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.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

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. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

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.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy