Sunday June 13, 2021
The Democratic Party Needs to Listen to Marc Maron More Often
“It is Memorial Day. I do want to put my heart out there for people who have lost people, in all fights. And I do again want to stress my gratitude to the people that have had the courage to get vaccinated like fucking adults: the people that had the courage to take a hit for the herd, and move forward, believing in science; and with the belief that we can somehow push this virus back. We did it. Those are the people that fought for our freedom this year—the people that got vaccinated. Not the belligerent babies who didn't get vaccinated for whatever reason. I mean, I do have some empathy and understanding for people who have health issues and don't want to get vaccinated. But all of those people who fought against the fight to stop the spread of the virus, because of what they saw as 'the fight for their personal freedom,' can go fuck themselves, on this Memorial Day.”
-- Marc Maron on his WTF podcast on May 31, 2021. This is the way the Dems need to frame the argument. The other side has usurped the freedom label but it's really ours. We fought to make us all more free; so that we can go to restaurants and ball games and visit family again. They fought for their own freedom to be dicks and douches. Just be upfront about it. The other side is crazy and getting crazier, and you don't stop them with kindness.
Sunday May 16, 2021
Burn After Reading II
“Basically a large proportion of the people who worked with Trump came away deeply dismayed by his mental capabilities. O'Keefe, Ledeen, et al., looking at this epidemic of Trump appointees who consider him a complete moron, decided the problem was a deep-state cabal subverting Trump. And then, despite investing large sums of money, the expertise of a British spy, and several attractive women, did not get anybody calling Trump an idiot on camera. This would be like luring a group of tourists into the desert without air conditioning in the goal of getting somebody to say they're hot, and failing.
”Mark 'Deep Throat' Felt famously said of the Watergate scheme, 'The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.' The truth about Trump's gang of wannabe spies is that they're not very bright guys, and things did not even get out of hand, because they couldn't even get people to blurt out an opinion held by half of America and nearly all of Washington, D.C."
-- Jonathan Chait, New York magazine, commenting on an article in The New York Times about a spectacularly inept undercover operation during the Trump presidency led by James O'Keefe's spectacularly inept Project Veritas. Someone should make it into a movie. I nominate the Coens.
Friday May 14, 2021
What the Left Still Doesn't Get
Via Andrew Sullivan's weekly column. It's about the GOP's great missed opportunity. I agree with almost every word:
By clinging to a broadly toxic figure like Trump, and orienting their strategy around his unappeasable vanity, the GOP is flubbing one of its biggest political opportunities in years: to craft redistributionist policies for the mass of working Americans, and to defend the legacy of the West, its values and traditions, against the most radical left assault since the late 1960s.
Everywhere in the West, this is now the winning electoral formula: left on economics, right on culture. By “left on economics”, I mean a recognition that market capitalism has been too successful for its and our own good, and that spreading the wealth to more people is needed both for social stability and to rescue capitalism from itself. And by “right on culture”, I do not mean some kind of revived Christianism. I mean affirming a critical but undeniable love of country and its flawed but inspiring history, reforming rather than defunding the police, enforcing the nation’s borders with firmness and compassion, embracing color-blind policies on race, and viewing our common humanity and citizenship as deeper principles than the modern left’s and radical right’s obsession with group identity.
Get that balance right, and the future is yours. In a must-read essay in Britain’s New Statesman, Tony Blair spells out how the progressive left is still misreading the public mood, allowing a cannier, less rigid right to entrench power. Money quote: “‘Defund the police’ may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ … It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values.” Some key principles Blair lays out:
People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday … People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice.
I've long felt Democrats have focused too little on class issues in my lifetime. The GOP under Trump, meanwhile, has given up everything they once purportedly valued—rectitude, civic responsibility, institutions like the FBI and CIA, free trade—for a Putin-loving, ally-bashing, tariff-raising, baldly corrupt clownshow that puts himself above party and party above country, and who encouraged a violent overthrow of our democracy. It's a time of extremism and this thing we're all on, plus social media, plus blatant propaganda like Fox News, are the reasons.
Friday April 30, 2021
“If this can happen to the former president's lawyer, this can happen to any American.”
-- Andrew Giuliani, Rudy's son, after an FBI raid on his father's home earlier this week. He seems to think the above line is documenting an abuse of power when it's the opposite. It's documenting how rule of law is supposed to work.
Saturday April 24, 2021
Walter Mondale (1928-2021)
Carter and Mondale and the spirit of '76.
Here's my Walter Mondale story. I believe I've told it before.
In the summer of 2004, I was given an assignment for a new legal pubication. I was to write features on two Texas attorneys/politicos: one a Republican in Houston, the other a Democrat in Dallas. For the Republican attorney, besides the principle, I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Karl Rove; for the Dem, former vice president Walter Mondale. It was a heady week. I interviewed some of the most connected, most powerful people on the planet and then on Friday I went down to the unemployment office to explain why I hadn't found a job yet. Such is the life of a freelancer. Oddly, or not, the work I was doing the week I wasn't getting a job wound up becoming my job. The magazine expanded, I was hired as a senior editor, and in early 2005 I moved back to Minneapolis, where I'd been born and raised. I'm now the magazine's editor in chief.
