Divided We Stand

April 17th, 2016

Partisanship, division and deadlock are nothing new in American politics.
But across the board, from the paralyzed 114th Congress, to the 4-4 Supreme Court to the deeply-divided American voter, gridlock is the new normal. In the decades that I have covered Washington politics, I have not seen the like of it.
Such is the stage for the Maryland primary in a couple of weeks. In most years, our primary comes too late to matter. Not this year. Maryland may not decide definitively either party’s 2016 Presidential choice, but it will be important, not the least in establishing the momentum the leading candidates will carry into their respective conventions and by likely determining who will succeed the retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski.
Congress is the gridlock poster-child this year. The current, acrimonious Congressional tone had its historic origins back in 1798, when a hot-tempered Connecticut Federalist, Roger Griswold, attacked his esteemed colleague from Vermont, Rep, Matthew Lyon, with a cane on the House floor. Lyon’s considered response was to snatch a hot fire tong from the roaring fire and fight back.
Today’s Congress uses different tools, but is no less fierce in its debates, and is far less in its record of accomplishment. If only President Truman, who campaigned against the “do-nothing” 80th Congress in 1948, could see the 114th version at work, if that is the word for it, he would see how little can get done in a two-year legislative session. Little meaningful legislation has been adopted and the President’s nominations for the federal bench languish.
The Supreme Court logjam is the most flagrant example of willful Congressional gridlock. The late Justice Antonin Scalia was not yet in his grave when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body would not deliberate, advise or consent to a successor until a new President takes office in 2017.
The immediate result: a 4-to-4 Supreme Court deadlock that gave a default victory to public employee unions opposed by Republican-backed interest groups. A sweet irony for Democrats in both timing and substance.
A second, less prominent case involving bank guarantees also tied 4-to-4, leaving the lower court decision in place. In a single week, the Roberts Court tied a 26-year-old record for tie votes in a single term. More ties can be expected, with nearly 50 cases still on the docket for the current term and no replacement for Justice Scalia in sight.
The American voter is divided as well, red and blue. A nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center reported that Republicans and Democrats are more divided on ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.
The voters have separated themselves into ideological silos on the right and left. The Pew study suggests that this division manifests itself in myriad ways, from how people vote to where they live, who they choose as friends and which cable television they watch to get their news.
The result: 92 per cent of Republicans identify themselves as right of the median Democrat, while 94 per cent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, according to Pew. The left hand is definitely not talking to the right these days.
This polarization is conspicuous in the Presidential primaries. It emerges in the angry fistfights at the Trump rallies and the bellicose statements from Senator Ted Cruz. Democrats are split as well, with some Bernie Sanders supporters announcing in advance that they will not rally behind Hillary Clinton if she wins the party nomination.
Some of the air has begun to leak out of the Trump bubble, but the fundamental split in the GOP remains. Hillary Clinton’s path to nomination narrowed after Wisconsin, spurring Bernie Sanders to greater efforts in New York, which is genuinely the Big Apple for both parties this year.
Marylanders, of course, are already split, with a Republican governor and a Democratic majority controlling both houses in the legislature. With the primary coming up on April 26, they will add their voices to the general election cacophony.


