Category Archives: Politics

Trump channels his inner Nixon in attacks on the press

NIXONcampaigns

Now more than ever: Nixon campaigning in Philadelphia in 1968. Photo (cc) via Wikipedia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

More than 40 years after he resigned as president, Richard Nixon remains the lodestar for political skullduggery. And so it was when Donald Trump threatened to retaliate against Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in response to news that the Post is siccing 20 reporters on Trump to look into every aspect of his life and career.

Details about the Post’s Trump project, which will include a book, emanated from the lips of Post associate editor Bob Woodward, a twist that made it all the more cosmically significant. For it was Woodward, along with fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who helped end Nixon’s presidency in 1974—but not before the Post had endured some fearsome attacks from the Nixon White House that threatened not just the newspaper but the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.

As you may have heard, Bezos’s day job is running Amazon, the online retailing behemoth that he founded. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem” and “is getting away with murder, tax-wise.” He added that Bezos is “using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”

Never mind that there is zero evidence for Trump’s accusation. His implied threat was utterly Nixonian in its stark assertion that he’d use the powers of government to harm Bezos in retaliation for journalism that he doesn’t like.

The roots of Nixon’s hatred for the Post extend back to the 1950s. David Halberstam, in his book The Powers That Be, wrote that it began over the cartoonist Herbert Block. Herblock, as he was known, regularly portrayed Nixon as a malign figure with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and his work was syndicated in hundreds of papers around the country. According to Halberstam, Herblock’s cartoons “became part of Nixon’s permanent dossier, reflecting all the public doubts and questions about him.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that Nixon attempted to translate that anger into action. In 1971, the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which showed that American officials had continued the fighting out of political cowardice for years after concluding that it was unwinnable.

According to then-publisher Katharine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History, the Nixon White House issued “a not very veiled threat” that the paper might face a criminal prosecution if it didn’t turn over its copy of the Pentagon Papers to the government. At the time, the Post was on the verge of becoming a publicly traded company, and it would have been devastating to the paper’s plan to raise money from the stock market if it had been convicted of a crime. And as my fellow WGBH News contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote for the Phoenix newspapers some years back, the Nixon administration actually considered prosecuting the Times and the Post even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers’ right to publish.

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal brought about perhaps the most infamous threat ever made against a newspaper. When Bernstein asked Nixon henchman John Mitchell to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” More substantively, Nixon allies arose from the swamp to challenge the Post’s ownership of two television stations in Florida—challenges that faded away once Nixon had resigned from office.

“Henry Kissinger told me he felt that Nixon had always hated the Post,” Graham wrote, quoting Kissinger as saying of Nixon: “He was convinced that the Post had it in for him.” As Graham described it, the Post’s reporting on Nixon during the Watergate years became an existential crisis. If the paper hadn’t been able to prove Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and related crimes and thus force Nixon from office, the Post itself would have been destroyed.

Although the showdown between Nixon and the Post is the most dramatic example of the government’s attempting to destroy its journalistic adversaries, it is not the only one.

In the early days of World War II, after Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune reported that the United States may have cracked Japanese codes, President Franklin Roosevelt considered trying McCormick for treason, which could have resulted in the death penalty. FDR was talked out of it only because his advisers convinced him that such a drastic measure would only serve to alert the Japanese.

More recently, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department raised the possibility that the New York Times and the Washington Post could be prosecuted under espionage laws for reporting on a National Security Agency surveillance program (the Times) and on the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries that engage in torture (the Post).

And, of course, there is President Barack Obama’s relentless pursuit of government officials who leak information to the media—a pursuit that has ensnared a number of journalists, including James Risen of the New York Times. Risen fought the government for seven years so that he wouldn’t have to reveal the identity of the sources who had told him how the CIA had sought to wreak havoc with Iran’s nuclear program. Last year Risen called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

But note that Roosevelt’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s attacks on the press were grounded in legitimate concerns about national security, misguided though Bush may have been and Obama may be. (It’s hard to argue with FDR’s fury at McCormick, whose actions would not be protected by even the most expansive reading of the First Amendment.)

