picture of the First Couple for the school and answer questions for the kids. He did this on his own time. I would introduce him to my students with great pride explaining that here was a kid only a few years older than they were (from my perspective), from a family not much different than theirs, who was now working in the most powerful office in the world. The kids were more intrigued with his two cell phones (one a White House issue Blackberry and the other a personal iPhone) and stack of ID badges.

When Kelley left to take a job with the EPA he was granted an exit interview with his boss. Kelley arranged for his mom and dad to be there while the President of the United States shook his hand and thanked him for his service there in the Oval Office. Mr. Obama took time to chat with everyone and made sure pictures were taken (you can’t bring your own camera). My brother said he almost cried. You can almost see that in the picture.

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And that’s the thing with this president – it really isn’t ever about him – it’s about the office. Mr Obama came to up to be at the graduation of Worcester Voc and to bring attention to a school program he felt was exemplary. He didn’t just make his speech and have his photograph taken, he stayed, passed out diplomas and shook the hand or hugged every graduate of that very large class with as much enthusiasm for the last as the first. He made it their graduation.

And that is his accomplishment. He kept the Office of the President accessible to all the people. As other world leaders were vying for his attention many everyday concerns were brought to him  and he found a way to answer both. He was often harshly criticized and sometimes deservedly so, but he always listened. Reading the hurtful, ignorant, racist remarks directed at him, his wife and his family in comment sections of newspapers and social media and his not using the nuclear option makes him a far better person than me. Today, I know Mr Obama’s presidency was not about the color of his skin, but about the content of his character. He stayed above the ugliness beneath him for the dignity of the office and, for that, he will always be my president.

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What a piece of Work…

January 1, 2017

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“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”

– William Shakespeare – Hamlet – Act II Scene 2

Emotional whiplash might be the catchphrase for this holiday season. Let me share a few examples. About a week ago I started work dressed for ugly sweater day, to get a laugh and looking to enjoy the outlandish attire of my coworkers.

Not even fifteen minutes later, I changed into an 11th century lord’s dress because my 21st century ugly outfit was a millennium off for recreating a medieval tournament in our pod. After pouring my energy into the lesson and watching my kids cheer each other jousting on blow-up horses I ended the school day exhausted, but satisfied.

Those were both easy. I had to change one more time that day for an event that evening in Boston. Not for a laugh or exhausted satisfaction, but to mourn at the dedication of a ghost bike for my nephew, Bannon on the spot where he suffered a tragic accident a few weeks earlier. This time the outfit was nothing formal – jeans, a warm sweater, and a hat my wife knit. I wanted to blend into the crowd of people gathered to listen to the minister and the other speakers. I cried. We all cried, some for the passing of a fellow cyclist and others for loss of family.

That was a lot of changing in one day. How about an example of emotional whiplash that took all of a minute? A few weeks ago my day began very early with the phone ringing. From peaceful sleep, to anger that my wife must be being called in to work (what else could it be?), to shocked disbelief when Pam handed me the phone with my sister sobbing “Bannon’s been in an accident,” to being hyper-focused on what to do next.

Consider the changes my sister went through getting that call even earlier that morning, with Christmas presents waiting under the tree for Bannon; all that anticipation and excitement ripped away by the unimaginable. She would later generously re-gift them to his friends.  Devastated, but pulling it together enough to take care of her shop’s payroll. Wanting to be alone with her grief, yet bravely taking me out to lunch knowing she will run into people who want to hug her and awkwardly share her sorrow. I am in awe of her.

I think of the people I know whose children have died and I realize I am in awe of them as well. They have learned to continue, to allow themselves to have a good laugh or a good cry and to go on doing the mundane tasks of life. Slowly, they seem to have found that these things do not diminish the memory of their loved one; they survive the soft tissue damage from their own emotional whiplash by living life and cherishing the times they did have.

Maybe this isn’t what Shakespeare had in mind, but what a piece of work. We change and change again, sometimes on the outside and, more often, on the inside. Emotional extremes reveal the marvelous complexity and adaptability of being human and what lengths we will go to to support each other. Here’s 2017 and hoping that no one has to learn this lesson first hand.

Bannon’s Smile

December 18, 2016

bannonBannon and Susie – my nephew and my sister.

