Thirty months after setting the goal of sending a mission 239,000 miles to the moon, and returning safely, President John Kennedy cited a story the Irish author Frank O’Connor told about his boyhood. Facing the challenge of a high wall, O’Connor and his playmates tossed their caps over it. Said Kennedy, “They had no choice but to follow them. This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space.” Kennedy said this on Nov. 21, 1963, in San Antonio. The next day: Dallas.
To understand America’s euphoria about the moon landing 50 years ago, remember 51 years ago: 1968 was one of America’s worst years — the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinated, urban riots. President Kennedy’s May 25, 1961, vow to reach the moon before 1970 came 43 days after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to enter outer space and orbit the Earth, and 38 days after the Bay of Pigs debacle. When Kennedy audaciously pointed to the moon, America had only sent a single astronaut on a 15-minute suborbital flight.
Kennedy’s goal was reckless, and exhilarating leadership. Given existing knowledge and technologies, it was impossible. But Kennedy said the space program would “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” It did. The thrilling story of collaborative science and individual daring is told well in HBO’s twelve-part From the Earth to the Moon, and PBS’s three-part Chasing the Moon, and in the companion volume with that title, by Robert Stone and Alan Andres, who write:
The American effort to get to the moon was the largest peacetime government initiative in the nation’s history. At its peak in the mid-1960s, nearly 2% of the American workforce was engaged in the effort to some degree. It employed more than 400,000 individuals, most of them working for 20,000 different private companies and 200 universities.
The “space race” began as a Cold War competition, military and political. Even before Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, jolted Americans’ complacency in 1957 (ten days after President Dwight Eisenhower sent paratroopers to Little Rock’s Central High School), national security was at stake in the race for rockets with ever-greater thrusts to deliver thermonuclear warheads with ever-greater accuracy.
By 1969, however, the Soviet Union was out of the race to the moon, a capitulation that anticipated the Soviets’ expiring gasp, two decades later, when confronted by the technological challenge of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. By mid-1967, a majority of Americans no longer thought a moon landing was worth the expense.
But it triggered a final flaring of post-war confidence and pride. “The Eagle has landed” came as defiant last words of affirmation, at the end of a decade that, Stone and Andres note, had begun with harbingers of a coming culture of dark irony and satire: Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (1961) and Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (1964). …
Stone and Andres say Apollo 11 was hurled upward by engines burning “15 tons of liquid oxygen and kerosene per second, producing energy equal to the combined power of 85 Hoover Dams.” People spoke jauntily of “the conquest of space.” Well.
The universe, 99.9 (and about 58 other nines) percent of which is already outside Earth’s atmosphere, is expanding (into we know not what) at 46 miles per second per megaparsec. (One megaparsec is approximately 3.26 million light years.) Astronomers are studying light that has taken perhaps twelve billion years to reach their instruments. This cooling cinder called Earth, spinning in the darkness at the back of beyond, is a minor speck of residue from the Big Bang, which lasted less than a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second 13.8 billion years ago. The estimated number of stars — they come and go — is 100 followed by 22 zeros. The visible universe (which is hardly all of it) contains more than 150 billion galaxies, each with billions of stars. But if there were only three bees in America, the air would be more crowded with bees than space is with stars. The distances, and the violently unheavenly conditions in “the heavens,” tell us that our devices will roam our immediate cosmic neighborhood, but in spite of Apollo 11’s still-dazzling achievement, we are not really going anywhere.
The New York Daily News:
Ex-Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton was a 20-game winner, won two World Series games, spent 10 years in the big leagues — and made a bigger impact with a pen in his hand than a baseball.
The author of the groundbreaking hardball tell-all “Ball Four” died Wednesday following a battle with a brain disease linked to dementia, according to friends of the family. The Newark, N.J., native was in the Massachusetts home he shared with his wife Paula Kurman after weeks of hospice care. He was 80.
Bouton, who made his Major League debut in 1962, threw so hard in his early years that his cap routinely flew off his head as he released the ball. By the time he reached the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969, the sore-armed Bouton reinvented himself as a knuckleballer.
Bouton spent that season collecting quotes, notes and anecdotes about life in the big leagues for his acclaimed book “Ball Four.” Released amid a storm of controversy, the account of Bouton’s tumultuous year was the only sports book cited when the New York Public Library drew up its list of the best books of the 20th century.
In “Ball Four,” Bouton exposed in great detail the carousing of Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, the widespread use of stimulants (known as “greenies”) in Major League locket rooms, and the spectacularly foul mouth of Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz.
