Tuesday January 26, 2021
Movie Review: One Night in Miami (2020)
The first time I heard that Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali got together in Malcolm’s motel room on February 25, 1964, the night Ali/Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, I thought, “That should be a play.” Kemp Powers was way ahead of me; it was first performed in 2013. Now he and director Regina King have turned his play into a movie.
And it doesn’t exactly shake up the world.
Immediate takeaways on the four leads:
- Eli Goree is good with the public, loudmouth Clay/Ali schtick, but that’s all he does. He doesn’t give us a private, quiet Ali the way Will Smith did in Michael Mann’s movie. At times I felt like I was watching a cartoon.
- Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X suffers the opposite problem. He seems small and slight, without any of Malcolm’s commanding presence.
- I don’t know if Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is a good characterization of Brown, since I don’t know Brown, but this guy should be a star. He’s got something. He’s intriguing in the way Tom Hardy was in “Inception.” You wonder what he’s thinking. Handsome as fuck, too.
- OK, if they don’t make the full-length Sam Cookie biopic starring Leslie Odom, Jr., I’m going to be very, very disappointed in Hollywood (for the zillionth time). He’s the right age, a good actor, and his voice is to die for. Get on it.
Cooke v. X
Basics: Behind the scenes, Malcolm prepares to break away from the Nation of Islam even as Clay is preparing to join. But does Malcolm want Clay on his side of this internecine struggle? Of course. Is he willing to ask him? Not according to Peter Goldman in his book “The Death and Life and Malcolm X”:
The night [Ali] beat Liston, Chicago telephoned him at this victory party—an ice-cream social, more accurately, in Malcolm’s motel suite—and awarded him his membership and his new name; the next morning, reborn Muhammad Ali, he confirmed his conversion to the world. Malcolm liked Ali too well to interfere in this or to involve him further in his private difficulties. When he broke with the Nation two weeks later, he counseled Ali to stay with Mr. Muhammad—and swallowed his hurt feelings when Ali took his advice.
In the movie, Malcolm asks—to not much drama. If you’re going to muck with the history, make it resonate. This doesn’t.
The movie’s main conflict is one we’ve seen many times—radical (Malcolm) vs. moderate (Sam Cooke)—and the movie doesn’t do much new with it. They make both men more extreme versions of themselves to create the conflict, then ease up for the resolution.
Malcolm is about to create a more accommodating version of himself but here he spends the evening haranguing Sam Cooke for being too accommodating. Meanwhile, they all but say Sam is an Uncle Tom. He’s staying at a ritzy hotel in the white part of town, tries to play the Copa before a hostile, white audience, and he’s criticized for singing one way before white crowds and another before Black crowds. “You Send Me” and “Sentimental Reasons” are used as punchlines. His background in the Black church? Unmentioned. His financial and organizational support for Black artists? Unmentioned until the 11th hour. At one point, Malcolm has the effrontery to play Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”—as if Sam doesn’t know his own industry or art—asking, basically, “How come you don’t do this? This white boy from Minnesota pens something that speaks more to our people than anything you’ve done. How come you don’t get involved in the movement?”
That’s when I knew where they were going. I thought: No no no no. Don’t tell me that because of Malcolm’s pointed attacks throughout the night, Sam will go off and create “A Change is Gonna Come”? Fun fact: By Feb. 25, 1964, Sam had already written, sung and recorded “A Change is Gonna Come”; it was on an LP released that month. But, yes, that’s what happens. We see it a mile off, it’s untrue, but it gives the movie its facile resolution. Oh, and they insult Jackie Wilson along the way, too.
Plus … the movement? Malcolm doesn’t care about the movement. Malcolm attacked the movement. He didn’t hold it up as something to aspire to.
At one point, during the eternal back-and-forth, I thought: “Didn’t Cassius just win the heavyweight championship of the world? Shouldn't this be a little more celebratory? Shouldn’t there be a little more celebrating?” Oddly, Clay becomes a background figure on his big night. Imagine that: Muhammad Ali, a background figure.
Brown v. Board of St. Simons
Of the four, Jim Brown’s internal dilemma is the least interesting: Should he leave the NFL for a Hollywood career? The movie makes it seem like a political decision, a radical act, when both are forms of entertainment for the masses. Jim is either entertaining in a dangerous field where he’s the best by far; or he's doing it in a cushier field where he’s kind of meh. He went meh. But he’s the only one of the four that’s still alive.
That said, the best scene in the movie is Brown’s. It’s when he visits his mother’s former employer, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), in his birthplace on St. Simons Island, Ga. On the porch, he receives a hero’s welcome and lemonade is served. We keep waiting for Mr. Carlton, old, white and Southern, to stick his foot in it but he keeps saying and doing the right thing. Even when his daughter reminds him he has to move a dresser, he doesn’t ask Brown to help as if he’s some servant; he going to do it himself. Amused, Brown offers, but Carlton responds matter-of-factly: “Why, Jim, you know we don’t allow niggers in the house.”
That line is dropped like a fucking hammer. Not only does Brown not expect it, we don’t. We were expecting it, but Carlton had passed our tests and we'd dropped our guard. Excellent writing.
I like that the movie doesn’t give the Nation of Islam a pass. Malcolm and Betty reference Elijah Muhammad’s frequent affairs with his teenage secretaries, while Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee (Michael Imperioli), gets in some digs at the Nation’s absurd origin myth—its theory that all white people are literal devils on this earth. Lance Riddick is powerful, too, as a Nation minister guarding and/or spying on the four men.
Two of the men—the non-athletes—died within a year of this meeting: Sam in December, Malcolm the following February. Both violent deaths. Clay became Ali and a legend, while Jim Brown embarked on a so-so movie career. Ali and Malcolm have risen in stature over the years, Brown and Cooke less so. A good reason to get started on that Sam Cookie biopic.
Sunday January 24, 2021
Henry Aaron (1934-2021)
The greatest season-ending cliffhanger of my childhood was not “Who Shot J.R.?” from “Dallas” but the finale to the 1973 regular baseball season when Hank Aaron finished one homerun shy of Babe Ruth's hallowed 714 mark. I was 10.
In my fifth grade class, my friend Dan and I were resurrecting a stapled-together magazine we'd done in third grade called “Kids Life,” and in the first issue in the fall of '73 I wrote a two-page article on Henry Aaron. Here it is, mistakes and all:
Hank Aaron By Erik Lundegaard
Hank is closing up on Babe Ruth's 714 HR's. Hank ended this season with 713, one short of Babe Ruth. Near the middle of the season, some pitchers were going to try to let Hank Aaron get his 715th HR off of them. When Aaron broke into the majors he batted cross handed. When Aaron hit his 700th HR of his career, he didn't even get congratulations from Bowie Kuhn. Hank leads every player All-time for total bases. Not many people thought Hank would break Ruth's record until 1971. Aaron has also led the NL in batting twice. (1956-1959) Hank has only led NL in HR's 4 times. Aaron has also been MVP once. Aaron hit 40 HR's at the age of 39. Aaron gets most of his power from his wrists. No wonder opposing pitchers call him Bad Henry
Most of the information must've come from biographies I'd read (“Hammerin' Hank of the Braves”), general baseball books (“Heroes of the Major Leagues,” “Baseball Stars of ...”), as well as “Baseball Digest,” my off-season Bible. The cover headline, meanwhile, was taken from the Bill Slayback song, “Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry,” which I believe played on “Game of the Week” a few times in '73. I loved it. Even without YouTube I could sing you the chorus:
Move over, Babe, here comes Henry
And he's swinging mean
Move over, Babe, Hank's hit another
He'll break that 714
It's interesting I don't mention race in any of the above, because I knew he was getting hate mail and death threats. The newspapers talked about it. “Peanuts” talked about it. Did the first glimmers of America's racist history come to me through baseball? “Dad, why don't they want Rod Carew to get married?” “Why were there no Black players before Jackie Robinson? ”Why do people want to kill Hank Aaron?“
That was the worst part of the cliffhanger: Not the six months between seasons—an eternity when you're in fifth grade—but the question: Would Hank Aaron live through it? We weren't the only ones asking. According to biographer Howard Bryant, Aaron ”believed he would be assassinated in the offseason. He had received enough letters to convince him so. He received death threats from 1972 to 1974—all for doing what America asked of him.“
Dan and I wound up making about 30 issues of ”Kids Life“ that schoolyear, and as I look over them I can see my different passions flowering: now football, now Marvel Comics, now politics. But always baseball. That spring I did a special BASEBALL! issue, with the exclamation point of the logo a fat baseball bat, and on the cover, via my older brother Chris, a sketch of a baseball-clad Richard Nixon, not long for the presidency, swinging and missing. The issue included an in-depth, two-page quiz, predictions for the '74 season, and another bio. Or the same one.
Hank was born on February 5th 1934 in Mobile Alabama. When Hank was in High School, he playd for a black team and he batted cross-handed. So his manager made him change but when his back was facing the dugout he would swich hands. Either way he batted great and helped the Braves to win the World Series in 1956 [sic] and in 1958 he lead them to the pennant but they failed to win the Series. Aaron has been underrate al lhis life until about 1970. He has become a great athlete. The chances for him to break Ruth's record are 99 to 1 his favor.
Was I only reading about Henry Aaron during that long Minnesota winter? He's in the quiz, too (”EASY QUESTIONS: Who is no. 44 for the Braves?“) and in the crossword puzzle (”Where Aaron was born“).
