The Times, It Is a Changin’

September 19th, 2016

The Times, It Is A Changin’

You see it on the front page of The New York Times, live on NBC and across the spectrum: reporters, not commentators or columnists, calling out Donald Trump for lying.
That role used to be reserved for fact-checkers and editorial writers. The reporters would report, others would analyze, or, leave it to the readers.
But that old formula is not sufficient for The Age of Trump. The lies come so fast and frequently, piling up, one news cycle after another, that in some cases, at least, they have to be dealt with immediately, in the initial report. There won’t be time to sort it out later.
Take Michael Barbaro’s excellent news analysis on page one of The Times on Saturday, September 17. The editors chose to make it the two-column lead of the paper, with the news story inside, on page 10. That was another departure: before The Age of Trump, the editors would usually lead the paper with the news story and either twin it with a news analysis or put the news analysis inside, on the jump.
But this lie was so flagrant, so bald-faced, The Times had to deal with it in the headline: “Trump Gives Up a Lie, But Refuses to Repent.” The lie in question, of course, was Trump’s years of insinuations that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not qualified to be President.
Barbaro recounted Trump’s assertions to that effect since 2011 and wrote: “It was never true, any of it.”
Katy Tur, on MSNBC, similarly flatly rejected Trump’s claim that it was Hillary Clinton who started the racially-tinged “Birther Movement” and that he, Trump, had “finished it.” Not true, Tur said immediately.
This is not instant analysis, it is competent journalism, a faithful reporting of facts. It is different, necessary in The Age of Trump, and good.


Rising Waters

September 12th, 2016

Lisa Craig’s office window looks out on Main Street, across from Kilwin’s ice cream shop and the Helly Hanson store. Every heavy rain, she gets a vivid reminder of just how vulnerable Annapolis is to the freaky weather that somehow seems normal these days.
“Main Street becomes a river,” she said the other day, “the water pours down over the bricks and curbs into the harbor.”
Lisa Craig’s title is Chief of Historic Preservation for the city of Annapolis. A more apt title would be Chief Drum Beater. Her mission: wake up the people of Annapolis to the existential threats posed by flooding, storm surges, torrential rains and the slow, silent danger of sea level rise.
“When I took this job five years ago, I barely thought about sea level rise,” she says. “Now, I spend 50 per cent of my time on it.”
The most vulnerable portion of Annapolis is arguably its most important: the Historic District, a National Historic Landmark since 1965 that contains 180 of the finest 18th century and later homes and commercial buildings in the country. Total estimated value: $288 million.
The greatest threat to Annapolis and the Chesapeake is unmistakable and beyond argument: as polar ice melts, the oceans warm and the land subsides, the average sea level will rise. Scientists forecast anywhere from one to three feet of elevation by 2100, maybe more.
In that event, the so-called “nuisance flooding” that we saw around City Dock over Labor Day weekend would become more than annoying. Newman Street would become the Newman Canal, unless something is done to prevent it. (The large family of ducks clearly enjoy themselves on the watery pavement now, but even they would have to swim for it.)
Storm surge from a hurricane like Isabel is another grave threat to downtown Annapolis, especially in an era when 100-year storms seem to come along every decade or so.
Last Sunday, The New York Times featured a page-one takeout headlined “Global Warming’s Mark: Coastal Inundation,” with a subhead that read: “Decades of Warnings by Scientists Are No Longer Theoretical.”
Inside, The Times ran a dramatic, full-length graphic of the east coast, showing endangered cities from Boston to Key West. Annapolis was just above the fold, showing a sharp increase in “sunny day” flooding over the last 65 years, from fewer than 10 days-a-year in 1950 to more than 60 days in 2015.
By contrast, low-lying Norfolk, Virginia had just 10 such days in 2015, lower-lying Miami just 14.
That’s the reality and trend line that Lisa Craig is trying to impress upon the Annapolis public consciousness. She has made some progress: under the catchy rubric “Weather It Together,” a loose coalition of city, county, state and Federal agencies have been beating the drum.
They turned out a large crowd to hear oceanographer and author John Englander discuss the threat to Annapolis, and a smaller but interested audience for a day-long, planning seminar on practical solutions. They have held more than a dozen community presentations and enlisted over 1,250 people in public engagement activities.
But, human nature being what it is, namely, not inclined to worry about a problem until it is lapping at the doorstep, no members of the public turned out last Thursday at an open City Hall meeting of the Weather It Together core group to hear a presentation on the devastating flooding in historic Ellicott City in July.
Joe Budge and Ross Arnett, the Aldermen who represent the most vulnerable areas of the city, were there, along with several dozen business and community leaders. They listened as Ellicott City and Annapolis were described as “eerily similar” in terms of vulnerability to flooding.
Alderman Budge, asked where on a scale of one-to-ten he believed Annapolis was in terms of public awareness of the dangers confronting it, he said: “Maybe three or four,” adding: “it will be another year, year-and-a-half before we will have a plan on how to deal with it and what it will cost.”
That is probably right, given that the city’s updated hazard mitigation and cultural resource plan is not expected to be approved before the end of 2017.
In the meantime, as Johnny Cash once sang, “If the Good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise,” Annapolis will stay dry and its historic heart preserved.