Hello – My name is Michael Bannon Smith and I’m one of Bannon’s uncles.

I remember when he was born proudly thinking he was named for me. It didn’t occur to me – as a self absorbed twenty something – that we really just shared a family name. We are not that tight family – that one spends every holiday with each other and vacations together; we’re Irish, not Italian. But what a family.

Bannon is my sister Susie’s son and I know him mostly through her – from her stories and many of these pictures – so I know him as a little kid with amazing outfits and curly blond hair, as a high school jazz hipster yearbook model and as a ready, steady dad behind, under or near Ella and Ronan.

In every picture, at every age, one thing always stood out – Bannon’s eyes. There is a depth to them. His are proof that those cliched deep pools from romance novels really exist. I’m sure Bannon would hate that idea. I can see him quietly taking in the action at some family function and then the corners of his eyes turn up as he catches something that he finds funny. That smile not only takes over his face, but the faces of those around him.

So when my sister called to say Bannon was in an accident, it was those pictures that came to mind as I’m texting my kids to tell we are heading to the hospital. On my way from Worcester to Boston so many things are going through my head:

– that day Bannon walked through the door of Tate’s to join Susie for her birthday. It had been a while – too long – but talk about a smile taking over a room – On both their faces! I’m so happy Susie got that day.

– that my son, Zach, got to hang out with his cousin. That they got to run together… Bannon could easily beat Zach and somehow that makes me smile. I suggested to Zach that maybe they should run with their saxophones and stop to play from time to time – thinking it would appeal to their mutual appreciation of the absurd.

We found our way to the hospital. Zach had gotten there before us and texted directions out to various family members – a small thing on the face of it, but so important to have one less thing to think about when there is a lot to think about. Susie. Steve. Amy. Carroll. Family.

Just in case you are unaware, some families have some pretty deep rifts and grudges. I mentioned we’re Irish, right? – We weren’t just walking into Beth Israel, we were taking an elevator up five flights to a floor soon to be filled with unresolved past transgressions.

Stepping off the elevator though it’s all a blur. I solemnly shake Jeffrey’s hand – hug Hilary – get the lowdown from Zach – find out no one actually got ahold of my brother, Peter… and Bannon is just on the other side of the doors to the trauma unit with his nurses quietly going about their job.

And that’s what we began to do, too, as a family; our job consoling each other, sharing updates, getting donuts, giving hugs, swapping stories – we all show off our licenses, confirming our status as organ donors – everyone begins to do what needs to be done.

Life has a way of sometimes keeping us apart while death sometimes pulls us all together. I put an arm around Steve, a coat over Susie, made sure I checked in with Amy. I saw Carroll and Kate quietly confer with a doctor and, when the reality of it all overwhelmed us, I saw the staff feel it, too, and they shared small boxes of Kleenex and large boxes of coffee.

I commented to a nurse that one of the staff looked remarkably like Bannon. To prove it, I pulled up some pictures on my phone and, in the process, I ran across some pictures from Ireland, the Aran Islands specifically, and she told me her daughter was named for a priest from there. She was from near Galway – Oh, my niece Hilary just spent a semester there… And my Dad’s family is from Tuam – I think she said she had family there… Small world stuff. We made a connection. We shared stories, I found some pictures – Zoe and Mikee’s wedding – and she saw the resemblance. She told me they liked to know what their patients looked like before… She said it could be worse – I can’t imagine, but I think I knew what she meant…

I watched my daughter, Addy, a nursing student check monitors and gently wipe Bannon’s mouth. Later, I saw my wife head back to Boston to spend the night with him. She brought her knitting and read him the texts from all of us trying to make plans. I called my sister. I messaged Hilary and Amy.

Back at school – I’m a middle school teacher – I told each of my classes why they need to wear their helmets. I told them about Bannon. I told them I wore mine because my wife makes me, but now I have a better reason – no one should ever feel like this. Middle schoolers are better people than they get credit for – the next day some left cards on my desk and a few even handed them directly to me – I wish I could say the same for their homework…  and some must have told their parents because I received a few emails from them.

