Lee Zeldin, the Republican member of Congress from eastern Long Island, has no trouble deciding. When forced to choose between what’s good for Trump world and what’s good for everybody else, it’s simple: Zeldin goes with Trump.
Take the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual humongous legislation that funds the military. Like Zeldin, I’m a veteran, but I am always deeply suspicious of this bill, because it spends way too much on useless weapons systems and endless wars. For Zeldin, though, it should be a bill that he loves, because he’s so fond of projecting his support of the military. His “Vote for a Vet” lawn signs have been a staple in his campaigns. When Trump vetoed the NDAA for a variety of petty reasons, and both houses had to vote on a veto override, Zeldin had to choose between funding the troops or sustaining Trump's veto. He chose to support Trump.
Then, as this past week’s headlines told us, there’s his decision on Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the newly elected, pistol-packing, Trump loyalist Republican from the northwest corner of Georgia. Among the many outrageous things Greene has said or approved of others saying, the most memorable and mockable has been her speculation about laser beams from outer space starting California wildfires. Among her suggested perpetrators: the Rothschilds, a wealthy Jewish family of financiers and a frequent target of anti-Semitism. The shorthand idea of Jewish laser beams and fires became a staple of late-night comedy. But the not-so-latent anti-Semitic trope wasn’t funny.
Another frequent target of anti-Semitism has been the Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. Right-wingers routinely imagine Soros as the manipulator of multiple worldwide nefarious plots. As the Anti-Defamation League has explained it, many of these conspiracy theories are rooted in anti-Semitic ideas, “particularly the notion that rich and powerful Jews work behind the scenes, plotting to control countries and manipulate global events.”
So, what does Soros have to do with Greene? Well, a March 2019 video, now widely circulated, shows her using that name as she follows and heckles David Hogg, a young activist lobbying in Washington for gun control. He is a survivor of a mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that took the lives of 14 students and three staff members. In the video, as Hogg walks through DC, Greene trails behind him, calling him a “coward” and questioning his use of kids as gun-control advocates, as if kids had no right to comment on mass shootings in schools. Then she stops, turns to the camera, and refers to Hogg as “this guy with his George Soros funding.”
In a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, said: “Marjorie Taylor Greene will be remembered for breaking new ground for her wild anti-Semitism.” That anti-Semitism, plus her expression of violent ideas about Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ignited loud calls for her to resign—or at least be stripped of her committees. They included the Education and Labor Committee—a profoundly bad assignment for someone who has harassed survivors of school shootings. Republican leadership declined to act, which made a full floor vote necessary. In that vote, only 11 Republicans voted to remove her from her committees, but the resolution passed.
Milbank wrote that he had been warning Republicans for five years about the “creeping anti-Semitism” that Trump brought to the GOP. “But I never expected I would see in my lifetime, in the United States of America, what occurred on the floor of the House this week. One hundred ninety-nine Republican members of Congress rallied to the defense of a vile, unapologetic anti-Semite in their ranks who calls for assassination of her opponents.”
In that roll call, Zeldin—one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House—faced the choice of standing up against anti-Semitism or standing with Trump-loving Greene. So what did he do? Simple: He voted to protect Greene. If Zeldin runs for re-election in 2022, the choice for voters should be equally simple: Just vote him out.
It's time to put Stacey Abrams in the White House.
No, I'm not talking about the presidency—not yet, anyway. Her time will come for that. Right now, there's no vacancy.
What I'm saying is that President Joseph R. Biden Jr. should create a new position, special assistant to the president for democracy, and make her its first occupant. Abrams is perfect for that role. She is stunningly brilliant, she knows all about the brokenness of our republic, and she knows how to fix it. The repair begins with making it easier for people to vote, not harder.
In the wake of the presidential election that the Republicans lost, they are doing what they always do, using their power in state legislatures to erect more obstacles to voting. The Brennan Center at New York University, a vigilant voting-rights watchdog, reports that 28 states have put forward more than 100 bills to limit voting. We've seen this movie, and it's always a horror film.
Abrams knows all about the bag of tricks that vote-stifling Republicans use. Take the purging of voters from the rolls—the technique that was far more responsible than hanging chads for Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in Florida in 2000. Abrams experienced the Republican urge to purge painfully in her 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia. Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, was also the secretary of state, the chief overseer of elections. He shamelessly used that power to purge tens of thousands of voters from the rolls, for flimsy, bogus reasons. Had he been, let's say, state secretary of agriculture at the time, without the power to shape the electorate precisely to his needs, Abrams would be governor today.
