Saturday, May 20, 2017

The High Line

Four years ago, after spending Mother’s Day in New York City, my ex-girlfriend (a native New Yorker) asked me where I wanted to go the next time we visited. “The High Line” I said, without hesitating. “Too touristy,” she, a child who rode the subways when they were graffiti laden and went to Times Square when it was still home to porno shops, sniffed. We broke up a few weeks later (not for that reason), but today, I finally made it to what has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Manhattan less than ten years after its completion (no small feat).

Special Lady Friend was right - the High Line is touristy, but simply because a seemingly never-ending parade of Europeans (easy to spot as Brooklyn hipsters with slightly better clothing) and middle Americans (the I ♥️ NY t-shirts are a dead giveaway) cycle through the roughly 1.5 miles of what was once an abandoned railroad line and is now an urban park, does not mean it is not also really cool. Where else could you see a couple getting married at 8:45 in the morning while 50 feet away, a yoga class was taking place in a studio with floor to ceiling windows?

I can see why the High Line engenders strong feelings - at its origination point the new Whitney Museum, garish, modern, and impossible to miss, stands in an area that was once synonymous with urban decay. The meatpacking district is now home to multi-million dollar condominiums and the entire pier is being transformed. For those (like my ex) who remember a tougher time in New York City, the era captured in movies like Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Fort Apache: The Bronx, it can be difficult to get their heads around an expensive urban redevelopment project underwritten by well-heeled philanthropists whose names are honored throughout the park. 

But here is the thing. It is impossible not to be charmed by the High Line. It is the perfect execution of a simple concept completed with impeccable precision. From the slick website that posts events, performances, and things to do, to the manicured gardens bursting with color, you wonder how the High Line ever did not exist. It is not just how smart it was to take an abandoned area and repurpose it for a public good, but by making it so accessible (multiple entry and exit points) and interactive (the views are uniformly outstanding and also anachronistic, as in the seating area around 18th Street that allows for a view straight down 10th Avenue that makes you feel like you’re watching television) the High Line draws you in completely.

As the photos below show, the flora and fauna are a delight, photogenic and demanding attention, but the architecture of the area is also honored - the High Line snakes through, under, and is adjacent to the many buildings that arose before its construction and now, the many that are popping up in its wake. And there are SO MANY BUILDINGS going up. The entire length of the High Line is awash in construction - residential, commercial, the entire skyline on the West Side of Lower Manhattan has and is being transformed thanks to this visionary project. 

This is the bone that many traditionalists pick. After all, what was once home to shooting galleries and a lively after hours club scene has made way for high rises and waterfront driving ranges. And while I certainly get that argument, it is a windmill that people must be tiring of tilting at. After all, a Whole Foods has arisen along the Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn long ago became the poster child for gentrification. 

If there is a criticism to levy at the High Line, it is that the designers may not have had enough faith in their creation. Instead of drafting a plan that could accommodate huge crowds, the walking paths are narrow - one lane in each direction through most of the park - which can make the experience feel a bit like moving along a conveyor belt; however, this is tempered (in part) by the spacious seating areas that jut out like little culs de sac along the way. 

And for those who say the High Line and all the redevelopment that has sprouted around it has ruined the grittier vibe, not 50 feet from the 14th Street entrance, I saw a homeless woman writhing on the sidewalk. She was either having a seizure or an orgasm, so not all is lost. 


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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Dumbest Thing Politico Has Ever Published

Politico has been derided as “Teen Beat on the Potomac,” a journalistic virus that has infected reporting by emphasizing controversy and gossip, with a splash of tabloid and less concern for hard news. And while Politico does churn out some decent reporting, its main claim to fame is Playbook, the daily tip sheet started by Mike Allen and now written by Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, whose mission is to “drive the day” of political news coverage in the nation’s capital.

One part news aggregator and one part political analysis, Allen did not pioneer this idea, but he did perfect it; however, with his departure to Axios, and the emergence of other like products such as James Hohmann’s Daily 202 (The Washington Post), Playbook has faltered. A perfect example comes from today’s (May 16, 2017) edition. Palmer and Sherman offer this “quick thought”

You do get the sense that Trump has a decent chance for some sort of peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, we should all be skeptical of solving one of the most intractable cycles of tension and violence ever. But in the last few weeks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signaled openness, and behind the scenes, Trump officials - and even some longtime Obama officials - have been surprised at the positive body language on the two sides.

Here, in one paragraph is everything that is wrong with modern-day political journalism. A story that is thinly sourced (anonymous current/former Administration officials), whose main source of evidence (body language) is as reliable as phrenology, drawing a conclusion (decent chance) about one of the hardest foreign policy challenges of modern history (peace between the Israelis and Palestinians), written by two reporters who were not even born when Jimmy Carter helped broker the peace deal between Israel and Egypt. 

It is no small feat to cram so much bad reporting into one paragraph, but Palmer and Sherman manage to do it. You would hope that an editor somewhere up the food chain at Politico would have had the good sense to squash a story like this, but in today’s media environment, that would be asking for way too much. 


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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Trump's Firing Of Comey Is A BFD

President Trump’s firing of James Comey has created a shit storm in Washington, D.C. that should be lighting everyone’s hair on fire. Comey’s protectors in the media are quick to rush to his defense, both generally, and specifically as to his actions over the past year. But here’s the thing. If you’re James Comey, you don’t rise to some of the most politically sensitive positions in government (U.S. Attorney for the S.D.N.Y. - the pre-eminent U.S. Attorney’s Office in the nation, Deputy Attorney General and FBI Director) without some savvy. The media’s willingness to constantly give him the benefit of the doubt lacks credulity, but at the same time, people need to understand that Democrats who were outraged at his actions during the campaign can also be outraged that his firing appeared to be a pre-textual (and pre-emptive) effort by a sitting President to shut down a criminal investigation into his campaign (and possibly Trump himself). 

