Remembering John Glenn (1921 – 2016)

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Senator John Glenn
The morning mists at Arlington National Cemetery were still visible as I stood watching the slow precision of the officers folding the U.S. flag. Everyone stood completely still as the ceremonial team of the United State Capitol Police (USCP) carried out this final symbolic act of a grateful nation. This funeral took place in the early 1990s. I don’t recall who it was for. But I do know the deceased had served in the armed forces and then completed a second career with the USCP, protecting and serving the U.S. Congress.

When the two officers completed folding the flag, the officer holding the flag turned and ceremoniously stepped toward a man in a gray suit who was standing at attention waiting to receive the flag. The officer handed Senator John Glenn the flag and saluted him. Senator Glenn saluted the officer back. Senator Glenn then turned, walked around the casket to a woman seated in front of the casket, bent down toward her, and with both hands gently handed her the folded flag. As she grasped the flag Senator Glenn spoke: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. State Senate and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and the United State Congress.”

I had watched this entire event from my position about 25 yards away, standing quietly by myself near a parked police van. When Senator Glenn was done he walked over and stood next to me. I hadn’t expected it. It was just him and I standing there in silence as the ceremony continued and the burial team’s bugler began playing taps. As the sad and final note of taps began to fade, the Senator broke the silence: “You know,” he said in a quiet and solemn tone, as he stared out across the sea of gravestones, “I’ve heard that many times, and yet every time always seems like the first emotionally.” The Senator had come here to Arlington that morning because he had known the deceased U.S. Capitol Police officer and volunteered to present the flag.

As the ceremony ended, the Senator asked me where I was from and we began talking. I’d seen the Senator around Capitol Hill a number of times since I’d arrived in 1991, but I’d never really had the chance to talk one-on-one with him, so I took this opportunity. I knew what most people knew: that he’d been an astronaut and, of course, a Senator. But I didn’t know much more. I remember at one point asking him about his military career:

“So you were a Navy pilot?”

“Oh no, I was an Marine Corp Aviator.”

“Oh, so the Marine Corp actually has Aviators too?”

Turning toward me and speaking through a playful smile, “I didn’t know there was any other type of Aviator.”

I chuckled at this good humored shot at the Navy. The rivalry was still alive with this retired Marine Corp Colonel. We stood there talking for about another 5 minutes, and during that brief time I remember feeling a deep sense of admiration and inspiration.

Until he left Congress in 1999, I would see Senator Glenn around the Hill on a number of occasions. He was always friendly and always seem to remember me and our brief conversation that morning in Arlington. He would typically stop for a moment to shake my hand and exchange a few words. It was always a real pleasure.

John Glenn was a true American hero and a powerful inspiration for any aspiring leader. In this uniquely uncertain time in American history, we need to look to the lives of people like John Glenn as the example of what truly made America a great nation.

He will be missed.

(John Glenn passed away on December 8, 2016. He was 95)

My Thoughts on the Presidential Election

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The morning after the catastrophe election on November 8th, I jogged to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall of Washington DC. I entered the memorial, where the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president is located, and stood there in meditative thought. Out of the profound silence, I thought I heard the whisper of Lincoln’s ghostly voice: “Holy shit, you’re kidding me.” I turned and stared out across the National Mall toward Capitol Hill and wondered the same myself.

I’ll admit I have a bias against people like Donald Trump. I prefer leaders who act magnanimously toward their rivals and those they disagree with. I prefer leaders who can speak intelligently, responsibly, and realize that words really do matter—because, believe me, they do. I prefer leaders who’ve done their homework, actually understand the issues, taken the time to study them in-depth, and can talk intelligently about those issues. I prefer people who don’t abuse their status or celebrity and instead act with graciousness and kindness toward those less fortunate than them. And I definitely prefer leaders without an elaborate and well attested history of immoral behavior. I guess, in brief, I prefer leaders who’ve consistently demonstrated a spirit of nobility and excellence instead of the very opposite qualities. So naturally I find people like Donald Trump an anathema in positions of public leadership. To me—an a very large swath of America—Donald Trump may be the most unfit man to ascend to the Presidency in our nation’s history.

But now the deed is done and we’ll have to suffer through it. I’m doubtful that Donald Trump or those around him will ultimately be able to help most Americans—especially the working class—improve their lives much. The same trickle-down economic policies the Trump team (and GOP Congress) are currently batting around are the very policies that caused the stagnation of the middle-class and decline of the working class over the past few decades. Another big consideration is that a number of the problems in working class communities are self-inflicted and not amenable by government policy. In short, there are cultural problems that have to be resolved or dealt with within those communities before any outside assistance can help.

