Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Temporarily Ban All Muslims? Not That Unpopular An Idea

Of the many despicable things Donald Trump has said since he announced his candidacy for the Presidency a little less than a year ago, his call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States may be the worst. It is taken as an article of faith that banning all Muslims from our country is some combination of odious and unconstitutional. But this quote from The Washington Post tells a different story.

As it turns out, “banning all Muslims” is a popular idea with Republicans and not nearly as radioactive with the general public as the talking heads on TV would suggest. This is not to say it is a good idea or an idea that reflects well on our nation (it is not, and it does not), it is just to say that when you live inside a bubble it is easy to think everyone thinks the way you do, when in fact, they do not.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tough Talk

News of the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 had barely crossed the wire before Donald Trump hopped on Twitter to declare the incident an act of terrorism. The strong man routine fits his profile, after all, his “foreign policy” includes “knocking the hell” out of ISIS, which is an applause line, not a strategy. The media is quick to bolster his tough guy image but we have seen this movie before and the bark is always worse than the bite.

In Nixon’s time, it was called the “madman” strategy – Nixon wanted his adversaries in China and North Vietnam to think he was such a loose cannon, he might unleash nuclear weapons to settle the Vietnam War. The only people who suffered were the innocent Vietnamese people, who were subject to a bombing campaign unseen in the history of war, and the soldiers on both sides who died in the jungles of Southeast Asia. When the bombs failed to work, “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization” became a rebranding effort for admitting a victory could not be won. For all his bluster, the peace treaty Nixon agreed to in 1973 was no better a deal than had been offered five years previously.

Less than a decade later, another swaggering cowboy named Ronald Reagan rode into Washington, D.C. promising to stand tall against the Commies. After-the-fact mythologizing claims the Iranians so feared Reagan they released our hostages the day he was sworn in, but in reality, the deal had been cut weeks before, the hostages were held until Carter left office as a final humiliation to the one-term President not because the mullahs were afraid of Reagan. 

Indeed, just a few years later Reagan was selling arms to the Iranians to get hostages freed in Lebanon; this, after tucking tail and running from Beirut after our embassy was bombed in 1983. As detailed in Rachel Maddow’s book Drift, Reagan’s team could not even invade Grenada properly. The mission was bungled so badly, dozens of soldiers died. 

And if the old saying “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” applies, it is uncertain what happens when we are fooled a third time, but that is exactly what happened when George W. Bush came into office. An Ivy-League educated son of privilege, “W” packaged himself as a Texas cowboy who loved nothing more than spending his down time (which was considerable) clearing brush at his ranch. Of course, he and his aides ignored warnings about Al Qaeda and even after September 11th, standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, his chesty proclamations would end up being largely hollow. Well before Iraq turned into a quagmire, he had failed to capture or kill the perpetrator of 9/11. Ultimately, he slinked out of office with record low approval ratings, the country trillions in debt and scarred by his actions.

Now, here comes Trump. A man who avoided serving in the Vietnam War and whose knowledge of the military could fit comfortably in a thimble. His rhetoric makes Bush’s “dead or alive” threats to Bin Laden and “axis of evil” non-sense look both sober and tame in comparison. Will Americans fall for the tough guy routine again?

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Twenty Days To California

Hillary Clinton must wonder what she needs to do to make Bernie Sanders go away. Sweeps in various “super” Tuesdays stretched her pledged delegate lead to a point that made it mathematically impossible for Sanders to catch her. Yet, there he is, leveraging the media’s need to fill TV hours and column inches  to soldier on. After all, there is no shortage of college campuses and idealistic young people to make it seem like he still has a chance. And so, even if she need not win any more primaries between now and June 14th, when the District of Columbia has the final say, a loss in California on June 7th to Sanders would not look good. To the Beltway media, the dreaded “optics” of such a defeat would simply feed into the narrative that she is a weak general election candidate whose political host body (the Democratic Party) is rejecting her. 

I am sure the Clinton team would prefer not to spend any additional money locking up a nomination it thinks it has already won; however, allow me to offer a modest proposal. Instead of treating the next three weeks as an unnecessary epilogue to a primary contest that the Clinton team thinks is already over, look at this time as an unexpected opportunity to launch her general election campaign early. 