For the curious, Aaron hit No. 713 in the second-to-last game of the '73 season, after which he came up five more times. He didn't exactly wilt under the pressure, going 4-5 with four singles—a good reminder that along with the homerun record, he retired with the second-most hits in baseball history (he's now third) and the most total bases (he's still first—by a long shot). My favorite baseball factoid: If you turn all of Hank Aaron's 755 homeruns into strikeouts, he would still have more hits than Babe Ruth and fewer strikeouts than Reggie Jackson. Astonishing.
Once the '74 season began, he didn't make us wait long. It was like he wanted to end it as soon as possible:
He couldn't have done it better. He tied the record on his first swing (six years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated), then broke it the following Monday, at home, and on national television, so all of us could watch. I remember being very excited, and then very, very embarrassed when the two white college kids ran onto the field to pat his back. At first, I think I thought they were going to attack him. Dude was getting death threats, dudes! When it was revealed to be just back pats, that felt awful, too. It's his moment, not yours! But apparently he didn't mind. He was mostly worried about the trouble they would get into. He's been reunited with them a few times since. He was always gracious about it.
Did something break in him during that time? He was coming off a 40-homer season, and he hit seven in April; but then the cliff: just 2 HRs each in May, June and July; four in August, three in September. He'd hit at least 20 homers every season since 1955, and he did it again in '74 but just barely. He hit No. 20 on the last day of the season and in his last at-bat in an Atlanta uniform. That off-season, he was traded to the Brewers and the city where he'd started, Milwaukee, where he hit 12 in '75 and 10 in '76. I got to see him hit No. 738. He made 755 a magical number.
In a way he made 713 a magical number—at least to me: that long winter when he was sitting on it, when I was reading and regurgitating his story, it became imprinted on me. I remember a game at the Kingdome in '96, '97, when someone either asked me for the time or I noticed it, but out loud I said: ”7:13.“ And then as a joke: ”Time for a homerun.“ The next pitch, Alex Rodriguez hit one into the left-field bleachers and the guy in front of us turned around and stared at me like I was Nostradamus. I shrugged. ”713. Hank Aaron. C'mon.“
But yes, something in him broke during that long winter. From his New York Times obit:
In the early 1990s, he told the sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, ”April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.“
”It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,“ he said. ”My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.“
Former baseball commissioner Bartlett Giamatti once said that baseball is designed to break your heart, but it's not always baseball. In the scheme of things, it's rarely baseball.
Henry Aaron died late last week at age 86. I got the news something was wrong via Joe Posnanski's Twitter feed. Just this cry:
Encomiums and remembrances have been pouring in ever since. This morning my friend Ben sent me Douglas Brinkley's piece in the Times, about what Aaron meant to him, about his final interview with him in November—just before the election. You can sense his gentleness. I like what he says about Jimmy Carter. And they go over it all again: the inspiration of Jackie Robinson, leaving to play Negro League Baseball with $2 in his suitcase, the '57 World Series, the 714 chase and the pain of it. They talk about friends who have passed and how hard it is to process. ”It's sad,“ Aaron says. ”But I guess in some ways, you know, you come here, and you have to leave. God doesn't expect you to stay all the time."
Thursday January 21, 2021
Brand New Day
When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes right in on time
And it seems like and it feels like
And it seems like, yes it feels like
A brand new day
A brand new day
-- Van Morrison, “Brand New Day”
I listened to Van Morrison's “Brand New Day” while making coffee yesterday morning, then posted the video later on Twitter. That was the feeling—mine and everyone's. By the time I woke, Donald Trump had left the White House for the last time as president. He was done. At 7:30 AM PST, when I woke up Patricia, festivities were already beginning. Have I ever watched an inauguration ceremony all the way through? I suppose 2009's, at a party, a brunch, but I don't think I watched with this level of scrutiny and caring and just overall relief.
And what a show they put on. It was exciting when each new couple strolled down the Capitol steps—the site, two weeks ago, of so much violence and chaos and horror. I even appreciated the Republicans there. I appreciated Mike Pence for showing up to represent the administraton since Trump didn't have the courage to do so; since he never realized the importance of the office; since he always thought it was always about him rather than the office. Moscow Mitch was there, too, so I stopped hating on him for a few hours. Roy Blunt gave a not-bad speech and made a not-bad snow flurries/Amy Klobachur/Minnesota joke. I loved the rendition of “This Land is Your Land” from J-Lo and the “Hamilton”-inflected poem from a 22-year-old former stutterer (like Biden). I liked Garth Brooks' “Amazing Grace” (but brother, put on a mask), but I particularly loved Lady Gaga's powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Her phrasing, and the events of two weeks ago, not to mention the past four years, lent new meaning to the words, “... gave proof through the night/ That our flag was still there.” Words that I've sung literally thousands of times suddenly had new meaning for me. I felt myself tearing up.
And man did I love Biden's speech. He was serious and straightforward about our problems. This part:
Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies—lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.
It's the part Republicans have seized on in the last 24 hours. They've cry like stuck pigs. But they know. They know what they've been doing. Double down, Joe. Double down.
I think he's the right man for the moment. He's worked in the federal government so long he knows how to make it work. He's both old enough to be crotchety and impatient, and been through enough tragedy to be empathetic. I don't think he'll suffer the many fools in the GOP. I want to hear a lot of “C'mon, man”s directed at Mitch, Lindsey, et al.—the ones who lie for power and profit. The ones who put party above country.
I still remember a dinner out with friends a few years back when everyone was talking up who they wanted on the Democratic side in 2020. This was Seattle so Elizabeth Warren was a popular choice. I said Kamala, with Joe a close second. I also said the best ticket, or the ticket that had the best shot at winning, was Biden-Harris. Glad I wasn't the only one who thought that.
Brand new day.
Wednesday January 20, 2021
T Minus 2 Hours
“In the end, Trump was everything his haters feared—a chaos candidate, in the prescient words of one of his 2016 rivals, who became a chaos President. An American demagogue, he embraced division and racial discord, railed against a 'deep state' within his own government, praised autocrats and attacked allies, politicized the administration of justice, monetized the Presidency for himself and his children, and presided over a tumultuous, turnover-ridden Administration via impulsive tweets. He leaves office, Gallup reported this week, with the lowest average approval ratings in the history of the modern Presidency. Defeated by Joe Biden in the 2020 election by seven million votes, Trump became the first incumbent seeking reëlection to see his party lose the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives since Herbert Hoover, in 1932. A liar on an unprecedented scale, Trump made more than thirty thousand false statements in the course of his Presidency, according to the Washington Post, culminating in perhaps the biggest lie of all: that he won an election that he decisively lost.
”Yet Republicans—the vast majority, that is, of those who still identify themselves as Republicans—continue to embrace Trump and the conspiracy theories about his defeat that the departing President has spread to explain his loss. This, more than anything, might have been the most surprising thing about Trump's tenure: his ability to turn one of America's two political parties into a cult of personality organized around a repeatedly bankrupt New York real-estate developer. And so we are ending these four years having learned not that Donald Trump is a bad man—the evidence of that was already voluminous and incontrovertible before he entered politics—but that there are millions of Americans who were willing to overthrow our constitutional system in order to keep him in power, who would follow Trump's dark lies rather than acknowledge unwelcome truths.“
-- Susan B. Glasser, ”Obituary for a Failed Presidency," The New Yorker
The above and Michael Lewis' comments from the other day feel like the two biggest takeaways from this horrific era: tens of millions of Americans are willing to undermine American democracy for a demagogue; and the demagogue lost re-election not because of his undemocratic, inhumane and bullying impulses, but simply because he was a bad manager in a time of crisis.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
T Minus 12 Hours
“Donald Trump's tenure was characterized by colossal incompetence and mind-numbing indifference to the public good. His coronavirus management has resulted in more than 24.1 million cases in the United States and almost 400,000 deaths — projected to exceed 500,000 deaths by May. While overseeing arguably the worst loss of life since the great influenza of 1918, Trump also presided over the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. He is the first president in modern history to see a net loss of jobs during his time in office.
”He was the most dishonest president ever: He produced more than 30,000 documented falsehoods.
“He was the most corrupt president ever. He used his office to enrich his businesses, interfered in Justice Department investigations, engaged in obstruction of justice, stonewalled Congress, refused to release his tax returns, purged inspectors-general and pardoned his cronies and co-conspirators.
”He was the most openly racist president in modern times — arguably since Woodrow Wilson. ...
“He was the first president who refused to accept election defeat or propagated bizarre conspiracy theories to undermine confidence in the electoral system.
He became the only president ever impeached twice — once for trying to blackmail Ukraine into helping him politically, the second time for inciting a violent insurrection to try to stay in office. ...
”Thanks, President Trump. By being so awful, you have all but guaranteed that Biden will be far more successful by comparison.“
-- Max Boot, ”Trump was the worst president ever. But his failures set up Biden for success," The Wasington Post.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
Don Sutton (1945-2021)
How often does a player wind up in the all-time top 10 in a statistical category without once leading the league? Seems like it would be a rarity. Yet Don Sutton, who never led the league in innings pitched, is seventh all-time in that category—behind only Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Gaylord Perry.
He did this the way he played baseball—by being very good for a very long time. His first season was 1966, his last 1988, and from '66 to '85 (ignoring the lockout-shortened '81 season), he never threw fewer than 200 innnings nor more than 300 innings in a season. He won 15 or more games a dozen times, but 20+ only once. His ERA was never over 5.00, never under 2.00. His best bWAR was 6.6 and he was only negative once, his last season, and just barely: -0.1. No Cy Young Award, not even a second-place finish, and a so-so postseason career. But he led the league in ERA once, starts once, strikeout-to-walk ratio three times, and WHIP four times. He was Ol' Man River; he just kept rolling along.
“I never wanted to be a superstar, or the highest paid player,” he told Baseball Digest in 1985. “All I wanted was to be appreciated for the fact that I was consistent, dependable, and you could count on me.”
He was and you could: Only two players in baseball history started more games: Nolan Ryan and Cy Young. Only 13 players won more games, only nine pitched more shutouts, only six struck out more. Strikeouts is another of those categories he never led the league in but finished in the top 10 all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Sutton, born in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper, died Monday night in Rancho Mirage, Calif., age 75.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
T Minus 17.5 Hours
“Mr. Trump said in 2016 that America must be 'more unpredictable.' He was true to his word.
”The sudden infatuation with North Korea's Stalinist leader, Kim Jong-un, the kowtowing to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the 'Chinese virus' obsession, the enthusiasm for the fracturing of the European Union, and the apparent abandonment of core American democratic values were so shocking that Mr. Trump's departure on Wednesday from the White House is widely viewed with relief. ...
“'Mr. Trump is a criminal, a political pyromaniac who should be sent to criminal court,' Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, said in a radio interview. 'He's a person who was elected democratically but who is not interested in democracy in the slightest.'”
-- from “Trump Bequeaths Biden an Upended World,” Roger Cohen, The New York Times
Monday January 18, 2021
'We Should Have a Deeper State': Michael Lewis on Trump, Presidential Transitions and the American Attitude Toward Government
One of the few podcasts I subscribe to is Michael Lewis’ “Against the Rules,” where he takes seeming dull topics (refs, coaches) and dives so deep and wide that they immediately become fascinating.
At the end of November, a special episode became available—a half-hour interview conducted by Axios’ Niala Boodhoo, in which Lewis talks about presidential transitions. His previous book, “The Fifth Risk,” is about what the incoming Trump team didn’t do in 2016, and now the topic was what the outgoing Trump folks were trying to prevent the incoming Biden team from doing. But the conversation is more than that. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it forever: “The Fifth Risk” is the answer the Democrats never gave to Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric. It’s the conversation we need to be having.
I’d give you a link to his Axios interview but I can no longer find that full episode online. It’s no longer on his site, for example. But there is a 10-minute version here. That will do for now. If you find the longer version, let me know.
In the meantime, I took part of the weekend to transcribe the longer version—which I'd already downloaded to my phone. Feel free to pass it on.
How did you get interested in this whole idea of presidential transitions in the first place?
I got interested the day after Trump was elected and Steven Bannon announced they were going to toss all the books prepared by the Obama administration in the garbage can, and Trump fired many hundreds of persons, his transition team, carefully assembled by Chris Christie. Then I kind of asked: What is this thing they decided not to show up for?
Our government is different than the government in other democracies. Even though it gets accused of being a deep state, it’s actually quite a shallow state in some ways. That we have more than 4,000 political appointees who come in to actually run the thing. So there’s not a permanent leadership in the same way there are in other civil services. And the problem is continuity. You don’t have a continuity in management or leadership. So you’ve got new people who come in to run this whole thing. And they often have no idea what it is they’re taking charge of.
So let’s take an example. This is what really piqued my interest in writing “The Fifth Risk.”
Rick Perry had been a presidential candidate who got on stage and said, during a presidential debate, that he was going to eliminate three departments of the federal government. He couldn’t remember their names but he said he was going to do it. Afterwards he remembered their names, and one of them was the Dept. of Energy. Now Donald Trump, after he’s elected, picks Rick Perry to be in charge of the Dept. of Energy—which he said he was going to eliminate. At which point, Rick Perry admits he actually has no idea what goes on in the Dept. of Energy. And lo and behold, what goes on in the Dept. of Energy is they manage the nuclear arsenal. Among other things. I mean, things that are just critical to the society. At which point, Rick Perry backpedals furiously and says, “This place is absolutely critical and we’re going to keep it, and I’m going to run it.”
But now you see there’s a problem, right? You’ve got a guy who clearly doesn’t know what he’s running. And if he doesn’t show up to listen to what the people going out have been through for the last four or eight years, or listen to the civil service about what the problems are? You’ve got incompetence and ignorance just waiting to cause trouble.
