No. 9 (Bad) Dream

The Republican presidential candidates had their ninth debate last night, in Greenville, South Carolina.  It was a train wreck.

Donald Trump dominated because he was willing to be even more rude and bombastic and bizarre than he has even been before.  He was like Trump, squared.  With his florid face neatly matching the red backdrop, Trump routinely interrupted and talked over other candidates, called people liars, made sophomoric snide remarks, and actually voiced the paranoid theory that the administration of George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to engineer the Iraq War.  Trump’s inability to give any specifics on what he would do to deal with any policy issue — other than hire “top men,” build a wall, and engage in trade wars — was more exposed than it has ever been before.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in GreenvilleI wonder when, or whether, Trump voters will awaken from their dream and realize that this ill-mannered, poorly informed, red-faced yeller is not suited to be our President and represent our nation in communicating with foreign leaders.  Last night Trump displayed, over and over again, a temperament that is unfit for high office, but his supporters have given his antics a pass before.  Perhaps the best evidence of how angry and marginalized Trump voters are is that they are willing to support Trump even after he obviously embarrasses himself.

Among the rest of the candidates there was a whiff of desperation in the air.  Campaign money has been spent down, and candidates feel that now is the time to step out and make their mark.  After South Carolina the field is likely to be winnowed further, and the logical person to go is Dr. Ben Carson, who really should have been winnowed out already. Carson is more well-mannered than Trump — of course, a caveman would be more well-mannered than Trump — but he appears to have only a tenuous grasp on some issues and seems to be wholly ill-suited, by training and knowledge, to serve as President.

I thought Marco Rubio won last night’s bad dream of a debate, by staying above the fray on the Trump sniping and giving thoughtful, cogent answers to a number of questions.  I thought the brouhaha about Rubio repeating himself in the last debate was overblown by the media — every politician up there repeats the same lines, routinely — but in any case last night’s performance should lay to rest the silly notion that Rubio is some programmed robot.  I thought Ted Cruz fared poorly, and Jeb Bush and John Kasich had their moments.  Kasich is still trying to follow the “Kasich lane” and is relentlessly staying on message as the positive candidate, while occasionally throwing in classic Midwestern phrases like “jeez o pete” and “dollars to doughnuts.”  It’s not clear whether that will sell south of the Mason-Dixon line, but Kasich has, at least, been very effective in staking out his own, unique persona among the remaining candidates.

We get to take a break until the next debate, which will be held on February 25 in Houston, Texas.  That’s good, because we need one.

The Justice Scalia I Knew

The news media is reporting that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today, apparently of natural causes, at age 79.

Justice Scalia served on the Court for 30 years.  He was a staunch conservative, and as a result he was the subject of lots of controversy and attention — as is seemingly every member of the Court, from one end of the political spectrum or the other, in these days when the Supreme Court and politics are more intertwined than ever.

960I want to write about Justice Scalia for a moment, however, because he was one of two members of the Supreme Court I met personally.  (His friend and colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the other.)

I met Justice Scalia before he reached the high court, when he was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  In those days, 30 years ago, trying to achieve a balanced budget was a big political issue, and Congress had passed a law called the Gramm-Rudman Act that provided that, if Congress couldn’t meet certain budget targets, automatic spending cuts would be imposed by the comptroller general.  The law was immediately challenged in court on a number of constitutional grounds, including separation of powers, and the judge that I was clerking for, Senior United States District Judge Oliver Gasch, got the case by random draw.  In those days, such constitutional challenges to federal statutes could be heard by a three-judge court — comprised of the original judge, a court of appeals judge, and a second district court judge — and then be subject to immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Judge Scalia was the appellate court judge, and Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was the other district court judge on the panel.

The panel members and their clerks met regularly to discuss the case before the decision was announced, which is how I met Justice Scalia and got to work with him briefly.  Judge Gasch knew him, called him “Nino,” and liked him very much — so much so that my Judge gave some of his treasured cigars to Judge Scalia.  I came to like Judge Scalia, too.  He was witty and engaging and nice to the clerks working on the case, which could not be said of all of the judges serving on the district court and court of appeals at that time.  He had a fantastic sense of humor and told a pretty good joke.  He also was obviously a brilliant mind, which made working with him, when you knew his keen intellect would be reviewing your work product, a nerve-wracking experience for a new lawyer just out of law school.  Justice Scalia, though, was gracious, and his attitude made working with him a real pleasure.  He used his brilliance affirmatively, to bring out the best work from others, rather than negatively, as a cudgel or means of silencing contrary views.

The Gramm-Rudman case ended with our three-judge court unanimously voting to strike down the law, everyone went back to their respective chambers, and my brief exposure to Judge Scalia ended.  Within a short period the Supreme Court affirmed the panel decision and Judge Scalia himself was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court — which was where his sharp legal mind really belonged — and confirmed.