The View from Abroad

March 13th, 2016

My wife, Susy, and I just returned from a three-week, 26,000-mile, Eastport-to-Eastport, jaunt around the world. We flew to Sydney, Australia, sailed to Bali, Indonesia, and flew home from Bali, via Doha, Qatar, to Dulles.
Here is what we learned:
* The non-stop carnival that is the 2016 U.S. Presidential race has seized the attention of the rest of the world just as it has here.
* Donald Trump makes almost as many headlines abroad as he does here. His picture was on the front pages when we arrived in Sydney.
* The rest of the world thinks we are nuts. (But, just like a train wreck, can’t stop watching.)
* Annapolis has a lot of admirers. (Every time we said we were from Annapolis, people smiled and said “beautiful,” or remembered visiting the Statehouse or the Naval Academy or sailing the Chesapeake.)
The excuse for the trip was my assignment as a speaker, ahem, “World Affairs lecturer,” on the lovely Crystal Serenity, a gleaming, white, 1,000-passenger cruise ship that is currently on a world cruise. The Sydney-to-Bali run was one segment of that four-month, San Francisco-to-San Francisco cruise that is still underway.
Crystal features all kinds of speakers on history, geography and current affairs. I gave four talks on topics ranging from the current state of the news business to the fractious relations between the U.S. and Russia, but the one that grabbed people, or at least provoked the most reaction, was entitled “Part Carnival, Part Circus: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Race.”
Roughly half the audience were Americans, plus Brits, Canadians, lots of Australians and guests from perhaps a dozen Asian countries. The Americans on board doubtless included a majority of Republicans, but a fair number identified themselves as independents or Hillary Clinton supporters and a few – not many — seemed to back Bernie Sanders.
One passenger declared his sentiments by pasting a bold “Trump for President” sticker on his stateroom door.
Everybody had their opinions about the different candidates and the race, but it was the non-Americans who kept asking, in effect, “have you Yanks taken complete leave of your senses?” Or, more politely, what explains the Trump phenomenon? Or, why the enthusiasm for political outsiders this year?
I said I had no simple explanations, but that the United States seems to be in a era of discontent, in which people on both sides of the political spectrum are dissatisfied with their leaders, especially Congress, and feel let down.
Republicans have heard their standard bearers promise smaller government, reduced regulation, lower taxes and entitlement reform for generations – and have been disappointed when none of it has come to pass. They are frustrated and angry and inclined to turn to someone outside the political mainstream.
Democrats are equally frustrated by endless wars, wage stagnation, income inequality, big-money politics and a Congress that seems to respond more to special interests than the concerns of the average citizen. That’s why Bernie Sanders has enjoyed such resonance, even if he isn’t going to be the nominee.
The international passengers on the ship said they understood all that, but still found it strange – some said, appalling – that so many voters seem to think Donald Trump is the answer to any of it. Some found the spectacle of this primary season amusing, others openly doubted that Donald Trump would ever emerge as the GOP nominee, while still others were frankly apprehensive about the whole primary spectacle.
One Canadian woman who said she was worried about the political trends south of the border used a metaphor: “You know,” she said, “when you sleep next to a bear, you don’t want him to get upset and roll over.”
The wall-to-wall coverage of the campaign and the fractious, noisy GOP debates were broadcast live on the ship’s television, which carried CNN International, Fox, MSNBC, the BBC and Sky News. Not everyone watched them, of course, but those who did came away shaking their heads.
“Three hundred million people and this is the best the U.S. can come up with?” asked one Australian.