“Amphetamines improved my performance about five percent,” Bouton once observed. “Unfortunately, in my case that wasn’t enough.”
But the book caused most of his old teammates to ostracize him, and he was blackballed from Yankees events for nearly 30 years until the team in 1998 invited Bouton to the annual Old-Timers Day event.
Bouton, across his 10-year pro career, posted a mediocre lifetime record of 62-63, with an ERA of 3.57.
But for two seasons, on the last of the great 1960s Yankees teams of Mantle, Maris, Berra and Ford, Bouton emerged as a top-flight pitcher.
In 1963, he went 21-7 with six shutouts and lost a 1-0 World Series decision to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Drysdale. A year later, Bouton’s record was 18-13 with a 3.02 ERA and he won a pair of World Series starts against the St. Louis Cardinals.
And then he developed a sore arm in 1965 that derailed a promising career that started just three years earlier. Bouton’s career ended after the 1970 season with the Houston Astros, although he returned for a five-game cameo with the Atlanta Braves in 1978.
Post-baseball, Bouton became a local sportscaster with WABC-TV and then WCBS-TV on the evening news, enjoying ratings success at both stops.
Ball Four was a book unlike any other in baseball until it was published, but you knew that.
Rev. Paul Hartmann of St. Monica Catholic Church in Whitefish Bay and St. Eugene Catholic Church in Fox Point:
Years ago I traveled to Maine for the wedding of a friend whose fiancé was a lobsterman’s daughter from an island off the coast. The setting made for a beautiful weekend for the wedding, but it also made for a difficult travel itinerary.
In order to fit everything in for a July 6 wedding, many of the guests came to the island on July 3. Who was I to pass up a couple extra days in a picturesque New England fishing village? To further set the stage, at one point the men of the wedding party and I joined the bride’s dad on his fishing boat to literally “catch” the rehearsal dinner.
A highlight of the weekend was the island’s Fourth of July parade. Our group (clearly out-of-towners) found a nice spot on Main Street in front of the hardware store to view the parade. Taking the lead in the parade was a color guard of five Boy Scouts. They were cheered, and each was proud of his role in the celebration. The tallest boy was in the center carrying the American flag.
I surmise that he was told to remain stone-faced and looking straight ahead. He was flanked by scouts carrying the state flag, and the troop’s flag. On the ends were the youngest, and the shortest, scouts holding a pole carrying the banner announcing the parade. These two hadn’t gotten the message about being stoned-faced as they were all smiles and waving at those cheering them.
I grinned a bit when I noticed that the Scout closest to us was in what had to be a hand-me-down uniform. The shirt was too big; old patches had been removed, and the green uniform pants were rolled up at his ankles. Both mom and boy were waiting for him to grow into an older brother’s clothes.
The parade was refreshing Americana – a marching band from the small high school; a cohort of tykes on decorated tricycles; thematic floats from civic organizations; and politicians in convertibles with insurance agent advertisements on the doors.
At the end of the parade was another color guard. This one made up of veterans in uniform. At the center was a Marine carrying the American flag. He stood tall, straight-backed, and stared forward every step of the way. There was a Navy officer with the flag of the local American Legion post, and on the ends were to two older men in World War II vintage Army uniforms.
Probably the oldest man (wearing the stripes of a sergeant) passed closest to us and was hunched over a bit. He smiled with great pride as people cheered. He saluted anyone one who saluted him. He stood just as tall as he could, but his 60-year old uniform hung very loose on his 80-year old body. Ironically, the passage of time impacted the man. His once perfectly fitting uniform trousers now had to be rolled up at the ankles.
Walking around after the parade, we passed the church in the heart of the village where the wedding would take place, as well as the barber shop with the candy cane sign that would open special on Saturday morning for the bride’s dad (and any of the men) to get a trim before the ceremony.
The weekend was a heartwarming encounter with American values. It became an intersection of God, family and country which spoke to ideals we treasure. By the time of the Saturday wedding, and at a Sunday Mass I celebrated in the local parish, I had added to my homily reflections. In America, religious and civic life are supposed to intersect in hope and promise.
Religious freedom makes it possible for our churches to proclaim true freedom and true hope. Personal freedoms make it possible for every citizen, young or old, to take a rightful and proud place of example in the community.
In small-town, faith-filled America, rolled up uniform pants represent both hope for the future, and a life well lived. With our Catholic faith, we are willing to roll up the cuffs of our pants.
