Sunday, February 14, 2021

Agnew and Trump

Another of the books I received for Christmas was Bag Man by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz. I spent some of last week reading it while I was off from work.  It recounts one of the untold stories surrounding the Nixon Presidency in vivid detail, along with some interesting parallels between Spiro Agnew and Donald Trump.

I faintly recall the announcement that Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from his office, the first (and only) vice president to do so.  At the time it seemed a mere side note in comparison with the ongoing Watergate investigation, but Maddow and Yarvitz demonstrate very clearly in this book how inextricably linked the two events were, not necessarily that they reflected two sides of the same crime, but in that the relationship between Nixon and Agnew, the dynamics of why Nixon chose this unknown governor from Maryland to be his running mate and the break in their relationship which followed, explain some of the reasons why Agnew was not indicted for any Watergate crimes and why even Nixon wanted him gone.

History, of course, is an interesting mistress.  Once you decide to study her, to attempt to strip away the allure of the day-to-day description of events as told by those who lived them, it becomes clear that what people say about what happened during an event, and what actually happened, is not so easily determined.  While we all saw the horrible events of January 6th in Washington, the true unvarnished story of what took place, may take a decade to discover.  Sadly, it is often only after a person's departure from this world, that those in the know, those actually present who have been quiet, are free to disclose the real truth about who said what or who did (or didn't) act to intervene.

For Agnew, all most of his supporters knew was that he was an anti-establishment man of the people who said what he thought, sometimes without polish.  He stood for old time values, law and order, apple pie and America.  One of his strongest group of supporters, Republican Women, flocked to his rallies, believed his denials of guilt, joined in the chorus of calling those persecuting him, Democrats, the Justice Department, the press, as enemies of everyday Americans. (No, Trump didn't invent the playbook of attacking our institutions, he just took it to a new level).

And, when the final deal was made to allow Agnew to plead no contest to simple tax evasion, it was agreed to, not because he wasn't guilty of extortion, bribery, and fraud, but because it was presented as best for the country to allow him to resign as soon as possible so that he would not become President, a prospect all too possible given the growing evidence of Nixon's part in Watergate.  Oddly, it was the brief written at the time by the Justice Department, the brief that determined that while a president could not be indicted while in office, a vice president could that played a part in Agnew negotiating the details of his resignation.  It was that brief that led Agnew to stop fighting his indictment, and that became prominently quoted during the Trump Presidency when Robert Mueller used it to justify his decision not to recommend an indictment after his investigation.  It wasn't that Trump wasn't guilty, it was that there was precedent that a sitting President couldn't be indicted, and that precedent emanated from the Agnew investigation.

There is a lot to the book that would make this post far too long, should I choose to try to summarize all the highlights.  One item is Nixon's jealousy that Agnew was so popular, had risen so fast, while Nixon had worked so hard to attain his position juxtaposed with his complete dissatisfaction with Agnew, an unhappiness that resulted to a point where the two did not meet or talk, sometimes for months.  And, which ultimately spared Agnew involvement in Watergate since he had long lost the president's confidence.

What is also incredibly fascinating is what Agnew did after leaving office.  Despite the disgrace of having to resign, he used his previous title without restraint to garner influence and money.  Can you imagine, the only vice president in history to resign and he is still using the prestige of that office to generate income?  Up until recently, I would have guessed that it might never be seen again, but I expect we will be in for a whole new level of shameless use of office by a disgraced public servant from the now twice impeached former president.   

In the end, Bag Man paints Agnew as an immoral, greedy, lying, opportunistic huckster who took full advantage of being in the right place at the right time.  Sound familiar?


Finally, now that Trump has been acquitted by the Senate, it is important to note that never in the history of presidential impeachments, has the sitting president been found guilty of the crimes presented by members of his own party.  Mitt Romney made history in the first impeachment trial when he voted guilty, then he and six others voted to convict Trump in yesterday's trial.  I know Trump and his allies see acquittal as a victory, but 57 to 43 is a significant majority.  Anyone who loses an election by such a majority, 57% to 43% would be hard-pressed to claim some type of victory.  

