Last night was the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Now, if you haven’t watched this annual event before then you should know that the the guest speaker is usually a comedian who roasts the President, his administration, the media, and any other opportune target in the audience. In the past, when we had a President with a sense of humor, humility, and the ability to laugh at himself, the President would actually take the podium and make fun of himself, his administration, and, yes, take humorous jabs at the media. It’s all in good fun. The whole idea is to celebrate our nation’s constitutional protections of a free press and its function of ensuring our political leaders are held accountable.
As I said, typically the guest speaker is a comedian, but after last year’s speaker pushed the limit, it was decided to tame it down a bit. Last night’s guest speaker (video below) was the biographer and historian Ron Chernow. If you haven’t read any of Ron’s books, let me recommend his biography on Alexander Hamilton. A superb book that was the inspiration for the awarding winning broadway musical, Hamilton. Ron’s most recent biography is on Ulysses Grant, which is the inspiration for a new movie (in production) about Grant, reportedly being directed by Steven Spielberg.
I must admit when I originally heard Ron Chernow had been chosen as the guest speaker, I thought “Well, that’s a very tall order for a scholar to deliver on. They’re not usually funny people.” I mean a historian taking the slot reserved for a professional comedian? I had heard Ron Chernow discussing his books and answering questions about them, and he is a good speaker for the most part, but as the primary guest speaker at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner? I was struggling even if a side of me thought it was a good turn.
Anyway, Ron was indeed far more tame. But I must say he acquitted himself quite well in my opinion. He did provide some humorous and well delivered and deserved jabs at the current administration. Had he not, to be sure, it would have been far too great a retreat from the spirit of the freedoms being celebrated by the event. Ron found that fine balance between pure joke and the jokingly serious. It was, in the best of ways, an instructive and entertaining speech. Ron showed intelligence, grace, wit, humor, and humility. All qualities that are sorely lacking on Capitol Hill and especially at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla) is co-sponsoring legislation that would make all members of congress forgo their pay checks during a government shutdown. Please note that government shutdowns are now used as a legislative bargaining tool. It seems very irresponsible, reckless, and cruel to me, but that’s where we’re at in this country right now.
On the surface the forgo pay legislation seems like a very fair idea. In theory, this legislation should ensure all members of congress are feeling the same pains and pressures as those government workers not getting paid or those citizens losing services during a government shutdown. In theory that seems very fair. But that’s not how this will work in practice. All members of Congress will not face the same personal effects of not getting paid.
But what about those members of congress who do?—who like the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans do need their salary to survive? These members, who’s lives and daily concerns are much closer to the average American’s, without their salary, may start to feel personal pressures about legislation and the need to make concessions that rich members of congress don’t and never will feel. So why should wealthy members of congress, regardless of party, have yet another (among the so many already) method of influence over legislation and legislators that favors wealthy interests? At the national level our government is already a well entrenched business plutocracy. Shouldn’t we be trying to weaken this, not strengthen it?
In the millionaire’s club one doesn’t care about the piddly little salary the government pays you, one cares about power—again, Rick Scott was able to spend $64 million dollars of his own money on his own Senate election and not because he wanted or needed that congressional salary, I can assure you. So why, I ask, should we give an already powerful group another legislative tool of power and influence?
This past Thursday’s Senate hearing was, as expected, a spectacle. I won’t go too deep into the politics and the performances, i. e. Senator Lindsey Graham, of those on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but I did want to note something I found disturbing.
Dr. Ford gave very credible testimony in which she said she was “100% sure” that Judge Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her decades ago. She was poised for the most part and provided specific details. She made an allegation, but beyond that we have no corroborating evidence to back up her allegation. From a legal standpoint that’s important. No one should ever face legal jeopardy over an uncorroborated allegation. But let’s be clear, these Senate hearings aren’t legal proceedings. This is a political process. These confirmation hearings are about fitness for office and that is the central question under consideration.
So we heard from Dr. Ford. She made an allegation. She has the right to make that allegation, and we should want to hear and assess what she has to say against a nominee who’s being considered for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. And since the Court, as with Congress, has itself gotten so highly partisan and dysfunctional we should be highly concerned about not making it even more so. I would argue that all this “he (or she) is qualified for the job” talk is trivial and beside the point in considering any nominee for any federal court. Most nominees that come before Senate confirmation are “highly qualified.” But being qualified is basic. It’s pretty damn clear the nominations are made with party politics in mind, not judicial independence. In fact, a solid record of judicial independence, of not towing the ideological line, is likely to get your name removed from consideration. So a judge’s politics has a big play in all this…and we should all be concerned with just how much it plays into a judge’s decision making.
And this brings me to my concerns about Judge Brett Kavanaugh. At first, prior to Thursday’s testimony of Ford and Kavanaugh, my feelings were that unless we have some corroborating evidence we should not sink a nomination over an allegation. We should take this allegation seriously, but fundamental fairness to the accused is fundamentally more important in my view. Because any of us can be unjustly accused. People, I know this may be hard to believe, will sometimes lie to destroy other people. To be clear, I’m not saying Dr. Ford is lying, only that in my view you should have more than an uncorroborated allegation before you decide to act against someone. And that was my view before Thursday.
But then came Brett Kavanaugh’s Thursday testimony before the committee, and another area of concern about his fitness for office emerged in my view. I completely understand why Judge Kavanaugh would be angry over Dr. Ford’s earlier testimony before the committee. Kavanaugh believed he’d been unjustly slandered. I’d be angry too. But in defending himself Kavanaugh went too far in my view. You see, as Kavanaugh began talking, at first, I was very sympathetic and felt Kavanaugh’s nomination should be confirmed. But then he crossed a line. He began to heave hyper partisan attacks on democratic members of the committee and even claim some conspiracy by the Clintons and other left wing groups. He did most of this on the edge of a barely constrained rage. And with that my support for his nomination melted away.