A month ago, everyone assumed attention would be focused on the Republicans, who were careening toward a contested convention and the possibility of a third-party challenger. Instead, opposition to Donald Trump folded and the race ended early. Because of this, Trump is likely to go dark as he focuses on catching up in fundraising, campaign infrastructure, and convention planning. For all his bluster, his campaign schedule even during the heat of the race was light - rarely doing more than one or two events a day - and now that he’s locked up the nomination, the idea of spending money on unnecessary rallies when so much needs to be done is unlikely. 

So with the media’s attention focused on California (and to a lesser extent New Jersey), the Clinton team should embrace this chance to dominate media coverage. Take the next twenty days to test drive her general election campaign themes, define her (and Trump) with the knowledge that she will generate an inordinate amount of national (and local) coverage simply because space needs to be filled -  so fill that space, with her message, with images of rallies and events with the diverse coalition that propelled President Obama to victory and interviews that give her a platform to speak with passion and fluency about how she will lead this country.

The return on investment from cross-country wins in New Jersey and California will not only snuff out the final embers of the Sanders insurgency, but springboard her into the fall campaign. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Failing Upward

It does not suck to be Paul Ryan. He leads the largest Republican caucus in the House of Representatives since 1928 and come January, he will either be ramming through a legislative agenda at the behest of an inexperienced President Donald Trump or leading the opposition to anything President Hillary Clinton proposes while becoming the de facto leader in the clubhouse to run against her in 2020. It is a remarkable thing, made less so by the fawning and credulous coverage he receives by a DC media that frames him as both a serious policy wonk and someone unconcerned with political machinations. 

The former is perverse and the latter is baffling. A supposed budget hawk, Ryan has been in Congress for almost half his life and in that time voted for all the stuff that has increased our borrowing (wars, Medicare D expansion, tax cuts, etc.) and against all the stuff that reduces deficits and debt (tax hikes, Obamacare). A budget “framework” he introduced as chairman of that committee was so austere and crippling to the Social Security and Medicare safety net his own party refused to support it. As Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, Ryan was reduced to playing the overeager student in a starched white shirt and striped rep tie while his own policy positions were shunted off to the side for fear of ostracizing moderate voters who like knowing they will have medical coverage in their golden years along with a check from Uncle Sam. 

You would think such a record would relegate Ryan to the dustbin of political history; instead, he became the Speaker of the House largely by not campaigning for the job after a rump group within his own caucus brought down John Boehner. With the rise of Donald Trump, the media have rekindled their romance with the P90X devotee. Back are the stories of him as a chart-loving nerd who cares passionately about the future of our country. Nowhere are the stories of how what he proposes is deeply unpopular and that his own votes in Congress have helped lead to the very problem he says he wants to solve. His tepid response to Trump is seen as principled, not political, with no evidence other than his own self-serving claims to that effect. 

Of course, things have worked out well for Ryan thus far even though his ideas are widely unpopular and given a national platform four years ago he barely made a ripple. Today, he has become the de facto leader of the Republican Party and a media darling who portray him as the last honest man in Washington. At this rate, Ryan may fail his way all the way to the White House. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review - Life Reimagined

Like middle children, life’s second act often gets ignored. That window between about 40 and 60 lacks the excitement of youth and young adulthood or the finality of one’s golden years. In Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art & Opportunity of Midlife we get an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) survey of this often paradoxical phase in our lives. On the one hand, “middle age” is in many ways a sweet spot of life - you are old enough to have learned many of life’s lessons and young enough to apply them, to look around a few corners anticipating blind alleys and avoiding them or directing your focus to the things you love. You are fully formed, or at least mostly so, secure in who you are and what defines you as a person. You may be married or divorced, a parent or childless, but you are at the peak of your earning power and far removed from the Ramen noodle diet you subsisted on in college. On the other hand, the suicide rate has skyrocketed among the middle-aged, divorce rates are ticking up, and research shows that happiness in life is “U” shaped, with the nadir smack dab in the middle sandwiched between peaks at the beginning and end. 

It makes sense. Middle age has both the nostalgia for lost youth and the fear of death, of paths not taken or too late to be started, of the risks we take if we divert from our established path. And this is where Hagerty rolls up her sleeves in an attempt to reframe these years in ways that people can make more enjoyable, more meaningful, and more explicable. Her tone is breezy and conversational, a gal pal who bops in and out of research clinics and first-person stories to weave a tale that focuses on everything from honing your mental acuity to the benefits of close personal friendships. If there is a common theme in Life it is engagement - that as we age, the importance of remaining present in our lives, of not pulling the sheet over our head and tuning out the world, but instead, re-committing ourselves to our own well being, our own growth, and what we can do to make our (personal) world a better place are the strategies we should adopt if we want to flatten that deep trough. 