No, this blog isn’t about the Brewers.
It’s about their predecessor and that team’s replacement, as Art Thiel reports:
The Mariners Saturday will be acknowledging, or commemorating — “celebrating” doesn’t seem quite the right word — the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the awkward runt of MLB that lasted a single season. Enough time has passed that the criminal ineptitude of the operation now seems more like a childhood prank on the order of stuffing Aunt Thusnelda’s wig down the toilet.
To salute whatever that was, the Mariners are staging another Turn Back the Clock event ahead of the 1:10 p.m. Saturday start of the game against Baltimore. The players will wear Pilots uniforms and the first 20,000 fans will receive a replica cap, complete with the “scrambled eggs” trim on the bill.
Sadly, there is no scheduled appearance for buccaneer Bud Selig, the Milwaukee car salesman who in 1970 bought the Pilots out of bankruptcy for $10 million and made them the Brewers. If the ceremony included placing the early-day Clay Bennett in a dunk tank at home plate, a sellout would be guaranteed.
Alas, the best participant witness they can summon is Gary Bell, who pitched a complete-game, 7-0 win over the Chicago White Sox April 11, 1969, the Pilots’ first home game at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium in Rainier Valley. It was the harbinger of nothing.
Now 82, Bell, who had his 12th and final MLB season in Seattle, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. That will generate hundreds of lame jokes about his joining the Mariners’ current rotation. Then everyone can sit back and enjoy bags of popcorn at the 1969 price of 50 cents, the club’s magnanimous financial/nutritional instant ritual to reconnect with the ancients.
It is too bad the promotion doesn’t include distribution of copies of Ball Four, the seminal book by Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton that ripped the skin off the game and became one of the turning points in 20th century American sports journalism/literature. Much of the book was Bouton’s bemused reflections on the hapless Pilots and the tawdry customs and characters that populated America’s then-most popular sport.
Bell’s appearance Saturday evokes the irreverent mention of him by Bouton in the book:
Gary Bell is nicknamed Ding Dong. Of course. What’s interesting about it is that “Ding Dong” is what the guys holler when somebody gets hit in the cup. The cups are metal inserts that fit inside the jock strap, and when a baseball hits one it’s called ringing the bell, which rhymes with hell, which is what it hurts like. It’s funny, even if you’re in the outfield, or in the dugout, no matter how far away, when a guy gets it in the cup you can hear it. Ding Dong.
It’s funny, unless you’re Mitch Haniger. But we digress.
The larger narrative Saturday is that the Mariners are offering up something beyond Bell, hats, popcorn, video and music of yesteryear (yes, there will be an organist playing live).
They are offering the 2019 season as a replica of the 1969 season. It may be a reverence for history unparalleled in the annals of sport.
The Pilots finished 64-98, 33 games back of the division lead, thanks in part to the terms of expansion regarding player acquisition that left them largely with castoffs and unproven youngsters. The under-capitalized team drew 677,944, 20th among 24 MLB teams, thanks in part to a hastily renovated minor-league ballpark that opened with only 19,500 seats, some of which were still damp with fresh paint, and tickets priced among the highest in baseball.
The 2019 Mariners are operating under no similar constraints.
The franchise, originated from a settlement of a lawsuit over the Pilots departure that was destined to prove the American League team owners to be a gang of scofflaws, scalawags and brigands, is owned by prosperous members of the community. They operate a vast regional monopoly with its own TV network in a spectacular, rain-proof stadium funded by taxpayers, who once gathered in sufficient numbers (3.5 million in 2002) to lead all of MLB in attendance.
All of these advantages that have accrued over a half-century put the lie to the claim from many critics in MLB, from the 1960s through the the mid-1990s, that Seattle was a bad baseball town. It was, instead, a town of bad baseball.
Then. And now.
Entering Wednesday’s games, the Mariners were 31-46, a winning percentage of 40.3. Maintaining that pace for the balance of the 162 games would give the Mariners a 65-win season.
Again, the Pilots won 64. As did the Mariners in 1977. Both were first-year expansion teams.
If the Mariners fall off their their current languid pace just a tick — the pending trades of starter Mike Leake and other older veterans with a lick of value makes the proposition seem likely — they can match the win totals of predecessors from long ago.
The case can be made, then, that the 2019 outfit is tantamount to Seattle’s third expansion baseball team. Given the number of World Series appearances in the half-century (zero), the 3/0 ratio is one of the more astounding counting stats in baseball history.
The regression makes clear they are Benjamin Buttons of Baseball.
The difference between then and now is, of course, intent. The 1969 Pilots and 1977 Mariners didn’t want to be bad, but were crippled by outside circumstances. The 2019 Mariners, despite benefiting from the accrued advantages mentioned above, want to be bad.
The modern-day purpose of deliberate badness, we have been told, is to acquire younger, better, cheaper, contract-controllable talent in order to have, down the road at a time unknowable, sustained competitive success at a high level.
The psychological problem is that nothing in MLB’s largely misbegotten half-century in Seattle offers hope of that possibility. Nor does the volume of MLB teams currently tanking along with the Mariners suggest that strategy will do anything but become more difficult. The competition is more intense for the same talent. The small middle class in today’s game means there’s too many teams in the same shallow end of the pool.
Not counting two strike-shortened years, the Mariners have had 11 seasons in which they had fewer than 70 wins, including six seasons of 61 or fewer. The full-season franchise low was 56 in 1978. In 43 years including this one, they have had four seasons of playoffs.
Since the Mariners have failed as a have-not team and a have team, with a bad stadium and a great stadium, with local ownership and non-local ownership, with no local TV revenues and lots of local TV revenues, the aspiration should be to set the franchise record of 55 or fewer victories. Everything else has been tried.
At least this time, the club won’t go bankrupt and move to Milwaukee.
As of Wednesday, 17 of the 25 active players were not on the roster at the end of last season. That’s expansion-level churn. For the rest of the season, I’d stick with the Pilots uniforms and 50-cent popcorn as physical reminders of the attempt to go where no Seattle team has gone before. And never wants to go again.
As it happens, YouTube has video and audio of the 1969 Pilots:
The documentary shows different attitudes about the Pilots from what Bouton wrote about in Ball Four. If Bouton is to be believed, the Pilots spent more time doing, shall we say, other activities than baseball — not quite to the level of the fictional North Dallas Forty, a thinly veiled portrayal of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys, but suffice to say Ball Four was a real shock to baseball fans when it was published. (My thought upon reading Ball Four and North Dallas Forty was to want to be a pro athlete, irrespective of whether I had any actual athletic skills.)
All of this shows how much professional sports has changed in just the past 50 years. It is unconscionable that any major pro sports league would allow an ownership group as undercapitalized as the Pilots’ owners were to own, by purchase or by expansion, a team. One would think Major League Baseball was mortified to have a franchise sink into bankruptcy after one season. The Pilots made the United States Football League appear to be a model of financial stability, and you know what happened to the USFL.
It was the weekly ritual.
You go to church on Sunday and you’re nice and wholesome.
The gimmick matches: You can’t be a beer guzzler and not challenge guys to a Saloon Match. The Crusher took on a young Dusty Rhodes in this match where wrestlers were stationed outside the ring to throw the participants back in after they flew out or tried to run away. A few times, The Crusher teamed up with his “cousin” Dick The Bruiser and vertically-challenged wrestler The Little Bruiser against Lanza, Mulligan and Heenan. Somehow Bobby The Brain did not game plan for The Little Bruiser.
Acting ability: The Crusher appeared in the star-studded 1974 motion picture “The Wrestler” with such acting luminaries as Ed Asner, The Bruiser, British Empire champion Billy Robinson, Verne Gagne, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, Harold Sakata as Odd Job and Roger Kent at ringside. The unthinkable happened afterward. This movie was snubbed by dem bums at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He also starred in a Byron’s Tires commercial where he folded a casing in half and yelled “Don’t be a turkey neck! Get your tires from Byron’s!” You know, being a turkey neck was worse than being a nerd.
This is one of those one-word games.
If you’re too impatient to watch or listen to the whole thing …
Nancy Pelosi is deathly afraid of impeachment. No, it’s not because of a sudden magnanimous surge of camaraderie. It’s because she understands what her fellow Democrats do not: Impeaching President Trump would be an unmitigated disaster.
Rank-and-file Democrats clearly believe that initiating impeachment proceedings in the Democrat-controlled House would sufficiently weaken Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but they need only look to the ill-fated recall of former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to realize the folly of this assumption.
In early 2012, Walker seemed like (politically speaking) a dead man walking. His opponents had secured more than 900,000 signatures on a petition to recall him following his Act 10 public sector union reforms, and opposition to them brought 100,000 protestors to the Wisconsin Capitol just a year earlier.
No governor had ever survived a recall attempt, and the most recent to face one–California’s Gray Davis in 2003–was defeated overwhelmingly.
