All posts by johnwagner

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of:
1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru
2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir

CHRISTMAS DEPRESSION CAN BE FUN, SORT OF

CHRISTMAS DEPRESSION CAN BE FUN, SORT OF

Well it’s Christmastime now down on Rue Morgue Avenue. Time to talk of peace on earth, good will to men and women, mistletoe, opening presents under the tree, and, of course, depression. I’m too lazy to Google it now but I know there are plenty of psychological studies relating Christmastime to depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (um, SAD) being one of the more benign conditions.

There are plenty of novels dealing in some way with depression, whether Christmas-related or just regular good ol depression. One of the most interesting is French author Michel Houellebecq’s (pronounced “Well-beck”) first novel, which carries the English title, Whatever (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998, 2011). The French title is Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte, which, I am informed by a French reviewer on US Amazon, means Extension of the Field of Struggle. Yeah, a real audience-grabber. I haven’t been able to come up with captivating titles for my books but even I wouldn’t dare use an obtuse title like that. Tells you how much I know. This novel, Houellebecq’s first, made him famous as an intellectual novelist, say the Norman Mailer of modern times. While my comments here relate to Whatever, they could as easily relate to most of Houellebecq’s novels as most of his themes carry over from one book to another.

Houellebecq doesn’t care about plot. His books are anti-plot. One thing happens after another for no apparent reason. Everything is remorselessly depressing. Then he throws in some violence near the end, maybe because he’s seen too many modern movies. Yet then one meaningless thing happens after another all over again.

But one reason I like his writing so much is that he dares to ask the ultimate question: is this all there is? And he answers it pitilessly: yes. The mundane stuff in our lives is all there is and it is pointless to look for any hope. He is nonreligious and non-“we are all part of the great wave of the universe” to the max. I don’t agree, but it is this pitiless honesty that makes his books so absorbing. He takes depression head-on. And he doesn’t give us an easy way out.

Houellebecq puts an Everyman in an arbitrary situation. But there is no arc, no redemption, no change. We all remain the poor slobs we are. We are all caught up in “the struggle,” a social Darwinist approach describing life as a struggle to gain the physical attentions—not love, forget love, that’s too cutesy—of the sexual objects (same or opposite sex) we desire. It all, somehow, maybe, sorts itself out in the end. According to Houellebecq: we get the sexual mates we “deserve” in the sexual economy. We are not valued for who we “truly” are but then, why should we be? Life is a movie-magazine culture.

Until we finally accept our fate, life is terrifying because we always want someone more desirable than we are. (Buddhism: we are always grasping.) But why should that more desirable person want us? He or she wants someone more desirable than them. Besides, even if we land someone more desirable than us, they will trade up at the first opportunity. (Look at Trump’s divorces…the divorce rate in general.)

Most of life is taken up with the day-to-day battles and manipulations to fend off rivals and to find some meaning in a meaningless universe. (To create our own meaning or to truly accept our own suffering on its own terms, not for any noble or religious terms). We might not achieve what we’d like but the important thing is to struggle, not to abdicate, to keep looking for love despite the unlikeliness of finding it and despite the general hopelessness of it all. Now that French title makes sense: To recognize there is a field of struggle and to extend it wherever possible. Santa Claus?

In the evolutionary jungle of attractiveness, there are winners and losers starting at least by adolescence. The economy of good looks generally rules. We will not grow out of adolescent sexual failures but, rather, those failures cut deep wounds that will get deeper and deeper. Those wounds will create an atrocious, unremitting bitterness that will grip our hearts. There will be no deliverance, no redemption, other than having struggled—to be who we want to be, to do what we believe we are called to do. (He wouldn’t put it this way. There is no “who” calling us, he would say.)
Houellebecq adds to this an interesting take on the “new” sexual economy, which may not be new at all. Everyone is in a Catch-22. The victors, the attractive ones who have lots of sex in adolescence and young adulthood, by their very victory lose a kind of innocence and illusion they could only have if they weren’t so attractive. As these people age, they necessarily lose their attractiveness. This leads to a festering hatred of youth culture, with all that remains being resentment, disgust, sickness and the anticipation of death. So, the victors aren’t really victors. And the sexual losers? They just keep losing throughout their lives. Except. Except if they do happen to find that appropriate mate, that appropriate challenge in life—which they may never do. There you have it. And who’s to say it’s not so.

What to do when there is no hope? At least Houellebecq writes about it in terms that bring it home to us. And we respond because it’s honest. It’s Hemingway without the b.s. Don’t expect anything more, Houellebecq tells us.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Think Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. But we can be happy, not worried. Houellebecq is right but so are the old Budweiser slogans. You only go round once. This Bud’s for you, my friends. Sure your outdoor display just got vandalized, your car just got hit by a cell-phone-distracted teenage-softball-star name-checking her dates, and some red-faced guy in a pickup cut you off because he wasn’t paying attention to his exit. Your daughter just got cancer and your spouse found someone better. Look inside all that. Look at the moment the ladder started falling. It ain’t fun but while we’re alive, we are alive. Drink tea and oranges. Dance with the one who brung ya. Love the life you’ve got.

What We Really Need to Know About The Magna Carta

Most of us know something about the Magna Carta. (A linguistic quirk: We Americans call it “the” Magna Carta while the British call it simply “Magna Carta.” Probably from the Latin and not for the reason—whatever it is—our CIA disdains “the” CIA and calls itself just “CIA.”) In loose terms, if we know of the Magna Carta at all, we generally think of it as a legal, written, promise forced at swordpoint from the evil King John in 1215 by courageous barons who were early champions of civil liberties. “The” document that, for English and US history, created democratic rights for all and provided legal, enforceable, limits on the actions of the Crown; a document the Framers to create our own Constitution.

Noble concepts but, as Derek J. Taylor explains in his creative and excellent Magna Carta In 20 Places (Gloucestershire, England: 2015), almost completely wrong. King John wasn’t all that bad, the barons were self-serving thugs out for themselves, the Magna Carta made no guarantees of freedom or justice or (heaven forbid!) democracy and jury trials for all, and it certainly wasn’t a proclamation of universal rights or freedoms. Rather, the Magna Carta wasn’t even considered particularly important at the time and only conferred certain limited, technical, benefits on some of the upper classes. Our Framers did not use it as the basis of our Constitution, although Jefferson and others may have had a passing familiarity with it.

But the Magna Carta, due to many quirks of history which the author explains, often with humorous anecdotes and set in scenes of either history or of today, has indeed become an important foundation of democratic rights.

In law school, if professors referred to the Magna Carta all—and I don’t remember them doing so—it was only in passing. I practiced law in California for over 30 years, rarely saw references to the Magna Carta, discovered it somewhere along the way, and became fascinated by it. I read everything I could find about it, had a framed reproduction in my office (which looked impressive but was in Latin and in small print—I had no idea what it actually said), considered myself knowledgeable about it, and frequently cited it in cases against the state or federal government. But until I read this book—alas, published after I retired from the practice of law—I had no complete idea of the many facets of the Magna Carta. I typically cited the Magna Carta in a general way in cases against the government for the proposition that the government’s frequent arguments that it must be right because, well, it is the government, were wrong. (My argument was against the proposition of ipse dixit: that “X is true” because I [the King] say it is.) I think Taylor would agree that that part of the Magna Carta’s heritage does hold up (although the reason is more that our society has accepted that concept than because the Magna Carta specifically spells it out. It does no such thing). As the author explains, the Magna Carta did, in fact, put some—not many, not in the way we would like to see, but some—limits on the powers of the King. And the Magna Carta’s very existence does indeed stand for the existence of a rule of law—yes, quite limited, but still a rule of law—in which even the King must accept some limitations upon his power.

Beyond that, though, Taylor demonstrates that most of the Magna Carta’s importance falls in the territory of myth. While I knew this in general, I had no idea of the actual specifics of the document. We can’t disregard myth, either on a personal (see Joseph Campbell’s books) or societal level. As Taylor demonstrates in numerous easily-readable examples, “myths have always been important throughout the history of humankind.”

And what a wonderful concept for a book about the Magna Carta and its history: not just to explain the concepts and ideas but to physically go to important places in its history or places where its effects have played out. I wish a tour company would organize a tour around the “20 Places” Taylor visited and discusses in the book. I would be happy to sign up in advance as the first client of such a tour. Actually, as you read the book, you feel you are doing just that—visiting places with a “secret history” related to the Magna Carta, having a trusted and knowledgeable friend in the next seat explaining the importance of those places to you.

I’m so glad I read this book, even though it was after I retired from practicing law and, thus, I was never able to cite it in a legal brief. But I emphasize the book is for general readers, not just lawyers. Anyone interested in the foundations of US or English legal history will enjoy the book. The writing is down to earth, picturesque, and often funny. This book should be required reading in law schools so future lawyers will understand just what the Magna Carta is, what it isn’t and why its enduring legacy is so important. My strongest recommendation and my congratulations to the author!

“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”

Here’s something that didn’t make the cut in Baby Boomer Army Brat. In my first draft, I started all the way back, when our ancestors came to America. It quickly became clear that was just way too much information. The memoir now starts with Dad and Mom getting married, just before World War II.
______________________

“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”

The parents of my great-great-grandfather, George Wagner, probably yelled something similar to him as they waited to board their ship from Germany to their new life in the United States, probably in the early 1850s.