It should be said that neither Clinton nor Trump was entitled to preferential treatment by Comey, but by the same token, they should not have been given worse treatment, which is what happened in Hillary’s case. When Comey gave a press conference in July 2016 to announce there would be no recommendation of charges against Hillary, he tiptoed near the line of impropriety - it is rare for an investigation that results in no charges being filed to be announced publicly; however, if you accept that in the public interest it made sense to say something, his editorializing went well beyond his charge and was, naturally, turned into convenient sound bites for political attack ads and ad nauseum coverage on cable news. Comey’s intervention just eleven days before the election was even more egregious, both because it flouted clear DOJ guidelines on making public statements so close to an election, but also because it was done without having facts behind it that might have mattered. 

The media’s willingness to give Comey a pass - bemoaning the “impossible” position he was in - has turned out to be too cute by half. The prudent course for Comey, had he treated Hillary like any other person under investigation but never charged, would have been to keep his mouth shut the entire time. Indeed, prosecutors do this for two primary reasons - (1) so an innocent person’s good name isn’t sullied if he or she is never charged with a crime; and (2) to avoid tainting the investigation. When word leaked after the election (curious timing, no?) that the FBI had an open and active investigation against the Trump campaign dating to last summer, his actions looked even more partisan and indefensible and the media’s defense, laughable. 

So why is that his termination by Trump is so offensive? After all, Comey blurred the lines (or eradicated them entirely) during the campaign. But here’s the thing - with an active investigation into Trump’s associates (and possibly Trump himself) going on, for Trump to remove Comey is precisely the type of malfeasance post-Watergate changes were designed to protect against, including the “wall” between the White House and the Department of Justice as it relates to criminal investigations and the 10-year term (which was established after Watergate in 1976) the idea being the FBI Director should, to some degree, be insulated from the political process. 


If it turns out that Trump removed Comey in an effort to sideline or stop an investigation into his campaign’s contacts with agents of the Russian government or, worse, actively collaborated with them, that itself would be grounds for impeachment; whatever else may be discovered would simply be icing on the cake. There are few agencies in our government more important to the functioning of our nation than the Department of Justice; thus, injecting politics into the DOJ is particularly fraught with peril. One of the reasons an independent counsel makes sense is because the nature of the Trump/Russia investigation is so sensitive and the appearance of a conflict so apparent, someone who cannot be removed by the President or Attorney General is needed. Once upon a time, Republicans believed in this concept; conveniently, it was when some guy named Bill Clinton was President. My, how times have changed. 

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Breaking Saul

Whether by necessity or design, Better Call Saul has become about much more than a small-time lawyer’s transformation from hustling clients from the back of a nail salon office to consligiere for Albuquerque’s reigning meth king. And the change has been to the show’s benefit. All too often, and particularly in the first season, it simply felt like there was not enough “there there” to carry this story for a four or five season run. Episodes were mired in the back and forth of class action lawsuits and filial competition, but as as the show has accelerated its pace in a standout third season, the writers’ end game is now clear - instead of simply answering the question of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, they are filling in the entire backstory of the ABQ’s criminal underground when Walter White and Jesse Pinkman took that RV into the desert for their first cook.

In doing so, the show is less Better Call Saul and more Breaking Saul, as the child spin off adopts more of the parent show’s look and feel, including direct call backs, grittier storylines, and, most notably, the return of Gus Fring, one of the most sharply written villains in recent TV history. The fan servicing is not subtle and more than appreciated. A recent opening sequence flashback featuring Steven Bauer as Don Eladio meeting with his lieutenants was the closest BCS has come to directly referencing BB and the tension of those few minutes was as gripping as anything witnessed in the salad days of Heisenberg’s reign. On the other hand, the writers have offered a little lagniappe (something extra) at the beginning of each season - a one scene glimpse into Saul’s “erased” future, where he is now a sad sack Cinnabon store manager in Omaha, Nebraska with a droopy mustache and thinning hairline. 

As each episode airs, you see the puzzle pieces filling in, like the border has been completed and the middle parts can now be put into place. We see the nascent scuffles between Hector and Gus and know that the former will end up essentially becoming a suicide bomber to kill the latter, but we do not yet know how Hector became a mute in a wheelchair. Similarly, Kim, Howard, and Chuck are all integral to BCS but none appear in Breaking Bad. Do they simply live on (off-screen) in the BCS/BB universe or are their fates more dire? 

In broadening its scope, the writers have also lifted some of the narrative weight from places it seemed strained (Jimmy’s on-again/off-again relationship with Kim) and made it more balanced. As Alan Sepinwall has noted, BCS is now really two shows in one - the first is still tracking Jimmy’s inexorable slide to his alter ego but the Mike Ehrmantraut storyline, which seemed a throwaway when the series started, is every bit as prominent now. While Jimmy and Mike seem to be running on parallel tracks, their intersections, and in particular with the Fring/Salamanca storyline, show how these paths will all converge once a high school science teacher with a death notice fulfills his destiny and becomes the southwest’s greatest meth cook. 

Vince Gilligan had the good sense to put a temporal limit on Breaking Bad, ending it after 62 tidy episodes over five amazing seasons when he surely could have stretched but left an inferior product. I hope a similar decision is made with Better Call Saul which has become a highly entertaining spin off while retaining its own charms. 


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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tulips - Spring 2017

When the tulips bloom, it can only mean one thing - spring has arrived. Here in New Jersey, it looked like spring was arriving before St. Patrick's Day, but a late season snow storm followed by several weeks of below average temperatures threw Mother Nature for a loop. Fortunately, spring has (finally!) arrived. Please enjoy these photos and if you would like a high resolution copy, feel free to email me at - scarylawyerguy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy








Sunday, April 2, 2017

Book Review - A Colony In A Nation

In 2000, a 21-year-old college student attended the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As he passed through the layers of security to enter the convention hall, about thirty dollars worth of marijuana was discovered in his backpack. Instead of confiscating the drugs and arresting the perpetrator, the police looked the other way, handing the bag (and the drugs) back to the stunned young man. Had Chris Hayes been black and not white, or traveling on I-95 instead of with his future father-in-law (who was a reporter covering the RNC), this story may have turned out differently. 

