A hair-raising tale about the late Walter Mondale

Joan and Walter Mondale with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Photo (cc) Boston City Archives.

My favorite story about Walter Mondale (and how many people can say they have a favorite story about Walter Mondale?) has to do with something he supposedly said when a staffer from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign complained to him about his haircut.

Those of us who’ve reached a certain age may remember that one of Carter’s claims to fame was that he had really, really good hair. And apparently it just wouldn’t do that the Democratic nominee’s newly chosen running mate was, to put it mildly, tonsorially challenged. Mondale’s alleged retort: “The people of Minnesota like shitty haircuts.”

Mondale, often described as the first vice president who actually mattered, died on Monday at the age of 93. I recommend Steven R. Weisman’s masterful obituary in The New York Times.

Now, did my Mondale anecdote play out exactly as I’ve described it? It’s hard to say. But I found something very close in a 1992 book by Steven M. Gillon titled “The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy.” Apparently once Mondale became vice president, he took to having his hair cut by a stylist in his office, a move that was seen by some as a sign that Fritz was leaving his humble roots behind. Gillon writes:

While in the Senate, Mondale had his hair cut by a local Washington barber. “The people in Minnesota like shitty haircuts,” he told friends. Now, a hair stylist came directly to the Vice President’s office. “He thinks he doesn’t have time” to go to a barber, a friend remarked skeptically.

Mondale was one of the finest people ever to win a presidential nomination — a model of personal rectitude and dedication to public service. I would say that we won’t see his likes again except that I think we have a pretty good example of that in the White House right now.

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The smoking gun bursts into flames

Gosh, it’s almost as if Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians. Now, remind me. Who hired Paul Manafort to run the campaign? Big guy … orange hair … give me a moment, OK?

From a right-wing think tank, a chilling pseudo-intellectual case for Trumpism

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

I don’t think any of us believe that Trumpism is going away. To the extent that we take any comfort from the current chaotic state of the Republican Party, it’s that it seems mainly to be defined by the QAnon craziness of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the alleged perversion of Matt Gaetz and the cartoonish cynicism of Josh Hawley. Yes, we need to keep an eye on them. But they’re so out there on the fringes that the amount of damage they could do would appear to be limited.

Which is why an essay published recently by Glenn Ellmers of the Claremont Institute should chill you to the bone. Running at more than 3,200 words, Ellmers’ screed is nothing less than an assertion of authoritarianism and white supremacy, dressed up in intellectual garb. I don’t mean to suggest that he advances a coherent argument — he keeps telling the reader that he’s going to explain what he means, and he never actually gets around to it. But Ellmers can write, and he’s got a worldview that he wants to impose on all of us. “Pure, undiluted fascism,” tweeted my GBH News colleague Adam Reilly.

Ellmers begins by asserting that more than half of his fellow countrymen are “not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” And what does he mean by that? Well, he wants you to know that his definition of not-Americans goes well beyond those he bluntly labels as “illegal immigrants” and “aliens.” He writes:

I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.

So who are the real Americans? Why, Trump voters, of course. That is, “the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.”

There’s the hate, right out in the open. I really don’t need to quote any more except to say that Ellmers goes on at great length, in pseudo-intellectual language, to tell us that action must be taken. What kind of action he doesn’t say. But I would assume that his only regret about the insurrection of Jan. 6 is that it failed.

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What’s especially chilling about this is that there’s none of the unseriousness that often defines hardcore Trumpism — no pedophilia rings masterminded by Hillary Clinton and George Soros, no claims that the election was stolen. Just a pure will to power, which is a defining characteristic of fascism.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I recommend this analysis by Zack Beauchamp of Vox. Under the headline “The conservative movement is rejecting America,” Beauchamp writes:

Ellmers’s essay should be taken seriously because it makes the anti-democratic subtext of this kind of conservative discourse into clearly legible text. And it is a clear articulation of what the movement has been telling us through its actions, like Georgia’s new voting law: It sees democracy not as a principle to respect, but as a barrier to be overcome in pursuit of permanent power.

The Claremont Institute, based in California, is what might be called a right-wing think tank that at some point in recent years abandoned ultraconservatism for something much more dangerous. In 2016 it published a pseudonymous essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” arguing that — just like the passengers who brought down a planeload of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001 — voters had to vote for Donald Trump lest they allow Hillary Clinton to destroy the country. As Conor Friedersdorf explained it in The Atlantic at the time:

The most radical, least conservative people in American politics right now are the so-called conservatives who are imprudently counseling the abandon of core values and norms to avoid a point-of-no-return that is a figment of their imagination, often with rhetorical excesses that threaten the peaceful transition of power at the core of America’s success insofar as the excesses are taken seriously.

I couldn’t find a whole lot about Ellmers other than his bio at the Claremont Institute, which describes him as a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College, another bastion of the far right, as well as a minor politico of sorts. Of local note: According to the bio, he holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Boston University.

More than anything I’ve seen since Jan. 6, though, Ellmers’ essay defines and explains the ongoing threat we face from Trumpism.

