Monthly Archives: January 2018

It Always Starts Small


When questioned why I spent so much time and effort on potential cases of student misconduct during my time as a college professor, the answer was simple.  If students get away with the small stuff now–cheating on an assignment or lying to a faculty member–there is no reason to believe they will not behave similarly when the stakes are higher than a mere grade.  It was never about the punishment.  Among the faculty, we often reminded each other our students were “adults in training.”  It was about the teaching moment.  Getting young men and women back on the right path.

An event this week reminded me no lesson is permanent.  But the dilemma that has unsettled me is, “What do you do when when one of the ‘good guys’ begins to exhibit behaviors which suggests he is falling prey to influences which may seem insignificant at the time, but have much larger future consequences?”  Let me explain.

On Tuesday, a long-time friend and his wife paid a visit on their way from their Plains State home to a winter rental in the Florida Keys.  After a wonderful dinner in town, we decided to watch a movie.  As we were scrolling through the Netflix options, there was a promo for David Letterman’s new show “My Next Guest…”  My friend is a life-long Republican and we met when we were both directors of community development in our respective states.  Letterman’s first episode featured an interview with Barack Obama.  I jokingly said, “I guess you don’t want to watch this,” knowing he disagreed with many of the former President’s policies, yet I never heard him make any personal attacks against Obama or his family.

But I was wrong.  His response was directed at Letterman.  “I hate anybody who would call a 17-year-old a whore.  And he used that exact word.”

The incident to which my friend was referring was Letterman’s June 10, 2009 monologue in which he told the following joke about Sarah Palin’s family attending a New York Yankees baseball game.  “There was one awkward moment during the seventh-inning stretch when Palin’s daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.”  When you parse the sentence, you realize there are multiple references to current events.  In May 2009 Palin’s 18-year-old daughter Bristol was (some might say ironically) named a “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Ambassador” by the Candies Foundation following the birth of her son Tripp.  At the same time, headlines about the Yankee shortstop’s sexual exploits involving celebrities such as Madonna and Kate Hudson were plastered across every tabloid and gossip magazine.

No one can argue this was not a distasteful and totally inappropriate attempt at humor.  It was made worse by the fact Bristol had not accompanied the family that evening.  Instead, Palin and husband Todd took their younger daughter, then 14-year-old, Willow with them.  Letterman was roundly criticized and eventually apologized on air to the Palin family.  “I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception.”  Even Palin recognized the worse offense was joking about the sexual exploitation of children. In a June 16, 2009 statement, Palin wrote, “On behalf of all young women, like my daughters, who hope men who ‘joke’ about public displays of sexual exploitation of girls will soon evolve.”  And she was absolutely right.

But in this era of tribal political warfare, I wondered if maybe I was wrong.  Maybe there was something else I missed.  So, I Googled, “David Letterman calls Bristol Palin a whore.”  In what may be the first time in Google history, there were NO direct hits containing the words Letterman, Bristol and whore.  No mainstream media outlets.  No alt-right sites.  Not even one conservative blog.

Why did I find this so discomforting?  After all, it was eight and a half years ago.  The effected parties seemed to have put it past them.   Because as I explained earlier, despite differences in party affiliation and ideology, I always considered my friend to be one of the good guys.  An honest broker of an opposing perspective who did not need exaggerations or false claims to make his point.

What had changed?  Where did this “non-fact” come from?  And why was he so susceptible to embracing it?  And more importantly, what does it mean for the future.  I have no idea what Robert Mueller’s final report will reveal.  If it says there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, I may disagree with his interpretation of the evidence but I will not question the facts he lays out to make his case.  But what if it goes the other way.  This week you had Congressman Devin Nunes, who already tried to “cook the books” with false information about FISA, claiming to have evidence of an FBI plot to stage a coup against Trump, despite Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd warning Nunes the release of such unsubstantiated allegations would be “extraordinarily reckless.”  And Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson then claimed to have an informant telling him there is a cabal of FBI officials holding “secret meetings” to plan Trump’s take-down.  When pressed for evidence of this conspiracy theory, Johnson backed off, saying he had no idea what his “informant” meant by the term “secret society.”  To make matters worse, House Speaker Paul Ryan has refused to step in and stop rogue Republicans from spreading such tripe.  Given a choice between supporting the Justice Department and FBI or the Freedom Caucus, he spinelessly passed on the question.

One more example.  Earlier this week I was walking the dog when I came upon an elderly gentleman wearing an Air Force cap.  I asked him about his service.  Then, without any coaxing from me, he volunteered how upset it was that the Democratic party was holding the military budget hostage over undocumented immigrants.  I asked him, “Were you aware Democratic Senator McCaskill of Missouri, immediately following the failed budget vote Friday night, introduced a resolution to exempt the military from the government shutdown and Mitch McConnell refused to bring her motion to the floor for a vote?”  He replied, “I don’t believe it.”  At which point, I told him, if that’s the case, there’s no reason to continue the conversation and walked away.

As the late U.S. Senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  As was the case with academic misconduct at the university, the Trump administration concept of “alternate facts” also started small, i.e. the crowd size at the inauguration.  But once it becomes the norm, there are no barriers to the use of larger and larger “non-facts” to disrupt and undercut the basic foundations of our government and the Constitution.  The Nation survived Nixon and I still believe we will survive Trump.  Unfortunately, faux patriots like Devin Nunes, Ron Johnson, and increasingly, Paul Ryan are making it much harder.

For what it’s worth.


My Howard Beale Moment


Please excuse me while I stick my head out the window and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”

What was the tipping point?  Not the latest evidence Donald Trump is a racist.  Not the efforts to derail the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election regardless whether or not there was a conspiracy to throw the election.  Not the daily lies spouted by Trump and his communications staff.  Not the sudden amnesia pandemic by Trump’s allies who cannot remember the difference between sub-Saharan Africa and Scandinavia.  Not even my inability to clear my head of the image of the nouveau riche Stormy Daniels spanking her benefactor with a rolled up copy of Forbes magazine.

Tonight, my ranting and raving is focused on the inability of the leadership of the Democratic Party to explain to the leadership of the Republican Party why telling Donald Trump to perform a sexual act on himself over DACA and CHIP is in the interest of both parties, and more importantly, America.  Shortly after 10:00 pm this last night, the Senate failed to pass a continuing resolution which led to a partial government shutdown at midnight.  And partisan pundits and surrogates on the media outlets argued over winners and losers.

DAMNIT!  THIS WAS THE SINGLE BEST CHANCE FOR A WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN OUTCOME IN RECENT POLITICAL HISTORY.  But first a confession.  Two weeks ago, I was asked my opinion about using the federal budget as a bargaining chip to bring a DACA vote to the floor of the House and Senate.  My response?  I generally favor a clean budget resolution, free of ANY non-germane provisions.  I felt that was the case in 2015 when Ted Cruz brought the government to a halt over the Affordable Care Act and this time I initially opposed linking DACA to the current budget impasse.

But last Thursday I changed my mind.  Not because I believe it is way past time to recognize these Dreamers as Americans, which I do.  And not because I am just one of 87 percent of Americans who share this view.  Hell, 87 percent of Americans cannot agree which way toilet paper goes on the roller.  NO!  This was bigger than one issue.  It was an opportunity to confront the idiot bully who sadly occupies the oval office.

Since Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seems incapable of making the case, let me do some ‘splaining of my own.  On Tuesday, Trump agreed with Senator Dianne Feinstein, in front of a national television audience,  that a clean DACA bill made sense and, in one of his rare moments of honesty, told members of Congress they were better prepared than he was to come up with a bi-partisan bill.  Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham were tasked with that responsibility and brought him a proposal two days later.  The compromise included more money for border security including a down-payment on “the wall.”  It included amendments to the immigration lottery program even though Trump grossly misrepresented how it worked. Having spent much of my early life studying Congress and working across the street from the Capitol, I know Durbin and Graham would not have presented that proposal without the approval of Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Trump’s response was an alt-right ambush and the “sh**hole heard ’round the world.”

Which brings me back to the win-win-win-win situation.

  • Win #1: Expose Trump for the incompetent boob he is.  Last night, Schumer should have taken the floor before the Senate vote and said, “The reason Democrats are not voting for the continuing resolution is NOT because it does not contain a DACA fix.  We are voting against it because we are tired of being lied to.  We went to the White House last week and were told to come up with a bi-partisan solution.  We did EXACTLY what we were asked to do.  Democrats, and I hope Republicans, can use this opportunity to tell Donald Trump we are not going to be jerked around.  Therefore, I am asking Senator McConnell to bring the Durbin/Graham proposal to a vote tonight.  And once passed, send it to the House with a promise the moment they too pass this bill, every Senator will vote aye on the continuing resolution.”
  • Win #2: Mitch McConnell sends a message to Trump.  “We have important work to do and I’m tired of your making it harder than it already is.  If all you’re going to do is muddy the waters, just get out of the way.”  By doing this, McConnell can earn the respect of Democrats and open the door to more bi-partisan cooperation.
  • Win #3:  Dreamers no longer have to live in fear of deportation and separation from their families.  Neither party should do this to pander to their base or score political points.  DO IT BECAUSE IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO!
  • Win #4:  Congress starts to rebuild its image by demonstrating it listens when an overwhelming majority of Americans share a common position on an important issue.

Donald Trump has turned Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit into a bully’s playground.  But bullies only wield power by default.  This is Congress’ moment to demonstrate it will no longer be bullied.  It is in everyone’s best interest.

For what it’s worth.


What ROI?


Let me ask you a question.  Assume you are the largest and most powerful company in a specific market sector.  You have been outspending the competition for years.  Much of that investment has been spent on technology, new equipment that was supposed to give you an even greater edge against the competition.  But instead of higher profits, you are losing customers.  The competition has increased investment but not nearly at the rate you have.  And they are establishing footholds in markets which were thought to be your anchors. In other words, the return on investment (ROI) was not what one would expect. What would you do?

As I’ve written on several occasions, I wish those who constantly advocate running the government like a business would use the metrics employed by the private sector to make spending decisions.  Ask any CEO, “Would you continue to investment in the same factors of productions if your record of success over 70 years was less than stellar?”  Of course not.  Yet, that is exactly what Donald Trump and GOP Congress tell us is at the heart of the upcoming vote on a continuing resolution to keep the federal government open.

On Tuesday morning, the flipflopper-in-chief tweeted, “The Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all and Border Security. The biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding Military, at a time we need it more than ever.”  On Monday, it was reported, “The Pentagon is planning to develop two new sea-based nuclear weapons to respond to Russia and China’s growing military capabilities, according to a sweeping Defense Department review of nuclear strategy.  (Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2018)” The proposed White House defense budget for FY2018 is $647 billion, a 5.4 percent increases from FY2017.  (NOTE:  This does not include an additional $183.5 billion for veterans benefits and $88.9 billion for amortization of unfunded liabilities.) According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “The request includes $21.8 billion for atomic energy defense activities to maintain the nation’s arsenal of nuclear warheads and bombs.”

In the last year for which data is available, the total global military spending was $1.6 trillion in 2015, of which the U.S. share was 37 percent (Source: National Priorities Project).  U.S. expenditures eclipsed the total of the next seven nations and was 277 percent higher than the that of China which ranked #2. With that kind of advantage, one would think the United States would be cleaning the competition’s clock.  But, let’s look at the ROI from this massive investment.

