Monday, December 31, 2018

December 31

In a year with little joy, there were a few bright spots ...

I had three great days of photography. May 4th in Cream Ridge at the annual tulip festival, May 8th in Princeton at Prospect Garden, and June 10th at van der Goot Garden in Somerset.

There were also two great days at work. Both had to do with cases I worked on being affirmed on appeal. Finally, I had one great date. It was in November, we went to an art exhibit (ok, it happened to feature one of my photos, BUT THAT WAS NOT THE REASON) and had a long dinner and nice conversation in Princeton. I then did not hear from her for two weeks, because that is just the kind of dating life I have.

On the down side, I almost got myself killed in a car accident in August. The car did not make it, but I was (thankfully) unharmed. My best friend from childhood died too. We had not been close in many years, but it was still a shock. I woke up most mornings dreading going into work and most of the few other dates I did have went horribly. Other than that, banner year .... 

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

December 30

I am grudgingly giving up my Sunday morning workout (boxing) to do some "retail therapy" aka shopping. After-Christmas bargain shopping is my jam. Tomorrow, I am going to recap some of the highlights (and lowlights) of 2018.

A successful trip (original prices in parentheses)

Nike Outlet
1 Nike Jacket - $17.47 ($120)
1 Nike Shorts - $21.99 ($30)

Dick's Sporting Goods
1 Patagonia T-shirt - $6.24 ($35)
1 North Face T-shirt - $6.48 ($25)
1 Columbia T-shirt - $6.48 ($25)
1 Nike Shorts - $40 ($10.98)
*Additional $10 off coupon

2 boxer shorts - $11.98 ($25.98)
1 boxer shorts - $3.49 ($6.99)

Total - $74.87 ($307.97)

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

December 29

There are very few moments of true happiness in my life. To say that out loud is to get one of two reactions - from people who do have happiness in their lives, they do not understand what life is like without it; from people who are like you, they know there is vanishing little you can do to change it. You cope. You make do. You do the best with the hand you have been dealt. 

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review - Bachelor Nation

Like an invasive species, reality shows have taken over television and few have had the staying power of The Bachelor (and its inevitable spin offs). With ubiquity comes examination, and so it was that I, a person who has not seen one minute of one episode of one season of The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise, or even the short-lived Bachelor Pad, came to thoroughly enjoy Amy Kaufman’s book Bachelor Nation.

Kaufman comes to her work honestly. As a journalist at the Los Angeles Times and “recapper” of Bach episodes, Kaufman had access to the show, its contestants, and behind-the-scenes action, but when she ran afoul of the show runner, she was (to mix a metaphor) voted off the island. But in a make-lemonade-out-of-lemons move, Kaufman flipped the script and has written a book that is less about a reality show and more about the perversion of romantic love and our society’s obsession with fame and celebrity in the early 21st century. It is an often unflattering portrait, but it is well-written, researched, and told. 

Of course, The Bachelor did not invent the genre and Kaufman traces its lineage back to The Dating Game through Love Connection and into nascent reality efforts like Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire? and Joe Millionaire. At each step in the process, producers recognized that amping up certain aspects - skin, sex, and salaciousness - assured ratings. What The Bachelor did was synthesize its forebears’ efforts, wrap them in a compelling narrative that added fairy tale aspects (the “handsome prince”) and a fishbowl competition that encouraged outlandish behavior.

The  show’s premise, when you read it in print, is absurd, and the short celebrity essays Kaufman slips between chapters invariably include some variation on how the show is a guilty pleasure (it is in the sub-title of the book too!), yet, millions watch it obsessively. And that is no surprise - reality TV allows us to live vicariously through others while also sitting at a remove, quietly (or not-so-quietly if Kaufman’s description of her Bachelor viewing parties is to be believed) judging the people on the shows and the decisions they make.

It may make for interesting TV, but when Kaufman dissects the constituent parts, it is not pretty. For example, it is not a great look that the “in-the-moment” (ITMs in reality show vernacular) interviews done with contestants share common DNA with police interrogation techniques or that producers apply both subtle and overt pressure on contestants by using information shared with them to exploit vulnerabilities, fears, or desires to please, all in the name of creating compelling storylines that may or may not have any basis in reality. 

The whole thing could be written off as wildly exploitative if Kaufman did not meticulously walk readers through the process applicants go through to appear on the show - the psychological screenings, the STD panels (what’s the point of having a Fantasy Suite if you can’t be sure bachelors and bachelorettes won’t leave with anything other than a regret or story to tell?), the questionnaires, the background investigation and on and on. For whatever after-the-fact hand wringing former contestants express to Kaufman, they go into the show with eyes wide open. 

Putting individuals in a hermetically sealed environment for weeks on end (the “Bachelor Bubble”) with little to stimulate them other than alcohol, a princess fantasy, and the lure of temporary fame are heady to be sure, and what I liked so much about Kaufman’s framing was how it all fits together - the marketing techniques, the out-of-body experience shared by former contestants who describe an unreal world where things that would make no sense in the real world make complete sense in the Bachelor bubble, and how that small army of show producers shape a season through a combination of sleight-of-hand and outright deception - to contestants and the audience alike - in order to goose the drama. 

Kaufman also shines when raising sociological questions about gender roles, sexual agency, and cultural views of marriage. On the one hand, we see how a bachelorette was dragged and bullied for having sex with a contestant early in her season while a bachelor who proudly proclaimed he would not have sex before marriage was cheered. Fair? Of course not, but so much of what I got out of Bachelor Nation had to to do with the unrealistic expectations (not to mention obvious double standards) placed on women. On the one hand, they are expected to be chaste enough not to be seen as promiscuous, but “fun” enough to slink around in bikinis while ignoring the fact that a bunch of other women are vying for the same man. 

As Kaufman puts it more pruriently, the ideal Bachelor contestant is a lawyer who gives a good blow job. Make of that what you will, but even in Bachelorette seasons, any marriage proposal is still done by the man. And of course, it goes without saying that a bachelor shtupping multiple contestants is seen as totally fine while a bachelorette doing the same is expected to understand why the man she chooses might reject her when it is revealed she had more than one partner during the season. 

And where there is a hit TV show, a cottage industry of ancillary opportunities also arises. Kaufman brings us behind the scenes at sponsored events featuring former contestants, speaks with bloggers and podcasters who have carved out a career monitoring and musing on the latest twists and turns of the show, and, oddly, the surprising number of memoirs (seriously!) written by people whose main life experience was appearing on a reality TV show. While the hit of celebrity may provide diminishing returns the lower down the food chain you get, shilling products on your Instagram account or getting paid to show up at a nightclub to take pictures with fans surely beats an honest day’s work. 