It is an important subject taken seriously by a reporter who shows her chops, but it is also has the air of so many “first world problems.” Hagerty comes off as a plucky overachiever with a penchant for humble bragging. And that is fine - the book's target audience is surely demographically similar to Hagerty herself - well educated, upper middle class, and with the kind of resources and financial stability to contemplate the existential questions posed by middle age. And while I can certainly relate to this framing, I also found myself wondering how people of lesser means would view this book. Hagerty suffers from inflamed vocal cords but has the ability to seek out the finest medical practitioners to aid in her recovery. She breaks her collarbone in a bike accident along MacArther Boulevard (a tony section of suburban Washington, D.C.) but quickly hires a graduate student to help her with book research, a stenographer to take down interview notes, and a doting husband who tends to her. How many middle or lower income Americans could relate to this? 

An extended story about her brother (who we are reminded at least a half-dozen times is the owner of The Atlantic magazine) aiding in the rescue of journalists kidnapped abroad is meant to show his selflessness but comes off as self-promotion. Hagerty is also unapologetic about walking away from her own volunteer effort when it no longer "felt" right. Points for honesty, but I did cringe at the sentiment. Similarly, in a chapter that examines making changes in middle age, Hagerty uses as an example a woman who holds a Ph.D and has a husband able to support them both on his salary. Surely, that makes her desire for mid-career change less risky, but how realistic is that for most people? It is not to diminish the woman’s decision, it is just to say it is one that is foreclosed (or at least an incredible gamble) for those without that safety net.

Hagerty sprinkles some personal crumbs along the way - her laser focus on career, her later-in-life marriage, and childlessness, but the apple polishing on her own life is far more prevelant. Her great vacation, wonderful dog, and rich and successful brother garner ample page space but there is a part of the story that seems missing. Hagerty hints at this in briefly mentioning turbulence early on in her own marriage, but quickly moves on without further comment. It would have been far more interesting to hear more about those issues than pivoting away from that to how a two-week vacation (again, who among us can afford such a luxury or have an employer who would offer us one?) cemented how much she appreciated her husband.

Further, so much of what Hagerty writes about has the feeling of the exception proving the rule. Her case studies invariably support her thesis but failure is in  short supply. While there are many tales of survival and thriving, of barriers overcome and second chances accepted and rewarded, I worry that some false promise is there too - affluence affords a person a certain cushion against failure that they may not fully appreciate.

The book is told in short bites but is also over long at nearly 400 pages, particularly since a two-page afterword encapsulates much of the book's vibe without the lengthy descriptions of research studies and first-person accounts. In short, be engaged in your life with people you value and who value you, be charitable in meaningful ways, understand your limitations but do not stop challenging yourself, and keep your mind nimble and active to ward off dementia. All well meaning and intentioned, I am just not sure we needed so much book to tell us this.  

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Should We Care What Bernie Wants?

With wins in four of five states that made up the “Acela” (or I-95) Primary on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton is on the verge of history – the first woman to secure the nomination of a major political party for President of the United States. Of course, this singular achievement is already being poo pooed by the press, who are either mourning the loss of what ratings come from portraying a contest that was never that close as competitive or simply reflecting their decades-long antipathy toward the former First Lady. Either way, attention has quickly shifted to a narrative framed on her need to acquiesce to still-unknown demands that may be made of her by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to secure his endorsement and, in theory, the support of his followers. 

It is particularly presumptuous of Sanders to make demands considering he himself has only been a member of the party (sort of) for less than a year and acknowledged running as a Democrat purely for political expediency. But that aside, I am not sure what he could ask for that is not already in the neighborhood of what he seeks. On many of the issues of importance to him - Wall Street reform, taxation, college education, and others – Secretary Clinton has put forth proposals that are broadly in line with his thinking with the added benefit of being substantive and workable, not an idealistic fantasy where Republicans in Congress would somehow kowtow to the whims of a Democratic Socialist in the White House. 