The thesis of Mr. Hayes’s second book, A Colony in a Nation, is that criminal justice policy, from policing to prosecution, the essential duty of maintaining law and order, is done much differently depending on your zip code and skin color. In the Nation, largely white, middle to upper-middle class, your interactions with the police are at worst a minor annoyance (being pulled over for speeding) but more commonly quite positive, as they quickly respond to any disturbance in your leafy suburban bubble of privilege. For inhabitants of the Colony, darker skinned and poorer, the opposite is true. Each interaction with the police is fraught with literal life and death consequences. 

As a card carrying member of the Nation - a white man educated at elite schools and with meaningful wealth, Hayes may seem like an odd vessel through which to frame our country as one that has elements of apartheid-era South Africa and a vague resemblance to the movie “District 9,” but his roots in social justice movements and his avowedly progressive viewpoint fit neatly with this inequitable view of society. Hayes has seen the tensest standoffs between citizens and police up close and personally and has a clear passion for his subject. 

But for all of Hayes’s insight, braininess, and clear interest in the subject, ACIAN too often felt like a survey course when what I wanted was a graduate-level seminar. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the book feels light. It is short (220 pages) but utilizes generous margins and spacing, giving it the feel of an overlong magazine article and not a full length examination of an important public policy issue. Much of the book is informed by Hayes’s own experiences - both as a child and teen growing up in New York City during (as he calls it) the “Crack Years” and as a journalist who covered the aftermath of high profile police-involved killings. But for someone who embraces rigor and evidence, focusing so much on the anecdotal and not the empirical was surprising. To be sure, there is some discussion of research - Hayes lays out some of the various theories on why crime has dropped so dramatically in our country, ultimately concluding that we don’t have one solid answer, but then skips right past a national spike in murders in 2015 with a quick parenthetical that they took place in a few large cities. Huh? 

Part of this is deciding where you want to focus your attention. It is already well-documented that there is a difference in outcomes for black and brown defendants as compared to white defendants for a variety of crimes and while skin color may play part of a role, so too does economics. Poor white people have no better access to legal representation than poor black or brown people, it is just that the concentration of what we consider “serious” crime is centered in smaller and smaller parts of the country. The irony is that the geographic “colony” continues to shrink, but the psychic area, the one that results in Skip Gates getting accosted at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, black students being harassed by college campus police, or your run-of-the-mill “driving while black” incidents is as large as ever. *That* question, of our basic racial prejudices, whether we are in a high-crime area of an inner city or a sheltered college campus, begs more attention and response. 

As Hayes notes, most crime is intra-racial and if we are most concerned about serious violent crime, we cannot ignore the fact it happens disproportionately in what Hayes calls the “colony.” Where I live, in Mercer County New Jersey, it would take a town like Princeton 20-30 years to match the number of murders that occur in Trenton in just one. Indeed, in any given year, 90 percent or more (sometimes all 100 percent) of murders that occur in Mercer County happen in Trenton. Should we ignore this? In fact, there are a handful of cities in New Jersey that account for almost every murder that occurs in our state. Law enforcement can only do so much - they are reacting to a host of socioeconomic factors that have been in play for decades, yet we expect them to strike a balance between effective policing and not being influenced by race. It is an almost impossible task yet most officers do it.  

While unequal policing, and particularly as it relates to low level, non- violent and other petty offenses, is well documented, the same does not extend to more serious crimes. As a Chicago native, I was surprised Hayes did not focus more of his attention on his home town, as it does, in miniature, reflect many of the achievements and failures of policing. On the one hand, large swaths of the city are safer now than they have been in decades, while small pockets are as dangerous as a war zone. And that is the thing - the dramatic reduction in violent crime since its apex in the late 1980s and early 1990s has shrunk the areas with significant problems considerably, but the concentration in those areas has become even more significant. 

Indeed, part of my problem with books of this ilk that attempt to contextualize policing is that they fail to take into account the other villains in the story - if you want to find near-complete-circle Venn diagrams, study areas of desperate poverty, high unemployment, low graduation rates, and yes, single parent households, you will find high levels of criminal activity as well. This has nothing to do with turning inner cities into some sort of District 9 segregation units, but rather, a broader failing of public policy. As Hayes rightly notes, we ask police to do a great number of other jobs they are ill-suited for, but that is because so many other institutions in society have failed. This in no way excuses the abhorrent treatment black and brown people often face, but at the same time, there are myriad examples of police doing the right thing, of going above and beyond, in service of the communities in which they work. 

There is also a schizophrenic aspect to Hayes’s writing. While he laments the ineffectiveness of internal investigations as a means of bringing rogue cops to heel, he also visits a police training academy to simulate real-world interactions between police and the community. Unsurprisingly, the latter results in Hayes’s appreciation for the difficult, split second decisions police officers have to make (in one simulation, Hayes is “killed” because he fails to see a man approaching him with a shotgun), but the sequencing is backwards in the book. The gee-those-guys-have-a-tough-job insight occurs early on, while the criticism of IA procedures is deep into the book. It also begs the question, what is the right number of officers disciplined for their actions? No one ever seems to have the answer to that, other than to highlight instances of particularly egregious behavior (Eric Garner comes to mind) that should rightly be prosecuted and punished. 

There was also a missed opportunity to highlight public policy that is trying to address some of these root causes. Hayes need only go from Brooklyn to Harlem to see the work of Geoff Canada or consider the expansion of his Harlem Children’s Zone model in communities throughout the country to see what works. A step further and the question of continued funding for such a program (dubbed “Promise Neighborhoods” at the federal level) under the Trump Administration would put the question in sharper relief and challenge policy makers who pay lip service to caring about the “colony” to put their money where their mouth is. And even as the parties squabble in Washington, Governor Cuomo recently announced a $1.4 billion initiative to revitalize areas of Brooklyn that will include increased access to health care, an anti-violence program and other prosocial efforts at community redevelopment. 

Similarly, the sea change that is occurring, literally before our eyes, in criminal justice policy could fill its own book. Juvenile justice reform has been championed in blood red Texas and bail reform just went into effect in deep blue New Jersey that releases most defendants from custody at their initial hearing. These ideas, along with recent shifts toward adopting more of a community policing model, are the green shoots that will one day sprout. For a journalist steeped in policy, it was surprising that these and other locally-led efforts did not merit acknowledgment in ACIAN

At the same time, what of the young boys and girls growing up in the “colony” who do not expect to live past 40, have missing family members who are deceased or incarcerated, and are educated in dilapidated schoolhouses by teachers who are doing their best to bail water out of a sinking ship? We could train an army of Officer Friendlys to walk the beat of every street corner in every dangerous neighborhood in America, but without the basic foundations that we think of as middle class life - economic opportunity, access to a good education, and health care - none of this matters. 

Interestingly, the last vignette Hayes shares is of observing a group of African-American teens harassing passers-by in Prospect Park. The needling shifts from annoying to criminal when one of the youths steals a man’s phone as he is pushing a baby stroller. Harmless? Maybe. Petty? Perhaps. But because it is impossible to know whether these youthful indiscretions are just that or nascent signs of a more serious criminal mentality is part of what makes enforcing the law, be it in the “nation” or the “colony” so challenging. 


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Friday, March 31, 2017

Why Flynn Might Flip

Distilling complex legalities into 140-character tweets is next to impossible and the "threaded" tweet storm can only do so much. That said, I put this together last night when word broke that retired General Michael Flynn is seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony before Congress (and, presumably, federal prosecutors). 

A few additional thoughts here: First, the very public announcement of this "offer" indicates a couple of things to me - that investigators have already been in touch with Flynn (or his lawyer), that he has likely turned over some documents and/or had preliminary conversations about what legal jeopardy he may face; Second, that his after-the-fact registration as a foreign agent was done to mitigate some of that jeopardy in the same way some colleges "self-sanction" before the NCAA has a chance to drop the hammer in hopes of getting leniency; and Third, that Flynn *potentially* has that proverbial "story to tell" that would burn the city down. 

Keep in mind, prosecutors are only interested in flipping potential defendants if those smaller fish can offer up someone bigger - in this case, the only person of substance above Flynn in the Trump campaign/administration is Trump himself. Of course, prosecutors don't just hand out immunity deals - as my tweets note, a proffer with accompanying support would have to be made about what Flynn is prepared to testify to. Further, because prior prosecutions, particularly during Iran-Contra, were fouled up by public testimony before Congress that was then used in the prosecution of people like Ollie North and John Poindexter, federal prosecutors would likely request that Congress NOT go forward with any interview or hearing that included Flynn while their criminal investigation is ongoing.

All in all, this is REALLY bad news for the Trump team and a (possibly) major step toward a fuller understanding of Russia's interference in the election coming to light. On the other hand, this could also be the effort of someone about whom we have a lot of public information - the undisclosed foreign representation and conversations with Russian officials being foremost among them - that would already establish probable cause of criminal activity. In other words, this might also be Flynn trying to protect himself from misdeeds that have little/nothing to do with his actions on behalf of our President. 


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Dark Star Shines In Nassau

In the Grateful Dead’s 30 year history, there are a handful of shows known simply by the date they were played. Five-Eight-Seventy-Seven, Ten-Nine-Eighty-Nine, and Two-Fourteen-Sixty-Eight are among a select few performances that any Deadhead recognizes immediately. Today marks the anniversary of another of those shows: Three-Twenty-Nine-Ninety. Over a second set of absolute gems, the band, joined by the famed jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, would put together a seamless 90 minutes of music that wore out tape decks, CD players, and iPods long before the band’s archivists got around to officially releasing the entire show nearly 25 years later. 

When Branford joined the band at the Nassau Coliseum they were at a creative peak that began six months before that fateful night on Long Island. The Fall 1989 tour was one for the books, starting with two unannounced shows in Hampton, Virginia on October 8th and 9th that saw breakouts of “Dark Star” (first in more than 5 years), “Help>Slip>Franklins” (ditto), and the first east coast performances of “We Bid You Goodnight” and “Attics of My Life” since 1970. The tour picked up speed as the band went up and down I-95, playing stand out shows on Weir’s birthday in East Rutherford on the 16th, in Philly on the 20th, and ending with a mind-bender of weirdness (even for the Grateful Dead) in Miami on the 26th. 

The energy on stage was also palpable in the parking lots. I attended a lot of shows during the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990 and there was a feeling that anything was possible. In the pre-internet, pre-social media world, you relied on the four-page “Dupree’s Diamond News” and parking lot gossip to divine possible set lists and speculate about the next big break out performance. The music was self-assured but also exploratory, with Garcia dipping into a new bag of tricks courtesy of MIDI technology that could transform his guitar into a variety of other instruments or he could simply link up with Mydland’s muscular blues riffs on organ and throaty backups. Lesh was the absolute backbone of the band, while Weir’s mastery of the rhythm guitar, the notes not played as he famously put it, made him the perfect foil for Garcia’s brilliance. 

When the Dead pulled into Landover, Maryland in unseasonably warm weather on March 14th, 1990, the stage was set for more magic. The three-night run at the Capital Center would see more break-outs, “Loose Lucy,” “Easy to Love You” and “Black-Throated Wind” all rejoined the band’s repertoire for the first time since the mid/late-1970s and Lesh’s 50th birthday was punctuated by a killer “Terrapin Station” that is acclaimed as one of the band’s finest. Subsequent stops in Hartford and Albany provided more evidence that the band was firing on all cylinders, with the former providing stand out versions of “Shakedown Street” and “Morning Dew” and the latter being of such good quality, large portions would be released commercially under the sobriquet “Dozin’ at the Knick.” 

So it was that on the first night in Nassau Coliseum, the band had another treat in store. A premiere performance of “The Weight,” a mournful ballad that saw the Dead hand off verses to each other in a letter perfect way that showed they had taken the time to practice this performance, as opposed to their more common tactic of half-assing cover tunes like “Blackbird,” “Stir It Up,” and “So What.” 

The following night started off unexceptionally, if professionally with a solid first set of standards like “Jack Straw” and newer material like “We Can Run.” But when Marsalis took the stage for “Bird Song,” March 29th began its ascent into the history books. This Bird Song does indeed soar, with Marsalis’s addition turning it into an ephemeral, almost dream-like sequence of music that puts your head in the clouds and a smile on your face. The chemistry was there, the playing lush, rich, and textured, fitting neatly within the many other moments of beauty the band had produced over the prior two weeks. 