I knew him only for a short time, but that limited experience left a very strong and positive impression on me, and I thank him for that.  Whatever people might say about his jurisprudence, I know from personal experience that he was a good man.  Condolences to his family and friends.

Cold Rage

IMG_0461Today Columbus is having one of those brutal days, when the temperature is in the single digits and a hard, cold wind strikes you like a fist.  So when I walked home from work this afternoon, I was surprised to see a vigorous protest on the Broad Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse, with still other protestors marching on the sidewalks circling Statehouse square.  The group of bundled-up protestors — men, mostly, from what I could see — were waving Don’t Tread on Me, Confederate, “III,” and American flags, handing out leaflets, and chanting at the behest of a guy holding a bullhorn.

What were they protesting?  Just about everything.  One handout had the Declaration of Independence on one side and the Bill of Rights on the other, and another encourages people to contribute to the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop,” which is described as “a multi-state effort to collect and deliver much-needed water to the residents of Flint, Michigan.”  One sign said “We Demand Justice” for the man shot by the authorities in connection with the Oregon public land protests.  The “III” flag is called the Nyberg three percent flag (purportedly because only three percent of the colonists fought the British during the American Revolutionary War) and apparently is a favorite of people who hold anti-government, anti-gun control views.   And when a city bus rolled up, the guy with the bullhorn started bellowing:  “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” — which is a chant used by the protestors against the police in Ferguson, Missouri.

IMG_0464There was a lot going on at this protest, a heady mix of what might be viewed as some liberal and some conservative issues that had energized this group, but the overall message was clear:  these guys were furious.  Angry enough to come out to the center of downtown Columbus on an appallingly cold day to vent their spleens in a public forum.  Incensed about the government that they think has let them down and failed the people.  Outraged that the people of Flint, Michigan can’t get safe drinking water and willing to organize their own, people-driven effort to help the people of Flint even when the local, state, and federal government seem to be unable to do so.  To these folks, Flint is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, it’s an issue of basic governmental functioning and competence.  If a government can’t be trusted to do the basics like provide drinking water that doesn’t poison its own citizens, then what good is it, and what are all those taxes we pay being used for?

Many pundits wonder what is driving people to support “anti-establishment” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  I think a lot of it is anger, like the rage that motivated the cold protestors in front of the Ohio Statehouse today.  It’s not political parties that have spurred them on, it’s their own perception of a country in a downward spiral.  They’re not going to put up with the direction in which they think their country is heading, and if the government isn’t going to recognize the problems and change of its own accord, then they’re just going to have to change the government.

The last two lines of the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop” leaflet read:  “We the People are uniting to assist and support communities in need.  No matter your race, religion, group or political affiliation, we all must come together.”  It’s really not hard to see how angry people at all points on the political spectrum might unite behind that kind of message.

Getting Down And Dirty

The New York Times carried an interesting article recently about how the “dirt cure” can make children healthier.  The theme of the article, which featured an interview with pediatric neurologist and author Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, is that children are better protected against illness and infection if they are routinely exposed to dirt — by eating natural, non-processed foods and by playing outside, with hands and knees on the soil.

2501c9ff68b8ed08549c745f9bddd4c0In the article, Dr. Shetreat-Klein relayed two fascinating things about dirt.  First, in one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet.  (That sounds impossible, but it’s one of those factoids that is often cited in articles about soil.) Second, soil is home to about 25 percent of Earth’s biodiversity — in the form of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microbes, and microarthropods.  There’s a lot going on below our feet that we never even think about.

Studies show that kids who play outside tend to be healthier, do better on standardized tests, have lower cortisol levels, which means they’re calmer and less stressed, and be more creative.  Dr. Shetreat-Klein thinks all of those attributes might be related to exposure to the teeming population underground.

I can’t speak to the science of it, but I suspect that Dr. Shetreat-Klein is right . . . and that there’s an additional reason for the results reported in those studies, which is that playing outside is just a lot of fun.  Of course kids who get away from their houses and play with their friends outside, explore a wooded area, build a dam in a stream, and turn over rocks just to see if there’s anything underneath are going to have stronger immune systems, because of what they’re exposed to, but they’re also going to be more curious, more self-reliant, and more willing to take risks because that’s what playing outside is all about.

Our mother used to groan when UJ and I came home with faces streaked with dust and shoes caked with mud, carrying caterpillars or crayfish or a captured garter snake or a big, weirdly shaped toadstool that we and our neighborhood friends found in the woods that encircled our houses, but I think it did us a lot of good in a lot of ways.

The Sad State Of Freedom Of The Press On Campus

Most college campuses have student-run newspapers.  At some schools, like Ohio State with the Lantern, the newspapers are “laboratory” publications, where students receive course credit and training as they perform different positions; at other schools, the newspaper is an extracurricular activity.  But in either case, the student newspapers are, in fact, newspapers, and are protected by the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, that protection seems to be eroding.

bradley_hallThe latest example has occurred at Mount St. Mary’s University, a small school in Maryland where the newspaper is called The Mountain Echo.  Two enterprising students reported that the  school was considering a new proposal to shore up its student retention numbers, and thereby improve its U.S. News and World Report rankings, by looking to get rid of struggling freshman students.  An even bigger scoop was that the University president, Simon Newman, was quoted as using a bizarre and disturbing metaphor to try to convince a professor about the merit of the program.  Newman was quoted as saying:  “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies,” and later stating: “Put a Glock to their heads.”

By all accounts, the story was good, solid reporting, with the quotes attributed to the University president confirmed by two professors who witnessed the conversation.  And the University president doesn’t seem to be denying that he said what he was quoted as saying — he apologized for his choice of words and explained that he was just trying to help struggling students at risk of failing avoid racking up a lot of student loan debt.

So how did Mount St. Mary’s respond to the blockbuster story in The Mountain Echo?  Amazingly, by firing the newspaper’s faculty adviser, Ed Egan.  The chairman of the school’s board suggested Egan had manipulated the student reporters into presenting the retention program negatively — a charge the student reporters themselves deny — and that he should have framed the story to focus more on the merits of the retention proposal than on the University president’s stupid comments about drowning bunnies.

The students on the newspaper were appalled that Egan was fired.  Ryan Golden, the managing editor of the paper and one of the two students to break the story, was quoted as saying:  “He’s really a good mentor for a lot of students at this school. He absolutely encouraged us to pursue journalistic integrity, absolutely encouraged us to be ethical, to be fair, to be thorough, to be objective and to do the best work that we could.”  Mr. Egan sounds like Tom Wilson, who was the faculty adviser of the Ohio State Lantern when I worked there in the ’70s.  Mr. Wilson was an old school newspaperman who cared only about the story — and let the chips fall where they may.  He was a great teacher.

Things have changed a lot on college campuses since the ’70s, and in some ways not for the better.  Many colleges seem to have become hotbeds of political correctness, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are under assault on a daily basis.  In any rational universe, students who broke a story about a college president’s weird and ill-advised comparison of struggling students to bunnies that need to be drowned would be congratulated for exposing that fact, and the president would face the music for saying something so ridiculously stupid.  Instead, in our world, the newspaper faculty adviser gets terminated, and a chilling, anti-free speech and anti-free press message gets sent.

On too many college campuses these days, we are just heading in the wrong direction.

“Top Men”

Whenever I hear a speech by Donald Trump these days, I hear the same refrain.  Every problem will be solved by getting the best business people to work on it — to build a wall, to negotiate trade deals, etc., etc., etc.  We heard this again in The Donald’s victory speech in New Hampshire last night.  Of course, those stud managers and negotiators who are going to save the country and let us “win again” never get named.

It reminds me of one of the last scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, after Indy has recovered the Lost Ark of the Covenant, turned it over to the U.S. government, and learned to his dismay that he’s not going to be able to study it.  Who is going to study this object of unimaginable power?  The tubby, pipe-smoking government bureaucrat simply responds, with smug assurance:  “Top men.”  Of course, the Ark ends up boxed into a crate and carted off to some anonymous shelf in a seemingly endless government warehouse.

The next time the Trumpster makes this point, I wish he would just use the phrase “top men.”

Our Unfireable Federal Employees

We know from the recent scandals about the poor care received by our veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs is a poorly administered mess.  Now the VA may be helping to illustrate a deeper problem with our federal bureaucracy — the lack of accountability on the part of federal employees, and the inability to mete out disciplinary action that is a standard part of most regular, non-governmental jobs.

The VA story is about two administrators who were accused of manipulating the agency’s hiring processes.  The VA’s acting inspector general concluded that the two officials forced lower-ranking managers to accept job transfers and then took the vacant positions themselves, keeping their  pay while reducing their responsibilities.  One was accused of using the reassignment to obtain nearly $130,000 through a lucrative government relocation stipend program, while the government paid $274,000 to relocate the other from her position in Washington, D.C. to the job in Philadelphia.

us-deptofveteransaffairs-seal-largeThe VA demoted the two — rather than firing them outright — but the officials appealed the demotions under the federal government’s civil service system.  In both cases, administrative law judges with the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled for the officials, finding that they had not tried to hide their actions from their own supervisors, who had done nothing to stop the actions, and that other VA officials had engaged in similar conduct without being disciplined at all.

In short, the VA is so poorly managed — or so removed from the pressures of normal jobs — that officials looked the other way when employees gamed the system, and the failure to act or discipline those other employees sets a precedent that protects employees who engage in later, similar misconduct.  It’s a topsy-turvy world that would never be tolerated in a normal business.

The American civil service system was developed in the years after the Civil War to try to shield government jobs and career employees from cronyism and politicization when new Presidents were elected or new Congresses took office.  It was a good idea, but the system has become calcified, and in many instances now serves to protect employees from being held appropriately accountable for their actions.  The VA’s example tells us it’s time to take a fresh look at the civil service system.