Archive for February, 2024

What would Lincoln do?

Tuesday, February 27th, 2024

Looking at sinners from last to first
The hypocrite seems to me the worst.

For some reason, recent events, unfolding like slow-motion train wrecks, have me thinking about Abraham Lincoln and the way he got things done.

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin described how Lincoln, considered a “backward bumpkin” by his adversaries, co-opted all of them with the force of his strategic intellect. A pragmatist who played the long-game, Lincoln, with humility I can’t find in politics today, never let his ego or self-interest get in the way of his well-thought-out goals.

William Seward had been Lincoln’s main rival for the presidency, and the recently elected Lincoln knew the brilliant former Governor of New York had much to offer. Consequently he offered Seward the position of Secretary of State, which Seward accepted. When Lincoln was preparing the speech for his first inauguration, he asked Seward for his advice about it. Seward, whose ego was large, read the speech, complimented Lincoln on it, and said he only had three problems with it — the beginning, the middle, and the end. He offered Lincoln a host of suggested edits. Rather than show Seward he was offended, which he must have been, Lincoln thanked him for his counsel, accepted a few of his edits, but rejected all the others. This little interchange let Seward know who was President and who was not and set the tone for their future relationship, a relationship in which Seward was to become devoted to Lincoln.

On 10 August 1863, Lincoln had his first meeting with Frederick Douglas, the ex-slave who was to become perhaps the most influential social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, even statesman, of the 19th century. He was certainly the greatest leader of the movement for African-American civil rights.

The previous January, Lincoln had promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the Confederacy, but not the slaves in the states loyal to the Union. Douglas approved of this, because he could see it as the first step toward total freedom, but he was nonetheless upset with Lincoln for a different reason.

Shortly after Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, the Government had established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage what it hoped would be great numbers of newly freed black soldiers. Douglas had been asked to help recruit these potential soldiers for army service. He agreed to do it, and he was successful at it. However, he had discovered the new recruits were not being paid as much as white soldiers. Neither were they receiving the same benefits or promotional opportunities.

This inequality was the source of Douglas’s anger, and he wanted Lincoln to know it when they met for the first time in the White House. He felt he had been betrayed.

Lincoln told Douglas he knew about the inequities and was committed to remedying them, but curing them would take time. Lincoln must have been persuasive, because Douglas believed him. He continued his recruiting endeavors. And, sure enough, the following June, Lincoln convinced Congress to pass a law requiring freed slaves to be paid as much as other soldiers, to receive comparable medical care, and to have the same  promotional opportunities as white soldiers. This opened the door for black soldiers to enter the Officer Corps. In addition, Congress made the new law retroactive to the Emancipation Proclamation.

In their encounter, both Lincoln and Douglas set their personal self-interest aside for the greater good. We don’t seem to be able to do that anymore in America. Putting country above self almost seems an anachronism.

From the triumph of Donald Trump in South Carolina, to his racist comments during his speech at the Black Conservative Federation (BCF) annual gala last Friday, to the falling-all-over-themselves backtracking of stalwart Christian politicians reacting to the Alabama Supreme Court’s in vitro fertilization decision, to the blatantly undemocratic, even treasonous, speeches at last week’s CPAC convention, to the continued nonchalant dismissal of funding to keep Ukraine alive — all of these, and more, are examples of the hypocrisy, selfishness and conceit that overshadows today’s political landscape.

Now, as Donald Trump closes the noose on the Republican Party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln, I do not see his incendiary rhetoric becoming any less unhinged or unbridled. Everyone in the Party seems to be lining up to grab onto his MAGA coattails, climb up into his pockets. You’d think there wouldn’t be any room left in there.

I ask myself, “What would Lincoln do?”
The answer? “How I wish I knew.”

Alabama dives headfirst down the IVF rabbit hole

Thursday, February 22nd, 2024

“Disbelief, denial, all the stages of grief. … I was stunned.” — Dr. Michael C. Allemand, a reproductive endocrinologist at Alabama Fertility, which provides IVF services.

I hold a seed in the palm of my hand. It’s a Sunflower seed. Is the seed a Sunflower? Or, is it just a seed that, were I to plant it, water it, throw in the Miracle Grow, might (probably not, knowing me) turn into an actual Sunflower?

That seed is ready to grow. If I do everything right, it should rise and grow into a beautiful Sunflower, the kind Vincent van Gogh used to paint. But, looking at my palm, I don’t see a Sunflower; I see a seed.

But according to the logic behind an Alabama Supreme Court decision announced last Friday, I should not be calling my seed a seed; I should be calling it a Sunflower.

Last Friday, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by three couples over the accidental destruction of extra embryos they had frozen in their efforts to have children. The couples had successfully sought IVF treatment at a fertility clinic operated by the Center for Reproductive Medicine in Birmingham, Alabama. But, as in most IVF treatments, there were extra embryos, which had not been used in the successful treatments. Those were stored at a local hospital. In 2020, the hospital suffered a security breach when a, presumably unbalanced, patient got into the restricted area where the embryos were stored, extracted them from their containers, and dropped them after they burned the patient’s hand. This caused their destruction.

Instead of suing the hospital for negligence, the three couples sued under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, which allows parents of a deceased child to recover punitive damages for their child’s death. Maybe it was all about the money?¹

Regardless, the very first paragraph of the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision reads:

This Court has long held that unborn children are “children” for purposes of Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, § 6-5-391, Ala. Code 1975, a statute that allows parents of a deceased child to recover punitive damages for their child’s death. The central question presented in these consolidated appeals, which involve the death of embryos kept in a cryogenic nursery, is whether the Act contains an unwritten exception to that rule for extrauterine children — that is, unborn children who are located outside of a biological uterus at the time they are killed. Under existing black-letter law, the answer to that question is no: the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.

In his majority opinion, Justice Jay Mitchell wrote, “all members of this Court agree that an unborn child is a genetically unique human being whose life begins at fertilization and ends at death.” Embryos may be “genetically unique,” but there is no scientific data to support a legal assertion that they are human beings.

At another rather fanciful point in his decision, Mitchell writes that considering a frozen embryo a “child” is a “natural, ordinary, commonly understood meaning” of the word. Commonly understood by whom, if you please?

On page 12 of his decision, Mitchell writes: “the ordinary meaning of “child” includes children who have not yet been born. ‘This Court’s most cited dictionary defines ‘child’ as ‘an unborn or recently born person.'” And, sure enough, if you head over to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary you find the meaning of “child” as “1. aan unborn or recently born human being.” 

I would like to have a conversation with the person at M-W who came up with that definition of “child.” I would like to show him or her my Sunflower seed.

The decision takes a weirder and even more biblically Christian turn in Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker’s concurring opinion in which he writes the decision is grounded in the “theologically based view of the sanctity of life.” Frozen embryos must be considered children, according to Parker, because “human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.”

He also wrote in his scripture-draped concurring opinion, “even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Parker’s opinion could have been written by Jerry Falwell.

What exactly happens in IVF? According to the Mayo Clinic’s explanation, “a woman’s extracted egg is fertilized by injecting a single sperm into it, or mixing the egg with sperm in a petri dish.” It is then a fertilized egg and is called an embryo. According to Alabama’s Supreme Court, it is also called a “child.”

In  his prescient dissent, Justice Greg Cook, clearly seeing where this is going, wrote:

The main opinion’s holding will mean that the creation of frozen embryos will end in Alabama. No rational medical provider would continue to provide services for creating and maintaining frozen embryos knowing that they must continue to maintain such frozen embryos forever or risk the penalty of a Wrongful Death Act claim for punitive damages.

And this is exactly what happened yesterday, when the fertility clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the biggest in the state, announced it has stopped offering IVF treatments. Other clinics will certainly follow. If nothing changes, and the only way it could, as Justice Mitchell’s decision makes plain, is by the Alabama legislature doing something it most certainly does not want to do — passing legislation declaring embryos are not children — this could spread to other states. Already, in today’s Boston Globe, IVF clinicians are voicing alarm at what could be a disastrous future for them and the patients they serve. “This changes the whole dynamic for how you help overcome infertility,” said Dr. Pietro Bortoletto, director of reproductive surgery at Boston IVF Fertility Clinic. “This feels like a big wake up call for infertility doctors everywhere.”

The Alabama decision is a knife through the heart of all of its citizens desperate to have children, but unable to do so without IVF. The Associated Press printed interviews with some today. The people interviewed were heartbroken.

The majority’s opinion clearly says the Justices got their marching orders from the U. S. Supreme Courts decision in Dobbs, which overruled Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that opened the door to legal abortion in America.

I cannot help thinking this unforeseen affair is one of the most striking examples of “The law of unintended consequences” I have ever seen.

Or, is it? The battle over frozen embryos has been going on since the George W. Bush Administration, and, while most of America thought the battle over, many just waited for a moment like this to take up the cause again.

And smack dab into the middle of all this drops Donald Trump, who, in one of fate’s stranger twists, is scheduled to address the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Association tonight at 8:00pm in Nashville, Tennessee.

The NRB, composed of evangelical broadcasters across America, claims 141 million Americans “watch or listen to Christian broadcasting every month,” and that there are “4000+ active Christian radio and televisions stations in the United States.”

In its Statements of Religious Beliefs, the NRB clearly shows its support for and agreement with the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court:

From the moment of fertilization until natural death, every human life is sacred because every human life has been created by God, in His image and likeness.

From the moment of fertilization, every human life must be recognized, respected, and protected as having the rights of a person and the inviolable right to life.

The right to life and physical integrity of every unborn human life is inviolable—it is not a concession made by society or the state, but is instead inherent to the unborn human life by virtue of its creation in the image of God.

Because human life begins at the moment of fertilization, it is against our religious and moral conviction to formally or materially cooperate in the termination of unborn human life.

With this audience, how can the former President possibly avoid speaking about this issue? Will he agree with the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision and say so? Will he mention it, but not give an opinion? Or, will he just rant about the radical left persecuting him? Personally, I think Trump too clever to get sucked down the IVF rabbit hole all caught up in the tangled judicial robes of Alabama’s Supreme Court Justices? But I don’t know how he’ll avoid it.

The IVF Genie is out of the bottle. Now what?


¹ Although, in their lawsuit, the couples assert strongly their belief in IVF and “fervent” hope their suit does not in any way harm the aspirations of other couples desperate to have children through in vitro fertilization.

On the death of Navalny

Tuesday, February 20th, 2024

The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country. It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction. Open Borders, Rigged Elections, and Grossly Unfair Courtroom Decisions are DESTROYING AMERICA. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE, A FAILING NATION! MAGA2024!

With those words, written on his Social Media platform more than three days after it happened somewhere in the cold of the arctic circle, Donald Trump, the likely choice of the Republican Party in the upcoming 2024 presidential election, finally acknowledged the death of Alexei Navalny.

No mention of Navalny’s heroism.

No mention of the physical attacks, arrests, harassment, or the 2020 Novichok poisoning that nearly killed him.

No mention of a simple condolence message to his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who has borne her husband’s ordeals and the constant threat of his murder for the last 15 years with grace and dignity, a dignity which was on full display at last week’s Munich Security Conference hours after learning of her husband’s death.

No mention of Vladimir Putin, the man who bears full responsibility for  Navalny’s attempted assassination, imprisonment and, now, death.

No mention of any of that. Only me, me, me, which is the story of Donald Trump’s life.

Alexei Navalny was the face of Russian opposition to the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin, and had been so for at least the last ten years. He was a constant and sharp thorn in Putin’s side, a brilliant political strategist whom the Russian Thug-in-Chief could not allow to live. Even from one of the darkest, coldest spots in Russia, Navalny was a problem. Something had to be done.

This is not the first time Trump has displayed a craven disregard of Navalny’s torture by Putin’s thugs. In 2020, when Navalny was poisoned and taken to Germany for treatment, where he nearly died, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “beyond a doubt” that this was “an attempted murder with nerve agent.” Navalny was “the victim of a crime intended to silence him.” Trump, the man who spent half his time in the White House texting, never wrote (or said) a word about it.

On Sunday, during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” South Carolina’s long-time Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, said, “Navalny was one of the bravest people I ever met. When he went back to Russia he had to know he was going to be killed by Putin, and he was murdered by Putin.” He then suggested the U.S. designate Russia a “state sponsor of terrorism,” making it the fifth country to be so labelled along with Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria. The designation comes with a battery of sanctions, including restrictions on foreign assistance and a ban on defense exports and sales.

But when pressed, Graham would not say a word of criticism about Trump’s refusal to join with other world leaders in condemning the treatment of Navalny.

Like Graham, other Republican politicians have condemned Putin for orchestrating Navalny’s death, most notably Senator Tom Tillis (R-NC), but none have called out Trump for his continued bromance with the Russian President. If Trump were to win November’s election, what would this blindered look do to our international standing with our European allies? What would it mean for Ukraine, already hobbled by America’s inaction? Would people like Graham and Tillis continue to criticize Putin?

The only Republican politician of any stature in America to in any way condemn Trump for his callous, selfish, egomaniacally narcissistic comment was his primary opponent, Niki Haley, former Governor of South Carolina and UN Ambassador in the Trump Administration, who called him, “weak in the knees” when it comes to Putin. She was the only one. This is the level to which the Party of Abraham Lincoln has sunk.

This is all you need to know about the 45th President of the United States. This is all you need to know about the Republican Party of 2024.

Honor has left the room.


A modest proposal to eradicate Period Poverty in America

Monday, February 19th, 2024

Some things are plain and easy. Some are not. This one is the former. Or should be, anyway.