Instead of sticking around for the set-ending “Promised Land,” Marsalis alit from the stage, and one could have assumed his star turn was over. However, when he walked out on stage for the second set, Branford and the Dead created a masterpiece that would come to be seen as one of the best hours-and-a-half (give or take) of music they ever performed. 

The set opens with “Eyes of the World,” performed in a jazzy tempo that mixed perfectly with Marsalis’s soaring alto saxophone. This version takes flight from the get go, as the crowd roars with approval at the first notes Marsalis adds to the mix. Stretched out over more than 16 minutes, the interplay between Garcia and Marsalis is not just literal music to the ears, but the grainy video bootlegs that circulate online show the two in spirited harmony, Garcia clearly enjoying the younger man’s presence and the saxophonist sliding into Garcia’s musical conversation like an old friend. Eyes has many stand out moments, but the one I always come back to is a note Marsalis hits at 6:35 and holds for a few seconds that sends chills up my spine every time I hear it and resulted in an appreciative “you-believe-this-guy” look from Garcia to Weir. It is the “x” factor Deadheads would speak of but rarely see, in miniature. The shift to “Estimated Prophet” in tempo and feel shows Marsalis capably following the band’s lead. He intuits the reggae/funk vibe to the song, switching from alto to soprano sax and laying down a solo at the 8:15 mark that culminates in a wicked blues riff at 9:19 that is stunning coming from a musician who had never heard the song before performing it on stage. 

This sets the stage for another in the list of post-Hampton Dark Stars that shine with an authority and confidence that became a signature of these 89-90 performances. Jerry leads the band through a loose, nicely articulated intro jam that Marsalis picks up on instantly, intermingling with Mydland’s twinkling keyboards and Weir’s anachronistic rhythm guitar. It is gooey and warm like a fudge brownie laced with LSD and after the brief verse, dissolves into a long, exploratory jam that careens around tight corners like a sports car before stopping on a dime for the Drums/Space segment.  

The set’s back end picks up right where the band left off, tidying up the second verse of Dark Star before shifting into a solid Wheel > Throwing Stones and a pitch perfect Lovelight that gives everyone an opportunity to take a bow - none more so than Marsalis, who is showered with applause as he takes a lead at the three minute mark that stretches for close to 90 seconds and will get you out of your seat and shaking your bones. 

Aside from the high quality of the musicianship, the Nassau Dark Star show also fits in with the Dead’s mythology. Rumor has it that Lesh popped into a Marsalis show in New York City and extended the invitation to the saxophonist. After joining the band for Bird Song, Marsalis reports that he was ready to leave, but the band implored him to sit in for the second set. The rest, as they say is history. While it may be apocryphal, it has been said Branford knew none of the Dead’s music when he stepped on stage. Perhaps, but even if the grain of truth is there and not the whole kernel, the show instantly entered the band’s pantheon, widely acclaimed as one of their greatest performance and rightly so. 

Of course, for a band that could reach such heights, the Dead also had a stubborn self-destructive streak. The remaining nights in Nassau and the Atlanta shows that closed the tour retained the high quality of the era and the Summer 1990 tour was an absolute monster of epic proportions and performances. At a time when the band appeared to be at the height of its powers, tragedy was just around the corner. Mydland died of an overdose less than a week after the Summer 1990 tour ended and while Garcia remained clean for a little while, by 1993 his decline was noticeable and the band soldiered on, a shell of itself, for two more years before his death in 1995. Marsalis would go on to play four more gigs with the band (12/31/90, 9/10/91, 12/10/93 and 12/16/94) but none matched the creativity or improvisation of that special night on Long Island. It remains a touchstone of the Dead canon and a show I return to time and again to recall those days of my youth and the special bond I still share with all those who call themselves Deadheads.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


* Note: Time references are from the commercial release “Wake Up To Find Out” 


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VIII - Chasing Shiny Objects

Did you hear how the President is going to let Paul Ryan hang out on a limb with the rob-from-the-poor-give-to-the-rich Affordable Care Act repeal? The DC media has become as conspiratorial as a JFK Assassination convention, but instead of looking at Occam's Razors, they look for Area 51. 


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review - The Road To Little Dribbling

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing. I own both books he wrote on English usage and have read several other of his works, including A Walk in the Woods, At Home (my book of the year in 2011), and One Summer.  The Bill Bryson I know is avuncular if bit irascible, the paradigm of a public radio host with a bit of a salty tongue about him. So, when Bryson puts out a new book, even on a topic that might not interest me, say, traveling in Great Britain, I am definitely going to read it. Which is why writing this review of The Road to Little Dribbling is so difficult. I really did not like this book. It was by turns churlish and meandering, with a sense of “mailing it in” that surprised and disappointed me. It was as if Bryson’s editor told him it was time to crank out another book and the best they could come up with was revisiting a topic (and place) already explored. 

But Bryson is no stranger in a strange land. He has lived in England off-and-on for decades and wrote a similar book (Notes From A Small Island) that The Road is a sort-of sequel to. Indeed, one of the first chapters documents his taking the British citizenship test (he passes). Oddly, for someone so versed in English culture, Bryson all too often comes off as the quintessential ugly American (which is ironic, considering he was born in Iowa). He reserves his sharpest barbs and insults for people who work in the service industry - waiters, shopkeepers and the like - who Bryson dismisses and demeans while fantasizing about inflicting bodily injury to them for the temerity of not giving him what he wants. It is not a good look and Bryson falls on the wrong side of the line between curmudgeon and straight up asshole more often than not. 

The Road has the feel of a musical album of outtakes and lost tracks, something that record companies put out long after the Tupacs or Elvises of the world have left us. I hate to call this book a cash grab because it does have salutary aspects, but it lacks originality and was not thought through. For instance, Bryson visits many places that do not appear on the lone map provided at the beginning of the book, including Wales, and no line of demarcation is provided for the border between England and another part of Great Britain that he also visits - Scotland, so through much of the book you have no idea where he is unless you also have Google maps open on whatever device is handy. 