As a coda, Kaufman muses on a paradox - as financial independence and opportunity have made marriage more of an optional choice for women, shows like The Bachelor bombard them with a more traditional view of coupling, reinforcing the outdated belief that marriage equates with success and, conversely, not being married and not having children, mark you as a failure. Moreover, the heteronormative (and predominately white) vibe and restricted view of what qualifies as attractive (thin, pretty, and wholesome) traffics in some of the worst stereotypes that plague women today. 

With all of that being said, Kaufman rightly goes easy on herself and others for indulging the fantasy. As she notes, with the veil being lifted on some of the mystery thanks to shows like unREAL, a latter-day Larry Sanders that fictionalized elements of The Bachelor thanks to one of its executive producers having worked on the show, viewers better understand how The Bachelor is edited, shaped, and twisted into a version of reality that has just enough truth in it to make it believable. 

Of course, it could also be that, as Don Draper noted, love was created by advertisers to sell nylons, so your mileage may vary. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

December 28

I still "talk" to my ex-girlfriend. We live 10 minutes away from each other, work less than 5 minutes away, yet we only communicate by email. For a while, we talked on the phone too, but for reasons I cannot explain (perhaps it is because she is never at her desk?) we stopped doing that too. It is banal stuff, mostly photos of our pets (my cats, her dogs). Sometimes I send an email and the next morning I do not want to open my inbox - I either beat myself up that I keep pining away for her or regret that I keep stepping on this particular rake. Often, she has not responded. She will disappear for days and the cycle starts anew.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

December 27

My mother died last year. We were estranged when she passed. That sounds terrible, but you are also probably picturing your own parent, supportive, wise, or at least compassionate. My mother was none of those things. She never offered any good advice, or expressed any pride in my accomplishments (which, I would note immodestly, are substantial), when I needed her in difficult times, she was not there for me. She may not have been a bad person, but she was not a good parent. 

And yet, I feel shame in admitting those things. As if any of it was my fault, not hers. Anyway, the only thing she left me was a $20,000 tax bill because in addition to all of the other things she was not (see above) she was also terrible with money. Thanks, mom!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

December 26

As you get older, something is always sore. For the past few days, it has been my lower back. I burned my tongue on some hot coffee too. I have an abdominal muscle that flares up from time to time. I recently bought my first pair of reading glasses. I hurt my right knee a few years ago and now I cannot squat past a certain point. Like, it just will not happen. I am not sure if the amount of working out I do helps or hurts, but what I do know is that aging imposes these small indignities to remind you that you're getting old.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

December 25

As a right-wing talking point, the "War on Christmas" is really effective, but in reality, can you think of another day of the year when the entire nation comes to a full and complete stop after a weeks-long build-up that includes everything from radio stations playing nothing but Christmas songs to an entire shopping season devoted to gift giving around this particular day?

Anyway, I do not mind Christmas. To me, it is Tuesday, just one that I have to spend at home. Which is fine, I have things to do.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

December 24

I got engaged on Christmas Eve. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Actually, that is unfair, going through with the wedding was the biggest mistake of my life, but as a necessary predicate, the engagement is a close second. In retrospect, I did not have the courage to recognize it was the wrong thing to do (in fairness to my ex-wife, I think she would say the same thing). You see, I bought into the idea that dating was a sort of musical chairs, and when the music stopped somewhere between ages 27 and 32, you married the person you were with. 

The old saying that the first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging clearly applied, but I just grabbed the shovel and kept going. By the time I put the shovel down, it was more than a decade later and I had lost most of the prime years of my adulthood (23 to 40). REALLY bad decision.

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

December 23

One of the nice things about being Jewish is that the Sunday before Christmas is no different than any other Sunday. There are no last-minute gifts to buy, no dishes to cook, no mental checklists of topics to avoid discussing, or new boyfriends or girlfriends to introduce, hoping your family will like them.

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Saturday, December 22, 2018

December 22

Yesterday, I picked up one of my photographs from an art exhibit it had been displayed in. The problem with demanding a lot of yourself is how hard it is to feel good about something you have accomplished. I have no formal training in photography. I take pictures as a hobby; yet, on two occasions, my work has been recognized as good enough to be included in an exhibit made up primarily of professional photographers' work. I should be proud of that, but because no one has ever bought my work, I still feel like a failure. Because I have no one in my life to tell me they think my work is good, I question my ability. 

This year, I bought a new camera. I had plans on improving my work, but I got frustrated because I was not seeing the results I wanted. The more frustrated I became, the less motivation I had to go out and take pictures, so the less I did. I guess that is what (new) new year's resolutions are for.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

2018 Year in Books

2018 was a very good year in books. I read thirty, but two stood above all others. In fact, I liked them both so much, for the first time, I am picking co-books of the year. Emmy Favilla’s A World Without Whom and Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color do the two things books I enjoy do best - they inform and entertain. But more than that, both authors write with wit and élan, cheeky good humor and just the right amount of bawdiness (at least for me). Click on the links to read my full reviews.

My honorable mentions are several. Erin Carlson’s I’ll Have What She’s Having was not just an homage to the brilliant Nora Ephron, but a meditation on modern romance and how it is portrayed in movies. Marve Emre’s The Personality Brokers was a beautifully written and extensively researched history of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and how it became ubiquitous in society while also lacking any scientific grounding. For immersive experiences, Miles Unger’s Picasso and the Painting that Shocked the World, read like the first part of a multi-part biography of the 20th century’s unquestioned grand master. While the book is ostensibly about the creation of the proto-cubist masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, it is much more than that. It is the story of a prodigy who, before he turned thirty, had moved through three distinct phases (Blue Period, Rose Period, and Cubism) that have influenced modern art ever since. Finally, Rebecca Traistor’s Good and Mad is a rip-roaring polemic against the patriarchy and encourages women to stop apologizing for wanting to exercise their power. I am here for it. All of it.

Other good reads included Hope Never Dies, a fanfic imagination of Joe Biden in his post-Obama Administration years becoming an amateur gumshoe, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, Age 83 1/4, a fictional account of an elderly man’s life in an assisted living facility that captures the poignancy, small joys and absurdity when the final grains are passing through the hourglass, and Broadway, a historical journey of the great Broad Way that has defined New York City for more than 400 years. 

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Prior years-in-review:

December 21

I am on vacation from work until January 2nd. I have not taken a "real" vacation in almost 10 years. At first, it was because I did not have the money after I got divorced. Now, it is a combination of not having anyone to take care of P & G and not wanting to deal with all that goes into traveling. So instead, I just recharge at home. It is not the worst thing in the world and, I still get paid to do it.

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

December 20

The cats woke me up at about 4:30 this morning. It was just as well. I am going to do some grocery shopping this morning before work, so I needed to get up early anyway. 

I was sleeping so well too. I tend to do that after challenging work outs. Here is what I did last night:

Warm-up & abdominals (10 minutes)
Interval Training (3 one minute sets of the following exercises with one minute of rest at the end of each interval)

Interval 1

plank jacks -> push ups
mountain climbers
one-legged push ups
squat thrusts

Interval 2

reverse lunge -> one-legged jump (right leg)
reverse lunge -> one-legged jump (left leg)
jump lunges
knee tuck jumps
jumping jacks

Interval 3

spider-man push-ups
plank jacks -> shoulder taps
donkey kicks
squat jumps

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

December 19

I hate my job. I did not always hate my job but a while back I said something to someone I should not have said (which is very on brand for me) and I was moved from a practice group I excelled in to one I muddle through without much enthusiasm. 

I know what you are thinking. Quit. Find a new job. Well, I have sent out some resumes, taken a few interviews, but nothing has come of them. The other thing is age. The older I get the more risk averse I have become (I do not think this is unusual). My job pays the bills. It keeps a roof over my head. It is familiar, if imperfect. Fear of the unknown is a powerful disincentive to blow up your life, especially when 50 is on the horizon.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

December 18

Today is my office's holiday lunch. I am dreading it. Most of the people I work with are around my age or older. I have nothing in common with them. They have wives or husbands. They have kids. They spend their weekends going to soccer games and birthday parties and visiting colleges. I spend my weekends watching House re-runs, hanging with my cats and thumbing through dating apps. 

It is torture. I am not a social person to begin with (you are surprised, I am sure) but I am even worse at the small talk that lubricates these types of events. If you reach a certain age and do not have the life you are expected to have, you might as well not exist. Failing to conform to societal expectations is definitional when you are a teenager, but it erases you in middle age.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

December 17

The first thing you notice about getting older is how long it takes to get out of bed in the morning. Perhaps it is the time (usually between 5 and 5:30 am) or the time of the season (winter), but it takes easily 5-10 minutes from the time I open my eyes to the time I physically get up. Mental check - what is the day of the week? (Monday). What do I need to do today? (Go to work). 

Once up, I scurry into my sweats as quickly as possible. The cats are lurking. The house is cold. Drafty to begin with, it is not helped by the fact I set my thermostat to 60 degrees overnight (saving money is a product of growing up without it and not having much of it after I got divorced) and that winter inexplicably settled in weeks ago. 

Pumpkin and Ghost pad around as I start my morning routine. Wash my face (Noxzema and a splash of cold water), brush my teeth, take a piss. Welcome to another week of work. 

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

December 16

When someone asks me how I stay in shape, they inevitably walk away disappointed. There is no magic pill or secret formula. It is two words - routine and discipline. You need to get into the habit of eating well and exercising regularly and then dedicate yourself to doing those two things for the rest of your life. While it sounds simple, it is hard to do. Life interrupts.

Today, it cannot be more than 40 degrees outside and a steady rain is falling. It is a perfect day to stay inside under a blanket, but there I was, shimmying into form-revealing compression gear and heading out to the gym for an hour of boxing and a half-hour of cardio. Now, take today, multiply it by a week, a month, a year, a decade - *that* is how you do it.

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

December 15

One of the things I like most about New Jersey is the diner culture. I have mine (the Route One Diner, formerly the Crystal Diner) that I've been going to for almost 20 years, since before I even moved here. I have my usual order, my usual booth, and, although the servers have changed over time, when one leaves and another begins, they get my order right every time. 

Saturday is my diner day. After getting the cats squared away (boxes cleaned, food put out), I am there before 6 am. It is usually quiet, lonely middle aged guys like me, limo drivers finishing their overnight shifts, laborers fueling up before the coming day's projects, and the occasional youngster just finishing their night out. 

I dropped some clothes off at Goodwill this morning. I'd like to tell you I donate to Goodwill each year out of the goodness of my heart, but it is mostly for the tax deduction and space it opens up in my closest and drawers for new stuff. So, if you're in the market for some lightly used North Face, Banana Republic, and Nike gear, stop off at the Goodwill in Ewing, New Jersey.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review - The Fifth Risk

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks, playing the astronaut Jim Lovell, is directed by NASA to shut down the computer that is guiding his crippled spacecraft back to Earth after an abortive mission to the Moon. Upon turning off his electronic lifeline to home, Hanks sardonically notes, “we just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” I thought a lot about that line while reading Michael Lewis’s new book The Fifth Risk, a breezy, but nicely reported story that is masquerading as a paean to the faceless, nameless civil servants who are acting as our Isaac Newtons now that our country is being led by a man who knows very little about how the government he runs operates and has shown no inclination to learn. 

The federal government has been a long-used punching bag by Republicans. Ronald Reagan famously said the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” And Reagan’s acolytes have taken his words to heart, constantly railing against supposed waste, fraud, and abuse of a sprawling bureaucracy that is budgeted at hundreds of billions of dollars a year but which few people understand.

Here comes Lewis with a primer on the hidden corners of our government. His book focuses on federal agencies, but not ones you might expect - there are no FBI agents (Department of Justice), Green Berets (Department of Defense), or Ambassadors (Department of State). No, Lewis is plumbing the depths of the backwaters of lesser known offices tucked into the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce, where grunt work is done that quietly goes about ensuring everything from the safety of our food to reducing the chances geese will fly into plane engines on take off. 

Lewis is clearly enamored of the people he meets. Kevin Concannon is a diminutive septuagenarian who, over the course of a decades-long career in public service, launched and streamlined programs that expanded access to food, medicine, and nutrition for millions of people but who, while spending upwards of a trillion dollars to do so, can walk the streets without being recognized. Likewise, Lewis introduces us to career employees at the Department of Energy who work tirelessly to protect our nuclear arsenal and chase down rogue actors and the first-generation immigrant who, bitten by the Obama bug in 2008, went on to help manage our federal budget. 

There is a certain Kennedy-era New Frontier idealism in Lewis’s writing. If you believe in the importance of government of course you want Kathy Sullivan, a scrappy brainiac who outworked hundreds of men to become an astronaut and then had a second career leading NOAA during the Obama Administration, focusing obsessively on improving our ability to track major natural disasters, but the other side of the coin are the opposite numbers who are now in control - who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want government focusing on issues of public importance. If you don’t think climate change is a thing, why research what is happening in the environment? If you think food stamps are a way for freeloading layabouts like Fox News’s “Surfer Dude” to get over on the system, you feel no compunction about making it harder for people to get them. 

The Obama to Trump transition is a major focus on The Fifth Risk. It was as if the Trump people had been handed an owner’s manual for the federal government and dumped it in the trash, unread. Indeed, Lewis goes to some lengths to highlight the extensive transition work done by Obama’s team, only to wait days, and sometimes weeks, for anyone from the incoming administration to show up and find out how these massive departments operated. The outgoing Obama team can be excused for their naivete. If anything, Lewis portrays them as decent public servants who want to help others, but as industry executives and lobbyists started popping up as nominees and appointees to take over, they realized the fix was in. 