Yet stunningly, the effort to recall Walker backfired. Just a year after 100,000 protesters showed up to oppose him, he gained 200,000 votes from his 2010 election victory over the exact same opponent.
How did this happen? How did a politician so weakened by intense opposition manage to increase his margin of victory so significantly? The answer is as simple as it is seemingly difficult for Democrats to grasp: The overwhelming unity Republicans experienced in the wake of that opposition.
In other words, the hysterical overreaction to Act 10 galvanized support for Walker from both conservatives and independents who saw the effort to remove Walker for what it was–a political power play masquerading as an appeal to morality.
Walker’s commonsense calculation that overspending on public sector union benefits was bankrupting the state might not have been shared by an overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites, but the belief that Democrats overreacted to it sure was.
Voters, quite simply, couldn’t stomach removing a governor because of a disagreement on policy. In other words, Walker had already been tried in the court of public opinion and exonerated. Democrats, on the other hand, were judged to be sore losers simply bitter over their defeat in the 2010 election and the subsequent implementation of Republican legislation.
It’s almost impossible not to see the similarities in 2019. After two years, millions of dollars, tens of thousands of pages of documents, and hundreds of witnesses, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report found no evidence that the Trump campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia to swing the 2016 presidential election.
Trump had won it fair and square, just as Walker had six years earlier. Democrats, though, still haven’t accepted that and are still looking for something, anything that would essentially undo the results. It is impossible to see an impeachment movement through any other lens.
Pelosi understands this, and is trying desperately to tamp down her party’s rabid push for it. She recognizes that national Democrats face the same uphill battle that Wisconsin Democrats did in 2012 of convincing the voting public that policy and/or personal differences can justify removal from office.
Republicans learned their lesson 20 years ago, when their effort to impeach President Bill Clinton resulted in his public opinion polling hitting the highest point it did during his presidency at 73 percent. Did voters decide that they liked Clinton a lot better once it was revealed that he was a lying adulterer? Of course not. They decided that he was the victim of a Republican witch hunt.
Why do Democrats think that President Trump would fare any differently? He has been claiming for years that the investigations into him were politically motivated, and in drafting Articles of Impeachment against him, Democrats would prove him right.
For years, he has claimed that the national media was out to get him. In fanning the flames of impeachment and overtly pushing for it, they are and have been proving him right for months
Politics is, at its core, making one’s opponent as unsympathetic and unlikable as possible. President Trump is beloved by his supporters, sure, but is loathed by millions. Turning him into a victim by impeaching him with no rational grounds, would turn him–like Clinton and Walker before him–into a sympathetic and therefore far more likable figure.
Not only would he survive a Senate trial since the requisite two-thirds vote to convict is an all-but-impossible standard, but he would also likely win re-election next year in a landslide on a message that amounts to little more than “Make Democrats Sane Again.”
Pelosi, therefore, has ample reason to fear impeachment, as it would solidify conservative support for a President already backed by a record-high number of Republicans and convince fair-minded Democrat-leaning voters that the opposition to Trump simply hasn’t gotten over its 2016 loss.
This is a recipe for disaster in 2020–a suddenly sympathetic president presiding over a roaring economy facing an opponent whose message amounts to little more than “Don’t you hate this guy as much as I do?”
Nancy Pelosi sees it. Here’s hoping the rest of her party doesn’t.
A different pro-impeachment argument came from Gene Healy two years ago:
What’s really obscene is America’s record on presidential impeachments. We’ve made only three serious attempts in our entire constitutional history: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998—both of whom were impeached but escaped removal—and Richard Nixon, who quit in 1974 before the House could vote on the issue. Given how many bastards and clowns we’ve been saddled with over the years, shouldn’t we manage the feat more than once a century?
A ‘National Inquest Into the Conduct of Public Men’
Impeachments “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties,” Alexander Hamilton predicted in the Federalist. That’s how it played out during our last national debate on the subject, during the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio of the late ’90s.
The specter of Bill Clinton’s removal from office for perjury and obstruction of justice drove legal academia to new heights of creativity. Scads of concerned law professors strained to come up with a definition of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” narrow enough to let Bill slide. In a letter delivered to Congress as the impeachment debate began, over 430 of them warned that unless the House of Representatives wanted to “dangerously weaken the office of the presidency for the foreseeable future” (heaven forfend), the standard had to be “grossly heinous criminality or grossly derelict misuse of official power.”
