Archive

January 9th, 2017

As Obama leaves, battles over his legacy begin

    As President Barack Obama's two terms near an end and we talk of his legacy, we cannot ignore the grand come-together vision of unity he expressed in his 2004 debut on the national stage -- and wonder what happened to it.

    We are not "red states" and "blue states" but "the United States of America," he said to vigorous applause.

    After the divisive election that brought us President-elect Donald Trump, a lot of people have been moved to assert that Obama has made race relations worse. As an African-American who remembers far worse race relations in the country, I disagree. To me, it looks as though a lot of people are merely irritated, whether they realize it or not, that they have to think about race relations at all, and they're taking out their frustrations at Obama.

    In fact, Obama has received considerable criticism from critics to his own left who are frustrated over his lack of programs targeted specifically to underprivileged black Americans.

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Are We Out Of Touch With The 'Real America' Or 'Reality TV' America?

    Following the 2016 election, some readers have accused me of being out of touch with the Real America -- that mythic locale inhabited by people who vote like them and watch the same TV shows they do.

    "Duck Dynasty," for example, a program I watched on an assignment that bears about as close a resemblance to the rural South as "Gomer Pyle" did to the U.S. Marines. Real Americans supposedly love that show, a cornball sitcom about a family of heavily bearded children who get into harmless scrapes involving guns and explosives.

    No thanks. My own children are grown.

    So in an effort to measure my Real America quotient, I recently took a year-end celebrity quiz in the morning newspaper. You know, which celebrities got married, divorced, won awards, had children, got cancelled, excommunicated or pistol-whipped during 2016?

    Just kidding. To my knowledge, no red carpet habitues actually got shunned by the Pope or beaten senseless, although somebody called Kim Kardashian apparently did get robbed of her jewels at gunpoint.

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Why Trump, billionaires won't confront claims over conflicts of interest

    When a billionaire does it, that means that it is not corrupt.

    That seems to be an animating principle of the incoming Trump administration. Although to be fair, in what amounts to a populist touch, this will probably apply to select millionaires as well. At least the ones worth a solid eight figures.

    It comes from the top. We've never had a president with the kind of conflicts of interest that Donald Trump does. And it's not just that he's wealthier than past denizens of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

    It's that other presidents have either sold their assets and had someone else buy them new ones without telling them what they are - an actual blind trust - or only had a vanilla portfolio of Treasury bonds and mutual funds that didn't create any potential for self-dealing.

    They didn't do this because they were required to by law. They're not. They did it because it seemed required by good governance.

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Trump’s Disastrous Example

    Donald Trump rightly reprimanded House Republicans on Tuesday for their move to disembowel the Office of Congressional Ethics, but let’s not be duped or dumb. This was like a crackhead dad fuming at his kids for smoking a little weed.

    Their conduct hardly measured up to his, which obviously encouraged it. When they look at him, here’s what they see: a presidential candidate who broke with decades of precedent by refusing to release his tax returns and thus shine a light on his conflicts of interest. A president-elect who has yet to spell out how he would eliminate those conflicts — and who has, instead, repeatedly reminded reporters and voters that he’s under no explicit legal obligation to eliminate them at all. A plutocrat whose children have toggled back and forth between his government activities and his corporate interests, raising questions about the separation of the two.

    Is it any wonder that House Republicans felt OK about trying to slip free of some of their own ethical shackles, no matter how ugly the optics?

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Joe Scarborough defends schmoozing with Trump as 'the Washington way'

    It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet.

    The New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman, covering Donald Trump's New Year's Eve festivities, observed Saturday night that Joe Scarborough and his MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski were among the president-elect's Mar-a-Lago revelers.

    Indeed, they were there. Haberman wasn't making a judgment, just reporting. The former CBS reporter Sopan Deb (soon to join the Times) took it further, describing them as "partying" with Trump.

    Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, wasn't having any of it. He shot back at Deb, charging "fake news."

    Under Deb's questioning, Scarborough explained that his and Brzezinski's purpose was professional, not social. The morning-talk duo was just trying to line up an interview with Trump. They were not partying, and, Scarborough later stressed, they were "dramatically underdressed," and he was headed home soon to a quiet night with his kids.