Once the Obama team left, what was left were people who are only known when something goes wrong, but thankfully, most of them are quite good at their jobs. Lewis’s primary thesis is that the lights are on but no one is home at the upper reaches of many of these agencies, leaving it to the institutionalists, the apolitical employees who work for Democrats and Republicans alike to make sure that the infrastructure of our government continues to operate - in other words, the Newtonians showing that the laws of physics can pilot a spacecraft even when technology has failed.

It is no coincidence that the cover art for The Fifth Risk is a Jenga tower - much of the book talks about how small pieces are being pulled away,  like the data that was once widely available and crowd sourced to universities as a sort of force multiplier for studying issues like climate change, that may go unseen or unnoticed, but erode at the foundation of our democracy. Lewis’s book clocks in at just over 200 pages, but it easily could have been twice that long just focusing on the small programs that are being cut, offices being shuttered, and career employees walking out the door with the accumulated knowledge they possess. How many of these pieces can be pulled away before the whole thing comes crumbling down? 

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Slow Burn - Season Two

There was a time in our nation not too long ago when things were humming along so well that we wasted months of our lives obsessing over the sexual peccadilloes of our President. In Season Two of Slow Burn, Leon Neyfakh examines the scandal that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. For the first seven of the season’s eight episodes, Neyfakh brings the same attention to detail, deft storytelling, and addictiveness that made his retelling of Watergate so enjoyable, but the season finale turns the entire story on its head by making the case that Clinton was a rapist who got away with it. It is an editorial decision I am sure Neyfakh defends, but it taints the entire product. 

For those old enough to remember the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Neyfakh is quick to remind us that the affair was the culmination of years of Republican attacks on Clinton that predated his election but became louder and more aggressive once he took office. There is, for example, the shameful display of partisan outrage after the tragic suicide of Vince Foster and the naivete of White House lawyers trying to be respectful of the man’s death twisted into something mendacious and secretive. 

Early episodes focus on how the sometimes clumsy handling of things like personnel decisions were perverted into the “-gate” du jour for scandal mongering conservatives whose antipathy for Clinton only rose the longer he was in office. Of course, the Clintons exacerbated the problem by digging in their heels as the investigate state that arose around them kept probing more deeply into their conduct. It was the quintessential “whiff of scandal” that rarely bore fruit but made them look like they had something to hide and followed them all the way to Hillary’s 2016 run for President. 

As the season unfolds, the modern day connections, not just in the “cloud of suspicion” framing the media came to use about everything involving the Clintons, but the more direct links between Clinton-Starr and Trump-Mueller come into sharper focus. Where Trump rails about a prosecutorial witch hunt, Neyfakh shows what one actually looks like, how the disparate threads of a far-flung Arkansas real estate deal, the allegations of a young state employee, and a handful of Arkansas State Troopers lingered long enough so that when Clinton did give his enemies the ammunition they needed to take him down, the foundation had already been laid. When you hear Rudy Giuliani talk about a “perjury trap,” the Paul Jones lawyers actually set one for Clinton. Unbeknownst to him, they had the goods on his affair with Lewinsky and his lawyerly parsing of their definition of “sex,” among other actions, was the seed corn what would ultimately become a bill of particulars for his impeachment. 

There is no question Clinton’s behavior was sleazy and gross but what comes across even stronger is how much Clinton’s foes overreached in trying to convert his awful personal decisions into a vehicle to topple his Presidency. They missed, to borrow from the law, the fact that people saw the allegations against Clinton as what we would call “fruit of the poisonous tree.” That is, having decided that the initial “crime” - consensual sexual conduct - was not worthy of a multi-million-dollar investigation, much less the removal of a popular President from office, voters saw everything that flowed from it as illegitimate. Unlike Watergate, where the phrase “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” was born, here, the cover-up was viewed as an understandable attempt to conceal an affair, not an impeachable offense separate and apart from the underlying conduct. Put differently, as Neyfakh wisely observes, Nixon was brought down because he used the power of the presidency corruptly, whereas Clinton’s failings were ones any person could fall victim to. 

Like its predecessor, Season Two of Slow Burn is a fully-formed eight-episode arc, but also provides stand out, stand alone episodes. The most difficult (and rewarding) of which is the fifth, entitled Tell All. It focuses primarily on Linda Tripp, a name many of us had erased from our memory hoping to never hear from again, but here she is, 20 years later, still as hopping mad at the Clintons as she was then, a Judas who was recognized for what she was at the time back to try and correct the record in the most hypocritical and histrionic of ways (she claims to have feared that the Clintons were going to have her killed, no joke). 

Tripp trots out her well-worn protestation of innocence, of merely trying to act as a sort of protective mother to Monica Lewinsky when every one of her actions at the time suggest precisely the opposite. It is not just the tape recording of their phone calls, it was the willful efforts to get Lewinsky to retrace the entire story in order to create incriminating evidence that could be used against Clinton. Moreover, Tripp’s rumination on Lewinsky as a naive young woman being taken advantage of by Clinton also runs counter to her own behavior - not the least of which was encouraging Lewinsky to preserve the now infamous blue dress knowing Clinton’s semen was on it in order to maintain its evidentiary value and, after each was issued a subpoena by Jones’s lawyers, recording conversations where Lewinsky does not even suspect it was Tripp who got the ball rolling with the Jones team. 

In fact, for those who thought Hillary’s riff on a vast right-wing conspiracy was hyperbolic, Neyfakh essentially exposes it at its creation. Tripp knew Tony Snow, a George HW Bush speechwriter, who put her in touch with a publicist named Lucianne Goldberg (whose son Jonah has made a nice career for himself in the same fever swamps as his mom), and Goldberg’s contacts with some outside attorneys assisting Paula Jones (including Kellyanne Conway’s now-husband and a a then-little known attorney named Ann Coulter) tipped Starr’s team to the whole story. 

All of which culminated in the pornographic work product Starr’s team produced. The Starr Report became a national sensation and a shame walk at the same time. Starr exposed all of Clinton’s dirty laundry in excruciating, prurient detail while readers would be excused if they missed any comment on the supposed scandals - Whitewater, Travelgate, etc. - that spurred the hiring of Starr’s predecessor, Robert Fiske in the first place. In fact, as Neyfakh notes, Whitewater is mentioned just four times in a report that clocks in at nearly 500 pages.

