Archive for the ‘POLITICS & THE ECONOMY’ Category

IMMIGRATION AND CULTURE

Twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order posited that the post-Soviet world consisted of nine distinct civilizations. Their cultures and values were different and often in opposition. Huntington was hailed and later assailed. Regarding today’s immigration issues, attention to Huntington must be paid.

Huntington’s new world order consisted of the West, Latin America, Africa, the Islamic world, China, Hindu India, Orthodox Christian Eurasia (Russia and environs), the Buddhist world and Japan. Three assertions—among many—bear study.

— “International organizations based on states with cultural commonality, such as the European Union, are far more successful than those that attempt to transcend cultures.”

— “The philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs and overall outlooks on life differ significantly among civilizations.”

— “Global politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational.”

Nations and peoples are not all just the same, and American values don’t dominate the world. This sheds some light on Donald Trump’s position on Muslims—which I do not share—and the European right, which seeks to limit or halt Muslim immigration. Let’s first look at Europe.

Ten days ago, Germany’s conservative political parties reached an agreement limiting the number of immigrants allowed to enter each year. This from a nation that in 2015 welcomed one million immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Last Sunday, Austria’s election produced Europe’s youngest prime minister, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz. His People’s Party wants to strongly curtail immigration of Muslims.

Europe has never exhibited the United States’ ability to integrate immigrants from different cultures. Decades ago, Europeans loved accusing America of racism when Europe’s non-white, non-Christian populations were small enough to seem colorful rather than threatening. What makes Europe and the U.S. so different? I asked my friend Manfred Wolf, author of a provocative book of essays, Muslims in Europe: Notes, Comments, Questions.

Europe puts up cultural obstacles to assimilation, says Manfred. The French, for example, created a highly secular society. (Europe is heavily secular.) Anyone can be French, but religious identity must be kept private. At the same time, he notes, a significant minority of Muslins in Europe are not sure they wish to assimilate. They live in Europe but may not be of it.

America has never had a major influx of immigrants who refused to submit to the nation’s reigning culture and values, according to Manfred. The Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jews have ways that are entirely different, but their numbers are comparatively small. “In America, if Ahmed and Yasmina live next door and don’t make trouble, they’re Americans. We don’t care.”

Manfred’s take on immigration and refugees is personal. As a child, he fled Holland with his family to escape the Nazis. Eventually, they settled in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. He came to the U.S. at 17 to attend college.

He succeeded. “I’d learned English,” Manfred says. “I knew about America. I wanted to accept American culture, which made me a perfect immigrant.” If culture and personality match, he notes, assimilation becomes easy.

It may seem disheartening that immigrants often bring with them values that clash with those of their new country. And yes, much bigotry exists in nations taking in—or rejecting—migrants from other cultures. But solutions to this complex problem require understanding that the problem is, indeed, complex.

My novels, including The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht, currently are unavailable in Amazon’s Kindle store (a publisher matter soon to be rectified). You can still purchase the softcover versions from Amazon—or directly from me.

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LESSONS OF TIMBUKTU

America’s cultural divide runs deep. The far-right’s vote for Donald Trump protested the “elites.” Considerable danger lies in this. We find a prime example in a region of the world usually ignored—sub-Saharan Africa.

What are elites? Trump supporters generally consider them to be inhabitants of big cities on either coast and holders of college and post-graduate degrees. Diplomas concentrate heavily in science—hard and soft—medicine, journalism, the humanities and the arts. Education aside, elites include artists and those involved with the arts.

What’s the gripe? These educations and careers invite and require continuously questioning assumptions. Traditional thoughts may be toppled. This makes conservatives uncomfortable.

Note that many college graduates voted for Trump. Still, Hillary Clinton carried grads 52% to 43% (Pew Research). I suspect that most Trump supporters with college degrees studied business, law and engineering. Some computer science. Trump also found favor with graduates of Christian evangelical institutions.

Where might dissatisfaction with elites lead America? Joshua Hammer offers an intriguing view in his New York Times (fake news?) best-seller (read by elites?) The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts.

Timbuktu in the West African nation of Mali constitutes a symbol of remoteness. Yet in the late 14th century, the town emerged as a center for Muslim religious and cultural scholarship. Academics visited from many corners of the Muslim world. Trade grew. Timbuktu became a wealthy city of the Songhai Empire. It did business with North African camel caravans trekking south through the Sahara Desert carrying salt and boats plying the Niger River from the Atlantic coast bringing goods from Europe. In 1375, Timbuktu appeared on a European map drawn by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques.

“Despite the dedication to religious scholarship, the Islam that took root in Timbuktu was never very strict,” Hammer writes. Scholarship, inquiry and the city grew together. Unfortunately, the city fell more than once to rulers demanding their strict interpretation of Muslim law. They looted and destroyed Timbuktu’s vast libraries. Yet area residents hid hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and passed them down from generation to generation. Many survived in reasonable shape.

Hammer details the efforts of a young archivist, Abdel Kader Haidara, who over three decades starting in the 1980s located, purchased and brought to safety 350,000 centuries-old manuscripts. Yet Haidara found himself having to move protect the manuscripts he’d collected from jihadists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who loathe science, philosophy and literature.

Hammer’s book suggests a parallel in the United States. Trump’s base sees their America facing an existential threat from liberal elites who question their views of the Constitution, the Gospels, Christianity and “accepted” values. Political activism along with private Christian schools and colleges, and Christian home schooling, seek to keep unwanted ideas at bay. Faith replaces empiricism to negate the acknowledgment and understanding of such issues as evolution and global warming along with separation of church and state.

Today, Timbuktu is a backwater of 55,000 people living in mud-brick homes. The desert has encroached.

If the United States is to thrive as a democracy capable of providing for the wellbeing of all its people and maintain global relevance, we must appreciate what once made Timbuktu great. We must also guard against what destroyed that greatness.

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BRUCE MAXWELL GETS IT

When (former) San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem last season, he stirred a controversy. Was he a traitor or a patriot? Let’s look at the example set by Bruce Maxwell.

A little background: Kaepernick appears to have cost himself an NFL job this season, but other players in the 75-percent black NFL followed his lead. Donald Trump called them sons of bitches who should be fired.

Last Sunday, many players—and some owners—responded to Trump. They knelt or stood with arms linked. Three teams, excepting one player, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, stayed in their locker rooms.

Bruce Maxwell, catcher for baseball’s Oakland A’s, is one of MLB’s relatively few African-American players in a sport culturally rooted in small-town, conservative America. He protested in a way every American can respect.

Maxwell knelt. He didn’t turn his back, look away or fiddle with his shoe laces. Son of a military father and a loyal American, he placed his hand over his heart and looked up at the flag. In doing so, he made a statement that inequities in the treatment of minorities must be addressed by the country he loves.

Some people believe athletes kneeling or linking arms dishonor the flag. The flag is piece of cloth. (See “Just What is the Flag?”) Likewise, the anthem is a musical composition. They are symbols. Americans can approach them in different ways without showing disloyalty to the nation, its military and its first-responders.

I still stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” though I believe playing it before sports events is unnecessary. Gazing at the flag, hand over heart, I say to myself, “May this flag fly over a nation realizing the high ideals it represents. When we fall short, may it inspire us to fulfill its promise.”

Opposition to recent protests seems to flow from the old bromide, “My country right or wrong.” (See “God Bless America! And Then What?”) That philosophy makes sense only when we acknowledge the nation’s shortcomings and make good-faith efforts to correct them. Blind allegiance to flag and anthem ignores our faults or, worse, gives them legitimacy.

I recall those who railed against protestors during the Vietnam War, pronouncing “America, love it or leave it.” I thought they misunderstood love of country. I was then an Army officer.