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House Republicans start 2017 on wrong foot

    Did the House Republicans already suffer their first defeat of 2017? Or is their retreat only tactical and temporary?

    After voting on Monday night to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics -- with no advance warning -- they backed off the decision on Tuesday. The office is the independent body established by a new Democratic majority in 2008 in response to multiple scandals in the Republican-majority House.

    From Monday night to Tuesday noon, there was a media and Twitter firestorm, including tweets from President-elect Donald Trump, who opposed the timing of the scuttling of the ethics office, but not the substance of it.

    For some perspective, let's step back and ask: Why should the House have any ethics oversight at all, let alone an independent role? After all, the voters can punish members who disgrace themselves. House members have to run every two years (compared with six years for the Senate). Plenty of politicians who get into trouble have chosen to resign rather than wait for the voters' verdict, while many others have simply chosen not to run for re-election.

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From Hands to Heads to Hearts

    Software has started writing poetry, sports stories and business news. IBM’s Watson is co-writing pop hits. Uber has begun deploying self-driving taxis on real city streets and, last month, Amazon delivered its first package by drone to a customer in rural England.

    Add it all up and you quickly realize that Donald Trump’s election isn’t the only thing disrupting society today. The far more profound disruption is happening in the workplace and in the economy at large, as the relentless march of technology has brought us to a point where machines and software are not just outworking us but starting to outthink us in more and more realms.

    To reflect on this rapid change, I sat down with my teacher and friend Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, which advises companies on leadership and how to build ethical cultures, for his take.

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Trump will make it up as he goes along

    “I mean, how do you know what you’re going to do until you do it? The answer is you don’t . . . I swear it’s a stupid question.” – Holden Caulfield, “Catcher in the Rye.”

    The thing about young Holden is that you have no idea what he is going to do or say, and neither does he...

    Apologies if you read that opening quote and assumed it to be a midnight tweet or an interview brush-off from Donald Trump.

    Admit it: Even a staunch Trump supporter would assume (and celebrate?) that the line could come straight from his well-oiled jaws.

    Whole gobs of what J.D. Salinger imagines depicts his ramblingly neurotic teen, even Holden's syntax, match up with Trump-speak – including insults and obscenities.

    But the objective as we go forward should be to focus not so much on

Trump’s words but on his policy actions as they occur or are proposed.

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January 4th

A shift to the right could inspire the 'religious left'

    The new year could be turbulent for religion in America.

    Several hot-button issues - including immigration, abortion, poverty, health care, education and religious freedom - will put religion near the center of public life.

    Observers are watching how Donald Trump's relationship with Muslims in the United States and abroad will unfold, after he campaigned on a pledge to ban Muslim immigrants. Will he deliver on his promises to evangelicals? With reports of rising incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism during the 2016 campaign, activists will need to ramp up their efforts to counter bigotry.

    Republicans will control the presidency and both houses of Congress. That could bring more focus on religious freedom bills in 2017, setting off more debate over how the government can - or can't - force faith organizations to handle gay rights and access to contraception and abortion for employees. Meanwhile, many religiously motivated activists will be tracking changes to the Supreme Court (as Trump has promised to appoint justices who oppose abortion), and to the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood and overturning of the Affordable Care Act.

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America Becomes a Stan

    In 2015 the city of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, was graced with a new public monument: a giant gold-plated sculpture portraying the country’s president on horseback. This may strike you as a bit excessive. But cults of personality are actually the norm in the “stans,” the Central Asian countries that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, all of which are ruled by strongmen who surround themselves with tiny cliques of wealthy crony capitalists.

    Americans used to find the antics of these regimes, with their tinpot dictators, funny. But who’s laughing now?

    We are, after all, about to hand over power to a man who has spent his whole adult life trying to build a cult of personality around himself; remember, his “charitable” foundation spent a lot of money buying a 6-foot portrait of its founder. Meanwhile, one look at his Twitter account is enough to show that victory has done nothing to slake his thirst for ego gratification. So we can expect lots of self-aggrandizement once he’s in office. I don’t think it will go as far as gold-plated statues, but really, who knows?

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