But just when you think you know how the story ends, Neyfakh throws a massive curveball in the season’s final episode. Instead of focusing on what was a preordained outcome - impeachment by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives followed by acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate (a two-thirds majority was needed for conviction which everyone understood was never going to happen), Neyfakh takes the controversial tack of spending nearly the entire fifty-minute finale on Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegation against Clinton. It is an unseemly choice for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that Neyfakh buries much of the evidence discounting Broaddrick’s claim under a largely sympathetic framing of her story. 

It is fair to assume that but for the #MeToo movement, it is unlikely Broaddrick’s allegations would have been given this much attention, but while I understand Neyfakh’s inclination to include her claim, in doing so, he throws out a very serious charge - rape - with the same “cloud of suspicion” reporting that suffuses much of what has done with Bill and Hillary Clinton for the past 25 years. Indeed, Peter Baker, one of the reporters Neyfakh interviewed, puts his finger on the issue. He notes that with Bill Clinton, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, but he fails to take that important observation to its logical conclusion. 

In their zeal to tar Clinton, Republicans blurred the two, and in their zeal to show they were not the “liberal media,” reporters did the same thing. NBC reporter Lisa Myers huffs that her interview with Broaddrick was initially kiboshed, but was it responsible to air such an extreme allegation without much support? Broaddrick’s claim was literally a footnote in the Starr Report and although she was interviewed by the FBI, nothing ever came of it. Even if you agree that victims should be heard (and I do), the contradictions in her story, her association with right-wing activists (not to mention Donald Trump in 2016), and her own attempts to enrich herself cast far more doubt on the validity of her story than, to take a contemporary example, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. 

And in elevating a rape allegation into the centerpiece of that final episode, Neyfakh reorients the entire story away from the consensual affair Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in to one that has a far more sinister tone without the evidence to back it up. Because of this, the story as we understand it becomes secondary, almost illusory. Lewinsky, the only character for whom sympathy is owed, is an after thought even though she became a national joke who spent the next 20 years carrying the burden of shame. 

Not only is Neyfakh’s decision to air Broaddrick’s claims a significant editorial decision, it had the side effect of exposing another shortcoming. Although the second season’s episodes were roughly a third longer than the first season’s, I do not know that the extra time was used judiciously. There was a bigger story to tell, one that began, and was traced well by Matt Bai in his spectacular book All The Truth Is Out about the tabloidization of political reporting that began with Gary Hart in 1988 and reached its apotheosis ten years later during the Lewinsky scandal. The shirking of journalistic standards in service of scoops and the rise of right-wing media outlets willing to air both fact and fiction is as much this story as whether Clinton’s actions, before or during his time in office, warranted his removal therefrom. 

Because of this, what also remains elusive is the true motivation of Clinton’s enemies. It cannot simply be his supposedly “liberal” policies, because Clinton was not a particularly liberal President. He modestly raised taxes on the wealthy, but he was also fiscally prudent and grew the federal government far less than the Republicans’ patron saint, Ronald Reagan. If, in the end, it was as those of us who lived through this time suspect, that the right deemed him morally unfit to hold that office, their blind allegiance to the current occupant is all the more curious.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Better Call Saul - Season Four

For a show that spent much of its early days with a decidedly low-rent vibe, Better Call Saul turned out to be quite ambitious. As any television fan knows, spinoffs are inherently risky - for every Frasier there is a Joey, for every The Jeffersons an After MASH. Not only did Saul follow one of the greatest shows of all-time, but it added an additional degree of difficulty - while most spinoffs pick up where the parent show ended, Saul is an origin story, tracing the arc of how “Slippin’” Jimmy McGill became criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. This choice created two additional challenges - first, a practical one. Saul relies on actors getting older in real life playing younger versions of themselves and second, a narrative one. How do you make a story compelling when people already know the ending? 

For the most part, Vince Gilligan and his talented cadre of writers, directors, and cameramen succeeded. Saul maintained much of Breaking Bad’s look and feel while creating two storylines that have been moving inexorably toward one another for the past four seasons. When we first met Jimmy McGill, he was a scuffling solo practitioner trolling the municipal court in Albuquerque, taking on referrals from the public defender’s office and working out of the back of a nail salon. As it turned out, one of the parking attendants at the courthouse lot was none other than Mike Euhrmetraut, all hangdog face and audible sighs. 

Gilligan is generous to both. Euhremtraut, we learn, mourns the death of a son who followed him into law enforcement by maintaining a relationship with his daughter-in-law and grandchild, Kaylee. Mike is also industrious, a man of his word, and good in a crisis. If he cannot help getting himself involved in Albuquerque’s drug underworld, it is because those traits make his talents remunerative and his concern for Kaylee’s well-being greater than the sum of what he can provide on his meager attendant’s salary. For Jimmy, his path to the law was motivated by that most basic of human instincts - the desire to please others. In this case, his older brother Charles, a leading light of the New Mexico Bar who is also crippled by mental health illness that manifests as electromagnetic hypersensitivity and leaves him cloistered in his house, the lights out, everything run on lanterns and natural sunlight. 

The push-and-pull of sibling rivalry proved a compelling choice. As Jimmy and Chuck grappled with their relationship, each had his own axe to grind against the other. Chuck’s attack resulted in Jimmy losing his law license for a year, but Jimmy’s exposure of Chuck’s illness in a crushing third-season courtroom scene was the domino that tipped Chuck to a devastating decision to take his own life. 

In the wake of Chuck’s suicide, Saul’s uneven fourth season considered an existential question - what is justice? You see, being a lawyer is a lot about following rules. “The law” after all, is simply a codified set of rules society has collectively agreed will guide decision making, from how fast you can drive to the maximum size of a conference room in a new bank building. Run afoul of these rules and the punishment varies. In Jimmy’s case, forging legal documents to embarrass his brother resulted in a year’s suspension from the practice of law. For Huell, Jimmy’s running buddy cum body guard, intervening in what he thought was an assault on his boss was going to result in significant time behind bars. For Jimmy’s girlfriend Kim, seeing how the system went after poor defendants proved it did not work as it should. And for Mike, he had to act as the literal executioner of an architect whose only crime was wanting to spend a few days with his wife.

Jimmy was always able to rebel against what he perceived as injustice with small acts of defiance, sometimes bringing Kim in as his co-conspirator on minor hustles that acted like the release valve on a pressure cooker. For Kim, these activities held their own allure. Jimmy is never more seductive than when he is scheming to stick up for the little guy or stick it to “the man.” For a woman whose professional reputation is built on attention to detail in the service of expanding a banking empire, hustling some rich asshole out of a few bucks or creating a faux letter writing campaign to get a better plea deal for her boyfriend’s bodyguard may feel like a subtle recalibrating of the scales of justice, but where hers are the acts of a tourist in the murky world of corner cutting, it is the environment Jimmy finally (and fully) embraces as the season reached its denouement. 