Dog Days and Donald’s Taxes

August 14th, 2016

The Dog Days of Summer, that hot, humid period when the dog star, Sirius, rises and falls during the day, are normally a sleepy interlude in the political calendar.
Even in a presidential year, the freshly-minted nominees usually have the decency to take a break after the national political conventions until Labor Day, when the campaigns crank up full speed until election day. The Dog Days are supposed to a breather, when current and former Presidents can play golf on Martha’s Vineyard and harried campaign reporters can catch up on their overdue expense accounts.
Not this year.
In just this past crazy week, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton delivered “major economic addresses,” (have there ever been “minor” economic addresses?) Trump appeared to invite “Second Amendment people” to dispatch Hillary and asserted repeatedly that President Obama and Clinton were “founders” of the Islamic State terror group.
The Clinton campaign fought back with its latest, lawyerly response about her emails and Hillary herself leveled strong denunciations of Trump’s temperament and qualifications for the nation’s highest office.
The coverage of all this has been non-stop, exhaustive and exhausting, taking up newspaper space and airtime that should rightly be devoted to the Rio Olympics and the hot, hot weather.
But one perennial campaign element is missing this year: the public release of the Republican nominee’s tax returns.
Every major party presidential candidate since 1972 has made his returns public. You can find both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s 1040s online back to 2000. Most of the primary candidates issued theirs shortly after filing them in April.
So, what is Donald Trump hiding?
Speculation abounds: interest on loans from Russian oligarchs? Paltry charitable contributions? Less actual income than he claims? Huge debts? Why has he stubbornly refused to release his returns?
The most likely answer is that he pays little or no federal taxes to help fund the government that he proposes to lead. Very possibly zero.
That was the speculative conclusion of tax experts interviewed by The New York Times last week.
“I would expect he’s paying little or no tax,” Steven Rosenthal, a veteran tax lawyer, told The Times. Other experts pointed out that this was likely, and probably legal, given the rich deductions and depreciation that real estate development offers.
Trump himself seemed to confirm zero taxes as his goal when he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC: “I fight hard to pay as little tax as possible.” Asked to name his tax bracket, he snapped: “None of your business.”
Zero or minimal taxes, even on a very large income, could pose a political, rather than legal, problem for Trump. Four years ago Mitt Romney was burned when he reluctantly released his returns and disclosed that he had paid only 14.1 per cent in federal taxes on an income in excess of $20 million. His modest bracket was legal, but politically awkward, contributing to his wealthy, privileged image. At the time, Trump was among the Republican voices arguing that Romney had no choice but to release his returns.
Sensing a political opening, Hillary Clinton released her 2015 personal tax return on Friday, revealing that she and her husband paid an effective federal tax rate of 34.2 per cent on $10.5 million in income from speeches, royalties and the like.
Clinton challenged Trump to do the same, charging that his refusal “defies decades-old tradition of disclosure” by Presidential candidates.
Trump will likely ignore her, arguing again that his returns are under audit. But another wealthy taxpayer, Warren Buffet, a Clinton supporter, said last week that he, too, is being audited and would be happy to meet Trump anywhere anytime to jointly disclose their respective returns.
“You’re only afraid if you’ve got something to be afraid about,” Buffet said.
None of this back and forth is likely to make much difference in November. But if Trump does change his mind and releases his returns, even in the Dog Days of Summer, it will pull back the curtain on a Presidential candidate the public still knows little about.