And here’s why: Kavanaugh is being appointed to a lifetime position on the highest court in the land. His demeanor and temperament are absolutely part of any assessment for this office. Judge Kavanaugh is not new to Washington politics and knows exactly why he was nominated—because of his “conservative credentials.” So he’s no choir boy about the implications of his appointment for those who aren’t so conservative and those who vehemently disagree with his judicial philosophy. Kavanaugh knows full well that confirmations are a political process, which means it can be a blood sport. There’s a lot at stake and Kavanaugh knew this fully.
So what should he have done? Well, he should have vehemently defended himself, sure, but he should have demonstrated far greater restraint. America doesn’t need another supreme court justice who’s basically confirmed for all of us his deeply held animus for members of the political opposition—who represent, by the way, millions of his fellow Americans. Just imagine how Republicans would react if the shoe was on the other foot. We already knew why Kavanaugh was being nominated, but most of us, I think, had a faint hope that all judges might, just might, be able to sometimes put politics aside for the sake of the nation when forming their judicial opinions. I guess I’d like to believe that while Judge Kavanaugh may have a conservative judicial philosophy (and that’s fine) he could be independent minded and not a mere partisan in a black robe. But by any charitable account, Kavanaugh chose to make it clear he has a deeply held animus against members of the democratic party and that he will carry that animus to the supreme court with him. I don’t care what your politics are, I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to confirm a judge knowing the very basic idea of fundamental fairness, independence, and the impartiality of the nominee are in serious question.
Canon 1: A Judge Should Uphold the Integrity and Independence of the Judiciary
An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should maintain and enforce high standards of conduct and should personally observe those standards, so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved. . . Deference to the judgments and rulings of courts depends on public confidence in the integrity and independence of judges. The integrity and independence of judges depend in turn on their acting without fear or favor.
Canon 2: A Judge Should Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in all Activities
(B) Outside Influence. A judge should not allow family, social, political, financial, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. A judge should neither lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.
I cannot see how anyone could watch Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony this past Thursday and not feel that his fairness, independence, and impartially had been seriously compromised.
The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee represent states and party interests. None of us were surprised that politics openly influenced them or their decisions during this process. However, to watch a supreme court nominee vent his deeply partisan views was disturbing considering the position and power he will have for decades if confirmed.
I saw Senator John McCain often during my 4 years working at the U.S. Capitol Building in the early-to-mid 1990s. He was usually cordial—if not sprinting to catch a vote—and would sometimes chat with me in the hallways or while waiting for a subway car or an elevator. I was honored when McCain agreed to write me a letter of recommendation for a job I was interested in with the City of Scottsdale, Arizona. (I didn’t take the job.)
A colleague of mine explained to me one night why McCain couldn’t raise his arms above his shoulders. I had never really thought about it, but I’d noticed it on a few occasions while observing McCain at events. Having been taken prisoner and severely tortured during the Vietnam War, McCain had suffered life changing injuries that, I’m sure, reminded him of his torturers all his life.
Though McCain was a Republican he was known for his political independence; thus the nickname “Maverick,” because of his ready willingness to buck his own party and vote with Democrats when he felt it was the right thing to do. This independent streak, naturally, availed him with independent–minded people. In 99/2000, McCain ran for the Republican Presidential nomination and generated a lot of enthusiasm with voters, especially young voters, via his Straight Talk Express campaign. A memorable aspect of McCain’s primary campaign, and the theme his life exampled, was his call for Americans to devote themselves to something higher than themselves and their own personal self-interests.
Now generally speaking, a politician calling for self sacrifice and devotion to a higher purpose is usually met with a bit of skepticism and sometimes mocking laughter. But that’s always been hard to do in McCain’s case. Because there is a big difference—massive, really—between those who pontificate and those who actually put up. We can talk about country, honor, and code and our dedication to preserving and protecting them, but how many of us could actually do it if faced with extreme pain and suffering—for years!—for doing so?
I think it’s worth posting a brief summary of what happened to McCain as a prisoner in Vietnam. It’s a commentary on the strength of character. It’s painful to read. But please take the time to read it. David Foster Wallace spent some time with the Straight Talk Express in 2000, and he wrote the following for Rolling Stone. In this segment, Wallace explains why McCain is a hero, not for what he did, but for what he voluntarily suffered in the service of something higher than himself.
Here’s what happen. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 26th Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, and the ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him.
U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine this. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where for a week they made him beg for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.
He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after he’d hung on like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, the prison people came and brought him to the commandant’s office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. They said he could just . . . leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer.
John S. McCain III, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused.
The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not at all pleased, right there in the office had guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how in movies stuff like this happens and try to imagine it as real: a man without teeth refusing release. McCain spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.”
Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code.
Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth . . . The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code.
Whether one agreed with McCain’s politics or not really shouldn’t matter. What should matter, I think, is the high regard this nation owes to Senator McCain and those like him who truly serve this country (in the military or in public service) and who have or may be called upon to sacrifice for those ideals and institutions and freedoms that we all so cherish. Without them, without people like John McCain, we would not have the freedoms and way of life we love.
If there was ever a time we needed more John McCains on Capitol Hill, it’s now.
His leadership will be sorely missed.
On Sunday, September 2nd, Senator John McCain was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was 81.
In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E.B. White, the famed New Yorker writer and author of Charlotte’s Web, expressing his hopelessness about the state of humanity. Considering the state of political affairs today, especially in the U.S., we have good reason to revisit White’s encouraging and hopeful letter of reply:
North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.