That's not my Walter Mondale story, of course. That's just background. Here's the story.
The week after I moved back to Minneapolis, my then-girlfriend/now wife Patricia came from Seattle to visit and we went to see the movie “Downfall” at the Uptown Theater. That was my old arthouse theater; I saw a lot of classic movies there growing up. While she went to the bathroom, I found us seats, and a moment later another couple came in and laid their stuff in the row in front of us, then departed. When Patricia came back, my eyes were sparkling.
“Guess who's sitting in front of us?”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Adam?”
“No. It's no one we know.”
“Then how can I guess?”
“It's a famous person. Think of the most Minnesota person ever.”
She perked up. “Prince?”
“No, not ... that kind of famous. Think politics.”
“Just tell me.”
I just told her: Walter and Joan Mondale. After the movie was over, I trailed after Monday as he made his way down the aisle and then introduced myself as the journalist who had interviewed him the previous summer about his former advance man Boe Martin. He was gracious, we talked for a bit—Joan had already gone out into the lobby—and I was probably rushing to keep the conversation going when he reached past me to shake Patricia's hand and introduce himself. I'd just been standing there like a doofus, not introducing the woman behind me, but he had better manners. Then we all talked a bit about the movie. It was about the best welcome back to Minnesota I could imagine.
I thought of this again when hearing the news that Walter Mondale died on Monday, age 93.
Most of the obits said the same thing: he was a decent man who suffered a “crushing defeat” when he ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984. Few try to parse those two points, but it was one of the great lessons of my young life: decency loses, lies win. In her remembrance, Jane Mayer writes that “He was the last Presidential nominee of either party to respect the American public enough to tell it the hard truth about economic realities.” And you see where it got you. Or where it got us. She remembers Mondale deflating a raucous college campus crowd by talking about the services they'd need when they got old; she remembers him at the 1984 Democratic convention telling the electorate he would have to raise their taxes to ensure those services and a more just society. America half-listened, said “nah,” and went with the guy with the Hollywood career and the slick “Morning in America” campaign commercials. America went with the lies. And the lies only got worse.
He was the son of a Lutheran minister from a small Southern Minnesota town, Ceylon, who became mentee to Minnesota's great rising son, Hubert H. Humphrey. He got out the vote for him in '48, did the same for Orville Freeman in the 1950s, and was appointed state attorney general in 1960. In '62 he was elected to the post. In '64, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the Humphrey vacancy and in '66 he was elected to the post. He was re-elected in a landslide during the year Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. He transformed the vice presidency into something more substantial and wonky, into a working partnership with the president. After '84, he returned to Minnesota and a law practice in downtown Minneapolis at Dorsey & Whitney. He helped Minnesota business thrive. He was U.S. ambassador to Japan, and following the sudden death of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone a few weeks before the 2002 election, he was drafted into the campaign. He lost to another liar, Norm Coleman, during a Republican year. I have trouble forgiving Minnesota for that one.
His death wasn't unexpected but I was surprised by how much it hurt. After I heard the news, I kept pressing my palms against my chest. I, with no rights in this matter.
He left a lovely final note to staff members: “Well, my time has come,” he wrote. “I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor. Before I go I wanted to let you know how much you mean to me. Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”
Saturday April 03, 2021
Republicans Take Firm Stand Against Baseball, Coca-Cola and Voting Rights
I like this tweet I saw the other day:
- On March 25, the GOP-led Georgia legislature passed, and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed, a law limiting voting in the state.
- The New York Times calls the legislation “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections, making absentee voting harder and creating restrictions and complications.” You have less time to request an absentee ballot, stricter ID laws, fewer drop boxes, no voting centers, vote-counting changes that slow the process, and, infamously, a misdemeanor to give water to someone waiting in line to vote. Oh, and if questions arise, the GOP-led legislature has more power to decide matters.
- When Georgia-based Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola criticized the new law, Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere criticized them.
- Yesterday, Major League Baseball pulled its lucrative All-Star Game out of Georgia in response to the partisan law.
One wonders how isolated the GOP has to become before it gives up on the craziness and rejoins the American community. I mean, they're now attacking baseball and Coca-Cola. Is apple pie next?
I assume it continues. As long as Republicans have Fox and right-wing talk radio to air their lies, it continues. It's Fox, after all, that's driving the GOP talking points, not the other way around, as Paul Waldman wrote yesterday.
