Rituals and Presidents

I had a discussion with two friends about state funerals.  They thought stopping mail delivery and otherwise closing the federal agencies was excessive; I thought it was a matter of respect that we didn’t have business as usual.  Yes, it costs – particularly suspending the mail just as we enter the busy holiday season – but for me cost is not a factor.  I don’t think I convinced them and they certainly didn’t convict me.  We had a civil discussion on FB and agreed to disagree.  But the discussion got me thinking about what we owe our former presidents when they die.

The first presidential funeral I actually remember was John Kennedy’s.  I can see to this day the riderless horse and young John’s salute in procession.  I’m pretty sure that everything shut down for a few days.  I know we had no school.  And this was different because JFK was assassinated.

I went searching for what is considered “normal” for former presidents and found a Washington Post story about Richard Nixon’s funeral.  Of course he did not get to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, but had a service at his Presidential Library.  The Post explained Bill Clinton’s decision to suspend mail delivery and close government offices

The Clinton administration’s decision to close the federal government Wednesday in honor of Richard M. Nixon will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but it follows the precedent of at least the past four presidential funerals.

Administration officials yesterday said the government was shut down for the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, citing those closings as the basis for President Clinton’s decision to do the same for the Nixon funeral.

So what happened yesterday for George H.W. Bush was following a modern day tradition.

Also following tradition was the attendance of all the living Presidents.  Another one of my friend’s referred to this as The President’s Club.  According to the New York Times, they don’t gather often, mostly at funerals.

annotation-desktopPresident George W. Bush sat with his family out of frame.

Note the Vice Presidents in the row behind the Presidents.  I think this is a remarkable photograph.  Another one of my favorites photographs of the President’s Club is the gathering in the Oval Office when George W. Bush invited them before Barack Obama took office. (I’ve always wondered what was going through Jimmy Carter’s mind!)

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To get back to Presidential Funerals I think we model them after the English traditions.  We don’t have a monarchy, but we do have a head of state who combines elements of both royalty and the governing powers of a prime minister.  It doesn’t matter if we agreed with a President’s politics, I believe we owe them a measure of respect for their service to the country.  We will probably continue to close the federal government, suspend mail delivery, and fly flags at half staff.  Presidents (with one potential exception) will continue to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda and many will have services at the National Cathedral.  And I, for one, don’t think this continued adherence to tradition to be a bad thing.

Photographs:  Doug Mills/The New York Times

Left behind

Demographers tell us that those who identify as white will be in the minority in a few years.  If you were a political party trying to maintain power and relevance wouldn’t you be trying to court members of the future majority?  I guess not.

Frank Bruni wrote in his recent column

From proud Republican harbinger to sad Republican castaway — that’s the story of Representative Mia Love, who finally conceded her extraordinarily close House race on Monday.

It’s the story of her party, really. Of what it once realized about the future and how it slouched backward into the past. Of trading the elixir of hope for the toxin of fear.

It charts Republicans’ ugly drift under Donald Trump, who rooted for her defeat not only as the votes in Utah’s Fourth Congressional District were still being counted (“Mia Love gave me no love,” the president pouted) but with all that he said on the campaign trail and has done in the White House. Tacitly and explicitly, he has sown disdain for the likes of Love, a daughter of Haitian immigrants who, in 2014, became the first black Republican woman ever elected to either chamber of Congress.

She remains the only one. When she leaves at the end of this congressional session, there will be just two black Republican men — one in the House and one in the Senate.

And then you have Cindy Hyde-Smith winning in Mississippi.  Jelani Cobb writes in the New Yorker

A series of outrageous statements, regardless of whether they were calculated or clueless, was not sufficient to alienate enough white Republicans from Hyde-Smith. She blithely stated that she would be willing to sit in the front row of a public hanging, in a state whose history is marred by the spectacle murders of black people at the hands of racist white mobs. She “joked” that she was in favor of making it more difficult for certain people to vote in the state where, in 1966, the N.A.A.C.P. activist Vernon Dahmer was killed—his home was firebombed—for the crime of registering black people to vote. Earlier, she had praised Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis, as “Mississippi history at its best!” (It was also reported last week that she had graduated from a “segregation academy,” created to sidestep the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, and sent her daughter to a school that had had the same origins.)

Mike Espy was always a long shot to win the elections, but the margin, 54 to 46, surprised me; I thought it would be closer.  And Hyde-Smith is not the only Republican to win this fall despite their racist statements.  Think of Governor-elect DeSantis in Florida and Governor-elect Kemp of Georgia.  Cobb writes

Hyde-Smith’s victory means that, this month, three Southern white Republicans used cavalierly racist rhetoric in successful attempts to defeat three black Democrats in statewide races. In Florida, Ron DeSantis warned Floridians not to “monkey this up” by electing his rival. In Georgia, Brian Kemp billed himself as a Trump-like conservativewho drove a large pickup truck so as to have room for the “criminal illegals” he might round up as he went about his day.

Trump with his implicit and explicit racism has created the atmosphere that gives other candidates cover.  On the Democratic side as Bruni points out, there is a new diversity.

Everything you heard about the exciting diversification of midterm races? About the significantly increased numbers of women running for office, of people of color, of L.G.B.T. candidates?

That was on the Democratic side. The Republicans either couldn’t be bothered, couldn’t find any takers or — my guess — both. Love called that out in a remarkable concession speech on Monday. To the victor go the spoils, but from the vanquished comes the candor.

“Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats,” Love said. Democrats “do take them home — or at least make them feel like they have a home.”

Mia Love has put her finger on the Republican problem.  After Mitt Romney lost in 2008, the Republicans talked a lot about a reset to become more diverse and attract more diverse voters.  It obviously has not happened.  In fact, the Republicans have gone far in the opposite direction.  Meanwhile, the Democrats have made, in Love’s words, a diverse group feel like they have a home.  Just take a look at this New York Times piece on the new Freshmen in Congress.  The contrast is striking.  The Republican Party is being left behind.

Let me give Cobb the last word

The pre-Trump Republican Party certainly relied on the support of whites who held racially bigoted views, but it struggled for plausible deniability in such matters. With Trump, the racism is out in the open, and so, in some cases, is the willingness of the electorate to tolerate it. The Mississippi race reinforced something that has been impossible to avoid but difficult to accept: Trump’s imprimatur actually helped some Republicans win elections. Nina Simone titled her racial-justice protest song “Mississippi Goddam.” The shame isn’t just that the song remains resonant fifty-four years after it was released but that, looking at the landscape of 2018, there are still so many other places she could sing about.

Pardons and Guilt

Last night my husband and I were watching “All In” with Chris Hayes and there was a lot of speculation about Trump pardoning Manafort, et al.  I got curious about Watergate pardons and did a search.  Turns out that except for Ford pardoning Nixon, there was only one other – Reagan pardoned one of the burglars.  But in my search I turned up this very interesting commentary by Jill Wine-Banks  (Three ugly Watergate lessons for President Trump, Chicago Tribune) who was an Assistant Watergate prosecutor.  Written in July 2017, it contains information I had never heard before.  Wine-Banks outlines three things one should think about before accepting a Presidential pardon.

First, it is an admission of guilt.  I had no idea, but the controlling case law is a 1915 Supreme Court decision, Burdick v. United States:: 236 U.S. 79 (1915).

The first thing President Trump and voters should know is that anyone who accepts a pardon admits guilt by doing so. That means, even if Trump could pardon himself — a long-debated legal gray area — as well as any family members and aides, he and they would be admitting guilt by accepting the pardon. And under the Constitution, the president’s pardon power does not apply to impeachment proceedings that could — and might well — be triggered by his pardoning himself or even the others.

That is the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1915 Burdick decision. It was the basis of President Ford’s written explanation to the House Judiciary Committee regarding his pardon of Nixon. For the rest of his life, Ford carried a portion of the Burdick decision in his wallet.

In 2014, I appeared on a panel at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., with Benton Becker, the lawyer Ford sent to Nixon’s San Clemente home to offer the pardon. Becker described his meeting with the recently resigned president as painful. It was his duty to explain to Nixon, as instructed by Ford, that if he accepted the pardon, it was an admission of guilt. Becker reviewed with Nixon a copy of the Burdick decision that he had brought with him to California.

Nixon accepted his guilt in the Watergate controversy by accepting the pardon. Anyone Trump pardons would be doing the same.

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Second, the pardoned person loses access to the Fifth Amendment.

Second, Trump should know that anyone who accepts a pardon loses his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and can be forced to testify under oath. The resulting testimony can be used against President Trump. Of course, should anyone pardoned refuse to testify or testify falsely, the person can be jailed for that offense.

Wine-Banks’ third reason is that pardons would not save Trump politically.

Third, the president should understand that his potential use of the pardon and the possible firing or limitation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation are likely to cause as much backlash as such conduct did during Watergate.

I hope that some lawyers are thinking about Burdick and trying to explain it to clients and to the President.  Would he really want to have Don Jr. or Ivanka admit guilt?  He probably doesn’t care about the others.

We are trapped in a drama few of us want to watch, but we can’t turn away from watching.  Look for more surprises.

Photograph: Corbis

 

Tempered Optimism

I  was seriously contemplating not renewing my subscription to WordPress.  I hadn’t written a word in months mostly because of a combination of writer’s block and not wanting to endlessly complain about the current occupant of the Oval Office.  I buried myself in binging West Wing,  posting on Facebook, and giving money to candidates.

But after the election, I feel a bit more optimistic about the future.  Plus the Boston Red Sox won the World Series!

