The Trump Effect?

November 12th, 2017

What is the message behind Gavin Buckley’s stunning, lopsided victory over Mayor Mike Pantelides in the Annapolis city elections this past week? What does it say about how Annapolitans feel about their city, about politics today and about President Donald Trump one year after his upset victory?
“Trump and turnout,” Pantelides immediately volunteered to me as he stepped down from the microphone after his concession speech Tuesday night when I asked him what explained Buckley’s remarkable win.
“Annapolis wanted a change,” he conceded, and indeed, despite a rainy, chilly election day, nearly a thousand more voters turned out Tuesday than during the hard-fought, incredibly close mayoral election four years ago. Clearly the voters of Annapolis had something to say and wanted to be heard.
“The national factor played a big part,” the Mayor continued. “Trump has ruined the Republican label.”
Pantelides may have been making excuses for his own poor showing, but his bitter feelings about the President were echoed among his supporters gathered in the second floor ballroom of the Annapolis Waterfront hotel. All the trappings for a blowout victory party were there: tables laden with hors d’ourves, music, a free-flowing, cash bar. But the Republicans in the room, almost all of them white and prosperous-looking in coats and ties and dresses, were angry with their national standard-bearer.
“I’m heartbroken,” said a blonde-haired woman standing with her grown daughter. “I’m a conservative and a lifelong Republican, but Trump has destroyed the party right down to the local level. “ “It is pretty scary,” her daughter agreed, “The Trump effect is real.”
Pantelides confessed that he had known he was in trouble two weeks before, when he got the results of a private poll conducted by his campaign. “It showed Gavin ahead 46-to-43 per cent, ” he said. That was when his supporters began flooding the city mailboxes with attack fliers mocking Buckley’s Australian accent, questioning his business record and accusing him of planning to raise taxes.
“The fliers hurt,” I know that.,” Pantelides conceded ruefully Tuesday night.
If the mood in the Republican gathering was sour and flat, the scene at the Metropolitan Kitchen and Lounge celebrating Buckley’s success was joyful and raucous. Hundreds of supporters, black, white and Asian, young and old, packed the three floors of the restaurant, laughing and cheering over the pulse of a disco beat. They applauded their hero’s acceptance speech, traded high fives and hooted approval when a reel of “Gavin’s Bloopers” – stumbling outtakes of Buckley’s video ads — flickered across the screen.
Buckley himself was exuberant. When a television reporter asked him on camera what his first act would be after the swearing-in on December 4, Buckley said: “Signing a peace treaty with Eastport!”
When Steve Schuh, the Republican County Executive shook his hand and promised that they would work together, Buckley said: “Great. Can I buy you a drink?” and led Schuh through the crowd to the bar.
The contrast between the two election-night parties mirrored the candidates themselves: Pantelides, the earnest, methodical plodder who trumpeted his first four years and promised more of the same; Buckley, the rakish, adventurous outsider who promised change, new ideas and excitement.
How big was the Trump factor? While the results here reflected the same-day Democratic sweep in Virginia, New Jersey and New York City and clearly represented a wider Republican setback, the Annapolis outcome was mostly local, mostly about the sharply contrasting candidates and the voters’ frustration with the glacial pace of improvements in their venerable city.
Annapolitans seemed to be looking at the endless squabbles over the Market House, the empty storefronts on Main Street, the frequently clogged traffic, the non-stop development, the shabby public housing, the increased crime, the repeated “nuisance flooding” lapping at the edges of downtown and the parked cars littering City Dock and asking: “Can’t we do better?”
Gavin Buckley seemed to be taking a page out of the Obama playbook and answering: “Yes we can.”
Come December 4, he’ll get his chance to prove it.


A Broken System

October 23rd, 2017

Is it just me, or does it seem to some of you that the wheels are coming off our national political system?
Allow me to vent, please, as we look at our current dilemma:
Thanks to the electoral college and nearly 63 million voters, we have a President who is manifestly unsuited and ill-prepared for the job. He was duly elected under arcane rules that have denied the presidency to the popular vote winner in two of our last five national elections. In 2016, that meant his opponent got nearly 3 million more votes…and lost.
Thanks to gerrymandering and big money, we have a Congress that deadlocks over everything from health care to tax reform. It takes a disastrous hurricane to get anything done quickly, or to even kick the can down the road for three months.
Thanks to partisan redistricting and again, big money, there is precious little turnover in Congress. In 2016, 97 per cent of the House incumbents who stood for re-election won; 93 per cent of Senators who sought re-election succeeded. More often than not, incumbency equals job security.
Big money also has given special interests maximum leverage in Washington. No surprise, because campaigns have become ever more costly. Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm had it right when he said: “ready money is the mother’s milk of politics.” As if to prove it, a record $55 million was spent earlier this year in the special election to replace Tom Price in Georgia’s sixth district, most of it on behalf of the Democratic candidate, who lost. It demonstrated how hard it is to win a seat that has been skillfully gerrymandered over the years.
Look as well at what the U.S. presidency has become. It is an imperial office today, with vast powers to rattle nuclear sabers, tear up trade and international climate agreements, dismantle domestic programs and pardon convicted criminals.
The executive order is today’s all-purpose tool of convenience, used equally by our current and former chief executives. Occasionally, as in the case of the evolving travel bans, the federal courts step in. But most often, a stroke of the presidential pen prevails.
Nothing illustrated the current congressional fecklessness better than the Republican failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. After seven years of pledges and promises, the GOP leadership was unable to control the conservatives in its own caucus and deliver the votes to pass a substitute version.
Nor is tax reform likely to be any easier. Or the much-promised trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, or immigration reform or any of the other big-ticket items that were supposed to be adopted now that one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House. Gridlock is what we get instead.
I’m not sure this is exactly what the founders had in mind when they drafted the constitution and bill of rights and created a system of checks and balances. Congress was supposed to be a co-equal branch, not a frustrated and frustrating cave of winds.
Three things could make our democracy more democratic: non-partisan redistricting, serious campaign finance reform with spending limits and expanded public financing and revising or scrapping the electoral college.
Direct popular election of the President will not solve all our problems, but it certainly will better reflect the people’s choice. Independent re-drawing of congressional districts, based on population not partisan politics, will make more races competitive. Gerrymandering is a bi-partisan passion: the Democrats in Maryland are every bit as adept as the Republicans elsewhere. In Maryland, the politicians choose their voters, not the other way around.
And reforming the rules on campaigning, limiting the time and money involved, will open the process to more candidates and reduce the influence of special interests.
None of this will make for a perfect system. But it would be more fair, less beholden to the powerful groups that distort it today and yes, more democratic. With a lower-case “d.”


Mayoral Sweepstakes 2017

October 23rd, 2017

Annapolis, Maryland is being treated to a lively, genuinely competitive and so far remarkably civil mayoral race that pits an improbable, 34-year-old incumbent against an unlikely, 54-year-old challenger.
With just two weeks and two days to go, the outcome is hard to predict.
If you’ve been looking the other way, here’s the race in a nutshell:
Mike Pantelides, the 136th Mayor of Annapolis, was just 30 when he squeezed into office by 60 votes out of nearly 8,000 cast four years ago. A political neophyte and a Republican in a city with a two-to-one Democratic registration, he defied all the political odds to become the first GOP mayor in more than a decade.
“Mayor Mikey,” as some of his less-generous critics call him, was boyishly awkward in his first year in office, seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. But he has gained in confidence and authority as he has battled with the City Council over issues large and small. He has raised more than $250,000 for his re-election and has important segments of the business community behind him. At the outset of the race, he was clearly the frontrunner.
Gavin Buckley, the Democratic nominee, is an Australian-accented restaurateur and businessman often credited with reviving inner West Street (“changing it from a red light district to an arts district,” he says,) who scored a major victory in the primary by decisively defeating the veteran State Senator John Astle.
A total newcomer to politics, Buckley sailed into Annapolis 23 years ago from Bermuda and never left. Married with two children in Annapolis public schools, he has raised some $130,000 in campaign funds and generated serious momentum behind his candidacy with his wit, energy and new ideas.
A long-shot when he first declared, Buckley is now a serious contender who could well take City Hall on election day.
Unlike the name-calling and coarse language of our recent presidential race, the Annapolis mayoral campaign has been remarkably well-mannered, at least so far. The two candidates even lunched together recently at Lemongrass, one of Buckley’s several restaurants.
“I offered, but Gavin picked up the tab,” Pantelides told me last week. “I like Gavin a lot. He has good ideas, but I’m not sure he necessarily knows how to get things done or how to pay for things.”
Last week the campaign tone sharpened a bit as Mayor Pantelides launched a sarcastic online video ad and mailer spoofing Buckley’s idea for a Ferris wheel along the waterfront, a notion Buckley tossed out on a local podcast as a device to lure families downtown and brighten the City Dock area.
“Nothing says historic preservation like an eyesore Ferris wheel,” the ad concludes.
Buckley seemed more amused than annoyed by the needle; he’s not counting on a lot of votes from the historic preservation crowd, whom he described to me in an interview as “a Game of Crones.”
The tone of the race may harden in the remaining two weeks, because it feels so close. Both candidates are pressing hard.
Buckley says he has not conducted any polls, but figures he needs to attract at least 4,500 votes to win. “Mike has the bigger challenge,” Buckley told me, “because he has to bring Democrats to his side to win.”
The Mayor concedes that he has conducted opinion polls, but said in a telephone interview that the results are “confidential.” When I said that sounded bad, he laughed and said, “No, they’re not bad, I can say that.”
Despite their surface harmony, the Mayor and his challenger differ sharply in style and substance. Buckley fairly spouts ideas, while Pantelides is more cautious and measured.
Buckley wants to revive Main Street, get the cars off the City Dock waterfront and make it a people-friendly draw for residents and visitors alike, convert the beleaguered Market House into a vibrant community gathering place, get Annapolitans out of their cars and onto bike lanes, ferries and trolleys and clean up Spa Creek and the harbor. In short, he wants to make Annapolis more fun.
Pantelides wants to build on what he describes as his first term record of economic development, environmental stewardship, financial stability and improved public safety. In short, continue what he has been doing.
For Annapolis voters, then, the 2017 mayoral race offers a choice, not an echo.


Trump’s Secret

August 13th, 2017

For months now, actually the last two years, I have been puzzled by a persistent, troubling question:
What is Donald Trump hiding?
Through the tumult of the first six months of the Trump White House, through all the resignations and firings, from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to the spectacular flameout of Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch,” I have asked myself:
What is Donald Trump keeping from us?
I first started to wonder at the outset of his presidential campaign when he refused to release his income tax returns.
What was in there that was so damaging?
Was he simply not as rich as he claimed? Or, would his returns demonstrate, contrary to what he has said publicly, that he is or has been deeply indebted to Russian creditors with connections to the Kremlin? Would the returns reveal that the Trump real estate empire is a house of cards, staggering under mountains of debt? Or, more embarrassing politically, would we discover that the real estate mogul has paid few if any taxes over the years?
Obviously, there had to be sensitive material in his income tax returns. Why else would he stubbornly refuse to release them?
The same fundamental question – what is he hiding? – came to mind again and again as Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, tweeted out his fury at the appointment of Robert Mueller as special prosecutor and railed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians.
The whole “Russia thing,” as the President derisively describes it, has clearly gotten under his skin. Why?
There is, after all, no hard, public evidence so far that Donald Trump personally colluded with the Russians during or after the campaign.
His family is a different matter. His son, Don Jr., clearly colluded when he famously met with the Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton; and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may well have had improper conversations with the Russian Ambassador and a Kremlin-connected Russian banker.
But again, it is not clear yet that a specific, prosecutable crime was committed. President Trump may or may not be guilty of obstruction of justice, but that is up to Special Counselor Mueller to determine with his investigation.
What explains the President’s furious reaction when reports emerged that Mueller was looking into his past financial transactions? Why did President Trump angrily declare that whole area of his life out of bounds?
The President is clearly, deeply worried about something . Worried to the point of musing aloud about firing Sessions and Mueller and considering pardoning his aides and family members and even himself, if that is legally possible.
Who would even consider such high-risk options that are guaranteed to create a political firestorm and could easily prompt calls for his impeachment? Only a President who feels his back is against the wall. Only a President who fears that the Mueller investigation could bring him or his family members down.
In recent days, we have learned that the Special Counsel has empanelled multiple grand juries that are looking into Trump’s financial dealings and any and all contacts his campaign had with Russians before, during and after the campaign. So stay tuned. We may finally get some answers.