Further, the so-called “Bryson Line” - a sort of Broadway separating the eastern and western halves of Great Britain is not followed with any particular fidelity. For more than the first half of the book Bryson rattles around the southern coast and then knocks off the upper two-thirds in a scant 100 pages or so. It is odd for a book to feel both padded and too short, but The Road achieves this rare daily double. There is a lather, rinse, repeat quality to the reporting - Bryson enters <fill in blank town> finds nearest pub, has a drink with either a charmingly British bartender or a dismissive one, eats an Indian meal next door, and goes to bed. There are many greens and glens, craggy cliffs, and quirky one-offs, but the whole is far less than the some of the parts. The book suffers from far too little editing to whittle down the essentials while failing to give the type of visual or spatial guidance that would have been helpful. 

Bryson would have been better served traveling to a country he was unfamiliar with or perhaps it is just that he is a poor ambassador for the country he is familiar with - much of The Road includes discursive references to traffic, the poor design of the highway (sorry, motorway) system, the disagreeability of the native people, and so forth. When he is not being an obnoxious jerk or fantasizing about beating some poor soul over the head with his cane, Bryson can be an enjoyable tour guide. The best parts of The Road are those where Bryson acts as historian and storyteller at the sites he visits. A page summary on Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and Stonehenge’s less famous sister site Avebury are Bryson at his best. 

In the final chapter, Bryson discusses what he likes about England, noting that “living in a British climate teaches patience and stoicism.” The same could be said for slogging through The Road To Little Dribbling.


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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review - A Path To Peace

Buried near the end of George Mitchell and Alon Sachar’s book A Path To Peace, the authors say:

U.S. administrations come and go, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on.

In addition to winning the “Captain Obvious” award, this observation neatly captures why, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a peace treaty between the two people remains elusive. In part, this is because of the inherent challenge in negotiating a settlement where one party is being asked to give up something tangible (land/strategic military depth) for something intangible (peace) and as the authors explore, how entrenched positions built up over decades of mistrust, death, and destruction have made a peace treaty seem like a pipe dream. 

A Path is two small books in one. The first, a 101-level seminar on the modern history of the Middle East given by a man steeped in the fine points of diplomacy is executed flawlessly, while the second, a tick tock of recent attempts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, is less successful. 

The tutorial that fills the book’s first half would be of use to the current occupant of the White House. It does not get too deep in the weeds while giving the reader a good sense of the historical grievances each people have. But when Mitchell and Sachar move toward the more recent past, the book’s pace slows. This is not their fault. President Clinton’s efforts during the tail end of his Presidency were the closest the parties ever came to an agreement, but since that high water mark, efforts to finalize a deal have proven elusive. The authors do a bit of rehabilitation of President Bush’s time in office by giving him (deserved) credit for trying to push the parties toward an agreement in the latter part of 2007 and 2008. But when that effort also fell short, war broke out in the Gaza Strip not long after and whatever hope of resolving this decades-long dispute went out the window. 

Mitchell enters the picture as the rubble is being cleared in Gaza but after putting forth two peace proposals (not to mention unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip) it is clear the Israelis determined that a hoped for agreement was a mirage. Mitchell chronicles his time as Special Envoy but he is not helping the parties get an agreement over the goal line, he is working with people who are in many ways back at square one. 

The problem with this part of the story is that it is simply not very compelling. And this is no fault of Mitchell or his co-author. They revel in the intricacies and nuance of negotiation, it is just that the time period of Mitchell’s involvement in the process was neither fruitful nor newsworthy. Mitchell ended up spinning his wheels trying to bargain for a settlement freeze in the West Bank while the Palestinians dithered over whether they would negotiate directly or indirectly with the Israelis. Small victories, like public meetings between the leaders, failed to bear more meaningful fruit and Mitchell quit the assignment within two years. 

The “path” Mitchell and Sachar outline in the book’s final 20 pages is more like a sketch, suggesting a few things the international community can do (setting up a refugee fund for Palestinians that could be tapped once an agreement was signed, extending NATO membership to Israel) along with a painstaking set of “trust building” measures. But these ideas are unrealistic so long as the parties continue on their present course. Having made serious offers in 2000-1 and 2007-8, it seems clear the Israelis have made a decision that a peace agreement is simply not in the cards and have moved on. The Palestinians are fractured between the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority running parts of the West Bank while holding out for an even better deal than the ones they turned down. 

But the parties’ posture only makes any final agreement that much harder to reach. The deal the Palestinians rejected in 2001 got worse in many ways by 2008 because more settlers had made their way to the West Bank. Similarly, any deal that is negotiated now will displace even more people even as Israel slowly, inexorably expands its footprint into what is supposed to be territory that makes up a future Palestinian state. 

Israelis are coming around to various ideas that would have seemed insane when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 - some want the government to annex the West Bank and grant Palestinians some form of second-class citizenship, others suggest unilateral withdrawal behind the “security barrier,” thereby creating a de facto Palestinian state but without any of the safety guarantees the Israelis desire. On the Palestinian side, advocates now dream of a “one-state” solution where Israel absorbs the Gaza Strip and West Bank and everyone living in it with equal rights and citizenship that would give Palestinians access to a dynamic economy and political representation. 

Of course, none of these is any more realistic than the totemic two-state solution that has animated negotiations for the past 25 years. The Israelis will no sooner forfeit political hegemony (not to mention the hard-fought economic stability they have worked for since 1948) in a one-state solution than the Palestinians would accept an apartheid-like second class citizenship for those living in the West Bank and Gaza. In the Middle East, it is rarely the carrot that works and until someone is wielding a stick that either (or both sides) fear, there is no end in sight to the conflict. 

For my own part, I have always thought the framework of the two-state solution everyone seems wedded to makes little sense. The idea of having a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on one side and a PLO-controlled West Bank on the other would make Israel the only country I can think of with a hostile neighbor bordering it on BOTH sides. As I wrote about at further length, better to have all the Jews (and Israeli Arabs) on one side and all the Palestinians on the other. To achieve this, I propose moving all the Gazans to the West Bank and the Jewish settlers to the Gaza Strip (or back into Israel proper). This solution would give the Israelis greater strategic depth while requiring all Palestinians to live under one roof. It would also provide both countries with a single,  contiguous border. 