Every year, thousands of young girls skip school for something entirely beyond their control — menstruation. Most of them miss school because of Period Poverty. Simply put, Period Poverty is not having enough money to buy menstrual products, such as tampons, pads or reusable products like menstrual cups.

I know. This is a delicate subject. Regardless, it needs discussion.

This is a global problem; doesn’t matter the country. According to the World Bank, period poverty affects approximately 500 million women and girls around the world. In the U.S., nearly 22 million women living in poverty  cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. One study in Obstetrics and Gynecology  concluded 64% of women reported they’ve had difficulty affording menstrual products. And 21% reported they were unable to afford them every month. 

This can be particularly difficult for girls in middle and high school, and even more so for girls and young women who identify as BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People of Color.

According to Harvard Medical School, 1 in 5 teens between the ages of 12 and 19 misses school every month because of Period Poverty. This easily correctable absenteeism can have a detrimental impact on a student’s academic progress and overall educational experience.

In 2018, the Scottish government made history by becoming the first government in the world to make period products free to students. Since then, New Zealand, France, Kenya, New South Wales, Botswana, South Africa, South Korea, and more have followed suit.

As has the U.S. — sort of.

Like many problems, alleviating Period Poverty is a state by state thing. In 2018, New York became the first state to mandate free period products in public and charter schools, but did so without providing state funding for the requirement. In 2023, the state expanded the requirement to include private schools.

Other states have followed New York. As of 8 January 2024, 25 states and Washington D.C. have now passed legislation to help students who menstruate have free access to period products while in school.

Overall, the details in enacted Period Product legislation vary widely between states, and this is a problem. Some laws include state funding to make products available in schools for free. Some make funding available through grants schools must apply for. Legislation in ten states and the District of Columbia  require the products to be free, but do so through unfunded mandates. Many states require period products be available in middle and high school restrooms, while others include elementary schools. Some legislation also requires period products in restrooms of public colleges and universities.

Specifically, here is how each of the 25 states that mandate providing free period products addresses the issue:

And then there is the tax. Nineteen states mandate sales taxes on menstrual products. The taxes range between 4% and 7%. Twenty-six states exempt period products from taxation, and five states have no sales tax. Taxing period products makes them even more unaffordable for low income women and girls.

Other countries have attacked Period Poverty with country-wide solutions. America has not done that. Every state is on its own to attack a universal problem. Personally, I am disappointed my state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has not enacted free period product legislation, although there has been a bill before the legislature since 2018, and for the last two years it has passed in the Massachusetts Senate, only to die in the House of Representatives. Doesn’t seem to me any rational reason for not moving it forward.

Around the country, there are a number of organizations doing their best to eradicate Period Poverty. Dignity Grows is one such organization. Aunt Flow is another. In Massachusetts, Dignity Matters collects, purchases and supplies menstrual products, bras and underwear to women and girls in homeless shelters.

What we really need is a country-wide federal approach to this problem that affects everyone who menstruates, regardless of where they live. Such an approach could simply mandate providing period products in middle and high school, as well as colleges and universities, while leaving the states to decide how best to carry out the law.

This is such a Mom and Apple Pie issue, it would appear even our current Congress with all its warring factions could get behind the idea with one of those rare moments of bipartisanship.

Well, one can always dream.


Correction — In last Thursday’s Letter about the Child Tax Credit expansion, I incorrectly cited the vote in the House as 370 – 70. The actual vote was 357 – 70. Republicans voted 169-47 for the bill, while Democrats backed it by a 188-23 margin. I apologize for the mistake.

Against the backdrop of America’s noble past, hanging Ukraine out to dry is heartbreaking

Saturday, February 17th, 2024

At the close of World War II, the United States had become by far the dominant world power. How could it not be? Europe had been beaten to a pulp, the same for Russia. Japan had been bombed nearly back to the stone age. China was a nonentity, and India was still a British colony. There was no one else. The U.S. was the last man standing. In addition to the tragically killed and wounded, the worst thing the country had faced was rationing for the war effort. The mainland continental United States was nearly untouched by enemy action during the entire war.

But the physical devastation was so severe in Europe that in May 1947, nearly two years after Victory in Europe Day, Winston Churchill described the continent as “a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”

As the only country with the resources to lead the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war, the United States realized its post-war prominence came with colossal responsibility—and opportunity. In perhaps this nation’s greatest contributions to humanity, it poured money, personnel, and other resources into the most massive rebuilding effort in history. This was one of those rare instances where beneficence exquisitely blended with national self-interest. During the years following the war, America devoted itself to European and Japanese recovery in ways that  should still inspire us today.

  • The U.S. developed the four-year European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) under the leadership of Army General and Secretary of State George C. Marshall¹ to rebuild the infrastructure and rehabilitate the economies of 16 western and southern European countries to allow stable conditions to develop and democratic institutions to survive.  This included Germany, and stands in sharp contrast to the humiliating and draconian measures taken by the victors at the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Stalin wanted similar measures after World War II, but was overruled by the allies who, despite the atrocities committed by Germany, knew it would be folly to repeat the mistakes of Versailles. The Marshall Plan years (1947 – 1951) were the fastest period of growth in European history and led to the Schumann Plan, the Common Market and now the European Union. The Marshall Plan also led directly to the creation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). During the Marshall Plan, the U.S. contributed $17 billion over the four-year period (more than $200 billion in today’s dollars). The Soviet Union and its allies refused to accept any of the aid from the Marshall Plan, because doing so would allow the U.S. to have a degree of  control over the Soviet economies, and the paranoid Joseph Stalin could never allow that;
  • Similarly, in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) and began the work of reconstruction. SCAP dismantled the Japanese Army and banned former military officers from taking roles of political leadership in the new government. To rebuild the Japanese infrastructure and economy, the U.S. invested nearly $3 billion ($20 billion in today’s dollars) in materials, manpower and humanitarian aid between 1947 and 1952. Today, having abandoned its early 20th century bellicosity, Japan is the third largest economy in the world.
  • After the war, although reconstruction was critical for the future, establishing justice for war criminals was central to that time’s present. As in Nürnberg, Germany, where more than 3,000 Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes during the two years following the war, the Allies brought to trial Japanese wartime leaders by convening war crimes trials in Tokyo and at various tribunals sitting outside Japan. Some 5,000 Japanese were found guilty of war crimes.
  • In 1948, Russia initiated the cold war by inhumanely blockading the three western sectors of Berlin, cutting off 2.5 million people from access to electricity, food, coal and other crucial supplies. Beginning 26 June 1948, two days after the blockade was announced, U.S. and British planes carried out the largest air relief operation in history, transporting some 2.3 million tons of supplies into West Berlin on more than 270,000 flights over 11 months. The awesome magnanimity of the Airlift, which cost America $224 million ($2.6 billion in today’s dollars) saved the lives of an untold number of Berliners.

  • In April, 1945, even before the war ended and 12 days following the death of President Roosevelt, the U.S. hosted more than 500 delegates from 51 countries who conferenced for two months in San Francisco to create the framework for what would become the United Nations. In the middle of the conference the delegates gathered in Cathedral Grove of Muir Wood to pay tribute to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A unified America did all that, and more. It demonstrated the greatness of “the American century,” and was a significant and proud moment in our history.

And now, in 2024, 79 years following the end of World War II, what have we become? There have been majestic moments in our history, notably the 5th decade of the 20th century, when national self-interest trumped political self-interest. Is anything resembling that intelligent altruism possible today in our deeply divided country where partisanship is egged on by grandstanding politicians whose only consideration is their own ambition?

At some point, the war in Ukraine will end. Without our childish Congress continuing to provide weapons and ammunition, it will end badly for Ukraine, which has already seen well over 100,000 of its soldiers and civilians killed by the Russian invaders. Unlike in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to bring to justice Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russians responsible for the obvious war crimes unveiled in Bucha in August, 2022. The Russian leaders will never again be able to visit a western country, but they’ll be safe among what passes for friends.

I used to think that our support and the support of the rest of NATO would carry the day. I used to think Ukraine would succeed and expel the invaders. I used to think our next big job would be leading the effort to help Ukrainians rebuild their country, the largest in Europe, with magnificent architecture. I knew it would require an enormous investment in time, money, and skilled workers to restore it to its former beauty. We would need George Marshall-like fortitude to commit ourselves to that effort, and I believed we would make that effort. Americans would do that. And all of Europe would be there to help. This time we would not have to go it alone. I used to believe that. I used to believe we’d have that chance.

But the Mike Johnson-led House of Representatives has thrown cold water all over that. Apparently on the spur of the moment, Johnson decided House members should take two weeks off for a President’s Day recess without attacking, let alone addressing, any of our challenges, especially Ukraine. Now they’re gone and their most notable accomplishment, if you can call it that, has been impeaching the Secretary of Homeland Security after preventing him from getting any of the help and resources he needs to rectify our southern border crisis.

Thus far, Republicans in the House have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even the idea of supporting the administration’s efforts to help Ukraine defend itself — and the rest of Europe, by the way — from the egomaniacal Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore the Soviet Union.

Think about this for a moment. Putin obviously sees the weakness displayed by the House. Consequently, he has thrown even more human wave cannon fodder at the Ukrainian front lines. If Ukraine is forced, as it appears it will be without U.S. aid, to withdraw its troops to new defensive positions, Russia will be ever so much closer to Poland and the Baltics. These countries have invested enormously on their defenses and in aiding Ukraine, but under growing threats from Putin, they will have to cut their aid to Ukraine to protect themselves. Keep in mind Putin spent a large part of his softball interview with Tucker Carlson² attacking Poland as a Nazi state. This is one reason the Poles spend 4% of their GDP on defense.

Thursday’s death (killing?) of the heroic Alexei Navalny in a Russian penal colony somewhere in the Arctic should show everyone, once again, of the Russian leader’s depravity. I am reminded of what Bob Gates said about him. The former CIA Director for George H. W. Bush and Secretary of Defense in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, after a trip to Moscow for a meeting with Putin said, “I came back from my first meeting with Putin and told then-President [George H.W.] Bush, I had looked into Putin’s eyes, and I’d seen a stone-cold killer.”

Perhaps, having heard from their constituents, when our hooky-playing Representatives return from their little vacation their views on providing aid to Ukraine may have changed, but I doubt it. According to a Gallup November 2023 survey, Trump’s Russian-loving rhetoric is resonating with Republicans, 62% of whom said the U.S. is doing too much to help.

Thinking back on a time when America acted nobly after World War II makes this current tragedy all the more heartbreaking. We acted in our self-interest, but it was in Europe’s and Japan’s self-interest, too. History will never stop smiling on what we did then.

Donald Trump, his cult followers, his opportunistic, ambitious, coat-hanging  enablers all say they want to make America great again.

So do I.


¹ Marshall may be the most accomplished statesman and wartime leader in American history. He was armed forces Chief of Staff during World War II, a five-star general (one of only five in history), Secretary of State following the war, where he organized the Marshall Plan, Secretary of Defense during the Korean conflict, Time’s Man of the Year—twice, and, in 1953, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

² Personally, I think Tucker Carlson should just move into Kim Philby’s old apartment in Moscow. He’s probably be quite comfortable.

Well, surprise, surprise, the House did something right.

Thursday, February 15th, 2024

Wherever we turn in this era of tremendous technological advancement, we also bump up against the undeniable fact that there exists a wide gap between the poor and the rich. This gap is not new. It has been with us since humanity first walked upright.

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security as a tool to attack poverty in America. In 2023, the Census Bureau reported Social Security continued to be a most important antipoverty program, moving 28.9 million people out of poverty in 2022, alone.

In the 1960s, before getting himself deep into the quagmire of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson attacked poverty in America, which at the time stood at 22.1% of the population. He announced his Great Society initiative during his first State of the Union address in 1964,  outlining a series of domestic programs  he believed were required to eradicate poverty and inequality in the United States. By the end of Johnson’s term, Congress had implemented 226 of his 252 legislative requests. No President has ever done more to lift people out of poverty.

At the end of 2023, the Census Bureau  reported poverty had dropped to 12.4%. The greatest decline in poverty has been in the South, which has seen a drop since 1960 of 54%.

But 41 million people still live in poverty, five million more than in 1960.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that governmental programs have raised millions of Americans our of the crevasse of poverty.

Globally, there have been similar results, as former Secretary of the Treasury and Harvard President Larry Summers told’s Michael Klein¹ in a podcast chat last week. According to Summers, “I think that any discussion of the human condition has to begin with the fact that, depending on just how you do the numbers, some number like 140,000 people a day have been lifted from extreme poverty, every day, on average, for the last 30-some years. And that is an achievement that is entirely without precedent in human history.”

While everyone who had a hand in poverty reduction, both globally and domestically, deserves our thanks, there is still much work to do to achieve President Johnson’s aspirational “eradication” goal.

According to Professor Melissa Kearney, of the University of Maryland, writing for, “The extent of child poverty varies greatly across race and ethnic groups, as well as by family structure. Black and Hispanic children have the highest rates of poverty in the U.S.: 26% and 21%, compared to 8.3% among white children and 7.3% among Asian children.”

Kearney goes on to say:

In 2019, 41% of children in mother-only families lived in poverty, as compared to 8% in married-parent families. These poverty differences by family structure hold within race/ethnic groups as well. According to data on child poverty rates within race and ethnic groups, children in mother-only families are three to six times more likely to live in poverty. This largely reflects the fact that two adults bring in more income than one adult. But it also reflects the fact that parents who have lower levels of education and lower levels of income are less likely to marry. Thus, single-parent family structure is both a cause and an effect of poverty.