One in particular stood out; from a family who had lost their son, Josh,  to a soccer ball in the chest, stopping his heart. Since that horrific accident, I’ve had two of Josh’s siblings in class so the parents and I have shared emails before, but this was different – not only was it from a different address, but it was from a different place – a much more private place. Theirs was not a polite condolence; theirs was a heart-felt “we really know how much this hurts and truly we’re sorry that you have to feel it.” They understood that we now share a very personal connection.

I can’t make sense of this. I have tried to console myself with the measure of all of our sorrow being countered by the joy of all the families reprieved from their own sorrow by Bannon’s organs. That isn’t much consolation to me yet, but I know it will come. I see all these amazing pictures of Bannon and hear the stories and his music – I see what a rich life he led –  and I go back to his eyes looking around a room and smiling… Maybe it was life as jazz and the smile was his solo.

I think of all the connections and reconnections he made with so many people here – the efforts he made to hang out with his Boston based cousins, that he was making plans with Steve and Susie, that the shock of his accident made family disagreements move to the back burner so that we could pull together for each other. These things console me.

And maybe that is what the nurse meant when she said it could have been worse. She knew Bannon had family and friends that loved him, that we were there for him and for each other. In that way we are all very lucky. We all have a new, deeper connection that we all could have done without, but now that we have it we need to honor and cherish it.

I thought about how I could show that connection with Bannon today. I seriously considered wearing a cape or a pirate outfit – some people here know my penchant for costumes. But just being here with all of you makes it clear we have that connection – that because of Bannon we are all part of a special family.

So how do we all get to meet each other? My Irish Catholic upbringing reminds me about the part of Mass I disliked the most – that forced hand shake called “the sign of peace” – always made me squirm. So I’m not going to go there…

So what can we do?

Here is an idea and there is no touching required! So first think of something Bannon loved doing or something you did together. Now hold that thought – put on your best poker face. Look around the room, lock eyes with somebody – anybody – and realize they too have an awesome Bannon moment! – OK, now look at somebody else… You’re not looking! Look! Are you trying to guess the story? You know you are – and they’re trying to guess your’s too, right? Whatever they’re thinking you know it was a good time. And you start to smile… It starts with the eyes – you can’t help it when see all the stories waiting to be told, stories that we are all the better for, that connect us to Bannon. Now later today, find the people you stared down and tell that tale; then maybe shake their hand or share a hug.

And welcome to the family…

PC is Dead. Long Live PC

November 14, 2016

Mr Trump, can I say naughty things now?

Of course you can, Billy.

“I don’t have time for political correctness. And frankly, neither does our country” *

Last week a classic, clear, crisp New England Fall day called for some trail exploration on my new bike. There is a large water tank at the top of a hill in my neighborhood accessible by a dirt road winding through the brilliant yellow, red and orange woods. Perfect.

I headed off, enjoying the climb and scenery as I rounded one last turn. My destination came into view and I can see lots of graffiti scraped into the mossy stains around the tank. Clearly I wasn’t the only one to use this road besides the town’s water department. Pedalling closer to read the messages I spy the usual – hearts with initials, hearts with initials scratched out (love is so fickle), and my fav – “heart Elvis Parsly” (fresh breath – thank you very much).

As I continue my circle I see “Malia Obama likes it sideways.” Hmmm – name spelled correctly and, considering the whiteness of my little town, an odd choice. Then I see it was just the build up to the N word – again and again and again. Sometimes alone, sometimes in combination. 

I’m not bothered by much – C word, F bomb – they were all there. I know hidden places like this are where drunken high school kids say whatever they want without any filter or spell check. But this got to me.

So today was another of those perfect autumn days and I hopped on my bike knowing what I needed to do. I rounded the water tank and parked my bike off to the side. Unzipping my backpack I pulled out two spray bottles of Mr Clean and an extension brush and went to work cleaning up my town. 

My part of the country still has room for political correctness.

Some before and after pics:

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*Donald Trump. Presidential Debate Sep 26, 2016 – Cleveland, Ohio.

Let’s compare and contrast…

November 6, 2016

nintchdbpict000280104910-e1478358256253   Donald Trump

The other day at a rally for Hillary Clinton a man stood up and vocally advocated for Donald Trump. The crowd booed and shouted at him. President Obama, at the podium, reminded the Hillary supporters that this is America, the man has a right to express his opinion, pointed out the man was wearing a uniform, guessed he was a vet and reminded all that he deserves their thanks for his service. The crowd calmed and the rally moved on.