I suspect we’ll see mostly policies that favor the Donald Trump’s of the world (his family’s wealth and prosperity), while many of the programs and investments in the middle-class and working class are cut in order to provide more corporate largesse and tax breaks for the rich—who don’t need them and we can’t afford to give them. It’s really about math, and many of us will likely be on the losing side of the equation with this administration and this congress. And so the march toward a bigger, even stronger, more powerful oligarchy resumes.

But prove me wrong! Believe me, that would be fine by me. I like pleasant surprises.

Flood Waters in LA

Southern Louisiana is experiencing some serious flooding as most of you know. A good friend of mine working special security in Metaire, Louisiana, just forwarded me these photos from the New Orleans area.

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The flood waters are deep!

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Considering the depth of this flood, which is from torrential rains, you can’t help but wonder about the long-term viability of this area. This real-estate is at or below sea level. As global warming advances, the seas will continue to slowly rise and hurricanes will only get more intense. Poseidon will not be held back forever.

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How to Help Louisiana Flood Victims.

A Ghost Writer’s Regret

Donald Trump’s best selling book, The Art of the Deal, opens with this paragraph:

I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.

It’s a good opening. I can imagine a film about Trump opening with a sweeping view of New York City’s skyline and a voice-over of Donald Trump speaking these words as a sort of epigraph to the story that’s about to unfold.

The Art of the Deal was a big best seller and helped launch Donald Trump’s persona as a talented businessman who rose to wealth and fame by his skilled art of deal making. When Donald Trump launched his Presidential campaign, he referenced his book as one of his main credentials: “We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal,” Trump said. The book is one of Trump’s main legitimacy cards.

There is one big problem with Trump’s above statement. He didn’t write the Art of the Deal. Not one word of it. And Trump didn’t say the words quoted above. The entire book was a creation of Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghost writer. Now if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s what ghost writers do, they gather information and write the book,” you won’t be wrong but you won’t be entirely right either. The ghost writer’s job is to paint the main author in the best possible light. That’s true. But there is something unique about this case.

Typically a ghost writer collaborates in writing the book. Meaning, the ghost writer collects materials and does a large number of lengthy interviews with the central author and then begins drafting a book for review by the main author, in this case Trump. Yes, the ghost writer does a lot of the writing. The interviews allow the main author to work out what they believe and tell the story for the ghost writer to capture and use to create the narrative, the book. But in this case that didn’t happen. Trump never told his story.

Tony Schwartz said he was unable to conduct those essential interviews. He was reduced to listening in on phone calls to grasp how Trump dealt with people and traveling with Trump to observe how Trump operated. A lot of what he saw and heard, we now know, was not positive according to Schwartz. Ultimately Schwartz had to put the book together on his own from the riot of materials he could gather. He had to be very creative.

Getting to know who Trump really was and then seeing Trump run for President—and possibly win the White House—has really caused some angst for Schwartz recently. He has a case of ghost writer’s regret. He’s kept quite all these years (the book was published in 1987) because Trump remained in the private sector. But not anymore. Knowing what Trump is really like, compared to how Schwartz falsely portrayed Trump in the book, has caused Schwartz to come forward to tell the world what he knows.

On NPR Schwartz tells us why he couldn’t conduct those book interviews with Trump and what he learned from that:

“One of the chief things I’m concerned about is the limits of his attention span, which are as severe as any person I think I’ve ever met,” Schwartz says. “No matter what question I asked, he would become impatient with it pretty quickly, and literally, from the very first time I sat down to start interviewing him, after about 10 or 15 minutes, he said, ‘You know, I don’t really wanna talk about this stuff, I’m not interested in it, I mean it’s over, it’s the past, I’m done with it, what else have you got?”

There you have it. Trump was incapable of telling his story. He couldn’t sit still long enough and he wasn’t really interested talking about “this stuff.” So Schwartz wrote the entire book from notes and handed it to Trump for review. Trump made no changes, no edits, no revisions, and handed the book back to Schwartz. So the voice you hear on the page, like the opening paragraph quoted above and the ideas you get from the text, are primarily the creation of Tony Schwartz not Donald Trump.

So that’s why when Schwartz saw Trump announce his candidacy and state: “We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal, Schwartz immediately tweeted: “Many thanks Donald Trump for suggesting I run for President, based on the fact that I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'” Schwartz felt that “If he could lie about that on Day One–when it was so easily refuted–he is likely to lie about anything.”