Democratic women are the primary reason for my cautious optimism.  If there was a “Blue Wave”, it was women.  Meredith Conroy wrote in FiveThirtyEight a week or so after the election:

Democratic women did really well last Tuesday. And many broke new ground: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a New York U.S. House seat, is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Rashida Tlaib, who won in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, and Ilhan Omar, of the Minnesota 5th, will be the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. Women also flipped districts blue in competitive races — Navy veteran Elaine Luria won in the Virginia 2nd, and former CIA analyst Elissa Slotkin, who served in the Obama administration, won in the Michigan 8th.

What cheers me is the diversity of the women elected.  Young, not so young; white, black, Latino, and Asian; Lesbian, Trans, and straight; liberal and moderate.  In short, a mix that comes closer to representing American women than ever before.  I’m waiting for the stories about conflict among them, but I firmly believe that they will find a way to work together.  And work with their male colleagues.

Yes, the House needs to resume oversight of both agencies and the White House, but to continue success in 2020, legislation must be passed.  We know almost none of it will pass the Senate or be signed by the President to become law, but Democrats must have a track record of doing positive things for future success.  One thing that struck me in the fall election was the failure of the Republicans to talk about anything much except for the so-called Caravan of migrants coming to invade us.

So I am cautiously optimistic that the new House led by women will start leading us out of our dark times and back toward democracy.

 

 

Thinking about Prequels

I just finished reading Charles Finch’s newest book in his Lennox series, The Woman in the Water, which is a prequel to the series.  It got me started thinking about the nature of prequels.  When I bought the book at my local bookstore, Mystery on Main, the owner remarked that it seemed a bit strange to have a prequel to a well established series.  Then in this morning’s New York Times Book Review Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Prequels are fun because you get an intimate glimpse of your favorite detectives while they’re still wet behind the ears and not so full of themselves.”

So what is a prequel all about?  I’m thinking mainly about  some television series like Tennison, the prequel to the great Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect and Endeavor about the young John Morse as well as The Woman in the Water.  When there are great characters we always want more.  We want to know more about them.  Who exactly are they?  What makes them tick?  Where did they come from?  These three prequels attempt to answer these questions.

I have to say that I could never get into Tennison.  Maybe because there was no Helen Mirren, but I think it is because it tried too hard.  Perhaps too much focus on Jane Tennison and not enough on the stories.  But I have to admit I only watched the first two episodes.  The character seemed to be much like the older Tennison without much indication of how she got there.  The same tensions with her family and her same predilection for sleeping with the wrong men exist without much explanation.

Endeavor

Fred Thursday and Endeavor Morse.  Photo copyright by ITV,

Endeavor is another story.  I’ve read a number, although not all, of the Colin Dexter books featuring Morse and I totally missed the original Inspector Morse television series with John Thaw.  (One can purchase only the European DVDs that won’t play in U.S. machines.)  So perhaps I love Endeavor because I never saw the original series, but more likely it is because they are great stories on their own plus they have the great Fred Thursday character.  We learn a great deal about the young Morse including that he was raised as a Quaker.  Through the first four seasons, one can see him mature, but also glimpse the seeds of the irascible man he becomes, at least in the books.  But he is at the core always the intuitive detective.  One does get a glimpse of the mature Endeavor Morse through the eyes of Inspector Robbie Lewis in the wonderful TV series, Inspector Lewis as Lewis recalls his old boss in several of the early episodes.  Morse even helps solve a murder from his grave.

blue deathAfter I finished reading The Woman in the Water I went back and re-read the first book in the series, A Beautiful Blue Death.  I first bought the book for my mother who, like me  was a voracious consumer of mysteries.  I remember her saying that Finch was trying too hard to made Charles Lennox into a Peter Wimsey like character.  On my re-reading, I find that somewhat true, but also that it is not as well written as the later books including Woman.  We do learn a great deal about the 23 year old Lennox including his love for Elizabeth (Jane) and how he and his brother lost their father.  In Beautiful Blue Lennox is described as being close to 40.  I wonder if there will be other books filling in that gap.  In the meanwhile, I’m like Marilyn Staiso and just enjoying the the series.

 

 

 

New music

These are troubled and troubling times but one distraction for me is music.  Last week I went to three concerts:  two young musicians at the Yellow Barn; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and our local Windham Orchestra.  Three distinct venues and three kinds of players.

The Windham Orchestra is a community enterprise that has been going for 65 years.  I’ve been attending their concerts for many years and have seen them get better and play more challenging music.  Made up of a mix of music teachers, retired professionals, and talented amateurs they have really made progress under their relatively new director, Hugh Keelan.  (I should note that my sister has been principle flute for a number of years.)  Last Sunday they did a stunning Scheherazade. 