She also knows about the Republican lust to curtail early in-person voting and the availability of no-excuse absentee ballots by mail. She knows how hard Republicans like to make it for people to register, how they love to mandate forms of voter ID that are difficult for poor people to acquire. She knows the vote-suppressing effects of inadequate numbers of polling places and voting machines. She knows how Republicans work to make sure that undercounted people remain undercounted in the US Census, then use the census data to draw legislative districts that keep them in power, no matter what the one-person-one-vote principle requires. To get a sense of her granular knowledge of this whole set of issues, all you have to do is read her book, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America.
Long before Abrams "lost" to Kemp, she had been focused on voting rights, and that election turned her attention even more pointedly to expanding the number of voters and making voting easier. And what a job she did! Without her spectacular organizing work in Georgia in the past two years, Biden would almost certainly have lost the state, and Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock would not be senators today. So Biden owes Abrams—big.
But this is not about old-fashioned political payback: "You helped me get elected, so I'm giving you a paycheck." No, it's about saving the republic. In the aftermath of the big lie about the past election and the insurrection that it bred, think of this as a crucial time for the nation, a time when America needs to expand voting rights, not shrink them. This pivotal moment feels as intense as the bottom of the ninth inning in World Series game seven, with the home team clinging to a one-run lead. So it's time to call the bullpen and bring in a Hall of Fame closer to seal the victory: Stacey Abrams. As Biden likes to say, "Come on, man!" Do it, Joe.
Call it a perfect crime: Steve Bannon, the nasty former Trump guru, is under arrest. As for the hundreds of thousands of xenophobic contributors who gave $25 million to his We Build the Wall charity, file them under Well and Truly Scammed.
Federal prosecutors allege that Bannon and the three other defendants weren't telling the truth when they promised that all donations would go to building the wall—and none to the swamp rats who launched the charity. The indictment alleges that the already wealthy Bannon dipped into the donations to the tune of $1 million.
That indictment came from a grand jury in the Southern District of New York, currently under the stewardship of an acting United States attorney. The previous head of the office, a Trump appointee, had resigned—after initially declining to be fired by Attorney Second Lieutenant William Barr. (Sorry: I demoted him from attorney general for his willingness to do anything Trump wants—instead of pursuing, you know, justice.)
Any federal indictment against a Trump friend comes with a huge asterisk: Even if the Trump pal is convicted and sentenced, President Pardon will come to the rescue—unless you show disloyalty to him.
Trump, of course, says that it was inappropriate for anyone to set up a "charity" to raise money to build Trump's "beautiful wall." (You know, the one that Trump was going to get Mexico to pay for.) But back in 2018, presidential offspring Donald Jr. praised the charity, calling it "private enterprise at its finest." Oops! It will be fun watching the elder Trump trying to send out contradictory signals: He didn't like the fraudulent charity that Bannon promoted, but he feels bad for Bannon and wishes him well.
As for Bannon, he has to do some serious thinking: Should he cooperate with prosecutors and sing like a canary about the man he helped win the Electoral College, in return for a lenient plea bargain? Or should he remain loyal, clam up, hope for the best at trial, and count on Trump to pardon him? But the wheels of justice grind slowly. So his trial might not even happen until well into 2021. Should he bet that Trump will still be occupying the White House after January 20, or will it be Joe Biden? Hmmmmm.
A word of advice, Steve: You've always considered yourself the smartest—if not the best dressed—person in any room. So use some of that alleged brainpower and figure the odds carefully. If you make the wrong bet on this election, you could be in for a really long spell in the crossbar hotel.
Ask any 100 adult Americans in the streets what the Second Amendment to the Constitution is all about, and you'll get 90-plus immediate, unambiguous, monosyllabic answers: guns.
Now, ask the same 100 people what the Third Amendment to the Constitution is all about, and be prepared for long seconds of silence and blank stares. The number of people offering the correct answer would be in the low single digits. Yet the answer is simple: unwelcome soldiers.
