Encounter in a breakfast shop

I woke early yesterday morning. I decided I’d help the struggling economy so I went out to eat for breakfast. I went to a nearby breakfast shop for some pancakes and a little alone-time sipping coffee and reading a little of the new book I’d recently got. At least that was the original plan.

I was there just as the doors opened. The manager, I’ll call her Lisa, sat me in a booth. Besides the cook, she was the only other person working. I was the first and only customer and would be for about 30 minutes before any other patrons—and one of the servers—started trickling in.

While pouring my coffee Lisa noticed my new book. With a tone of curiosity, she read the title out-loud: “First Principles. Sounds interesting. So what’s it about?” I said it was a history book about the education of our first 4 presidents and the classical principles which they, and all the Founding Fathers ultimately, had constructed our nation upon.

She told me she loved history but didn’t have time for reading. She had 6 children and a busy life. She gently added, “These are interesting times for sure.” She was slow and cautious with her words, not knowing my views. “I can only imagine how historians,” she smiled slightly, “will see these very revealing times.”

Of course it was the word “revealing” that pulled me in. I began to probe.

“So where are you from?”

“I was a military brat of sorts growing up,” she said, “but basically I’ve lived in this area most of my life. Since I was about 5.”

“Do you like this area?”

“Hmmmm,” studying my face closely, “that’s a complicated question, sir” she said. “Some days I do….and some days I’d like to move far away. I know I can’t escape it all entirely, but the hate is thick in the air here.” I could tell she was watching my reaction to her words; waiting to see what her words might provoke…or reveal.

I assumed, correctly, that she was referring to the debased status of American politics. I told her, “Yes, well George Orwell once said ‘all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia,’ and I think that statement has probably never been more true in American politics than right now.” Her gaze fixed on me, “Gosh, that is so true right now. I mean I’ve experienced deep hatred before while growing up and I know it’s always there, lurking, but I thought maybe our nation was making some real progress…..but I can see I was completely wrong.”

I was meditating on her words, “If I may…’deep’ hatred? What do you mean exactly? Hate is pretty strong and deep already, isn’t it?” Understand that Lisa is a woman of mixed race. She had told me during our chat that her mother was white and her father black.

She went on: “Well what I mean is when I was growing up my [maternal] grandparents never allowed me or my mixed race brother into their house. My brother and I had dark skin so we weren’t allowed inside the house. We had to sit on the front porch, but our half brother and sister, who were white, were allowed inside. My white mom had me and my brother with my dad, who was black, and then they got divorced and my mom remarried a white guy and had two white children with him. My grandparents were very racist. The white grandchildren were welcome in the house, my mixed raced brother and I weren’t. My grandparents made that very clear. I never understood it, it was so cruel. I mean it wasn’t mine or my brother’s fault that my mom slept with a black man and had us.”

The time period we’re talking about is the mid 1990s, in Virginia Beach, VA. That struck me. Lisa’s grandparents lived in a middle-class neighborhood. I had grown up in Va. Beach myself and left in 1991 and just recently moved back. The city was–and still is–largely a white, middle-class city, that constantly ranks in U.S. News magazine as one of he best places to live in America. It was a great place to grow up. At least it had been for me.

Stunned, I said, “So you were never allowed in your grandparent’s home?!”

“No, my brother and I, being black, had to sit on the front porch. My white half brother and sister went inside and visited.”

“So you sat out there on the porch the entire visit? Even if the visit went for hours?” I said.

“Yes, my mom would bring us food and we’d eat there on one of those rocking chair benches.”

She could see the look of searching disbelief on my face, “Even in the cold?”

“Yes. My brother and I were never allowed inside the house. After a while we’d sometimes wonder over to the neighbor’s house. They knew what was going on and gladly welcomed us to play with their kids, who were about my brother and I’s age.”

“So what did your mother say to you and your brother about all this?” I said.

Lisa paused, she seemed to be trying to balance something inside. “I don’t,” she began slowly, looking down, eyes darting back and forth, as if she was searching for something lost, “recall my mom objecting to it. She seemed to see it as something that was-what-it-was and we had to live with it. You have to understand that at first my mom might not have been racist. I mean she married my dad, but in the end she’s her parent’s child. I think she just accepted the situation with her parents and her mixed children because she somehow understood how they could be racist. I’ll never know I guess. Her and I have had it out numerous times recently about some of her Facebook posts. She’ll post openly racist stuff! She never use to do that. It’s like she doesn’t care how that might hurt my brother and I. She just doesn’t care.”

I asked Lisa why her mother might feel it’s okay to say or post these things that might hurt her children.

“You know before,” Lisa said, “my mother always sort of struggled, I think, with something inside about race and her life and her beliefs, but she use to have some restraint because of me and my brother. Not saying she handled it well, obviously, but she wasn’t this bad. But there’s no doubt the election of Donald Trump completely unleashed something inside her. Trump has unleashed something in the hearts of many Americans that is dark and hateful. It was always there, smoldering, Trump just threw fuel on it. That’s why I’d like to move away from here. But I know you can’t run from it.”

“So,” I asked, “your mother says and posts blatantly racist stuff and it hurts you and your brother. How do you get past it? How is it that you’re still able to maintain a good relationship with your mother?”

“Well that’s a very good question,” she said. “It does hurt, and we argue badly about it. A lot. But what do you do? It’s mom! There’s a lot I could hate my mom for but I refuse to do that. I guess what my racist grandparents taught me by their poor example was that hate is an awful thing. It can eat you up. They taught me how cruel and mean and ignorant hate can be and I’ve always said I would never be like them. My mom wasn’t born a racist. She learned to be racist from her parents. I think my younger mom had at first resisted….she married my dad for example. But that didn’t work out and she fell back into what she’d learned as a young girl. So I’ve tried to understand my mom and have some sympathy for the fact that her parents taught her to be racist. I keep hoping to reach that part of her that I know is there. Hope is all we got.”

“Yes, that’s true Lisa, for a lot of things in life all we can do is wait and hope.”

My Thoughts on the Presidential Election

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Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. (Photo by J.D. Wills)

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.

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 it won’t 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.