The other day at a rally for Donald Trump a man stood up holding a sign that said “Republicans against Trump.” The crowded booed and shouted at him. Donald Trump, at the podium, shaded his eyes and taunted the protester with questions of whether he was a paid Hillary plant where upon the crowd beat and kicked the man. Someone shouted “GUN!”, the Secret Service rushed the candidate off stage until the man could be taken from the venue.

Even more disturbing than this difference in reacting to an adversary is Trump’s retelling  of the incident with Obama at a later rally. He has Obama taunting and shouting at the man during the Clinton event, easily disproved with so many videos of the encounter, but this doesn’t inform Trump’s rhetoric.

This is not a case of liar, liar – that devolves quickly into the useless “how can you tell when a politician’s lying? when their lips are moving” meme. This is disturbing because this is the lens Donald sees the world through. A view that distorts reality so much that he believes that is how the event went; he believes the birther crap (retraction notwithstanding); he believes he is a supporter of women (especially the real lookers), and that Mexico will pay for a wall (even though, early on, he admitted it was just line to use when a rally got quiet).

Say what you will about Hillary, at least her eyes are seeing the real world (and not the one on MTV).

The Fall Harvest

August 25, 2016

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Picture the cardboard cornucopias and tom turkeys

with little holes for the thumbtacks

attaching them to a brown paper covered bulletin board

between Pilgrim brothers and sisters.

And Squanto – don’t forget Squanto –

there in the background with the cabins, fences, and trees

 

The harvest has come in

fulfilling the promise of the three sisters.

The new-comers learn corn, beans and squash

nurtured through the summer will return the favor

in the Fall and Winter.

 

Spring and Summer they continue to nourish

while their seeds feed

on the the fish heads and seashells

sweetening the soil as Squanto had taught

growing in plots carefully tended and protected.

 

Again and again, come Fall, the freshly picked and washed

– the full of promise for the next harvest –

will flow by the bushel into my classroom.

 

Pro-Am Election 2016*

August 15, 2016

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Watching contestants for the Mountain Biking World Cup event prepare at the top of Mont Sainte Anne I realized this is an elite group of athletes, not just alt boys and girls in dreads having fun on their parents coin. Warm-up routines were everywhere – bursts on portable resistance machines, hopping and stretching, meditating while pedaling backwards, slogging a Redbull and peeing just off the trial. These were the pros.

They may have started as those alt boys and girls, but they have honed their skills enough over the years to challenge a mountain face of loose dirt, trees, and rock walls at speed. I was not there race day, but on a practice day when teams walk sections of the course discussing the best line, runs are made to find and test that line, and ambulance teams handle the horrible results when that line was missed. This up close view of an unforgiving course it became obvious years of preparation are mandatory.

This also gave me a new appreciation for all the work the Olympic athletes have put in. The TV teases with montages of the childhood gymnastics classes and kiddie swim meets, but it’s the big leagues now and as cute as they were in those family videos, it is their ability to seriously focus the years of practice and coaching, to bring all of their learned skills to the moment of competition. This ability, along with some luck and appropriate gene pool, propels them into the elite rank of world class athletes.

Remember Eddie the Eagle? In 1988 Winter Games he became the first Brit to compete in the Olympic Ski Jump since 1929. Eddie’s dream was to compete on the world stage – the Olympics. He was a good downhill racer, but couldn’t make the British race team; however, there were no applicants in ski jumping. Eddie could ski, he could jump. All he needed to do was put it all together and dream realized! Cramming in as many jumps as he could (sometimes nearly sixty a day) prior to coming in dead last in both the 70m and 90m ski jump in Calgary. He became a hero to us all as an example of the little guy with the audacity to dream and make it happen no matter how badly he performed. As Bill Murray tweeted, “Every Olympic event should include one average guy for reference.” Eddie was our reference.

Now we have the Donald the Developer running for president. Has he run for a political office before? No. Has he always been a staunch Republican? No. Has he a long history involving himself in political causes? No. He is the outsider. But he claims to have made contributions to some political candidates (both major parties) and he has plenty of opinions. He’s just like us, but with a TV show and born into oodles of wealth.