During the COVID pandemic, Congress raised the Child Tax Credit to as much as $3,600 per child, up from its previous (and current) $2,000 per child. But that raise was for one year, 2021, and two years ago it expired. According to a paper from the Economic Policy Institute analyzing the effects of the expansion:

The refundable Child Tax Credit alone accounts for a reduction in child poverty of 2.9 million children. Within that, the expanded Child Tax Credit—a key element of the 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP)—lifted 2.1 million children out of poverty. The ARP Child Tax Credit is the leading reason child poverty fell so precipitously from 9.7% in 2020 to 5.2% in 2021, the lowest rate on record.

Given the significant success of expanding the Child Tax Credit during the pandemic, child welfare advocates have been lobbying ever since to make the expansion permanent. It has not helped the effort that so many of our politicians, especially those in so-called red states (states that have benefited the most from the Great Society programs) have resisted doing so.

However, it now appears all the lobbying may have succeeded.

At the end of January, the House of Representatives, in an unusually bipartisan manner, approved expanding of the Child tax Credit. The vote was 370-70.

The bill, called the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024, is now in the Senate, although a date for a vote has yet to be scheduled.

If the bill passes in the Senate and the President signs it (which he will), more than a quarter of all children under 17 living in rural areas would benefit in the first year, compared with 21% of children in metro areas. Nationwide, roughly 16 million children in families with low incomes — more than 80 percent of the 19 million children who currently get a partial credit or none at all because their families’ incomes are too low — would benefit from the bipartisan expansion.

“In its first year, the Child Tax Credit proposal would lift as many as 400,000 children above the poverty line and give more financial support to an additional 3 million children in families with incomes below the poverty line,” noted Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a statement after the House passed the measure.

This bill is a compromise. The Child Tax Credit expansion is not all that’s in it. To get Republican support, Democrats went along with further reducing taxes for upper income people and agreed the $78 billion dollar bill would not be funded with debt, as was President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, that giveaway added $8.4 trillion to the national debt.

But regardless of what else is in the bill, helping the poor should not be controversial, especially in our Christian oriented Congress.

There are nine places in the New Testament where Jesus urges his followers to help the poor. Typical is Mark 10:21-22:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

In the Old Testament, whoever wrote Deuteronomy said it best in Deuteronomy 15:11:

For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.

After the Lankford/Sinema/Murphy border bill went down in flames, I have to say I was surprised to see expansion of the Child Tax Credit make it through our fractious House of Representatives. Its passage shows that compromise can still happen.

Now, if our elected Representatives would somehow find the spine to stare down Donald Trump and get their act together for Ukraine, we might see some actual governance going on.


¹ Michael Klein is the founder of, housed at the Fletcher School of Tufts University. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to subscribe. If you’re at all interested in economic thought leadership, you’ll be glad you did.



Thoughts on the teaching of slavery to America’s students

Tuesday, February 13th, 2024


As a follow-on to yesterday’s Letter analyzing Donald Trump’s 1776 Project, with its corrosively revisionist view of our history, I thought it appropriate, no, necessary, to republish an essay I wrote in April 2022 on the teaching of slavery in American schools. Neither Donald Trump, his followers, or his 1776 Project would ever mention any of what follows.

As Thin As The Skin On A Grape 

A few years ago, before the horror of the pandemic sent us all scurrying to our respective bolt holes, I toured Boston’s historic Trinity Church that sits smack in the middle of high-brow Copley Square. Although Massachusetts born and bred, I’d never visited this historic church that in 1885 the American Architectural Association judged the most important building in America. It still ranks among the AIA’s current top ten list.

In late 18th and 19th century Boston, Trinity was the church of the Brahmin elite. Its pews are all labeled with the names and descriptions of the historic families who occupied them. Some very famous names.

About halfway down the center aisle is the pew that once belonged to the family of Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719–1781). Royall was one of the founders of Harvard Law School, and Harvard adopted his family’s a slave owner and slave trader, and in 2016, 200 years after the founding of the law school, Harvard disassociated the crest from the school, because of the family’s business in the slave trade. Better late than never.

The Isaac Royall House and slave quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

In 2014, Trinity’s History Committee (Yes, there is one) published the remarkable Trinity Church Boston: Facing the Reality of our Past, which lays out in excruciating detail the sordid history of its membership’s past connection with slavery.

Most of the wealthy people who built Boston owned slaves. Slavery entered the Massachusetts Bay Colony as early as 1638 when a ship the Puritan Governor John Winthrop had sent to the West Indies with Indian captives returned with Africans. In 1645, Winthrop’s brother-in-law, Emanuel Downing, told him “I don’t see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business.” Thinking about that, Winthrop realized an opportunity—in Barbados, which had become so focused on producing sugar that it needed to import all other products. At the same time, New England farms were producing a surplus of food. Winthrop saw a fortuitous “fit” for his colony. Massachusetts trade with the British West Indies grew quickly.

Massachusetts got into the slave business in two ways: First, as Winthrop continued to do, by trading captured Native Americans for kidnapped Africans who were considered more desirable; and, second, by participating in the broader Atlantic slave trade.

And thus it began. Molasses to rum to slaves. Boston in the Triangle Trade.

On Tuesday, Harvard University announced it would commit $100 million to study and redress its ties to slavery, which, in addition to Isaac Royall, Jr., are considerable. The money will create an endowed “Legacy of Slavery Fund,” which will continue researching and memorializing its slavery history, working with descendants of Black and Native American people enslaved at Harvard, as well as their broader communities.

In announcing the initiative, Harvard published an unflinching report detailing what Harvard president Lawrence Bacow described as its “profoundly immoral” behavior. In a letter to the university community about the report, Bacow wrote, “I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

Harvard now joins other universities—notably, Brown, Georgetown¹ and Princeton Theological Seminary—not only wrestling with their participation in the “peculiar institution” of slavery, but also trying to work out how to commit to making amends, both socially and financially.

Why bring up all this disgusting history?

Two reasons. First, people generally associate slavery in America with the South; many are not aware of the North’s disgraceful history of slave trading and ownership.² Most everyone knows George Washington and other southern Founding Fathers were slave owners. But Boston? That’s been swept under history’s rug. Time for that to stop.

This is not to say there were not Bostonians who were aggressively anti-slavery. There were, John Adams and John Hancock for example, but they were outgunned, and greed won out, as it so often does. Massachusetts did not outlaw slavery until 1781, and at its height, there were nearly 5,000 slaves in the Commonwealth.

Second, studying slavery, even just reading about it, is uncomfortable. It is a repugnant and distressful topic. The question is: Does that mean young people should not study it in school?

As far back as 1998, elementary, high school and college educators were having serious discussions online about how to teach this necessary history with sensitivity. In that year, Professor Patrick Manning of Northeastern University wrote, “I expect everyone to be uncomfortable when we talk about slavery and slave trade, but it is essential to experience the various sorts of discomfort brought by slavery and to learn from them.”

High school teacher Karen Needles wrote, “In my classroom, I actually made students lie on the floor in close proximity to the space allotted slaves on the slave ships.” Many teachers on this 1998 List Serve did that.

Educators from this period worked hard to instill in their students an understanding of and respect for the tragedy of slavery and the Middle Passage. Chris Lowe, a professor at Boston University wrote to his colleagues, “From our outreach director here at the African Studies Center at Boston University, Barbara Brown, who works primarily with K-12 teachers, I know that teaching the slave trade appears as a big problem to the teachers she works with. My strong impression is that the main issue may not be Eurocentrism so much as the emotional minefield involved, as the history in question has the potential to provoke feelings of anxiety and shame for students (and teachers) of all racial backgrounds that are hard to cope with, and consequent defensive reactions.”

These profound conversations happened 24 years ago and are not unique. Educators at all levels cared, and cared deeply. Today’s teachers care just as much.

Yet now, 24 years later, Republican Governors in red states have loudly proclaimed their sanctimonious intentions to protect young minds from being infected by such things as the 1619 Project, or Critical Race Theory. These Governors have been signing laws that make it difficult, even illegal, for teachers to probe deeply into matters of race and sex. Their laws specifically prohibit teachers from introducing any concept by which:

(vii)  an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex;³

Versions of these restrictive laws have been passed in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Mississippi.

On page one of South Dakota’s summary of its new law it says the law aims to “protect students and employees at institutions of higher education from divisive concepts.” Keeping in mind that our nation’s history is rife with “divisive concepts,” there might not be much history taught in  South Dakota.

Slavery, the Triangle Trade and the Middle Passage might be the ultimate in “divisive concepts.” Nonetheless, once the kidnapped Africans arrived here, what happened to them? Assuming you agree that how they got here and what happened to them is historically important, how should this uncomfortable, but historically important, history be taught?

Consider Louisiana for a moment.

In 1712, there were only 10 Africans in all of Louisiana (there were a lot more in Boston). In this early period, European indentured servants, submitting to 36-month contracts, did most of the work clearing land and laboring on small-scale plantations. This would change dramatically after the first two ships carrying kidnapped Africans arrived in Louisiana in 1719 and in 1794 with Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin.

By 1795, there were 19,926 enslaved Africans and 16,304 free people of color in Louisiana. The German Coast, where Whitney Plantation is located, was home to 2,797 enslaved workers. The United States outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, but that did not stop the domestic slave trade. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the population of enslaved black people skyrocketed. Someone had to pick all the cotton, which made the south rich. Just before the Civil War in 1860, there were 331,726 enslaved people and 18,647 free people of color in Louisiana.

Should the children of Louisiana not be taught this? Should they not be taught the political and economic underpinnings by which slavery grew in their state? Should they not discuss and argue it in class, led by teachers, like the ones quoted above, who have the objectivity, training, honesty, sensitivity, and dedication to open their minds to what lies beyond?

Studying this stuff is going to make them, and their parents, uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, we have a bigger problem than ignorance. But teachers, staring at the penalties written into these vague, new laws, are now thinking twice about what and how they teach. This is a tragic development in education, and undervalues the curiosity and capacity for learning in today’s youth.

I wonder what those educators writing each other back in 1998 would think of all this? In a moment of prescience, Professor Lowe wrote, “There are probably political dimensions to this a la “culture wars” stupidities as well.”

If we Americans are too fearful to let our children learn our history, both the good and the horrific, then the moral and intellectual foundation of our future leaders will be as thin as the skin on a grape.


¹ In 2021, the Jesuit conference of priests announced their own $100 million commitment to be used for racial reconciliation and to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University. And Brown University is examining its role, because Rhode Island’s involvement in slavery was ever greater than that of Massachusetts.

² In 2005, the New York Historical Society opened its fascinating “Slavery In New York” exhibit detailing New York’s deep involvement with slavery, just like Boston’s. I toured the exhibit and was positively stunned.

³ All the new laws have a version of this sub-paragraph. It’s almost as if they were all written by the same person.

What would a MAGA Presidency do to education?

Monday, February 12th, 2024

With the forceful rejection of the Lankford, Sinema and Murphy immigration proposal, a proposal Republicans had been demanding for years, it is now clear the Grand Old Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, is, like Dickens’s Jacob Marley, “Dead as a doornail.”

How else to describe it? What we have now is the nearly total takeover of the GOP by Donald Trump and his MAGA followers. And, with the Supreme Court’s probable repudiation of Colorado’s attempt to keep the former President off its presidential ballot, the way will be clear for him to move forward as the Party’s nominee in November. According to a CBSNews/YouGov survey, taken a month ago, a staggering 69% of Republican primary voters are solidly backing Trump, regardless of the heavy load of legal baggage, like Marley’s chains, trailing behind him.

This completely befuddles old school Republicans. Consider Senator Mitt Romney’s incomprehension. The Utah conservative only 12 years ago was the leader of the Party as the Republican presidential nominee against Barack Obama. He recently told CNN, “I think a lot of people in this country are out of touch with reality and will accept anything Donald Trump tells them. You had a jury that said that Donald Trump raped a woman.¹ And that doesn’t seem to be moving the needle. There’s a lot of things about today’s electorate that I have a hard time understanding.”

Then there is the bewilderment of New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens, who, in conversation with the Times’s Gail Collins, said, “So-called sane House Republicans are basically passengers in a car being driven at high speed by a drunk. There’s no getting out of the car. And they don’t dare tell the driver to slow down because who knows what he’ll do then?”

Even Mitch McConnell, the longest serving Senate party leader in US history (he’s the same age as Joe Biden), seems to be shrinking by the day in the face of relentless MAGA artillery. The Senate’s power-hungry, opportunistic piranhas want his blood; he supported the immigration proposal and, in the past, has dared to criticize Il Duce, Donald Trump.

The irony of all this is that Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election by more than seven-million votes, and he’ll probably lose the 2024 election by at least that many. But that doesn’t matter, because the popular vote does not elect a President. The Electoral College does. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but George W. Bush moved into the White House. In 2020, even with Biden’s plurality of seven million votes, had about 51,000 of them, spread over four different states, gone to Trump, he’d be living where Joe Biden lives now.

And he and his sycophants would be ramming their policies and beliefs down the throats of Americans every day. He tried to do that in his first term, but his efforts were chaotic and scatterbrained. That would not be so in the Trump second term his methodical acolytes have been planning with biblical fervor.

Consider education, for example. What Trump and the MAGA movement want is a country where children are falsely taught that the United States has always been a Christian beacon of righteousness. Despite our nation’s many virtues, and they are legion, the truth of its past is harrowing and complicated. Slavery, Jim Crow, Indigenous displacement and slaughter, anti-immigrant laws, the suppression of women’s rights, and the history of violence against the LGBTQ+ community — these things sully the MAGA version of the American story. Therefore, they must not stand.