By contrast, Trump, like Nixon during Watergate, would go after the press purely for personal reasons—not by denouncing the media (or, rather, not just by denouncing the media) but by abusing his powers as president. Bring negative information to light about Nixon and you might lose your television stations. Report harshly on Trump and your tax status might be threatened—and you may even face an antitrust suit.

This is the way authoritarians reinforce their power—through fear and intimidation, the rule of law be damned. Despite all the benefit he has received in the form of free media, Trump hates the press. He has threatened to rewrite the libel laws, and now he’s threatened the owner of one of our great newspapers.

Trump is a menace on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can add this: Like Nixon, he is a threat to the First Amendment, our most important tool in holding the government accountable to the governed.

Iran, nukes, and fear: A potent op-ed combo platter

Compare and contrast. In the New York Times, Senator Ted Cruz whips up the fear regarding the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran:

The mullahs’ policy is, by their own admission, unchanged. It is the same one that inspired the so-called revolutionaries of 1979 to take 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days, and motivated murderous attacks on Israelis and Americans from Buenos Aires to Beirut to Baghdad over the subsequent decades. The only thing that is changing now is the potential scale of this violence, as they seek to replace truck bombs and roadside explosive devices with the most destructive weapons on the planet and the means to deliver them.

In the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer writes that what hardliners in both countries really fear is that the nuclear deal might actually work:

Extremists in the United States and Iran have joined to derail this 10-month-old deal. They share a horror scenario: an Iran that is successfully integrated into the Middle East and the wider world, increasingly free at home and responsible in its neighborhood. Militants in Washington fear that this would give Iran a regional role commensurate with its history, size, and power, while they wish to see it tied down forever. Militants in Tehran fear that cooperating with the outside world will erode their authority and possibly lead to collapse of the Islamic Republic. These are reasonable fears.

If Romney runs as an independent, he could win

It wasn't time for Romney in 2008 (or 2012). But 2016 could be a different story. Photo (cc) by Talk Radio News Service.

Could it finally be time for Mitt Romney? Photo (cc) 2008 by Talk Radio News Service.

Here we go! From Robert Costa in the Washington Post:

In spite of his insistence that he will not run, Mitt Romney is being courted this week by a leading conservative commentator to reconsider and jump into the volatile 2016 presidential race as an independent candidate.

William Kristol, the longtime editor of the Weekly Standard magazine and a leading voice on the right, met privately with the 2012 nominee on Thursday afternoon to discuss the possibility of launching an independent bid, potentially with Romney as its standard-bearer.

I think Romney could win if he got on the ballot in all 50 states. He’s smarter and tougher than Jeb!, and he’s absolutely shameless, which is important. Romney says he won’t run, but that’s only because he hasn’t worked through the math.

Republicans and the media greet ‘the new normal’

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Now that only the most literal-minded (or John Kasich) would call Donald Trump anything other than the presumptive nominee, the media are ready to turn to the next storyline in this bizarre, disturbingly dark campaign. Based on the morning-after chatter, the big question that’s emerging is whether Republicans will fall in line behind the demagogue or if, instead, the party will fracture.

In a Twitter back-and-forth that National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called “the GOP debate after the #IndianaPrimary in a single exchange,” former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer wrote:

 The way forward for anti-Trump Republicans is unclear. As Sean Sullivan and Katie Zezima report in the Washington Post, Republicans who would like to run a third-party candidate against the nominee of their own party face significant logistical and psychological hurdles—although, elsewhere in the Post, former Bush I and Bush II official Eliot Cohen argues for exactly that, calling Trump “utterly unfit for the position by temperament, values and policy preferences.”

But since a high-profile third-party effort would only strengthen Hillary Clinton’s already strong hand against Trump (never mind her weaknesses as a candidate, underscored by her loss to Bernie Sanders in Indiana), why shouldn’t anti-Trump Republicans simply endorse Clinton? That’s the route Michael Barbaro explores in the New York Times, noting that John McCain strategist Mark Salter and RedState.com contributor Ben Howe have said they’ll support her.

Of course, we’re a long way from knowing whether any of these gasps of pain will translate into something more substantive. Liberal editorial pages such as those of the Times, the Post, and the Boston Globe have all lamented the Republican Party’s descent into Trumpism. But the Wall Street Journal, to which actual Republicans pay attention, offers only a mildly worded rebuke to Trump, instructing him “that the responsibility for unification is now his,” and leaving little doubt that the Journal is prepared to live with him as the party’s standard-bearer.