Random Thoughts(Updated)

July 25th, 2016

Some random thoughts (questions, mostly) on a summer day:

THE TRUMP PARADOX: Is it possible that Donald Trump never expected and, in fact, does not even want to be President? Did he launch his campaign a year ago simply to build his brand? Has he already succeeded beyond his own private expectations? Is his Presidential run a huge con?
I have long suspected as much, and now, I’m told, sources close to Trump have confirmed it to The Washington Post in the course of the reporting they are doing for an instant book due to be published shortly. Trump would never acknowledge it, of course, but it could explain why he has spent so little on national advertising, spurned important Republican endorsements and continued, in speech after rambling speech, to go off the rails with evident disregard for the November outcome. It could also explain why he has not bothered to learn much about the issues the next President will confront.
If you are never going to make it to the oval office, why bother?

THE HILLARY PARADOX: What explains Hillary Clinton’s history of self-inflicted injuries? It goes back, way back, to the lost files from the Little Rock law office right through to her private e-mail servers. Over the years she has done herself more damage politically than all her opponents combined.
Her critics contend that it stems from a superior, above-the-law attitude that they say is shared by both Clintons. Her supporters insist that each case is an innocent mistake, nothing more. Who would knowingly do that to herself, they ask? Who indeed?

THE MEDIA PARADOX: Will the media finally grow up in the way they cover Donald Trump? For more than a year, the cable channels, especially, have given him a fortune in free media, with endless interviews and wall-to-wall coverage of his rallies that have returned record ratings and an advertising bonanza for their parent companies. So much for journalism-versus-the bottom line.
But in recent weeks, it seems, the broadcast networks and major newspapers have fact-checked his more outlandish allegations. His foreign policy speech was a notable example, where the evening news broadcasts challenged any number of his dubious assertions. Stay tuned as the campaign progresses.

THE BILL CLINTON PARADOX: how to handle a former President who is, at one time, the most gifted politician of our time, and a stumbler who can rattle his wife’s campaign with a stunt like his 20-minute airport schmooze with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The campaign may have to confine him to quarters. But he can also lift the entire campaign with a single speech. He is a tremendous asset, until he isn’t.

THE THIRD PARTY PARADOX: Will the Libertarian Party candidates, former governors Gary Johnson and William Weld, win a place on the stage during the Presidential debates in the fall? They need to reach 15 per cent in an average of national polls to qualify, and are not there yet. But will the broad dis-satisfaction with the two leading candidates open an avenue for them?

THE ANNAPOLIS PARADOX: as the self-appointed “Sailing Capital of America,” this city is supposedly full of hardy folk who face down the weather in all conditions. It seemed wimpy of the city to cancel the Fourth of July parade because of intermittent showers, leaving locals and tourists stranded on the parade route.


A Paradoxical Summer

July 10th, 2016

Some random thoughts (questions, mostly) on a summer day:

THE TRUMP PARADOX: Is it possible that Donald Trump never expected and, in fact, does not even want to be President? Did he launch his campaign a year ago simply to build his brand? Has he already succeeded beyond his own private expectations? Is his Presidential run a huge con?
I have long suspected as much, and now, I’m told, sources close to Trump have confirmed it to The Washington Post in the course of the reporting they are doing for an instant book due to be published shortly. Trump would never acknowledge it, of course, but it could explain why he has spent so little on national advertising, spurned important Republican endorsements and continued, in speech after rambling speech, to go off the rails with evident disregard for the November outcome. It could also explain why he has not bothered to learn much about the issues the next President will confront.
If you are never going to make it to the oval office, why bother?

THE HILLARY PARADOX: What explains Hillary Clinton’s history of self-inflicted injuries? It goes back, way back, to the lost files from the Little Rock law office right through to her private e-mail servers. Over the years she has done herself more damage politically than all her opponents combined.
Her critics contend that it stems from a superior, above-the-law attitude that they say is shared by both Clintons. Her supporters insist that each case is an innocent mistake, nothing more. Who would knowingly do that to herself, they ask? Who indeed?

THE MEDIA PARADOX: Will the media finally grow up in the way they cover Donald Trump? For more than a year, the cable channels, especially, have given him a fortune in free media, with endless interviews and wall-to-wall coverage of his rallies that have returned record ratings and an advertising bonanza for their parent companies. So much for journalism-versus-the bottom line.
But in recent weeks, it seems, the broadcast networks and major newspapers have fact-checked his more outlandish allegations. His foreign policy speech was a notable example, where the evening news broadcasts challenged any number of his dubious assertions. The big question: how will news organizations cover the Circus in Cleveland that convenes a week from tomorrow? The Trump campaign promises that the GOP convention will be, in Trumpese, “YUGE.”