You spent so much time talking to these people about how they were preparing for a transition [in 2016]. Can you give us a sense of what that involved?
Sure. So any place you went in the government, you could find things that were being done that if they weren’t done would be very disturbing to the American people. They just don’t pay attention to what’s going on in these places. When people think transition they think the White House. They don’t realize, “No, it’s actually the entire federal bureaucracy, the entire federal government, is being handed over.” And by law. There’s actually a law that requires the administration to prepare for this moment of handoff.
The Bush administration, for example, had been very, very diligent in preparing to hand the government over to the Obama administration and Obama was very grateful for how they did that. Obama could get up to speed on the problems they were dealing with—like, for example, a global financial crisis. The Obama administration had done the same thing for the Trump administration. So there are these briefing books—let’s say you’re taking over the nuclear arsenal. There’s a dude, in a room, who’s been managing the nuclear arsenal. It does require management. You don’t want the bombs going off when you don’t want them to go off, and you want them to be able to go off when you want them to go off. You have, among other things, billions of dollars of projects in nuclear waste cleanup underneath you. You have complicated problems you are managing. And there are these books that you’ve created to explain to the people who are going to take over from you how you’ve been doing it.
What happened four years ago that was so peculiar was that I, a journalist, could walk into any one of these departments, find something that was actually critical—like the feeding of 30 million schoolchildren every day—and be the first person to receive the briefing on how this was done. There was no interest from one side to the other. Now the situation is reversed. The outgoing administration has no interest in handing over to the incoming administration. It’s a different problem, right? And I’m watching it from a distance rather than reporting on it now, but it is a different kind of problem, and there are maybe more workarounds here than there were the last time.
I wonder if we can play some audio for you, to get you back to four years ago. And this is the moment of the handover between Pres. Obama to Donald Trump.
Obama: I’ve just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with president-elect Trump. It was wide-ranging. We talked about some of the organizational issues in setting up a White House. We talked about foreign policy, we talked about domestic policy. And as I said last night, my no. 1 priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful.
So that’s a different spirit, right? That’s the spirit of someone actually trying to operate in the spirit of the government and make sure that bad things don’t happen because the incoming administration wasn’t prepared by the outgoing administration.
So now we have a slightly different situation, where the president, uh, well, he doesn’t even want to acknowledge that he lost, for starters, but beyond that seems intent on withholding as much as possible. A couple of things come to mind when I’m watching this happen.
There are obviously just facts you need to know that may be classified that you can get access to. That may be a problem for the Biden administration. But there are a lot of little, practical things. I saw one the other day. The Biden administration is going to have to manage the pandemic. I was in the office of a friend over at the University of California, San Francisco, the other day; and in his office, he had, I don’t know, 10,000 of these Abbott Lab rapid Covid tests—take 15 minutes to do it. He had them because the federal government had bought the first 150 million of these things, and not knowing what to do with them had shipped them off to the states on a per-capita basis. And the states didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t even know if they worked, so they sent them to UCSF to test them. And in fact they do work very well. Now it’s one little piece of the Covid response. There are a thousand things like this. The Biden administration probably doesn’t even know those things are out there, or where they are, or what the state of play with them is, or how they might be used. If you have 150 million rapid Covid tests, there are obviously smarter places to put it than others—places where you get more leverage out of them. But you can’t even think of them unless you have been briefed.
I wonder how much of the chaos we’re seeing now you think stems from … not just from the 2016 transition, but as you explored all this, the folks that were coming in from the Trump administration really seemed to have the attitude that the way the government is run now is just wrong, and people are doing things wrong, and it doesn’t make sense to listen to the people who have been doing it wrong for however long they’ve been doing it.
But the minute you got into any kind of specifics, it just broke down. I mean, it’s wrong how the nuclear arsenal is being managed? Please explain. And in many cases they weren’t actually proposing a different policy, they were just proposing to be more negligent in the way they managed it. Now, obviously, there were strains to this government. Yes, it was true there were things in the federal government they just wanted to shut down—like, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But there were other places—like, for example, managing a pandemic, or managing the nuclear arsenal, or managing nuclear waste cleanup, or distributing school lunches, which they didn’t propose to get rid of, or running the National Weather Service, or collecting taxes—that they weren’t proposing to do away with. In fact, they weren’t proposing to do anything differently. But even in those cases they showed no interest in getting briefed.
The third strain was, there were cases—and the Weather Service is an example of this—where there were private companies that had an interest in making it difficult for the government to do its job so they could extract more profit from the marketplace.
It was a hodge-podge of things, it wasn’t one ideology at work. And on top of it all, there was a president who was perfectly happen to govern in ignorance. In fact, in a funny way, he elevated it to a principle. And to the extent that he kept everyone as in the dark and confused as he was, we were all playing on the same field.
But he seemed to operate almost from a position that he already knew everything. That’s what he’d said to Chris Christie, who had managed his transition team. When Christie said, “You know, this is a big thing, Donald, it’s a 2 million-person operation you’re gonna have to run and you’ve never run anything bigger than your own company,” [Trump] said, “Chris, everything you and I need to know about running the government we can learn by taking an hour away from the victory party.”
Now if that’s your attitude, I mean, really the only way you’re going to proceed is to not pay much attention to it. Because in fact it’s an enormously complicated task. It’s not like it’s easy for anybody. In some ways, the job is undoable. You come in cold. You’ve got to appoint 4,000 people to run this whole operation—get many of them confirmed by a Senate that is hostile to you. Very hard to hire and fire people in the federal government. Everyone knows you’re there at most eight years. It’s a management challenge in the best of times. When you throw into that the people that are handing it off to you are going to obscure from your view everything you need to know to manage it well? You’re just asking for trouble—you just don’t know what the trouble is.
I think in many ways “The Fifth Risk” is kind of like this love letter to bureaucracy and the federal government. There’s so many stories of relationships of people that you met. I think that people don’t think that the National Weather Service is there to provide tornado warnings or hurricane warnings.
They take the progress for granted. Your weather forecasts are so much better than they were a generation ago, and they’re better than they were a generation before that. And there’s a reason for that. And the effect of that is huge. The effect on commerce, the effect on human life, the ability to pinpoint where the hurricane is going to hit land. This is a relatively recent phenomena. And it’s driven entirely, or almost entirely, by the government’s work in the area.
Now there’s been help from the private sector, but the government is the center of the collection and analysis of the weather data that led to the progress in weather prediction. And we just take it for granted. We don’t think, “Huh, who did that? Who were the people who threw themselves into that enterprise?” And when you dig into it, you find it was the woman who, as a 10-year-old girl, was traumatized because in a hurricane a tree fell on her house and she said “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to other people. I’m going to learn how to predict the weather.” You find these very curious characters who were drawn to the mission. And sometimes the stories are quite moving.
There’s a guy in the book named Arthur Allen, who was laid off during the government shutdown, who was in the Coast Guard, who basically invented a way to predict the way objects drift at sea—depending on the object: if you’re on a life raft or a life preserver or an 18-foot sailboat. And this enabled the Coast Guard to find thousands of people who were lost at sea that they never would’ve found otherwise. This is a guy who saved thousands of lives, and he did it without anyone asking him to do it, just because he got an interest in it while working at a government job. And he got laid off as an unnecessary worker during the government shutdown.
There’s story after story that doesn’t get out there, because the government isn’t allowed to market itself. It doesn’t promote itself—unlike every other sector of society. The book? Yes, it is a bit of a love letter. It didn’t start that way. It started with me just wondering: What happens if people who are going to run this place don’t show up to learn what happens inside of it? And I was shocked by the caliber and the passion of the people I met. A side effect of [the current transition], and a side effect of the entire Trump administration, is to send a signal to those people: You stuck your neck out for this society and we’re going to chop your head off. Or: We don’t honor what you did for us. And that to me is a great shame. That, to me, is the biggest shame of the Trump administration.
Do you think that is reflected in the fact that he lost the election? If you look at polling, how people felt about the way coronavirus has been handled, that was a significant factor in how people voted.
I was betting when I was working on the book that his managerial ineptitude was much more important than people were crediting, and that something would happen. I didn’t know what it was. But one way to frame the federal government is a manager of a portfolio of risks—and some of these risks are existential risks. Something always happens, right? You never know what it is. The presidents don’t get to sit there and coast for four years. Something happens. And when it happens, [Trump] would be unprepared to manage it because of his approach to the enterprise—and because his approach to the enterprise is reflective of deeper problems.
But: Yes, I think he lost the election because of his approach to government. People might not quite put it that way, but put it another way: Let’s say he was a Mussolini who could actually make the trains run on time; that he actually had management ability. Along with everything else he’s got—anti-democratic impulses, all that—that he could make the trains run on time, that he could actually a pandemic effectively. He’d still be president. He’d have won. So, yes, it wound up being his Achilles heel: not paying attention to the enterprise he was supposed to manage.
Now we’re in this in-between period and we’re also seeing a lot of firings: the Defense Secretary … these are important roles. I wonder just sort of what implications you think this period has—not just thinking about President Trump obstructing President-Elect Biden—but also the people who are here.