Cap’n Jack and His Missing Crosses

July 20th, 2017

It was a tantalizing find, a possible solution to a four-century-old mystery, and it sent a shiver of excitement through the small band of obsessive amateur historians that continue to search for artifacts from Captain John Smith’s legendary voyages of exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608.
The discovery, in June, 2010, by Maryland archeologist Darrin Lowery, on Mockhorn Island, a marshy expanse on the Atlantic side of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, was a small, metal Maltese cross.
Dr. Lowery, who has turned up more than 700 ancient artifacts in his extensive field work, was immediately intrigued when a colleague literally stepped on the cross at low tide. The object caught his eye because it resembled the Maltese design of the 27 crosses that Captain Smith depicted on his famous map of the Bay to mark the highpoints of his explorations.
Smith wrote in his journal and histories that he carved crosses into trees and nailed up brass versions of the cross “to signify to any that Englishmen had been there.” In effect, he was stamping it “Property of England.”
Historians and enthusiasts have been searching for the famous crosses for 400-plus years. Now, on a hot, sticky June day, with insects biting at his ankles, Lowery was looking excitedly at a metal Maltese cross on a site that his research had proved was Smith’s first landfall at the outset of his 1608 exploration voyage.
“Of course I was intrigued,” he said, with admirable understatement. This, potentially, was the Holy Grail of Chesapeake colonial research. He sent it to be analyzed and dated by experts at the Smithsonian Institutions and later at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, a process that proceeded at an academic pace, meaning years.

Captain John Smith’s explorations of the Chesapeake Bay four centuries ago have captured the imagination of generations of enthusiasts who have read his journals and writings and poured over his extraordinarily accurate map of the Bay. I confess I am one of them. My curiosity was piqued in 2007, when I re-traced Captain Smith’s routes around the Bay for a cover story for The Smithsonian magazine.
It was a grand journey, from Jamestown to Havre de Grace, with lots of side excursions. Four centuries earlier, Cap’n Jack, as I came to think of him fondly, even though we are not related, had sailed and rowed the broad waters and nooks and crannies of the Bay with a dozen men in an open boat known as a shallop, braving storms and hostile natives. As a modern-day softie, I covered most of it in a friend’s lovely yacht.
Following his extraordinarily accurate map and guided by his keenly-observed journal, I came to admire Cap’n Jack for his courage, determination and resourcefulness, even though some of the settlers at Jamestown apparently considered him to be an arrogant little braggart.
And, like so many others, I wondered: what became of the famous crosses? I consulted Edward Wright Haile, poet, surveyor and author of the elegant “John Smith in the Chesapeake,” who, with historian and author Connie Lapallo, spearheads the John Smith Cross Project of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a partner organization with the National Park Service in developing the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, better known as the Water Trail. Working together, they have established 15 stone markers where Cap’n Jack put his crosses, and have more to go.
So, where are the crosses today? “Obviously, I don’t know,” Haile said. “They may exist in someone’s attic, or, very possibly, the Indians took the brass crosses and melted them down or converted them to their own uses. We still hope to find out.”
Meanwhile, what of the Mockhorn Island cross? Is it an authentic John Smith cross?
“No, definitely not,” said Darrin Lowery, who told me he had had finally heard from the experts in Richmond, who had subjected his find to all manner of tests.
“They told me it is old, but not that old,” he said. “They think it may be part of a horse’s bridle that fell off and got buried. Or something else. But it’s not John Smith’s.”
So, 410 years after Cap’n Jack set out to explore the Bay and nailed his crosses, the great Chesapeake mystery continues.


Six Days of War

June 5th, 2017

Shortly after dawn on the hot, dry morning of June 5, 1967, Israel launched a momentous battle with her Arab neighbors that came to be known as the Six Day War.
In the course of six frantic days, responding to Egypt’s closing of her access to the Red Sea, Israel captured the Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Golan Heights of Syria, redrawing the map and the power structure of the Middle East. The war created a stalemate in Jerusalem and on the West Bank that persists to this day, half a century later. It is the same standoff between Israelis and the Palestinians that confronted President Trump on his recent visit.
I covered the battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank as an incredibly green, inexperienced correspondent for The New York Times. I had arrived in Israel just 10 days before to take up my first foreign assignment and knew … absolutely nothing.
Scrambling after the Israeli tanks in a rented car, I followed the first units inside the ancient walled Old City of Jerusalem on foot as they took control of the broad, open space the Arabs call the Noble sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. Suddenly, the exhausted troops were face to face with the holiest site in Judaism, the western retaining wall of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
It was an extraordinary moment that I described in an article that The Times headlined: “Israelis Weep and Pray Beside Wailing Wall.” In truth, the more observant soldiers prayed, while the more secular slumped in the shade to avoid a broiling sun. But no one, religious or secular, failed to realize that they were living history. It was the first time Jews had control of the Temple Mount in 2,000 years.
The battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank was fierce, but it was largely over in 96 hours. Israel had won the war, but not the peace. A settlement with the Palestinians is still beyond their reach 50 years later.
Israelis and Palestinians alike were stunned by the speed of the war and the outcome. Two peoples who had been separated by the so-called “Green Line” and a narrow no-man’s land were suddenly face-to-face.
Both sides were intensely curious about the other.
As soon as they could, Israelis poured into the walled Old City. Curiosity — and the human instinct for bargains — drove them into the Palestinian shops. The shelves on the Jordanian side were stocked with duty-free electronics and small luxuries unavailable in high-tariff Israel. The bargains flew off the shelves.
As soon as they could, Palestinians explored Israeli West Jerusalem and beyond.
In the process of getting to know each other in the first weeks after the war, Palestinians discovered that Israelis were not, in fact, 10 feet tall; Israelis found that Palestinians were not, in fact, all cut-throats.
It was not all sweetness and light – blood had been spilled. But there was a shared assumption that, because the Israeli victory had been so total, that this time there would be a settlement of some sort, maybe even a peace agreement.
It was not to be.
By the fall of 1967, the leaders of the Arab states met in Khartoum and agreed on their famous three no’s: “No negotiation, no recognition, no peace” with Israel.
At the same time, the first Jewish settlers established a rump settlement in a hotel in Hebron on the West Bank, insisting on their biblical right to the land and vowing not to leave. They were the first settlers, but hardly the last: there are some 400,000 Israelis settlers on the West Bank today and 350,000 more in East Jerusalem. They are determined not to leave.
So, all the elements of a stubborn standoff were in place before the year was out.
They are still in place 50 years later.


Chesapeake Bay in Trump’s Crosshairs

May 14th, 2017

The Chesapeake Bay had a good week last week.

The annual report card on the Bay’s overall health from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) showed significant improvement, one-design sailboats from around the nation had a rollicking regatta in the waters off Annapolis, and just days before that, Congress preserved funds for the Chesapeake Bay Program for the balance of the fiscal year.

Nothing in Washington is permanent, of course, so the budget battle will resume in September for FY2018 and the Trump Administration is still threatening to zero-out the $73 million annual appropriation for the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is headquartered in Annapolis.

The White House has other environmental programs in its budget crosshairs as well. It is calling for substantial reductions in funding for the E.P.A, NOAA and the intricate network of federal agencies that together allocate more than $500 million a year to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay’s waters and fisheries.  Congressional members from Maryland and Virginia will do what they can to preserve the federal funds, but some sort of a fiscal haircut seems likely come September.

The painful irony is that this assault on the nation’s environmental programs comes just as the Bay and its tributaries seem to be turning the corner. The UMCES report found that, after decades of work, the largest estuary in the nation is making a steady, measurable recovery.

The Bay earned an overall grade of C on the 2016 UMCES report card: not dean’s list, perhaps, but one of the highest scores recorded in years.  (Unfortunately, Anne Arundel County’s sluggish rivers lagged behind with a D+.)  The Fisheries Index, made up of blue crab, striped bass and bay anchovies, rebounded to an A, a dramatic sign that the restoration effort is working.