Some of the academy’s leading lights, not previously known for devotion to original intent, proved themselves stricter than the strict constructionists and a good deal more original than the originalists. The impeachment remedy was so narrow, Cass Sunstein insisted, that if the president were to up and “murder someone simply because he does not like him,” it would make for a “hard case.” Quite so, echoed con-law superprof Laurence Tribe: An impeachable offense had to be “a grievous abuse of official power,” something that “severely threaten[s] the system of government.”
Just killing someone for sport might not count—after all, Tribe pointed out, when Vice President Aaron Burr left a gutshot Alexander Hamilton dying in Weehawken after their July 1804 duel, he got to serve the remaining months of his term without getting impeached. Still, Tribe generously allowed, in the modern era “there may well be room to argue” that a murdering president could be removed without grave damage to the Constitution.
In the unlikely event that Donald Trump orders one of his private bodyguards to whack Alec Baldwin, it’s a relief to know that Laurence Tribe will entertain the argument for impeachment. But does constitutional fidelity really require us to put up with anything short of “grievous,” “heinous,” existential threats to the body politic?
The Framers borrowed the mechanism from British practice, and there it wasn’t nearly so narrow. The first time the phrase appeared, apparently, was in the 1386 impeachment of the Earl of Suffolk, charged with misuse of public funds and negligence in “improvement of the realm.” The Nixon-era House Judiciary Committee staff report Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment described the English precedents as including “misapplication of funds, abuse of official power, neglect of duty, encroachment on Parliament’s prerogatives, [and] corruption and betrayal of trust.”
As Hamilton explained in the Federalist, “the true spirit of the institution” was “a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men,” the sort of inquiry that could “never be tied down by such strict rules…as in common cases serve to limit the discretion of courts.”
Among those testifying beside Sunstein and Tribe in 1998 was Northwestern’s John O. McGinnis, a genuine originalist, who argued that the Constitution’s impeachment provisions should be viewed in terms of the problem they were designed to address: “how to end the tenure of an officer whose conduct has seriously undermined his fitness for continued service and thus poses an unacceptable risk of injury to the republic.”
Contra Tribe, who’d compared impeachment to “capital punishment,” McGinnis pointed out that the constitutional penalties for unfitness—removal and possible disqualification from future office holding—went “just far enough,” and no further than necessary, “to remove the threat posed.” In light of the structure and purpose of impeachment, he argued, “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” should be understood, in modern lay language, roughly as “objective misconduct that seriously undermines the official’s fitness for office…measured by the risks, both practical and symbolic, that the officer poses to the republic.”
Today, even the president’s political enemies tend to set the bar far higher. Donald Trump has acted in a way that is “strategically incoherent,” “incompetent,” and “reckless,” Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi said in February, but “that is not grounds for impeachment.”
But incoherence, incompetence, and recklessness are evidence of unfitness, and when we’re talking about the nation’s most powerful office they can be as damaging as actual malice. It would be a pretty lousy constitutional architecture that only provided the means for ejecting the president if he’s a crook or a vegetable, but left us to muddle through anything in between.
Luckily, Pelosi is wrong: There is no constitutional barrier to impeaching a president who demonstrates gross incompetence or behavior that makes reasonable people worry about his proximity to nuclear weapons.
When Barack Obama was president, Trump once asked, “Are you allowed to impeach a president for gross incompetence?” Earlier this year, Daily Show viewers found that tweet funny enough to merit the “Greatest Trump Tweet of All Time” award. Still, it’s a valid question.
The conventional wisdom says no, largely on the basis of a snippet of legislative history from the Constitutional Convention. As James Madison’s notes recount, when Virginia’s George Mason moved to add “maladministration” to the Constitution’s impeachable offenses, Madison objected: “So vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” Mason yielded, substituting “other high crimes & misdemeanors.”
But the Convention debates were held in secret, and Madison’s notes weren’t published until half a century later. Furthermore, the language Mason substituted was understood from British practice to incorporate “maladministration.” Nor did Madison himself believe mismanagement and incompetence to be clearly off-limits, having described impeachment as the necessary remedy for “the incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” …
As the Comey story emerged, pundits and lawbloggers debated whether, on the known facts, the president’s behavior would support a federal felony charge for obstruction of justice. But that’s the wrong standard. As the Nixon Impeachment Inquiry staff report pointed out: “the purpose of impeachment is not personal punishment. Its purpose is primarily to maintain constitutional government.” Even if, to borrow a phrase from Comey, “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a charge of obstruction on these facts, the House is free to look at the president’s entire course of conduct and decide whether it reveals unfitness justifying impeachment.