THE BILL CLINTON PARADOX: how to handle a former President who is, at one time, the most gifted politician of our time, and a stumbler who can rattle his wife’s campaign with a stunt like his 20-minute airport schmooze with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The campaign may have to confine him to quarters.

THE MERRY WIVES: if Donald Trump picks Newt Gingrich as his running mate, the GOP ticket will have married six wives between them. Just like Henry VIII. Does that matter politically any more? (There was a day when Nelson Rockefeller effectively disqualified himself as a Presidential contender by divorcing his first wife and marrying his second. Seems quaint by comparison.)

THE THIRD PARTY PARADOX: Will the Libertarian Party candidates, former governors Gary Johnson and William Weld win a place on the stage during the Presidential debates in the fall? They need to reach 15 per cent in an average of national polls to qualify, and are not there yet. But will the broad dis-satisfaction with the two leading candidates open an avenue for them?

THE ANNAPOLIS PARADOX: as the self-appointed “Sailing Capital of America,” this city is supposedly full of hardy folk who face down the weather in all conditions. It seemed wimpy of the city to cancel the Fourth of July parade because of intermittent showers, leaving locals and tourists stranded on the parade route.


Spa Creek Could Actually Get Better

June 12th, 2016

In 1650 or thereabouts, a small band of Puritans sailed up Spa Creek and put down roots to create the town we call Annapolis. Then, as now, the Creek was deep, protected and a modest but safe port. In the 18th century, ocean-crossing ships called in Acton’s Cove. The Creek was first called Todd’s Creek, then Carroll’s Creek and later, Spa.
In those early days, the shorelines were deeply wooded. Today, they are lined with million-dollar houses, docks, boatyards and marinas. None of this improves today’s water quality, but it is better than the old days when the streets and sewers of the historic district ran straight into the Creek.
Now Spa Creek, that lovely, historic heart of Annapolis, is about to get a major makeover.
Three, multi-million-dollar projects on its shorelines are in the permit stage and about to get underway. Together, they have the potential to change the look and feel of Annapolis’s central soul by 2018 or so.
If done right, these three developments could actually reduce the pollution that currently washes into the Creek and improve the quality of its murky water. That’s right: improve it. It is not often that you can say that about development, or any human activity, for that matter.
But for that to happen, the three projects have to be engineered conscientiously, not just meeting existing environmental regulations, but exceeding them, setting an example of what can be achieved when responsible people make the right decisions with an eye towards the future.
“We are very hopeful that Spa Creek is going to improve,” said Amy Clements, the president of the Spa Creek Conservancy, a citizens’ group, that works to upgrade the watershed. She said she was optimistic after meeting recently with officers from the Annapolis Yacht Club, which is behind two of the three upcoming projects, including a new informal clubhouse and pool on the Eastport side of the Spa Creek Bridge.
“Our goal is zero discharge,” said Rod Jabin, the recent past commodore of AYC. “We want to reach 100 per cent containment of storm water runoff from the Eastport site. Now it is up to the engineers and architects to tell us that that is possible.”
Spa is deceptively beautiful, especially on a soft, sunny evening like last Tuesday, when dozens of boats cruised gently up and down the Creek, stand-up paddle-boarders frolicked and the Dragon Boats stroked to their own drummers. People fish and swim in the Creek, although I am not sure I would recommend it. Spa is tidal, but far from pristine..
The Spa Creek Conservancy is trying to clean up the headwaters with the help of a $2.8 million grant and has already made progress in clearing trash from Hawkins Cove.
The three upcoming redevelopment projects could have an even bigger impact. They are all downstream within a few hundreds yards of each other: the Annapolis Yacht Club’s three-story clubhouse on the west end of the Spa Creek bridge that was devastated by a fire last December; the new informal clubhouse and pool on the southeast side of the bridge, and a junior sailing center and offices on the northeast side; and the South Annapolis Yacht Centre, on the site of the former Sarles and Petrini boatyards, which describes itself as a “waterfront destination” with housing, a marina and marine services.
All three projects are deep into the permit process, which, like everything else in Annapolis, is painstaking and slow. But Bret Anderson, the builder who is developing the South Annapolis Yacht Centre, argues that the Eastport sites will inevitably be cleaner than what is there now just by meeting the current requirement that 50 per cent of the storm water and other runoff from impervious surfaces be trapped and treated.
The Sarles and Petrini yards were among the oldest on the creek, built 100 and 75 years ago respectively, when there were no regulations about containing runoff. “They were probably the biggest contributors to pollution in the Creek,” Anderson said. “We are going to make a big difference environmentally.”
Anderson’s plans include rain gardens, planted buffers, green roofs and pervious pavers – all designed to trap runoff. In the nearly four years since he bought the steep, 4.5-acre site from Sarles and Petrini heirs, Anderson has hauled away 19 derelict boats, 17 hazardous containments and 46 tractor trailers full of accumulated rubbish.
The Annapolis Yacht Club plans to rebuild the original clubhouse as it was. But on the Eastport sites, they are committed to introducing innovative runoff controls. Exactly how much runoff they can contain remains to be seen.
None of this will return Spa Creek to the crystal clarity that greeted the Puritans, but, if done right, it will help improve the water quality in a treasured resource.