President Joe Biden speaks often about his desire to unite the country, and poll numbers suggest that he’s having some success. Until and unless the fever breaks, though, it’s clear that a large minority of Americans — 25%, 30%, 40% — are going to regard themselves as the only true patriots and the rest of us as the Other.

It’s a horrifying dilemma, and there’s no clear path forward.

Biden is trying to move on from Trump. Will the media let him?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at GBH News.

President Joe Biden spoke for many of us about 30 minutes into his town hall event on CNN Tuesday night.

“I’m tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

This week marks the true beginning of Biden’s presidency. Trump is gone, holed up in Mar-a-Lago. We’ve put impeachment behind us, if not the insurrection that sparked it. Surely it’s time to get on with the business of vaccinating the country, dealing with Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill and debating issues such as the reopening of schools.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the media can move past their lucrative obsession with Trump. For instance, a little after 4 a.m. today, the lead political story on The Washington Post’s home page was about Biden’s swing through Wisconsin — and immediately below it was the headline “Trump attacks McConnell as ‘political hack,’ says he will back pro-Trump candidates.” At The New York Times, a story headlined “In Milwaukee, Biden Offers Reassurance and Optimism” actually appeared below an account of Michigan Republicans’ ongoing love for the former president.

Breaking up is hard to do.

Biden’s hour-plus appearance before a socially distanced audience of about 50, moderated by Anderson Cooper, felt weirdly normal after four years of belligerence, bluster and boasting. The president frequently got bogged down by details — so much so that he apologized several times for his meandering answers. But he projected decency and compassion, which was no small thing for a nation staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic disaster.

Like many viewers, I was especially struck by his exchange with a mother who said her young children frequently talk about their fear of catching COVID and dying. Her daughter stood with her.

“Kids don’t get COVID very often. It’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden answered before taking a more personal approach, telling the girl she was unlikely to spread COVID to “Mommy and Daddy,” nor them to her. “I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you,” he said. “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine. And Mommy is going to be fine, too.” A little cringe-worthy? Sure. But also a demonstration of empathy that resonated with the crowd, which applauded Biden’s answer.

Biden the retail politician was on display in other ways as well. He asked the mother of a 19-year-old who hasn’t been able to get vaccinated despite severe pulmonary problems to meet with him after the event. He told the owner of a microbrewery that he would send him a breakdown of his relief plan for small business if he’d provide his address.

And he made some news, saying there would be enough vaccines for everyone in the U.S. by the end of July, and that he hoped the country would be more or less back to normal by Christmas. He also addressed the threat posed by white supremacists and made a couple of statements sure to displease the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, although he merely repeated what he’s said in the past: he opposes defunding the police, and in fact supports more funds for better screening and training; and he will not go along with calls for massive student-debt cancellation.

That latter issue was the subject of an unusually blunt exchange with a young woman who asked Biden about proposals to eliminate $50,000 worth of student debt. “What will you do to make that happen?” she asked.

“I will not make that happen,” Biden responded, countering with proposals for free tuition for community college and state universities, debt cancellation of up to $10,000 and opportunities for students to work off their debt through public-service jobs.

So far, Biden and his proposals seem to be resonating. His popularity rating at FiveThirtyEight is 54.8% approve and 37.4% disapprove. Yes, it’s early, but that’s essentially the opposite of Trump’s ratings from the day he took office until he left. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 68% support Biden’s economic relief package, and 61% support his call for a $15 minimum wage. There may be something to Biden’s statement that the nation is “not nearly as divided as we make it out to be.”

But for Biden to succeed, the media need to move on from Trump. I don’t mean they should stand back and applaud Biden’s every move. Skeptical coverage and tough scrutiny are warranted, as with any president. Biden doesn’t deserve a free ride.

What he does deserve, though, is a political press that covers his agenda as the top story of the day, and the Republican Party’s ongoing meltdown as a sideshow — worthy of attention, but hardly worth the massive energy and resources that are being devoted to it at the moment.

“For four years, all the news has been about Trump,” Biden said Tuesday night. “For the next four years, I want the news to be about the American people.”

The media are going to have to change their ingrained habits for that to happen. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s crucial if we’re to have any hope of getting back to some semblance of normal.

McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why Democrats made the right call on witnesses

Mitch McConnell. Photo (cc) 2014 by Gage Skidmore.

And so it’s over. In the aftermath of Impeachment II, the main controversy is about whether the Democrats did the right thing in reversing themselves over calling witnesses. I think they made a wise judgment. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why.

In a blistering speech, McConnell endorsed the entire factual basis of the Democrats’ case against Trump. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” And there was this:

Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.

Yet McConnell still voted against conviction, relying on the bogus argument that a vote to convict was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office.

At the end of all this, no reasonable person doubts that Trump incited the mob — not just on Jan. 6, but over the course of many months. No reasonable person doubts that he was reveling in the destruction, or that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was telling the truth about a toxic exchange between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, making this the most bipartisan impeachment in history.

Given all that, it’s time for the Democrats to move on and let the center of gravity finally shift from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Not everyone agrees, of course. The normally pragmatic Josh Marshall was apoplectic Saturday, writing in Talking Points Memo that the decision not to call witnesses was “inexplicable and maddening, to many or most Democrats outside the chamber because Democrats appeared to hold all the cards and all the votes and yet capitulated entirely.”

But I thought Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson made a better argument:

While it’s reasonable to imagine that witnesses would illustrate Trump’s depravity, it seems entirely likely that, as Trump’s lawyers continued simply to lie and their lies got spread through right-wing media as truth, Americans would have learned the opposite of what they should have.

Instead, the issue of Trump’s guilt on January 6 will play out in a courtroom, where there are actual rules about telling the truth.

We have lived through a terrible time, and it’s not over yet. The future direction of the Republican Party is far from certain, and it’s easy to imagine a thoroughly Trumpified party recapturing the House in 2022 as a result of gerrymandering and low voter turnout.

What we all need to concentrate on for the next two years is good governance — pushing for policies and programs that help people and, as best we can, putting the Trump era behind us. Biden is off to a good start, but a continuing obsession with Trump will hold him back. And that will hurt everyone.

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Myth and reality about the Capitol Police

I heard a lot of unsupported criticism of the Capitol Police immediately after the Jan. 6 insurrection, much of it to the effect that they were in on it. Well, maybe a few were. But what I saw at the time, and what’s become even more clear during the impeachment trial this week, is that the vast majority of them did their jobs courageously even though they were badly outnumbered — maybe by design.

A group project in the age of COVID: What worked, what didn’t and what we learned about making it better

The COVID pandemic made the fall semester a challenge for everyone. As someone who teaches journalism, I found that challenge to be especially acute. I wanted to give my intermediate-reporting students the same real-life experience as I have with my previous classes, but I needed to do it with the understanding that pavement-pounding and door-knocking were out of the question.

The previous fall, we’d had some success with a group project. My Northeastern University undergrads visited nine governmental offices in the Boston area and requested public records. They reported on their experience and whether they were asked to do anything forbidden by the law, such as produce identification. They also took photos of the places they had visited. Could a similar project be adapted to the age of Zoom?

Read the rest at Storybench.

Long knives, short tempers — and ridiculous theories about the election

Gen. Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

On Monday, The New York Times published the results of a massive investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election.

Today comes the tragicomic conclusion: a report by Axios on an insane meeting that took place at the White House on Dec. 18 at which the conspiracy-addled lawyer Sidney Powell tried to get herself named a special counsel to investigate Dominion voting machines while Gen. Michael Flynn (he of the two guilty pleas) and the White House staff screamed profanities at each other.

The reporters are Jonathan Swan, who conducted a hard-hitting interview of Trump last year, and Zachary Basu. The whole thing is so crazy that it’s hard to pick any one excerpt, but this will do. Below, Byrne is Patrick Byrne, the chief executive of Overstock.com and a Trump backer. Herschmann is Eric Herschmann, a White House senior adviser. Patrick Cipollone was the White House counsel. Swain and Basu write:

At one point, with Flynn shouting, Byrne raised his hand to talk. He stood up and turned around to face Herschmann. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “You’ve been interfering with everything. You’ve been cutting us off.”

“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann snapped back.

“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne said.

“Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”

Herschmann and others who were at least partly tethered to reality were afraid that Trump was going to go along with Powell and unleash her upon state and local election officials. As Swain and Basu write, “Trump expressed skepticism at various points about Powell’s theories, but he said, ‘At least she’s out there fighting.'”

In the end, though, Trump was somehow coaxed into listening to reason. How bad was it? Toward the end, we see that Rudy Giuliani actually had a calming effect on the situation, which is surely the first time anyone has said that about him in many years.

Correction: I originally misspelled Jonathan Swan’s name.

Axios perpetuates #bothsides journalism in the midst of insanity

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2020 by FYNTV FetchYourNews.

Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.

But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.

Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?

Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.

What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.

In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.

But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:

Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.

No kidding.

So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.

Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.

Ron Johnson’s home-state paper publishes his lies — with footnotes

Sen. Ron Johnson. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

Following the deadly attack on Congress on Jan. 6, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an editorial calling on Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., to resign or be kicked out “for his role in spreading disinformation about the presidential election.” Johnson submitted a response — and the Journal Sentinel published it along with 19 footnotes “to provide additional context.” For instance, here’s part of Johnson’s letter:

It is also important to acknowledge — instead of scornfully dismissing — the legitimate concerns of tens of millions of Americans and to recognize that it is not sustainable that so many have lost faith in our institutions and the fairness of our electoral process.

And here is the footnote:

Why have some Trump supporters lost faith in the fairness of the electoral process? It is precisely because irresponsible politicians like Trump and Johnson, aided by reckless allies at right-wing propaganda outlets, continually called those election results into question.

It’s an ingenious way of letting Johnson have his say while sticking to the journalistic imperative of providing our audience with the best available version of the truth. Of course, I’m sure Johnson doesn’t see it that way.