The Trump Administration took no notice, however, and promised to redouble its budget-cutting efforts. The Trump formula: billions more for rebuilding the military and national security, sharp reductions in “discretionary” spending, including the environment.

“I do not think Donald Trump connects with the environment if he cannot play golf on it, or own it,’ said Dr. Thomas Miller, the director of the  Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, an arm of UMCES in Solomons Island. “I sense a profound lack of interest in environmental issues as president and personally throughout his career as a developer.”

Miller worries that if the Chesapeake Bay Program is eliminated or even substantially trimmed, it will no longer be able to monitor the progress being made by the six states and District of Columbia that make up the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. Under the terms of the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement, the states committed themselves to make major progress towards cleaning up the Bay by 2025. It is the Chesapeake Bay Program that coordinates and monitors their efforts to insure that they live up to their commitments.

Tom Horton, the Eastern Shore journalist and author that many regard as the bard of the Bay, is concerned that if the federal funds supporting this effort are cut, the individual states will not make up the difference.  “You can’t assume that the states will pick up the slack,” he said, “Pennsylvania is already struggling to find the money to do what it is committed to do.”

Horton doubts that the Trump Administration, despite its threats, will succeed in eliminating the Chesapeake Bay Program in 2018, but, he said,  “even a modest cut sends a signal that says: ‘don’t bother about the Bay.’”

One statistic might give the Trump budget-cutters pause: a healthy Chesapeake Bay is an economic engine that generates over 5,000 seafood industry jobs and an annual income of $56 million. Altogether, the watershed’s regional economy provides 8.3 million jobs and an annual income of almost $400 billion.

Real money, as they say, even in today’s Washington.



They Also Serve……

April 10th, 2017

The jury summons came in the mail, posing the classic dilemma: do my civic duty, or try to weasel out?
This time, at least, I opted for duty and showed up at Circuit Court on Church Circle in Annapolis at the appointed hour.
8:00 a.m. Checked into the jury room and was promptly given three crisp $5 bills, my juror’s per diem. A total of 180 jurors has been summoned on this day. We are seated in long rows of chairs facing a lectern flanked by flags.
8:10 a.m. A 14-minute video, complete with music, entitled “You the Jury” plays on the two large television monitors in the jury waiting room,
8:25 a.m. Marci Mustachio, the Jury Commissioner, comes to the lectern to announce that there are 16 criminal cases on the docket today in which the defendants may, or may not, ask to be judged by a jury of their peers. So, she says, enjoy the television or check out the library, which she warns is mostly stocked with romance novels. The jurors start to get restless, wondering if we are going to get a trial or just wait.
8:30 a.m. Bailiff announces that it is going to take time to work through the docket, so we get our first break, until 9 a.m. Entire juror pool troops to the cafeteria, where a small coffee, “Columbia Bold,” goes for $1.44, the “egg and meat” sandwich, $3.45.
8:45 a.m. “CBS This Morning” is on the television. Feature entitled “Kung Fu Writing” tells us that Bruce Lee’s new memoir “packs a philosophical punch.” Charlie Rose looks dubious.
9:05 a.m. Judge Mark Crooks addresses the jurors and gets a nice laugh about his last name. He thanks us for our service and tells us that “seeing you here this morning restores my faith in democracy.” Jurors smile and shift in their seats, getting more restless.
9:15 a.m. “Today” is on the TV. Weatherman Al Roker, wearing a Northern Michigan Wildcats sweatshirt, is bounding about the set wildly excited about something. Jurors are not wildly excited.
9:45 a.m. Bailiff announces 20-minute break, explaining that the Judge is till working through the docket. The wheels of justice are grinding slowly. Man seated on my left groans, says: “I’ve got to call my office.” Woman in front row dozes off.
10:30 a.m. “Let’s Make a Deal” on TV. Contestants wildly excited. Jurors not.
10:45 a.m. Sudden activity! Bailiff summons 60 of the 180 jurors to empanel a jury in an armed robbery case. They troop out to the courtroom for voir dire, the selection process. The rest of us sit back and watch “The Price Is Right” on TV. Man seated on my right is grumpy: “If this was a business,” he growls, “they’d be bankrupt.”
11:15 a.m. Class dismissed! Bailiff announces that remaining 15 cases have either been settled or the defendants have chosen to have their fates decided by a judge alone. Jurors, delighted, head out the door.
For the next three days, as instructed by my summons, I call the Circuit Court recording after 5 p.m. to learn, with a mixture of relief and disappointment, that I am not needed the next day. Duty fulfilled. Sort of.
Frustrated and not a little bit annoyed by the whole process, I call Marci Mustachio to ask if, in this age of the internet and social media, there is not a more streamlined way to produce the jurors that the courts need and not keep hundreds of others waiting, watching daytime TV. Some 800 jurors were summoned this week, only a fraction of whom were empaneled on juries.
In essence, the cheerful Ms. Mustachio, says no, not really. On a typical day, two or three cases will require juries. She needs to be ready to meet the needs of the judges. Besides, jurors used to be kept on call for two weeks. Social media won’t work, she says, “because not everybody is on the internet. My father, for instance, wants no part of it.”
Also, neighbors who have actually served on juries report that it is a fascinating experience, well worth the time. One, who found the defendant guilty of a felony after a draining, four-day trial and two days of deliberation, described it as “an intensely human experience.”
Did he emerge thinking that justice had been done? I asked. Had the system worked? He thought about that for a minute and said: “Yes, in this case, it did.”