Terence Smith, a journalist, lives in Eastport. He can be reached at terencefsmith@verizon.net. His website is terencefsmith.com


Predictably…Wrong!

May 8th, 2016

No more Predictions.
That is my pledge barely halfway through this most unpredictable election year. I have been so consistently wrong in this space and elsewhere about Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and even Bernie Sanders that it is time to swear off predictions for the balance of the 2016 presidential circus.

Observations, OK; comments, maybe. But predictions? A waste of your time and mine.

Six months ago, I wrote confidently that Donald Trump’s act would get old, that the public would tire of his bluster and bragging, that his lies and exaggerations would trip him up and – get this – that the media would finally stop giving him millions of dollars worth of free airtime and exposure and start doing its job.

As recently as last month, I observed that “some of the air has begun to leak out of the Trump bubble.”

Then came his five-state sweep, including Maryland, on April 26, and, last Tuesday, Indiana. That alone should revoke my self-issued prognostication license.

I have also looked largely in vain for the tough questioning and balanced coverage of the Trump phenomenon that I predicted surely would come from major news organizations. Instead, the cable news channels have continued to cover his raucous rallies wall-to-wall. Trump is news — I get that — but there is such a thing as too much.

The camera stays on his appearances as he insults the audience’s intelligence with outlandish claims about how he will “make America great again,” just by being president and by being Donald Trump, master deal-maker.

“Morning Joe” and other talk shows are shameless in the free airtime they lavish on The Donald, as they call him. The day after Trump’s five-state sweep, Joe Scarborough was positively giddy when Trump called in by phone, kidding the candidate about how it was time to “act presidential.”

Meanwhile, while host and guest continued stroking each other and Mika Brzezinski giggled, MSNBC’s ratings jumped, and the dollars kept rolling in. Ditto on Fox and CNN.

To be sure, there have been some tough, probing stories in mainstream newspapers about Trump’s shady promotions like the Trump University, Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka, all discontinued or in court. Others have shed light on his casino failures in Atlantic City and his long history of unfulfilled promises.

On CNN, host Chris Cuomo repeatedly challenged Trump to explain how he would build his famous wall and make Mexico pay for it, bar Muslims from entering the country and bring China to heel in a new trade war by asking simply, again and again: “How?” Cuomo got no answers, of course, as Trump talked over him, but the audience got the point.

I also assumed and predicted that Jeb Bush would emerge as the leading candidate for the GOP nomination once Trump faded.

I clung to that notion through February, until it was clear that Jeb! was boring the voters to distraction and had burned through his $130 million to no avail.

I did get one thing right: I predicted that Ted Cruz would prove too hard-edged and sinister to expand beyond his evangelical base. His selection of Carly Fiorina as a running mate enabled her to become the first candidate to lose the same election twice.

I underestimated Bernie Sanders from the beginning. I misread the depth of despair among younger voters at politics-as-usual and their willingness to vote for a 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist as a change agent. I never thought he would become the nominee, and still don’t, but I underestimated the degree to which he would influence the debate and move the Democratic Party to the left.

Now, in keeping with my pledge, I’ll make no predictions about the Trump-Clinton face-off in the general election. Clinton is currently leading in the national polls, but November is a long way off. I’ll simply recall H.L. Mencken’s famous quote: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Mencken was talking about the rise of tabloid newspapers, but his acerbic view could be applied more broadly today.


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.