That he would not get Secretary Clinton to adopt his ideas chapter and verse is no sin and should not be a requirement to secure his blessing. He lost, which means his views were considered and rejected; he does not get a second bite at the apple at the threat of taking his toys and going home. And Sanders may want to rethink any requests about the nominating process. The delegate apportionment rules that he bemoans have actually benefitted him, keeping him in the race by granting him delegates in large states he lost badly (see, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Virginia) while providing oceans of positive media coverage for wins in low turnout caucuses in places like Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Alaska that did little to move the needle in his delegate deficit. Sanders has gained a lot of mileage out of his victories even though of the ten states with the smallest turn out, he prevailed in all ten and his percentage of pledged delegates slightly outpaces the percentage of the total vote he has received. 

Even if Sanders asked that the number of super delegates be reduced or eliminated altogether, it would not help his cause because Secretary Clinton has also won a majority of the pledged delegates. Naturally, Sanders would like a system tailor-made to benefit him that would allow independents to vote in Democratic primaries (I do not get this – why would non-members of a political party be allowed to have a say in who Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) choose to lead their party?), reduce or eliminate super delegates and maybe increase the prominence of caucuses, but you only get to make the rules if you win the game. The truth is, for all the media sturm und drang, Clinton has held a consistent lead of between 10 and 20 percentage points in the total vote against Sanders since the primary season started in earnest.  

Indeed, if Sanders is truly interested in helping to advance his agenda, he would be best served by helping down-ballot Democrats flip the House and take control of the Senate, but he has been resistant to supporting “the party” until very recently and even then, his efforts on behalf of other Democrats has been limited to some fundraising letters and a passing nod to a handful of candidates. Mobilizing his volunteers and fundraising, helping to recruit progressives at the federal, state, and local level, and working with party leaders to little “d” democratize the way the party raises money will have a far more salutary benefit than arguing over a plank in the party platform that nobody is going to read anyway. 

Of course, this is not to say that Mrs. Clinton should not be gracious, but saying that is superfluous. Her campaign has run almost no negative advertising against Sanders and while the Secretary has thrown some sharp rhetorical elbows, they have been well within the rules for political campaigns. She has taken pains to publicly congratulate Sanders on his wins and extended an olive branch to his supporters in her victories. There are always going to be dead enders, people who, no matter how hard you try to appease, will not go gently into that good night. And so I say that Hillary should waste no time trying to mollify the Susan Sarandons, Rosario Dawsons and Shaun Kings of the world. They are much happier in their ideological purity than the belief that cementing the gains made under Presidents Clinton and Obama is more important than the risk of Donald J. Trump taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For the overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents who voted for Bernie Sanders, logic and reason will prevail. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New York City - April 16

New York City is larger than life. From Broadway to Times Square, the Empire State Building and the new Freedom Tower, to say “New York” is to capture an attitude, a culture, an energy, a style, and a history that is unique in our country. The city dates to well before the Revolutionary War but its streets, homes, and architecture offer both a glimpse deep into the past and well into the future. 

It is also massive. It is our nation’s largest city, but its more than 8 million inhabitants are wedged into a far smaller space than Los Angeles, the second largest city. For someone like me who has long been fascinated with the idea of New York, the reality was always daunting. Its mass of trains, subway lines, tunnels, and bridges make New York easy to get to and around but seem byzantine without a skilled guide.

As is my want, when I finally committed to learning about NYC, I went to a book - I Never Knew That About New York - an outstanding beginner’s guide to learning about the Big Apple. The first thing the book did to make New York more easily digestible was to focus solely on Manhattan. It is not to disparage the other four boroughs, but by limiting my scope, “the city” suddenly became more understandable.

Manhattan, similar to my hometown of Washington, DC, (mostly) utilizes a grid system - once I understood how the numbered avenues 1-12 traverse the city east to west with Broadway acting as a rough line of demarcation between the two and the numbered streets track north to south, any landmark became much easier to envision spatially as did the distance between two points. If you know that Penn Station is at W. 31st Street between 7th and 8th Avenue you quickly realize the Empire State Building is practically around the corner (at 5th Avenue between W. 33rd and W. 34th) but Columbia University is miles away at 116th Street and Broadway. 

With this back of the envelope knowledge, I was able to easily plot out a trip that took me to three of New York’s most famous areas - the Flatiron Building, Union Square, and the Strand Bookstore. Even better, thanks to Google street view, you can do a “virtual” walk beforehand, just so you know what to expect. That these three are so close to one another while also offering great photographic opportunities along with 18 miles (!) of books, well, talk about a no-brainer. 

Getting to New York is quite easy, though not necessarily cheap. A round trip train ticket from Princeton Junction runs $32.50, but in about 80 minutes you pull into Penn Station, just 3 blocks west of Broadway. 

Flatiron District

From Broadway, the iconic Flatiron Building rises gracefully as you walk south. But the building is just part of what is known as the Flatiron District. Directly across from the Flatiron Building is Worth Square, a tiny patch littered with tulips and a monument to General William Worth, a native-born New Yorker with a distinguished military record that spanned almost 40 years, from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War. 

A block to the east is Madison Square Park, another small slice of real estate bounded by skyscrapers and containing a statue of former Secretary of State William Seward, who served in that capacity for Abraham Lincoln and was the driving force behind our country’s purchase of Alaska (once referred to as “Seward’s Folly”). 

But these are mere appetizers for the main course - the impossibly elegant wedge that rises 22 stories in the air at the confluence of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 22nd Street. A mere six feet at its apex, this 1902 masterpiece of limestone and architectural vision demands your attention. If you did not know what the building was, you would be compelled to ask someone what it was. Even early in the morning, there were half-a-dozen shutterbugs snapping away. Here are a couple of different angles - front, side, and up close, to give you a sense of the building’s beauty.

Union Square

Just a few short blocks south on Broadway is Union Square, a great place to spend a Saturday both because of the farmer’s market selling everything from wild bison meat to artisanal corn whisky and the statue’s in the square. There are four - President Washington, President Lincoln, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Mahatma Gandhi. I found three of four (sorry, Gandhi!) and sampled some wild plum jam too (delicious!). Check it out:

Strand Bookstore

No photos, but I finished my loop two blocks east and two blocks south of Union Square at the Strand Bookstore - an absolute must visit for book lovers with three floors of new and used books on every manner of subject. A line had formed before the store even opened - there is no coffee shop inside, no new age music, just the sometimes dank smell of used paper, passionate employees eager to help, and a devoted fan base of people like me who will make visiting the Strand a priority when they come into New York City. 

I had a great day in New York and look forward to many more in the future. My next goal will be to master the subway system while plotting my next trips to places like Central Park, the High Line, and Roosevelt Island. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Democrats and Delegate Math

On Saturday, about 5,000 Wyoming Democrats caucused to select their pick for President of the United States. When the votes were tallied, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was declared the victor over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by a 56-44 margin. Importantly though, based on the way Wyoming apportions its delegates to the Democratic National Convention, each candidate received seven delegates and, when the party’s “super” delegates were included, Mrs. Clinton actually received more delegates (11) than Sanders (7).

Howls were heard in midtown Manhattan the following Monday. It’s a rigged system whined “Morning” Joe Scarborough, why do they bother holding these contests if the person with fewer votes wins more delegates, he complained. Other than the fact that this is the system within which Sanders agreed to run (nothing obligated him, he is not, after all, a registered Democrat), the fact is that the system both Scarborough and, increasingly, Sanders and his campaign rail against is the system that has kept him in this race. 

Right now, the Associated Press shows Clinton ahead by 250 pledged delegates (1,287 - 1,037) and 688 when “super” delegates (party leaders, elected officials, and others who are themselves delegates, including Sanders) are included (1,756 - 1,068). The total needed to clinch the nomination is 2,383. Clinton has also received about 2.4 million more votes than Sanders (a roughly 58-42 split) and bested him by three in the total number of states won. 

But the Sanders camp complains that the super delegates are somehow undemocratic, why should the party elders get to put their thumb on the scale and go against the will of the people of their states when the voters select one candidate but the super delegate chooses the other. Ok, let’s look at the Sanders argument. Reset the “super” delegate total to zero and count the super delegates from states that have already voted. If you do that, you find that Clinton would still maintain her lead if super delegates were required to vote as the people in their state did. Here, Clinton would lead 260 - 138, which would make her total lead versus Sanders 377 (250 pledged plus 122 super) and, if Clinton wins New York, would add another 44 super delegates to her lead (in addition to whatever pledged delegates she nets). 

On the other hand, suppose that the primaries and caucuses were winner take all. That seems to be the lament of the Joe Scarboroughs of the world. Why should the candidates split delegates when the voters choose one over the other? We do not apportion electoral votes in the general election, why should we do it with primary contests? This is not an argument the Sanders forces make and it is obvious why. If the states were winner take all, Hillary would lead 1,659 - 745 and, if you added the super delegates in the manner Sanders wants, her lead would stretch to 1,919 - 883 and put her well within striking range of the nomination. 