The 2016 Political Circus

February 13th, 2016

In many Presidential years, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have clarified the race and provided a roadmap to the nomination.
Not this year.
In some Presidential years, the winners of the first two contests have emerged as the odds-on favorites to go all the way to November.
Not this year.
In some other Presidential years, Iowa and New Hampshire have defined the issues and narrowed the debate.
Not in 2016.
Instead, the Presidential circus so far has defied conventional wisdom and set the entire process on its ear. Rather than bringing the picture into focus, the stunning if wacky victories of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders last Tuesday have muddled the picture and guaranteed a long slog to the nomination in each party.
So, in the interest of sanity and a semblance of coherence, let’s list a few points that have been established so far:
1. Donald Trump is for real. He is not going away. Against all the odds, he has made the transition from late-night punch line to formidable candidate. (Not, however, on Wednesday’s page one of The New York Daily News, which read: “Dawn of the Brain Dead: Clown comes Back to Life with N.H. Win as Mindless Zombies Turn Out in Droves”)
2. Bernie Sanders is for real. Against all the odds, he has made the transition from wispy-haired, 74-year-old self-declared socialist fringe candidate to current front-runner. Remarkably, he captured 73 per cent of New Hampshire’s independents as well as seven of 10 women under 45. He is still a remote prospect for the nomination, but cannot be dismissed.
3. Hillary Clinton has a real fight on her hands. She is still the likely nominee, barring another e-mail eruption, but she has got to find a way to communicate her considerable strengths and make her extensive experience a positive promise for the future, not a reminder of her age and past. And, oh yes, she needs to rally younger women.
4. Ted Cruz has a real problem. Despite his victory in Iowa and second-place in New Hampshire, he can’t shake the near-universal enmity of his Senate colleagues and his hard-right, super-conservative image. The GOP Establishment is convinced that if Cruz is the nominee in November, the party will lose the White House and both houses of Congress. On the other hand, he is not Donald Trump.
5. Marco Rubio has a real problem, too. Ridicule is the most lethal weapon in politics, and his robotic debate performance in New Hampshire has made him the inescapable butt of his opponents’ jokes. He has to demonstrate that he can think on his feet, answer a question and go off script.
6. Jeb Bush is not dead. That’s his Monty Python refrain and it is true. His close third in New Hampshire (Once again, ‘bronze is the new gold’) has given him license to head south to far friendlier South Carolina and the dozen primaries on Super Tuesday, March 1. There are some 30 contests to be fought in the first 15 days of March, so Jeb may live to fight again if at least some of his big contributors come back to the fold.
7. Michael Bloomberg might still become the second billionaire in the race. He has said all along that if Trump and Sanders are the nominees, he might pony up $1billion or so of his estimated $39 billion fortune to finance an independent candidacy. Of course, Ross Perot tried that in 1992 and won 19 per cent of the vote, the most by a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. A Bloomberg run seems unlikely, but in a campaign as strange and unpredictable as this one, who is to say?

Stay tuned.


My 2015 Mistakes

January 19th, 2016

The late, great David Broder of The Washington Post used to write an annual column admitting to all the mistakes he’d made the previous year. Seems sensible, so here are mine in the political sphere:
First, I misjudged the potential and prospects of all, or nearly all, the Republican candidates for President. (I have a history of this; in 1980, I opined on live television that the American people would never choose a B-movie actor for President, even if he had been governor of California.)
Donald Trump: I predicted, with great confidence, would never go anywhere. I was certain that his act would get old, that the public would tire of his bluster and bragging, that his lies and exaggerations would trip him up, that the media would finally stop giving him free airtime and that his callous, crude appeal to our worst instincts would eventually, surely, erode his standing in the polls. Well, as editors used to say, I’m still exclusive with that one.
My revised, 2016 prediction: Trump will go all the way to the GOP convention. He will accumulate delegates, especially in states that are not winner-take-all, even if he slips in Iowa, courtesy of the evangelicals there, and stumbles in New Hampshire. Unless I’m wrong – again – Trump will be a factor when the Republicans gather in Cleveland, but I still find it hard to envision him as the nominee.
Ben Carson: I never understood his appeal, other than as a soft-spoken contrast to his fellow candidates. Since I don’t consider the presidency to be a starter office, I could not understand how a surgeon, no matter how able, could be taken seriously as a commander-in-chief. And yet, he rose in the polls; my forecast of his demise seemed hollow… until it didn’t.