By comparison, Clinton's impeachment trial was 50-50 for obstruction of justice, and 55-45 for acquittal for perjury.    Five GOP Senators who voted guilty in Clinton's impeachment, among them McConnell, Graham and Grassley, thought that Trump's involvement in an attack on the Capitol during a constitutionally mandated tally of the electoral college votes for which the president lied to his followers in telling them that Pence could alter the tally, was less important than Clinton lying about having sex.  I guess their priorities have changed over the years. At the time, Susan Collins voted not guilty, yet voted guilty in yesterday's voting. Perhaps, unlike Trump, she did learn her lesson.

Also interesting is that some of the GOP Senators who voted to acquit claimed the trial was unconstitutional even though Trump was actually impeached during his term and it was the Senate itself, led by McConnell, which decided to hold the trial after inauguration. Also, to say it was unconstitutional seems a bit odd when the Senate itself voted twice on the very idea of constitutionality of the trial, and both times it was deemed constitutional.  

As for the ridiculous notion that it was close to the end of his term so why impeach now, I guess we should have expected that from a party which used the excuse of it being too close to an election to block Obama's Supreme Court nomination 8 months before the 2016 election, but rushed through Trump's nomination within 10 days of the 2020 election.   

Finally, I never thought I would feel sorry for Mike Pence, the lead enabler of Donald Trump.  But I can only imagine how he felt when he heard the insurrectionists chanting Hang Mike Pence as they stormed the capitol.  That in itself should give anyone pause who believes for one iota that Donald Trump cares about anything or anyone other than himself.  It seems that some of those who violated our democracy last month were actually prepared to die for Trump. I wonder if Mike Pence was, and had he died, would it have mattered to McConnell, Graham, Grassley, Paul, Cruz, Hawley, etc?


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Lessons from the Pandemic

As is tradition, I purchased some books for Nora this Christmas.  One of them was Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria.  I have occasionally watched his weekly show, and saw him on a talk show during which his book was mentioned.  Curiously, Nora must have also found his perspective from that show interesting as she bought me the same book for Christmas which made for a good laugh. (We also each bought for the other an Obama book, but not the same one!)

I recently finished my copy of Ten Lessons.. and found it very interesting.  Zakaria presents some rather complex issues in relatively plain language, but avoids simplistic statements.  He acknowledges what he is unsure of, in terms of what might happen as we emerge from the pandemic, yet also provides well thought out instructions for how we might use the negative aspects of the pandemic to craft a better future.

I can not possibly do the book justice by summarizing it in this post, so I thought I might pique your interest in reading it by listing the ten lessons and then discussing the one I found the most relevant.

Ten Lessons

Buckle Up

What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality

Markets Are Not Enough

People Should Listen to the Experts - and Experts Should Listen to the People'

Life is Digital

Aristotle Was Right - We Are Social Animals

Inequality Will Get Worse

Globalization Is Not Dead

The World Is Becoming Bipolar

Sometimes the Greatest Realists Are the Idealists

While there is much to say about all of these "lessons", I am most drawn to the 2nd one - What matters most is the quantity of government not the quality.

It seems that one of the biggest debates in American politics, at least since the 1980's, has been the size of government.  I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that smaller government is one of the mainstays of the Republican platform along with their call that Big Government equates to Socialism.  On the other hand, while Democrats don't necessarily proscribe to bigger government, we do believe that good government can address many of the problems of our times, which generally leads to a bigger government presence in our daily lives.  

While it may seem obvious, Zakaria illustrates very clearly why both sides are right, and wrong, and that the real question, the real focus of the electorate should not be size but quality.  A small government that does nothing for the people is just as bad as a big government that does nothing for the people. Conversely, a small government that advances opportunity, rewards hard work, acts as referee to prevent rampant inequality, and safeguards the rights and safety of its citizens is just as good as a large government that does the same thing, perhaps better.

One might say that we should seek the best quality of government first, and worry about the size second, but it seems we have been doing just the opposite.  