It seems useful to mention this arcane bit of history right now, when we're all seeing and reading stories about unwelcome soldiers—well, not soldiers, really, but federal agents dressing up like soldiers in camouflage gear, minus rank insignia or other identifiers. A desperate "president," watching his poll numbers fall—and no doubt thinking about the hellish future of prosecution and imprisonment that awaits him if he is no longer in office after next January 20—wants to change the subject. So he has ordered this makeshift camo army into the streets of Portland, Oregon, where their presence has turned peaceful protests against racism into scary confrontations and terrifying journeys in unmarked vans for some protesters. Now he's threatening the same to cities such as Chicago, Oakland, and New York.
This is a profoundly bad idea from a truly bad president. It's not exactly what the founding generation had in mind when they included the Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights. But this situation bears some significant similarities to the nightmare that James Madison and others of that generation feared.
To Madison, a large standing army was a serious threat to the fledgling nation. In the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, when the framers of the Constitution debated everything, that issue was on the list. Alexander Hamilton led a faction that wanted a permanent, powerful army, as a means to achieve global dominance. In addition to Hamilton, George Washington, the victorious general chosen to be president of the Philadelphia convention, also wanted a standing army, though he maintained a principled silence as he presided over the convention. In contrast, Madison spoke out strongly against it.
“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty,” Madison argued. “The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” Later, he called the nation’s establishment of a standing army a “calamity.”
The history of colonies only a few years earlier offered ample reason for that fear. In the 1750s, during the French and Indian War between the French colonies in North America and the English colonies, England sent soldiers here. The war in the colonies ended in 1763, but the British soldiers stayed. In 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, requiring the American colonies to house British soldiers in such places as barns and inns. This did not go over well.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he included the unwelcome quartering of troops in the list of grievances against King George III of England. “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures,” the declaration griped. More than that, the declaration accused the king of sending “swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance,” of “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us,” and of “protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.”
So, as the founders crafted the Bill of Rights, they included a Third Amendment focused entirely on that subject. It is exactly one sentence long, a sentence comprehensively ignored today: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
The Second Amendment is equally brief: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Today, hardly a day goes by without a high-decibel, high-intensity debate about the Second Amendment. But only a vanishingly small percentage of Americans would discern any connection between the two one-sentence amendments. In fact, however, when the framers wrote that much-parsed, much-misunderstood sentence about militias and arms, the history of oppression by the military that led to the Third Amendment makes clear that they were thinking mostly about state militias as a defense against any future oppression by a federally controlled standing army.
Alexander Hamilton won that argument. Madison wanted no standing army. Hamilton wanted a big one. And that's what we have. But at the moment, it is not the standing army that is the problem. In fact, many in the military are looking on in horror as a makeshift "army" of federal agents in camouflage uniforms, looking like soldiers, wanders the streets of Portland. One indelible image of that situation is the video of one of those camo people using his baton to pound on a distinctly non-threatening Navy veteran, who came to the protest simply to ask these agents if they felt they were honoring their oath to the Constitution. His reward for that question was broken bones.
The analogy between this situation and the original Madisonian nightmare is admittedly imperfect. But his fear of oppression by armed agents of the federal government, which would need to be opposed by local militias, is worth remembering. Mayors and governors and senators and representatives are making it clear that they don't want the "help" of this make-believe army. And what are local officials fighting? What Madison called "an overgrown Executive" is now putting together his own version of a standing army. They won't exactly be quartered in the homes of civilians, but they are just as unwelcome in the streets of America's cities as the army Madison dreaded.
Derek Jeter has always annoyed me, though we've never met.
As a Mets fan, I grew tired of hearing from Yankee fans how "classy" he was, how there was no hint of off-the-field troubles. As a journalist, I felt empathy for the poor sports reporters who tried valiantly but unsuccessfully for many years to coax even a single interesting quote out of him. Instead, they had to settle for classic baseball boilerplate.
So, for years, I have referred to him as Derek F. Jeter—like Mets killers such as Chipper F. Jones, Freddie F. Freeman, and Chase F. Utley. And I even derived an ungenerous bit of baseball schadenfreude from the pandemic postponement of his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Now, as protests continue over the excruciating slow-motion murder of George Floyd and the many other police killings of unarmed black men, Jeter has spoken out—this time, not in boilerplate.
"Something needs to change. It gets to a point where you say enough is enough," Jeter said during a Juneteenth special on the MLB Network, in conversation with Harold Reynolds. "The one thing that I was optimistic about is, for the first time, you're seeing people across all 50 states and roughly 20 other countries—people of all different races and different nationalities—out there in agreement that now is the time and things do need to change, because it's been going on for too long."
