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Mueller’s Muddle and the Nation’s Peril

Mueller’s Muddle and the Nation’s Peril

If you watched even part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday, you saw a man who was clearly befuddled, out-of-touch with basic facts of the investigation he headed and unknowledgeable about the report bearing his name, and at sea when it came to answering even basic questions put to him by members of the committees before whom he appeared. It was, to put it in kind terms, most uncomfortable to watch someone who has been lauded by some as such a sharp and able personage and straight shooter embarrass himself before the nation.

Beyond casting further doubt on any attempt to impeach the President, Mueller’s performance raised serious questions about what kind of peril the nation might be in if this is indicative of what can be expected from someone as highly lauded as Mueller, and in positions as influential as those he’s held. We’ll look at these questions and the former FBI director’s history in a bit.

Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee had hoped that Mueller’s testimony before those committees would pave the way toward impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, but it didn’t take the full day of hearings to cast those hopes onto the rocks for many. Even Trump critics and impeachment advocates characterized Mueller’s testimony as “a disaster.”

As Harvard law professor and former Obama judicial adviser Laurence Tribe tweeted, “Much as I hate to say it, this morning’s hearing was a disaster. Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it. The effort to save democracy and the rule of law from this lawless president has been set back, not advanced.”

Image by Getty Images

No less than former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted, “This is very, very painful,” later adding, “Not a commentary on the content. The report is damning. That was reenforced today. He has been an exemplary public servant, as people are both sides attested, but he clearly was struggling today and that was painful.” And media people, ranging from Fox News’s Chris Wallace to NBC’s Chuck Todd, also characterized Mueller’s testimony as “a disaster.”

This has been a disaster for the Democrats and I think it’s been a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller,” Wallace said.

I’m not a doctor, and being d’un certain âge myself, I do my best to avoid ageism. But watching as things unfolded Wednesday, it was hard not to conclude that the 75-year-old Mueller is perhaps suffering from some sort of dementia. Some have tried to attribute dementia and other such things to the 73-year-old Trump, but the contrast between the forceful Trump and the doddering Mueller could not be more stark.

NBC News took the trouble to count the number of times Mueller deflected or declined to answer questions put to him Wednesday: 198 times. “Outside of my purview,” was a term Mueller used over and over. Of course, another former FBI Director, James Comey, beat that total in his Congressional testimony on Dec. 14, responding a mind-boggling 245 times during his session that he didn’t remember, didn’t know, or didn’t recall, in response to questions put to him. It would seem, if these two are to be believed, that FBI Directors don’t know much, after all. At one point Wednesday, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert was able to get Mueller to admit he and Comey were friends. Mueller initially simply said they were “business associates.” Under further questioning by Gohmert, Mueller finally said, “We were friends.” This is a key point and goes to Mueller’s credibility since part of the Special Counsel’s mission was to determine if Trump’s firing of Comey constituted obstruction of justice. Mueller did concede that a president has the right to fire the FBI director.

It wasn’t just Mueller’s demeanor and comportment that were troubling. More disturbing were the things that became apparent during the seven hours Mueller was in the Congressional hot seat. These include:

Image by AP Images
  • Mueller has little knowledge of what is in the 488-page report bearing his name. While he was instructed by the Justice Department not to go beyond what is contained in the report – an instruction that Mueller actually had sought – he frequently had to look around at staff members sitting behind him to confirm if something was or wasn’t in the report, and often requested confirmation of the page on which a certain issue being asked about appeared.
  • Almost certainly, Mueller had little direct input to the 22-month-long, $30-million-some investigation with which he was charged as Special Counsel. Apparently he left the bulk of the investigation to staff members, most notably the highly controversial Andrew Weissmann. Despite Mueller’s stated high regard of Weissmann, a donor to the Democratic Party, Weissmann’s record is more than spotty. A unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court overturned convictions Weissmann obtained based on overzealous prosecution in the Enron case of 2002-2005, but only after he had destroyed the Arthur Anderson accounting firm, putting 85,000 employees out of work. As head of the Fraud Section of the Obama DOJ, he also greenlighted the Uranium One deal that transferred control of one-fifth of America’s uranium to Russia following a $500,000 speakers fee paid to former President Bill Clinton by a Kremlin-linked bank and millions more paid by Russian sources to the Clinton Foundation about the time of the Uranium One deal.
  • Astoundingly, Mueller said he didn’t know what Fusion GPS was or that the firm had paid former British spy Christopher Steele to prepare the so-called and unverified “dossier” as opposition research on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Mueller also was unaware that this “dossier” formed the basis for the initial FISA Court warrant that eventually became a key element in his appointment as Special Counsel and the investigation he headed. As Ohio Republican Steve Chabot put it, following Mueller’s confused response, “It’s not a trick question.” Mueller finally responded with one of his many “that is outside my purview” replies. I would say that it is outside reason that, short of being lost in the Borneo jungle for the past three years, one could not have heard of Fusion GPS or the Steele dossier. But there was Robert Mueller, Special Counsel and former chief cop of the U.S., looking for all the world like he was hearing these things for the first time.
  • For a man who has spent much of his career in the upper echelons of government, Mueller seemed to have no knowledge of the political implications of his position. He said he had vetted his team carefully, but was unaware that virtually his entire team had Democratic Party connections and many had donated significant sums to the Hillary Clinton campaign and other Democratic candidates. During questioning by North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong, Mueller pushed back, elaborating one of the rare times in his testimony, “We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job. I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.” Armstrong proceeded to point out how DOJ rules require that officials not only be free of conflict of interest but even the appearance of conflict of interest.
  • Mueller was unaware of the anti-Trump prejudice of several members of his team, such as Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, before that prejudice, expressed in their exchanged emails, was revealed in an investigative report of DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. He said when this matter was brought to his attention he fired them.
  • Mueller, when asked by Arizona Democrat Greg Stanton, couldn’t recall which president first appointed him as U.S. Attorney. “Which senator?” Mueller asked in response to the question. “Which president,” Stanton replied. Mueller said he thought it was President Bush, referring to President George H.W. Bush. It was President Reagan.
  • In the Judiciary Committee testimony Mueller told California Democrat Ted Lieu that they did not charge Trump with obstruction due to a DOJ legal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, seeming to give Dems the ammunition they were looking for. And then at the beginning of the Intelligence Committee testimony he walked the statement back, saying, “We did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime,” adding that his team “never started the process.”