Ted Cruz: I wrote that he was too hard-edged, too angry and too unpopular with his fellow Republican Senators. The more I said that, the faster he rose in the polls, especially in Iowa. (These guys should hire me to criticize them.) My 2016 view: Cruz clearly appeals to a certain, angry base that somehow accepts him as an outsider. He will be a major factor in Cleveland.
Marco Rubio: despite his youth and inexperience and the fact that he doesn’t seem to like being in the Senate, and despite my skepticism, he is clearly positioning himself as a smoother, more modulated conservative.
Jeb Bush: I wrote repeatedly that he would emerge as the more moderate, consensus, establishment choice, even if he was George W.’s brother and even after he selected as his foreign policy advisors some of the same, lame, misguided neo-cons who brought us the senseless, unjustified war in Iraq. Well, I am still hanging out there with that one, and my prospects of being right seem as dim as Jeb’s of being the nominee, unless he really scores in New Hampshire.
Chris Christie: I could never see him as the nominee, even before Bridgegate, even before he threatened in one debate to take us to war with both Russia and China, and yet he has improved his standing in New Hampshire, so who knows?
The others? Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindall, Lindsay Graham and George Pataki dropped out before I got a chance to be wrong about them in print. John Kasich seemed to me like the kind of experienced, Jack Kemp-style Republican who might attract a following, but his debate performances apparently turned people off. He may revive in New Hampshire… or not.
Carly Fiorina clearly helped herself in the debates. She could emerge as a vice presidential choice if the GOP decides it needs a woman on the ticket, but I doubt it. The other candidates from the undercard debates seem destined to remain in the low single digits.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton at first seemed off-stride to me as a candidate: short-tempered, impatient, visibly annoyed with the press. But her confident, informed performances in the debates convinced me that she is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
But the caucuses and primaries lie ahead, so I have many opportunities to be wrong in 2016.


The View From Annapolis II

December 13th, 2015

Just two more days to the next Republican Primary debate in the long-running, messy spectacle known as the 2016 Presidential election. So, gather round, pop the popcorn and settle down to watch the next episode of Donald Trump and Friends.
This Tuesday, the leading GOP candidates will assemble in the ornate halls of The Venetian, that gaudy temple to bad taste in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Donald should feel right at home.
Here in Annapolis, we have an excellent perspective on this carnival. We are close enough to Washington to follow the action, but far enough away so your shoes don’t get splattered with mud. All we have to do is tune in to CNN at 9 p.m. Tuesday and watch Wolf Blitzer herd the cats.
It is not really a debate in the Lincoln-Douglas sense, of course, rather a calculated cage fight in which Trump is expected to rail against immigration and Muslims, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and others will struggle for air time.
Along with most political and world leaders, many in the media started to turn on The Donald in the past week in the wake of his xenophobic proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. He was widely criticized – but widely covered – on social media and most evening and morning news shows. My former paper, The New York Times, had the story at the top of page one, describing Trump’s remarks as “an extraordinary escalation of language aimed at voters’ fears about members of the Islamic faith.”
The result: Trump remains at or near the top of most polls of likely Republican primary voters, and the GOP establishment is starting to worry about a brokered convention.
The dirty little secret over the last several months is that the media has been fully and joyfully culpable in the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump, giving him almost unlimited air time with scant hard questioning, aiding and abetting his rise in the polls.
There is an unacknowledged-but-profitable symbiotic relationship between Trump and news organizations: the more outrageous his statements, the more coverage – “free media” is the term of art – the greater the ratings.
The GOP debates are a case in point: they have been a revenue bonanza for the cable channels that have carried them.
The first Republican debate on Fox News last August attracted a record audience of 24 million. A month later, CNN pulled in 23 million, half-again its largest audience ever. CNBC attracted 14 million in October. The November debate on the Fox Business channel , which rarely has 100,000 people watching, pulled in 13 million viewers.
Four years ago, the Republican primary debates drew 4-to-6 million viewers. Needless to say, this year’s record ratings translate into serious ad revenue.
I’m not suggesting the debates are not worthwhile; they are. I’m not disputing that the coverage of Trump is justified; it is. A presidential candidate who is leading in most polls six weeks before the Iowa caucus is news, no matter how outlandish his positions.
But more rigorous questioning of Trump would be welcome, along with more consistent fact-checking of his fabrications. The wall-to-wall coverage of his pronouncements is wearing thin.
Many in the media have been and remain skeptical of The Donald and his chances of actually securing the GOP nomination. In fact, my former colleague on the PBS NewsHour, David Brooks, has doubled down on his prediction that Trump will collapse from the weight of his own baggage.
And Dana Milbank in The Washington Post dropped all pretense of objectivity in his column when he flatly labeled Trump a racist and bigot and compared him to Il Duce.
But perversely, the more Trump is denounced, the more popular he becomes with his hard-core supporters who see him as refreshingly honest. The running controversy is likely to build audience for Tuesday’s debate, not diminish it.
And in the now-familiar Trump playbook, any publicity – even this column – is good publicity.

