Category Archives: politics

Kakistocracy

What fresh hell can this be?*

                                —Dorothy Parker

 

But who will bell the cat?

                                —Ancient fable (predating Aesop)

 

Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, mollusks and the gods. Human stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of stupidity 

                                 -– Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44

 

Kakistocracy— government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens,

                               —Thomas Love Peacock, English novelist 1829

 

 

It is meager solace having a name for the condition that is afflicting 63,000,000 of us.  Like chronic fatigue syndrome or sleep apnea, a diagnosis may help provide understanding and treatment.  Knowing you are not just a lazy person who snores loudly is some comfort and legitimacy.  Months after the election our nation is still in shock.  Many of us have physical symptoms like sleeplessness, irritability, and free floating anxiety,  We are worried, and feel powerless, cynical, and pessimistic.  We compartmentalize and become tearful thinking about the future. Literate readers of this space (oxymoronic) may already know the term kakistocracy.

 

Amro Ali a Middle Eastern scholar at the University of Sydney, posted a blog entitled “Kakistocracy:  A Word We Need to Revive.”  (Gotta love that Internet.) He encourages a more widespread application of the word kakistocracy to describe the current government of the United States.  Professor Ali warns that an overuse of the term by applying it to any unpopular government weakens its meaning.

 

Sadly that day is here.  We are full-on Captain Quieg, and James Comey smells of strawberries. We have forsaken democracy and its ideals and are currently living under a kakistocracy.  In further bad news, we likely have a comorbid condition kleptocracy, or rule by thugs and thieves.  Russia, always in the news, is a kleptocracy.  Putin and his cronies are amassing vast sums of money and precious resources but they are not stupid, they are not kakistocrats.


This is not a sore loser, aw shucks, “get ’em next time” partisan rant (see Bush v Gore HLP March/2001).    We have endured the leadership of racists, paranoiacs, simpletons and jingoists while still cramming ourselves into the bulging leisurewear of democracy.  Now we have split our pants.


How we got here is for better minds.  What happened to the Constitution?  Checks and balances?  Our current state is horribly embarrassing, like borrowing money from a relative, having a credit card refused at a busy supermarket, or making body noises on a first date.  We do not have death squads, though Attorney General Sessions is ramping up the penalties for drug offenses. We are closing the gap on the banana republics we once scorned. First World nations are treating us as if we have ceased bathing regularly.  

 

When I was a kid I wondered what color the sky was during The Great Depression, because all the newsreels and pictures were in black and white.  I catch myself feeling happy and then I remember the president and his minions are oblivious to the principles of Jefferson, the life of Frederick Douglass, and the sacredness of democracy.  Our past and our future are being looted.  Steve Bannon lurking around the White House is a greater threat than voter fraud or even foreign terrorism.  We are living under a kakistocratic form of government.  It is mind bending; the sky is still blue but we have all been diminished.  

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer still spry, terrified for the republic, and writing from a beach in California. 

 

What Me Worry?

Don’t worry, be happy.
-Bobby McFerrin

Keep Calm and Carry On
-Ministry of Information, British Government
June, 1939

No worries
—Australian/British/New Zealand expression (also Canadian)

What me worry?guy by Tom Cassidy
—Alfred E, Neuman (Mad Magazine)

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
—Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer (Alcoholics Anonymous)

I don’t know if I am a born worrier or if years of practice has helped me to perfect my craft. I am unable to refrain from fretting, speculating, and fixating on what might happen. My current conundrum is the coming election. Like many, I feel that Donald Trump may not represent the best interests of those of us who live on land. His poor showing in the recent polls would suggest that victory is unlikely and the billions of dollars in advertising and the thousands of pundit hours are unnecessary.

Yet potential voters will still be harangued by fresh faced canvassers, robocalls, TV ads, and glossy mailers. People other than me will accost their neighbors outside supermarkets, stuff envelopes, and hold bake sales, car washes, and fancy fund raisers. My job during elections is to read everything I can find, bother my few remaining friends, and worry.

I fear that if a chambermaid short-sheets Trump’s bed at a Best Western in Jacksonville, he may spend the entirety of a presidential debate complaining about it. (With most candidates “handlers” is just an expression.) Then I began to worry. What if Trump quits? Does he have the character and fortitude to stick it out and face a landslide, or is he more a “take his ball and go home” kind of guy?

What if RNC chair Wisconsinite Reince Priebus cooks up a deal with fellow Badger House Speaker Paul Ryan to run? Many differ with Ryan’s policies but most agree that he is not insane. Talk about a lowered bar. Trump is polling slightly ahead of Kim Jong-un among women 18-54. Do I need the frat boy bully to remain engaged, and just successful enough to make it to November? How exactly do you go about rooting for that?

I was in full worry mode when I happened to re-watch Bridge of Spies, a Cold War drama directed by Steven Spielberg. Set in 1961 at the height of the Red scare, it is the true story of the trial of Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Tom Hanks is attorney James Donovan, tasked with defending Abel. Mark Rylance received an Academy Award for his nuanced portrayal of Abel as more than a borsht slurping villain in heavy overshoes and a cheap suit. Donovan and Abel form a lawyer/client relationship of necessity that develops into respect and friendship. Early on Donovan informs Abel that he faces charges of espionage and that the death penalty is “on the table.” Abel responds drolly, ”That wouldn’t be my first choice.” Donovan appears more anxious than his client as the case unfolds. The lawyer envies his client’s composure. After a crucial ruling goes against them Donovan turns to Abel and asks, “Aren’t you alarmed?” Abel answers, “Would it help?”

This is my lesson!

Donovan escorts Abel to the exchange point where he is to be swapped for Powers. Now friends, the lawyer is fearful of returning Abel to the Soviets. With drawn machine guns everywhere, Donovan asks Abel what he is going to do when he gets back. Abel replies “Have a vodka.” Donovan tries again, “Are you worried they will kill you?” Abel responds, “Would it help?”

Am I worried the republic will crumble and we will be ruled by a madman and a party of spineless sycophants? Would it help?

Tom H. Cook ran a precinct for George McGovern in 1972.

Writing an Advice Column

I am living with my husband and ex-husband and their girl friends.  These women sneak their red underwear in with my whites in the laundry and now we all have pink clothing!  I try to talk to them but they gang up on me.  Don’t suggest I leave; it is my house! 

(signed) Pinky

One of the many ways I irritate those closest to me is by occasionally speaking with a heavy Scandinavian accent, though it is not my heritage.  I do it only as an homage to the original movie Fargo.  Think Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), trying to impress his wheeler dealer father-in-law with his business acumen:  “I tell you, Wade, this is really sweet deal.”

While I was dining out with friends recently, the server offered us the Happy Hour Special (two for one hors d’oeuvres) despite it being 9:00 pm, three hours after the happiness was to have ended.  To the embarrassment and chagrin of all I replied in full accent, “That would be a really sweet deal.”

fixit

I have always thought writing a nationally syndicated advice column would be a really sweet deal.  I’d call it Talk to Tom, with an accompanying picture of me caring about others (it would need to be Photoshopped).  To get started, I planned to solicit or make up a few letters from troubled souls.  I’d have one a bit spicy (PG-13), such as an inquiry from a newlywed whose husband insists on bringing a pet goat into their bedroom.

Some letters would not even need much of a response.  Take “Marilyn of Widows Peak, Georgia.”  She enclosed a powerful poem she found tucked in a Gideon Bible at a truck stop motel where she was about to throw away her sacred vows and, as she put it, have “carnival relations” with a dried fruit vendor from Cincinnati.  I only need thank Marilyn, extol her bravery and reprint the poem in its entirety.  Boom, another whole column. (Ka-ching $$$)

I was getting excited about helping the downtrodden, lonely, and misunderstood. The rewards of syndication barely crossed my mind. A fancy degree is not required to give advice to the lovelorn, just a little common sense, which admittedly is not my strong suit.  Mostly you need to be kind, caring and genuine, which I can fake

Another helpful ingredient is a collection of wise but vague sayings and parables.   Don’t sugar coat the truth but wrap it in a pithy, humorous but knowing manner.  To close, suggest the writer seek out a therapist/counselor/clergy person.  That is the “playbook.”  The referral is the safe, middle of the fairway, don’t get sued response.

Before I could begin my venture I was disheartened to learn Dear Abby, Dr. Laura, Miss Manners, Dr. Ruth, Ask Amy, Dear Ann and the rest have large staffs working tirelessly to help lost souls. They have offices, copy machines, consultants, accountants, lawyers and a staff handling thousands of requests.  My bubble was burst.  Suddenly it was looking like a real job.  I opted to take a nap and remain a fan of the genre.

I enjoy my guilty pleasure, and freely admit to reading the Dear Abby letters in the newspaper on a daily basis.  To clarify, I call all the advice mavens Abby as Minneapolis’ Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips) was the gold standard.  JoAnne and I attempt to guess “Abby’s” response and verbally craft a better one.  It is not one of my stellar traits but I feel a tinge of smugness comparing my problems to those who write in to the paper.  I do on occasion wonder where all of the concupiscent young women with poor judgement and raging libidos were when I was much younger.  They certainly didn’t live in Pennsauken, New Jersey in the 1960s and frequent the Cherry Hill Mall, or the Nassau Diner.  Unless my friends and I were not as cool…Nah.