A Rhetorical Question?
The Nixon report identified three categories of misconduct held to be impeachable offenses in American constitutional history: “exceeding the constitutional bounds” of the office’s powers, using the office for “personal gain,” and, most important here, “behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office.”
When Trump does something to spark cries of “this is not normal,” the behavior in question often involves his Twitter feed. The first calls to impeach Trump over a tweet came up in March, when the president charged, apparently without evidence, that Obama had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower.
The tweet was an “abuse of power,” “harmful to democracy,” and potentially impeachable, Harvard Law’s Noah Feldman proclaimed: “He’s threatening somebody with the possibility of prosecution.” Laurence Tribe, of all people, agreed. Murder may have been a hard case, but slander? Easy call. Trump’s charge qualified “as an impeachable offense whether via tweet or not.”
I confess it wasn’t the utterly speculative threat to Barack Obama that disturbed me about Trump’s Twitter feed that day in March; it was that a mere two hours after lobbing that grenade, Trump turned to razzing Arnold Schwarzenegger for his “pathetic” ratings as host of Celebrity Apprentice. The Watergate tapes exposed much more than a simple abuse of power. They revealed a fragile, petty, paranoid personality of the sort you’d be loath to entrust with the vast authority of the presidency. And Nixon didn’t imagine that the whole world would be listening. Trump’s Twitter feed is like having the Nixon tapes running in real time over social media, with the president desperate for an even bigger audience.
As it happens, there’s precedent for impeaching a president for bizarre behavior and “conduct unbecoming” in his public communications. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson gets a bad rap, in part because most of the charges against him really were bogus. The bulk of the articles of impeachment rested on Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act, a measure of dubious constitutionality that barred the president from removing Cabinet officers without Senate approval.
But the 10th article of impeachment against Johnson, based on different grounds, has gotten less coverage. It charged the president with “a high misdemeanor in office” based on a series of “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” against Congress. In a series of speeches in the summer of 1866, Johnson had accused Congress of, among other things, “undertak[ing] to poison the minds of the American people” and having “substantially planned” a race riot in New Orleans that July. Such remarks, according to Article X, were “peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate” and brought his office “into contempt, ridicule and disgrace.”
From a 21st century vantage point, the idea of impeaching the president for insulting Congress seems odd, to say the least. But as Jeffrey Tulis explained in his seminal work The Rhetorical Presidency, “Johnson’s popular rhetoric violated virtually all of the nineteenth-century norms” surrounding presidential oratory. Johnson stood “as the stark exception to general practice in that century, so demagogic in his appeals to the people” that he resembled “a parody of popular leadership.” The charge, approved by the House but not voted on in the Senate, was controversial at the time, but besides skepticism about whether it reached the level of a high misdemeanor, “the only other argument offered by congressmen in Johnson’s defense was that he was not drunk when giving the speeches.”
It’s impressive that Trump—a teetotaler—manages to pull off his “peculiar indecencies” while stone cold sober. Since his election, Trump has used Twitter to rail against restaurant reviews, Saturday Night Live skits, “so-called judges,” and America’s nuclear-armed rivals. The month before his inauguration, apropos of nothing, Trump announced via the social network that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” following up the next day on Morning Joe with “we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
As Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general, observed, “there are no lines for him…no notion of, this is inappropriate, this is indecent, this is unpresidential.” If the standard is “unacceptable risk of injury to the republic,” such behavior just may be impeachable. An impeachment on those grounds wouldn’t just remove a bad president from office; it would set a precedent that might keep future leaders in line.
Let’s sum up — Democrats most likely have the votes to impeach Trump, but not enough Senate votes to convict him. Impeaching Trump will anger Republicans to get them to show up at the polls next year. Impeaching Trump might make future presidents think twice about their bad conduct (too bad that can’t be retroactive in Obama’s case) and reduce the power of the presidency. Looks like a win–win–win–win to me.
Readers know that I have bemoaned the lack of quality movie and TV depiction of journalists.
It turns out that 50 TV seasons ago, there was a quality depiction of journalists, though realism, as with most fictional entertainments, was not its forte.
Michael Callahan explains:
Fifty years ago, TV had mostly one flavor, and it was vanilla. In fall 1968, the airwaves were full of blandly loopy family-friendly fare like The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle and Petticoat Junction. But on Friday nights on NBC, slipped between a Bonanza-clone Western called The High Chaparral and the troubled third season of Star Trek, there was an unusual little series that, even more than Gene Roddenberry’s show, seemed to be beamed in from the future.