You see, for as much mileage as the Sanders team has gotten out of their recent winning streak, the reality is that most of those wins have come in places like Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Alaska and Hawaii, which, combined, have fewer delegates than Ohio. In fact, you can add in Wisconsin and you still fall short of both Florida and Texas. Clinton’s margins of victory in Florida and Texas were larger than Sanders’s wins in every state he has won combined. 

If anyone has a right to complain about the process, it is Clinton. She has won nearly 60% of the popular vote and won larger states like Texas, Florida, Illinois and Ohio by large margins that would have yielded massive delegate hauls instead of having to split them with Sanders. In fact, the split of pledged delegates to date slightly under reflects the popular vote totals - Clinton has won 58% of the vote but that has “only” yielded 55.3% of the pledged delegates. That number may change after New York, but the Sanders campaign has no room to complain.

What has happened is a candidate and campaign that is scratching out just more than 4 in 10 votes and wins in small, arguably less (small d) democratic caucuses in low turnout locations like Wyoming has spun a weak hand into some suggestion of unfairness when the opposite is actually true. Moreover, Sanders is losing even worse among Democrats. He does much better in states that are “open” to Independents and cross-over Republicans, itself an arguably unfair rule - after all, why should non-Democrats get to choose the nominee of the Democratic Party? With that said, the (big D) Democratic rules have helped Sanders remain competitive in a race that would have been over if different rules applied. He and his campaign should stop complaining about the rules and the media that is helping him spin his story should be ashamed of themselves.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

State delegate totals: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Party_presidential_primaries,_2016

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The People v. O.J. Simpson

At the end of the first episode of FX’s addictive and hypnotic The People v. O.J. Simpson, a group of prosecutors huddle around a TV set looking on forlornly as what will become known as the “White Bronco Chase” begins to unfold on the screen. Marcia Clark, who will become the target of so much scorn in the months to come, glumly asserts “we are going to look like morons.” 

Like so much of what would occur, Clark’s comment had a dual meaning. Deferring to Simpson’s recently hired attorney Robert Shapiro, who had requested that O.J. be allowed to turn himself in after a warrant was issued for his arrest, Simpson reneged and was spirited away by his friend A.C. Cowlings for what would become not only the most famous slow speed chase in history, but an opener for the endless 24/7 coverage of what was quickly dubbed “the trial of the century.” But if the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office was made to look foolish by giving their main suspect in a double murder special treatment, it was a mere foreshadow for the embarrassment it would suffer once the trial began.

Instead of going for a remake of the trial itself, Ryan Murphy and the team that produced, directed, and wrote this outstanding miniseries use it as a crucible within which they explore the crushing weight of pressure placed on the prosecutors, defense lawyers, jury, judge, victim’s families, and Simpson himself. While all of the main players are offered a humanizing portrayal, it is Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark who forms the emotional core. Her initial swagger at what she views as a slam dunk case quickly erodes as the defense “dream team” hammers at her over and over to the point where she is brought to tears in open court when having to confess her inability to stay after hours because of her kids. It is devastating, in a car-crash-in-slow-motion way to see a strong woman brought low - by an ex-husband eager to cast her in a negative light, a tabloid culture that fixates on her appearance and unlikability, and adversaries who press every advantage while flirting with the ethical boundaries of propriety. 

In Cochran, Courtney B. Vance inhabits the man in all his complexity and flamboyance. What fuels Cochran’s outrage against police misconduct stems from personal experience, of questionable police stops, his own employment in the DA’s office, and years representing people accusing the LAPD of misconduct. But in Simpson, Cochran has an imperfect vessel. Early on, he asks Simpson to look him in the eye and tell him whether he committed the murders and of course Simpson proclaims his innocence, but the inscrutability behind Cochran’s reaction leaves the viewer wondering whether this exercise is a legitimate one or simply to mollify Cochran’s conscience. But he is also vain, a vicious courtroom brawler and silver-tongued, toggling his pitch between righteous indignation and heartfelt passion as he drops rehearsed, quippy one-liners that he makes sound as if they were pulled out of thin air.  

Here, the courtroom battles become small set pieces for the broader narrative. A month-long dissection of criminalist Dennis Fung is reduced to less than 90 seconds and though he was ubiquitous in real life, Kato Kaelin’s appearance is barely a cameo, passing in the blink of the eye. Instead, we are treated to the behind-the-scenes drama, of Cochran wresting control of the defense team from Shapiro, of Chris Darden’s request to have Simpson try on the bloody gloves rebuked, only to watch him go against orders once in the court room, and Judge Lance Ito’s struggles as the trial descends into a referendum on race and Detective Mark Fuhrman’s use of vile language years before. 