Terence Smith, who lives in Annapolis, is a former media correspondent on the PBS NewsHour.


Annapolis Face Lift

December 2nd, 2015

In a letter to The Annapolis Capital on November 27, Wayne Adamson takes me to task for my recent Capital column supporting the Annapolis City Dock Master Plan, which he dismisses as “neither masterful nor suitable.”
I disagree.
The Plan, drafted by a citizen’s committee headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and formally adopted as policy by the City Council, is not perfect. If anything, I wish its authors had been more ambitious. But it is a major step in the right direction towards liberating the City Dock from its current status as a potholed, frequently flooded parking lot.
The plan envisions removing the cars that currently enjoy the best view of the water, relocating the Harbormaster’s office building and redesigning the public spaces to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles in a green, open area that would invite visitors and residents alike to enjoy what the plan describes as “the iconic emblem” of the city.”
Mr. Adamson, representing the businesses that line Dock Street, is afraid that “getting the cars out of there,” as recommended by Alderman Joe Budge, will compel his customers to walk a few blocks from off-site parking. I suspect that a refreshed, pedestrian-friendly City Dock area will attract more customers, not drive them away.
The complete City Dock Master Plan, with illustrations and artists’ renderings, is available on the city’s website. I hope Annapolitans will read it and decide for themselves if it envisions the right way forward for this historic seaport. And, if they agree, I hope they will insist that the City Council implement its guidelines.


Annapolis Makeover

November 12th, 2015

Ego Alley and City Dock are looking forlorn these days.
Most of the area is fenced off, crowded with construction equipment and dominated by a huge crane atop a massive barge anchored in the waterway. Even the bronze Alex Haley and his attentive pupils are temporarily out of reach.
The $7.5 million repair and renovation of the inner portion of Ego Alley is underway. Rotting bulkheads are to be rebuilt, sea walls shored up and the electrical connections elevated. The waterfront will look better, but none of this will prevent the frequent flooding of the surrounding streets or deal with the more serious, longer-term threat of sea level rise.
Meanwhile, the City Council is embroiled in another, long-running debate over the zoning changes required to accommodate the latest proposed redevelopment of the shuttered former Fawcetts Boat Supplies store at 110 Compromise Street. Legislation has been submitted to relax the rules governing the Waterfront Marine Conservation District in that area to permit up to 60 per cent of the site to be devoted to non-maritime uses such as restaurants and retail.
As usual, there are opponents and supporters of the proposed changes. I have no dog in this particular fight, but, intrigued by the Waterfront Maritime Conservation concept, I looked up the enabling legislation that was adopted in 1986.
It calls for preservation of …”the maritime industry and historic character” of the City Dock area, which includes 8.43 acres from the Annapolis Yacht Club around Ego Alley to Susan Campbell Park. This is the heart of downtown Annapolis, a high-rent district embracing 16 parcels with an assessed value of $54.4 million.
But exactly what “maritime industry” is there now?
The waiters serving painkillers at Pusser’s Caribbean Grille? The room clerks at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel? The barflies along Dock Street? Is that “maritime industry?”
“The maritime district concept was flawed from the get-go,” Alderman Ross Arnett told me when I asked what the original idea was. “It was well-intentioned, but they were trying to preserve something that didn’t really exist anymore.”
Indeed, City Dock was once a bustling seaport lined with all kinds of boats and chandleries. But that was a long time ago. Arnett’s main concern today is that if the waterfront conservation standards around Ego Alley are relaxed, property owners in Eastport – his district – will seek the same relief.
Before long, he fears, the genuine maritime businesses that currently line the shores of Eastport, the sail makers and boat builders and the like, will sell out to higher-revenue bars and restaurants and an important element in Annapolis’ maritime character will be lost. At a town hall meeting Thursday night, Arnett said he’d already heard from two Eastport businessmen who want rezoning there as well. Patrick Shaughnessy, president of Farr Yacht Design, spoke up at the meeting to say that he’d been offered better inducements to move his business to France than stay in Annapolis.
Gene Godley, the chairman of the Annapolis Port Wardens, has a broader concern about altering the Waterfront Conservation District zoning to accommodate any one project.
“We need a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan for the entire City Dock area,” he said, “not piecemeal zoning to satisfy one party or another.”
In fact, Annapolis already has such a plan. It is called The Annapolis City Dock Master Plan, drafted by a commission headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Completed in October 2013, with Godley as vice chairman, it was adopted as policy by the City Council.
The Master Plan calls for a thorough re-design of City Dock and Ego Alley, which is where Annapolis meets the water and establishes its identity. It would convert the area from a frequently-flooded parking lot where critics have noted “the cars have the best view of the water,” into a pedestrian-friendly public space that would draw tourists and residents alike. Ward One Alderman Joe Budge said Thursday night that “the real nut to crack” in implementing the City Dock Master plan is “to get the cars out of there.”
Done right, an imaginative City Dock makeover could be a huge asset to the city that both recalls Annapolis’ rich maritime history and enhances the waterfront experience today. Let’s hope that whatever The Council decides respects the Master Plan and helps make the Annapolis inner harbor the welcoming space it can be.