Frankly, the more likely scenario is that most Republicans will unite behind Trump. In the Journal’s news pages, Beth Reinhard writes that longtime party stalwarts such as former Republican chairman Haley Barbour and former Ronald Reagan operative Ed Rollins have climbed aboard the Trump bandwagon. “I don’t want to roll over and play dead,” Rollins is quoted as saying. “I want to beat Hillary Clinton, and I don’t want to lose the Senate.”

Yes, as Trump himself as observed, it’s all about winning. So much winning.

There are several problems with the anti-Trump movement. One is that there is a sharp division between the sort of establishment Republicans who would have preferred Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and the right-wingers who wanted Ted Cruz. If a third-party challenge develops, it will almost certainly come from the right, with members of the establishment comforting themselves with the thought that Clinton is likely to be the most unpopular president-elect in history.

The other problem is that some of the most eloquent voices of anti-Trumpism belong to people whom Trump supporters most despise—“the GOP’s donor class and Washington-based establishment,” as Eli Stokols puts it in Politico.

For instance, the most forceful argument against Trump in recent days was offered in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, who writes that “hyperdemocracy” has fueled Trump’s rise, and that a Trump presidency would usher in something that looks very much like fascism. But as a Brit, as a conservative who’s not all that conservative, and as a gay man, Sullivan is not exactly well-positioned to sway the Trumpoid base.

By any measure, Clinton should not only beat Trump, but should send him to a historic defeat, possibly ushering in a Democratic majority in the Senate and maybe the House as well. As Chris Cillizza notes in the Post, even a normal Republican would have a huge challenge given the Electoral College realities of 2016. But “Crooked Hillary,” as Trump calls her, has plenty of problems of her own, and it’s not difficult to imagine her getting bogged down between now and November. A smart prediction is that she will almost certainly win, with the emphasis on almost.

Then, too, there’s the media’s responsibility in making sure that Trump is not treated like a normal candidate. This is a man who has hurled racist invective toward Latinos and Muslims, who has called for torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and who has called for murdering the families of terrorists just to send a message.

On Tuesday, Trump began his day by linking Ted Cruz’s father to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on the basis of an evidence-free story in the National Enquirer. By the time the polls had closed in Indiana, his latest bizarre outburst had been all but forgotten—as had Trump’s numerous other transgressions. As Isaac Chotiner writes in Slate:

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox contented themselves with bright chatter about Ted Cruz’s hurt feelings, about Donald Trump’s political skill, about the feckless, pathetic Republican establishment. None of the commentators I saw mentioned the import of what was happening. Large chunks of the media have spent so long domesticating Trump that his victory no longer appeared momentous. He is the new normal.

There is, or should be, nothing normal about Trump’s rise. Sadly, the political instinct is to make nice with the victor, while the media’s instinct is find and occupy middle ground—and when there isn’t any, pretend otherwise.

Epic finger-pointing begins over cancellation of IndyCar race

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 10.10.05 AMLet the recriminations begin over the cancellation of the IndyCar race in Boston’s Seaport District during Labor Day Weekend. Race organizers are blaming the city, while city officials charge the organizers were actually disorganizers.

Joe Battenfeld of the Boston Herald covers the story here, reporting that Mayor Marty Walsh and his administration let things drag on far too long despite knowing that the event was coming apart. Battenfeld also has the detail that the race may end up in Providence.

Mark Arsenault of the Boston Globe, meanwhile, has some entertaining quotes from John Casey, president of Grand Prix Boston, who says he’s writing a book about what happened. (I assume that’s hyperbole.) “It’s so ridiculous, it’s hysterical,” he’s quoted as saying.

I have no idea who’s right, and I know that not everyone in the neighborhood was thrilled about the prospect. Conceptually, at least, it struck me as a pretty cool event, and I’m sorry that it won’t be coming here. Maybe the two sides are bluffing, but it sure doesn’t sound that way.