Media in the Age of Trump

March 12th, 2017

For news organizations, the early months of the Age of Trump have been, perversely, the best of times and the worst of times.
The worst, because of the 45th President’s vitriolic assault on the media as dishonest, disloyal “enemies of the people.”
The best, oddly, because the chaos surrounding the Trump ascension has given birth to some remarkable investigative reporting. The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, especially, have been topping each other repeatedly with penetrating reports about the inner workings, conflicts and contradictions of the new Administration and – get this – people are paying for it. It is an on-going newspaper war in the best sense of the word.
And not just newspapers. The New Yorker magazine, renowned for its prose and commentary, has been breaking news about the curious and continuing Trump-Russian connections. The venerable Atlantic magazine, a monthly, has published an in-depth look at what it calls the autocratic aspects of Trumpism.
Most major organizations have beefed up their Washington and investigative staffs since election day. The New York Times has assigned six top reporters to cover the White House full-time. (When I was The Times’ chief White House correspondent in the 1970’s, I was “chief” of myself and one deputy.)
The Washington Post and CNN have added to the collective reporting muscle by building new investigative teams.
It is the best of times, as well, because readers and viewers have responded to the tumultuous times by forking over cash for subscriptions to the most reliable of the “lamestream” media, as Sarah Palin once dubbed them.
The Times, which has been struggling financially in recent years from a crippling loss of print advertising, is experiencing a remarkable surge. The Grey Lady added 300,000 new digital subscriptions since election day. The Washington Post has topped 300,000 paid digital subscriptions for the first time. The New Yorker has picked up 250,000 subscribers in the last three months. Subscriptions to The Atlantic were up 210 per cent in January over the same month the year before.
The timing is hardly coincidental.
These new readers are not just reacting to Trump’s attacks on the press; they are hungry for reliable journalism in an uncertain world. And they are paying for it. Stephen Colbert once dubbed it “truthiness,” and people want it.
The cable news networks, all of which have tasted Trump’s wrath at one time or another, are enjoying an across-the-board
ratings boost. Fox, Trump’s favorite, leads the pack, but even CNN, which the President has labeled “fake news,” is up sharply. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s worldwide president, calls it a “renaissance in American Journalism.”
Have there been mistakes and excesses in the coverage? Of course. But you will get a clearer picture of the Administration in the media than from Kelly Anne Conway and the other Trump spokespeople.
Incidentally, the other great beneficiaries of the Trump Bump have been Colbert, John Oliver and, of course, Saturday Night Live. Late night television satire has never been better – or more popular.
Meanwhile, the normally adversarial relationship between the press and the White House has descended into daily hostilities between Sean Spicer, the beleaguered press secretary, and the reporters who question him. The televised battles have become a daytime hit as Spicer gamely tries to defend his boss’s twitter outbursts.
It is hard at this point to see where all this chaos leads us. David Brooks doubts that Trump can last a year. But the President’s base seems solidly behind him and largely satisfied that he is fulfilling his campaign promises. The Republicans in Congress will not challenge him as long as they believe he will sign their agenda into law.
In the main, reporters have been keeping their heads down, doing their jobs, digging for the truth and, fortunately, not taking the Presidential attacks personally. Most realize it is not about them. This is not a popularity contest, which is a good thing, since neither side would win. But it is reminder that, as the old saying goes, “politics ain’t beanbag.”