When the upper crust mother of the bride thinks the new in-laws may be stealing her silver and it is a month before the wedding, I have to chortle.  One woman wrote that her boyfriend played around so much she did not know if the child she was expecting was his.  My favorite was a young man who rationalized that because he had delayed choosing a career; at 28 he worried that he was too old to start medical school and face ten years of training.  Expecting sympathy he concluded, “After all, I’d be 38 when I finished, isn’t that a little ridiculous?”  Dear Abby responded, “If you don’t go, how old will you be in ten years?”

I find myself muttering incredulously at the unfathomable and exasperating situations out there.  “No seventh chances!”  “Leave the lying weasel immediately.”  “Run!  As far and as fast as possible!”  I cannot believe some of the “writers” are in the same phylum as the rest of us.  It does however help explain the ascension of Donald Trump.

Tom H. Cook feels like he is playing “Whack A Mole” with the medical profession.  No sooner does he complete an appointment than another arises.  

Cook’s Codger Corner

By Thanksgiving Trump will lose interest or be injured while chasing a shiny object.
—Tom H. Cook           August 2015

 If Trump becomes president, Mexico and Canada will both construct (and pay for) walls to protect their borders from fleeing Americans.
—Ibid     May 2016      

Let us write to you in words you can understand. We are not displeased with your writing per se but our readership is becoming more mature and the pithy, hip, urban underground bling that you have been throwing down is too avant-garde for the speed bump lovin’ tweedy leaf rakers and corduroy cowboys we need to keep chill. The Board digs your vamping, but we will be unable to continue employing you unless you can help us skew older.  So Tom, you may be too hip for the room. Rock on and keep it real!  If you want to try an “oldster column” we will consider it.  Peace out.     —Editorial Board Hill and Lake Press

 

    Cook’s Codger Corner
Money saving tips and ornery observations buffalunatix

 Hey fellow seniors. Put on a flannel shirt because even though summer is coming it is still a bit chilly first thing in the morning.  WCCO says high of 70, but not in my pantry.

We are all concerned about money, what with property taxes and the like.  Fat lot of good it does to have a house that keeps going up in value if you are not going to sell it.  Who wants to leave the neighborhood and give it over to the hipsters?  Yeah, their kids are cute, but where am I supposed to go, to those chi-chi condos downtown?  Monthly association fees and people living on top of me, no thanks.

Well enough chatting.  Let’s get into the e-mail bag.

Dear Codger,
Do you know how much toothpaste is wasted every year?  Probably a lot.  Don’t throw out that nearly empty tube.  Cut it diagonally with a pair of shears (scissors).  There is another week’s worth of paste in there!                           Sharon M.      Girard Ave.

Dear Codger,
My kids want me to throw out all my maps and just Google or tell Siri when I want directions.  I need something I can spread out and look at and maybe write on. I want the big picture.  I can’t bring the computer in the car, and with all the traffic and horns, pay attention to a voice saying ”in four hundred feet merge left onto the Badger Creek entrance to I-94.”

I am going to AAA and see if they still have real maps like we used that summer to go to Mt. Rushmore. Hope they still lay out the route with those nasty smelling markers.
Linus E.      Chowen Ave.

 

Dear Codger,
All the grocery stores put the oldest milk in the front of the case.  Get on your knees and rustle around the rear of the cooler.  Someone with tats (tattoos) and piercings will come and offer to help.  Ask if they have a fresher container in the back.  Almost always the sell by date they find will be a week later!              Barb P.            Humboldt Ave.

 

Dear Codger,
I just had a check-up and my doctor said, “Don’t buy any green bananas.”  Is that bad?  I’ll hang up and listen.                                    Merlin G.         Irving Ave.

Tom H. Cook is a writer of sorts.  He serves at the pleasure (and whim) of the Executive Board

 

 

 

 

My Big Idea

I would like to issue a manifesto!  Alas, producing such a powerful document seems to require not only a bedrock commitment to a cause, but a will of steel, piercing black eyes, and huge ham-like hands with hairy knuckles.  Let me instead respectfully point out that our electoral process is deeply flawed to the point of embarrassment. Years ago, the erudite wit and social commentator Dick Cavett was asked by an interviewer whether he planned to vote in the coming election. Cavett responded in mock horror, “Heavens no, it just encourages them.”  The recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions has only made the election spectacle worse.

The New Yorker magazine suggests that the two Presidential candidates will together spend over one billion dollars in television advertising alone before November 6.   A close election is a windfall for television and radio station owners.  Instead of coquettish commercials for male enhancement, or gold merchants trolling for suckers, stations can charge a Super PAC top dollar to run attack ads implying a wrong voter choice will likely mean the end of the republic.  

To those who say it is private money or, in Latin no harmus, no foulus, I disagree.  One fat cat may invest $10 million to save $50 million in taxes, and another may contribute in hopes of having a pillow fight in the Lincoln bedroom.  Either way, you and I will pay.  Media advertising may be powerful but it is less satisfying than if we were to invest our national 401K on Silly String and a giant fireworks display.

Imagine you are an overworked or out of work rust belt resident. Because you live in a swing state, candidates are continually popping in.  They travel with their own entourage, but create traffic jams, false expectations, and a hefty bill for local police overtime.  Your mailbox and front porch are buried in campaign literature on a daily basis.  Answering the phone subjects you to robocalls or live pollsters.  When the doorbell rings you hope it is Jehovah Witnesses, rather than another freshly scrubbed volunteer.  

When you go to the grocery store, at least one news affiliate is sure to interview you on how it feels to be downtrodden.  Even when watching television, the last affordable respite, you are inundated with thirty-second spots of a candidate standing in front of a boarded up factory proclaiming a need for new clean, green, high paying, wacky fun jobs!

Campaign funds come from Super PACs, fat cats, corporations, billionaires, foreign investors, movie stars, unions, and you and me.  The money goes primarily to advertising agencies, media moguls, consultants, and seemingly everyone except “the plucky widow I met in Hattiesburg, Mississippi who has three sons in Iraq, recently had her spleen repossessed by an insurance company, and needs new batteries for her iron lung.”

Here is my big idea, and I admit it is fraught with peril and possible abuse, but look where we are now.  Currently we spend a billion dollars and only serve to annoy the target audience.  There are people with heartbreaking stories and documented needs.  They are hungry and we are giving them four color glossy pictures of food!  

What if political parties were encouraged to “one up” each other by using their bulging coffers to champion good works?   Candidates would receive public recognition for aiding hard hit states and municipalities. They may get naming rights like corporations and individual donors do on sports venues and university buildings. I know this sounds like buying votes, which is as unethical as attempting to disenfranchise our citizenry.  I admit the idea needs tweaking — but here are two examples.

 Candidate #1  “I could release a series of venomous TV attack ads aimed at my narcissistic, bat-sucking, cretinous opponent.  Looking into the hearts of people of this great state, I have instead decided to direct those funds to be used to keep every public library in the state open on Saturdays!  Furthermore, for young people and families, I have authorized my campaign to make a contribution that will ensure that every recreation center and community swimming pool will have extended hours!”

Candidate #2  “My staff was ready to place four hundred likenesses of me on billboards all over the greater metropolitan area.  I said, ‘People already know what I look like and we do not want to scare the children.  Let’s do something else with the money.’  Because I believe in scratching where it itches, I asked, ‘What do the people want?’  Turns out y’all would like a continuation of the bike paths begun the last time my party was in office.  We are gonna pay to extend the path from Fox Hollow Creek, all the way to downtown! And that’s good jobs for the local economy!”

Tom H. Cook is a writer and former HLP resident.  We have no idea where he gets the audacity to continue to submit his ideas to this publication.  There is a chance that he is really three women.   

 

tom and cooper dog

Toronto Visit

Toronto is like New York, as run by the Swiss.

—Peter Ustinov

“We’re just back from Tokelau.  Jack prepped with “Freddie” at Choate a hundred years ago. Anyway, Freddie’s the Royal Imperial Emperor now.  We told him not to make a fuss, but apparently he stayed some executions, closed the banks and schools, and put on this amusing little festival for us.  The kids enjoyed it.  And you, are you still out in the West somewhere?”

—Imaginary voice of a globetrotting Kenwood matron

 It is particularly difficult for me to write about travel, knowing the sophistication of the Hill and Lake Press readership.  That many of you do not make it to the back page is some solace, but it is still intimidating. I must adopt the proper world weary, bemused, detached tone of a seasoned travel writer.  Toronto was a gnarly, way cool, itchin’ time, and I cannot wait to chill there again as it is awesome to the max!!!

My son-in-law, Daniel Gillies, is working in Toronto for a few months on Saving Hope, a medical drama for NBC.  He brought the family’s yellow lab, Cooper, for company.  With a place to stay and “Coopie-Coopie” for a tour guide, we walked most of the city.  Having a large dog brands me as more likely a local, rather than an L.A. tourist.

We were pleased to learn that dogs are permitted on subways, trains, and city buses in off-peak hours.  In Toronto patio is a verb.  In the summer weather, people love to patio outside with a meal and drink.  Cooper enjoys a bowl of water just the other side of the railing.  The city feel is European right down to the smoking on the street.   Very few people fit my antiquated stereotype of square jawed mounties and blonde farmers’ daughters from Saskatoon.  Toronto is the largest city in Canada and fifth largest in North America.  One half of the population was not born in Canada.

Toronto is multicultural, racially diverse, and in a big hurry.  The downtown seems to stay up late.  Cooper and I saw hundreds of mostly 20 to 30-somethings out after midnight.  Seeing as how Toronto is a sophisticated and cosmopolitan cultural center, Cooper and I fit right in.  What you rarely see are law enforcement officers.  It appears to be a city that polices itself.  It does not hurt to have a 75 pound lab with you, but I never felt intimidated on any of our walks.

“The Beaches” is an Uptown-like neighborhood with shops, a boardwalk, swimming areas, and a well defined dog beach, all fronting Lake Ontario.  Like Target Field, the Blue Jays’ retractable roof stadium is great for baseball, and it is right downtown.  On Daniel’s day off the three of us went to Kensington, a hip neighborhood right next to Chinatown.  Toronto has a Minneapolis feel with parks and greenery everywhere.  The city is vibrant, almost despite local government officials.

Torontan’s seem to be amused rather than incensed by their own political scandal.  Mayor Rob Ford was once arrested for threatening his wife.  He famously warned the city that the Asians are taking over.  Currently he is in the news for trying to buy and annex city park land adjacent his home.   He is an obese man, well over 300 pounds, who looks like he could swallow Rush Limbaugh.  Months ago Ford vowed to lose at least 50 pounds.  Ballyhooed as a charity fund raiser, there was promise of twice-weekly weigh-ins at City Hall.  He appears to have gone AWOL and gained weight, not only abandoning the project, but ceasing to come into his office for any reason.

 Toronto, a doggone good city.

Tom H. Cook is back in the States plotting his next trip, a return to the Twin Cities in the fall.

 

 

 

 

We Need Money!

Largest private university donations (2009): 
Stanford $640.1 million
Harvard $601.6 million   — LA Times February 4, 2010

 Kennedy Center receives $22.5 million in single gift.
— Jim Handly, NBS News May 4, 2010

U.S. Treasury Department operating balance: $73.76 billion
Apple Corporation operating balance: $76.156 billion
–Matt Hartley, The Financial Post July 28, 2011

Health club membership: $1,238.56; Hair care: $333.87; Gift shop allowance: $1,666.73; Use of Foreign Currency: $44,164; Miscellaneous costs: $135,249.22.  A few of the perks for each U.S. Senator which, coupled with salary, benefits, retirement, total $8,162,000 per Senator each year!
–Joshua M. Brown, The Christian Science Monitor July 29. 2011

Since The Hill and Lake Press is a monthly newspaper, pressing issues of the day may resolve themselves, which is why I tend to write about garage sales and dogs.  At the risk of belaboring old news, as I write, the debt ceiling has been grudgingly and sloppily raised with the result being Standard and Poor’s downgrading the U.S. economy from a AAA rating to AA+.  S&P warns that we may lose our + and possibly an A if we do not figure out a way to increase our revenue.  In the meantime Americans have been ordered to tighten their belts, stop talking smack about Uruguay, and put away their giant foam fingers that proclaim “We’re # 1.”

In spite of evidence to the contrary I have always believed that a nation capable of producing Abraham Lincoln, Silly Putty, and baseball cards will prevail.  Lately I am having serious doubts.  We seem hopelessly paralyzed politically and philosophically between militant, uncompromising forces that decry as treasonous even the mention of shifting the tax burden toward the wealthy, and more moderate Americans who spend much of their time seeking deductions, underreporting income, and searching for loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

We need money, and unless the government can quickly create a better iPad it appears our economy is in for very difficult times.  Searching for ways to cut spending, we against all logic turn to the people who have the least to sacrifice.  We blithely raise the public transportation fees for those who cannot afford cars, cut back on free and reduced lunch programs (ketchup as a vegetable is ready for a revival), reduce aid to dependent children, and trim Medicare for seniors.  There are relative pennies to be saved.

As first-hand survivors of The Great Depression dwindle, there are too many public officials who seem to have no sense of history.  Their simplistic ideas are at best naive and more likely mean-spirited.  They seem inured to the number of lives their rhetoric could effect.  Aside for money for foreign wars, they believe in a small “g” government in providing aid to our citizens.  Their take on A Christmas Carol is that if Jacob Marley had only lived, he and Ebenezer Scrooge could have taken the company public, moved it to Belize, inflated stock prices and sold short before Tiny Tim died of consumption.  For a final touch, they have persuaded contemporary Bob Cratchit to refuse government medical aid as socialism, even as Tim’s leg is deemed a preexisting condition and therefore not covered by insurance.

How can we raise revenue and get back on par with Finland when we have so little trust in the politicians that allowed this to happen? Who can blame us?  Our hard earned money seems to go for unpopular wars, even less popular defense contractors, bank bailouts, and Senate haircuts.

If Apple won’t lend us the money, we can only cut expenditures so far.  The poor and the middle class have done more than their share.  On the whole we are a generous people.  Some of the most fervent opponents of raising taxes privately spend more than their progressive tax share would be in funding organizations and candidates to beat back the dreaded tax man.   A further irony is that many hardline tax opponents give very generously (and tax deductably) to their alma mater, the arts, hospitals, disease research, the disadvantaged, and religious organizations.

Many of us believe in helping others but resent paying taxes to the weasels in Washington.

If we are unable to get the Bush tax cuts eliminated, can we at least find appealing ways to interest the super wealthy in helping to support their government?  Hospital wings, art museums, opera houses, and college buildings are named for their benefactors.  The local Kiwanis club sponsors a mile of highway clean up. We need a few philanthropists to step forward and adopt an underfunded federal government Department in exchange for naming rights.  Imagine The Warren Buffet Department of Commerce. The Mark Zuckerberg Department of Education or, my favorite, The Steve Jobs Department of Labor.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer who remains in exile.  He will be returning home and reading stuff like this with the poet Tom Cassidy on September 17th at Black Forest Inn (26th and Nicollet).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Good as We Have. Better Than We Deserve.

Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.    -George Bernard Shaw

Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.   
–Paul Simon (“Boy in the Bubble’)

Barack Obama:  As good as we have.  Better than we deserve.
–T. Cook

This is one of those times I wish I had paid closer attention in college.  I took an introductory American History course my freshman year that would be useful today.  The professor alternately espoused and disparaged “The Great Man” theory as it applied to the Presidency.  In his lectures he played us mercilessly (and with great glee), ricocheting between competing notions.  One day he would argue very convincingly that the electorate has historically been able to intuit the skill set and temperament needed in a leader.  Whether facing expansion, secession, depression or world war, we the people were able to measure our leader’s capacity to manage crises when they occurred.

During other lectures he suggested that as a nation we were more lucky than good in selecting Jefferson, Lincoln, and two Roosevelts, and that our overall batting average was no better than one in three, with many disastrous results.  The professor advocated that the crucible of adversity had taken a number of good men and elevated them to greatness.   My fellow students and I debated after class if the times did indeed make the man, or if great leaders emerge in times of strife.

Neither Bush nor McCain ever displayed even a hint of political greatness.  Both used family connections to gain entrance to Yale and the U.S. Naval Academy respectively.  Each squandered the opportunity.  Bush received “gentleman Cs” and McCain graduated third from the bottom of his class. Granted, academic success is not the sole litmus test. But a lack of curiosity about the world seems to be a disqualifier.  Both almost advertised themselves as the candidate to have a beer with, maybe a game of darts.

In 2008 we have, out of desperation, resumed our quest for a great leader.  We have given a mandate to Bush’s polar opposite.  Barack Obama is the anti-George (either Costanza or Bush).  He is the Harvard-educated product of a meritocracy.  He is curious about the world and willing to work tirelessly.  He is attracting the smartest people from many rooms and is ready to receive their ideas.  Driven to succeed, he seems energized by the complex challenges that await him.  He cautions that he is a leader, not a messiah, and that we as citizens must play a part in the recovery.  He may be the surgeon but we are in charge of our own post-operative physical therapy.

I do not believe in an inevitable national destiny.  (Our recent past feels more like a game of Chutes and Ladders.)  It is heartening that the election of Barack Obama has been so well received overseas.  We have clearly sent a message to our citizens and the rest of the world that we are serious about making fundamental changes.  Only an extraordinary man or woman with the power of the presidency would be able to positively alter the direction of our country.

Whether Barack Obama becomes a great President is yet to be determined, but the germ, the spark, the potential has already been demonstrated.  He has endured twenty months of rigorous scrutiny and emerged with his integrity and vision for America intact.  There is reason for optimism.  A truly great leader is incredibly rare but we just may have one.

Tom H. Cook can, as a result of the election, once again make eye contact with people from other countries.

 

 

 

On Watergate

Watergate is an immensely complicated scandal with a cast of characters as varied as a Tolstoy novel.                       –Bob Woodward

Gordon Liddy thinks he’s James Bond, but he’s actually Maxwell Smart.   –John Dean

One of the not many advantages of living a long time is that the nuggets of history tend to get stuck in the great sifter.  The surviving principals of national melodramas that riveted us emerge, chastened, after the statute of limitations has expired, often with a book to sell.  Technically John Dean, former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, would fit that profile.  To dismiss him as an opportunist still riding a nearly forty year old scandal is to miss the importance of his scholarship and his ten well-regarded books on American politics.  Dean is a political independent who favored the impeachment of George Bush.  He is a frequent guest commentator on MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

I still have Watergate questions, so I jumped at the opportunity to hear John Dean speak at my local library last week.  I fantasized that only about ten other miscreants would show up, and that with Dean in tow we would adjourn to a local tavern and really talk about H.R. Haldeman’s haircut, the weasel Donald Segretti, “The Plumbers,” and the 18 1/2 minute gap.  Alas, when I arrived the meeting room was already packed with over two hundred people, most of them older and angrier than I am.

Dean, a polished speaker, is modest and unassuming.  He opened by saying he was happy to be among so many others who were not invited to Chelsea’s wedding.  He then talked about his nine year libel battle with G. Gordon Liddy and the authors of Silent Coup, an inflammatory book that claimed Dean had masterminded the Watergate break-in, partly to destroy evidence linking him and his then fiancee Maureen with a high priced D.C. call girl operation.

The silver lining in his ordeal was that he was able to subpoena sealed White House tapes and archive material.  He and the numerous political science students he employed methodically transcribed oval office tapes that had never been heard.  Standing before us was a man with access to a political junkie’s holy grail.   When he opened the floor to questions, many hands shot up.

The room was charged and this group of old people with long memories came alive.  Short of a rally to protest social security cuts, a chance to collect discount coupons for Old Country Buffet, or a Bob Dylan sighting, nothing could have excited this crowd more.  Granted this was not a cross section of the local citizenry, but it was invigorating and a bit scary to hear the pointed accusations of people who knew dates and details like I used to know baseball lineups.  What about the June 20,1972 tapes?  Did Dean suspect that the executive offices were bugged?  (He did.)

I was a rank amateur, a dabbler in Watergate trivia, but I felt close to these people.   They may have looked like they stepped out of a Metamucil ad and could probably turn instantly and shown pictures of their grandchildren, but they had never gotten over the affront of being lied to.   They still choked on the imperial notion that a president could place himself above the law.  Their was an air of righteous indignation that many now reserved for kids who cut across their lawn.

Before us stood the man who shot Liberty Valence.  Dean had taken on the President of the United States and all the smoke and mirrors of the office. Our questions began.  Nixon’s inner cabinet was not a united front.  Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were “The Berlin Wall” but there was staff infighting.  Attorney General John Mitchell and Ehrlichman were like oil and water.  Nixon did not directly order the break-in but he was the catalyst who set it in motion by demanding information only available from DNC (Democratic National Committee) headquarters.  Dean believes the recklessness that led to Watergate began in 1971 with the White House giving permission and funding to G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt to engage in covert operations like the break-in of the Beverly Hills office of Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

It would have been Dean’s word against Nixon’s if Alexander Butterfield had not divulged the existence of the taping system.  Attorney Fred Buzhardt advised destroying the tapes but Dean’s successor as White House counsel Len Garment argued against it.  Despite the obvious obstruction of justice, Dean said that Nixon most likely could have ridden out Watergate without the tapes as evidence.  The President was insulated and arrogant enough to believe the tapes could not legally be wrested from him.  He felt they were a private resource that would be very useful and valuable when he retired and wrote his memoirs.

Dean said that Nixon was very chameleon- like, assuming different personas.  Meeting with Nixon, Dean and speechwriter Ray Price found him solicitous, asking about their families.  He rarely raised his voice or swore.  Nixon’s dark side, his third-person rants and paranoid schemes were reserved for the company of Haldeman and Chuck (Come to Jesus) Colson.  Dean had warned that there was a cancer in the White house, and was fired in April 1973.  The same day Nixon reluctantly accepted the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

Dean was out of the White House by the time Nixon began to show the strain of the scandal, and could not really comment on Nixon’s mental health during his last year in office.  Of the film portrayals, Dean felt that Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, if viewed with a broad brush and given artistic license, came the closest to capturing the inner Nixon.

Too soon the program ended and the room returned from the 1970s.  The briefly youthful idealists around me seemed to age before my eyes.  There was definitely a Dorian Gray phenomenon as they shuffled out or joined the line to purchase an autographed book and ask a last question of a real Watergate player.

I got up stiffly after all that sitting and remembered a vow I had made to never be nostalgic for that era.  The war still raged then in Viet Nam.  The Russian bear still had teeth.  Domestically we were heading into a time when a 12 percent home mortgage was a considered a good deal, as was waiting in line for under two hours to buy gas.

Still, they were simpler times and it was almost quaint to revisit the moral outrage that has since been stamped out of most of us.  It is difficult to compare erasing tapes to authorizing the use of torture.  On my way home I chuckled to myself remembering a Doonesbury cartoon of some years ago.  Two characters are talking.  One is reciting the misdeeds of the Bush-Cheney administration.  The other turns to him and remarks, “Bet you’re missing the heck outta the “trickster.”

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer who is feeling too long in exile.  He is returning home to Minneapolis at the end of September in hopes of seeing old friends and a Twins game at Target Field.

 

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Have We Lost Our Moral Compass?

The setting:  A checkout line at a supermarket near my home.

Clerk (a twenty-something with tattoos, piercings, and rings):  Did you find everything you need today, sir?

Me (old, distracted, weather-beaten):  I had trouble finding my left sock this morning and had to wear two rights, but the rest is fine.

Clerk (unnerved but slightly amused):  So, will that be paper or plastic?

Me (with droll humor and exquisite timing):  Just make sure you get the bread and eggs on the bottom, to cushion the cans.

Clerk (breaking character and smiling):  Here’s your change, Dog.

I put my hand out to receive groceries, but the clerk first offers a fist.  We touch knuckles. 

*                                   *                                      *                               *  

 

Long ago, I vowed never to become so un-hip that I could be marginalized and reduced to a life of obsolescence, a disposable asterisk.   I knew I could not keep pace with the beat of change, but I have never wanted to be riding a metaphorical bicycle (with a basket and bell) in the passing lane of the autobahn.  I am resigned to being old, but I do not want to be in the way.  This is not an anti-technology rant, but more a concern that, perhaps while I was taking one of my power naps, it all slipped away.

I do not understand the joy of watching Lawrence of Arabia on a screen the size of a Post It note while shopping for cornflakes.  I cannot relate to the need for multicolor epics depicting Lewis and Clark’s journey and the Green Bay Packers’ sweep tattooed on my frail body.  I am afraid to text message, listen to 50s music, photograph my dashboard, organize a high school reunion, and surf the Web, all while driving.

I do not have an ear growth, perhaps because I do not know anyone that interested in a play by play narrative of my day.  We have all been trapped and forced to listen in on the minutia which passes for insight by fellow lake walkers.  It is not Alexis de Tocqueville or even Charles Kuralt.  It is vain, petty, mindless stuff that we all think, but until recently kept to ourselves or saved for dinner table fodder.  Now there are no unexpressed thoughts.

The War goes on at a mind numbing pace and we shake our heads, powerless to do anything about it.  It is our silent shame, like having a crazy relative locked in the attic.  Our vaunted system of checks and balances is about as successful as the Maginot Line.  Those of who still read newspapers are bemused when Cheney is arrested for stealing salad forks from the White House, knowing he’ll get off.  Young people no longer work for The Company; they are free agent/independent contractors, which is another way to say no pension/no insurance/no future safeguards.

It is all going too fast and I have become the geezer/duffer/codger that I feared.  The last time I felt this anxious was in elementary school.  The tough kids, the hoods, terrified me, I could not relate to delinquents like Jimmy Esposito and Michael Faun.  I feared them more than the Red Menace and the jack-booted Communists that in my 1950s childhood were going to come parachuting on to our Little League field.  Messieurs Esposito and Faun would prey on weaker kids, beating them up on the playground and intimidating them out of their lunch money.   No one was smaller and weaslier than I was.

I was spared most days because I was able to use humor.  I made it a point to always have a joke or some anti-authority remark to share.  These were not funny jokes, but stupid ones like “Mommy, mommy, I don’t want to go to Europe!”  “Shut up and keep swimming!”   The point was to get my potential tormentors to see the foolishness all around us and in doing so demonstrate to them the folly of running over my foot with their bikes.

It is that time again. The world is spinning and not making much sense. And so, like at Teddy Roosevelt Elementary,  I need to reduce my own anxiety by having human interactions with people who are probably as under insured, cash poor, and embarrassed by the government as I am.  Young people in particular see me as old and out of touch, which I am, but humor and unmasking the foibles around us helps us forge a meaningful albeit fleeting connection.  My message is: It’s not you. We have lost our moral compass, the noble experiment is on hold, and the culture is spinning and grasping.  We may not get to the root of the profound anomie that forces us into constant distraction, but if we can share a laugh at the absurdity our mutual plight, it cannot engulf us. 

 

Tom H. Cook and his wife JoAnne are returning home to Minneapolis for a visit this fall.  Cook will be reading some of his sunnier columns with noted curmudgeon Tom Cassidy at The Black Forest Saturday September 15th at 7:30 PM.