Well, I don’t know what it means for Trump to fire someone right now. I don’t know if they’re really fired. They’re fired for two months? I don’t know. They could come back. What effect would it have on me if I was in one of these enterprises? It would be just to lay low until the guy is gone. Because why attract attention to yourself? You might be the next one to be fired. But I don’t think it would stop me from having the conversations I’d need to have with the Biden administration—the stuff I felt they needed to know. So I assume a lot of people feel that way. Seems like the natural way to feel. I could be wrong about this. I think of these kind of managerial moves he’s making now as farce and theater. They’re not going to make much of a difference. You’re removing people from jobs for a couple of months. It just seems like noise and distraction.
I wonder if we can end by cutting through that noise and distraction by you just sharing what are the most important things you’d like to be seeing happening. Even if they’re not happening, what should be happening?
I think if we back away from this? And asked “What should we all learn?” We really shouldn’t be at the mercy of one man like this. And there shouldn’t be 4500 people to be appointed by the president to run the civil service—we should have a deeper state. We should have upper-level management positions at all of these agencies that are permanent civil service. We should convert a lot of political positions to civil service positions. So that the transition is less critical; that the expertise at the top stays—much of it; and every department has its Tony Fauci. So the handoff is just not as big a deal.
Think of what the Biden administration is having to do. How much easier it would be if it was 200 people they needed to put in. And only at the very top. And underneath the very top, you had these people who actually knew what was going on in the enterprise; who were actually managing it. My takeaway is we need to reform the government so it would be easier to manage; and it looks more like other enterprises in society that are successfully run.
I think Trump supporters—people who voted for him because they said he’s a businessman and knows how to run a company, and he will clean up the swamp—would agree with you. So what would you say to those people about the government has been run, not just for the past four years, but needs to be reformed in the way that you’re talking about?
You just explain it. You know, the problem is: It’s not explained. If you look very broadly at Trump’s support, what’s the first two things you notice about it—aside from race and gender. You notice where they live. It’s rural. Rural America is the most dependent on the American government of any part of America. Rural America, above all, would welcome a better-run federal government because they’re at the mercy of it. You just explain how. It’s a civics and public education problem. We don’t have that conversation. We shout at each other a lot. I think someone willing to teach, and lead by teaching, absolutely can deliver this message.
So you wrote the book a few years ago: I’m wondering what stories have stayed with you. You mentioned a few. Are there any more?
The person of whom I would think “You would need one of him in every department”: John Mcwilliams, who is the first person I go to see at the Dept. of Energy. He’s just out of the Dept. of Energy when I started this book. And he was a private sector guy. He was a guy that lots of people who hate the government would still find ways to admire him. He made millions of dollars as a private equity person. He knew the energy sector really well. He was a successful investor and money manager. And he was brought in as a risk manager in the Dept. of Energy. His job was to run around the whole place and figure out what are the risks we’re managing. And he stopped at 138. Every one of them seemed terrifying when you sat down and talked to him. He knew nothing about the government when he came into the job. He came away shocked—shocked—by the talent that was inside the Dept. of Energy, and by the energy and ambition, which was just directed at something other than making money. But also shocked by the fact that no one had put names to these risks. Some of the risks are quite slow-moving—like the risk of underinvesting in science and technology. Long-term science projects are being funded by the Dept. of Energy that won’t be funded by the private sector. The future of the economy is being funded, in part, by the Dept. of Energy.
He’s interesting as a person. But that character intrigues me as someone who we could use everywhere in the government. And then have that person explain, publicly, what it is we need to be thinking about and worrying about.
What’s at the top of the risk list?
The top of the list is whatever you’re not thinking about. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I promise you, you and I sit down in four years, some things will have happened that we could never have imagined. But someone in the government is in charge of imagining it and thinking about it and preparing for it, and making a slightly better response to it.
We should’ve been able to guess that we would be crippled by a bug. Right? Some people said some things about it, but it wasn’t at the top of mind four years ago—that we’re all going to be cowering in our homes because there’s this new cold virus going around. There’s a similar unimaginable thing on the horizon. We would do well to buttress the people in the government whose job it is to prepare us for those things.
We didn’t do it in this case. Quite clearly, we didn’t do it in this case. Beyond that, we didn’t empower them after the fact. Trump did things that gutted our ability to respond to this thing, but it was much more what he did after this thing was upon us that was so disturbing. Even now, we’re arguing if government is a solution to the problem. Even now, we alone, in the world—think about this—we alone in the world are fighting about whether or not we should wear masks or congregate in large numbers.
This is the thing to me that’s unbelievably bewildering and telling. We are the inventors of pandemic planning. The Center for Disease Control was in effect the World Health Organization. We have the leading scientists, we’re leaders in medicine, we should be the A team in responding to a pandemic. That we have four-and-something percentage of the world’s population and 20-and-something percentage of the world’s deaths is a spectacular indictment of our relationship to our government. There’s no other explanation than that for our failure. We should be winning the pandemic and we’re losing it.