Our First “You’re Fired!”

Last night President Trump issued the first high-level “You’re fired!” of his new Administration.  It’s like The Apprentice all over again.

trump-scowlThe person being sacked was Sally Yates, who was serving as acting Attorney General prior to the confirmation of Trump’s selection, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.  An Obama appointee, Yates had issued an order to lawyers in the Justice Department instructing them not to make arguments defending Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration.  Her order to the DOJ lawyers apparently was a unilateral decision, and it clearly wasn’t coordinated with the White House.  When the President learned of it he promptly dismissed Yates through a hand-delivered letter and replaced her with another acting AG, who immediately rescinded Yates’ decree and ordered DOJ lawyers to defend Trump’s immigration order.

In a letter, Yates stated that “[m]y responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”  The letter noted:  “In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” and concluded “[a]t present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”  The White House, for its part, said that Yates was sacked for “refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”

We’re going to be seeing a lot of this, I’m afraid.  Trump is taking actions that are making significant changes and provoking significant opposition.  Yates is of course entitled to her opinion about his immigration order — but I think her appropriate course was not to unilaterally act to thwart the order, but rather to publicly and noisily resign rather than enforce the order.  That’s the course that Attorney General Elliott Richardson took when President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and I think it is the right approach.

As for the President, I think he really had no choice but to fire Yates for her failure to follow the policy set by his Administration.  Trump clearly means to shake things up, and he’s going to encounter resistance in the sprawling federal bureaucracy.  If Trump hadn’t acted in the face of the first act of disobedience, he would have given a green light to the actions of other dissenters within the Executive Branch of the government and undercut his ability to make the changes he thinks voters elected him to make.

People serving in government have a right to their own views, and to act their conscience — but Presidents have a right to expect their policies to be followed and faithfully executed, unless and until other coordinate branches of government act to stop them, through court orders or new laws.  It’s how the checks and balances in our tripartite government is supposed to work.  We should all haul out our Civics textbooks — we’re going to be getting an ongoing refresher course with this new President.

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Immigration Chaos

This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.

ap-immigration-trump-cf-170126_12x5_1600Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration.  Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans.  The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.  (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)

The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned.  Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans?  First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t.  In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long.  It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.

All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes.  And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.

It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would.  But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration.  We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt.  It’s time that Congress started to do its job.

Sunday Sour Savor

It’s been a busy weekend, but now the chores are done, the groceries have been put away, and the car is refueled.  With a good book to enjoy — Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, a terrific collection of short stories inspired by the world’s first, and forever foremost, consulting detective — and only a few idle hours remaining before the work week begins again, it’s time to lean back and crack open a sour.  Today, it’s a Farmer’s Reserve Nectarine brewed by the Almanac Beer Company in Northern California.  Try it before California secedes from the Union and import duties make it crushingly expensive.  It’s light and tart and very fine, indeed.  (Thanks, Emily!)

Sunday afternoons are to be savored, even in a crazy world.

Crossword Morning

It’s another grey winter day in Columbus.  I woke up early and started puttering around the house.  I picked up the German Village Gazette, our local weekly newspaper, saw it included the New York Times Magazine crossword, and thought: this is a perfect day to tackle a crossword puzzle.

I used to do crosswords from time to time — often on planes, if the people who sat in the seat before me hadn’t already marked up the in-flight magazine in the seat pocket — but it’s been years since I’ve dusted off the mental thesaurus and given it a go.  In the Webner clan, however, crosswords are a long and storied tradition.  Dad was a big crossword fan, always doing them with a back felt-tipped pen, and Aunt Corinne is an ace.  She would particularly like this one, because the unifying theme is grammar, and that’s her bread and butter.

If you haven’t done a crossword in a while, getting the knack again takes some time, but I got a few words and acronyms at the bottom of the puzzle, and it started to come easier.  Once I figured out the puns for the theme — i.e., “Santa’s nieces and nephews” = “relative clauses” — it came easier, and an enjoyable hour later I was done, and set my pen down with satisfaction.

The experts say crosswords and other mental puzzles help to keep the brain synapses sharp, and I think it’s true.  There’s a strong pun element to crosswords, of course, but the clues also often make you think of the world and the words in a different, slightly off-kilter way.  A three-letter word for “Bull’s urging”?  Red, perhaps?  Nope!  It’s a Wall Street “bull” that we’re supposed to think of, and the correct answer is “buy.”

Sometimes, thinking of things in a different way is a useful exercise.

Mission:  Seraglio

Last night I got one of my Christmas presents when Kish and I attended Opera Columbus’ Mission:  Seraglio.  Opera tickets were one of my stocking stuffers.

The timing was excellent for another reason.  Mission:  Seraglio is a reimagining of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, and yesterday just happened to be Mozart’s birthday.  The wily Wolfie, were he still among us, would have been 261 yesterday.

Opera Columbus’ production features all of the same beautiful music, but the setting and dialogue of the opera are transformed into a ’60s James Bond caper with a dashing spy, an archvillain apparently bent on world domination of a sort, and “Bond women” galore.  The modifications turn Seraglio into an outright comic romp, from the point at the outset when a tiny doll figure parachutes through the Southern Theatre, to the suggestive rearrangement of topiary plants by a sex-obsessed gardener, to a clever use of the lyric translation display, to the finale where one of the characters is securely wrapped in a straitjacket and hauled away.  The sets are great and the new dialogue is clever and occasionally laugh out loud funny.  And, while the characters clearly enjoyed their light-hearted trip down James Bond Lane, they also did justice to the lovely, often passionate songs that Mozart created.  I think he would have approved.

Mission:  Seraglio shows that opera is a vibrant, flexible art form where there is still lots of room for creativity, even for a work that was written more than 230 years ago.  It’s another job well done by Opera Columbus, and you can still see it at the Southern this weekend.

Smug And Annoying

There’s nothing more annoying than an annoying commercial pitchman.

That’s why I’m grinding my teeth at the commercial TV reappearance of the former Verizon “can you hear me now” guy — this time as a spokesman for Sprint.

0c9df173f01d6b91-822x512I didn’t particularly like the guy during his first 15 minutes of fame, because the constant “can you hear me now” questions became incredibly irritating.  But at least in that incarnation he was a uniformed blue-collar guy, apparently an engineer type, out there in the hinterlands, hiking around in remote areas and personally testing the geographic range of the Verizon network.  He was a working man just doing his job.  You got what he was doing and the message he was sending, and it made his irritating catch phrase a bit more bearable.

But he apparently lost the blue-collar, working man identity when he switched sides, and now he’s just a smug wise guy walking down the street and drinking lattes in a Christmas tree lot, trying to tell you that you’re a colossal idiot if you still use Verizon rather than paying less with Sprint.  And all the while, he’s got this insufferable I’m smarter-than-you smirk on his face — probably because his dormant commercial career has been resurrected due to his willingness to switch sides in the ever-present cell phone wars, and he’s now getting paid a boatload of cash that he wouldn’t be making otherwise.  His commercials are as unlikeable as the historically obnoxious “Jake from State Farm” ad.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I normally wouldn’t take the unsolicited advice of some know-it-all buttinsky, on the street or in a Christmas tree lot, and I don’t exactly trust the lectures of people who’ve peddled their opinions to the company that pays the most cash. Wouldn’t you like to know whether this cell phone Benedict Arnold is moving the needle on Sprint subscriptions?  I’m betting that his ad campaign is a flop.

Goodbye, Mary

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death this week of Mary Tyler Moore, at age 80.  She was a television icon and, through The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an inspiration to a generation of young women who saw, through her example, that living and working as a single woman in a big city was a viable alternative to more traditional paths.

It’s not a coincidence that Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of the very best situation comedies the small screen has ever produced.  I loved her as Laura Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show; she was talented and funny and a perfect foil for Van Dyke’s classic brand of physical and facial comedy.  (“Oh, Rob!”)  But The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also a lasting, brilliant contribution to the medium of television, with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled and some of the greatest comedy writing as well.

In my view, the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is arguably the funniest single episode of any network sitcom in the history of television, period, and its final scene, shown above, demonstrates Mary Tyler Moore’s enormous range as a comedic actor.  For those who haven’t seen the episode, a local TV personality named Chuckles the Clown is killed in a mishap — dressed as his character Peter Peanut, he is brutally shelled by a rogue elephant — and for most of the episode the characters make jokes about Chuckles’ demise while Mary Richards, the soul of rectitude, is offended by their cavalier attitude about Chuckles’ death.  In this final scene, though, Mary just can’t hold it in any longer, and the result is one of the great turns by any TV actor, anywhere.

Mary Tyler Moore was one of the giants.  She will be missed.