Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Two-And-a-Half Minutes to Midnight: Our Fear of Nukes and How We Got Here

 

Elizabeth King | Longreads | June 2017 | 10 minutes (2645 words)

 

Bug-out bags, self-designed evacuation plans, stockpiles in the garage. Most Americans born in or after the 1970s have probably never thought much about these items. But ever since the Doomsday Clock, which measures how close the world is to a major anthropogenic disaster, was introduced after World War II, the public has kept a nervous eye on the likelihood of nuclear wars. With the cable news cycle’s predictable turn toward semi-obsessive coverage of North Korea and President Trump’s responses to the small nation’s nuclear program, fear has become a fixture in many households. Understandably so, as the Doomsday Clock now indicates the world is the closest it has been to disaster since 1953.

The urge to protect ourselves and control our fate is natural, but there’s no need to let nuclear angst run our lives. Through thoughtful examination of our nation’s history with nuclear weapons and the anxiety they bring, we can better understand these fears and work to address them.

A quick scan of the average social media feed reveals at least a few sardonic comments about how we’re “all going to die” and questions about how to stay safe should the worst happen on US soil. People are scared for a lot of good reasons. Though there are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world than during the 1980s and ’90s, more countries have nuclear weapons today than in previous decades, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Currently, nine countries including the United States have a nuclear stockpile, for a global total of 14,900 nuclear weapons, according to Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing nuclear threats. Russia has 7,000 of the world’s share of nuclear arms, while 6,800 belong to the United States. North Korea, the current epicenter of nuclear angst, reportedly has fewer than 15 as of March 2016.

But there’s no denying that 14,000 nuclear bombs is still quite a lot. Knowing these weapons exist — combined with the fact that the US military is now helmed by an erratic real estate mogul with no political or military experience — it’s no challenge to understand why people are afraid. But of course these fears have been a part of the fabric of American culture long before president Trump stepped into the White House, and well before North Korea even had a nuclear program. The story of these fears begins at home in the US with the atom bomb.

After Manhattan Project scientists created and US forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ending the World War II conflict in Japan, Americans had a surge of confidence about nuclear technology’s potential for good. It was short-lived. In 1946, the Soviet Union began a nuclear program, striking fear into the hearts of civilians and engendering the Soviet-US nuclear arms race. Now, instead of being an exciting prospect, nuclear arms became a threat to the country that invented them.

At the end of World War II, University of Chicago scientists involved with the Manhattan Project founded the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a publication for scientists and the public about nuclear armaments, war, and climate change, among other subjects. In 1947, Bulletin scientists introduced the now iconic Doomsday Clock.

The Clock measures how near we are to a global, human-caused disaster. Upon its debut, the clock was set to seven minutes to midnight (on the Doomsday Clock, midnight signifies, well, doomsday: total catastrophe). The Doomsday Clock’s hands have moved backward and forward a total of 22 times; it remains one of the most accessible ways for the general public to assess how much danger we’re all in.

The Doomsday Clock’s hands have moved backward and forward a total of 22 times; it remains one of the most accessible ways for the general public to assess how much danger we’re all in.

The end of World War II ushered in the Cold War, the decades-long period of diplomatic and ideological tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union’s growing stash of nuclear weapons was the primary physical threat to the US during the Cold War. This was the era of “duck and cover.” The Doomsday Clock was set to three minutes to midnight in 1949, two minutes in 1953, and seven minutes in 1960. Millennials and Gen-Xers can ask their parents about this: in the 1950s and 60s, school children took part in drills that taught them what to do should the Soviets drop a nuclear bomb. Black and white instructional videos told children that everyone should duck down to the floor and seek cover. Of course, if a nuclear missile were to strike, a school desk over the head of a small child would do absolutely nothing to prevent death, but the drills went on in large part because people felt they had the ability to do something, anything, to control their destiny.

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons proliferated in pop culture. Godzilla debuted in the United States in 1955, a film broadly understood to be a metaphor for nuclear weapons. The film depicts nuclear weapons as a dangerous, unpredictable, and difficult to defeat monster that terrorizes Japan. It was well-received among American critics and kicked off a long run of movies featuring nuclear themes, including the 1959’s On the Beach, a story about a post-World War III world where Australia is the only continent to survive nuclear blasts. It was the first movie to explore the idea that mankind as a species could be eradicated by nuclear war. On the Beach centers much of its horror plot around radiation, tapping into what makes nuclear bombs so much more frightening than other weapons.

***

David Ropeik, a risk management and risk communications consultant and author of the book, How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, offers a reminder that nuclear weapons are uniquely scary because of they come with dangers that don’t end with the explosion itself. Radiation poisoning is very dangerous to humans. It can cause cell death, and DNA mutations that can lead to cancer. We fear not only the destruction that nuclear bombs can cause, but the deadly trail of radiation.

As for pop culture’s role in all of this, we still see end-of-the-world and nuclear themed stories today. North Korea left the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, and a few years later nuclear plotlines spiked in Hollywood. In 2005, the 60th anniversary of the atom bomb attacks in Japan ushered in the release of several fictional stories about nuclear weapons: Stealth, Black Dawn, and The Last Best Chance. The BBC also released a documentary about Hiroshima that year.