Jeter spoke not just for himself but for the Miami Marlins team that he runs. "I wanted people to hear it directly from me, that's the bottom line—I want to be very clear on where I stand, and I want to be very clear on where the organization stands. We're not going to sit idly by and allow racism to persist, that's the bottom line."
So, Derek, despite all the years of Yankee-fan blather about your immortality and all those boring post-game quotes, you have said exactly the right thing, at the right time. No more F for you.
Weeks ago, Joe Biden promised to name a woman as his vice-presidential running mate. So far, so good.
Then he named a panel to vet the candidates. OK, we wouldn't want a Sarah Palin-level failure of vetting.
At first, it seemed he'd have a decision by the start of July. Now that seems to be slipping to August.
But the time is now, Joe.
Look around at what's happening in the country, and name a black woman as your choice for vice-president, as activists and party leaders have been urging.
The killing of an African-American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, was the spark that lit the fire of protest. But that horrific event was just one of a series of recent tragic stories of violence or threats against African-Americans: the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes in coastal southeast Georgia; the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her own Louisville apartment; a young New York woman's racist threat to call the police when an African-American bird watcher simply asked her to leash her dog in a part of Central Park where leashing is mandatory.
Given all this, now is the time for Biden to act—not a month or two months from now.
Biden has been saying the right things. Now it's time to do the right thing for African-Americans: name someone who looks like them to be his running mate.
None of the women most often mentioned is without drawbacks. Stacey Abrams, the most brilliant and most passionate about voting rights, has never held national office. Sen. Kamala Harris of California has a deep background in law enforcement, a resume item once seen as a plus, but now widely viewed as a minus. Rep. Val Demings of Florida was once a police chief. Susan Rice, the former United Nations ambassador and national security adviser, is a target of the right wing, though multiple Republican-led investigations of Benghazi failed to come up with anything wrong with her performance.
No candidate is perfect, but picking a strong black woman—and every member of the short list fits that description—is something Biden should do right now, while the world's attention is focused on the plight of black people in America.
And while he's at it, he would do well to let us know his thinking about the shape of a Biden cabinet—an idea explored, among others, by Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic. No federal agency subverted by the current presidency is in greater need of repair than the Department of Justice. It needs to return energetically to one of its historic missions: defending civil rights. Biden could dramatically recognize that need by appointing as attorney general either Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative or Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Either one of these outstanding civil rights lawyers would make a transformational attorney general. And the other one would make a superb head of the department's Civil Rights Division. And by the way, why has no one been mentioning Ifill in the veepstakes?
As Biden likes to say, "Come on!" Just do it, Joe. Do it now.
It's the Pentagon Papers, all over again.
The Washington Post has published a massively documented investigation of what our generals and presidents have been saying about the forever war in Afghanistan, the unwinnable war that has cost the lives of far too many young Americans, not to mention the civilian population of that country. This report reminds me so much of the Pentagon Papers, which documented all the lying that American officials did about Vietnam. It turns out that the generals and the presidents in charge of the whole sad Afghanistan effort have been doing a lot of lying, too.
The first casualty of war, of course, is truth. And why is that? One big reason is that no general or president wants to be known as the one who lost a war. Just wondering: Wouldn't they protect their reputations better by not getting us into unwinnable wars in the first place? That way, they could avoid the inevitable cycle: lie, lie, lie, and oops. The oops, of course, refers to moments like the Washington Post report, when an investigation reveals all the lying, but too late to avoid all the dying. Will we ever learn?
Here's an excellent piece by retired Army Major Danny Sjursen about the long-term impact of our glorious, bone-spurred president's action in overriding the prosecution of war crimes. Sjursen spent 18 years in the United States Army, including deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. While he was still on active duty, he became an outspoken antiwar advocate. His columns appear regularly on Truthdig, TomDispatch, and Antiwar.com. His is a strong, eloquent, courageous voice in this time of forever wars.
Xenophobia and fear of the other is not exactly a new phenomenon. Jesus ran up against it all the time. Take Luke 4:16-30, the Gospel reading for Monday, September 2. It's one of my favorites.