For someone who had a touch feel for vulnerabilities in the system, people too trusting or ignorant to realize they had a precious figurine on public display or could be taken in by a tale of woe so blueprints could be switched out or a fighter plane used as a backdrop for a TV commercial, it made sense that Jimmy thought he merely needed to check the boxes necessary to regain his law license - keep a steady job, bone up on the latest court opinions, and express some high minded belief in “the law,” and voila, the anonymous bureaucrats who sat in judgment would rubber stamp his reinstatement. 

But just as Jimmy used his glib tongue as a sort of corrective for righting perceived wrongs, the bar examiners were not satisfied with a mere pro forma expression of remorse. What Jimmy discovered were the collateral consequences of his actions. Those who sat in judgment of him were not merely interested in hearing about his efforts at rehabilitation or whether he kept abreast of the latest precedent, they wanted to see true contrition, an inchoate measure of justice that is demanded when your now-deceased brother was held in such high esteem by the people who make the rules. 

Keeping Jimmy away from the law for a full season also resulted in a far greater emphasis on the Breaking storyline. Here, the fan servicing was greater, but the storyline less interesting. For those who needed to know how it was that Hector Salamanca came into possession of the ubiquitous bell he rang as a lone form of communication, you were in luck. Had an interest in finding out how the meth “super lab” was built? Ditto. To be fair, there is a touching bond that develops between Mike and the lab’s lead engineer, Werner (who affectionately called Mike “Michael”), and the whole episode gave Gus another opportunity to show his meticulous attention to detail and Mike to show off his security chops, but ultimately, it felt like so much filler, right up to Werner’s untimely demise in the New Mexico desert. 

By the same token, Nacho, the mid-level Salamanca muscle whose pill swap results in Hector’s near-death, moves into the upper echelon of the organization but is squeezed by late arriving nephew Lalo Salamanca, a soulless killer with a cruel smile on his face. There is a weightiness in Michael Mando’s performance as Nacho, the path he has chosen drags on him, whether psychologically, as his father shuns him, or literally, as the dreaded Salamanca nephews Leonel and Marco stage a shootout that requires Nacho to be shot in order to make the ruse believable. His realization that money and prestige offer little other than the possibility of escape is a core tenet of the Breaking universe, but instead of getting out, Nacho’s fate is left hanging in the balance. 

To be sure, Gilligan and his crew have lost little on their collective fastball. The signature montages, quirky camera angles, and hustles are all there - at this point, it is just showing off because the quality of the work is so effortless. Whether it is the high-speed chase cold open in Something Beautiful or the juxtaposition of Jimmy and Kim drifting apart to the upbeat version of Something Stupid, Saul is a masterclass in these narrative devices. I just wonder whether this reliance on flash is now being used as a substitute for substance. But the other problem I found was one of plausibility. At 55, it is hard to suspend disbelief and watch Odenkirk portray a pre-Breaking Bad Jimmy McGill. There is only so much prosthetics and wigs can do to mask the aging process. In this way, the teaser “Cinnabon Gene” scene that starts every season feels even more elusive as the real-life actor’s age dovetails more closely with the sad sack, balding fast food manager we are only offered a tantalizing glimpse of yet remains just out of reach. 

Ultimately, what Season Four did, albeit in its own sweet time, was fill in the biggest piece in the puzzle of how Jimmy became Saul. After lecturing a failed applicant for his brother’s scholarship program in a monologue that dripped with anger and bitterness at how the system defines and treats those who run afoul of it, his summation basically being “fuck the haters,” Jimmy orchestrates a final hustle. He does all the things you are supposed to do when a family member dies - visiting the cemetery, making a large (but anonymous) donation to rename a reading room at a law school in his brother’s name, sitting on the panel selecting students who will receive scholarships set up in Chuck’s name to advance the legal profession, and finally, the piece de resistance, an Oscar-worthy act of penance before an appeals panel, disclaiming any interest in even being a lawyer again, but simply wanting to be a better person in order to meet the impossibly high standard set by his sainted brother.

When it is all over, after the “suckers” had bought his act hook, line, and sinker, came the final twist of the knife. As Jimmy celebrates his victory with Kim, reveling in the zone he found himself, spinning a manufactured story oozing with such pathos and sadness he knew he had won reinstatement before it was even confirmed, realization washes over Kim’s face. She has been conned too. “S’all good, man,” Jimmy glibly chirps out as he goes to sign the paperwork and Kim recedes into the background. All we are left with (in what I hope is the show’s last season) is the final unresolved question - what happens to Kim? 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Things I Love - Jaws

The idea of a summer blockbuster did not exist until 1975, when a little-known director named Steven Spielberg put the fear of ever going in the ocean again on an unsuspecting populace. 

Jaws is a thing I love.

On the podcast The Rewatchables the hosts agreed Jaws is probably the most “rewatchable” movie of the past 50 years, and I could not agree more. I have watched some or all of Jaws dozens of times. It is a film that literally grabs you by the ankles in the first minute and does not let go until Chief Brody’s well-placed rifle shot blows Bruce the Great White Shark out of the water. 

On the surface, the story seems pretty simple. A man-eating shark menaces the small beach town of Amity (which means “friendship”), killing several people before the heroic Chief of Police (Martin Brody) dispatches the beast with the help of a cantankerous ship captain (Quint) and a snarky oceanographer (Matt Hooper). In fact, the book Jaws borrowed its basic plot from a real life series of shark attacks that occurred on the New Jersey shore in 1916, but it was that hard-to-define combination of storytelling, casting, and kismet that made the movie version of Jaws a sensation. 

Today, the movie’s brilliance is axiomatic, but at the time of shooting, there was no guarantee of success. The director (Spielberg) was an untested twenty-eight year old helming a film being shot on location with at least one of his lead actors constantly in the bag (Robert Shaw) and the movie’s main special effect (the shark) not even available for use until well into the shooting, which ran three times as long as scheduled. This type of horror movie was also unheard of at the time but became so iconic that its mimicry has stretched from the sublime (Alien was pitched as Jaws in outer space) to the ridiculous (Sharknado anyone?)

So what is it that makes Jaws so great? Of course, much has been written about how Jaws made a virtue out of necessity, that the delay in getting Bruce the Great White Shark operational accrued to the film’s benefit as the unseen menace lurking underneath the water was not revealed until the final third of the movie. Then there are the story beats, which condition you from the first scene to be prepared (thanks to the iconic John Williamson score) that things can go from peaceful to apocalyptic in the strain of a few violin notes. 

Spielberg taps this theme over and over again, carnage appears out of nowhere and swiftly recedes, from the brutal attacks on Chrissie and Alex Kintner to Charlie’s near-death experience when he and his fishing buddy go on a late-night jag trying to catch the shark. The remnants of these attacks, the blood-stained water, the shredded raft, the destroyed pier, impart a level of fear that makes the visual of the shark unnecessary. It all comes together impeccably, whether it is the now-famous “Spielberg shot”  - zooming Brody back and forth on the beach - to Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the destroyed hull of his boat. 