Don Edwards, R.I.P.

October 11th, 2015

Annapolis and Anne Arundel County lost a remarkable, delightful former neighbor on October 1, when Don Edwards, a 20-year resident of Mayo, passed away at the spectacular age of 100.
Don, and his late wife, Edie Wilkie, were passionate enthusiasts of the Chesapeake Bay. Their beautiful waterfront home was on Holly Point, between the South and West Rivers, on high ground looking southeast down the Bay. They birded and boated and swam and entertained there in high style. (Full disclosure: my wife, Susy, and I were longtime friends and frequent guests of Don and Edie and, on one stunning fall day, were married beneath the tall trees on Holly Point. So, there is no pretense of objectivity here.)
William Donlon Edwards, as he was christened in 1915, spent 32 years in Congress, representing San Jose, CA, and a swath of San Francisco Bay. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, he became a celebrated champion of free speech, human rights and equality for women, minorities and the disabled.
Don was proud to be labeled “relentlessly liberal,” and counted among the highpoints of his Congressional career the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in 1975, the abolition of the infamous smear-machine, The House Un-American Activities Committee.
No pacifist – he had served in the Navy in World War II – Don nonetheless was an early and vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam and opposed our other hapless adventures in Grenada, Iraq and elsewhere. I once asked him what we should do in Iraq after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown, when conservatives were warning that we must not “cut and run.”
“Cut and run,” he said, flatly.
Had we listened to Don, and to Edie, who was as ardently anti-war as her husband, we could have saved a decade of losses and heartache.
Don was a proud, capital D, Democrat, who had grown up in a prosperous, Republican family in San Jose and been president of the California Young Republicans. Disillusioned with the GOP’s rightward drift, he won a four-way Democratic primary in 1962 by 726 votes and never had a close election again.
Graduating from Stanford University, Don was a crack golfer who went on to win the Bing Crosby Clambake — the forerunner of today’s ATT Pro-Am tournament– at Pebble Beach as an amateur. When he told his crusty and opinionated father that he wanted to turn pro and play golf for a living, the elder Edwards blustered: “Don’t be ridiculous! There’ll never be any money in golf. Go to law school.”
After Stanford Law, Don became, by his own description, “the worst FBI agent in the history of the Bureau.” One of his early assignments, was to photograph the automobile license plates arriving at a mob funeral outside Detroit.
“I hid behind a bush beside the side of the road,” Don told me, laughing. “When a car approached, I’d jump out, take the picture, and jump back. When the film was developed, all I had were pictures of the bush!”
In Congress, the former agent became a leading critic of the Bureau, which he thought compromised people’s civil rights, and especially its dictatorial Director, J. Edgar Hoover. The enmity was mutual.
Once, when Don floated the idea of retiring from Congress years before he did, it made the papers and Hoover clipped the article at his desk and scrawled across it: “Good riddance!” and signed it “H.” Don eventually got the clipping, had it framed, and displayed it proudly at Holly Point.
He also framed and hung in the bathroom at Holly Point his member’s pass to the impeachment hearings of Richard M. Nixon. Don was among the committee members who voted in favor of all the articles of impeachment.
Don’s life-long commitment to racial equality led him to march in Mississippi in 1964 and demonstrate against apartheid in South Africa decades later.
With his usual good timing, Don announced his retirement from Congress at the age of 79 before the election of 1994, when the GOP captured the majority in the House.
He and Edie divided their time after that, summers at Holly Point, winters in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA. When Susy and I visited them in Carmel, as we did once or twice a year, Don would always ask me: “How’s the Bay?”
“I love The Chesapeake,” he’d say with a big smile.