Can this nation heal? Eliot Cohen, who served in the George W. Bush administration, writes in the October issue of The Atlantic that no matter how soon Trump leaves the White House, the government and nation will sustain damage for years. Perhaps decades.

Our nation and government can overcome, but only when Americans listen to each other. Casting aside the far-right’s white supremacy, anti-Semitic agenda and the shrill, authoritarian aspects of the far left, we’ll discover that we often agree on desired outcomes. Our differences lie in the methods with which to achieve them. Realizing this, we can return civility to politics, the absence of which stalls improvement while distorting the concept of patriotism.

So here’s to Bruce Maxwell. Those who take offense at his approach might do some soul searching about the deeper meaning of symbols and slogans. Because our ongoing task is not to make America great again but to make America greater.

If you are going to Yom Kippur services at Sherith Israel tomorrow, please join me at 1:15 as I lead a class and discussion on the book of Jonah. And may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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HOUSTON, WE HAVE A SOLUTION

In April 1970, the Apollo 13 moon flight’s Jack Swigert reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” (The movie modified this to “Houston, we have a problem.”) Hurricane Harvey brought a more massive problem to Houston. In its suffering, Houston and other Texas Coast cities have displayed the solution to this nation’s bitter political and racial divide.

Early on, Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner made a tough call telling residents not to evacuate the city. Given the impassability of so many streets and stretches of highway, his call seems on target. Still, Harvey forced tens of thousands of residents to leave flooded neighborhoods. Some managed alone. Many required assistance.

Local, state and federal agencies, including the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard, went to work. They deployed helicopters, boats and high-water vehicles to pull desperate people out of the water, free them from vehicles and pluck them off roofs. Given the scope of the problem, they couldn’t do it alone.

Houston-area residents—and many people from out of the area—used their own boats and vehicles to take neighbors and strangers to shelters across the city. The Red Cross and other non-governmental agencies cranked up their efforts.

In addition to courage and compassion, these rescuers and caregivers shared another important quality. They assisted people in need without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or any other factor that has pitted one segment of the nation against the rest. I know of no white Christians who refused to help Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews and gays. I know of none of the latter who refused to assist whites. When push came to shove, Houstonians and others pushed back against the common adversary that threatened life, property and hopes for the future.

Houston and the Texas Coast will require years to fully recover. Some estimates see the presence of FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Administration—at four years. This raises a critical question: Will FEMA have the funds and personnel to do the job—and do it right? Donald Trump ran a winning presidential campaign on shrinking the federal government and draining the swamp in Washington. Forget D.C. The White House needs to sufficiently fund FEMA and other agencies to help Houston and the Texas Coast rebuild long after its very real swamp drains away.

I wonder how many first-responders and rescuers—all of whom deserve our praise and thanks—voted for Trump based on his premise of smaller government and funds directed away from FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the arts and more to build a wall on our border with Mexico. What we need is a wall sturdy enough to shield the Gulf Coast and its cities from rising waters—or a dome expansive enough to hold off biblical-type rains. Of course, that’s wishful thinking.

But here’s reality: The U.S. government has the unique assets and people power to make a long-term difference anywhere disaster strikes—and lead planning to avoid or mitigate new disasters. That’s why Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Trump supporter, welcomed federal aid.

Our political efforts should target making Washington more efficient and effective, not destroying it. Houston’s selfless, color-, religion- and gender-blind heroism offers a solution to national acrimony and achieving that goal. Pray that enough Americans notice.

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CHARLOTTESVILLE

You know the old saying, “There are two sides to every story.” Donald Trump repeated that last Tuesday. Regrettably, such clichéd adages lend themselves to ignoring horrible injustices.

Last weekend, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some carried Nazi flags and wore Ku Klux Klan regalia. Counter-protestors rallied. Tempers grew hot. Violence ensued. One man drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors and killed a 32-year-old woman.

Trump bemoaned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides—on many sides.” Is it bigotry to oppose the belief that non-white, non-Christians should be classified as second-rate citizens or sub-human? Charlottesville does not represent opposing but legitimate principles.

Not until Monday did Trump condemn white supremacy and hate groups by name—just as his American Manufacturing Council began to unravel in disgust. On Tuesday, he circled back and again defended the pro-statue protestors. “There are good people on both sides,” Trump said.

Two sides to every story? I once served as a juror on two criminal trials—a shooting and a stabbing—and a civil trial—a suit against a supermarket chain. These properly represented two sides to each story because jurors were mandated to decide the outcome based on facts. At no time did a judge suggest that any party deserved to be found guilty or innocent, or liable or not at fault, because of who or what they were.

In the criminal trials, the District Attorney’s office was required to make a case against the defendants’ actions, not their characters. In the civil case, the plaintiff’s attorney had to demonstrate wrongdoing by the company, not present an anti-corporate screed. The criminal trials led to convictions. The civil case was dismissed. The juries, after lengthy deliberation, based their decisions on the evidence. The characters and beliefs of all parties played no role in those decisions.

Donald Trump abhors facts. His statement about bigotry on both sides offered legitimacy to the grievances of neo-Nazis against Jews because Jews are, well, Jews. Likewise, he offered white supremacists of all stripes a measure of understanding. In doing so, he implied there must be a measure of truth behind their hatred of African Americans, East Asians, Latinos, South Asians—and Jews.

One could extend this kind of thinking to Hitler. Yes, he ordered the killing of six million Jews and millions of others. But he must have had his reasons. Should we thus tolerate statues of Hitler? By Trump’s logic later in the week, yes. After all, Hitler was a historical figure.

For centuries, American whites enslaved blacks. Weren’t slave owners simply capitalists promoting, like any good conservative, the South’s agricultural economy? Therefore, shouldn’t we maintain statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis as icons of a bygone, if misguided, culture? Trump also says yes to that.

Each week, I evaluate topics about which to write. With disturbing frequency, Donald Trump preempts them. I could ignore him. But how in good conscience can anyone overlook the moral chaos continually fomented by the White House? If Mr. Trump truly wishes to drain the swamp in Washington, he can resign and go back to flushing gold-plated toilets in Trump Tower.

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FIRE AND FURY

Last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear device to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile. President Trump responded publicly that further threats by North Korea would be met by “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” I turned on CNN. For several seconds, national security reporter Jim Sciutto’s face revealed a fear I’ve never seen displayed by another journalist.

Will North Korea launch a nuke towards Honolulu, Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles? Will Kim Jong-un send missiles to Guam? An attempted strike by North Korea would be met by a harsh American response leaving Kim dead or with no functioning nation to rule. Yet it would be foolish to say that Kim might not launch a suicidal attack if he saw a concrete threat to his regime. American foreign policy must weigh the odds of all possibilities and measure its words. The difference between slim and none can be deadly.

Sophisticated diplomacy can reduce—although not eliminate—the chance of a strike by North Korea. This involves firmly but calmly communicating America’s commitment to use all the power we can summon in response to such a strike. For entirely practical matters, that warning should be made in private.

Why not a public statement like that voiced by Trump? As military and law enforcement strategists know, cornering an enemy often makes him more dangerous. We receive continuing reports of police requiring more training to de-escalate difficult situations. A peaceful outcome isn’t always possible, but it’s more probable when criminals or the emotionally disturbed—or a Kim Jong-un—see a way out without losing face.

I’m reminded of a story I read decades ago about a high-school teacher in Chicago. He encountered a student confronting others with a gun. He made no threat. Rather, he calmly said, “Here, let me hold that for you.” The student yielded his weapon. The teacher averted potential carnage.

Nuclear proliferation, particularly involving countries engaged in hostile rhetoric, such as Iran, must be taken seriously. Still, the United States and its allies—those we have left—must recognize a reality not of our choosing and one we may be powerless to reverse. Today’s interconnected world makes the transfer of technology relatively simple and swift. Added to that, nations in Asia and the Middle East—as elsewhere—boast people who are as bright and inventive as us. Disturbed as we may be, regimes with whom we maintain profound disagreements probably will develop nuclear weapons.

I’m hardly the first person to suggest we adapt our foreign policy to recognizing proliferation’s sad inevitability. To prevent calamity, we must make clear that our commitments to friends remain firm, and that we maintain the option to use nuclear weapons in response to nuclear attacks or massive conventional aggression. We must also make clear that talking out our differences, even if we don’t reach resolution, makes far more sense. And we must do this within the framework of diplomacy.

Responding to threats, no matter how vile, with public counter-threats raises the global temperature and risks buttons being pushed in the heat of the moment. Dealing with this issue requires level-headedness and considerable discipline. Mr. Trump’s comment this morning that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” again evidences failure to display these qualities.

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ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Several weeks ago, I realized why the president of the United States so often speaks like a seventh-grader. Three old men turned on the lightbulb for me.

I met the first two—elderly African-Americans using walkers—on the 38-Geary bus. They didn’t know each other but chatted amiably about life in San Francisco and growing up in the South. When one stood to get off, his walker’s wheels tangled with the other man’s. I pulled them apart. They offered smiling thankyou’s.

A simple lesson presented itself. As men age, their testosterone levels drop. Their aggressiveness dissipates. Older men—yes, cranks exist—tend to be polite and non-confrontational. They prefer talking over coffee, making conversation on a park bench or just chilling. Thus, the elderly define “cool.”

The third man was Senator John McCain. He recently had surgery for a blood clot above the eye. President Trump praised McCain and wished him a speedy recovery. Then he added, “We also need his vote [on the healthcare bill.]” Trump’s uncalled-for aside sounded awkward and childish, as well as selfish. Yet it represented, I believe, an attempt at humor. The attempt bombed. But I know where the approach came from.

Donald Trump and I grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He lived in wealthy Jamaica Estates. I lived in middle-class Rego Park. We both developed a very New York sense of humor. As kids, my friends and I insulted each other good naturedly and people we didn’t like with the sharpest (and stupidest) barbs we could hone. Then we grew up. We learned when humor may be appropriate in private but unacceptable in public.

We didn’t abandon humor, though. Men rib their friends in private. It’s a guy thing. But unlike the Donald, my friends and I also love laughing at ourselves. Importantly, we understand that joking about people close to us is fine—if they buy in. And that even among friends, some lines are not to be crossed. That’s why a friend asked if he could joke about my hormone therapy (ending this Wednesday) for prostate cancer. I said, “Of course. I do.” Because we care about each other, the jokes and insults remain confidential and within bounds.

Trump knows no bounds. It appears he suffers from arrested development. While our peers ascertained the limits of making other people objects of humor, Trump continues speaking like an adolescent. Watch his televised remarks about others. They’re uniformly unfunny, tasteless and cruel. No adult, let alone the president, should say those things in public. Yet Trump does and remains clueless.

Last Monday, he delivered a highly-politicized speech to boys at the National Boy Scout Jamboree. He was way off base. The Boy Scouts of America acknowledged that.

With education and mentoring, twelve-year-olds mature and develop judgement. I Corinthians 13:11 offers a sound guideline. “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

Donald Trump failed to learn that lesson. It’s sad. It’s also pathetic that so many of his supporters applaud him for “saying what’s on his mind” even when Trump utters remarks for which they’d march their own children off to the woodshed.

And now you know why Trump appointed Anthony Scaramucci as his f*****g White House communications director.

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DON AND VLAD AT THE G-20

While the mainstream media lacked access to the conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the recent G-20 conference, sources of mine with digital flies on the wall produced a transcript of the first part of their private meeting. It’s kind of interesting.

