We’re excited to announce that journalist Garrett M. Graff is joining Longreads as a contributing writer covering border security and immigration, federal law enforcement, and the mechanics of how government works. Read more…
When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)
It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.
Michelle Legro | Longreads | April 2017 | 7 minutes (1,773 words)
Day 100 is a Saturday, which is good because Donald Trump should probably get some rest. Saturdays are usually fairly easy for the president—he took the first one off right after his own inauguration—a day he can kick back and enjoy some quality time with a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago.
The Trump Administration introduced the American people to a new kind of time, one that moves with a glacial tick of the clock, but with the drama of a high school lunch period. To look back on the early days—yes, that was three months ago—is to find reporters breathlessly navigating the events of a single day in a flurry of tweets, with little time for a proper write-up before the next dramatic turn of events. We found ourselves asking what the fuck just happened today? as it became harder and harder to remember what happened an hour ago, let alone a day. However, it quickly became clear that journalists were digging in for the long fight. And while the best reporting has often been short, spry, and effective in these first crucial days, these were some of the longreads that stood out.
Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.
Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.
Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?
Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.
Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.
Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.
It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.
First Annual Report / National Endowment for the Arts / 1966 / 9 minutes (2,200 words)
With the signing of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act on September 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson completed the vision supported by John F. Kennedy for a federal council for the arts. The Trump Administration’s newly proposed budget would eliminate the program entirely. Here is an excerpt from the NEA’s First Annual Report from 1966.
Immigration lawyer Matt Cameron writes in The Baffler, laying bare the inequities, misconceptions, and plain old messiness that characterize U.S. immigration law. It’s getting more attention under the new Trump administration but as Cameron takes pains to explain, immigration policy has been a disaster in the making for years.
“Immigration policy,” President Kennedy wrote, “should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” LOL, JFK.
Our current immigration system is far from generous, fair, or flexible, and every branch of government is culpable. There are entire pages of our immigration statutes that read as though they were drafted by congressional interns, using nothing more than a dartboard for their research. And the demagogic cast of our immigration policy debates has provided them with no incentive to do better. Executive orders, policy memos, and implementing regulations come and go with each election, and maddeningly disparate holdings from federal courts around the country, currently overseen by a deadlocked Supreme Court, preclude any realistic possibility of a coherent interpretation of the laws.
In The New York Times Magazine, Jeanne Marie Laskas goes behind the scenes in the White House mailroom where “50 staff members, 36 interns, and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers” read and processed the 10,000 emails and letters President Barack Obama received daily during his eight-year presidency. From the 10,000 pieces of correspondence, staffers were charged with choosing the ten letters that Obama read each day.
President Obama was the first to come up with a deliberate and explicit practice of 10 letters every day. If the president was home at the White House (he did not tend to mail when he traveled), he would be reading constituent mail, and everyone knew it, and systems were put in place to make sure it happened. The mail had currency. Some staff members called it “the letter underground.” Starting in 2010, all hard mail would be scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every email every day would be used to create a word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at what everyday Americans were writing in to say.
Curating the 10LADs was a job she regarded as sacrosanct. She thought of it as a daily conversation with the president, each package an array of voices she believed most accurately rendered America’s mood: Here’s what America is feeling, Mr. President. “Sometimes I think of it as a tray passing under a door,” she said.
As I described in the Making of Ferguson, the federal government maintained a policy of segregation in public housing nationwide for decades. This was as true in northeastern cities like New York as it was in border cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. In 1994, civil rights groups sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that HUD had segregated its public housing in Baltimore and then, after it had concentrated the poorest African American families in projects in the poorest neighborhoods, HUD and the city of Baltimore demolished the projects, and purposely relocated the former residents into other segregated black neighborhoods. An eventual settlement required the government to provide vouchers to former public housing residents for apartments in integrated neighborhoods, and supported this provision with counseling and social services to ensure that families’ moves to integrated neighborhoods would have a high likelihood of success. Although the program is generally considered a model, it affects only a small number of families, and has not substantially dismantled Baltimore’s black ghetto.
In 1970, declaring that the federal government had established a “white noose” around ghettos in Baltimore and other cities, HUD Secretary George Romney proposed denying federal funds for sewers, water projects, parkland, or redevelopment to all-white suburbs that resisted integration by maintaining exclusionary zoning ordinances (that prohibited multi-unit construction) or by refusing to accept subsidized moderate-income or public low-income housing. In the case of Baltimore County, he withheld a sewer grant that had previously been committed, because of the county’s policies of residential segregation. It was a very controversial move, but Romney got support from Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been frustrated by unreasonable suburban resistance to integration and mixed income developments when he had been the Baltimore County Executive and governor of Maryland. In a 1970 speech to the National Alliance of Businessmen, Agnew attacked attempts to solve the country’s racial problems by pouring money into the inner city as had been done in the Johnson administration. Agnew said that he flatly rejected the assumption that “because the primary problems of race and poverty are found in the ghettos of urban America, the solutions to these problems must also be found there… Resources needed to solve the urban poverty problem—land, money, and jobs—exist in substantial supply in suburban areas, but are not being sufficiently utilized in solving inner-city problems.”
-From Richard Rothstein’s essay at the Economic Policy Institute, examining “a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population. A legacy of these policies is the rioting we have seen in Baltimore.”
After six weeks of training, the women returned to Penn, where they were given poster-size diagrams and charts describing ENIAC. “Somebody gave us a whole stack of blueprints, and these were the wiring diagrams for all the panels, and they said, ‘Here, figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it,’” explained McNulty. That required analyzing the differential equations and then determining how to patch the cables to connect to the correct electronic circuits. “The biggest advantage of learning the ENIAC from the diagrams was that we began to understand what it could and could not do,” said Jennings. “As a result we could diagnose troubles almost down to the individual vacuum tube.” She and Snyder devised a system to figure out which of the 18,000 vacuum tubes had burned out. “Since we knew both the application and the machine, we learned to diagnose troubles as well as, if not better than, the engineers. I tell you, those engineers loved it. They could leave the debugging to us.”
Snyder described making careful diagrams and charts for each new configuration of cables and switches. “What we were doing then was the beginning of a program,” she said, though they did not yet have that word for it.
Photo: U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons