Archive

January 5th, 2016

Remembering Mary McGrory

    There's a new book out on the late Mary McGrory, rightly subtitled "The First Queen of Journalism." It tells as much about the nation's capital and its politics that she covered elegantly for more than half a century as it does about the wisdom and toughness with which she dominated the column-writing racket over that time.

    First at the late lamented Washington Star and then at the Washington Post, she brought to life with uncommon vividness and honesty the roller-coaster ride that was the Vietnam War years, the civil rights era of the 1960s, the dazzling Kennedy and complicated Lyndon Johnson interludes, and then the demoralizing Nixon reign of corruption.

    Her Boston Irish Catholic roots brought forth a lyricism in her writing with a biting cynicism toward politicians of all stripes. Yet it couldn't tarnish her love for the game and its mix of rogues and defenders of the democratic ideal, small and large D.

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Fond Cosby memories take another beating

    In Washington, a city with many memorials, the locals argue heatedly these days over whether one should be painted over.

    That's because it is a mural on the side of a popular local landmark called Ben's Chili Bowl that includes the 10-foot high face of Bill Cosby.

    The mural, which was painted by a local artist in 2010, includes such other famous past customers of Ben's as President Barack Obama. But the neighborhood's dispute over Cosby's face illustrates how far the star of one of the world's most popular comedians has fallen -- from superstar to criminal suspect.

    Cosby's fortunes abruptly turned in October 2014 when a YouTube video clip of rising comedian Hannibal Buress put a new national spotlight on old accusations of sexual assault that include at least one out-of-court settlement.

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Why the next Supreme Court vacancy will favor liberals, no matter who retires

    If the Supreme Court follows the election returns, as the old saying goes, the 2016 election will set the court's path for a generation. When the next president is sworn in, three sitting justices - Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy - will be in their 80s; Stephen Breyer will be 78. These justices are hard-charging, yet statistics are against them: The average retirement age for a justice leaving the court since 1971 is just under 79. They may not be able to delay retirement until the political stars align or even until their replacements are confirmed. So pundits are predicting, and fundraisers for both parties are warning, that the next president will get to chart the course the court will take for decades to come.

    This argument rests on the unexamined assumption that "the next president will hold tremendous power over the Supreme Court's make-up," as Rolling Stone put it. But legal scholars have started discussing scenarios in which the next president is practically powerless when it comes to appointments. They caution that because the partisan divide is so deep, it may be impossible to get Supreme Court nominees confirmed.

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January 4th

An article of conciliation

    At year's end, I want to offer a word to my conservative and libertarian readers whose patience I try regularly.

    Perhaps you read me to have someone to yell at, or in search of evidence for how dumb liberals can be. No matter. I'm glad you're there.

    I am not someone who believes that if only we understood each other better, we would find our way to agreement. Indeed, sometimes people get to understand each other better and the results are disastrous. They learn that the distance between them is even greater than they assumed.

    But more fundamentally, people disagree because they have honest differences over what matters most. We might all claim to believe in liberty, justice, equality, community, security and personal responsibility. But we can still quarrel because we put different weights on each, or because we define some of these concepts differently.

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A year to remember, regrettably

    So long, 2015, and don't let the door hit you on the seat of your pants on the way out. On second thought, let it give you a good strong whack.

    Here are some of the odious things the year brought us: First of all, a return of terrorism, abroad and at home, in Paris and San Bernardino in addition to those gruesome Middle East beheadings by agents of the emergent Islamic State.

    In Europe, there was the return of the Cold War and Russian imperialism. Former Soviet henchman Vladimir Putin's brazen seizure of Crimea in 2014 is still unchallenged, and his dreams of restoring the Soviet Union to its former superpower stature were sustained through 2015.

    At home, there was a year-long stagnation of the legislative process on Capitol Hill, as President Obama continued to knock his head into Republican obstructionism and deep personal animosity toward him. At the same time, internal GOP dissension drove House Speaker John Boehner from office, though with a faint flickering of hope in a pledge from successor Paul Ryan to break the legislative logjam.

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Will anti-Cruz movement rally behind Rubio?

    National Review's Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson report a potentially important development: The emergence of an Anybody-But-Cruz-(Except-Trump) movement from the soon-to-be ashes of the Iowa campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. It would seem that some social conservatives, including a few currently supporting the last two Iowa winners, consider Sen. Ted Cruz a "phony opportunist" -- and would rather see Sen. Marco Rubio do well if their own candidates don't have an unexpected late surge.

    This suggests that reporting indicating that Cruz has wrapped up the support of Iowa Christian conservative leaders may have overstated the strength of his hold on that large faction of the Republican vote.

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What could go wrong in 2016?

You probably noticed that 2015 was pretty weird. But hey, it's a brand new year -- a fresh start, a blank slate, an unwritten script. In 2016, what could possibly go wrong?

    Uh, where to begin?

     My fingers balk at typing the words "President-elect Trump" because I don't think such a thing will actually happen. But at this point I'm wondering how to justify ruling anything out.

     A year ago, was there anyone on earth who predicted that Donald Trump would utterly dominate the Republican presidential race? That the boastful billionaire would be setting the nation's political agenda? That Jeb Bush, armed with more campaign money than he could possibly spend, would be drifting helplessly toward the single-digit wings of the crowded debate stage?

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The way out of partisan gridlock

    As we head into a new year and another election cycle, all evidence points toward a disheartening replay of years past. We will see a rearranging of the players, perhaps, but the continuing landscape in Washington is unmistakable. Though Congress recently passed a budget agreement and a highway bill, it seems mainly to have spent the past year spinning its wheels. Our great deliberative bodies continue to be embroiled in an unnecessary standoff with themselves and a poisonous relationship with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. More money than ever is flooding the system. On deck is a batch of candidates merely demonizing the other side in hopes of rallying support by scratching at the basest itches of the electorate. We have never been more divided.

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Thanks for the surveillance, J. Edgar

    It may seem passing strange for a general counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union to be celebrating the 120th birthday (Friday) of J. Edgar Hoover, but in fact the dreaded founding director of the FBI has been a godsend for me. In an age when ubiquitous surveillance makes a mockery of personal privacy, my experience shows there can be an upside to massive government data collection.

    Johnson may have had Boswell, but I have had the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For 20 years beginning when I was a 16-year-old in Baltimore, FBI agents tracked my comings and goings. But unlike the many who have suffered greatly from such FBI surveillance, I have found it to have been a great benefit.

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Privilege, Pathology and Power

    Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom; it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.

    And it’s obvious, even if we don’t have statistical confirmation, that extreme wealth can do extreme spiritual damage. Take someone whose personality might have been merely disagreeable under normal circumstances, and give him the kind of wealth that lets him surround himself with sycophants and usually get whatever he wants. It’s not hard to see how he could become almost pathologically self-regarding and unconcerned with others.

    So what happens to a nation that gives ever-growing political power to the superrich?

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