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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Widow's Grief


Carryn Owens was in the House chamber last night when President Trump spoke to a joint session of Congress. Her husband, Chief Petty Officer William (Ryan) Owens, was killed during a military raid in Yemen just a few weeks ago. It was reported in the press (I did not watch the speech) that the applause CPO Owens and his widow received was the loudest of the evening. The President himself noted that Owens must hear the cheering in heaven.

 

While it is pedestrian gross to use the death of a member of our military for political gain, it is a special kind of gross to trot out a widow for such a public spectacle when you (the President) cared so little about the details surrounding the raid, you reportedly approved it between courses of dinner with your political advisors in tow and did not even bother to stop by the Situation Room at the White House during the operation to check on its status. It is also a special kind of gross for members of the Republican party who made the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi a cause célèbre for years to ignore the sketchy circumstances surrounding Owens’s death and the apparent lack of rigor that went into signing off on the mission.

 

It might be too much to ask for that the sacrifices of our military be apolitical, but for the man who approved a mission under questionable circumstances to use a dead man’s widow as a prop to make himself look good is a level of cynicism rarely reached in politics. That the media pointed to it as a high point for Trump and not another sub-basement of his venality, is another story altogether.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VII - F*ck The White House Correspondents Dinner

Yesterday, Cheeto announced he was not going to attend this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. The dinner, affectionately known as "Nerd Prom" (h/t @anamariecox) is a staple of "official" Washington. In recent years, it has taken on the air of the Oscars, with a full red carpet, hours of "pre game" discussion on cable news, and a parade of Hollywood celebrities rubbing elbows with the Wolf Blitzers, Chuck Todds, and Rachel Maddows of the world.

What the WHCA also is as an elite, totally-removed-from-the-struggles-of-ordinary-Americans exercise in self-congratulatory behavior. A pigs-sitting-around-the-table-at-the-end-of-Animal-Farm spectacle where the lie of Washington is exposed for all to see. The fighting, the filibustering, the hours of talking head debate on TV is the political equivalent of professional wrestling - highly scripted, with the characters acting out their roles, except here it is the lives of those ordinary Americans being toyed with, not some story line where evil is triumphing until good prevails. 

As I noted in the below thread, the median income at the WHCA is surely far greater, perhaps as much as an order of magnitude greater, than that of "ordinary" Americans. And when politicians and reporters, celebrities and movie stars don their tuxedos and formal gowns to congratulate each other on what swell people they all are, it could not be a louder "screw you" to the rest of us if they didn't scream it all out in unison.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Review - Future Sex

Google “photos of Times Square from the 1970s” and you will be flooded with images of garish neon light and promises of available women. The peep shows and porn shops that Martin Scorsese made iconic in Taxi Driver were of a distilled prurience that avoided the hippie vibe of free love and did not have the patina of bourgeois hedonism found at Studio 54. Previous generations were scandalized by women wearing dresses that showed a bare ankle, Paris in the 19th century was a hotbed for behind-closed-doors sexual experimentation, and there are probably a few cave drawings that would be called pornography even today. It is to say that sex, in its many and varied forms, has long obsessed us even as we often try to wrap a plain brown bag around it and pretend it does not exist. 

Emily Witt is not the first writer, nor will she be the last, to delve into this duality, and the cover of her book Future Sex is its own 21st century Times Square billboard - a woman with a smart phone between her arched legs, a dull glow emanating from it, beckons the reader to open the front cover and peer inside. Witt is a game tour guide through the nether regions of sexuality. She attends sex parties, porn shoots, and Burning Man, engages in “orgasmic meditation,” and dabbles in webcam play. Through much of it, Witt maintains an authorly distance, and avoids judgment of her subjects, be they the couple who make a living having sex on the Internet or another twosome who have a revolving door of lovers in an open relationship. 

So long as monogamous relationships are the norm, anything written about anything other than that will stand in contrast and therefore be titillating, an object of curiosity, and “other.” So it is here. Witt has some winning lines like “The panda gang bang took place deep in the basement of the Kink armory …” but as with much in today’s society, there is little new under the sun, it is simply easier for a light to be shined on it. Polyamory, eastern philosophies as a gateway to sexual freedom, and pornography are not new and while the Internet has afforded people new chances to remunerate their sexuality or explore it in novel ways, the underlying experience, be it of BDSM, cosplay, group sex, or any of the other rainbow variety of sex that Witt explores and discusses, was not invented yesterday. 

What has changed (and mostly for the better) is society’s attitude toward that otherness. What was once shielded behind a curtain or considered sin has largely been mainstreamed. Witt reaches for broader themes because of this newfound reality. The definition of sex work is much broader than it once was so it is easier to connect, say, economic dislocation and the downturn in the job market to people webcamming their sex acts as a way to make money. Similarly, young, affluent techies in Silicon Valley are searching for a different plane of existence through the use of MDMA while plotting their sexual trysts on Google calendars for their polyamorous partners to study and consider. This may seem novel, but other than the technological wizardry and substitution of MDMA for LSD, such behavior would not have been out of place in the Haight-Ashbury of the late 1960s. 

In part, this book is also pitched as Witt’s own exploration of what relationships and sex mean to her, a woman in her early 30s, but she can be an unreliable narrator. The book begins with her taking a months-long hiatus from the single life in Brooklyn by moving to San Francisco, but at some point along the way, she demurs at having sex at an orgy because she has a boyfriend back home, while her trip to Burning Man is occasion to have sex with a casual friend and a man she meets there called Lunar Fox. Because the book’s time line is never explicitly given, the temporal shifts left me confused as to whether Witt was a woman exploring the possibilities of alternative dating options or an anthropologist jotting down field notes. Maybe it was a little of both, but as a meditation on “future sex” I found the book less convincing. Today’s world may be glossier and filled with young people whose pockets are lined with wealth earned in the tech book, but at base, the desires are no different than the seamy Times Square of 40 years ago.


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Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VI - Media Gaslighting

There has been a lot of media pearl clutching at some of the more radical policies Trump has instituted. Oddly, those same members of the media ignore the fact that their wall-to-wall smearing of Hillary Clinton during the campaign, the days-long stories about her pneumonia, the weeks of coverage of her email server, Benghazi, and on and on, helped elect Trump. And oh yeah, reporting on email the media knew to be stolen by the Russians didn't help either ... 