As troubling as Wednesday’s testimony was, Mueller’s history raises even more serious questions. And that history makes one wonder how he was able to earn the accolades provided him and be selected as Special Counsel. It’s not hard to uncover that history, and here are just some of the bigger issues that litter Mueller’s career:

Image by Politico
  • Appointed FBI director on Sept. 4, 2001, a week before the 9-11 attacks, Mueller can’t be held responsible for the intelligence lapses that allowed those attacks to take place. But he actively engaged in a cover-up of the bungling that went on in the FBI, the White House, and the CIA that enabled the 9-11 terrorists to carry out their plans. A joint Senate-House inquiry conducted by then-Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who took intelligence matters very seriously, uncovered the depth of the ineptness that Mueller did his best to conceal [personal note: I’ve always had huge respect for Graham, a Democrat, and one of the bigger career blunders of my life was turning down an offer of an internship as a speech writer for Graham when he was Governor of Florida]. Along with giving what amounted to false testimony to the joint inquiry, Mueller later stonewalled Graham, refusing to respond to subpoenas to testify before the inquiry. As Graham later wrote, the FBI, under Mueller, “insisted that we could not, even in the most sanitized manner, tell the American people that an FBI informant had a relationship with two of the hijackers.”
  • Mueller bungled the investigation into the anthrax attacks that followed the 9-11 attacks, focusing on an innocent man and pursuing him for seven years while the real killer walked free. After leaks to the press made life unbearable for the man, Steven Hatfill, wrongly focused on by Mueller and his deputy Comey, and the true perpetrator was finally identified and committed suicide, the government in 2008 reached a settlement with Hatfill for $5.82 million. Mueller wouldn’t even attend the press conference in which the settlement was announced and refused to apologize for any aspect of the investigation, adding that it would be erroneous “to say there were mistakes.”
  • Further bungling by the FBI under Mueller may have led to the April 15, 2013, bombing of the Boston Marathon. In brief, the FBI in 2011 had warnings from Russian intel sources that Tamalan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who carried out the bombing, posed a potential threat. But after an investigation of Tsarnaev, the FBI closed the case on him. “As a result of this, I would say, thorough investigation,” Mueller told a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “based on the leads we got from the Russians, we found no ties to terrorism.” Meanwhile, he admitted that electronic notifications that Tsarnaev had left the U.S. and spent six months in Russia were not fully shared with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston. More fascinating though, and worthy of a thorough reading, is the theory that Tsarnaev was actually an FBI operative.

Again, these are just some of Mueller’s missteps and the imbroglios he’s been involved with over the course of his career. There are lots more, but these are some of the bigger ones. At this point it’s pretty clear that his utility to Trump’s enemies is pretty much done as the Dems continue to battle between themselves over whether they should attempt to impeach the President or not. Meanwhile, the polls are pretty much all over the place, but the bottom line is that most Americans don’t favor impeachment.

In the wake of Mueller’s muddled testimony Wednesday, and even more after looking at the blunders and cover-ups he has been involved with over the years, I think there are bigger issues than this. All Americans should be concerned about the nature and quality of the people in charge of running the country. This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of good and qualified people. But if someone with Mueller’s record can attract the accolades that have been piled on him, what does that say of the standard to which they are held? It’s facile to assume that those in charge at some of our most important and powerful institutions are competent and right-headed. It is to the nation’s peril when they are not.

Featured image by Getty Images. All images used under Fair Use.

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” – Words on the plaque left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11

There have and will be many words written and numerous commemorations broadcast this week to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first time humans set foot on the moon. For that reason, and others of a more personal nature, this will be an account of my own journey leading up to that momentous event, and since, and not any kind of historic or scientific record of the flight of Apollo 11 or the first moon landing. Yes, it’s long. But it’s been a long trip.

What happened on July 20 and 21, 1969, to me was the culmination not just of my own interest in space and space exploration that I had pursued since I was a child, but the result of many centuries of human scientific development and evolution, and also the climax of the eons that preceded them when primitive humans looked up at the moon with wonder, yearning, and maybe even fear. That phrase on the Apollo 11 plaque, “We came in peace for all mankind,” best summed up my feelings on that historic night.

The Early Years

I can’t say specifically what triggered my early interest in space, except perhaps a general interest in science, but I do know that by the age of 9 I was writing novellas about future space explorers engaged in both dramatic and mundane tasks in the far reaches of the solar system. Starring protagonist Fairleigh Starr and his intrepid crew aboard the space freighter Euphrates, I still have those little string-bound books and their illustrative covers, hand-drawn in crayon on cardboard, somewhere in my archives. I also still have some of my early astronomy books.

I don’t remember the exact year or my age, but at some point my father got me an actual, real, reflecting telescope, and this opened up new vistas beyond our planet to me. Many were the nights he and I would brave the cold out in our driveway pointing the telescope toward the moon and beyond. Under the red skies of Northeastern New Jersey, illuminated as they were by the myriad lights of the New York Metro area, it was hard, if not impossible, to see much beyond the biggest and brightest celestial objects, the moon being paramount among them. All these decades later I can still picture in my mind’s eye the distinct craters and the bright silvery surface of earth’s sole natural satellite as seen vividly through that telescope.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady times for anyone interested in space exploration. In fact, they were heady times even for those not so interested. As the United States faltered through one failed launch after another, the Soviets – known more generally to us as the Russians – were succeeding in their advance into space. The thing that got our attention more than anything was the successful launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. More than attention, it struck fear into the hearts of many, including my own mother, who tucked her 7-year-old son, being me, into bed one post-Sputnik night, saying as she did, “I don’t think we’re going to live to see Christmas this year.” Thanks for that, Mom.

As it turned out, we did survive to see that Christmas, and many since. But again it was the Russians who were first to send a man not just into space, but into orbit, when cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin circled the earth one time on April 15, 1961. Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, the U.S. finally succeeded in launching the first American into space, astronaut Alan Shephard, on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight launched atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral. Watching the launch and recovery of the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule on TV still remains in my memory, as do the other Mercury launches and recoveries to follow. And then, nine months later on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, three times, aboard the capsule Friendship 7, and the U.S. took the lead in what was clearly a space race. By then I was hooked on space, and there was no looking back.

What led us on the path to the moon was a speech President John Kennedy gave to Congress on May 25, 1961, when he said that the U.S. “. . . should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Kennedy repeated the same objective in a now-famous speech he delivered to 40,000 people in the stadium at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962, saying, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The course was set to the moon, and despite a chorus of naysayers, the objective was reached, Kennedy’s challenge fulfilled, on July 20, 1969.