What Sleepy Summer?

September 13th, 2015

Summer is normally a drowsy, dull time in the news business. Papers struggle on a diet of shark sightings and weather stories, waiting for things to pick up after Labor Day.
But this summer was different: desperate migrants streaming across Europe, the Iran nuclear deal and the Greek debt crisis filled the front pages. There were wildfires in the west and wild market gyrations on Wall Street. There were shootings around the country and riots in Baltimore. The Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage and subsidies for Obamacare, while Congress fulminated and mercifully left town. Pope Francis remade the face of the Catholic Church by everything he said and did.
On the normally somnolent political front, we had Bernie rising, Hillary sinking and Joe Biden pondering; we had17 — count ’em, 17 — Republicans volunteering to be president, with Jeb! slowly subsiding, The Donald and Dr. Ben ascending in the polls and all the others struggling to get a headline.
The biggest cable audience of the summer — 24 million — watched the Aug. 6 GOP debate on Fox and then followed along as The Donald trashed Megyn Kelly and insulted most of the others on and off the stage.
For news organizations, the Donald Trump spectacle was summertime catnip. Talk shows like “Morning Joe” and “The O’Reilly Factor” couldn’t get enough of him. Stephen Colbert had a running joke on his inaugural “Late Show” in which he could no more stop talking about Trump than stop eating Oreos. Even when The Donald phoned it in, as he often did, ratings jumped as he ranted and raved about immigration, China or his “low-energy” competitor, Jeb!
It all seemed like innocent summer fun. Pundits and hacks like me confidently predicted that the audience would tire of The Donald’s act and that he would fade like Herman Cain four years ago. Except he didn’t. He climbed in the polls as the other candidates sank and serious commentators seriously suggested that he could win the GOP nomination. Seriously.
The other summer phenom was Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who became famous for being part of the large surgical team that separated a set of Siamese twins. “Gifted Hands” was the title of his bestseller. The media treated him gently, never mentioning the sad fact that the twins died shortly after the operation.
A soft-spoken African-American movement conservative, Carson climbed steadily in the polls, eclipsing Jeb! and the other establishment wannabes in Iowa and other early states.
Another of the Gang of 17, Carly Fiorina, also moved up in the polls. As the only woman on the Republican side, the former Hewlett-Packard executive stood out in the junior varsity debate when she prodded Trump and his pomposity. The Donald responded last week in an article on the website of Rolling Stone mocking her appearance. “Look at that face,” he was quoted as saying, “would anyone vote for that?”
These three overnight sensations have one thing in common: None has been elected to public office. All three consider the presidency a starter office. Beyond their egos, they share something else: They personify a massive protest vote, in which voters are expressing their exasperation with government in general, politics as usual and the current crop of candidates in particular. These voters evidently admire Trump as too rich to be bought, Carson as genuine and Fiorina as smart.
The question, of course, is whether these voters and more will still support these nonpoliticians when casting an actual ballot, not just answering a pollster’s question. Once they have “made a statement” in the polls, will they reconsider and choose one of the more experienced candidates?
I have no idea. But this unusual, news-filled summer has set us up for a fascinating fall and winter and spring.