Hovering over the entire spectacle is the news media in an age when the intersection between it and the tabloid culture was becoming closer and closer. Characters invariably find themselves gazing at the TV screen, Ito shaking his head in disbelief at the Tonight Show’s “Dancing Itos” sketch, Clark and Darden nursing wounds as their trial presentation is ripped to shreds by pundits, and Shapiro’s rising fear of inciting violence because of the defense’s full-throated use of racial injustice in its presentation. 

And in Robert Kardashian, Murphy finds his object lesson in the perils of celebrity. It may simply be a happy coincidence that Mr. Kardashian’s offspring would become Exhibit A for all that we we find revolting and impossible not to look at in the reality TV era, but David Schwimmer’s pained performance, all hang dog sad looks and disquieting skepticism hits all the right notes. We see his slow evolution from staunch defender of his longtime friend to unwitting accomplice in a possibly guilty man’s escape from justice even as his brood lurks in the background, pint-sized stealth bombs who would detonate in a vacuous culture their father would not live to see.

The macro themes of The People are as subtle as a sledgehammer. It is not just the nascent obsession with televised sensationalism that the trial introduced, but the larger (and more important) question of how race and the criminal justice system intersect that is as powerful and important today as it was in 1994 and 1995. Occurring just a few short years after the LAPD’s taped beating of Rodney King and the riots that ensued after the officers were acquitted of charges against them, it probably would have been impossible for the Simpson trial to not be impacted by race to some degree, but its prominence, abetted by Fuhrman’s clear racism and the broader arguments of both investigative malfeasance and incompetence put it all front and center.

The question begged is whether any of it mattered. The defense focused on racial bias and police misconduct, but guilt or innocence in the courtroom has much more to do with economics than race. Poor people, regardless of color, do not get the same quality of representation as the wealthy - an incidental effect impacting people of color disproportionately. If the same evidence in the Simpson case was used against an indigent defendant, there is no question the result would have been far different. Moreover, the blatant use of race by both sides, whether through jury selection or disqualification, the testimony of Detective Fuhrman, or pleas to the jury’s racial sympathies, ensured that the trial’s outcome fell largely along racial lines - most whites thought Simpson was guilty and (literally) got away with murder while most blacks agreed with the verdict. Indeed, one of the lasting ironies is that Simpson, who before the murders was a post-racial celebrity before that term was even coined, became a symbol for some weird form of racial karma - his acquittal acted as a counter weight to the ills and wrongs suffered by the black community at the hands of a justice system they saw as stacked against them.   

After the trial, in one of the show’s final scenes, Cochran runs into Darden in a nondescript hallway and compliments his adversary on a job well done, while offering to bring the younger man back “into the community.” Darden, eyes ablaze, lights into Cochran, explaining that he (Darden) never left the community and that for all of Cochran’s oration about racial justice, he did nothing to advance their people’s cause, he simply helped a rich man from Brentwood avoid conviction. The trial so soured Darden that he quit and Clark followed him out the door. Simpson was cast out as a pariah from polite society and eventually landed in prison years later for unrelated reasons (perhaps its own form of karma). 

While the show is fantastically paced, and most of the cast is spot on (Sterling K. Brown absolutely crushes it as Chris Darden and Nathan Lane is F. Lee Bailey as both legal gadfly and cold blooded mercenary out for a final taste of glory), it is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s interpretation of O.J. Simpson that left me cold. The O.J. we see is just a ball of petulance and grievance, but the fact that he is in so many ways a bit player in the show’s drama speaks both to the richness of the writing and the fact that as the one person in a static condition throughout the trial, we knew and saw little of what was happening in his life. His one star turn - struggling to slip on the bloody gloves, was critical, but even that “victory” is put in Shapiro’s lap, for it was he who surreptitiously slipped on the gloves during a break in court testimony and advised the team they would not fit O.J. 

Of course, the gloves episode points to the show’s one glaring failure. While Shapiro apparently did try on the gloves at some point, it was not at the time and in the way depicted in the show. Other events are similarly dramatized. Assistant DA Bill Hodgman’s heart attack, which is portrayed as having happened in court, actually happened back in his office. Cochran is shown cross-examining Mark Fuhrman when the detective asserts his Fifth Amendment rights, but it was actually co-defense counsel Gerald Uelmen who led that questioning. Darden is shown flirting with a contempt citation (which actually happened), just not at the point in the trial depicted in the show. While these tweaks added dramatic flair, this was one trial that did not require fictionalized accounting to add to its drama. 