People take pride in the Donald’s plain speech, using “the best words.” His meaning is always clear, until he says things like “By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know…” or Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” or “ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.

Didn’t he just encourage an armed insurrection, foreign cyber-invasion, and claim our current President is a traitor? Like any good marketer he repeats these comments louder and more forcefully until a few days later, when pressured, he changes the facts around what he said. Media bias… Sarcasm… Jus’ sayin’…?

He likes to change facts around a lot. He says he remembers days after September 11th when he saw on thousands cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center on TV –  

TRUMP: It did happen. I saw it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You saw that —

TRUMP: It was on television. I saw it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: — with your own eyes?

TRUMP: George, it did happen.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Police say it didn’t happen.

TRUMP: There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something. It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As I said, the police have said it didn’t happen.

Or this when asked about the goings on in the Ukraine and Putin –

TRUMP: He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not gonna go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?

TRUMP: OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there.

Trump has his facts straight on one point – he’s not there.

He then threw Europe into a tizzy when he said he would first check if NATO countries were paid up before fulfilling our treaty obligations. If they weren’t “…then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’” Anybody want to invade Europe? Russia – if you’re listening, sounds like an all-clear if you check the financials country by country.

I know it’s fashionable to hate elites, but why? Just like the pro mountain bike racers and Olympic athletes I’d rather my sports played by the best. Not somebody who tells me they’re the best, but folks who have actually been tested and come out on top. I expect the same for my plumber and mechanic. I want someone who knows what they’re doing, someone with experience – that stuff really matters. Why should my President be any different? Why should the job with the potential to do both the most good AND the most harm in this world be left to someone who can’t discern fact from fiction? I love the Eddy the Eagle story – full of pluck and can-do spirit – but his success or failure on the slopes did not have the potential to destroy a thousand years of civilization. The Presidency of Donald the Developer does.

Please vote – just don’t vote for Trump (the elections rigged anyway, right?)

 

*I have been trying to write this for nearly two weeks, but Trump just keeps saying more and more outlandish things – I started when he went after the Kahns after they addressed the Democratic Convention. I’ve decided he will just keep going so I have to just work with what I have to date…


 

The alternatives:

The Democratic ticket: Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Hillary has spent her entire life honing her skills for this job. She has been Secretary of State, a senator, wife of a former president, lawyer, and political since high school. She has gotten plenty wrong (haven’t we all?), but she learns and moves forward. She understands a political bargain means not getting everything you want, but moving things in the right direction. Even Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) says, “When you’re working outside of staff and outside of the press she is somebody I can work with,” though he will support the entire GOP ticket this Fall. She listens, she learns, and is pragmatic enough to get things done. She has learned to be incremental in her efforts and speaks in the precise, nuanced language of a lawyer knowing every word she speaks will generate an investigation.

Tim Kaine has been a senator, governor, lieutenant governor, and chair of the DNC. He is a Harvard trained lawyer, was a university lecturer and city councilor.

The Libertarian ticket: Gary Johnston and William Weld. Both have been governors (new Mexico and Massachusetts). Before being governor Johnson was a successful businessman and afterwards formed Our America Initiative, a political action committee. He was ranked among the nation’s seven top governors in each of the Cato Institute’s fiscal report cards between 1996 and 2002.

His running mate, Bill Weld, is a Harvard lawyer, studied economics at Oxford, was the US Attorney for Massachusetts. Weld began his legal career as a counsel with the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate impeachment inquiry, where one of his colleagues was Hillary Clinton. Reagan promoted him to head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department in Washington. He resigned in protest over misconduct of the Attorney General Ed Meese before running for governor.

The Green ticket: Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka. Jill Stein is a Harvard educated physician. She advocated for campaign finance reform, and worked to help pass the Clean Election Law by voter referendum. She has twice been elected to town meeting in Lexington, Massachusetts. She is the founder and past co-chair of a local recycling committee appointed by the Lexington Board of Selectmen. In 2008, Stein helped lead the “Secure Green Future” ballot initiative to move subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy and to create green jobs. She also served on the board of directors for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Baraka served as the founding executive director of the US Human Rights Network, a national network that grew to over 300 U.S.-based organizations and 1500 individual members. He is currently an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. He has also served on the boards of several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Africa Action.

 

Is It Safe?