  • Despite a three-year war (oops, police action), Korea remains divided and the North now has nuclear weapon capacity, something that every administration for four decades has vowed they would never have.
  • An American supported invasion at the Cuban Bay of Pigs in 1961 to overthrow the Castro regime resulted in the Castro brothers continuing to lead the country 56 years later.
  • After military engagement in Vietnam from March 8, 1965 to April 30, 1975 and the loss of over 54,000 American soldiers, today a unified Vietnam under communist rule is both politically and economically stable.
  • After 16 years in Afghanistan, the Taliban remains an insurgent force.  Even MOAB (the mother of all bombs) has not deterred the Taliban and ISIS in the region.
  • Thirteen years in Iraq is best described as an ebb and flow between somewhat friendly and highly unfriendly forces.  The recent double suicide bombings in Baghdad suggests that despite the overwhelming U.S. military power availability to the Masum government, Iraqis live in fear of continued ISIS insurgency.
  • Formal and informal branches of global jihad are an increasing threat worldwide, not shrinking.

I know, you might argue we are facing a different kind of military threat.  Insurgent forces organized in cells is different from conventional forces operating under national flags.  Absolutely correct.  And that’s my point.  Trump and the GOP Congress still think we are Kodak and FotoMat, wondering why nobody is buying 35 millimeter film or bringing undeveloped rolls to our kiosks to process.  They have proposed a defense budget which suggests the problem is not enough FotoMat store fronts or an under-supply of negative and chemical-based photographic supplies.

Nothing is absolute.  I know there are units within the Pentagon who are focused on non-traditional responses to the real threats we face.  Cyber-security and counter-intelligence resources have increased.  For FY2017, the Obama administration asked for a 15 percent increase for cyber-security operations raising the expenditure level to $6.7 billion.  Compare that to the $122 billion in the Trump budget for procurement of NEW weapons systems.  I guess, little boys do love their shiny toys.

For what it’s worth.


“I am not …”

The toughest, yet most important, task of a teacher is to address students’ shortcomings head on, regardless of how uncomfortable such confrontations may be.  This was never more true on the occasions when, as a professor at Miami University, I believed a student had violated the student code of conduct, especially when it involved academic dishonesty.

After laying out whatever evidence I had of the student’s transgression, the accused’s standard response was, “I am not that kind of person.”  In what I still consider an important teaching moment, I too had a standard response.

I am sure you think you are not that kind of person and I am absolutely sure you wish people would not think of you as that kind of person, but unfortunately, in this circumstance you were.  So let’s talk about why, in this case, you did something that you obviously know is wrong.

I could not help but think about those occasions this morning, not just the national Martin Luther King Holiday, but the late civil rights leader’s actual birthday.  In contrast to Dr. King’s words of hope and inclusion, there was Donald Trump telling a reporter, “I am the least racist person you will ever interview.”  In his own way, Trump was telling us, despite the evidence, “I am not that kind of person.”

Sadly, my standard response would not have been appropriate if I had the opportunity to confront Trump.  We now know, based on reports including one from Fox News analyst Erick Ericson, Trump’s comments on Thursday were not the unfortunate consequence of a heated policy exchange.  Trump called friends and allies on Thursday night asking them what they thought would be the feedback to his using such language in his meeting on DACA and Temporary Protective Status (TPS) with a bi-partisan Congressional delegation.  Over the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump bragged that he thought his comments would help him with his base.

Make no mistake.  When accused of being racist, Donald Trump cannot even pretend he is not that kind of person.  Time and time again, when given an opportunity to ease American racial and religious divisions, he has chosen the most vile and indefensible path.  Labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. Attacking a Muslim Gold-Star family.  Questioning the ability of a native born judge with Hispanic ancestry to do his job.  Suggesting mobs of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville included good people.  And finally, Thursday’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador and African nations.  And, he is proud of it. And uses his racism as a badge of honor which endears him to his supporters.

Related imageSo, on this MLK holiday, I wonder not what my response would be, but what Dr. King would say to us.  I am pretty sure, he would view recent events as just more Edmund Pettus Bridge moments in the arc of racial history in the United States.  And just as those who crossed that bridge on March 7, 1965 sent the nation a message that certain behaviors and conditions were unacceptable, Americans need to again send that message.  And the best way to do that is at the ballot box.  So just as Dr. King and others said we have a right to be on this bridge, every American needs to reinforce the idea they have a right to cast their votes despite whatever obstacles are placed in front of them.


I also think Dr. King would have the following message for us today.

I am heartened by the extent to which there is a wave of political engagement by people who never thought of themselves as activists.  But I am also saddened by the money and energy that is being expended to address injustice instead of being used to make a real difference in people’s lives.  I would prefer if the hours spent writing letters and sitting in congressional offices were instead being used to build one more Habitat for Humanity house or tutoring a struggling student.  I would prefer if the dollars spent by people like Tom Steyers were channeled to scholarships and health clinics., not a campaign to impeach a president.  A just and compassionate society is not defined by telling people what they need to do, it is measured by what people do for each other.

For what it’s worth.

The Miami-churian Candidates

While channel surfing over the weekend, I chanced upon the John Frankenheimer tour-de-force The Manchurian Candidate (1964), the story of Raymond Shaw, a Korean War medal of honor winner whose story of heroism is a cover after having been captured and programmed by his Chinese handlers to become an assassin.  The communists’ end game is to create chaos during a presidential election in hopes of installing a president sympathetic to the Russian government.

While attempts to disrupt the 2016 federal election did not include brain-washed assassins, one might say there was a cadre of Manchurian candidates in the form of Russian internet trolls, hackers and agents of the Kremlin who were in contact with Trump campaign officials.  But, today I want to focus on one player who may have been a test case for a more long-term, sophisticated effort by the Russian government to influence U.S. elections for decades to come.

His name is Len Blavatnik, a dual U.S.-U.K citizen born in Ukraine.  In the 1970’s, Blavatnik’s family emigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union.  Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, he returned to Russia.

According to the Dallas Morning News, in 2015 and 2016, Blavatnik “pumped $6.35 million into GOP political action committees, with millions of dollars going to top Republican leaders including Sens. Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.”  Such personal contributions by an American citizen, even one with dual citizenship, are legal unless the funds are coming from a foreign source or spending is directed by a foreign national.  To date, there is no indication Blavatnik has violated the law.  However, some underground news sources have questioned whether Republican silence on the Trump/Russia issue has been bought with campaign contributions from donors with strong Russian ties.

So why did I wait several days to make this connection?  Because it was a story on today’s cable news which made me wonder if Blavatnik was just a beta test for a more sinister plan.  NBC News correspondent Cynthia McFadden reported on a company called “Miami-Mama” which arranges for pregnant Russian women to obtain visitor visas in order to give birth to their children in the United States.  Under the “birthright clause” of the U.S. Constitution, the Russian women are not violating any law as long as do not lie about the purpose of their visit.

Once they reach the age of 18, all these children of “birthing tourists” will have the rights of any U.S. citizen including the right to vote and make campaign contributions.  Maybe the election we need to be more worried about was not 2016, but 2034 when all of these Miami-churian Candidates can become the next Len Blavatniks.

FACEBOOK: Russian “birthing tourists” at Trump Royale

Postcript:  Not that this story needs to get any stranger, The Daily Beast reports several of the Russian companies that arrange the “birthing tourism” packages, at costs between $50,000 and $100,000, advertise participants will be housed in Trump properties in South Florida (“Russians Flock to Trump Properties to Give Birth to U.S. Citizens,” September 6, 2017).  As Michael Wolff so elegantly said in a Hollywood Reporter article promoting his book Fire and Fury, “You can’t make this sh** up!”  (It does make one wonder if Trump would be more sympathetic toward the Dreamers and birthright children from Latin America if they too patronized Trump properties.)

For what it’s worth.