The mission of Apollo 11 had lifted off four days earlier, on July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. EDT (13:32 UTC), from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral – known at the time as Cape Kennedy in JFK’s honor – carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins toward the moon. A product of the work of Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers brought to the U.S. following World War II, the Saturn V rocket that bore them aloft was, and remains, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, so loud on launch its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 12 miles away. Armstrong later described the initial ascent as a very bumpy ride, at least until first-stage separation, when he said things became smooth and totally silent. At that point, the world waited, and watched.

“The Eagle Has Landed”

July 1969, exactly a half century ago, was a personally tumultuous time for me. At 19 ½, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers University, I was in the midst of my first real affair, and that in itself was proving more challenging than I had bargained for (Sheila was an artist, she didn’t look back – thank you Bob Dylan for summing things up so well). I had a summer job mowing grass and picking up litter on the New Jersey Turnpike, out of the Secaucus yard in the most congested and polluted sector of the Pike in its final miles between Newark Airport and Exit 18, the northern terminus and gateway to the George Washington Bridge. I was living back at home for the summer and in a state of ongoing conflict with both my parents. Worse was how I sensed my father often didn’t have the heart for the conflict, but my mother goaded him into it and to appease or please her, he’d rise to the occasion.

It also was perhaps the most creative time of my life. On the many and prolonged breaks my maintenance team on the Turnpike would take, once Moe, our supervisor, had driven off and left us to our own devices, we would drop our mowers and tools and retreat to the shade under an overpass, or occasionally wander off the Pike to some nearby diner for a late breakfast. While the other guys sat around and shot the shit for hours, I would sequester myself to write and draw in my own imagined, but productive, world. Along with my writing, I was able to draw in ways I had never before, nor since, been capable of. If you can imagine completely changing the gears in your head, that was what it was like that summer.

I don’t remember all the details or reasons, but the small group of friends of which Sheila and I were a part could not be together the night of the moon landing. It was a Sunday night, July 20, and I had work the next morning, moon landing or no moon landing. As I recall, my high school friend John Horohan was with his girlfriend Jane, who had introduced me to Sheila, and I don’t remember whether Sheila was with them or somewhere else. She wasn’t with me, though, nor I with her, which was the main thing.

The lunar lander had touched down on the moon’s surface earlier that afternoon, almost out of fuel and in a different location – the Sea of Tranquility – than initially planned, at 4:17 p.m. EDT (20:17 UTC). As it turned out, Armstrong had to take over the controls of the lander following a computer overload and finding too many bus-sized boulders at the initial West Crater landing site. It was with relief when Mission Control, along with the rest of the world, heard Armstrong’s words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The actual moon walk was planned for later that night, and that to us was the big event. I had been sleeping out on our enclosed back porch, as I was wont to do in the summers spent at home, and that night I was watching there in the dark, on the small TV we kept on the porch, the events unfolding 240,000 miles away on the moon. On the moon! My parents were upstairs in their room also watching on their TV, and we could have been on separate planets for the divide between us on that historic night. Other than some forays my mother would make down to check on me – mostly to harass me for staying up past my alleged bedtime, as I recall – we had little or no contact that night.

The telephone provided the link between me and my friends, a kind of lifeline as it were, and we stayed in touch intermittently via it as the time approached for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step out of the lunar lander and descend the craft’s ladder to the surface of the moon. As we and 600 million other people around the globe watched, that came at 10:56 p.m. EDT (02:56 UTC on July 21), when Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (controversy has dogged those words ever since, and it’s pretty well believed that a blip in the radio transmission changed the intended and spoken “one small step for a man” to what is commonly attributed to Armstrong). Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder, and together, as we watched in fascination and through bleary eyes and blurry black and white video images, the pair bounced around on the lunar surface, collecting moon rocks as they did, for the next two and a quarter hours. Meanwhile, Collins, in the command module, named Columbia, orbited the moon, keeping an eye on things from 69 miles above the lunar surface.

Little did I realize at the time what connections I would have with Armstrong, and especially Aldrin, and other men who set foot on the moon, a decade and a half later.

The Aftermath

What I saw in the lunar mission and the success of Apollo 11 was not just a victory and amazing achievement for America, but the culmination of centuries of discoveries and achievements of many people of many nationalities. There was Copernicus, a Pole, who in the Sixteenth Century, postulated a universe with the sun, not the earth, at its center. He was preceded in the heliocentric theory by Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek, eighteen centuries earlier, and followed in the next century by Galileo, an Italian, who was declared a heretic for his beliefs by the Catholic Church in 1633. It took the Church three more centuries to finally concede that it’s supposedly infallible belief was, well, wrong. Galileo’s theories of gravity also proved to be correct, not bad for a heretic.

There was Newton, an Englishman, and his discoveries of the laws of physics. And Lippershey, a Dutchman, who invented the telescope. And da Vinci, another Italian, who had invented an actual flying machine – the helicopter – and the parachute, and who also had postulated a heliocentric universe. The Chinese in the Ninth Century invented the rocket, but Goddard, an American, invented the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. And von Braun and the other German rocket engineers brought it all together, with American support and funding, with the Saturn V. I don’t mean this list to be inclusive, but simply illustrative of the worldwide, global contributions over the centuries that finally resulted in Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Indeed, as the plaque said, “We came in peace for all mankind.” And at the moment of mankind’s first steps on the moon and the days that followed, the world was largely united in hailing a feat that previously existed only in the realm of dreams and the imagination. Of course, there are still those on the fringe who continue to imagine that the whole moon landing was staged, that the astronauts descended to some hidden chamber under the launch pad or went to Hollywood, where there was a set made to look like a moonscape and the whole thing was an elaborate deception. And when I was posted as a diplomat to Albania in the 1990s, people there said they had been told by the previous Communist regime that it was the Russians, not the Americans, who had landed men on the moon.

A week after the lunar landing and walk, on July 27, 1969, my father died, unexpectedly, in front of me, in the midst of one more of our low-level conflicts. He had gotten to witness people walking on the moon, something almost unimaginable at the time of his birth in 1913, and then he was gone. And thus, with his death, began the rest of my life, the half century that followed.