Don: “So, Vlad, we finally meet face to face. My face, of course, being much more manly and handsome than yours. I mean, the tan. And the hair. But I envy you. You get to be in a room with Donald Trump and his lackey. Sorry, Rex. No one held a gun to your head. Anyway, Vlad, you have anything worthwhile to say while I make you look important?”

Vlad: “Mr. President…”

Don: “I’m glad you called me that, Vlad. Because I am president. And I’m making America great again. Wait. Since I’m President, America is great again. That’s what my other lackeys tell me. Sorry, Rex, but I’ve always had lackeys. They’re beautiful. Know why, Vlad? And you, too, Rex. Because I can say and do anything, and my lackeys go, ‘Fabulous, Mr. Trump. May I kiss your ass again? It’s been so long. Since yesterday.’ When you’re the billionaire President of America, you’re big. Huge.”

Vlad: “Mr. President…”

Don: “There you go again with that Mr. President thing. You respect me. You love me. Not in that way. Or maybe. But a guy with the three wives Donald Trump has had doesn’t swing the other way. Jesus, I’ve had women you can’t imagine. Remember my 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow? Beautiful girls all over me. Know why? Because I’m big, Vlad. Spelled h-u-m-o-n-g-o-u-s. You? You like to ride stallions. Me? I am a stallion. Not that you’re ever going to ride me. Maybe you swing that way. Is that a Russian thing? I don’t know anything about Russia. Except maybe nukes. You have nukes. Big deal. The frickin’ French have nukes. I mean, a guy like Macron has his finger on the button. Or whatever they use. Incredible. He could run the Miss Universe pageant in frickin’ Paris and never get laid.”

Vlad: “Mr. President, that’s what I want to speak with you about. Several contestants at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant have had babies. They claim you are the father. We provided DNA tests, since we have, of course, your DNA. You may have some explaining to do.”

Don: “You think I don’t use protection? Or maybe I didn’t. Doesn’t matter. Donald Trump controls his baby making thing at will. So, don’t think you can make up some ridiculous story to get me to make you a big shot by inviting you to the White House. And don’t tell me you made me President. Although I hear Russians are as good with computers as 400-pound guys in Jersey. See, America loves me. Look at this hair. I won the electoral college in the biggest landslide ever. Plus, I won the popular vote by ten million. Don’t tell me you win by more, because you’re always the only real candidate. And don’t have a cow. I’ll pay back those loans I took out from you guys by the end of my first term. Maybe after two. Possibly three. Four even. Why not more? Like you. Unless, after Christmas, I bail.”

Now you know.

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PRESIDENTIAL LEGACIES

During this season’s “House of Cards” (Netflix), the wife of the presidential candidate challenging the evil incumbent Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) says of her husband: “He has a chance to be a fine president. A great president.” Maybe. But presidents don’t create legacies, and those who think they do subject the nation to great and unnecessary risks.

We hear much about the Affordable Care Act being Barack Obama’s legacy. Obamacare represented just a step forward. American healthcare has a long way to go. Moreover, President Trump and Republicans vowed to “repeal and replace.” Will they? We’ll see. But I suspect Mr. Obama’s legacy will reflect not what he set out to do but what he had to do. (More later.)

I doubt George Washington took office thinking about his legacy rather than the job at hand. He had to react to the creation of a new form of government under the Constitution. During his eight years in office, Washington had to shape the executive branch from scratch. He also had to contend with the pioneering efforts of a newly devised Congress, Supreme Court and thirteen states. All had their own Constitutional visions. Washington’s legacy consists of navigating unchartered waters successfully.

Abraham Lincoln assumed office with the nation on the brink of splitting. Shortly after his inauguration, the nation toppled over the brink. Lincoln’s greatness lay not in promoting grand plans by which history would hail him but in meeting this daunting challenge—leading in ways about which he may never have given prior thought.