Schwartz tells us that what he learned about Donald Trump was not flattering at all. Trump was not some great mind or leader or some great dealmaker. He was “pathologically impulsive and self-centered,” “Had no attention span,” and “Lied strategically…[with] a complete lack of conscience about it.” In writing the book, Schwartz felt he’d “Put lipstick on a pig.”

Now, beyond what Schwartz thinks about Trump, my main reason for posting has to do with my thoughts about writing and personality. It confirms a hunch I’ve had about Trump and the craft of writing. Listening to Trump talk and observing his public behavior made me suspect that Trump wasn’t capable of writing a book like The Art of the Deal. He probably hasn’t written any of his own books. Writers, at least the one’s who dedicate themselves to the craft, are typically careful and precise with words in both writing and speaking. Trump, if you’ve listened to him talk for any length of time, is typically imprecise and sloppy with words. I don’t detect any profound respect for the power and effect of words, which comes natural from a craftsman. And the truth is Trump doesn’t come across as very intelligent. He doesn’t sound like a man who reads much or has seriously wrestled with ideas. 

Secondly, from a moral perspective, I find it interesting that Trump’s behavior has stayed pretty consistent since The Art of the Deal was published in 1987. I don’t detect a lot of growth unfortunately. He still seems like the same guy he was almost 3 decades ago: loose with the truth, struggling with attention deficit, and lacking good impulse control. Not that any of this disqualifies him to be President of the United States or so it seems in this bizarro election season. Maybe Trump will win, I really don’t know. But don’t think it will be because of Trump’s character or abilities, but more likely because of a populist anger and the failure of Hillary Clinton to inspire confidence as the alternative.

Of course Tony Schwartz has been threaten by Donald Trump with litigation over his revelations. That’s to be expected Schwartz admits. I’ll note that Trump’s lawyer in his letter to Schwartz was careful not to say Trump wrote the The Art of the Deal. Trump’s lawyer knows that would be a lie. Schwartz, whom by the way kept a journal (great piece of evidence to substantiate his claims) while writing The Art of the Deal, refused to retract anything. He knows what he’s saying is the truth will not back down.  

I think there is some connection between how one thinks and speaks and the quality of their writing. I think, though I may be totally wrong, that you can listen to some people talk, which is a reflection of how they think and organize information, and estimate just what the quality of their writing would be. I’ve experimented with this idea for years and so far I’ve be proven correct in the vast majority of cases. And so listening to Trump all these years, I have a hard time believing he’s a good writer and even capable of creating a book or a good essay, for that matter, on his own.

Britain’s Decision to Leave the EU

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Yesterday most of Europe, and the financial markets, were unnerved by the British people’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). The Brexit referendum was close, but those wanting to leave the EU ultimately triumphed over those wanting to “Remain.” And so the divorce notice has been served. Like all divorces, there’s a chance this will be messy and expensive—especially in the near term for the Brits.

What I found rather amusing, and yet totally unsurprising, was that after the polls had closed in Britain, Google Trends reported a high volume of searches related to questions about the Brexit referendum, containing phrases like “What is Brexit? or “Why should we stay in the EU?” These searches were being, as The Washington Post described it, “frantically” queried by the Brits.

This is humorous in a Saturday Night Live sort of way. It’s also just pathetic. I suspect that a lot of Brits didn’t really grasp the complex implications of their vote. Like many Americans, they probably listened to media pundits, rabid partisans, and rank propagandists, and didn’t take to time to read widely what the experts had to say and then try to determine how the outcome might serve or not serve their true interests.

This was a complex matter. The decision to leave or remain, in my view, shouldn’t have been decided by popular referendum. It should have been a decision of the ruling government. We elect representatives, called MPs or Members of Parliament in Britain, to examine these complex matters, confer with the experts and their constituents and then take a vote. That’s their job.

If an MP’s constituents don’t like the vote their MP has taken, they can remove the MP (or party) in the next election and install someone who supports their views. That’s the way representative governments work. The average voter, in complex matters like this, simply doesn’t have enough time (or background knowledge) in their busy lives to properly calibrate.

Personally I can respect and understand both positions, whether one voted to leave or remain. There are valid—though not equally persuasive—arguments to be made on both sides of the decision. Either way, the stakes were high. The opposing arguments both came with various consequences and implications for the political, social, and economic viability of Great Britain going forward.

In the short term this is likely to have negative impacts on the British economy. If Brexit leads to a break up of the EU entirely, we could see tremendous economic shock waves across the world that may cripple most of the European economies, especially Britain’s, for years. And we all know what long term economic problems cause politically: the rise of radicals high on rhetoric and emotions and short on real and lasting solutions.