We do say “no” a lot in Boston. “No” is sometimes the right answer. It was certainly the right answer to the Olympics bid, which would have led to years of disruption and the likelihood of massive budget shortfalls. This time, though, it’s too bad we couldn’t find a way to get to “yes.”

Your elected officials want to force you to take a cab

Under a proposed bill to help the taxi industry (already passed by the House), ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft would be banned from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and from Logan Airport.

You know, if the Legislature really wants to help cabs, it could ban walking, too.

Why Washington’s Metro may be even worse than the T

Washington's Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.

Washington’s Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Not long ago I had to navigate the sort of public-transportation meltdown that is familiar to any Bostonian. The subway wasn’t running, and I had some important meetings to get to. I took a Lyft into the city. After my meetings, still no subway—so I took advantage of the nice weather and walked.

Ah, the MBTA. Except this wasn’t the T. Instead, it was Metro, the fast, clean, and—until recently—reliable rail system that serves Washington, DC, and its environs.

Those of us who rely on the T have long considered Metro to be the very model of what a modern subway system is supposed to look like. It may be 40 years old, but compared to Boston’s 1890s-vintage patchwork of subway lines and streetcars, it’s brand spanking new.

Now, though, both systems are suffering from what happens after many years of chronic disinvestment. Believe it or not, the problems facing Metro may be more acute. The infrastructure needs of both systems are huge, yet the political will to meet those needs is lacking. And if two cities like Boston and Washington—a regional hub and the nation’s hub—are behind the eight ball, what hope is there for the Buffalos and the Worcesters, the Detroits and the New Bedfords?

Metro’s most recent woes began on March 14, when an electrical fire broke out near the McPherson Square station. Because of similarities to a fire last year in which one person died and 84 were hospitalized because of smoke inhalation, the folks in charge decided to shut down the entire system all day on March 16 in order to conduct extensive safety inspections. Metro’s many woes—which include a crash that claimed nine lives in 2009—made it to the front page of the New York Times this week.

As it turned out, that was the first of two days for which I had scheduled interviews in downtown Washington. To my relief, the roads were not gridlocked, and Lyft didn’t take advantage of the crisis by jacking up prices. My three-mile walk from K Street through Georgetown, over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and back to my hotel in Rosslyn was pleasant—it was a warm late-winter day, and the cherry blossoms were out.

Metro reopened the next day. But get this: The system’s leadership is now considering shutting down entire lines for six months at a time in order to carry out long-overdue repairs. A Post editorial thundered:

Do they want to scare commuters into expecting the worst so they won’t complain when the shutdown is only three months? Are they trying to rattle the federal and local governments into ponying up more money? Or are they really so cavalier about disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of Washington-area residents?

By comparison, our own MBTA looks like the gold standard. Sure, we put up with delays, cancellations, fires, and Orange Line passengers being forced to climb out windows. But I can’t remember a time when the entire system was shut down for a day except for extreme weather. And the idea of closing a line for six months is just too awful to contemplate.

And yet. Gabrielle Gurley, who knows both the Boston and Washington systems well (she was an editor at CommonWealth Magazine in Boston and is now an editor at The American Prospect in DC), insists the MBTA is actually in worse shape than Metro, and that it’s only a matter of luck that we’ve been spared the worst. Noting that the MBTA’s maintenance backlog is about $7 billion, Gurley writes:

For all that Washingtonians grumble about their 40-year-old Metro, it remains an engineering marvel (albeit a sputtering one) and a tourist attraction in its own right. Boston’s subway system, the country’s oldest, opened in 1897. It barely gets commuters around the region on sunny days.

David Alpert, who blogs at a site called Greater Greater Washington, wrote recently: “Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency’s failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife’s edge where a small mistake has big consequences.”

That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here in Greater (Greater?) Boston, Governor Charlie Baker deserves credit for making at least some strides toward reforming the MBTA’s broken culture by establishing a Fiscal Management and Control Board to oversee the system.

But the T needs a massive infusion of funds in addition to management controls. And as former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi wrote for WGBH News, the 9.3 percent fare increase recently approved by the T not only squeezes money out of the wrong people but isn’t even remotely adequate.

Safe, reliable public transportation is good for the economy and good for the environment. Yet in both Boston and Washington, government seems unwilling to do what it takes to get it right.