Archive

September 9th, 2016

Cashing in on presidential prestige

    The president, as he prepared to leave office, was dead broke. So broke, in fact, that he had to take out a loan to get him through the transition. Bill Clinton in 2001? No, Harry Truman in 1953 -- and the resemblance ends there.

    Back then, although Truman had only a monthly Army pension of $112.56, he was adamant about not employing his presidential service to cash in. As biographer David McCullough relates, Truman turned down a new Toyota; a Miami real-estate development company's offer of "not less than $100,000" to come on board; an array of consulting gigs.

     "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency," Truman later wrote.

    Those were the days -- and even then they weren't, entirely. Months after leaving office, Truman sold the rights to his memoirs to Life magazine for $600,000 -- the equivalent of more than $5 million today.

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Why Hillary Clinton's perceived corruption seems to echo louder than Donald Trump's actual corruption.

    Over the Labor Day weekend, there was quite the chatter comparing and contrasting the news media coverage of Hillary Clinton's alleged improprieties involving the Clinton Foundation and Donald Trump's actual improprieties involving the Trump Foundation, his businesses, and his campaign.

    Trump supporters will complain about bias in the previous paragraph, to which I say, hey, go to town. None of the news stories about the Clinton Foundation (as opposed to her handling of emails at the State Department) demonstrate anything truly disturbing. Consider:

    --The Associated Press suggests Clinton's meetings with non-state officials were biased in favor of Clinton Foundation donors. Vox's deconstruction of the AP's report, however, showed there was no there there.

    --The Los Angeles Times suggested ties between a Nigerian billionaire donor to the foundation and Clinton favors, but Kevin Drum eviscerated it in Mother Jones to the point where he asked, "Am I missing something? How did this end up as the lead story in today's LA Times?"

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We Are All Noah Now

    Robert Macfarlane, in his book “Landmarks,” about the connection between words and landscapes, tells a revealing but stunning story about how recent editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (aimed at 7-year-olds) dropped certain “nature words” that its editors deemed less relevant to the lives of modern children. These included “acorn,” “dandelion,” “fern,” “nectar,” “otter,” “pasture” and “willow.” The terms introduced in their place, he noted, included “broadband,” “blog,” “cut-and-paste,” “MP3 player” and “voice-mail.”

    While this news was first disclosed in 2015, reading it in Macfarlane’s book still shocks me for what it signifies. But who can blame the Oxford editors for dumping Amazon words for Amazon.com ones? Our natural world is rapidly disappearing. Just how fast was the major topic here last week at the global conference held every four years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which I participated in along with some 8,000 scientists, nature reserve specialists and environmentalists.

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State ballot measures in 2016 reflect shift to left

    A funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box this year. Though grassroots referendums and initiatives have been on the wane for two decades, 73 have been approved for ballots so far in the 26 states that allow them. That's still well below the 1996 peak of 92 measures, but it's the highest number since 2006 and almost 50 percent more than in 2012.

    Why the spike? A big reason, says Josh Altic of the politics website Ballotpedia, is that the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot in many states is based on voter turnout in the previous statewide election. And turnout in 2014 was the lowest since World War II.

    In California, for example, activists needed the signatures of just under 366,000 registered voters, 27 percent fewer than in 2014, to propose changes to state law. California, the hothouse of citizen action, will have 17 ballot initiatives this year, versus four in 2014 and 13 in 2012.

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Roger Ailes should be down for the count by now, but he's still hitting back - and it could get ugly

    If Roger Ailes believes in anything, it's the counterattack.

    When you're accused, losing, wounded, bleeding - hit back hard. Go for the jugular.

    That philosophy - actually, a whole way of life - is surely what's behind a letter sent a few days ago to New York magazine from one Charles Harder, on behalf of the deposed Fox News founder, suggesting that a defamation action may be coming.

    Harder is the high-profile Hollywood lawyer behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that, in effect, put Gawker out of business last month. He's the same lawyer representing Melania Trump in her assertions that publications defamed her when they reported that she once was associated with an escort service; one of those publications took down its story after the threats.

    And so, when a letter arrives from Charles Harder, it sends a loud message: Stop messing with my client, or else.

    Or else what? Well, in the post-Gawker era, the suggestion is this: Or else we'll come after you so hard, and with such deep pockets, that you'll have to fold.

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In Ukraine, live by the pen, die by the sword

    On the morning of July 20, the idyllic calm of Kiev's leafy center was shattered. A bomb planted beneath award-winning journalist Pavel Sheremet's red Subaru exploded, killing him instantly and raining down fiery debris on the quiet boulevard. Triggered by remote control, the assassination was intentionally visible, loud, and meant to send a message. What made the loss so hard for Kiev's journalist community was that the 44-year-old Sheremet had survived the intimidation and censorship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, moving from his native Belarus to Russia and finally to Ukraine, fleeing authoritarian presidents who aimed to control the press to secure their own political stability. Sheremet's death has made many in the media fear that Ukraine has returned to its darker days of journalism.

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How Obama's economic record stacks up

    President Barack Obama might be a savior of the economy or have one of the worst records ever, depending on your viewpoint. But when you put all the aspects of his economic performance together, how does his record really stack up compared with the jobs done by other presidents since World War II?

    It's an important question for the 2016 election because we need to know where Obama's policies can be associated with success, if at all, and where the economic course needs to be changed.

    His detractors point to the low growth rate of the gross domestic product and the increase in the national debt. His defenders point to the reductions in the unemployment rate and the federal budget deficit, and to the rise in the stock market.

    My book, "The President as Economist: Scoring Economic Performance from Harry Truman to Obama," uses these and 12 other well-established indicators to calculate a performance score for each president going back to Truman. The top score is 100, zero is average, and negative scores are below average.

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Ask Colorado if infrastructure spending works

    Here's something all of divided America should be able to agree on: Smart infrastructure investment works. For evidence, look at Colorado, where elected officials of both parties trace an economic boom to a decision 27 years ago to spend more than $2 billion on a new Denver airport.

    The Denver International Airport was the brainchild of Federico Pena, who was elected mayor in 1983 and who would become the Secretary of the Transportation and Energy departments in the Clinton administration. It was assailed as a boondoggle by some local businessmen in a campaign led by Roger Ailes, then a Republican media consultant and later the impresario of Fox News.

    The airport was financed by revenue bonds, which proved to be among the best performers in the market for state and local government debt. Today it is the linchpin of Colorado's transition to a global 21st-century economy flush with high-paying jobs and enhanced by daily nonstop flights to Asia, Central America and Europe.

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Trump's history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?

    In the heat of a presidential campaign, you'd think that a story about one party's nominee giving a large contribution to a state attorney general who promptly shut down an inquiry into that nominee's scam "university" would be enormous news. But we continue to hear almost nothing about what happened between Donald Trump and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi.

    I raised this issue last week, but it's worth an update as well as some contextualization. The story re-emerged last week when The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold reported that Trump paid a penalty to the IRS after his foundation made an illegal contribution to Bondi's PAC. While the Trump organization characterizes that as a bureaucratic oversight, the basic facts are that Bondi's office had received multiple complaints from Floridians who said they were cheated by Trump University; while they were looking into it and considering whether to join a lawsuit over Trump University filed by the attorney general of New York State, Bondi called Trump and asked him for a $25,000 donation; shortly after getting the check, Bondi's office dropped the inquiry.

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There's still time for Obama to carve out a Middle East legacy

    Barack Obama took office in 2009 with two big personal priorities in foreign policy: the limitation of nuclear weapons and the cause of Palestinian statehood. This summer the president has been weighing a flurry of possible last-minute actions to cement his legacy on nukes, including a U.N. resolution that would ban testing. That raises an obvious question: Will Obama also launch an 11th-hour Mideast gambit?

    The possibility has been debated in and outside the White House ever since Secretary of State John Kerry's quixotic effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal collapsed in 2014. All along, the assumption has been that Obama might wait to act until after the presidential election, so as to avoid creating problems for Hillary Clinton. There's plenty of precedent: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all bid for a Middle East legacy during their final months.

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