In 2012’s The Avengers, Iron Man soars through the air to chase down a nuclear missile heading for New York and stops it from destroying the city. But in reality, there’s no Tony Stark to save the day, and the idea that everyday people can protect themselves from nuclear threats is a fantasy. There is no Iron Man — and duck and cover drills were ultimately useless — but as Ropeik explains, humans have a deep desire to feel in control when they’re in danger.

“You know when you’re on a road trip with a friend, and you start to feel sleepy behind the wheel? Well what happens when you switch to the passenger side and let your friend take over driving?” Ropeik asks. “You’re likely going to be on higher alert, and no longer feel as tired. Out of control of the situation, your mind is on higher alert. You’ll notice your foot moving to a brake pedal that’s not there, and suddenly other cars look too close and it feels like the car is going too fast.”

This same concept holds true for greater existential fears, like nuclear war. Unable to control what happens, we will seek ways to protect ourselves, stepping on imaginary brakes even when it’s futile. Self-preservation is in our nature, Ropeik says, and we can’t really help but attempt to control some aspect of the uncontrollable.


Become a Longreads Member to support more stories like this.

Sign up


Dr. Debra Kissen, clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago, says that one of the best ways to manage fears about nuclear war is to limit media consumption, especially when it becomes compulsive. “When it’s to the point where you feel you have to check the news, rather than just being curious about what’s happening in the world,” the updates only provide more fodder for the concern. And if the fears start interfering with everyday life, it’s time to head to therapy.

Kissen says that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help with fears over nuclear war. “Imaginary exposure where the patient imagines what it would be like if the world ended,” and repeating the exercise over and over until the image is no longer so devastatingly scary is one method. Another is to work with patients on trigger phrases that they may avoid, such as “nuclear war,” to the point that the phrase itself becomes mundane and unintimidating.

It’s also of the utmost importance for therapists to help a patient understand the broader fears that underlie the fear of a nuclear event. For many, nuclear dread is closely related to feeling of uncertainty and anxiety around the current political climate in the United States.

It’s safe to say that today, Donald Trump is the most pressing source of nuclear anxiety in the United States. Trump’s lack of political experience and taunts at North Korea sent many people into a state of fearful dread about the possibility of nuclear war. The Doomsday Clock advanced toward midnight for the first time in two years following Trump’s election, from three to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.

Rachel Bronson, Bulletin executive director and publisher, specifically referenced “fake news” in her comment on the Clock’s movement. The Bulletin’s full explainer on the 30-second advancement mentions Donald Trump’s name nine times. In part, this means that the fears concerning the state of America and indeed the planet are justified: the experts on the subject agree that Trump’s presidential campaign worsened these conditions, and that the world is less safe now that he’s in possession of nuclear codes.

But the fears swirling today do not exist in a vacuum. While Trump and North Korea induce fear in many, the current situation is the result of more than 70 years of a national disposition to fear these weapons.

In the end, fear is one of many emotions we can’t help but feel, and it is in no way beholden to logic. Like all emotions, fear is valid, and fear is no less valid when its cause is nuclear threat versus tripping and falling on the sidewalk. But it’s not as if we must become victim to our fears; though the fears are natural and legitimate, Kissen explains that we are not helpless against them.

Ropeik says the level of fear or anxiety individuals experience over the threat of nuclear war has everything to do with what he calls our “emotional libraries,” a mental collection of our past experiences and interactions, good and bad. He says that all of us have a “risk radar screen” always running in our minds, assessing potential danger and alerting us to them.

For those who have personal experience with events like Chernobyl, or who were around for the Cuban Missile Crisis, news of North Korea’s nuclear testing glows brighter on the risk radar than for someone who has little real-life experience with nuclear weapons. Our fears, whether personal or social, are not simply a pile of historical data points; they’re a reflection of our individual and collective experiences and emotions.

Calling back to Ropeik’s road trip comparison, our fear peaks when we aren’t in control. And this is where Donald Trump comes in as the ultimate contemporary exacerbator of nuclear fear.

While North Korea has tested nuclear weapons and made threats for decades (and under numerous presidential administrations) this issue is being closely examined now because people are more worried than they have been in the recent past. Ropeik tells me that because many lack confidence in Trump, people feel even less control over their own and the planet’s safety.

He adds that the political climate that has had so many people on edge for months also plays a role. “If we feel insecure with the way things are going with politics in general and also feel that the government is not in control, we’re already predisposed to worrying more about nuclear war,” he says.

***

The big question, then, is how afraid do we really need to be? There are thousands of nuclear weapons out there in the world, and there’s nothing truly stopping a world leader from launching their nuclear missiles. There’s no denying the dangerous reality of a world where nine countries have nuclear weapons, at least one of which, North Korea, is helmed by a deeply erratic and dangerous leader. All of this is to say: fear is a legitimate response.

There is such a thing as being too afraid. Ropeik says that if someone finds themselves digging up their backyard to build a fallout shelter, they may want to take a step back and examine how their fears are impacting their lives and those of their families, friends, and neighbors. The threat of a nuclear event is real, but it’s not quite so likely that anyone needs to pull out the old duck-and-cover tutorials or scope out remote caves in which to take up residence. Keeping fear in proportion to the actual threat, by limiting news intake and possibly seeking professional help, is necessary for emotional survival.

It may help to put things in perspective. Most of the existential fear today comes from concerns over North Korea, but the reality is that North Korea’s farthest-reaching nuclear missile can reach only as far as Guam, according to Al Jazeera. By air travel, Guam is 3,958 miles from Hawai’i, and 6,086 miles from Los Angeles. These figures hopefully prompt a sigh of relief among Americans who fear that nukes could come barreling down from the sky at any moment. (However, it should also make us more sensitive to the threat facing South Korea and Japan, nations that are within reach of and not friends with North Korea.)

In fact, in 2012, Foreign Policy ranked both Russia and China above North Korea as existential threats to the United States. While Russia can be considered a bad actor and there’s ample political drama unfolding between Russia and the US, there’s no reason to believe that the Kremlin is eager to attack the US with a nuclear weapon. The same holds true for China.

The fear of nuclear weapons is biological, psychological, and socio-historical all at once. Our minds have evolved to be on alert for that which may harm us, and our culture has spent decades immersed in anxious explorations of nuclear weapons. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there’s cause to fear them, but how afraid we are as we go about our lives is largely within our control —  though it may take some cognitive behavior therapy to get there.

 

Where Have All The White House Press Briefings Gone?

The Trump administration’s combative relationship with the media is no secret, and the president’s supporters have happily rallied behind his purported distaste for the Fourth Estate — apparently not caring that, though he tweets angrily about the New York Times, his first call on issues is often to Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Over at The Atlantic, Rosie Gray describes the erosion of the traditional daily press briefing under Trump:

President Trump himself has publicly mused about canceling them, tweeting “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February.

The White House Press Corps has understandably balked at being told they can’t record audio or video, especially those whose medium is audio or video. CNN’s Jim Acosta, quoted in Gray’s story, tweeted:

Acosta is half-correct here. State- and city-level political reporters do experience this kind of stonewalling, and they do chafe at it. The tactic is also not limited to Republican politicians: in the Democratic haven of New York (both city and state), reporters are constantly frustrated with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to take off-topic questions, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to answer any questions at all.

And the Democrats’ great blue hope in the Congressional race in Georgia’s Sixth District reportedly banned the conservative-leaning Free Beacon from attending an event.

Gray’s piece in The Atlantic highlights the rock-and-a-hard-place status of the White House press corps, who seem unsure of how to fight back against a president who doesn’t seem to care whether or not they show up to work — and may even prefer if they don’t. But the inability to record statements from an administration that habitually impugns the media’s character, squawking “Fake News” at any story it dislikes, is troubling.

For an example of why recordings are so important, see former White House ethics lawyer (under George W. Bush) Richard Painter’s response to a Daily Beast story reporting — with audio evidence — that Kellyanne Conway made comments publicly about fighting “demographic wars.”

And of course, there’s fired FBI director James Comey’s recent, memorable response to Trump threatening to release tapes of their conversations: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” NPR has a lengthy look at presidents themselves resorting to taping conversations out of frustration with media representations of their conversations.

For what it’s worth, here’s a tip for our colleagues in Washington, D.C.: It’s pretty easy to surreptitiously use Voice Memos on your iPhone, and the District of Columbia is a one-party consent state when it comes to recording conversations (shout-out to Nixon).

(N.B.: We’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight that Gray asked Steve Bannon for an explanation for the off-camera press briefings, and he texted back, “Sean got fatter,” proving that Luke Mazur’s depiction of Bannon in his foe fiction for The Awl is spot-on.)

Celebrating a Second Independence Day: A Juneteenth Reading List

June 19, also known as Juneteenth, marks the day when, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom. As the National Museum of African-American History and Culture notes in a Tumblr post, it could — and arguably should — be celebrated as a “second independence day.” But as the museum writes, “Though it has long been celebrated among the African American community it is a history that has been marginalized and still remains largely unknown to the wider public.”

This morning, the White House issued a statement on Juneteenth that didn’t land well. USA Today compared his statement to that of President Barack Obama, highlighting, as a commentator at the Independent Journal Review also noted, that Trump chose to praise a white person where Obama focused on the freed slaves. For more on Juneteenth, we’ve collected  stories that explain the fraught history of the holiday, and the need for celebration.

1. “What Is Juneteeth?” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Root)

Gates gives a thorough overview of the history of Juneteenth, including a look at other days worthy of celebration.

The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two-and-a-half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight. So, formalities aside, wasn’t it all over, literally, but the shouting?

It would be easy to think so in our world of immediate communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. Whatever Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even with its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-rebels in the region took to bushwhacking and plunder.

2. “The Black American Holiday Everyone Should Celebrate but Doesn’t” (Jamelle Bouie, Slate, June 2015)

Bouie is one of many who argues for Juneteenth to be a federal holiday, pointing out that “far more than our Independence Day, it belongs to all Americans.”

Insofar that modern Americans celebrate the past, it’s to honor the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation or to celebrate the vision of the Founders. Both periods are worthy of the attention. But I think we owe more to emancipation and the Civil War. If we inaugurated freedom with our nation’s founding and defended it with World War II, we actualized it with the Civil War. Indeed, our struggle against slave power marks the real beginning of our commitment to liberty and equality, in word, if not always in deed.

3. “City to Acknowledge It Operated a Slave Market for More Than 50 Years” (Jim O’Grady, WNYC, April 2015)

Jim O’Grady’s story on New York City’s plan to own up to the northern city’s participation in slavery notes that the unveiling of a marker to memorialize that history would be pegged to Juneteenth.

“It’s not a feel-good story,” said Thomas J. Davis, a professor at Arizona State University who writes about slavery in the north. “It’s not a story that people have wanted to hear.” Davis and other historians say Americans in the north tend to think of slavery as a fever that gripped the south — a fever cured by the Civil War.

But New York and other northern cities accrued vast wealth from slave labor and profited for centuries from dealings in the slave trade. Africans who passed through the Wall Street slave market contributed to the prosperity of some very famous companies, some of which are still around: Aetna, New York Life and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few.

4. “Juneteenth Should Be a Federal Holiday” (Zak Cheney Rice, Mic, June 2017)

Like Bouie, Rice argues that Juneteenth deserves to be a holiday, in part to combat the attempts at “erasure” by those who claim the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery.

In Texas — the state where Juneteenth originated — a new spate of social studies textbooks de-emphasizes the role slavery played in launching the Civil War.

“[It’s] a side issue to the Civil War,” Pat Hardy, a Republican school board member said when the board adopted this new statewide standard in 2010, according to the Washington Post. “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”

5. “Juneteenth, Democracy and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions” (Dawn Godbolt, Garnet News, June 2017)

Dawn Godbolt links the importance of Juneteenth to our current Attorney General’s efforts to write policy “in a manner that attempts to steal the futures of African Americans — begetting the question of what democracy means for blacks.”

Previous attorney generals, including Eric Holder and Sally Yates, ordered prosecutors to avoid charges that exacerbated the mass prison industrial complex and to cease using private prisons to house federal prisoners. These changes were implemented in response to a better understanding of how incarceration affects the life chances of offenders, their families, and their communities, and a shift in social attitudes towards marijuana. Session’s policy initiative signals to Americans that race-based policies intended to restrict the freedom of blacks to be a priority for the attorney general’s agenda.

There is an insidious, racially motived ideological belief, that black men in America need to be contained.

6. “Though the Heavens Fall, Part 1” (John Jeremiah Sullivan & Joel Finsel, Oxford American, February 2015)

In this lengthy feature, two writers look at “Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights,” particularly at C.N. Love, a black albino who worked as “the Houston advertising agent for several African-American newspapers.”

As a schoolboy in Houston, Love became known as a good public speaker, a deliverer of “orations.” He loved to read, even if holding the book against his face, and he paid attention to preachers’ tricks. His earliest nickname, apart from C.N., was Judge or “the Honorable.” Despite or perhaps helped in part by his unusual appearance, he grew into an object of community pride. In the 1880s he emerged as a figure in the city’s black cultural life, a fixture on the committees that planned the yearly “Juneteenth” or Emancipation Day celebrations, a perennial decider of beauty contests.

7. “National Observance of Juneteenth is Still A Struggle” (Jacqueline J. Holness, Urban Faith, June 2016)

Holness looks both at Obama’s pre-presidency support of making Juneteenth a national holiday and arguments against doing so, such as:

“[Juneteenth] reinforces Black people as passive and as people waiting for others to free them when black people in the South would tell Union soldiers when they showed up that they were free and come and set up camp with Union soldiers,” Penrice says. “Many of them wrote letters to the White House for instructions as to what to do. This influenced the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Penrice also doesn’t believe that June 19 is a particularly special day as slaves throughout the South became aware of their freedom on different days.

8. “Juneteenth Is For Everyone” (Kenneth C. Davis, The New York Times, June 2015)

Davis looks at how celebrations of Juneteenth fell and rose in popularity, ultimately arguing, as Bouie did, that it is “a shared point of pride in the symbolic end of centuries of racial slavery.”

Spurred by a revival of pride in African-American traditions long denied or suppressed, Juneteenth has gained official recognition — although not necessarily full legal holiday status — in a number of states, starting, appropriately, with Texas, which made Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees in 1980.

Still, 150 years after its birth, Juneteenth remains largely unacknowledged on America’s national calendar. Many Americans are unaware of its existence, or its roots. Sadly, that ignorance of Juneteenth reflects a deeper issue: the continued existence of two histories, black and white, separate and unequal.

9. “Juneteenth and Barbecue” (Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly, June 2015)

On the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, Vaughn pays tribute to “the menu of Emancipation Day.”

Barbecue wasn’t the only item on the menu. The middle of June being the beginning of watermelon season in Texas, it also found a spot at the table. The Galveston Daily News reported on celebrations across the state in 1883 including one in San Antonio where “twenty-three wagons loaded with watermelons…were destroyed with marvelous rapidity.” By 1933, the menu had been cemented per the Dallas Morning News. “Watermelon, barbecue and red lemonade will be consumed in quantity.

 

Prosecutor, Interrupted: A Kamala Harris Reading List

The junior Senator from California, Kamala Harris had made headlines for more than a decade. She was the first woman appointed District Attorney of San Francisco, the first female and first non-white lawyer elected to the office of Attorney General in California, and the second black woman ever elected to the Senate. If it is possible to go too far with praise, President Barack Obama once had to apologize for calling her good-looking. Elected on the same day Hillary Clinton failed to shatter the presidential glass ceiling, the Sentor has been deemed “the center of the resistance” against President Donald Trump. And this week, during Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, she was criticized for being too good at her job.

The Washington Post‘s Katie Mettler summed up the situation well:

To those who have observed hearings on Capitol Hill, especially high-visibility televised hearings involving partisan subjects, there has been little or nothing unusual about Harris’s behavior. Members get a small amount of time to ask questions and make their points. Unfriendly witnesses are inclined to string out their answers and let the clock run.

The result, one side rushing, the other stalling, is never pretty. The phrase, “just give me a yes or no answer,” is so often heard it ought to be engraved on the Capitol portico.

But twice now, Harris has been interrupted and chastised by male senators for her style of questioning during the hearings.

For more on the phenomenon of men interrupting women, check out Susan Chira in the New York Times (and this New York Times story, about Uber of course, which notes studies that show men talk far more than women do in meetings).

For more on Harris, here is a reading list with a few deep cuts, including a decade-old profile of the now-Senator as a rising star.

1. “Kamala Harris rips up the script” (Maeve Reston, CNN, April 2017)

Reston managed to artfully profile Harris without interviewing her, doggedly following her around to public events, highlight comments made in other interviews and seeking insight from Washington insiders.

“I was raised to do,” Harris replied. “I was raised that you do, you don’t talk about yourself, you just do. You don’t talk about it after you’ve done it; you just do the next thing…. I would prefer to talk about what needs to get done, versus talk about myself.”

2. “California’s next A-G, city’s pride” (Ajai Sreevatsan, The Hindu, November 2010)

This short, sweet profile from a local outlet in India is a worthwhile and endearing read.

Recalling Ms. Harris’ childhood when she used to frequently visit her grandfather’s house in Besant Nagar, her aunt said, “Even as a child, she was very kind. She could not bear to see anyone cry. She always wanted to go out there and do a few things.”

Ms. Harris retained the close bond with her grandfather, often writing long letters to him about cases, especially involving Indians, when she became an attorney.

3. “Kamala Harris, a ‘Top Cop’ in the Era of Black Lives Matter” (Emily Bazelon, The New York Times Magazine, May 2016)

Profiles of Harris over the course of the last decade are fairly consistent in their representations of her as both smart and warm, but as she is increasingly framed as the antidote to Donald Trump, insinuations slip in about whether she has what it takes to win. Bazelon’s profile offers a lot of lovely personal insights and anecdotes, but the most interesting parts show Harris as a savvy, driven, and strategic politician who picks battles and wins them handily.

Her closest rival, Representative Loretta Sanchez, pointedly told an audience in January, “I think we need a Latina in the U.S. Senate.” As of that month, Harris had raised far more money than Sanchez and had racked up endorsements from unions and other power brokers, but she was well aware that in a state that is 40 percent Hispanic, she still needed the blessing of Latino leaders.

Now her aide had spotted one in the crowd: Jimmy Gomez, a Democratic state assemblyman from northeast Los Angeles. Heading into the scrum, Harris looked over her shoulder at me with a conspiratorial smile. “Here comes the strong-­arming,” she said. “I’m going to be shameless.” She strode up to Gomez, did the forearm clasp and, brisk and direct, asked Gomez to endorse her for Senate. Gomez, a youthful 41-year-old who is a son of Mexican immigrants, seemed a bit taken aback. He mentioned a bill he was sponsoring to ease the financial burden on low-­income workers of taking family leave, which was stalled. “Let’s work on it,” Harris said. “Do you have stories of the people who are affected? You need to tell their stories.” Gomez nodded intently.

4.“Kamala Harris grew up idolizing lawyers” (Sam Whiting, SF Gate May 2009)

There are many fun revelations in this 2009 Q&A with Harris, including the fact that the first time anyone asked how to pronounce her name was apparently in 2009 (unless she was being sarcastic).

Q: Who do you live with?
A: Me, myself and I.

Q: Have you ever been married?
A: Not officially.

Q: Motto?
A: A saying my mother had, “You may be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.”

5. “District Attorney Kamala Harris on working for Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, and where to get really good Indian food in the city” (Steve Kaplan, Super Lawyers, August 2010)

A random, but fun Q&A with the then-District Attorney, with nice insights into her day-to-day life.

Do you speak any Indian language?

Let me tell you something about the Indian language. I know all the words of love and all the words of dissension and frustration. All the words of strong feelings, one way or the other. When my mother couldn’t come up with any other word, that’s what it was.

6. “Why Kamala Matters” (Nina Martin, San Francisco Magazine, August 2007)

One of the earliest profiles of Harris also happens to be beautifully written and full of incredible anecdotes.

The first time I meet Kamala Harris, she’s trying to convince a roomful of low-level drug dealers that they should get themselves to the gym. “I have a job that’s just crazy,” she tells the crowd of 100 or so young men and women, sounding more like a motivational speaker than the city’s chief law enforcement official. It’s the kind of responsibility she can never, ever put aside. “I get calls day and night,” she says. “That’s a lot of stress.”

What helps her cope, she continues, is hopping on the treadmill every morning. She has to wake up early to fit in a workout, and there are plenty of times she’s tempted to skip it, but once she’s at the gym she never regrets it. She used to watch CNN while exercising, but now she’s decided, “My life is like the news, and I don’t need to watch the news. So I watch MTV and VH1. I know every song!”

“It’s about just being happy and healthy and figuring out ways to cope,” she adds, earnest and slightly goofy, aware that this gym idea is a tough sell to this crowd, even though she’s wrangled them free monthlong passes to 24 Hour Fitness. What her listeners care most about is finding a job with a real future that pays better than selling crack. But she wants them to think about broader issues, like the importance of taking care of their bodies and figuring out ways to feel better that don’t involve booze or drugs. I can’t imagine Hallinan or Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi or Dianne Feinstein, talking like this to a crowd of young, mostly male, mostly black and Latino dope dealers. Harris isn’t lecturing them; she’s trying to connect.

7.“A Lack of Conviction” (Peter Jamison, SF Weekly, May 2010)

This SF Weekly exposé poked holes in then D.A. Harris’ campaign claims while in pursuit of the Attorney General post, with interesting analysis of potentially politically-motivated efforts by a liberal wanting to seem “tough on crime.”

Harris declined repeated requests for an interview through her spokesman, Brian Buckelew. Asked about the recent spate of unsuccessful cases, Buckelew said the past year and a half is an insufficient amount of time to look at when asserting trends in the office’s performance, and that trials represent a small slice — only 2 to 3 percent — of the thousands of felony cases handled annually. The failed trial prosecutions, he said, were “cases we believed in, and still believe in, but sometimes they don’t work out the way we had hoped. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been brought to trial in the first place.”

8. “Kamala Harris: Democrats’ anti-Palin” (Ben Smith, Politico Magazine, December 2010)

Before Harris was the anti-Trump, she was the anti-Palin. Smith’s profile offers a nice glimpse of the Senator seven years ago, and is a prime example of the consistency to be found in profiles of her.

But like Obama, Harris has sought to avoid being tied to Democratic orthodoxy. Her “ Smart on Crime” approach in San Francisco included cracking down on truancy — including charging the parents of chronically truant children with a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine. Civil libertarians and conservatives alike raised questions about the move, but Harris was unapologetic.

“My staff went bananas” at the policy, Harris said, as did school administrators. Citing statistics linking crime and truancy, she argues that she’s nipping a problem in the bud.

“My bottom line is these children have to be in school,” she said.

“There will be outrage when in 10 years they’re a menace to society hanging out on the corner.”

David Sedaris Is Depressed

Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have only been kind to comedians and the wealthy. At the Paris Review, humorist and expatriate David Sedaris tallies the many reasons for his current state of shame and sadness, which comes from being an American traveling the world in times of Trump. As always, Sedaris’ greatest gift is his ability to laugh at the absurdity of life.

Eight. I join my family on Emerald Isle for Thanksgiving and have a great screaming fight with my Republican father, who yells at one point, “Donald Trump is not an asshole!” I find this funny but at the same time surprising. Regardless of whether or not you voted for him, I thought the president-elect’s identity as a despicable human being was something we could all agree on. I mean, he pretty much ran on it.

Later in our argument my father shouts, “He’s the best thing that’s happened to this country in years,” and, “It was just locker-room talk.”

“I’m in locker rooms five days a week and have never heard anyone carry on like Trump in that video,” I argue. “And if I did, I wouldn’t think, Wow, that guy ought to be my president. I’d think he was a creep and a loser.” Then I add, repeating something I’d heard from someone else, “Besides, he wasn’t in a locker room, he was at work.”

Read the story

Happy Birthday to Gemini-in-Chief, Donald Trump

We’re not saying astrology is or isn’t real, but Donald Trump is a Gemini and we could talk about this. Why not seek insight into the leader of the free world by any means available? We thought polls were a science and that was wrong. We thought climate change was a science, but that’s apparently now up for grabs. Maybe astrology is the real science? Who’s to say!

So what’s the deal with Geminis? They’re volatile, prone to mood swings and abrupt changes in opinions. Writing on Huffington Post about Gemini and disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer in 2008, Vanity Fair astrology columnist Michael Lutin writes:

When dealing with Geminis, remember that when they are in front of you they usually say what they mean and they mean what they say at that exact moment. There’s always another side to them they would rather not show you, however, mainly because it is usually diametrically opposed to the image they have created in their relationship with you. It doesn’t always mean that they are insincere, fraudulent shape shifters who say one thing, do another.

Read more…

Will Jeff Sessions’ Testimony Delight Us Like James Comey’s Did?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to testify in an open hearing today as part of the congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Some believe he may be more truthful this time than he was at his last public hearing, when he falsely claimed he never communicated with Russian entities. (Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice, and will likely be asked about a possible third meeting.)

Others are concerned President Donald Trump may try to block Sessions’ testimony at the eleventh hour. He has until 2:30pm to make his decision.

James Comey’s testimony last week drew more than 19 million viewers and raised new questions about the attorney general’s contact with Russia, his role in Comey’s firing, and his recusal from the investigation itself.

Much has been made of Comey asking Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump, which came up in Comey’s testimony. Comey also indicated the FBI knew that Sessions’ involvement in the investigation would have been “problematic” well before the attorney general recused himself:

He was … inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make [Sessions’s] continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.

Comey also said that Sessions “lingered” when Trump ordered him to leave the room before pressuring Comey to drop his investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn. “My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering.” Comey was also asked about Sessions’ involvement in his own firing, which the former FBI director deemed “a reasonable question.”

If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know, and so I don’t have an answer for the question.

Sessions has dodged testifying at least three times already, and Washington Post has published 40 questions they would ask the attorney general. It’s possible Sessions will be asked not only about Trump’s firing of Comey, but of his firing of U.S. Attorneys, after Preet Bharara gave an interview to ABC on Sunday in which he said Comey’s firing felt like “déjà vu,” and maintained there is sufficient evidence to launch an investigation into obstruction of justice by the president.

The New York Times reported last week that Trump is “discontented” with Sessions, and that Sessions had “offered to resign in recent weeks, as he told President Trump he needed the freedom to do his job.” It remains to be seen whether Sessions will show Trump the loyalty that the president so badly wants.

Further Reading:

What if Free Outdoor Theater is the Greatest Threat to Our Democracy?

What if we have all died and 2017 is actually purgatory? Instead of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill over and over, it’s just conservative and liberals engaging in back-and-forth, grab-your-wallet boycotts for eternity?

If you were paying attention to social media on Sunday night, you may have noticed Bank of America and Delta Airlines announcing on Twitter that they were backing out as sponsors for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. Earlier that day, Fox News ran a story with the headline “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump,” in which a grainy iPhone video showed the climax of the play, notable for the fact that “women and minorities” appear to stab a Trump-like figure to death on a stage that resembles the U.S. Senate.

Let’s back up. The Public Theater was founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp, who butted heads with parks commissioner Robert Moses when he tried to quash Papp’s free Shakespeare productions in Central Park by charging a fee for “grass erosion.” (Papp built a theater in the park instead, keeping the productions free.) The Public describes itself as “an advocate for the theater as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on important issues of our day,” so putting a modern-day spin on Shakespeare is not unusual for them.

As Bank of America noted in their public statement, they’ve been sponsoring Shakespeare in the Park for 11 years. And yet, on the eve of the Tony awards, Bank of America was shocked — shocked, they tell you — to learn the Public “chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.” (The production has been in the works since the fall of 2016—November 9, to be exact.)

Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, was reminded of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s questioning of a theater director in 1938.

Delta explained they were withdrawing their sponsorship because “no matter what your political stance may be,” the Public’s “artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”

Daniel Radosh, a senior writer for the Daily Show, recalled on Twitter that another New York City theater company once portrayed Caesar as Obama, and the American Conservative found the production “riveting.”

Broadway World noted that Delta had no issue sponsoring an Obama-inspired Julius Caesar in Minneapolis in 2012. And many — many, many, many — people noted that Julius Caesar is actually a lesson in how assassination doesn’t always work out in the end.

For what it’s worth, the New York Times review of the Public’s Trump-ified Caesar maintains that the comparison actually doesn’t track very well:

[W]e are faced with the ways that Trump and Caesar never properly scanned, and an aftermath in which that confusion breeds more confusion. For one thing, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a war hero and, as smartly played by Gregg Henry, a deeply charismatic one. When offered the chance, three times, to become emperor, he chooses three times to remain a senator. This is more like George Washington than Mr. Trump.

UPDATE: The Public Theater released a statement on the incident, according to American Theatre magazine:

“We stand completely behind our production of ‘Julius Caesar.’ We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.”

Who Is Christopher Wray, Trump’s Nominee for FBI Director?

True to form, President Donald Trump announced his nominee for the new FBI director via Twitter Wednesday morning. If his pick — Christopher Wray, an alumnus of the Justice Department under George W. Bush who currently works at D.C.-based law firm King & Spalding — is confirmed by the Senate judiciary committee, he will enter into a politically fraught scene in which two of his former colleagues are major players.

So who, exactly, is Christopher Wray?

As the New York Times reported, Wray is a graduate of Yale and Yale Law School who worked as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta before joining President Bush’s Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general in 2001. CNN reported that Wray was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2003 to lead the DOJ’s criminal division, where he oversaw major investigations, including the one into Enron, as well as the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11. He left in 2005 to join King & Spalding.

Given that timing, it’s unsurprising that a search for Wray’s name in the American Civil Liberties Union’s torture database turns up 83 search results, including a fax he sent regarding Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. (The documents are almost all entirely redacted.)

Over at Wired, Garrett Graff offers some insight into Wray, particularly during his time at the DOJ:

“We all recognized that the old paradigms wouldn’t work. In some cases there weren’t any rules at all,” Wray told me just a few years after he left the Justice Department. It was also a time of unprecedented pressure.

“Every time the pager went off, every time the phone rang, you thought, ‘We’re moments away from being attacked again,’” Wray told me. “You had no idea when or where it was coming.”

It would be interesting to learn what Wray thinks of how ISIS has changed the rules. As Graff notes, if Wray is confirmed, he will be “confronting new critical threats, like cyber, that were barely on the horizon during his last stint in government.”

Because of his time at Justice, Wray has a relationship with James Comey, his recently and controversially fired predecessor, and Robert Mueller, tapped as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Graff reports that Wray has deep admiration for both men. Mueller led the FBI when Wray was there, and headed the criminal division 15 years prior to Wray doing so. Comey was Mueller’s second-in-command.

He came away deeply impressed on a daily basis by Mueller. “If you’re in law enforcement, your immediate reaction was this is my kind of guy,” said Wray. “Bob Mueller has an uncanny ability to be really dedicated and idealistic about public service without being cheesy or naive.” 

Graff also recounts an incident in early 2004, during which Comey was fighting with Vice President Dick Cheney over an NSA surveillance program Comey believed was unconstitutional. Mueller had Comey’s back, and “rumors had circulated of a mass resignation of the department’s senior-most leaders,” Graff writes. Wray apparently pulled Comey aside in a hallway and told him, “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you.”

Comey ultimately took his concerns directly to Bush, who agreed to change the program. 

“For Wray, the episode was a signal lesson in the necessary independence, moral compass, and leadership necessary to succeed at the Justice Department.

‘[Mueller] has a strong moral compass and I think that the great thing about strong moral compasses is that they don’t have to hand-wring, Wray told me years later. ‘When they’re uncomfortable, they know what they have to do.’”

The Times describes Wray as “a safe, mainstream pick from a president who at one point was considering politicians for a job that has historically been kept outside of politics” who “is likely to allay the fears of F.B.I. agents who worried that Mr. Trump would try to weaken or politicize the F.B.I.”

According to the Times, Wray apparently “bonded” with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when they were both at the Justice Department. He also represented Christie in the recent Bridgegate scandal, in which Christie got off scot-free while two of his deputies were sentenced to federal prison. (A third pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.) “He managed to soothe and counsel the volatile Mr. Christie, a Trump ally,” the Times reported.

Christie told the Bergen Record last week that the president “certainly would not be making a mistake” if he tapped Wray to lead the FBI. “I have the utmost confidence in Chris. He’s an outstanding lawyer. He has absolute integrity and honesty,” Christie said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (whom Trump is apparently not happy with these days) also highlighted Wray’s “integrity” in a statement that concluded, “We have found our man.”

Wray has a connection to another controversial figure for Trump: Sally Yates. CNN noted that Wray signed a 2015 letter to the Senate judiciary committee from partners at his law firm endorsing Sally Yates’ nomination as deputy attorney general for her “extraordinary legal skill and judgment.” Trump fired Yates and accused her of “betrayal” because she would not carry out his travel ban.

While Wray investigated white collar crime while at Justice, CNN noted that since joining the private sector, he “has represented a slew of Fortune 100 companies that have been the subject of state and federal investigations.” He currently chairs King & Spalding’s Special Matters and Government Investigations Practice Group, according to CNN.

Both the Times and CNN reported on Wray’s contributions to political campaigns. The Times prefaced the disclosure by saying Wray “is not known as a partisan,” though his donations have been to Republican candidates, including $2,300 to John McCain in 2008 and $7,500 to Mitt Romney in 2012. He did not make any donations to presidential campaigns in 2016, according to the Times, which calculated a total of $35,000 in donations to Republican candidates and committees over the past decade. CNN totaled $53,350 in donations in the same time period, including to his law firm’s political action committee and the National Republican Senatorial committee in 2016.

While detractors are highlighting Wray’s work for Christie, his competitors for the post as FBI director have been quick to praise him. Former assistant attorney general Alice Fisher, who followed in Wray’s footsteps at the criminal division and was under consideration by Trump to lead the Bureau, told CNN and the Times Wray is a “wonderful choice… who cares deeply about the institution.” Notably, in light of recent reports about Trump’s tumultuous leadership, Fisher told CNN that Wray “will provide even-keeled leadership.”

For those wondering about Wray’s thoughts on the position, the most interesting tidbits come in his own words, as reported by Graff in Wired. According to Graff, Wray once told him the ideal FBI director “is tough but fair and unfailingly honest,”  and that the position of FBI director “has got to be one of the toughest jobs in government. There aren’t too many humans who could ride out that kind of stress and punishment and not let it get them down.”

Further Reading:

Donald Trump As Bad Contractor

Most people who have lived through a renovation know the hallmark of a bad contractor. Those renovation survivors probably bristle at the words “two weeks.” Your completely gutted kitchen? It’ll be ready in two weeks. The nursery for your child due in a month? Two weeks, tops. The roof of the house you’re waiting to move into? Definitely done in two weeks, no sweat.

A good rule of thumb to remember, for those who have managed to escape this experience: it’s never, ever two weeks.

Bear that in mind as you read Toluse Olorunnipa’s Bloomberg Politics story, “In Trump’s White House, Everything’s Coming in ‘Two Weeks.’” Olorunnipa chronicles the many occasions on which President Donald Trump has vowed to deliver on a promise, projected a two-week deadline and missed it by a mile (or by 11 weeks, or 15 weeks), and smartly places the tactic in context using Trump’s own words from his book, The Art of the Deal.

Read the story