After Apollo 11, there were just six more lunar missions – five lunar landings, one short of what was planned when Apollo 13 ran into serious problems en route to the moon and had to return to earth without reaching its destination. Later, as a journalist covering the space program, I lost count of the number of times when engineers and managers who had been involved with the Apollo program told me that getting men to the moon was not the big challenge of the Apollo program. It was getting the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. In any event, with the splashdown of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972, the moon program was over, less than three and a half years after the launch of Apollo 11. The country, embroiled in the Vietnam War and deeply divided, was withdrawing into itself, and Congress cut NASA’s funding. What was left of funding for manned space flight was directed toward the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet Union and three missions of Skylab, the world’s first space station. After all the years of striving to reach the moon, and meeting the challenge President Kennedy laid down, we reverted to missions in low earth orbit. To this day, that is where we have remained.

What struck me then, and continues to trouble me, is how for eons people looked to the heavens and wondered and dreamed of what it would be like to walk on the moon. And now billions of people, billions of children, and adults, were born and lived since the last human left the moon, and again are left to look toward the heavens, toward the moon, and wonder and dream, just as primitive humans did millennia ago.

As America and the space program drifted through the 1970s, I looked inward, too, and essentially cut myself off from what was going on in the world, and what remained of the space program. I had this peculiar idea that if I cut off the news of the world and its problems those problems would go away and leave me alone. It didn’t take more than several years to realize that’s not how things work.

A Return to Space

My return to space came in 1982. After detours through Woodstock and Key West and grad school at the University of Florida, I wound up taking up a reporting job in Cocoa, Fla., at the doorstep to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. While I was with the weekly paper, The Tribune, I struck up a friendship with the lead reporter, Peter Adams, at our sister daily, TODAY (now FLORIDA TODAY). Perhaps it could only happen in Brevard County, Fla., but the lead reporter was the Science Writer, formerly known as the Aerospace Writer, whose primary duty entailed covering the space program.

The Space Shuttle program was under way, with the launch of the orbiter Columbia and STS-1 in April of 1981. Peter invited me to accompany him to witness a launch of the Shuttle at KSC, the launch of Columbia and STS-5 on November 11, 1982. It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever witnessed, and again, I was hooked. I later finagled my first assignment actually covering a space launch, as a freelancer for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, reporting on the launch of a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying a Canadian satellite that subsequently failed to go into orbit and was lost. Peter and I continued to remain in close contact, and when he left the paper to go to The Orlando Sentinel, our main competition, he recommended me for the choice position of Science Writer. I not only moved to my first position on a daily, but to the premier reporting position, with the charge to report daily on the space program and other science topics.

The first launch I was to cover as primary reporter was the maiden launch of the new orbiter, Challenger. But before it could launch I received a phone call from a confidential informant late one night in the newsroom. The word was that a problem with the Shuttle’s main engines had been discovered and the launch would be delayed, possibly for months. I was able to chase down other sources to confirm the report, and we were first to break the story of Challenger’s impending lengthy delay, which turned out to be totally correct. I had already managed to win the confidence of those closest to the Shuttle program and to break my first big story.

Challenger finally did launch on April 4, 1983, carrying a tracking and relay satellite into orbit. The flight, the first of many Space Shuttle missions I would cover, also featured the first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity, or space walk – of the Shuttle program. In my time as Science Writer, I got to cover many other firsts: The first flight of Spacelab. The first American woman in space. The first flight of two women in space, and the first space walk by an American woman. The first African-American in space. The first Shuttle night launch. The first launch of the orbiter Discovery. The first Shuttle landing at KSC. The first recovery and return to earth of orbiting satellites. The first classified Department of Defense Shuttle mission. The first in-space repair of an orbiting satellite. The first flight of a politician in space. Many of my stories got national play via the Gannett News Service and appearance in USA TODAY, for which TODAY served as the model.

I approached my work as a Science Writer the same way I approached other reporting positions I had filled, which was to build in as much diversity and have as much fun with it as I could, all while doing a competent and credible job of reporting. I felt my specialty was taking highly complex scientific and technical details and issues and translating them in a way that just about any reader could understand, without dumbing them down. In the course of my term, I managed to score a wonderful stint at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., got to visit the WET-F – the huge water tank where astronauts practice doing EVAs in simulated weightlessness – in Houston, launched my own weather rocket, the Yacenda-1, from Cape Canaveral, flew aboard a NOAA hurricane tracker plane through a tropical storm, rode on the huge transporter that carried the Shuttle to the launch pad, and sat at desks of scientists with actual moon rocks on them. I came up with the term “astroworker” – a word my editors hated and took out at every chance they could, which is why you’ve never seen it – to encapsulate the kind of manual activity many astronauts and mission specialists engage in while in space.

More than anything was the thrill of meeting, interviewing, and in some cases spending time with people who had helped establish America’s place in space, people that had just been names bordering on mythological to me, and now I had the opportunity to be face-to-face with them. I got to interview and know half the men who had walked on the moon. It was said even then that Neil Armstrong rarely granted interviews. I had a telephone interview with him while he was a professor in Ohio, and he was indeed the humble, quiet, non-self-aggrandizing person I had been told he was. And I got to pal around for several days with Buzz Aldrin, who was and is every bit the character he was ascribed to being, though also knowledgeable and serious about America’s space pursuits. He told me of what was to be his next mission, setting up a space science program at the University of North Dakota. I love that the President featured Aldrin at the most recent State of the Union address.

I got to visit Edgar Mitchell and meet his family aboard Mitchell’s yacht when it was docked in Brevard County. I had the opportunity to interview Alan Bean about his art and Alan Shephard about his beer business. I had a number of encounters with Fred Haise, of Apollo 13 fame, both as a reporter and later as someone bidding for business from the company with which he became an executive, Grumman Aerospace. As then chief of the astronaut corps, John Young was someone I got to see and quote in numerous news conferences. I was able to meet Tom Stafford at an evening event. Though he wasn’t an astronaut, I got to interview Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it. And, a high point, I got to hang out with Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 fame during some very entertaining days at Cape Canaveral when I had invited him to speak at a conference I helped organize, and then some time later have lunch with him at Brennan’s in Houston. I still remember the moment when we were waiting to board a tour bus at KSC and Cunningham was sitting on top of a waste basket, just as a place to rest. The bus driver informed us we needed to get tickets to take the tour, and then, realizing who the unassuming guy sitting on the trash can was, came bounding back off the bus, practically giddy and shaking, blurting out, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cunningham! I didn’t recognize you at first! Of course you don’t need a ticket! Anything you want, Mr. Cunningham!”

Along with all the other names and personalities, I got to interview Judy Resnik, one of my most memorable interviews. I still have the tape of that interview in which Resnik said she didn’t fear going up on the Shuttle since NASA took such care looking after the astronauts’ safety. When Challenger blew up on the bitterly cold morning of January 28, 1986, taking the lives of Resnik and her six crew mates with it, NASA wasn’t looking out for the astronauts’ safety, and neither was it when Columbia disintegrated on reentry on February 1, 2003. Both were avoidable disasters.

Looking Forward

I was no longer covering the space program at the time of the Challenger disaster — in fact, earlier the very morning it occurred I had looked toward the space center and said to myself, “One day that thing is going to blow up and I won’t be there when it does” — but I still was involved with space through my public relations firm, ITech International, which specialized in aerospace and high technology, among other areas. To me, the Challenger disaster was personal, both on account of the needless death of Judy Resnik and the other astronauts and specialists and the civilian school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, aboard, all of whom I had seen in news conferences and reported on, but because I helped bring Challenger into the world, covering its first launch, and the issues that had delayed that launch.

Following the Challenger disaster my old paper, TODAY, invited me to write an op-ed piece about the disaster and my views on where the country should go in its wake. In it I wrote how the Space Shuttle was equivalent to the early iterations of airliners that eventually led up to the DC-3, the first commercially successful airliner, and rather than expending money on another Shuttle orbiter, the nation should dedicate itself to new iterations of space transportation systems and go on to further space exploration. Obviously, Congress and NASA felt otherwise, and the space agency went on to build the orbiter Endeavour, which launched for the first time on May 7, 1992. And then, with the landing at KSC of the orbiter Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle program came to an end.

And now, 50 years after the triumph of Apollo 11, we remain confined to low earth orbit. The International Space Station, development of which began when I was still involved with the space program, is the sole embodiment of humans in space. Since the end of the Shuttle program, the U.S. doesn’t even have the means of bringing our own astronauts to and from the ISS, depending on Russian rockets to do so. There are commercial rockets in the late development stage that are expected to be able to carry people to and from the ISS, but they’re not certified for this purpose yet. In fact, much of what holds promise for the future of space exploration rests with private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing and several others.

I’m sure there is a lot of important work that goes on aboard the ISS, but I would venture that few people outside the program can name even one or two projects, specifically, that the ISS crews are working on. There is even credible argument that space is an expensive and not terribly great place for doing science. Regardless, whatever they are doing, it doesn’t provide the kind of excitement and global attention that deep-space exploration, most notably the Apollo lunar voyages, provided, and can provide. I am not denigrating the tremendously exciting and important and truly amazing unmanned space missions we’ve conducted. Our knowledge of the solar system and the universe beyond has been expanded enormously by these missions, and they should be continued. But somehow they lack the appeal and drama of manned missions of exploration to new destinations.

NASA and the space program reached its nadir in 2010 when its then-Adminstrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with three primary tasks: Encourage children to learn about math and science, improve relations with foreign nations, and, Bolden said, “perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

Compare that with President Kennedy’s challenge, that the nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. In the intervening decades, it seems we have come down not just from the moon, but from rising to the kind of challenge the nation responded to in the 1960s.

Now there is talk of going to Mars. I’m happy to see that. While recognizing the costs and dangers involved in such missions, I think it is inevitable that the human spirit is always going to drive us on to bigger and more daring ventures, whether on earth or in space. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to go back first to the moon, and establish a base there. It takes a whole lot less energy to launch a rocket from a place where the gravity is one-sixth what it is on earth. There may be other justifications for a base on the moon, but that one alone provides justification if, in fact, we are intent on going to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

Most of my space interest these days is constrained to looking at the full moon, when it appears and the skies are clear, and watching for night launches from Cape Canaveral. I’m living 120 miles from the launch site, but in the dark of night I can get pretty clear views of the launches, which continue to excite me. Recently, during the latest SpaceX launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket from Pad 39A on June 25, the same launch pad from which Apollo 11 launched, I actually got to see the return to earth of the two first-stage boosters that came back to land at KSC. I think that was even more exciting than the launch, all the more so since I wasn’t expecting to be able to see that, just as watching the first Shuttle landing at KSC from the grandstand beside the runway was so exciting 35 years ago. I’m sure that one of these days I’m going to need to go back down to the space center and watch a launch from closer up.

And now, fifty years after that first footstep on the moon, I and the other 7.7-whatever billion people on this planet can only look up at the moon, and wonder: Will mankind ever again set foot on that celestial body? Will my children get to go there? Some might even wonder if they, themselves, will get a chance to go to the moon.

It is of such wonderment that giant leaps are born.

Watch the actual ignition and liftoff of Apollo 11 shot by a NASA camera at the launch pad

All images by NASA except the last image which is by SpaceX

This is a joint posting with my fiction site. It also appears on Medium.

The Hunger Games on Our Southern Border

The Hunger Games on Our Southern Border

If you haven’t read the novel The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, or the other books in the trilogy – Catching Fire and Mockingjay – you should. Alternatively, you can watch the films by the same names (there are four, Mockingjay being broken up into two separate films), or do both. I say this not to promote sales of the books or the films (not that I would object to that since they’re all worth reading and viewing) but rather because you’re likely to gain greater understanding of what has been going on for months on our Southern Border, furthered by the anti-Trump-at-all-costs agenda of Democrats in Congress.

To encapsulate the story line for readers of this piece not familiar with it, the books are set in a notional post-Apocolytic country of the future, Panem, that occupies North America. It is ruled by a wealthy political class in the Capitol (sic), the capital city located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The technologically advanced Capitol rules over twelve impoverished districts (formerly thirteen until one was obliterated) with an iron fist. As punishment for a past failed uprising against the Capitol, every year each district must pick, by lottery, two of its residents, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, and send them to a pageant at the Capitol. The key element of this pageant, the Hunger Games, features a fight to the death between the youthful participants, called tributes, televised to all the residents of Panem. In the end, there can be only one tribute who emerges victorious, the other 23 left dead in the treacherous arena in which the games are played. The protagonist and narrator in the series is the girl tribute of District 12, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (played in the films by actress Jennifer Lawrence).

Without giving away more plot points, the analogy I am painting is this: In this country, as in Panem, we have a privileged political class with the power to rule benevolently or malevolently, to pass laws, to fund programs, to create and change processes, and to create, or not, an environment of civility of benefit, or not, to its residents. And this political class, like the residents of the Capitol, is content to watch the suffering and death going on at our Southern Border, to use this suffering and death for its own political purposes, to point fingers and engage in grandstanding of the most shameless variety, to dither and lie and shirk its duties, all magnified by the megaphone provided by the sycophantic mainstream media, rather than do anything concrete to resolve the drama playing out daily along the border with Mexico.

To be clear, and as I’ve said before: Both major political parties are complicit in this travesty. While I believe the Democratic Party is far more responsible for the current Hunger Games than their Republican counterparts – and I’ll explain why I believe that in a moment — both parties have had chances over recent decades to solve the problems of our decrepit and ineffectual immigration system, and neither has seen fit to do so. At various times one party or the other, when it controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House, could have done the necessary to keep from happening what now is happening. Instead of a relic of the distant past, we could have a modern and effective immigration system, comparable to other countries, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even the UK. But as I’ve said repeatedly over the years, the Democrats don’t want to fix things because they want cheap votes, and the Republicans (though, to their credit, some have changed their positions in more recent years) don’t want to fix things because they want cheap labor. And both have the suffering and deaths, whether of the immigrants at the border or of American citizens and legal residents bearing the brunt of the effects of our broken immigration system, on their heads and the blood on their hands.

Now to lay out why the Democrats are mainly responsible for the current border Hunger Games and how they have used them for their political purposes, at the high human cost of those participating in them. What we have seen is not just a significant increase in illegal crossings of the Southern Border, but a major increase in unaccompanied minors and family units, including minors, crossing the border illegally or seeking asylum at border crossings. While overall numbers are beginning to rival the peaks of apprehensions seen in 2000 and 1986, the change in the makeup of border crossers is putting a major strain on the resources and capabilities of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to care for the children and teenagers increasingly in its custody. And instead of rising to the occasion of discouraging this flow on unaccompanied minors and families, or at minimum providing the resources needed to cope with it, the Democrats have preferred to disingenuously declare there was no crisis at the border and to accuse the President and the federal agencies charged with dealing with the flood of humanity coming at them of fabricating a crisis.

To quote but a few, in January House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis.” This was added to by Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, who said, “President Trump just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis.” Piling on, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren respectively called the border situation a “manufactured crisis” and “fake.” And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, more focued on relitigating the two-year old Mueller investigation than doing anything to actually protect the country, said, “There is no crisis on the border . . . We certainly oppose any attempt by the president to make himself a king and a tyrant to appropriate money without Congress.”

And then, despite the best effort of the Dems to play down and deny that there was a crisis on the Southern Border, along came former Obama Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson who, in May, unequivocally stated that there was, indeed, a crisis on the Southern Border.

“We had 100,000 apprehensions in the month of March and another 100,000 in the month of April. That’s the highest it’s been in 12 years,” Johnson told Fox News host Neil Cavuto.

Oops. Wasn’t Johnson given the Democratic play book? Or was he just willing to be honest and say what was going on? After all, border control was under his purview when he was HS Secretary, so one could assume he knew of what he spoke.

And then, in a mind-boggling turn-around, reminiscent of the Doublespeak referenced in George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, Pelosi followed Johnson’s assertion by saying, “Well, let me just say this. We have never not said that there was a crisis. There is a humanitarian crisis at the border, and some of it provoked by the actions taken by the administration.”

During all this time, the Dems refused to back any additional funding either for border control or to support the increasingly humanitarian duties being foisted onto CBP. As wave after wave of immigrant caravans and random migrants came up through Mexico from its southern border with Guatemala, the Dems steadfastly refused to deal with the issue. It was clear that these caravans, originating in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, were organized by whomever stood to gain from this onslaught of immigrants, and in the process they provided enormous profit and cover to human smugglers and drug cartels. None of this was sufficient to move Pelosi or the Democratic-controlled House to take any action to deal with this mess along our Southern Border. As the President tried one tactic after another to carry out his duties to protect the country from rising illegal entries, all the Dems could do was say, “no.”

According to news sources along the border, there also has been a notable increase in citizens of Cuba and Venezuela seeking to declare political asylum along the Southern Border. Their presence has not been widely reported in the national media, but is indicative of the multi-country nature of the onslaught.

As the accompanying CBP charts dramatically demonstrate, apprehensions of inadmissible migrants – an indication of overall flows, even if far from all illegal border crossers are apprehended – have skyrocketed on the Southern Border (what CBP calls the Southwest Border), even as Pelosi and Schumer and the rest have denied any crisis. In the month of May alone, 144,278 people were either apprehended (132,887) illegally crossing the border, or were found to be inadmissible (11,391) at formal border crossings. In just over the first six months of fiscal year 2019, there had been more apprehensions along the border than in the entire previous fiscal year, with the numbers continuing to mount significantly. As noted, at the current rate, they will equal or surpass the peak illegal border-crossing years of 2000 and 1986.

The biggest growth in numbers, as the charts reveal, are in the categories of unaccompanied minors and family units. These are categories that, historically, have not formed a major component of illegal border crossings, and which have added significantly to the burden put upon CBP. This is further complicated by the so-called Flores decision of 1997, in which a settlement reached in the matter of Reno v. Flores determined that federal authorities could only detain unaccompanied minor migrants 20 days before they had to be released to their parents, adult relatives, or sanctioned programs. In 2015, Obama-appointed judge Dolly Gee extended this limit to minors apprehended with their parents, making it virtually impossible to deport families with children seeking asylum.

There is no question that the images coming from the border are disturbing to most people. Regardless how one feels about the immigration issue, the sight of people in turmoil, crowded into often makeshift facilities, the small children, bewildered and at the will of their elders and officials, and the images of those who have died in the process, should be troubling. Which makes the Hunger Games nature of what is happening all the more poignant. While the political class, led by Pelosi and Schumer and their ilk, dither, the suffering and death go on, all depicted graphically by the media who are all too quick to criticize but offer no more solutions than the politicians. If you go back and look, you’ll see that this has become an annual event, with the same kind of political cover being given the Dems last year at this time. The only difference is that this time, the crisis has become even bigger and the lack of Congressional action to address is even more apparent and harder to cover up.

Perhaps it is the latter reason, which I believe strikes at the conscience of most Americans, that finally prompted the Senate to pass its bipartisan $4.6 billion appropriations bill providing humanitarian aid to the border, by an overwhelming vote of 84-8, and for the House to accept the same bill, without changes, by a vote of 305-102. Even given the current crisis, the House had passed a bill that would have put constraints on the President’s actions, and which he said he would not sign. While Pelosi accepted the Senate version, still only 129 Democrats in the House voted for it, and 95 voted against it, including many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Meanwhile, 176 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, only seven voting against it. The President has said he’ll sign the Senate version of the bill.

In urging her caucus to vote for the Senate version of the bill, Pelosi wrote, “The children come first. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available . . . In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.”

Too bad Pelosi didn’t think much about the children six months ago, or a year ago.

Meanwhile, there are those who apparently still prefer the Hunger Games version of events, like freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who idiotically and insultingly compared the CBP holding facilities along the border to Nazi concentration camps, using the phrase “never again” to draw a reference to the Holocaust. And earlier today, touring a Homestead, Fla., facility holding migrant children, Democratic Presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio – who has done a good job of turning around the progress that city had made in recent decades before his administration – criticized Ocasio-Cortez’s “concentration camp” reference, but instead said the facility was “like a prison.” He criticized it because the children were being “marched around,” which made him conclude, “That’s a prison camp.” We don’t know how many elementary schools de Blasio has visited, but in my experience being “marched around” is a pretty common phenomenon in them, and no one says they’re prisons. Reportedly de Blasio went on to make the inane statement that the children were being held there against their will. Isn’t that the definition of detention or holding, but is it even necessary to respond to such stupidity?

The moronic levels to which this entire matter has risen were highlighted on Wednesday when employees of Wayfair walked off the job to protest their employer’s sale of beds to go to detention centers holding migrant children. Using Ocasio-Cortez’s “concentration camp” comparison, the employees, we suppose, would rather the children sleep on concrete floors than on beds, the lack of which in some cases has been one of the criticisms leveled against CBP. Instead of “let them eat cake,” perhaps the employees’ slogan might be, “let them eat cement dust.”

And while the debate and the dithering and the finger-pointing and the politicking go on, so do the Hunger Games on the Southern Border. Whose child will be next to fall?

Photo credits: Featured Hunger Games image: Pixabay; Girl in line: Edgard Garrido / Reuters; Migrant children: Edgard Garrido Reuters; Children on ground: Click2Houston.Com; Held boy: Spencer Platt / Getty Images; all images used with permission or under Fair Use doctrine

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

This piece initially appeared two years ago, on June 21, 2017, the Summer Solstice. Today it is once more the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the actual solstice officially occurs at 11:54 a.m. EDT/15:54 UTC this morning. The time and other references and weather comments in the piece are as they were two years ago, when the post first appeared. I’m no longer living on the boat, and it’s been a rainy year so far. And this year it’s been 50 years, half a century, since my father’s death. I think I will make re-posting this piece an annual event. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

Click here if song doesn’t play.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

The State of the Union: Why I’m Not Optimistic

The State of the Union: Why I’m Not Optimistic

“And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, ‘Neighbor, how stands the Union?’ Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed . . . “ — Stephen Vincent Benét in The Devil and Daniel Webster

This isn’t going to be a blow-by-blow account of President Trump’s State of the Union address last week. If you didn’t see the speech, you should, so go find it somewhere and watch and listen to it. Allow plenty of time — it went on for more than an hour and 20 minutes, one of the longest ever.

To offer my own view of it, having weathered many SOTUs from a number of presidents, I thought it one of the most positive and flawless, both in terms of substance and delivery. I’m not alone in that. The CBS poll conducted after the address found 76% of viewers had a positive view of it and the CNN poll found 59% saw the speech as “very positive” and another 17% rated it somewhat positive. Only about 23% of CNN’s viewers, which normally one would judge to be mostly opposed to the President, had a negative view of the address. Still, there is a distinctly partisan subtext to these poll results. The CBS poll found that while 97% of Republican viewers and 80% of independents had a positive view of the speech, only 30% of Democratic viewers saw it as positive. Still, in the days after the SOTU, Trump’s approval rose to 50% in the Rasmussen Daily Presidential Tracking Poll, and overall his ratings stand as the highest of any President at this point in his presidency since Ronald Reagan.

All that said, if Daniel Webster confronted me at this moment and asked the question Benét attributes to him, I’m afraid that I’d fail his test. After listening to Trump and observing the reaction by the Democrats in attendance to most of what he had to say and looking toward the future, I’m not very optimistic about the actual state of the Union, and whither it is headed. This isn’t a new development for me, but, if anything, the SOTU address just deepened my less-than-optimistic view of things.

Without getting lost in the weeds of what numbers were completely correct and which ones were fudged a bit – there is evidence the President did fudge some of his figures, though my recollection is that this isn’t the first president to do so, and in terms of painting the big picture they more or less accurately did – there was plenty of positive news reported in the speech. And much of that news would, one would think, please all Americans, regardless of party leaning or affiliation. This fit with the predictions made in advance of the address, that the President would attempt to bridge partisan gaps and reach out to the nation.

Of course, judging by the reaction on the Dem side of the aisle, the partisan gap not only wasn’t bridged, few were willing to even give him credit for any of the progress the nation has made in the past two years. Last year I wrote about Democratic reaction during the SOTU in my piece Haters Are Gonna Hate. The title of that piece sums up pretty well the attitude on that side of the aisle, an assessment that hasn’t been moderated by words and actions by the Dems in the intervening year. And it wasn’t much better during this year’s SOTU.

Of course, in the November mid-terms the Dems picked up enough seats in the House to gain control of that chamber. And many of the newly elected Dems are women. They made their presence known by all wearing white to the SOTU. Joining them was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — who, if you weren’t marooned on an ice flow in the Bering Sea last month, you know caused a postponement in the SOTU during the government shutdown — sitting to the rear of the President.

I confess that when Pelosi came into the chamber, my reaction was, “She’s wearing white after Labor Day?” Something one is not supposed to do. But then as all the other Democratic women filtered in also dressed in white, I realized this was done to make a statement. Apparently it was meant to honor the suffragist women who worked to secure the right of women to vote in the early part of the last century, who also wore white, but at the same time it created a very strong visual effect as television cameras scanned the audience. It could have been a positive effect, but I think much of that potential was squandered as the speech went on.

Early in his address Trump discussed how the economy had improved since he was elected, underscored by historically low unemployment rates for African-Americans, Hispanics, the handicapped, and women. More Americans are employed today than ever before in our history, he said, and even manufacturing jobs – written off by the previous administration – were coming back in significant numbers. One would think any American, even Democrats, could applaud all this. But no, the Dems sat on their hands, all the more visible amid that sea of white. This would appear mystifying, unless you recognize that this is a party that depends on a permanent underclass for its very existence. The numbers contradict Democratic claims that President Trump doesn’t care about blacks, Hispanics, women, or just about anyone else, just as they represent huge positive improvements over the numbers of the previous Obama administration. But the Dems wouldn’t give Trump credit for any of that.

Trump, following the lead of preceding presidents, had a cohort of honored guests present in the gallery, and he and his staff did a masterful job of selecting them: Veterans who had helped bring about the Allied victory in World War II; a Holocaust survivor who, as a child, was en route to extermination at Dachau when American troops liberated the death train he and his family were on; the father of a sailor killed in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole; a police officer seriously wounded during a gunman’s attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in October; a 10-year-old girl who raised funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and then won her own battle against a brain tumor; three generations of a family who lost parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to a criminal illegal alien; an ICE agent who investigated and charged cases of sex trafficking and abuse among illegal aliens crossing the southern border. Even Buzz Aldrin, second man to set foot on the moon (and with whom I had opportunity to pal around with briefly back when I covered the space program), was in attendance.

It would have been pretty scandalous if the Democrats didn’t stand to applaud these guests. But there were times those in that sea of white appeared to not know how to react. They’d look at each other trying to see what others were doing. Should they stand? Should they sit? Should they applaud, or maintain silence? There sure weren’t many signs of individual initiative. And at times Speaker Pelosi gave hand signals to them, mostly indicating that they should cool their more negative responses.

At one point, later in the speech, Trump said, “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the newly created jobs last year.” Now this was about the strong economy and how it has benefited women, but the women-in-white took it as a queue to congratulate themselves. They jumped up and started cheering and high-fiving one another, as if the President was talking about them. Clearly taken by surprise, Trump, smiling, ad-libbed, “You weren’t supposed to do that.”

As Trump went on, noting that all Americans could be proud that we have more women in the work force than ever before, the Dem women continued to congratulate themselves as if they had anything to do with it. Trump again paused, and then added, “Don’t sit yet, you’re going to like this.” He then went on to his biggest applause line of the night: “And exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before.” That line even brought Speaker Pelosi to her feet, and the chamber, beginning with the women-in-white, burst into a chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” It was the second one of the night, the first one breaking out earlier on the GOP side, and the President clearly wasn’t expecting it. He looked around, and then said, “That’s great. Congratulations.”

But the show of enthusiasm was brief. Just as things calmed down, Trump went on to decry the late-term abortion bills recently passed in New York and considered in Virginia, and described how these would permit what amounts to infanticide. And not one of the women-in-white was willing to show any emotion about this. What struck me was how anyone, especially a woman, would not be troubled by killing babies, as Trump put it. But the only thing the women-in-white seemed troubled by was that it was even mentioned.

As the cameras panned around the room, the looks on some Democratic faces showed nothing other than cynicism. Throughout the speech, whenever the camera focused on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, slumped down in his seat and smirking smugly, the only word that came to mind was “smarmy.” I had a similar response when the cameras panned to California Senator Kamala Harris, or Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono. One exception was West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who seemed about the only Democrat willing to applaud for many of the positive things the President reported. It seemed to me that Manchin is in the wrong party, which probably also has occurred to the majority of West Virginia voters who re-elected him.

Which brings me to the crux of my concern for the state of the actual Union. In general, I can’t get too worked up over any particular politician. In theory, that’s what elections are for, and voters can vote out, or not vote in, bad apples. But it is exactly that, or they, the voters, that gets me worked up and very, very worried. Who are these voters that put people like Schumer, Harris, Hirono, and Pelosi into office? What would besiege someone to vote for the likes of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or a Maxine Waters or a Richard Blumenthal?

What the Democratic Party and many of its so-called rising stars have learned is that the promise of free stuff wins votes. Free healthcare for all. Free education for all. Free income for all. Free, free, free. As a marketing professional, I know that the word “free” is one of the most powerful motivating words. It sells products. It generates responses. And it wins votes. The only problem is, when it comes to things government does, nothing is free. Sooner or later it all has to be paid for by someone, that someone being those who pay taxes. Which, on some level or other, is most of us. But then, there comes the call, by pols like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to soak the rich (or, as Warren would do it, confiscate their wealth, the Constitution be damned). Not that even such schemes would be able to fund all the “free” stuff being promised. Not even close.

The lack of economic sense boggles the mind. And there is nothing more boggling than the “Green New Deal” resolution rolled out by the Dems a couple days after the SOTU. This piece of vote-bait was notably touted by Ocasio-Cortez, who has the economic sense of an otter (with no insult intended to otters, which are one of my favorite animals, and even otters have the sense not to get involved with things about which they don’t have a clue). This thing is so ludicrous that the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, who tweeted that she laughed so hard she nearly cried, said that “if a bunch of GOPers plotted to forge a fake Democratic bill showing how bonkers the party is, they could not have done a better job.”

That’s all well and good, and those among us who can see reality through the fog of fantasy, if not fraud, are likely to reject these political hucksters. But let’s not forget for even an instant that the majority of voters, as slim as that majority was, would have put Hillary Clinton in office in 2016, and it was only the Constitutional dictates of the Electoral College that prevented that. As we look around the country, we see how the tide is slowly turning. States that used to be solidly red are turning purple, even blue. And many of those Democrats elected are on the far left of the party, with enticements of free stuff flying. Despite the President’s promise in the SOTU that America would never become a socialist country, that’s a promise many on the Dem side are willing to challenge. Even in my own state, Florida, key gubernatorial and senatorial races very narrowly went to Republicans, despite a strong economy. The self-avowedly socialist Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum, now facing state ethics charges, was defeated by just 32,463 votes out of more than 8.2 million cast, a mere .4% of the vote. And very small numbers of primary voters were able to get Ocasio-Cortez elected in New York, voting out a well established, but less radical, Democratic incumbent.

Meanwhile, the media, which should be a mainstay of an informed electorate but isn’t, maintains a steady anti-Trump drumbeat, with 92% of the coverage of his presidency being negative, according to an extensive study by the Media Research Institute. And they almost completely ignore – like the Dems at the SOTU – his major accomplishment, the soaring economy. After all, if you want to make people feel like victims, and you want to make them believe that you have the solutions, no matter that those solutions make no sense on the reality plane, and you have the media on your side, you have a pretty good chance of winning over voters. Just as in ancient Rome, bread and circuses play well with the populace.

That’s the formula I see the Dems applying. And, neighbor, put it all together, and that’s why I’m not very optimistic for the state of the Union.