Yes, some presidents see opportunities. Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark across the west and spearheaded the Louisiana Purchase. But he did so in response to Napoleon and European geopolitics. Jefferson earned good grades. To assure peace after “the war to end all wars,” Woodrow Wilson pushed the establishment of the League of Nations following World War One, which America entered well into his prsidency. Congress balked. Ultimately, the League failed. Wilson’s reputation is spotty. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the Depression and did much to provide a safety net for Americans while pushing the economy towards recovery. FDR made mistakes along the way, but he’s idolized by many.

George H.W. Bush, with no legacy in mind, responded to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and ousted Iraqi forces in a 100-hour war. Then he withdrew American troops. His son George W. Bush responded to 9/11 with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The younger Mr. Bush, with little knowledge of the region, decided to remake the Middle East. History will not be kind.

Back to Barack Obama. Whatever he thought he might accomplish—health care reform being a massive item on his agenda—he entered the White House with the American economy unraveling. He responded by rescuing financial institutions “too big to fail.” For that, he’s been lauded and vilified. While time will offer new perspectives, I think his actions will establish a very positive legacy if one unplanned.

I’m baffled by people who believe that a president’s first concern should be his (and someday, her) legacy. All presidents can do is shoulder their burdens and meet challenges with their best efforts. The world mocks our plans, and history exercises its own judgement.

Have a great Fourth. And remember, you can purchase THE ODD PLIGHT OF ADONIS LICHT directly from me or at Amazon. If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too.

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LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Most people recognize the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Clear? Not really. Commentators and scholars translate the Hebrew word B’reishit—“In the beginning”—in several ways. This gives rise to multiple insights into God’s actions. Language—in translation or out—often fails to accurately convey meaning. We might apply this principle to the June 8 testimony of former FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Re Genesis, the Soncino Press (1993) translation stays with “In the beginning.” The Stone Chumash (printed Torah) offers: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” The Jewish Publication Society (1999) and the scholar Robert Alter prefer “When God began to create…”. Everett Fox chooses “At the beginning…” As Nahum Sarna notes, “The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable.”

Congress and the American people face another mystery—the meaning in President Trump’s words regarding an investigation into General Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security advisor. Former FBI director James Comey, also fired by Trump, testified that Trump told him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Because Comey said he met in private with Trump, liberal commentators and Democrats exclaim, “Obstruction of justice!” Conservative commentators and Republicans respond, “No way!”

During Comey’s testimony, Senator Jim Risch (R–Idaho), skeptical that Trump did anything wrong, focused on the word hope. Risch asked Comey if was aware of any successful prosecution of someone who hoped something illegal was done. Comey said no. But that, despite Risch’s efforts, hardly ends the matter.

Read Comey’s words, and important details of his conversation with the President go missing. Hope, Risch suggested, represents wishful thinking. Trump, in private, simply shared his yearning that Flynn, “a good guy,” not face prosecution. But which word follows hope? You. If Trump uttered these words, he spoke not to himself but directly to Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear…” It’s hardly a stretch to interpret this as Trump telling Comey to drop the investigation without saying the precise words, “You drop the investigation.” Personally, I’ve never said, “I hope you can…” to anyone without expressing a clear intent that they do what I for all intents and purposes asked. In this context, I hope creates an expectation.

I mentioned missing details. Whatever words Mr. Trump uttered, we lack a recording, which Trump hinted at having, although he may not. What tone of voice did he use? We don’t know. Intonation colors any word or set of words. Trump’s tone could indeed have indicated wishful thinking. Or it could have projected a presidential order. We also lack an eye on such critical factors as Trump’s facial expression and body language. All these help make us understood. For that matter, we can’t see Comey’s physical response.

Will Comey’s memo regarding Trump’s hope be accepted by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special investigator, as proof of wrongdoing? We’ll see. Will President Trump testify before the Senate subcommittee? We’ll see about that, too. But I doubt we’ll see a smoking gun.

Still, a pattern seems to be emerging. Each day, it becomes more disturbing. And when I write disturbing, let there be no doubt about what I mean.

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