It was no casual picnic. The family had been setting aside money for years for the trip to the fabulous New World and the new opportunities that waited in the US. We don’t know how many Wagner relatives came, but families were large in those day. It cost over a third of a worker’s annual income to bring an average-sized family to the US. With the limited space onboard a trans-Atlantic vessel, the Wagners would have carefully planned what they could bring on board. They had room for only the bare necessities, such as a few changes of clothes, tools, a family Bible, a few other small family heirlooms, basic hygiene items, and, if they’d been forewarned about the horrid food onboard, a small stockpile of their favorite foods that would keep for a while.

The family left from Bense, Bavaria, in southern Germany. After having having said goodbye to their friends and other family members, they would have taken a train to Hamburg and then made their way to the bustling departure port. While they could have smelled the dirty water, they couldn’t board the ship yet. They had to pass a series of medical examinations, which sometimes held up travelers for a week or so for physical exams and awaiting results of lab tests.

The trip itself would have been an awful, disgusting voyage characterized by seasickness, inadequate food, lack of privacy, cramped living quarters, vomit on the decks, and disease. The experience could stretch on for what seemed like an eternity. Up until the 1850s, most emigrants from Germany traveled on sailing ships, with an average voyage to the US taking forty-three days. Later, steamships shortened the voyage to 12-14 days. Living conditions on board were primitive. Passengers had to sleep in narrow bunks below deck. During storms, the door from the outside deck would be locked, leaving them with little light or fresh air. The stench of vomit and overflowing chamber pots was overwhelming. Constant jostling from weather and waves made even standing difficult on many days. On the worst days, passengers could not even stay in bed to sleep, tossed about and sliding over vomit and God only knows what else on the cabin floor.

The ship would priovide little variety in food. If a passenger was lucky, the vessel would be governed by at least some basic regulations, such as the British Passenger Act. Its minimum requirements included biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice, tea, sugar, and molasses. Food had to be issued in advance and not less often than twice a week. Passengers could bring additional provisions, and many did. The captain also had to ensure that each passenger received three quarts of water daily. Often, though, the water quality was poor. Prior passengers sent word back as to what to bring. Coffee was preferable to tea because at least it offerend some taste; the water was so bad it made the tea tasteless. Even the process of trying to eat was difficult. Many used their trunks as tables, and, in rough waters, struggled to prevent these makeshift tables from sliding back and forth across the deck.
Seasickness was constant. Many passengers threw up after eating their first meal aboard ship and continued to throw up often. Although some passengers adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship, others spent the entire trip nearly bedridden with nausea. Occasionally, those with overwhelming seasickness starved to death during the voyage.

Life on board wasn’t all drudgery though. Couples got married, perhaps by a fellow passenger who was a minister, or, if the couple had money or connections, by the captain. Women had babies, and couples conceived babies. Many passengers celebrated birthdays. They held parties for many of those occasions. Passengers also made time for playing games, dancing, and writing letters home. Even though the conditions were harsh, the passengers were on a tremendously exciting adventure.

Perhaps the travelers thought the worst part of the trip—worse than the constant motion, the poor food, and the cramped and uncomfortable sleeping quarters—was the danger of life at sea: storms, poor ship construction, and ships simply being lost at sea for unknown reasons. Actually, however, the worst danger was disease, which killed far more passengers than storms or shipwrecks. Illnesses like typhus, cholera, and dysentery would spread throughout ships in epidemic proportions due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions. Sometimes upon landing, a large percentage of passengers went straight from the ship to a hospital, where survival rates were grim.

After the ship arrived in New York and the passengers disembarked, immigration officials herded them to Castle Gardens, located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the tip of Manhattan. This was the predecessor to the famous Ellis Island. Hundreds of immigrants crowded through Castle Gardens’ doors each day. There, the immigrants reported their name and destination. Government officials gave them information: where they could purchase train tickets, exchange money, seek directions, learn about employment opportunities, and use other services. The immigrants could also sleep on the floor there for a couple of nights until they got their bearings. Amazingly, given the experiences conveyed in “The Godfather” and other movies, the government was attempting to shield immigrants from the many thieves and thugs who hung around the harbor waiting to prey upon them.

“Baby Boomer Army Brat” To Launch

“BABY BOOMER ARMY BRAT” TO LAUNCH NOV. 6!

My new book, Baby Boomer Army Brat, will launch publicly on November 6. It is already available in print on Amazon and will be available as an e-book on Kindle shortly. Here are some of the publicity descriptions:

In this journey through a 1950s-early 1960s “Army Brat” childhood and adolescence, John Wagner brings the reader directly into his life of dramatic changes. We see him go from a good Catholic altar boy: with obedience to rules and respect for authority and religion, to the opposite: a bad boy secretly breaking the rules, hanging out with potential delinquents, suffering social isolation due to severe acne, and questioning everything, including his family’s longstanding Catholicism. Status is everything in the military and we see his family moving from the high status of an up-and-coming officer’s life to the lower status of an enlisted man’s life, through no fault of his father. We see John become a hero for all the wrong reasons: in a vividly described deer-hunting trip—an initiation into his father’s life—and in the hilarious finale to a championship baseball game. Wagner has a unique, direct, voice, bringing us into the immediacy of the highs and lows, even the sounds and smells, of this military family’s life. We finally see Wagner survive, achieve a smidgen of self-confidence and maturity, as he prepares for college and for what will become the Vietnam era.

John Wagner somehow became a prominent lawyer, won a case before the United States Supreme Court, marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, was in the Nixon “Counter-Inaugural,” and was the host of “Uncle John’s Jam” on a listener-sponsored radio station. He is now a full-time author and has a blog at http://johnpwagner.com. He is still waiting for the clouds to lift about the meaning of life.

***

John Wagner’s Baby Boomer Army Brat is the penetrating story of a boy who would become a teenage acne-riddled social outcast, and his coming-of-age within the unique subculture of an Army family. With warmth and energy, Wagner shows a vivid slice of Americana foreshadowing the dramatic changes about to hit the baby-boomers and all of American society: the new civil rights laws, the psychedelic era, and above all the searing division of the Vietnam War.
Wagner details many of the cruel, yet often hilarious, struggles of adolescence, from which he emerges with a core inner strength, although also full of doubts. John must try to forge his own values and beliefs in the midst of a constant inability to do anything right and ongoing criticism from his no-nonsense Army father. Baby Boomer Army Brat shows John trying to survive within the military culture, including sexual abuse from a predatory soldier. John must find his way through a minefield of an ever-changing identity, overwhelming anxieties, seeking a spiritual path, and above all struggling to become authentic.

JOHN WAGNER’S previous book, Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, won the Non Fiction Authors Association Silver Award, 2015.

My Love Affair With Studebakers, Part 2

In eleventh grade, I got to take auto mechanics. Somewhere I found a 1952 Studebaker Commander for twenty dollars and Dad actually let me buy it. It ran, but often put out white smoke from the tailpipe. Someone told me that if the smoke turned blue, it meant the car needed a ring job, a project far too advanced for our class. The white smoke was something with which we could live.

Oh, how I loved my Studie. I knew it had a Mallory ignition. I didn’t know what that was, but knew it was something advanced, like a transistor radio, which didn’t have to warm up but came on right away. I also was proud that Studebaker was the first car make to use safety glass, for whatever that was worth. I thought I was driving the coolest thing around. It was essentially the same car Dad had bought in Germany. Maybe that was why he let me buy it.

I’d fill up the Studie with gas at the Fitz service station, where the price was around thirty-three cents a gallon, about the same as a pack of cigarettes. But the car used oil like crazy and I had to add oil almost every other fill up. I made sure not to mention that to Dad, as I knew he’d give me a hard time for buying such a lemon. I knew by then that the white smoke was related to using too much oil. Later, Mom and Dad told me they knew about my sneaking oil into the car but thought it too funny to give me a hard time about it.

Somewhere I saw an ad for the same 1952 Studebaker Commander, but without an engine, for twenty-five dollars. Dad agreed to buy it as a parts car for the Studie that did run, but it was galling to both of us to pay more for a car without an engine than for a car with an engine. Dad tried to get the price down but the seller would not budge.

“Well,” Dad said finally, “it’s like paying twenty-two fifty for each car. That’s not too bad.”

We parked the Studie that ran in front of our apartment on the Fitz army base and the parts car in the field behind our backyard. I’m surprised we didn’t get an order to remove it from some officious MPs, but they never hassled us. Even before I began the auto mechanics class, Dad and Tom and I replaced the windshield and a fender from the parts Studie.

One night I was driving the Studie around Fitz by myself, violating one of Dad’s cardinal rules: “And don’t think you have to go somewhere, just because that car’s sitting out there!” I was listening to KIMN and the Ventures’ Walk, Don’t Run by came on. What a hot song! What a beat and melody! I couldn’t keep still. I was bouncing around, my foot bouncing on the gas pedal, and I began to accelerate like crazy right near the main hospital building. An MP spotted me but for some reason let me off with a warning.

One of our projects in auto mechanics was to bleed the brakes. I was teamed with Don Baird of “Now, you come back here, Don Baird!” fame. That’s what Mrs. Hutchinson, our Latin teacher, yelled at him when he just up and walked out of class one day. He had the potential for becoming a serious juvenile delinquent and that story traveled immediately from our class to the entire school. Don must have heard a million taunts of, “Now, you come back here, Don Baird!” I said it all the time at home but never to his face. He was a tough guy, and I was chicken.

Don was handsome and, unlike most tough guys, friendly. He never hassled me. Having been assigned to be my partner for the auto mechanics project, he treated me friendly, cracking jokes all the time. He had thick blonde hair that he combed into a ducktail with perfect rolls on the front, curling down toward the center——more Elvis than Elvis. After we finished the brake job on the Studie, he suggested we take the next day off and test out the Studie by going to the Denver Zoo. What a great idea! I would be with Don Baird, which would, I thought, make me cool like him. We went to school the next day but not to classes. Don and I met at the back lot near the auto mechanics area, where we kept the cars on which we were working. But we never made it to the zoo.

As I discovered after getting a few blocks away from school, we had messed up the bleeding of the brakes and the entire system was full of air. I had to pump the brake pedal several times for each stop sign or red light. That wasn’t too bad because I could see in advance the stop signs and lights that were already yellow or red. But if a light turned yellow suddenly, I had to pump the brakes really fast to bring the car to a stop in time. Just after we crossed the city line from Aurora into Denver, I was approaching an intersection and the light turned yellow. I pumped furiously, but the car did nothing and I sailed through the now-red light. The instant we went through the light, I saw a police car stopped in traffic going the other way. Within seconds, the officer was behind us with his red light on. The Studie had finally slowed down, and I was able to pull over with a minimum of braking.

There was no question of mercy, of being let off with a warning. We were two high school-age kids, obviously ditching school, who had blown a red light, no possible argument that there wasn’t time to stop. As the big, unemotional cop wrote the ticket and told me of the accident I might have caused, I knew it would do no good to say, “But officer, the brakes aren’t working right, and I was pumping them as fast as I could.”

The fine was huge, over $100, and there was no way I could hide it from my parents. I got the usual “What the hell were you thinking, boy?” from Dad and “Where have we failed you?” from Mom. I was grounded for months. That was also it for the Studie. They let me keep it at school so I could finish the auto mechanics course, and then it and the replacement car vanished.

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH STUDEBAKERS-PART 1

Studebaker No. 1

When Dad was stationed in Germany after the war, we lived in a German house. I was just a toddler. My brothers then (more would come later, and a sister), Tom and Mike, were infants. I remember a snowy night but we were warm inside. Mom was getting us into our pajamas for bed. Dad and an Army friend were away on a trip. Suddenly, a commotion at the front door. Dad and his friend had returned—with a brand new car, a green Studebaker. (I would later learn it was a Commander, top of the line). Mom bundled us up so we could go outside to appreciate this wonder. I could only have been three or four, but I’ve never gotten over that beautiful Studebaker on the snow-covered ground with its new car smell that night in the cold.

New cars! Is there anything better to symbolize the American Dream for us Baby Boomers coming of age (and even, as above, way before we began to come of age)? Even when we became hippies and protestors, didn’t we all want to be in a new car or, better yet, to own one? Ah, American consumerism. Gotta keep the sales machine alive even as you protest the capitalistic sales machine system! Even though studies show it’s more cost-effective to get a used car, we really want a new, virginal, car. (Speaking of that, we also want to “break it in.” Numerous books have been written on the sexual themes and innuendoes designers and advertisers use to develop and market cars.)

I’m sure Dad drove that Studie all around Germany, often with us in the back seat (no child seats then). But eventually the time came for him to return to the US. He sold the car in Germany, we all got interested in other things, and Dad would go through a lot of other cars.

Those in the know about such things consider Studebaker always ahead of its time. See the delightful blog post by Roger Ebert, “I’ve got the Sweetest Set of Wheels In Town,” about his Studebaker.

Of course, I didn’t know about any of that stuff. I was just a kid. I didn’t even know I liked Studebakers.

US Postwar Imperialism

Now, looking back, I see a deeper issue. Look at the imperialism, our imperialism. Our stated goal after the war was to help Germany’s economy. See Bruce Bartlett’s article, “How the Revival of Postwar Germany Began”
(The New York Times, June 18, 2013). Helping Germany’s economy would mean, among other things, US personnel buying German cars, especially the famous “peoples’ car,” the Volkswagen. The US did help Germany. But, consider….

Dad was no VIP. He was one of thousands of junior officers in Germany after the war. But he was able to buy a US car that had been exported to Germany precisely so that US personnel could buy them. How did that help the German economy? It’s just showing off. The German people were poor, scrabbling for food, trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. And our message was: “Look at the fancy stuff we have and you don’t.” What was going on? Maybe a way to reward our soldiers who lived through the war with a little touch of “home” luxury without considering whether it helped Germany?

A MILLION LITTLE LIES

[I’ll refer to: ”President Trump” as opposed to just “Trump.” I couldn’t stand it when opinion writers refused to call President Obama “President.” I’ll try not to do the same thing to President Trump. He may not have been elected fair and square but he was elected legally. At least until a court says otherwise.]

President Trump’s Lies Begin at the Beginning

The media was concerned about how to report Candidate Trump’s provable lies. Now that he is in office, the media is in a tizzy. Immediately after the inauguration, Team Trump started a fight with the media about the size of attendance at the inaugural. The press immediately disproved President Trump’s statements. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/trump-white-house-briefing-inauguration-crowd-size.html. In response, Counselor-Without-Apparent-Portfolio-Kelleyanne Conway said President Trump is entitled to “alternate facts.” <aref=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/22/kellyanne-conway-says-donald-trumps-team-has-alternate-facts-which-pretty-much-says-it-all/?utm_term=.3229bf88caed”>https://.

Alternate facts? Like, in an alternate universe? Are we living in a comic book world.

And press secretary Sean Spicer claims the Trump Administration is entitled to dispute the facts. http://www.newsmax.com/Headline/US-Trump-The-Latest-Sean-Spicer/2017/01/23/id/769998. You can dispute points of view or theories or arguments. But dispute actual “facts?” Facts are facts because they are undisputable. At the beginning of the Trump administration, it seems facts don’t matter anymore. But facts must matter. A free press should always think facts do matter.

What is a “Lie” Versus a “Misrepresentation” versus a “Falsehood?”

In the Nixon days, when the administration was caught in a lie, the administration would say the statement was “no longer operative.” Not, for heaven’s sake, a “lie.” In the immortal words of Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men (both the book and the movie), a “nondenial denial.” http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/weekinreview/the-nation-the-nondenial-denier.html Most of the media is afraid to call a Trump administration lie a “lie.” (Notable exception: Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. Who, coincidentally, as head of the Democratic National Committee during Watergate, happens to know a lot about Nixonian lies.) Some journalists now consider themselves brave in using the terms “false” or “falsehood.” Journalists were actually debating whether to call some lies “falsehoods” as opposed to “lies.” What is a “falsehood” except a nicer and gentler way of saying “lie.” And if it is a lie, why should journalists be looking for a way to soften it. Isn’t this simply bowing to the new power structure? The New York Times seems to be attempting to avoid the lie-versus-other-name-issue by using footnotes to point out the falsity of Team Trump’s statements.

Should Journalists Fight Every Lie?

For the journalists speaking or interviewed on the SIRIUS radio channel POTUS (“Politics of the United States”) today, the issue seems to be: do you fight over every single lie or intentional misrepresentation, even if the subject is of minor importance or do you “pick your battles” and only make a fuss over the “big” lies? Most of the journalists I heard agreed the danger in reporting every little lie to be, in fact, a lie is that the public will soon tire of the fighting and, later, won’t be responsive when the press reveal a very big lie.

Who Decides?

The first question, of course, is: who decides what is a small lie versus a big lie? Is the President’s insistence that he had “the greatest” inaugural attendance a triviality? Or is it reflective of his insecurity and his need to stand unchallenged on anything he wants to say? If so, isn’t that important? Isn’t that an indication of demagoguery? Are there indeed a million little lies? But let’s assume that question away, keeping it for another day. Today, let’s assume we would all agree on what constitutes a big versus a little lie.

No–The Press Shouldn’t Ignore The “Little” Lies

The majority journalistic opinion seems to be that it just isn’t worth it to make an issue of “every little lie.” I must disagree. Yes, the public may get tired of hearing about “little” lies—perhaps they will occur from Team Trump on a daily basis and the team will say (as they do now) the media is biased against them. Perhaps we’ll accumulate a million little lies in an incredibly short period of time.

In the campaign, the Trump spokespeople repeatedly said that little lies don’t matter. Reminiscent of the Clinton staffers, the Trump people will say—are saying already—we need to “move on.” (Look at Conway saying the people “have already litigated” the issue of whether President Trump should disclose his taxes.

What? we have litigated no such thing. A blatant and by no means “little” lie. But Ms. Conway would have us just move on from the issue of whether President Trump has had numerous serious conflicts of interest from the instant he took office.

Yes, there is a danger of public apathy or burnout. It’s a danger we must accept. Yes, people may get tired of hearing that President Trump lied about this or lied about that. But that’s the job of a strong and free press—to hold the government accountable.

How Not To Ask a Question: The Capehart-Lynch Interview Relating to the Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch Meeting and to the FBI’s Hillary Clinton Investigation

I’m assuming we all saw the recent interview of Loretta Lynch by a fawning and laughing Jonathan Capehart regarding the recent visit between Lynch and former President Bill Clinton on Lynch’s airplane in Phoenix. The problem was Capehart: didn’t frame his questions with precision, didn’t carefully listen to the answers and follow up on obvious gaps, and let General Lynch change the subject throughout the interview.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I can’t stand Trump for the obvious reasons and I believe Hillary Clinton has (alas, successfully) played the public for fools with her continuing and outlandish evasiveness (“What, wipe the server, like with a cloth?”) and perhaps outright lies both now and throughout her public life. My point here is simply to look at how Capehart, perhaps in full good faith, presented himself as getting to the bottom of the matter but in reality left holes big enough to drive a truck through. What new facts did he elicit? None that I can see.

“What Were You Thinking?”

First, he deserves credit by trying to go to the heart of matter right off the bat but he did so in the manner of a late-night TV comedian, letting us, the audience, er, public, know he really was on her side but had to raise the issue. Then he asked her two questions at the same time (“What were you thinking?” “What happened?”), allowing her to say anything she wanted and it would be unclear what question she was answering. Ably, General Lynch went into a monologue about how “that” (what, precisely?) was the question and then redefined the so-called question into one she wanted to answer, what her role was and would be in the Clinton investigation. She totally evaded Capehart’s questions and Capehart made no attempt to follow up.
• What was she thinking? She didn’t answer this at all.
• What did happen? Likewise, she completely evaded this question.

“What Did Happen?”

Think this through with me. How does anyone, even a former president of the United States, simply appear in the cabin office of the plane carrying the Attorney General? Someone on Clinton’s staff had to call someone on Lynch’s staff? What was said by each? What was conveyed to Lynch? What did she say? What was she thinking? Even if we accept the (implausible) implication of the Hillary campaign that there was no phone call but Bill just somehow appeared at the airplane, at least at that point someone had to advise Lynch and she had to say something. Again, What did she say? What was she thinking? She did say she wouldn’t do it again but how many people have said that to federal prosecutors only to be shot down with, “You’re only sorry you got caught” and no sympathy.

“Primarily Social”

In other statements, Lynch had said the meeting was primarily social—chitchat about grandchildren, travels, the usual sort of discussion one might expect between the nation’s top law enforcer to whom the FBI reports and the ultra-prominent husband of a politician under active investigation by that very FBI. OK, let’s accept that the meeting was primarily chitchat and that, at the time, she saw nothing wrong with having it. Still, primarily. Thus, she admitted part of the meeting was much more than social chitchat. What was that part of the meeting about?

“That’s The Question”

Not only did Capehart not even try to keep the focus on his questions, he gushed in Lynch’s praise of him for asking “the” question while she came nowhere near answering it and he then allowed her to take off on how she took her work seriously and was “pained” that her meeting had “cast a shadow over how people are going to view that work”—whatever that was supposed to mean. That certainly sounds pious but means absolutely nothing.

“I Fully Expect to Accept Their Recommendations”

Lynch said that the team of career FBI agents and Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors would make findings and recommendations to her and that she “fully expected” to accept the recommendations. Later, she said that she had already decided “Findings” are the government’s conclusions as to the facts and “recommendations” are what the government should do about those facts, specifically if it will indict someone and if so, whom? A certain HRC perchance? Capehart never pressed General Lynch on precisely what she was saying. Was she saying she wouldn’t be involved regarding a decision of the facts, the findings? Was she saying she wouldn’t be involved regarding a decision on the recommendations? Or was she signaling that she didn’t “expect” to be involved in a decision on the recommendations but that, well, you know, anything could happen. Capehart completely failed to “spot” this issue, as they say regarding law school exams, let alone get a specific answer from the Attorney General.
General Lynch certainly tried to create the impression, and succeeded in doing so, that she would not be involved in either the findings or the recommendations. But she did not precisely say that. There’s plenty of wiggle room for her to backtrack later.

Recusal?

Finally, many commentators have explained that the DOJ has very specific rules requiring “recusal”—completely bowing out of a case, including not making decisions on either findings or recommendations—if a DOJ official has personal dealings with the subject of an investigation, or a family member of the subject of an investigation. If General Lynch really was saying she would accept the findings and recommendations of the FBI and DOJ, then why would she not recuse herself? Capehart again never spotted this issue, let alone pushed General Lynch to deal with it.
All in all, I think we’re back where we started before the now famous interview.

Meeting Sonny Liston

The recent death of Muhammed Ali reminds me of the time I met Sonny Liston. In 1962, when I was in the tenth grade at Aurora, CO, High School, and my brother Tom was in the ninth grade at nearby North Junior High, Sonny Liston, the ferocious prizefighter who had won the heavyweight championship against Floyd Patterson some time earlier, moved to east Denver, not far from our apartment at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora. His recent fight against Patterson was over so quickly there’d been many allegations of a fix. But there were also many claims that his right hand was so strong, it could kill a man and Patterson was lucky to have escaped with his life.

Dad was stationed at Fitzsimons (now closed) and we lived in base housing. I don’t know why Tom and I were talking about Liston other than that he was in the news. Dad was the boxing fan, not Tom or me. A story in one of the papers (those were the days of a morning newspaper and a competing afternoon paper) had his address—-he was in a fancy part of east Denver, not that far from us. I’d recently received my driver’s license and, if Dad was in the right mood, was sometimes allowed to drive our black and Colonial Creme (not yellow! Colonial Creme) Chevy station wagon.

The summer before, one day when Tom and I were looking for something to do, we said to each other, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to the Governor” and we rode eight miles each way on our bikes to do so. We didn’t meet the Governor but we did meet the Lieutenant Governor, who showed us the new license plates that would come out in a year. Now in that same spirit, one evening one of us said, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to Sonny Liston.” And so we did. It was one of my first times driving at night but at least there were streetlights in east Denver. Somehow I found the address. We could see well enough to see Liston’s house was plush, near Monaco Parkway where the rich people lived. I parked the car and we walked up to the door. Two young white teenagers walking right to the front door of the African American heavyweight champion of the world. We weren’t even smart enough to be nervous. I rang the bell. We could hear voices and the door opened.

“Yes?” barked a large black man. Was this him, was this the fearsome fighter? I couldn’t be sure.

“Uh, good evening sir. We wondered if Sonny Liston was home.”

“Whaddya want with him?”

Good question. What did we want with him? What the hell were we doing there? It was clear now we were interrupting either dinner or a party.

“Um, we’d like to shake his hand and say ‘hi.’ And we’d like his autograph.” That was the best I could come up with.

“Wait a minute.”

Uh oh, was he going to get a gun to shoot us? Suddenly the doorway was full, one man was blocking out all the light.

“Yes?”

Now there was no question. This was him. “Hi. Are you Sonny Liston?”

“Yes.”

“How do you do sir?” I stammered. We were being the super respectful Army kids we’d been taught to be. “We live on Fitzsimons, a few miles from here. Our dad is in the Army. We just wanted to say ‘hi’ and ‘congratulations’ and could we have your autograph please?”

“OK. Hi. Did you bring a paper and pen?”

Oops. We hadn’t thought of that. “Uh, no sir. I’m sorry.” Now what? Maybe we had something back in the car but I wasn’t sure and that would only prolong what was now a clearly bad idea. We started to turn around.

“Wait a minute.” The great man took pity on us. He went back to his dinner group and returned in a few minutes with a pad of paper and a pencil.

Here we were, two scrawny white teenagers standing in fear of the great man we’d come to see. Sonny’s giant hand swallowed up the pencil. He put his face close to the paper and began writing his name very slowly. He doesn’t know how to write! I thought. Suddenly everything changed. This burly giant labored over signing his name like a child just learning to write. Instead of being afraid, I felt protective and angry-—this poor guy, look how everyone had taken advantage of him because he was big and tough and a great fighter. No one had ever cared enough about him to make sure he got a good education, I thought. Finally, he finished and handed the torn-off slip of paper to us. He graciously offered his huge hand, that instrument of death, to each of us to shake and was careful not to shake our hands too hard.

Since then, I’ve had to endure many super-strong handshakes, some even painful, and it seems they always came from guys desperately trying to prove something, not guys who’d already shown their abilities.

DID PRESIDENT OBAMA HELP HUMAN RIGHTS BY GOING TO CUBA?

Both sides of the argument make strong points. By going to Cuba he helps normalize relations, which can lead to the ability of the US to have more influence on Cuba. On the other hand, by going to Cuba he does give some legitimacy to the Castro regime, with its horrific record on human rights. What to do do? As a former law professor would often say, pretending to pull out his few remaining hairs, “Gawd these are tough issues!”

Yes, I think President Obama was right. To paraphrase the president’s line, if you’re doing something for 50 years and it still isn’t working, what makes you think continuing that policy will accomplish anything? At least going to Cuba is “giving peace a chance,” even if does lend legitimacy to Raul Castro and company for the short term.

I’m assuming Fidel is near death. And Raul is no spring chicken. There will be replacements in the next few years. Yes, those replacements will have been previously selected and are unlikely to be advocating any changes in Cuba’s human rights policies. But they will be new people in new circumstances and US policies may be able to affect them, even it is in the unfortunate (for this question) Spanish phrase, “poco a poco,” little by little.

And look at what actually happened. Raul Castro said, “show me the names!” Unfortunately the reporters weren’t prepared for that. But they’ll be back. And lists of names will be widely publicized. And the Cuban people saw President speak for human rights right in Raul’s face. Raul Castro isn’t going to release human rights prisoners, or change government tactics, immediately. But the duplicity of his stance will be obvious and will inexorably become a topic of conversation in Cuba, a conversation heaping more sarcasm and disgust on the regime.

I salute President Obama while recognizing human rights workers, and all of us, must keep up the pressure on Cuba.