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? 

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