July 30, 2016

Leviathan of Hobbes

Is it safe?

All I can think is Sir Laurence Olivier offering oil of clove to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man after jamming a dental pick into a cavity – even his henchman had to turn away – after asking that question.

That is the question I ask myself as the 2016 presidential election unfolds. Rights and freedoms are are being buried in a campaign of innuendo and factless smear.  We were taught our founders created a nation built on the writings of the great Enlightenment thinkers (unless you’re from Texas, where textbooks have that tidbit edited out).  Starting with Thomas Hobbes who began a century long conversation on how government should work. This dialog includes such great thinkers as Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu – all refining the idea of government and natural rights. Their writings inspired our writings – our Declaration, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights.  

What were the major concerns of those writers and our founders? Balancing individual freedoms while creating a government for protection. It began with Hobbes rejecting the divine right of kings and suggesting we willingly give up all our freedoms to one all-powerful leader who would keep us safe. This evolved into Rousseau’s idea that we should only give our freedoms to each other creating “We, the People.” Rousseau’s ideal of a direct democracy becomes Madison’s practical republic, rebuking most of Hobbes’ writing (except for his concept of man being a selfish asshole if left to his own devices).

Over the past nearly two and a half centuries, this system has worked reasonably well in the U.S. with some glaring exceptions (think slavery, Civil War, the Japanese internment). It has slowly refined itself and grown to accept the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and LGBTQ movement; closing in on the promise of all being created equal with certain unalienable rights.

Now, nearly 400 years after Hobbes, we have a candidate who is running on the Leviathan* platform and leaving the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason behind. Trust him, he’ll fix everything all by himself. He’ll self fund his campaign while raising money through emails and online pledges. He’ll protect our religious freedoms by knowing your religion before he allows you to enter our country. He uses his freedom of speech to bully and belittle those who speak against him. He promises to protect the freedom of the press by threatening lawsuits and refusing to credential journalists who question him. Just give him your vote and trade in the ideals of the  Enlightenment for a great wall of safety.

This spring we traveled to Italy and the first thing we were asked by the man who arranged to get us to our hotel was how was it possible a person like Trump could be so close to winning the nomination. It is now summer and Trump has the nomination and we are vacationing in Quebec, Canada. The topic that keeps coming up is possibility of Trump actually getting elected and did anyone seriously think this was a good idea. I wince when I tell them yes – many Americans do. They all look at me in horror. America will elect Trump to the most powerful position in the world? Ashamed, I have to turn away.

Is it safe? Can the world absorb a Trump presidency? Can our already strained republic overcome its base, nativist underbelly? Does anyone have a giant vat of clove oil?

 

*In the Leviathan the English writer, Thomas Hobbes, said the only way for us to be safe is to give up our freedoms to a badass Chuck Norris-like leader because man’s natural state is that of constant war – making life “nasty, brutish and short.” This leader would need to be so terrifying that no one would dare incur his wrath. Enemies from outside would keep their distance fearing his deadly roundhouse kick and those inside would avoid any and all commotion to save themselves from a righteous spinning back fist. With a leader like that, Hobbes reasoned, people could then go about their day in complete safety building businesses, creating infrastructure, growing a society for the next generation. He had a major flaw in his reasoning. The leader would be a human and humans are a greedy lot (which Hobbes acknowledged).

Hobbes is one of the early Enlightenment writers during the Age of Reason, a time when superstition was swept aside, replaced by a belief in logic and reason. Provable facts, able to be verified and refined, were the touchstone in that age – not so much this one.

Oh, What Tangled Webs We Weave…

July 6, 2016

“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges.”

FBI Director James B. Comey

Let the conspiracy theorists begin to weave a new web. FBI Director James B. Comey slapped Hillary Clinton for being “extremely careless” but refrained from urging prosecution. My Facebook feed is full of memes like:


13606673_1084828051584065_323281866098863705_n

People are mad. People see a politician getting away with something they are convinced they would be jailed for doing. They are probably not wrong.

The best example is that of Bryan Nishimura, a Navy reservist deployed in Afghanistan who transferred classified files from government computers to his own devices. He was sentenced to two years of probation and a $7,500 fine, and was ordered to surrender his security clearance. He is barred from seeking a future security clearance. We can debate intent and scale, but I see this and Hillary Clinton’s case as somewhat similar. Both removed classified materials from government secure sources.

But I have to cry foul for the General Petraeus and Edward Snowden comparisons I’m seeing. The only similarity is the involvement of classified information. Petraeus gave notebooks containing notes from national security meetings, the identities of covert officers and more classified documents to his mistress/biographer. Mr Snowden copied and leaked numerous secret global surveillance programs run by National Security Agency. Both gave classified information to the media to advance their own purposes.

Hillary Clinton and Bryan Nishimura transferred information to their own devices for their own convenience. So why isn’t the FBI recommending the AG go after Clinton the same way they went after Nishimura? Is the fix in? Do the Clintons’ wield so much power that the Republican FBI director is afraid to go after them?

This is where the conspiracy theorists and I will part company. I believe Comey when he says:

I know there will be intense public debate in the wake of this recommendation, as there was throughout this investigation. What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly, and independently. No outside influence of any kind was brought to bear.

I know there were many opinions expressed by people who were not part of the investigation—including people in government—but none of that mattered to us. Opinions are irrelevant, and they were all uninformed by insight into our investigation, because we did the investigation the right way. Only facts matter, and the FBI found them here in an entirely apolitical and professional way.

The evidence was gathered, a timeline created and carelessness and poor decisionmaking by Hillary Clinton was uncovered. Those are the facts as revealed by the FBI’s director. I believe his claim this was apolitical. His recommendation, however was not.

Comey is no fool. He wasn’t looking at bottom of the totem pole government employees like Mr Nishimura for comparative cases. He was looking at former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Both maintained private email accounts and staffs also handled emails similarly to Mrs Clinton and her staff. If he recommended going after one then he would open a Pandora’s box of prosecution for the others, the beginning of an Armageddon for American politics and we would spend the next few years with special prosecutors, more name calling and more division.  And more nothing getting done in Washington.

Comey’s recommendation was pragmatic. In that light, his assessment that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring the case makes sense. Not conspiracy, just reality.

 

Sources:

https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/statement-by-fbi-director-james-b.-comey-on-the-investigation-of-secretary-hillary-clintons-use-of-a-personal-e-mail-system

https://www.fbi.gov/sacramento/press-releases/2015/folsom-naval-reservist-is-sentenced-after-pleading-guilty-to-unauthorized-removal-and-retention-of-classified-materials

For those who want to compare Hillary Clinton’s claims versus the FBI’s findings here is a link:

http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/ap-fact-check-hillary-clinton-email-claims-collapse-under-fbi-n604526

 

Musings after a fitful night

March 10, 2016

bernSleep eluded me after this last Republican not so presidential debate. All the shouting and name calling reminded me of the fights my parents had when I was little. And just as frightening – the fear my world would be destroyed having to live with one or another of the combatants.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. ~FDR

Thanks, Franklin, your words were a downy pillow for my head and I drifted off to sleep, perchance to dream…

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain… ~MLK, Jr

Oh, the dream of beautiful possibilities, Martin. Inspiring words laying out a better future. We resolve to remake our world, your words direct our efforts. For we, the people, American achievement is near limitless; like when Jack said, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need – not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.  ~JFK, Jr

I hear the trumpet, Jack. Those common enemies are still with us; we are not yet in the full light of day, nor have we been swallowed by the night. Fifty years later the shimmer of twilight is still on the horizon outlining each of the enemies.

These great men, their words of inspiration tossed and turned in my head. Lofty words, soothing words, words that speak to a higher calling, words so compact and powerful. A flicker of light tickles my eyes open, an orange blur of morning sunrise. No, light is from the TV and what words do I hear?

My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body… We won with poorly educated, I love the poorly educated!… I know words, I have the best words. I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid.  ~ DJT

This is the new American oration? In my stupor I begin to sing to myself to try and unhear what I just heard:

O beautiful for spacious skies / For amber waves of grain / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain! / America! America! /God shed his grace on thee / And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet / Whose stern impassioned stress / A thoroughfare of freedom beat / Across the wilderness! / America! America! / God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law!  ~ Katherine Lee Bates

The morning has come and the bright light of this new day revealed my Bernie lawn sign has been stolen. Word, America, word.