The show does not pick sides in its depictions of events or characters so much as it reflects the weaknesses and humanity of those involved; however, in its post-verdict coda, the writers seem to tip their hand ever so much. After his run-in with Darden, Cochran returns to his office to celebrate with his co-workers. As the champagne flows, the group watches as President Clinton is shown responding to the verdict. As the President expresses his surprise (and regret) that people of different races saw the verdict so differently, he also observed that the case showed the need for people of all races to talk to, and not past, each other. A small tear dribbles down Cochran’s face and he nods with satisfaction, but it is impossible to know if he thinks the victory is one for racial equality or simply his now skyrocketing fame.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Donald Trump Is The GOP, The GOP Is Donald Trump

It gets exhausting writing about Donald J. Trump. Almost as exhausting as watching “the shows” spout conventional wisdom about why he is doing well and what the Republican party plans on doing to stop him. Were he what the inside the Beltway crowd has convinced themselves he is - some sort of sui generis mash up of Huey Long, George Wallace, and Benito Mussolini, it would be easy to dismiss his popularity as a one-off. A perfect storm of personality and moment, that point at which the dying gasp of (mostly) disaffected white voters railed against a system and party it thinks has abandoned it to free trade and multiculturalism while showing its belly to the world by refusing to lead the fight against capital R, capital I, capital T radical Islamic terrorism.

But such analysis is simply too facile (and false). That thesis ignores Trump’s across-the-board (not to mention geographical) success. While it is true that Trump cleaned up in the deep South, and particularly in areas with fewer college graduates, he also prevailed in places like Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Connecticut - all of which have heterogenous electorates where Trump garnered the votes of CEOs and their workers alike. Indeed, were Trump anyone other than Trump, a candidate whose victories spanned such a diverse segment of age, income, and geography, the chattering class would have deemed this race over long ago.

But the Republicans’ attempt to separate themselves from Trump has been equally foolhardy. House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech this week bemoaning the tenor of the political debate in this country, but Ryan’s apologia missed the forest for the trees. The Republicans do not have a messaging problem but rather, a message problem. When you support restricting voting rights, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, shutting down abortion clinics, and show antipathy toward gays and lesbians, it should be no surprise that your party struggles to elect a President in a national election. Yet, because Republicans have successfully gerrymandered House districts to a point where their incumbents are more threatened in primaries than general elections and have scooped up Governor’s mansions and state legislatures, they have shown little interest in considering why their Presidential results are so poor. 

The Republican “fever” Obama hopefully claimed would break in 2012 has instead deepened. It is not just Trump’s rise, but in the Senate’s refusal to take up his nominee to the Supreme Court, the almost instantaneous condemnations that flow from the mouths of Republicans in the wake of things like terrorist attacks in other countries and the boilerplate rhetoric of almost every Republican nominee for President not named Trump questioning everything from Obama’s loyalty to the country to whether he is subverting the Constitution that is indicative of mainstream  Republican thought - Trump is simply refracting that ugliness back in a coarser, purer way.  

Even as Trump marches inexorably toward the nomination, plans are afoot to insulate down ballot candidates from what party elders fear will be Trump’s landslide defeat in November. Endangered incumbents like Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte are already making the pivot to try and show they are bipartisan in an effort to appeal to voters who might otherwise punish them for their obstruction of President Obama. And such a strategy may work. Republicans are far more invested in framing Trump as an invader out of step with its party’s orthodoxy than in seeing him as a representation of it. 

Instead of addressing the cancer inside its own party, Republicans can rely on an incurious media that missed Trump’s appeal entirely and has written his political obituary over and over again to no avail. This should not be surprising. For years, the media poo-pooed the unprecedented tactics deployed by Congressional Republicans; instead using their all too comfortable “both sides do it” frame even as Obama was demeaned in the basest ways, insulted before a joint session of Congress, and his very legitimacy as a U.S. citizen called into question. That off-year elections, which skewed older and white, swelled Republican ranks in both houses of Congress did not hurt either. This toxic brew created the virus that now infects the GOP, but the thing about pathogens is they cannot thrive without a host body. In the Republican Party, Trump found a fertile breeding ground. 

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