I was privileged to hear two works making their premieres.  There is something magical about knowing that you are listening to a piece of music that no one has ever heard before.  The first was a Yellow Barn residency concert; the second, a BSO commissioned work.

The Yellow Barn in Putney, VT is primarily a summer music festival but in the last few years they have expanded to occasional winter residency concerts.  Musicians come for a week to develop a new work or to polish working as an ensemble.  In this case a pianist and violinist, Lee Dionne and Brigid Coleridge put together a new work consisting of music and recitation.    Based on an interpretation of Homer’s Iliad by poet Christopher Logue titled War Music, Dionne and Coleridge recited excerpts and then matched them to music.  The music included works by Bach, Gyorgy Kurtag, John Cage, Manuel de Falla, and Richard Strauss.  What we saw and heard was a first performance, not without flaws, but fascinating.  They had to play music, do dramatic recitation and sing – quite a stretch for classical musicians!  I had never heard of War Music and immediately ordered a copy.

The BSO work, Express Abstractionism, by Sean Shepherd is a work in four movements.  Each expresses emotions illustrated by an artist or artists.  My husband loved it, but I was taken only with the first and last movements.  That might be because I was familiar with the artists.  Movement I is titled “dense bubbles, or: Calder, or: the origin of life on earth.  Movement IV. the sun, or: the moon, or: Mondrian.

I’d like to hear both of the new works again.  I love hearing music no one has heard before.  Listening intensely takes me away from the troubles for just a little while.

 

The future of American democracy

I’m married to a pessimist.  He’s been reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and is convinced we are now well into the decline.  While I’m not quite so pessimistic, I admit I have my own moments of despair.  Sometimes it feels as though we have no control over the future.  Almost certainly, the Republican party has already caved in.  But events like the recent election in Alabama and the  generic polling that consistently shows a preference for electing Democrats to Congress this year give me a ray of hope.  If Virginia can almost completely flip the state legislature, why can’t we do the same for Congress?

I can think of at least three roadblocks:  Money (think the Koch’s), voter suppression (gerrymandered districts and new voter rules), and, last but not least, the age of the Democratic leadership.

A lot has been written about the first two roadblocks on my list but not so much about the third.  I love the members of the Vermont delegation but, let’s face it, the youngest is Representative Peter Welch who is exactly my age – 70.  I’m pretty sure that I am will vote for his reelection – and for Bernie’s – but there are a number of younger folks who will be ready to take their places next time around.  For right now, we need their seniority.

Moving from Vermont to national politics we have Nancy Pelosi (77) and Chuck Schumer (67).  If the Democrats retake the House, and even if they don’t, it is time for Nancy to retire gracefully.  She has served us well as both majority and minority leader, but it is time for the next generation.

Howard Dean, another Vermont politician I supported for President, is one of the few of my generation speaking out about this.  In a recent NPR interview with Rachel Martin, Dean said

The most important age group for us is people under 35. They elected Barack Obama in 2008. But now it’s time to let them take over. And they’re going to have to take over on their own terms. We have tons of talent in our party. We do not need to rely on my generation anymore. And these kids think differently. They’re more respectful of each other. They’re willing to listen to each other’s ideas and work things out. They’re entrepreneurial. They’re more conservative than we are economically than the left wing of the Democratic Party. They’re mostly libertarian.

I just think this is the future of America. They are diverse. They value immigration. They value different kinds of people. They believe that gay rights is the civil rights issue of their time. They care deeply about the environment. We need a real change in this country and the only way to do it is for us to get out.

Dean goes on to say that the party has to change because the world is changing and is no longer so dependent on institutions.  There are all sorts of interesting people running for Congress this year filed as Democrats.  I believe I read that most of the House seats in red districts have a Democratic challenger.  At this point, I think the most important role the Democratic Party as an institution can play is to help raise money as the elections will be won by grassroots workers who will not necessarily be Democrats.

So what about 2020.  The word here is that Bernie is gearing up for another run.  Yes, I know that Bernie’s base was young people in 2016, but by 2020 he and they will be four years older.  And even though there is likely nothing there, the Jane Sanders financial stuff is going to haunt any campaign.

My pessimistic husband sees no one who can run, but remember in 2007 no one thought that Barak Obama known only to Democratic activists for his speech at the 2004 Convention, could run, much less win. So let’s look at some new faces:  Seth Moulton (age 40, ex-Marine Congressman from Massachusetts); Cory Booker (Senator from New Jersey, age 49); Kamala Harris (Senator from California, age 55); Kirsten Gillibrand (Senator from New York, age 55); Amy Klobuchar (Senator from Minnesota, age 58); and Chris Murphy (Senator from Connecticut, age 45).  Look them up.  And I’m sure that there are some Mayors out there who would be interesting candidates.

I still think our democracy can be saved, but we each have to play the proper role and for Democrats of my generation, that means following Howard Dean’s example and moving ourselves to a supporting role.