The story starts with the people in his hometown of Nazareth professing amazement at the wisdom of Jesus, as he reads from the Torah scroll and quotes Isaiah. Then, a few minutes later, he talks about a prophet not being honored in his own land. He goes on to list historical occasions when God sent his prophets to help people of other lands. Oops! Suddenly, the people who had been amazed were now enraged, getting ready to throw Jesus off a cliff.
That wasn't the only time Jesus showed an openness to people beyond his own land. He was demonstrably kind to strangers. Not a bad example to follow. I wish more of our preachers were willing to stand in the pulpit and say things, like defense of immigrants, that would have the congregation ready to throw them from a cliff.
Here's the reading:
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Rolling up the scroll,
he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
"Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."
And all spoke highly of him
and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They also asked, "Is this not the son of Joseph?"
He said to them, "Surely you will quote me this proverb,
'Physician, cure yourself,' and say, 'Do here in your native place
the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.'"
And he said,
"Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.
But he passed through the midst of them and went away.
The first time I had any sense of connection with Newfoundland was in January 2018, at the start of my Ancestry.com research. I got a lot of information from a cousin I hadn't known about, Lynn Polsino. She traces her origins to John Joseph Brideson, and I trace mine through his sister, Laura Brideson, my great-grandmother. She was baptized in the baptismal font of what is now the basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John's, Newfoundland.
But I didn't really feel like a Newfoundlander until three months after that discovery, when Judy and I saw the Broadway musical Come from Away. The play gave us a visceral sense of how much the townspeople of Gander and the surrounding communities had done for the roughly 7,000 "plane people" who descended on them when the 9/11 attacks forced the closing of American airspace. I remember walking out of the theater with our friends and feeling a bit of pride about this one strand of my ancestry. Minutes later, when we met other friends for dinner, I learned of the existence of "Newfie jokes," a genre of humor akin to Polish jokes. As a newfound Newfie, I took mock offense.
A few weeks ago, Judy and I saw Come from Away again, and as she likes to put it, she came away with her face hurting, from smiling so much. It reinforced our excitement about the two weeks in Newfoundland that lay ahead. Now that our trip is over, I can say that my sense of Newfie pride is even stronger.
Newfoundland is a profoundly beautiful place, only sparsely populated, by comparison to New York. But everyone we met there was extraordinarily kind and helpful. That kindness even followed us back to New York: Somehow, Air Canada had managed to lose one of our suitcases. As we stood forlornly in the baggage-claim area, someone came up to us and helpfully pointed out the tiny office where we could begin the process of finding it. He had a Newfoundland accent, and I asked him if he was from Newfoundland. He said he was, and I told him: "I knew it, because you're so nice."
You could make the argument that Newfoundlanders need to be nice, now that tourism is so huge a part of their economy. In Come from Away, the opening song is "Welcome to the Rock," and the title is a spot-on description of an island whose solid rock does not exactly welcome agriculture. For nearly 500 years, though, from the time Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) arrived in 1497, the people of Newfoundland had made a living from a bountiful resource: codfish. But a quarter-century ago, overfishing brought about a codfish moratorium, and Newfoundlanders had to look for other ways to make ends meet. The rise of tourism helped to fill the void.
So, OK, there's an economic incentive for niceness, but my brief time there persuaded me that it's a pervasive Newfoundland trait that needed no incentive. Certainly, the people of Gander and the surrounding communities needed no incentive other than the needs of the stranded "plane people" to find ways of helping them.
One night on our trip, our tour director, David Harris, arranged for us to hear from Claude Elliott, who served as mayor of Gander on 9/11. The most important words that Elliott said were these: “People in need you’re supposed to help.” I found myself liking him and immensely touched by the description he gave of Newfoundlanders helping strangers. Though I later read that he had declined to perform same-sex marriages, which seems very much out of keeping with the spirit of welcome that his town embodies, I'm still glad we got the chance to listen to him.
In short, I liked pretty much everything about Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders, including their charming speech patterns, such as the addition of the letter "h" at the start of some words that begin with a vowel. In a place that became famous for its airport and the aircraft that landed there, it was impossible not to like the words "hairport" and "haircraft."
So, after only two weeks on the island, I feel comfort in knowing that, if the rise of authoritarian government in "the land of the free" should become intolerable, I have roots in an island of sanity, a rock with a heart, a place of welcome for refugees. As the opening song of Come from Away put it: "I'm an islander. I am an islander."
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.