News Obsessive Disorder

February 19th, 2017

Are you suffering from News Obsessive Disorder (NOD)?
Do the headlines out of our nation’s capital give you a headache? Does page-one make you anxious? Do you find yourself watching cable news non-stop?
You are not alone. NOD is endemic in the Age of Trump, and growing.
Fortunately, the doctor is in.
Valium might help, or Xanax. But the recommended remedy here is travel. Take a trip, a long trip, preferably outside the circulation area of your favorite paper, ideally to where the internet connection is spotty and wi-fi rare.
My wife and I recently sought such relief.
We left Annapolis on January 22, with the inauguration and Women’s March on the Mall and in Annapolis still ringing in our ears. We flew to Panama, boarded a ship, transited the Canal and turned south along the Pacific coasts of Ecuador, Peru and Chile, crossing the equator and basking in the full summer of the southern hemisphere. It was a speaking assignment for me on a cruise ship, a journey of some 8,500 miles in all, and it came at just the right time to detox from Trumpworld.
It is not a miracle cure for NOD, mind you. The news still gets through. The ship has a satellite that brings in some of the cable channels and sometimes the uplink to the internet works. But – here is the good news — as Washington slips further and further behind you, the headlines seem more remote, less immediate, less threatening.
South Americans know about Trump, of course, but they don’t obsess about him. They have their own worries. In Ecuador, they are still rebuilding from a terrible earthquake, in Peru there is a water shortage, in Chile, where they are in the fifth year of a drought, wild fires are raging.
On board the ship, when the satellite is working, the inescapable headlines from Washington tumble across the television screen: a blizzard of executive orders, a travel ban against Muslims that the President says is not really a travel ban against Muslims and that the courts say is illegal, the Alice-in-Wonderland comment from White House counselor Kelly Anne Conway that the Administration is not lying, but offering “alternative facts.”
President Trump holds phone conversations with a dozen world leaders and hangs up on some of them. Mexico is said to be furious, Australia confused and the French mystified.
Annapolis news is mystifying as well. The Capital Gazette website reports that Mayor Pantelides has fired the Annapolis police chief because he wants to go in a “new direction.” What is that all about?
Every day brings a new headline stranger than the day before. But as you sail further south, it all seems far away, like another planet. It is sunny and warm. You relax and read your book; your blood pressure goes down, you take a nap.
*
Eventually, the trip is over and you come home, back to the world of non-stop “Breaking News” about the chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The television is on morning and night. NOD again.
Once again, you are drinking from a news fire hose: The President has fired his national security adviser after only 24 days in office, the billionaire he nominated for Labor Secretary is out before he was in, North Korea fires a missile, a Russian spy ship is off the coast of Connecticut. The scent of scandal is in the air.
On MSNBC, political director Chuck Todd warns: “Hunker down, this is a Category 5 political hurricane that’s hitting Washington.”
Then last Thursday, the President emerges in the East Room to give a 77-minute news conference like no other. It is mostly a rambling, disjointed assault on the news media, whom he loves and hates and loves to hate. NOD again.
Vacation over, it is time to pay attention and remember some hard realities: critical news about Trump is not “fake news,” leaks are not the problem, lies are. Truth is more important – and more difficult to discern – than ever. It is up to the viewer and reader to decide.
That’s unfair, I know, but in the Age of Trump and the era of “alternative facts,” that’s the way it is.

Terence Smith, who lives in Eastport, is a former White House correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News.