We got a taste of that when, at the very end of his first term, Trump became, for him, somewhat organized about the education he thought America’s children desperately needed. In September 2020, he held a “White House Conference on American History,” at which he announced he was establishing “The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission,” also known as the “1776 Project,” to create standards for “patriotic education.” The commission’s name was a direct reference to, and rebuke of, the “1619 Project,” a New York Times series that outlined the centrality of slavery in America’s origins. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said in a speech that day. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” Trump embraced, uncritically, the idea of American exceptionalism. But the “truth about our country” has not always been magnificent for all Americans — particularly those who, for generations, were denied access to social, economic, and political advancement.

Trump’s Commission released The 1776 Report on  18 January 2021, two days before the end of his term. Historians overwhelmingly criticized the report, saying it was “filled with errors and partisan politics.” The American Historical Association (AHA) issued a statement condemning the Report, saying, “Written hastily in one month after two desultory and tendentious ‘hearings,’ without any consultation with professional historians of the United States, the report fails to engage a rich and vibrant body of scholarship that has evolved over the last seven decades.”

Think the AHA was hyperbolizing in its condemnation? Here are a few snippets to prove the point:

On slavery

” The Declaration’s unqualified proclamation of human equality flatly contradicted the existence of human bondage and, along with the Constitution’s compromises understood in light of that proposition, set the stage for abolition. Indeed, the movement to abolish slavery that first began in the United States led the way in bringing about the end of legal slavery.”

On 1 August 1834, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing the owning, buying, and selling of humans as property throughout its colonies around the world. In 1807, the U.S. Congress passed a statute prohibiting the importation of slaves from other countries, but not prohibiting the owning, buying, and selling of them. Slavery continued its inexorable growth in the country. And in 1857, the Dred Scott decision affirmed that slaves were neither citizens nor people. Rather, they were “property.”

On the 2nd Amendment

“The right to keep and bear arms is required by the fundamental natural right to life: no man may justly be denied the means of his own defense….  An armed people is a people capable of defending their liberty no less than their lives and is the last, desperate check against the worst tyranny.”

The authors conveniently leave out the part about “a well-regulated militia,” as well as any discussion about the deep controversy regarding the 2nd Amendment.

On schools

“The primary duty of schools is to teach students the basic skills needed to function in society, such as reading, writing, and mathematics. States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles. Any time teachers or administrators promote political agendas in the classroom, they abuse their platform and dishonor every family who trusts them with their children’s education and moral development.”

This is now  a new way of life in Florida, the Florida of Trump disciple Ron DeSantis. Teachers are unsure, even afraid, of what they can say in class. No one would disagree with the idea that teachers should not indoctrinate children to their personal political views, but teachers must be free to guide students on the quest for knowledge. It was conservative icon Malcolm Forbes who is credited with saying, “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with and open one.”

On religion

“The shared morality of faithful citizens would…encourage important virtues like…piety towards the Creator whose favor determines the well-being of society. But it is almost impossible to hold to this creed…without reference to the Creator as the ultimate source of human equality and natural rights. This is the deepest reason why the founders saw faith as the key to good character as well as good citizenship, and why we must remain “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The proposition of political equality is powerfully supported by biblical faith, which confirms that all human beings are equal in dignity and created in God’s image.”

This deserves further comment. America’s founders were not, on the whole, anywhere near as deeply religious as this excerpt suggests. At best, most believed in a higher power, but were students of the Enlightenment. They  believed that reason was the basis of knowledge and could lead to freedom and equality. They also believed that the world was knowable and testable through science and reason.

Finally, the phrase, “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” comes from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the American socialist and Baptist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on 8 September 1892.

In its original form it read:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy had hoped the pledge would be used by citizens in any country. In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added. And in 1954, in response to the Communist threat of the times, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Bellamy’s daughter objected to this alteration.

The 1776 Advisory Commission, which was chaired by Larry Arnn, the president of the conservative and deeply Christian Hillsdale College,² was terminated by President Biden on January 20, 2021, his first day in office.

Think about what would happen if, early in a second Trump Presidency — not at the end of it — the “1776 Report,” with its watered-down, revised, and sanitized history, was dusted off and became the bible of the U.S. Department of Education. Your children and grandchildren would be studying it as if it were reality. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”³ would become doctrinal.

That could happen. A MAGA approach to education would be corrosively revisionist, and, if you weren’t paying attention, you might not notice until it was too late.

And that’s just one sliver of America’s government that could slide to a place you might not recognize anymore.


¹ Although the jury in Trump’s trial convicted him of “sexual assault,” rather than rape, as it is narrowly defined in the New York Penal Code, the trial judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, said, “The finding that Ms. Carroll failed to prove that she was ‘raped’ within the meaning of the New York Penal Law does not mean that she failed to prove that Mr. Trump ‘raped’ her as many people commonly understand the word ‘rape.’ ”

² The school’s motto is, ” Learning, character, faith, and freedom: these are the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College.”

³ During a Meet the Press interview on 22 January 2017, U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States by asserting the validity of his “alternative facts.”

The fine art of the political knife in the back

Monday, February 5th, 2024

After spending more than a week soaking up hot sun and hanging out with the wonderful people of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, I’ve returned tanned, energized, and ready to reenter the fray. Much has happened in the last couple of weeks while I was gone. What follows will examine one particularly troubling issue, troubling, but not surprising. It’s all about how to stick a knife in your opponent’s back without him ever knowing it’s there. It’s also about the uncaring isolationist messages we continue to send to our global partners, who only have so much patience. It’s longer than usual; I’m making up for lost time.

Forty-three years ago

The year was 1980. That January, Paul McCartney was arrested at Tokyo International Airport for possession of marijuana. He was sent to jail for nine days, and then deported. In May, the US announced it would boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (sound familiar?). In September, Voyager 1, launched three years earlier, confirmed the existence of Janus, a moon of Saturn. In October, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals in six games to win the World Series, the first in franchise history. And in November, America held a presidential election, an election in which Ronald Reagan easily defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter by 8.5 million votes. It was a landslide.

Exactly one year before that election, Iranian students had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken 63 Americans hostage.¹ The assault on the Embassy happened, because two weeks earlier President Carter had allowed the deposed Iranian ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, into the United States for cancer treatment. The students took exception to Carter’s charitable gesture.

The hostages would be held for 444 days, from 4 November 1979 to their release on 20 January 1981, precisely seven minutes after the inauguration of the new President. Simultaneously, the US freed $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets. 

The Carter Administration had worked hard to free the hostages, even going so far as to launch a rescue mission in April, Operation Eagle Claw, involving personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Eagle Claw turned into a fiasco in the Iranian desert sand and had to be aborted. During withdrawal, a helicopter collided with a C-130 and exploded, destroying both aircraft and killing five Air Force personnel and three Marines. The remaining troops were quickly evacuated by plane, leaving behind several helicopters, equipment, weapons, maps, and the dead. The rescue operation that never happened caused Jimmy Carter’s popularity to decline and Ronald Reagan’s to soar, even though he’d had nothing to do with it.

The Carter Administration remained seriously intent on negotiating the release of the hostages, but Iran would never engage, even refusing negotiation through intermediate countries.

However, we recently learned serious negotiations of a sort were happening, although not by the Carter administration, and they led to the release of all hostages, as well as the frozen Iranian assets, just as Reagan was taking the oath of office. How did that happen?

John B. Connally Jr., a titan of American politics and former Texas governor who had served three presidents, had just lost his own bid for the White House to Ronald Reagan in 1980. This is the same John Connally who was seriously wounded while sitting in the front seat of the presidential limousine when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Seventeen years later, in 1980, Connally was earnestly working to get Reagan elected; he had hopes of becoming either Secretary of State or Defense in a Reagan Administration (he was offered Energy, but refused).

John Connally was mentor to Ben Barnes, who, at 26, had been the youngest Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Barnes would later become the state’s lieutenant governor, and was influential enough to help a young George W. Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard rather than be exposed to the draft and sent to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson predicted Barnes would become President someday.

Barnes is now 85, and has kept a secret for the last 43 years. But his conscience will not allow him to keep it any longer, because Jimmy Carter, at 98, is in Hospice, and Barnes is sorry.

Ten months ago, he sat down with Peter Baker of the New York Times, to tell his story. It did not get much play at the time, it’s ancient history after all, but it’s relevant now, at least to me.

As Barnes tells it, in the summer of 1980, Connally asked him to take a trip with him — to the middle east. They went from one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders so Connally could deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.

Barnes has pictures to prove it. Here’s one he gave the Times’s Baker of him and Connally with Egypt’s President, Anwar Sadat.

Immediately upon returning home, Barnes said Connally reported to William Casey, the chairman of Mr. Reagan’s campaign and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency, briefing him about the trip in an airport lounge.

As Baker wrote:

“History needs to know that this happened,” Mr. Barnes said in one of several interviews, his first with a news organization about the episode. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.”

Barnes gave Baker the names of four still-living people whom he told about his trip shortly after returning and who he said could corroborate his account. They did. But because Connally and Casey are long gone, Baker could go no further. What is clear, however, is that John Connally tried to delay, make that prevent, the release of 52 American hostages to aid Reagan and hurt Carter in the coming election. Their release just minutes after Reagan took his oath of office seems credible evidence that Connally succeeded.

How is this history relevant now?

It’s relevant, because right now Republicans in Congress are using the same tactics, albeit absent the artfulness, sophistication, or secrecy of Bill Casey, to deny an incumbent President any accomplishments that might help in next November’s election. In 1980, it was 52 hostages; in 2024, it’s thousands of migrant families.

Everyone knows we have a serious border crisis with thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children trying to enter the US after long, perilous journeys from Central and South America.² Republicans say it’s all Joe Biden’s fault. He has “opened the border” to them. On 17 January, the House of Representatives approved a resolution condemning the administration’s border and immigration policies. The legislation denounced President Biden’s “open-border policies.”

I investigated that claim just before heading south and, using data from the right-leaning, conservative Cato Institute, showed how Donald Trump, during his presidency, released a greater percentage of migrants into the U.S. than either Barack Obama or Joe Biden. But that inconvenient fact won’t sway anyone who isn’t open to considering it. Facts are only facts if they’re facts that conform to your ideology.

Nonetheless, serious people have been deeply engaged in trying to do what Republicans in the House of Representatives have been clamoring for, but unwilling to do themselves. For the last four months, a bipartisan group of senators, Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, Arizona Independent Kyrsten Sinema, and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, have labored to create legislation to attack the crisis head on. They have worked with White House involvement, and President Biden has said if the legislation gets to his desk he’ll sign it. House Speaker Mike Johnson, on the other hand, without seeing the proposed legislation, says it’s dead on arrival in the House.

And why is this happening? For the same reason John Connally went to the middle east 43 years ago: to hurt an incumbent President and help the leading opposition candidate.

At least back in 1980, the knife in the back was subtle and kept secret. But not now, not here. Republicans have publicly and proudly proclaimed they can’t give Biden a win prior to the election.  “Let me tell you, I’m not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden’s approval rating,” Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tex.) told CNN of the emerging border legislation.

Who is really behind the sudden resistance to enacting bipartisan border legislation that conservative Republican James Lankford has spent the last four months of his life developing? Why Donald Trump, of course. When Lankford and his colleagues announced they had a deal and would propose it formally “soon,” Trump, though he had long demanded that Congress “change our old, broken, ridiculous, weak immigration laws,” now panned the very idea, saying “a border deal now would be another gift to the radical left Democrats.” Trump’s hypocrisy doesn’t seem to bother anyone of Republican persuasion — at least, not enough that they’ll say so.

Back in October, President Biden requested $13.6 billion in emergency funding for border protection, including the hiring of 1,300 additional Border Patrol agents and 1,600 asylum officers. Delays in asylum determinations can take many years, allow large numbers of migrants to remain in America waiting for decisions on their status, and are a huge problem the new legislation aims at fixing, as Senator Sinema detailed on yesterdays morning news shows. Biden also asked for more funds to counter fentanyl smuggling, but because of Republicans’ objections in the House, Congress still hasn’t approved a penny for any of his requests. Doing so might make the President look good.

Last night, the Senate released the anticipated legislation, a $118 billion package. It faces a test vote this coming week. Conservatives vowed to defeat it.

This border horrendoma, as well as the reluctance of House Republicans to defend Ukraine, is emblematic of our current world standing. Our insulated, isolated, spinning-in-place politicians, driven only by an insatiable thirst for power and advancement, have become blind to what this is doing to America’s place in the world. They are either stupidly clueless, or simply no longer care, if they ever did. Some of them, the MAGA cult of Trump, give me the impression they couldn’t find the ground if they fell out of a tree.

MAGA Republicans in the House of Representatives believe that if we seal the southern border we will protect the nation from an influx of people who do not look like them. They also believe we are wasting our precious resources in defending Ukraine and that we should let nature take its course in eastern Europe. They do not understand that American security is inseparable from the security of our global partners.

Last Friday, the Eurasia Group, a world leader in political risk analysis and consulting, published its annual Top Risks analysis. Of all the risks facing the world in 2024, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and Hamas, to name a few, the Group’s number one global risk is: “The United States vs. Itself.” The Report says, “The 2024 election will test American democracy to a degree the nation hasn’t experienced in 150 years.”

Is the Eurasia Group correct in painting a dark picture? The Group calls 2024, “The Voldemort of years. The annus horribilis. The year that must not be named.”

Whatever you want to call 2024, the word “terrifying” springs to my mind. I wonder what Ben Barnes would say about it?


¹ In mid-November, 11 of the hostages were freed in a CIA operation made famous in the movie Argo. That left 52 hostages still in Iranian hands.

² If you’re interested in reliable analysis about our immigration issues, I highly recommend Peter Rousmaniere’s Working Immigrants blog. Rousmaniere has been studying and writing about this since 2006.