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol V - No Really, What's The Matter With Kansas?

After starving his state of revenue by massively cutting corporate and personal taxes, Gov. Sam Brownback took to Twitter to brag about a tax increase he vetoed. Under Brownback, Kansas has conducted a real-time experiment in the so-called "supply side" economics theory that first infected Washington, D.C. when Reagan became President. The idea is simple - cut taxes on the "job creators" (read: rich people and corporations) and the massive spike in economic growth will make up for the lowered tax rates. Only problem? It does not work. At the federal level, the growth was never enough to make up for the reductions, not to mention those pesky commitments to things like Medicare or Republican fetishes with military spending cost money. Oh, and loose regulation also encourage morally questionable decision making. It's no coincidence that the Savings and Loan crisis, two Wall Street crashes and three recessions happened under our last three Republican Presidents. Anywho, enjoy this little thread ...


Monday, February 20, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol IV - Supply Side Economics 3.0


The idea that "deficits don't matter" if famously attributed to Dick Cheney quoting Ronald Reagan. This morning, a story from AXIOS indicated that Republicans are prepared to go to the supply side well for a third time (Reagan 1981, Bush 2001/2003) selling the same snake oil (or is it voodoo economics?) that a spike in production and economic growth will make up for the hole that's about to be cut into the Treasury's revenue stream. If it is true that "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" what happens the third time around? 




Friday, February 17, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol III - Defunding PBS, NEA, AmeriCorps & Legal Services

Collectively, these programs are hundredths of one percent of the federal budget, but hey, people like PBS, college graduates serve in their communities, and lawyers defend poor people, so let's defund them. Makes sense. Can you feel the economic anxiety, everyone? 



A Twitter Thread Vol II - David Petraeus & The Media


Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol I - Jim Comey & The Media

So, @owillis has encouraged people to blog their threaded tweets. Here's my first entry:



Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review - The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City

The idea of a World’s Fair seems anachronistic today. These events, which showcase things like technology, science, and architecture, seem dated at a time when you can circumnavigate the globe in a day and the Internet can virtually take you to the ends of the earth. It was not always so. The Eifel Tower debuted at Paris’s World Fair in 1889 and the Space Needle in Seattle was unveiled during the 1962 World’s Fair. Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair - The Devil in the White City, is a sort of Dark Side of the Moon of the literary world, sitting on the best seller list for more than a decade.

So it is no surprise that the 1901 World’s Fair held in Buffalo, New York, forever infamous for the assassination of President William McKinley, would get its own treatment. Margaret Creighton’s book, The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, examines McKinley’s untimely demise along with the sometimes seedy world that emerged in the Queen City for six months at the turn-of-the-century. While the Buffalo World’s Fair is occasionally interesting, Creighton’s book is ultimately not worth the price of admission.

If people think of Buffalo these days, it is likely in connection with its eponymous chicken wings or maybe its long suffering football fans, but 116 years ago, Buffalo mattered in this country. It was one of the ten largest cities in our nation and a major hub for commerce. Town fathers were very keen on replicating the success of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition eight years prior and positioning Buffalo as a place of importance as the country climbed out of recession and emerged into the 20th century.

Creighton offers a workmanlike account of the planning and implementation of this major event, but ultimately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The McKinley assassination has been written about numerous times and nothing in Rainbow City sheds any new light on the incident. Part of what made Larson’s book such a phenomenon was his discovery of a lost piece of American history – that a serial killer lived among, and murdered people at, the Chicago World’s Fair – but there are no revelations of the sort here.

McKinley’s shooting and the nearly two week drama that followed before he finally succumbed act as the anchor for Rainbow City but because the story is already well-known, Creighton must lean on thinner material to fill the remainder of her 274 pages. She focuses primarily on several thrill seekers who go over Niagara Falls in wooden barrels (one dies, one survives) and Frank Bostock, the purveyor of an animal and human oddities exhibit who treats his four-legged troupe as poorly as he does Alice Cenda (aka Miss Chiquita), who, at two-feet tall, he bills as the world’s smallest woman. Bostock’s callous treatment of his menagerie (including Jumbo II, an elephant he attempts to electrocute publicly) made me cringe, while his de facto imprisonment of Cenda (keeping her from another performer she would ultimately marry) made me sad.

With enough human (and animal) suffering in the world, I am not particularly interested in reading about its historical antecedents. This extends to the exhibits featuring cultures from other countries (invariably portrayed as wild savages) and an antebellum display with a pro-slavery slant on pre-Civil War plantation life. And in a world where Jackass has lowered the common denominator for what amuses us, it was difficult to muster much interest in people doing a header over a 165-foot waterfall for the sake of public notoriety.  

One bright spot is the story of Mabel Barnes, a twenty-three year-old second grade teacher from Buffalo who kept a meticulous diary of her thirty-three visits to the fair. Barnes can almost be thought of as a blogger from another age (although her journaling took several years to complete) and imagine that had she lived in our time, her exploits would have been plastered all over social media. As a sort of tour guide for the common man, Barnes is more than able and her unabashed joy at the spectacles and sights she sees does lend the book a happy gloss.

Creighton does try to reach for some larger themes – while there is wanton animal cruelty, there are also SPCA workers monitoring the treatment of the animals. Racial attitudes at subsequent expositions were more nuanced and less rose-colored when it came to the treatment of slavery, and women’s suffrage would of course become a cause celebre, resulting in the passage of the 19th Amendment less than two decades later. McKinley’s assassination sent shockwaves through the nation, but his successor’s advocacy for the environment, dislike of corporate trusts, and his muscular foreign policy were so profoundly influential TR is one of four Presidents honored on Mount Rushmore.

Ultimately, whatever “fall” Buffalo suffered had little to do with its ill-fated World’s Fair. The city continued to prosper for decades after, but began its decline when alternate sea routes opened and steel manufacturers shut down their plants and moved their production to other countries. But for McKinley’s assassination, the entire thing would have been a footnote in history, but as it is, not substantive enough for a book-length treatment.


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