The Name of the Game was a 90-minute cable-style adult drama that came on the air decades before anybody had heard of cable TV. Centered on the glamorous Howard Publications magazine empire and the adventures of its various writers and editors — played by Tony Franciosa, Gene Barry and Robert Stack, with Susan Saint James as their frequently kidnapped secretary — it drilled down into the inner workings of a media company a half-century before HBO got around to doing it with Succession. With a Game of Thrones-size budget ($400,000 an episode, the largest of its day) and a roster of soon-to-be-famous behind-the-camera talent — including a just-out-of-college story editor named Steven Bochco and a 23-year-old neophyte director named Steven Spielberg, along with directors Marvin Chomsky (cousin of Noam) and Leo Penn (father of Sean) — it opened up a world of glamour and luxury that TV mostly wouldn’t explore until Dallas and Dynasty. Even the name of the magazine the characters worked for was prescient: It was called People, six years before Time Inc. launched the real publication (“The dumbest title I have ever heard of,” cracked Fanciosa when he read the script).
“It was flat-out entertaining melodrama,” says Sid Sheinberg, then the maverick Universal exec overseeing the show (he would later become the studio’s president). “I actually looked forward to it every week. I would go home and sit on the floor and watch it every Friday night.”
As it happened, though, The Name of the Game was as melodramatic offscreen as it was on-. And after a tumultuous three-year run, the show exploded in a spectacular flameout during an episode shot in, of all places, Las Vegas.
Which anniversary? This anniversary.
In his piece “There Is No Green New Deal,” Charlie writes:
What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has thrust upon our national conversation is not, in any sense, a “Green New Deal.” It does not resemble a Green New Deal. It does not approximate a Green New Deal. It does not so much as represent the shadows or the framework or the embryo of a Green New Deal. It is, instead, the inchoate shopping list of a political novice who has managed to get herself elected to Congress and believes that this has turned her into a visionary.
I agree with that, but it’s worth reminding folks that there was never any single coherent thing called “the New Deal.” From the beginning, FDR was clear that he was winging it. At Oglethorpe University, he famously set the tone for what they were up to: “bold, persistent experimentation.” He added, “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Roosevelt fans on the left — and of late on the right — have lionized FDR’s “pragmatism” ever since. But this is a terrible credo for a nation committed to the idea that we live under the rule of law, not of men. Some avenues are supposed to be closed off from “experimentation.” Let’s try getting rid of the Bill of Rights for a bit and see if we can’t get great things done! Let’s be — as Tom Friedman puts it — “China for a Day.” Implicit in the idea of experimentation from Washington is the idea that planners should not be constrained. Implicit in the idea of a constitutional republic is that they should be. As we put it in our editorial on the Green New Deal, “The Left really has only one idea: control” — and that is the idea implicit in New Deal–style “experimentation.”
But there’s something else implicit in the idea of such experimentation: a total lack of policy coherence.
The New Deal cargo-cultists have a vexing habit of pointing at the things they like or liked about the New Deal and saying, “That’s the New Deal.” So they like Social Security but are silent — usually from ignorance — about the policies that caused blacks to protest the NRA (National Recovery Administration) as the “Negro Run Around” and “Negroes Ruined Again.” They like all the government makework for artists and writers but don’t talk about the little things, like Jacob Maged or the scuttling of the London Economic Conference, that helped deepen the Depression.
The simple fact, as I argued here, is there was no single New Deal (which is one reason why historians talk about the second New Deal, which produced most of the stuff people associate with the good New Deal). It was the steady pursuit of control and constantly updated wish lists. As FDR told Congress in 1936:
We have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of a people’s government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy such power would provide shackles for the liberties of the people.
In other words, so long as we have the power, whatever we want to do is “wholesome and proper.” But if our political opponents get power, look out!
“I want to assure you,” FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, “that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do legal.”
The New Deal wasn’t a program, it was the by-product of ad hoc experimentation by people who thought their own power was self-justifying. And to look back on it as somehow more coherent than the would-be Green New Deal is to give it too much credit.
“To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of his rule, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.” When Alvin Hansen, an influential economic adviser to the president, was asked — in 1940 — whether “the basic principle of the New Deal” was “economically sound,” he responded, “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.”
It was control. And wish lists. And it was ever thus.