The View from Annapolis

August 9th, 2015

Annapolis, I’ve come to discover, affords an excellent vantage to view the many machinations of Washington, D.C., aka America’s Entertainment Capital.

Our town is far enough from the Congress and the White House to escape the inside-the-Beltway mindset, yet close enough to get a sense of what’s going on.

From Annapolis, we’ve been treated so far to the first six months of the Republican-led 114th Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promised last November that he would convert the upper chamber from what he derided as a Democratic cave of winds into a productive, GOP-administered body that gets things done.

Instead, McConnell has been thwarted repeatedly by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his tea party faction, who have delayed some important priorities (fast-track trade legislation,) derailed others and denounced the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been grappling with a continuing rebellion from the right that forces vote after fruitless vote against Obamacare, seeks to defund Planned Parenthood and rails against the Export-Import Bank as corporate welfare. (Of course it is corporate welfare for big companies like General Electric and Boeing, which employ thousands of workers. But it keeps us competitive with the 63 other nations that have and use similar financing authority to stimulate exports.)

Most frustrating has been Congress’ inability to provide long-term funding for the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. While Congress has fiddled, desperately needed, job-producing projects to upgrade our highways, bridges and tunnels have stalled. The best Congress could produce was another three-month continuing resolution and a promise to revisit the issue in the fall.

All this obstructionism is exhausting work. So the House and Senate have embarked on a 39-day summer recess. It is no vacation, mind you. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the House minority leader, and six of Democratic her colleagues immediately boarded a military jet for Kiev, to show support for the beleaguered people of Ukraine.

But, as Al Kamen helpfully pointed out in his “In The Loop” column in The Washington Post, they are taking the scenic route to the war-torn country, via Rome, Naples and Milan, all of which are lovely at this time of year.

From Annapolis, we can recognize this junket for what it is: an all-expenses-paid vacation. But for the record, Congress defines it as part of its August “work period.”

In the interest of governmental efficiency, I am tempted to suggest that Congress stay out of town longer. Say, a couple of years. But I realize the problem: The government would shut down altogether on Sept. 30 for lack of funds. Then the national parks would have to close and the animals in the National Zoo might go hungry.

The Annapolis City Council has taken a page from Congress, going on its own, albeit shorter, summer break. But the business of government grinds slowly on: Last week Mayor Mike Pantelides signed a 20-year lease for the Annapolis Renewable Energy Park, which will become the nation’s largest solar energy project in an unused landfill. Eventually, the 16.8 megawatt solar voltaic installation will offset greenhouse gas emissions and benefit the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a real accomplishment, even if the proposal dates back to Mayor Ellen Moyer’s administration.

So, maybe the Congress could take a page from Annapolis and shorten its vacation and endorse President Barack Obama’s sweeping carbon-cutting proposal, known as the Clean Power Plan. That’s not likely, of course, because the Senate’s top Republicans have already come out against it and 14 states have joined in a lawsuit seeking to block it. Don’t hold your breath on that one.

Still, some things do eventually get accomplished. I think we all know that after all the Senate hearings on the proposed nuclear deal with Iran have been held, and all the attacks from the roster of Republican presidential candidates have been heard, the dealt will likely be approved and go into effect, if only because Obama has vowed to veto any congressional vote to block it and because all the alternatives to the deal are far worse.

I’m not sure Winston Churchill had the U.S. Congress — or Annapolis — in mind when he famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But he had it right.

Terence Smith is a journalist who lives in Eastport. He can be reached at terencefsmith@verizon.net