Tuesday March 23, 2021
In the wake of the mass shooting in a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado yesterday, which left 10 dead, and which came a week after the massage-parlor shootings in Georgia, which left eight dead, this tweet from cartoonist Tom Tomorrow:
Wednesday February 17, 2021
Trump v. McConnell
“You can tell how worried Republicans are that they are now the Trump Party by the contortions of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who aided Trump almost to the end. Rarely has a politician been more blatant in attempting the impossible feat of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.
”Moments after voting to let Trump off — 'on a technicality,' as Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas shrewdly observed ... McConnell blistered the inciter in chief in a speech the impeachment managers could have written. His words told the world who won the argument. They also underscored how wrenching it will be for Republican politicians to appease the GOP's Trump-supporting majority while pretending to be another party altogether.“
-- E.J. Dionne, Jr., ”The beginning of the end of Trumpism,“ in The Washington Post.
That was Sunday. Yesterday, Trump attacked back in his usual fashion but via an unusual platform: a press release. Apparently his aides didn't want him going off-script in a public appearance. This was the script: ”Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again. He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country. Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.“ Blah blah blah. In the midst, I tweeted: ”So weird to be on the side of one of the worst people in the world: Mitch McConnell. But here we are."
Thursday February 11, 2021
Where We Are
Let's face it, though. The Fox News rhetoric that the Murdochs get rich and powerful off of is partly responsible for the attack. They began it all. They kept the Big Lie of election fraud alive. They not only gave it air, they gave it lighter fluid and a lit match. But it's good for people to say this stuff out loud. I still need to read Stelter's book on Fox News.
I was busy yesterday but caught bits of the second impeachment hearings: Office Eugene Goodman warning Mitt Romney about the mob, saving his life. We were very close, much closer than I thought, to January 6th being much, much worse. Patricia watched a lot of it. She spent the day enraged.
Tuesday February 02, 2021
Open and Shut
“On January 6, 2021, with Vice President Michael Pence presiding, Congress assembled to perform one of its most solemn constitutional responsibilities: the counting of electoral votes for President of the United States. This ritual has marked the peaceful transfer of power in the United States for centuries. Since the dawn of the Republic, no enemy—foreign or domestic—had ever obstructed Congress's counting of the votes. No President had ever refused to accept an election result or defied the lawful processes for resolving electoral disputes. Until President Trump.
”In a grievous betrayal of his Oath of Office, President Trump incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol during the Joint Session, thus impeding Congress's confirmation of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. as the winner of the presidential election. As it stormed the Capitol, the mob yelled out 'President Trump Sent Us,' 'Hang Mike Pence,' and 'Traitor Traitor Traitor.' The insurrectionists assaulted police officers with weapons and chemical agents. They seized control of the Senate chamber floor, the Office of the Speaker of the House, and major sections of the Capitol complex. Members and their staffs were trapped and terrorized. Many officials (including the Vice President himself) barely escaped the rioters. The line of succession to the Presidency was endangered. Our seat of government was violated, vandalized, and desecrated. Congress's counting of electoral votes was delayed until nightfall and not completed until 4 AM. Hundreds of people were injured in the assault. Five people—including a Capitol Police officer—died.
“President Trump's responsibility for the events of January 6 is unmistakable. After losing the 2020 election, President Trump refused to accept the will of the American people. He spent months asserting, without evidence, that he won in a 'landslide' and that the election was 'stolen.' He amplified these lies at every turn, seeking to convince supporters that they were victims of a massive electoral conspiracy that threatened the Nation's continued existence. But every single court to consider the President's attacks on the outcome of the election rejected them. And state and federal officials from both parties refused President Trump's increasingly desperate demands that they break the law to keep him in power. With his options running out, President Trump announced a 'Save America Rally' on January 6. He promised it would be 'wild.'
”By the day of the rally, President Trump had spent months using his bully pulpit to insist that the Joint Session of Congress was the final act of a vast plot to destroy America. As a result—and as had been widely reported—the crowd was armed, angry, and dangerous. Before President Trump took the stage, his lawyer called for 'trial by combat.' His son warned Republican legislators against finalizing the election results: 'We're coming for you.' Finally, President Trump appeared behind a podium bearing the presidential seal. Surveying the tense crowd before him, President Trump whipped it into a frenzy, exhorting followers to 'fight like hell [or] you're not going to have a country anymore.' Then he aimed them straight at the Capitol, declaring: 'You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.'“
-- taken from ”TRIAL MEMORANDUM OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES IN THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL OF PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP," Introduction. Can't imagine a more open-and-shut case for impeachment. I really can't. From months he refused to accept the democratic results, pressured state reps to change vote counts, told his supporters where to come, and when, and filled them with fiery rhetoric before pointing them in the direcition of the U.S. Capitol to upend the election and keep himself in power. Insane. We all saw it but in a horrible way we were used to it. A lot of what he did, his horrendous, me-first behavior, was what the GOP ignored and the legit press downplayed for years. But this time there were consequences. And now there needs to be accountability.
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.
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.