Zakaria gives poignant examples of how both small and large governments handled the pandemic well, to date, and how both small and large governments have handled it poorly.  In fact, his analysis seems to indicate that size did not matter in the least (sorry ladies), but only competence, clarity in setting priorities, and execution of stated goals with accountability when goals were not met.  Seems pretty straight forward, almost common sense, yet the debate since early last year when the virus was first detected, centered more on who was at fault, when it would disappear, and, to me, the worst false equivalency of them all, how much we should wreck the economy in our battle, as opposed to how can we defeat the virus with the least damage/most economic support for those most effected. And, sadly, how wearing a mask somehow marks one as a sheep, while not wearing one equates to patriotism.

No great problem was ever solved in isolation, yet the current global trend to put one's country first, to circle the wagons and name scapegoats, played out to the detriment of all those souls who died, especially here in America.  Paradoxically, it was the concerted effort of the pharmaceutical companies, on a global scale, that is beginning to bail us out, now that we have a number of efficacious vaccines.  One of the very big drivers of the populist movements, resistance to globalization, exacerbated the spread of the virus, yet it is the globalization of medical knowledge in the area of epidemiology that will make this pandemic far less deadly than the one which ravaged the world 100 year ago.

The real question is when will we alter the debate to focus on quality rather than quantity.  Certainly, it is much easier for the political message which equates size with Socialism to be marketed, not so much when the message is, how do we best involve government in our lives.  For far too many it has become an all or nothing proposition, which is both sad and false, since we accept (and require) government in our lives to reach the ideals to which we aspire.  

It is not that hard to realize that equality may be a God given right, but without a government that values it, that endorses it, that establishes laws to guarantee it, it is not possible to achieve it.  Just look around at all the tyrants, dictators and despots that control, literally, the lives of billions of people, and it seems pretty obvious that we must work together to fashion the best government.  We need to change the paradigm that suggests that no government is best, since history and present day optics tell us that countries without a strong government are violent and/or poverty stricken, just as we need to change the paradigm that advocates for a government solution for all problems, as history also demonstrates that when everything is controlled by the state, there is little place for the innovators and difference makers.

All government programs are not productive, but all government regulations are not intrinsically negative.

Wisdom comes from knowing which ones work, which ones are needed, which ones can be reduced, which ones are not necessary. 

Do we really want to eliminate Social Security, the biggest and costliest "social" program in our government?  Perhaps if people stop living past the age of 70, we could stop taking their money with the promise that when they can't work they will have a basic income to help them live, with less worries, but since we need to make sure those that the average working person who toiled for 50 or more years, can have some sense of security that they will have some choices, some control, over how they spend the last 25% of their lives, we need this safety net.  But, just as important, we need our government to secure that money, make sure it is there, as promised, and not use it as if will magically reappear when needed.  Good government.

Do we really want to allow the business community to self regulate?  Or do we need the nameless and faceless government worker who makes sure those businesses produce safe food, properly dispose of their waste, treat their employees fairly, and punish those who would use bribery and lies to eliminate their competition or cheat the consumer.  Good government.

Do we really want to return to the time when the color of your skin or the make-up of your genome or the god you choose to worship or the person you fall in love with, is a factor in where you can pee, where you can live, where you can work, where you can shop?  Good government.

Can you imagine a world where competency is the main attraction for a politician seeking our votes?  

I have voted in 12 presidential elections in my life.  If I really thought about it, I am not sure any were elected based on their competency to run the United States Government, at least not as the primary reason.  We voted for change, we voted for a soothing demeanor, we voted for consistency in party, we voted for even more change, we voted for a known name who we might have a beer with, we voted for history, we voted for a return to the past, we voted for calmness in a storm of disruption. Were there some votes for competency, perhaps, but no one runs with the slogan "I am the most competent" and wins. 

Perhaps we have concluded that all politicians are the same, that party over country is the real poison, so it doesn't matter in the end how we vote. Perhaps we even think that we want competence and leadership, yet we somehow always fall victim to abandoning that desire for a catchy slogan, or worse, someone willing to tell us who to blame for our problems.

I enjoyed Fareed Zakaria's book immensely, and I encourage you to read it.  You may find one of the other lessons more poignant or thought provoking than I, but my money is on the hope that if we can learn and internalize lesson 2, if we can vote with just that one priority in mind, then we might not need to learn the other lessons.

Stay safe, stay masked.