Uneasy Chaos

Normally, I’m of the “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session” school of thought.  Because I think the politicos typically just mess things up for the rest of us — whatever their stated or unstated intentions — I normally don’t mind if Congress is thrashing around and not really doing much of anything.

But when the White House seems to be the scene of constant chaos, it’s a different story.  In our modern government, so much power and decision-making has devolved upon the Presidency, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, that the perception of competency, stability, reasoned judgment, and careful analysis in the Oval Office and the West Wing is essential.  In short, we want our allies and our enemies alike to believe that the President and his Administration know what they are doing and have developed and are pursuing a coherent policy, and that those allies and enemies should toe the line with that policy or there will be consequences.

161203153317-john-kelly-donald-trump-super-teaseThat’s why the apparently unending disorder in the Trump White House is disturbing.  We’re not even a year into President Trump’s first year in office, and we’ve already seen the departure of his chief of staff and press secretary and now the firing of a communications director who hadn’t even been on the job for two weeks.  I’m not arguing that Anthony Scaramucci shouldn’t have been fired — in reality, he seemed to be so completely ill-suited to serve in that position that you wonder how he was hired in the first place.  But with the constant uproar, the unnecessary and off-message tweets from the President himself, the many personnel changes, the flood of disabling leaks, and the evident turmoil between and among the President’s most senior advisers, you really wonder whether the important things are getting done — and, more fundamentally, what kind of message is being sent about the United States to the world at large.  Does it embolden North Korea and other rogue nation-states to engage in even more adventurous behavior if they think the White House is the scene of bedlam?

So President Trump has turned to a new chief of staff, retired general and former homeland security chief John Kelly, to try to restore some order in the White House, and Kelly’s first act apparently was to show Scaramucci the door.  Now he’ll try to establish some order, stop the constant barrage of leaks, ensure consistent messaging, and maybe, just maybe, rein in some of the counterproductive tweeting activity by POTUS, too.

It’s a big job, but you don’t get to be a general in the U.S. Marine Corps without having some significant leadership and managerial skills, so maybe Kelly will be up to the task — if he can stay in the position long enough to actually have an impact.  I’m no fan of Trump or his Administration, but for the good of the country let’s hope Kelly can make a difference.  The current state of apparent chaos needs to end.

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Permanent Protest

  
When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. in the early ’80s, a “Ban the Bomb” protestor camped in Lafayette Square Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.  His protest area featured a number of hand-lettered signs about the perils of nuclear weapons that featured photos of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In those days of the Reagan Administration, nuclear weapons were a big issue: some American communities were declaring themselves “nuclear-free zones,” as if municipal ordinances could repel nuclear warheads, and President Reagan was accused of being a dangerous war-mongerer.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the United States and the Soviet Union talked about eliminating their nuclear stockpiles, and the worries about Mutually Assured Destruction and “duck and cover” seemed to be quaint issues that were behind us.

But, 35 years later, the “Ban the Bomb” protest is still there in Lafayette Park, with its little encampment and crude signage.  And the nuclear issue, unfortunately, is still with us, too — except now the concerns aren’t about the Soviets, but about Iran, and North Korea, and ISIS, and rogue terrorist groups using nuclear weapons to advance their inexplicable political and religious agendas.  Nuclear weapons are back on the front page, and the issue seems to have curdled and gotten worse, and more dangerous than ever.  

Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the protest area, though.  Maybe we should.

Misreading Our Mood

We’re less than a month away from the election — the latest in a string of elections that liberals and conservatives alike want us to treat as the most important election in modern history! — and I wonder how well our political classes even understand the average voter.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times about how an increasingly unpopular President Obama has been “benched” by his party capsulized the issue for me.  The article says that the President hopes, once again, to “pivot” to the economy and give a series of speeches about jobs initiatives and a “clean energy economy,” but his advisers are frustrated because the American people are worried, instead, about a possible Ebola outbreak and the terrorist threat posed by ISIS.  One of the operatives said:  “When people are jumping a fence at the White House and Ebola is in Dallas it’s hard to get a message through.”

No kidding!

And therein lies the problem.  The political types dream of rolling out more wishful policy proposals in grand speeches; they treat real-world problems like Ebola, ISIS, and porous borders as irritants that serve only to distract from the more crucial policymaking process.  The American people, on the other hand, see Ebola, ISIS, and White House security as precisely what the federal government should focus on as its most important priorities.

Epidemics and terrorism are beyond the control of the Average American; they are the big, scary problems that only the government is equipped to handle.  When the big problems arise, we want to hear from clipped, hyper-competent people who have developed careful plans to tackle the problem — not expessions of regret that the deadly plague and the beheadings are preventing politicians from talking about the latest solar energy initiative.

The Times article plays into an important undercurrent in our society.  We know that the governmental types are eager to tell us what to eat, drink, and think.  They want us to accept their assurances that Ebola will never make it to our shores, and then when a man infected with Ebola somehow arrives in Dallas they expect us to believe new assurances that things are nevertheless under control.  Not surprisingly, such statements are greeted with increasing skepticism — and when articles indicate that the President and the politicos are straining at the leash to put Ebola and ISIS behind them and move on to debate about a “clean energy economy,” the skepticism grows, and grows, and grows.  In that context, why should we view statements that Ebola or ISIS are under control as anything other than a convenient effort to sweep the big, scary, problems under the rug so the policymaking games can be played?

It’s not unreasonable for us to want or demand a federal government that understands that the big, scary problems are its most important job, not some mere distraction.  How many voters will enter the voting booths next month with that thought in mind?

The Country That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Sometimes you have to wonder how this country once managed to put a man on the Moon.  Often it seems like we just can’t seem to do anything right anymore, and our formerly hyper-competent and capable nation is now just a shadow of its former self.

The latest evidence is the developing story about the intruder who leapt a fence and sprinted into the White House.  We already knew that the Secret Service somehow failed to unleash a dog that would have knocked down the intruder and left the front door to the White House inexplicably unlocked.  Now the Washington Post is reporting that the intruder, who was carrying a knife, made it much farther into the White House than was originally disclosed.  He apparently overpowered an unaware Secret Service agent inside the front door — the agent wasn’t warned because alarm boxes nearby had been “muted” because they were too noisy — and then ran around the lower floor of the Executive Mansion.  Fortunately, the First Family wasn’t there, and the intruder was subdued.

This kind of appalling incompetence would be comical if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.  Of course, alarms are supposed to be noisy — their sole purpose is to unmistakably alert people to a problem.  Whoever approved their “muting” and stripped away an important part of the President’s protection should be fired.  Even worse, in this one incident we see a cascade of failures by the Secret Service — which has one of the most important jobs in the federal government and at one time was held in high esteem.  Now these revelations, following on the heels of scandals involving boozy high-jinks with prostitutes, make the Secret Service seem inept, badly managed, and poorly trained.

In one of the seasons of The Wire, a Baltimore longshoresman who was wrapped up in a smuggling scheme wistfully said, to a friend, something along the lines of:  “This country used to make things once.”  I’d amend that to say, “this country used to be able to do things once.”  Now we can’t even maintain security alarms, use guard dogs, and keep a disturbed man from entering one of the highest security places in the country.  It’s sad.

Protecting The President’s House

How did a man manage to scale a fence and actually enter the White House before being apprehended?  Basically, by the government not paying sufficient attention to the need to protect the President, his family, and the White House itself from a basic physical intrusion.

Omar Gonzalez climbed the fence surrounding the White House, raced across 70 yards of lawn, and entered the building through the North Portico entrance — which, amazingly, was unlocked.  Because he did not appear to be armed, he was not shot, nor did the Secret Service release a dog trained to knock down intruders.  However, Gonzalez in fact was carrying a 3 1/2-inch knife.  Fortunately, the President and his family had left the White House minutes before.  We now are learning that Gonzalez, a former veteran, possessed lots of ammunition, as well as a machete, a hatchet, and other weapons in his car.

White House fence-jumpers are not unusual, and the Washington Post reports that a Secret Service study showed that the White House is vulnerable to attack by multiple people climbing the fence at the same time.  The Post also notes that there are “severe staffing shortages” and high turnover in the force charged with White House security.  Due to budgetary concerns the Secret Service decided not to fully staff the division in charge of White House grounds, to cancel Secret Service Academy training classes, and to not pay agents overtime.  The Post article quotes a Secret Service spokesman as saying:  “There is not an endless amount of money. We can’t do the hiring, and that’s the decision that was made.”

Seriously?  The federal government has spent money like a drunken sailor for years, running up enormous budget deficits, and we can’t afford to fully staff the agency charged with keeping the President and his family safe?  Here’s a suggestion:  take whatever money is spent producing and broadcasting useless “Click It or Ticket” commercials and use it to hire, train, and properly pay Secret Service agents.  And while you’re at it, let’s get an additional dog or two and use them the next time a guy jumps the White House fence.

The Secret Service used to be viewed as an elite agency, but its reputation has taken a beating in recent years, with people not on the guest list crashing White House dinners, scandals about liquored-up agents consorting with prostitutes, and now an inexcusable breach of security by the most low-tech attack imaginable.  Someone in the federal government needs to get our priorities straight and realize that protecting the President is of paramount importance.  Budgetary concerns shouldn’t be part of the equation.

The Pitfalls Of Advocating Healthy Eating

Michelle Obama has been a fervent advocate of healthier eating. She’s planted a White House garden and raves about the value of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Now it appears that her advocacy has come at a cost. The White House executive pastry chef, Bill Yosses, has resigned his position. Yosses was hired by former First Lady Laura Bush, and when Mrs. Obama took the reins she asked him to prepare healthier treats in smaller portions. He accommodated Mrs. Obama’s wishes by using substitutes like fruit puree for butter and honey and agave for sugar, but now he’s made the “bittersweet decision” to leave. “I don’t want to demonize cream, butter, sugar and eggs,” he says. Mrs. Obama graciously accepted his resignation, saying it was “incredibly sad” to see him go.

The First Lady gets to make the rules, and I’m sure the White House will have no trouble in finding a new, highly skilled pastry chef who welcomes the challenges of blending healthy eating concepts with tasty pastry concoctions. Still, I think about being a lucky visitor who has the once-in-a-lifetime chance to eat at the White House. Would I want to cap off my special meal with a slice of a sumptuous, beautiful butter-and-cream cake, or an agave-based flan? I think I’d want the former.

Raffoolishness

Our election campaigns are so awash in cash and our politicians are so trained to engage in incessant, mindless fundraising that seemingly nothing is off-limits, no matter how silly or classless.

Witness President Obama’s recent videotaped message offering his supporters a chance to participate in a raffle for a chance to have dinner with the President and Vice President Biden.  The message, which was filmed somewhere in the White House and emailed to millions of people, was accompanied by a form offering supporters the chance to check boxes making donations of between $5 and $700 for a chance to win the dinner.

There are arguments about whether or not the raffle constitutes “fundraising,” and if so whether the appeal was improper because it was filmed in the White House.  I don’t know enough about campaign finance law to opine on such issues, but I do feel strongly that the appeal cheapens both the Office of the Presidency and the White House.  Our President’s time should not be raffled off like it is a weekend at a Hilton Head condo or a hot air balloon ride.  And although other Presidents apparently have used the White House, to varying degrees, for fundraising purposes, can’t we all agree that one of the most historic and venerated buildings in the land should not be used like a cheap backdrop in the eternal quest for cash?

The amount of money raised in political campaign is obscene.  Candidates from both parties don’t seem to have trouble raising money by giving speeches, attending political dinners, and appearing at standard-issue fundraisers.  President Obama’s 2012 campaign fundraising goal is somewhere above $750 million, and some are saying he will raise $1 billion.  Given his proven ability to raise huge amounts of money the old-fashioned way, why must we stoop to tawdry raffles and similar fundraising gimmicks that make our President look foolish?