Jaws also serves as an allegory for what happens when we are exposed to something we cannot fully comprehend. This would be a theme Spielberg would go on to explore throughout his career, be it in regards to extra terrestrials or the horrors of Nazi Germany. But in Jaws the fault lines are quite clear - Mayor Vaughn and the town elders are far more concerned over lost tourist dollars that would result from closing the beaches than the well-being of the people who visit (or live) in their town. Chief Brody, on the other hand, is the Cassandra, identifying the risk at its earliest stage only to be shouted down by the mob until they are forced to reckon with their shortsightedness when an attack occurs in broad daylight.

The closing chapters with Brody, Hooper, and Quint on the Orca are a movie-within-a-movie, a master class in interpersonal dynamics, the toggling between anger, frustration, joy, and fear. It is male bonding of the most primal order, Quint’s hypnotic tale of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Brody seeing the shark break the surface, his cigarette falling from his lips as he utters the now famous line “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Hooper so nervous before entering the shark cage he tells Brody “I got no spit.” It is pulse-pounding and exhilarating at the same time, a tour de force by all involved. 

Not all was perfect. In addition to heralding the summer blockbuster, Jaws also started the lamentable pattern of sequels, each, successively worse than the one before and none coming close to the original’s high standard (Jaws 3-D? Hard pass.) But for one summer at least, the beaches were full, but the ocean was empty.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Things I Love - Oasis Unplugged

In the 1990s, there was no greater rite of passage, no greater marker of a band’s success, than an invitation to perform on MTV’s Unplugged. The show was an opportunity for musicians to reinterpret their own songs (and those of others) using a stripped down sound in an intimate performance space that gave off a coffee house vibe. Of course, MTV did not invent this genre, early 1960s folk was probably the first to appropriate it, but when Eric Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged set went on to sell 26 million copies while garnering the Grammy award for Album of the Year, the format became iconic. A few years later, the biggest band in the world at the time, Oasis, almost self-immolated because just before showtime, the band’s lead singer, Liam Gallagher, refused to perform, leaving his lead guitarist brother Noel to step in and perform a set of music so flawless, the former’s jealousy over the latter’s success has (allegedly) precluded its commercial release for more than twenty years. 

 Oasis Unplugged is a thing I love. 

In the mid-1990s, few bands achieved the worldwide success of Oasis. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the rapid end of the grunge era, Oasis’s modern Brit Pop sound quickly raised the band’s profile. Their first album, Definitely Maybe was released just months after Cobain’s death and immediately established the band in England, but it was the group’s 1995 follow-up What’s the Story Morning Glory? that shot them to superstardom. The album sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and the best known song, Wonderwall, is one of the defining ballads of the decade. 

And so it was that on August 23, 1996, the band was set to perform a set for MTV Unplugged at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Except they almost did not. An hour before showtime, Liam bailed out, claiming he had a sore throat. Power play? Possibly. He and his brother Noel were constantly feuding in that pissy, juvenile, oh-so-rock-n-roll way that has its roots with Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, and, when it comes to siblings, the brothers Davies of Kinks fame. 

So what did the band do? Did they turtle in fear. No. Noel Gallagher, who was so small it looked like his Gibson guitar would swallow him whole on stage, confidently strode out of his younger, but more charismatic brother’s shadow and redefined what it is for one brother to dunk on the other, basically, for eternity. The sibling drama played out from beginning to end. As Noel strolled on stage leading the band, he casually mentioned that “Liam’s got a sore throat, so you’re stuck with the ugly four.” (a dig not only at his brother’s last minute drop out but his pretty boy looks). And then, without further ado, launched into a stunning performance of Morning Glory’s first track, Hello with confidence and brio. 

It was pretty much all over after that. Noel, his voice strong even as he carried both the lead and backup vocal duties, WHILE ALSO PLAYING LEAD GUITAR made quick work of the band’s still modest catalogue. Don’t Look Back in Anger is performed with wistfulness and longing while Some Might Say is invigorated by a zesty horn section and Live Forever is given a magisterial reading replete with violins and grand piano. 

Later, when Liam appears in a suite well above the stage, beer in hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers (you know, just the kind of things a man with a sore throat consumes), he starts heckling his own band. I mean, it does not get much better than that for debauched rock ’n’ roll behavior. Not to be dissuaded, Noel needles his younger brother, “oh there you are” he sniffs with a bemused tone in his voice before twisting the knife a bit further by introducing Cast No Shadow as “one that I wrote” (the joke being, Noel wrote ALL of the band’s songs). 

And when Noel brings the show to a close with a letter-perfect version of Wonderwall as the credits roll, you cannot help but be awed by the moment. Pushed into the limelight at the last minute, the second banana stood tall, nailing every last song in performances that are as compelling to listen to today as they were twenty-two years ago. But here’s the thing, for most people, this high water mark is lost to history. Because Liam did not perform, the show was never released commercially. In the early years of file sharing, you could find tracks on Napster and the like, and imports from Europe circulate if you look hard enough, but otherwise, all fans are left with is the occasional re-airing on cable TV and wonky You Tube clips to relive this brilliant night. 

Oasis Unplugged also stands as a cautionary tale about fame and success. At the time, there were few bands at Oasis’s level, but the very things that rocketed them to the top - the creative friction between the brothers Gallagher, led to the band’s demise. The band’s stay at the top would be short-lived, as internal tensions spilled out into the public and subsequent releases fared worse and worse. But that one night at the Royal Albert will live forever. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Other things I love …

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Book Review - Tailspin

When you put a bald eagle trailing blood on the front cover of your book, it is a fair assumption you are not writing about America in ascendence. Over 300-plus pages, Steven Brill’s Tailspin puts forth a thesis that well-intentioned efforts at societal reform have been perverted and turned our nation into one of crumbling infrastructure, decaying schools, and a society cleaved between a shrinking group of haves and an every increasing majority of have-nots. Expanding access to Ivy League schools? A great idea that has created a meritocracy (except those who benefitted have become greedy Wall Street types). Ralph Nader getting labels put on dangerous products? Also important until corporations transmogrified it into a legal rationale for unlimited campaign spending. Civil service protections? Important so workers were not fired at the change of an administration, but now making it far more difficult to remove underperforming employees. And on and on. 

The idea of no good deed going unpunished pervades Tailspin and will not uplift anyone hoping things will change anytime soon. Brill is not saying anything that was not already covered in John Edwards’s “Two Americas” message in 2004 or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes A Village” book of the mid-1990s but he puts a sharper point on things by rummaging into some of the darker corners of law and policy that someone of his background (a double Yalie, undergrad and law who transitioned to journalism) can do.

And so, Brill will drag you into the backwaters of regulatory agencies who have to sift through thousands of public comments submitted by lobbyists trying to kneecap any attempt at meaningful oversight of the workplace, the environment, or our financial institutions. You will see the procurement process (numbingly boring as it is) result in rubber stamping defense projects whose price tags soar without anyone complaining because the projects are sprinkled through hundreds of congressional districts and inject commerce into every one, and the decades-long process to get the permits and approvals necessary to replace critical transportation projects like a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which was originally proposed in 1971 and is still years, if not a decade or more away from being constructed. 
In all of this, Brill makes the important point that if you are wealthy in America, not only is government dysfunction not a problem for you (you can, for example, sidestep mediocre public schools by paying for private education and shelter your wealth with the help of accountants) it actually benefits you - gridlock in DC means less chance that anything will be done to tinker with the carefully constructed matrix of benefits and protection granted to you by the tax code, access to higher education for your children, and the criminal justice system. It was not always this way, but as Brill illustrates, the rise of a new class of white collar professionals bent not on the common good, but personal enrichment, has hollowed out the middle class, concentrated ever more wealth at the top, and left most people behind. 

The villains are as familiar as they are unsurprising - lobbyists, lawyers, and venal corporate leaders whose raison d’être is to accumulate as much wealth as possible while sharing as little of it with the rest of society. While Michelle Obama observed that when you climb the ladder of success you should help lift others up, Brill is focused on those who have pulled up the ladder behind them, making it nearly impossible for the social mobility and success that is woven into the Alger Hiss version of America but bears little resemblance to the reality of our nation. 

His autopsy of the post-Great Recession years is emblematic. The after action, focused on squeezing financial penalties from banks as opposed to levying criminal liability on the individuals who made the decisions resulting in the housing market’s collapse may have resulted in some splashy headlines, but as Brill rightly points out, this path-of-least-resistance model did not curb the abuses in a meaningful way. If anything, financial institutions have consolidated their gains in market share while a now-favorable regulatory environment is already scaling back what modest reform was done to punish them. Not only was moral hazard not punished, but many innocent people, whose homes were lost, jobs destroyed, and lives turned upside down, struggle to get by while the real culprits got off scot free. 

I did part company when Brill turned to the political landscape that created these inequities. As a lawyer, Brill is surely familiar with the concept of contributory negligence, but his “both sides are to blame” conclusion is unfair. For whatever shortcomings Democrats may have, to place blame equally on them and Republicans for the current state of affairs minimizes the behavior of the latter while unfairly elevating the actions of the former. Democrats in Congress can point to any number of bipartisan efforts they engaged in with Republican Presidents from Reagan to both Bushes. Conversely, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were sworn in, they were met with lockstep resistance to anything and everything they proposed. When the stock market melted down in 2008, it was Nancy Pelosi who wrangled the votes to ensure passage of TARP; when Barack Obama proposed legislation to lift us out of that crisis, he got a grand total of three Republican votes - none in the House and three in the Senate. 

The idea that the gas tax has not been raised or the marginal income tax is not higher is not a bipartisan failure any more than it is fair to blame Bill Clinton for the Great Recession because Glass-Steagall was repealed. Politics requires nuance and context and so does journalism. While you can lambast Clinton for welfare reform, you also need to give him credit for raising taxes on the wealthy and balancing the budget. Republicans simply redistribute wealth through tax cuts while starving government of needed resources, a far greater sin without any of the upside of policy making that both Clinton and Obama engaged in. Lamenting the shortcomings in Obamacare without pointing to the efforts Obama made to get Republicans on board (he basically adopted a Heritage Foundation idea!) is a grave disservice to his work and hands Republicans a pass not just for refusing to help but not paying any political penalty for it. 

Of course, to see what a government values, you need only look at where it spends its money. As Brill discusses, the cost overruns on the F-35 fighter plane alone have been more than $100 billion, enough to fund universal pre-K and tuition-free community college for a decade. Yet, we barely bat an eyelash at this form of government waste while Republicans whine that there is simply no money for such important efforts. Similarly, tax cuts enacted last year that will reduce the burden even more on corporations, the wealthiest Americans, and heirs to multi-million dollar estates are being made up by borrowing money to fill the gap. 

In my view, Brill is imprecise in pinpointing our decline to the late 1960s. I would argue it is a more recent phenomenon dating to Reagan’s election in 1980. From then, the idea of progressive taxation has largely fallen by the wayside. Even Clinton and Obama felt the need to shield taxpayers well into the top 10 percent of all earners from any tax hikes while nosing the top rate just south of 40 percent for people at the very top. While doing so had the salutary effect of lowering deficits without any adverse effect to the economy, other changes, to capital gains taxation and the carried interest loophole, have provided accountants, lawyers, and lobbyists other opportunities to reduce their clients’ tax obligations. 

Brill does highlight some important initiatives - a job retraining program in New York City teaching people how to write computer code, good government watchdogs who monitor campaign spending and regulatory policy, and think tanks churning out sensible, middle-of-the-road white papers that surely circulate widely among the Georgetown cocktail crowd (one even became the foundation for a bipartisan immigration reform bill that Republicans snuffed out while Obama was in office), but they seem too few and far between to be of much consequence. And while Brill points fingers at the usual suspects, one group that escapes opprobrium are the voters themselves. The fact is, on many issues, from gun control to taxes, the majority of Americans support policies that are not being enacted into law, yet because voter participation is so low and so many congressional districts are gerrymandered (another bugaboo Brill discusses), politicians - and I am speaking specifically of Republicans - have no incentive to change. Instead of advocating for automatic voter registration, moving Election Day to Saturday, or making mail-in voting optional nationwide, Brill naively pins his hopes for “storming the moats” as he puts it, on the same type of black swan events that we’ve seen before, but led to little systemic change. 

It is, in its way, the same observation that Susan Sarandon made in 2016 that she did not fear a Trump presidency because it would accelerate the revolution. But here’s the thing - the closest we came to this situation was in 2008, and while it did result in Obama’s election and large Democratic majorities in Congress, within two years, some of the very same villains Brill laments - the Super PACs and their corporate funders - had mounted a counter-attack that handed the House of Representatives to Republicans and essentially snuffed out any further progress. After two two-term Democratic presidencies, it is clear that the better outcome is to elect a successor who will build on the hard-earned gains of others. 

Instead, I suspect what we have in store for us is a movie we have already seen twice. It will be left to some future Democratic President to clean up the fiscal, economic, and foreign policy mess of a Republican President, and, if history is any guide, have that gratitude repaid by electing a successor who will tear it all down again. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy