Brilliant Analysis of the Day: 12/31/20

Heather Cox RichardsonDec 31

And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.

It’s been quite a year.

But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.

In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980. 

In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure. 

But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color. 

That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.” 

To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate. 

With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money. 

From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.

After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.

The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters. 

And so, 2000 came.

In that year, the presidential election came down to the electoral votes in Florida. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 540,000 votes over Republican candidate George W. Bush, but Florida would decide the election. During the required recount, Republican political operatives led by Roger Stone descended on the election canvassers in Miami-Dade County to stop the process. It worked, and the Supreme Court upheld the end of the recount. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and, thanks to its electoral votes, became president. Voter suppression was a success, and Republicans would use it, and after 2010, gerrymandering, to keep control of the government even as they lost popular support.

Bush had promised to unite the country, but his installation in the White House gave new power to the ideology of the Movement Conservative leaders of the Reagan Revolution. He inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor Democrat Bill Clinton, but immediately set out to get rid of it by cutting taxes. A balanced budget meant money for regulation and social programs, so it had to go. From his term onward, Republicans would continue to cut taxes even as budgets operated in the red, the debt climbed, and money moved upward.

The themes of Republican dominance and tax cuts were the backdrop of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. That attack gave the country’s leaders a sense of mission after the end of the Cold War and, after launching a war in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda, they set out to export democracy to Iraq. This had been a goal for Republican leaders since the Clinton administration, in the belief that the United States needed to spread capitalism and democracy in its role as a world leader. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened the president and the federal government, creating the powerful Department of Homeland Security, for example, and leading Bush to assert the power of the presidency to interpret laws through signing statements. 

The association of the Republican Party with patriotism enabled Republicans in this era to call for increased spending for the military and continued tax cuts, while attacking Democratic calls for domestic programs as wasteful. Increasingly, Republican media personalities derided those who called for such programs as dangerous, or anti-American. 

But while Republicans increasingly looked inward to their party as the only real Americans and asserted power internationally, changes in technology were making the world larger. The Internet put the world at our fingertips and enabled researchers to decode the human genome, revolutionizing medical science. Smartphones both made communication easy. Online gaming created communities and empathy. And as many Americans were increasingly embracing rap music and tattoos and LGBTQ rights, as well as recognizing increasing inequality, books were pointing to the dangers of the power concentrating at the top of societies. In 1997, J.K. Rowling began her exploration of the rise of authoritarianism in her wildly popular Harry Potter books, but her series was only the most famous of a number of books in which young people conquered a dystopia created by adults.

In Bush’s second term, his ideology created a perfect storm. His administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and caused $125 billion in damage in and around New Orleans in 2005, revealed how badly the new economy had treated Black and Brown people, and how badly the destruction of domestic programs had affected our ability to respond to disasters. Computers permitted the overuse of credit default swaps that precipitated the 2008 crash, which then precipitated the housing crisis, as people who had bet on the individualist American dream lost their homes. Meanwhile, the ongoing wars, plagued with financial and moral scandals, made it clear that the Republicans optimistic vision of spreading democracy through military conflict was unrealistic. 

In 2008, voters put Black American Barack Obama, a Democrat, into the White House. To Republicans, primed by now to believe that Democrats and Black people were socialists, this was an undermining of the nation itself, and they set out to hamper him. While many Americans saw Obama as the symbol of a new, fairer government with America embracing a multilateral world, reactionaries built a backlash based in racism and sexism. They vocally opposed a federal government they insisted was pushing socialism on hardworking white men, and insisted that America must show its strength by exerting its power unilaterally in the world. Increasingly, the Internet and cell phones enabled people to have their news cater to their worldview, moving Republicans into a world characterized by what a Republican spokesperson would later call “alternative facts.” 

And so, in 2016, we faced a clash between a relentlessly changing nation and the individualist ideology of the Movement Conservatives who had taken over the Republican Party. By then, that ideology had become openly radical extremism in the hands of Donald Trump, who referred to immigrants as criminals, boasted of sexually assaulting women, and promised to destroy the New Deal government once and for all. 

In the 2016 election, the themes of the past 36 years came together. Embracing Movement Conservative individualist ideology taken to an extreme, Trump was eager enough to make sure a Democrat didn’t win that, according to American intelligence services, he was willing to accept the help of Russian operatives. They, in turn, influenced the election through the manipulation of new social media, amplified by what had become by then a Republican echo chamber in which Democrats were dangerous socialists and the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a criminal. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which permitted corporate money to flow into election campaigns, Trump also had the help of a wave of money from big business; financial institutions spent $2 billion to influence the election. He also had the support of evangelicals, who believed he would finally give them the anti-abortion laws they wanted. 

Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but, as George W. Bush before him, won in the Electoral College. Once in office, this president set out to destroy the New Deal state, as Movement Conservatives had called for, returning the country to the control of a small group of elite businessmen who, theoretically, would know how to move the country forward best by leveraging private sector networks and innovation. He also set out to put minorities and women back into subordinate positions, recreating a leadership structure that was almost entirely white and male. 

As Trump tried to destroy an activist government once and for all, Americans woke up to how close we have come to turning our democracy over to a small group of oligarchs. 

In the past four years, the Women’s March on Washington and the MeToo Movement has enabled women to articulate their demand for equality. The travel ban, child separation policy for Latin American refugees, and Trump’s attacks on Muslims, Latin American immigrants, and Chinese immigrants, has sparked a defense of America’s history of immigration. The Black Lives Matter Movement, begun in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin, has gained power as Black Americans have been murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers and white vigilantes, and as Black Americans have borne witness to those murders with cellphone videos. 

The increasing voice of democracy clashed most dramatically with Trump’s ideology in summer 2020 when, with the support of his Attorney General William Barr, Trump used the law enforcement officers of the Executive Branch to attack peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. and in Portland, Oregon. In June, on the heels of the assault on the protesters at Lafayette Square, military officers from all branches made it clear that they would not support any effort to use them against civilians. They reiterated that they would support the Constitution. The refusal of the military to support a further extension of Trump’s power was no small thing.

And now, here we are. Trump lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes and by an Electoral College split of 306 to 232. Although the result was not close, Trump refuses to acknowledge the loss and is doing all he can to hamper Biden’s assumption of office. Many members of the Republican Party are joining him in his attempt to overturn the election, taking the final, logical step of Movement Conservatism: denying the legitimacy of anyone who does not share their ideology. This is unprecedented. It is a profound attack on our democracy. But it will not succeed. 

And in this moment, we have, disastrously, discovered the final answer to whether or not it is a good idea to destroy the activist government that has protected us since 1933. In their zeal for reducing government, the Trump team undercut our ability to respond to a pandemic, and tried to deal with the deadly coronavirus through private enterprise or by ignoring it and calling for people to go back to work in service to the economy, willing to accept huge numbers of dead. They have carried individualism to an extreme, insisting that simple public health measures designed to save lives infringe on their liberty.

The result has been what is on track to be the greatest catastrophe in American history, with more than 338,000 of us dead and the disease continuing to spread like wildfire. It is for this that the Trump administration will be remembered, but it is more than that. It is a fitting end to the attempt to destroy our government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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Article of the Day: Monday, December 28, 2021–Feast of the Holy Innocents

FBI team leader: How I know the Blackwater defendants didn’t deserve a pardon from Trump

Thomas O’Connor served for 23 years as an FBI special agent before retiring in 2019. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) — The President of the United States has the power to grant a pardon to anyone he believes deserves one. This is an incredible power when used for good. There are cases where the US justice system gets it wrong and cases where the defendants had served their time and were now doing good things. However, none of those fact patterns are present in President Donald Trump’s pardon of four Blackwater security guards serving time for their involvement in the killing of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on September 16, 2007. 

I know that these men were undeserving of pardons because I was a member of The FBI Evidence Response Team that traveled to Iraq and investigated the site of these killings. Thomas O'Connor

I am not a writer, an academic or one who has frequently spoken out publicly on political issues. I am a 35-year law enforcement professional. I retired on September 11, 2019, after 23 years as FBI special agent. I was a team leader on the FBI’s Washington Field Office, Evidence Response Team for more than 20 years. I have investigated many violent crimes and acts of terrorism around the world, including the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attack at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. 

The most important rule for me during these deployments to major crime scenes: Don’t look at the crime and fit the forensic evidence to match a perceived narrative; instead, look at the forensic evidence that will show the story of the event. By letting the evidence lead the direction of the investigation, the FBI Evidence Response Teams and the FBI Laboratory have an important role of speaking for the victims who cannot tell their story. 

On September 16, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq, was a dangerous place. No one will dispute that fact. On that day, a bombing took place a few miles from a busy traffic circle called Al Nisour Square, which is used by Iraqis to access major roadways across Baghdad. 

A security detail from the private government contractor Blackwater was protecting a US official attending a meeting at a government building when the bomb was detonated. When bad things happen, it is the security team’s job to get the protectee “off the X” and away from danger. The security detail called the command center in the US Green Zone and advised that they were leaving with the US official. At a place called “Man Camp,” Blackwater Team Raven 23 sounded the alarm that they might be needed to assist the exfiltration of the protectee from the scene and back into the US Green Zone.The team leader of Raven 23 called the command center and requested permission to leave the protected US Green Zone and go to assist the incoming Blackwater team. This request was denied. 

The team leader then chose to violate the orders and left the US Green Zone anyway. The four Blackwater armored trucks were captured on video leaving the green zone. They drove out to Nisour Square, turned left and entered the traffic circle, blocking the northbound traffic, the southbound traffic and the traffic entering the circle from the west.Two Iraqi traffic officers stopped the traffic going toward the four armored vehicles. One of the first cars in that stopped traffic was a white KIA occupied by a woman and her son. The woman was a local doctor and the son, who was driving the car, was going to medical school to follow in his mother’s footsteps. 

What happened next began the Nisour Square shootings. 

A sniper on the Raven 23 team placed his rifle out a porthole of the Bearcat armored vehicle and fired at the driver of the white KIA. The man was struck and killed by the bullet. The car began to roll forward slowly, bumping into a red vehicle. The two Iraqi traffic officers physically tried to stop the movement of the car. The defendants said they feared the white KIA was a car bomb as it moved ahead. The car rolled forward after the sniper, a security guard, shot the driver and his foot came off the brake. This is why the sniper was charged with, andconvicted of, first-degree murder.At that point gunfire erupted from a small number of the Raven 23 Blackwater operators. The gunfire was directed into the white KIA, killing the women seated in the front passenger seat. These rounds were from a rifle and a large turret gun. A grenade was fired from the turret gunners’ rifle mounted launcher. The grenade skipped off the ground under the driver’s door exploding and causing the gas line to rupture and set the car ablaze. How do I know this? During the forensic evidence recovery later conducted by the FBI team, the bumper of the white KIA was removed and paint transfer was matched to the red vehicle, which was also processed. The blast fragment under the door showed a pattern, which was determined by FBI explosives experts to be from an M203 grenade. 

In examining the white KIA, I was able to count 38 bullet entry points, and that does not account for the numerous rounds that entered through the windshield that no longer existed. We recovered a black steel tip rifle round from the steering wheel of the white KIA. This type of ammunition is against the rules of engagement in a US sanctioned war zone and in violation of US Military and Blackwater regulations.

A few cars back in the traffic was a blue Suzuki Trooper and inside were two families. The driver was Mohammed and his 9-year-old son Ali sat in the rear seat behind his father. In the front passenger seat was Mohammed’s sister. Ali’s two young female cousins sat next to him in the back seat. 

Gunfire erupted and everyone in the car laid down in his or her seats as bullets hit the front of the trooper. At a break in the gunfire, likely during reloading, one of the little girls in the back seat yelled that “Ali has no hair.” When the shooting stopped and the Blackwater team began to move, Mohammed exited the driver door and opened a rear passenger door. Ali, who had been slumped against the door, fell into his father’s arms. Ali had been struck with a Blackwater round, which entered the rear driver side door and hit the boy in the head. As his father reached for his 9-year-old son, Ali’s brains fell out onto the street and onto his father’s feet. 

How do I know this? I spoke with Mohammed while I was procuring his car from him for forensic evaluation. When a grieving father tells you the story of his son being shot, you don’t forget. Mohammed asked me one thing, bring justice for his son, tell the story. I responded to him with “Inshallah” (God willing). While witnesses are not always 100% accurate, the bullet holes in the rear driver’s door which entered into the seat where Ali sat don’t lie. What was indisputable is the brain matter, which we had to clear to complete the trajectory analysis and recovery of fragmented rounds.A white VW Caddy used to transport ice was also stopped in that traffic. Two men sat in the driver’s area of the truck. When the shooting began numerous rounds entered the driver’s compartment. The man in the driver’s seat was struck by gunfire. He tried to crawl out the passenger’s door to safety. A grenade then struck the driver’s door, blowing a 10-inch by 10-inch hole in the outer metal of the door and sending fragmentation into the vehicle. A second explosion hit the roof over the driver’s compartment. The blast also sent fragmentation raining into the truck. These two victims were not terrorists; they were businessmen trying to sell ice in a place where electricity frequently went out. One man was killed, the other injured. How do I know the grenade was the cause of that explosion? I processed this vehicle and took hundreds of photographs of the damage and the bloodstains left in the driver’s compartment of the vehicle. FBI Explosives experts analyzed the damage and confirmed the M203 grenade fragmentation pattern.While this shooting was taking place on the roadways of the traffic circle, a boy was seated on a bench on the other side of a wall at a nearby children’s school next to a makeshift playground. A grenade fired from a Blackwater rifle came over the wall and landed next to the bench. The grenade exploded, injuring the boy. The fragmentation in the metal bench was documented photographically.I could go on with each of the 17 victims killed and 20 seriously injured in thisincident. Same story, sitting in traffic waiting to get somewhere, anywhere but Nisour Square. In each case the vehicles were processed methodically and forensic evidence was recovered.

The Blackwater Raven 23 defendants claimed that they responded to gunfire aimed at them while stopping traffic in Nisour Square that day. I believed this to be the case before we deployed to Iraq for this crime scene investigation. I had worked with Blackwater operators on previous deployments to Iraq and they were good people doing a difficult job in a dangerous environment. That said, I would let the evidence lead the investigation and assist the agents in finding the truth.

One of the first things we did once we were in Baghdad was to ask to see the Blackwater vehicles, which, we had been told, sustained firearms damage. This would be very important evidence of a reason for the shooting incident. I know that as a career law enforcement professional, if I had been involved in a shooting, I would do everything in my power to protect the evidence of bullet impacts coming toward me and show that I was defending myself. If you know the FBI Evidence Response Team is on their way to review the vehicles in the shooting, lock them up, protect the evidence. It is not rocket science.What happened next gave me more than pause. The four armored vehicles involved in the Nisour Square shooting were silver in color when they were observed on tape leaving the US Green zone against orders. The vehicles in front of us at the “Man Camp” were now desert sand color. The reported impact points — we were told they the impacts were from bullet rounds — on the side of the vehicle were no long there. In their place were traces of a sanding wheel, which had been used to sand off any potential marks. In the up gun turret of the Bearcat was a rifle cartridge. Only half of the cartridge was spray-painted desert sand brown. The vehicles were painted so quickly that they did not even clean up the debris. We had been told that the radiator of one of the Blackwater vehicles had been punctured from a bullet round coming in from the traffic at Nisour Square. During the review and documentation of the vehicle, we found that the damaged radiator had been repaired. We were also told that the front driver’s tire of the vehicle had been punctured, likely from a bullet. We then found the tire had been replaced and the damaged tire discarded. Luckily we located the discarded tire, which had been removed and placed in an adjacent room. We took both the radiator and the tire back to the FBI Laboratory for expert forensic review. One of the top explosives examiners in the FBI X-rayed the tire. Inside the tire he located a metal fragment. The fragment was not a bullet; it was a starlet (a piece of fragmentation made to cause damage) from an M203 grenade fired by the Blackwater security guards, which likely ricocheted off the white KIA and struck the tire. Now, when you paint a vehicle, you don’t paint the undercarriage, right? Of course you don’t. A review of the undercarriage near where the radiator was damaged showed a small impact point. A basic trajectory was taken from the impact point to the radiator damage. This showed it was possible for a bullet or fragment to travel from that impact point to the radiator. Photographs and measurements were taken of the impact point. It was later displayed in court proceedings and was clear evidence that the same class of item, which caused the damage to the bench at the children’s school, caused the damage to the undercarriage of the Bearcat. Another example of ricochet evidence from the M203 grenade fired at the white KIA.The FBI team made four trips to Iraq to investigate this shooting. The agency spared no expense to gather as much evidence from the scene and the vehicles as possible. Countless interviews were conducted and over a thousand photographs were taken of the scene. The evidence was collected professionally, and the best examiners in the world did the analysis.All of this evidence was introduced into several US court hearings. The prosecution team was fair, professional and extremely competent. The defendants in this case had some of the most knowledgeable and professional defense teams possible. The judge was one of the most fair and objective jurists on the bench. A jury heard the evidence and found four Blackwater guards guilty of murder, manslaughter and weapons charges. The system worked and justice was brought to the deceased, the injured victims and their families.

The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free thanks to a pardon by the President of the United States. This simply makes me sad and angry. I spoke to Mohammed this morning. He told me he could no longer tell his family and the people of Baghdad that the system worked and justice was found for Ali. Mohammed asked me one more question. Could this pardon be changed? I told him “no.” I could not say Inshallah. The purpose of my writing this piece is to introduce you to these victims.

There is no forensic evidence of anyone shooting at the Blackwater team. How do I know? The evidence told me that.

Article of the Day: 12/24/20

The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.

Dec. 24, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Paul Wehner, New York Times

Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Annibale Carracci, 1594-95.
Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Annibale Carracci, 1594-95.Bridgeman Images

“Get used to different.”

That line comes from a marvelous new TV series on Jesus’ life, “The Chosen,” in which Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, invites Matthew to become one of his disciples. Simon Peter, already a disciple, registers his fierce objection. Matthew is a tax collector, who were viewed as tools of Roman authorities, often dishonest and abusive. They were therefore treated as traitors and outcasts by other Jews.

“I don’t get it,” Simon Peter says to Jesus about his decision to invite Matthew, to which Jesus responds, “You didn’t get it when I chose you, either.”

“But this is different,” Simon Peter answers. “I’m not a tax collector.” At which point Jesus let’s Simon Peter know things aren’t going to be quite what his followers expected.

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly radical and radically inclusive figure Jesus was, and neither are today’s Christians. We want to tame and domesticate who he was, but Jesus’ life and ministry don’t really allow for it. He shattered barrier after barrier.

One example is Jesus’ encounter, in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus and the woman talked about Jesus being the Messiah, why he was even deigning to talk with her, and the unnamed woman’s past and present, which she initially sought to hide from Jesus. (It included her five previous husbands, according to the account in John, and the fact that “the one whom you now have is not your husband.”) Yet not a word of condemnation passed the lips of Jesus; the woman felt heard, understood, cared for. Jesus treated her, in the words of one commentator, “with a magnetic dignity and respect.”

The encounter with Jesus transformed her life; after it the woman at the well became “the first woman preacher in Christian history,” proclaiming Jesus to be the savior of the world to her community, according to the New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey.

This story is a striking example of Jesus’ rejection of conventional religious and cultural thinking — in this case because Jesus, a man, was talking earnestly to a woman in a world in which women were often demeaned and treated as second-class citizens; and because Jesus, a Jew, was talking to a Samaritan, who were despised by the Jews for reasons going back centuries. According to Professor Bailey, “A Samaritan woman and her community are sought out and welcomed by Jesus. In the process, ancient racial, theological and historical barriers are breached. His message and his community are for all.”

This happened time and again with Jesus. He touched lepers and healed a woman who had a constant flow of menstrual blood, both of whom were considered impure; forgave a woman “who lived a sinful life” and told her to “go in peace,” healed a paralytic and a blind man, people thought to be worthless and useless. And as Jesus was being crucified, he told the penitent thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus was repeatedly attacked for hanging out with the wrong crowd and recruited his disciples from the lower rungs of society.

And Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, a story about a man who helps a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, made the hero of the story not an influential priest, not a person of social rank or privilege but a hated foreigner.

The Interpreter: Original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week.

For Christians, the incarnation is a story of God, in the person of Jesus, participating in the human drama. And in that drama Jesus was most drawn to the forsaken and despised, the marginalized, those who had stumbled and fallen. He was beloved by them, even as he was targeted and eventually killed by the politically and religiously powerful, who viewed Jesus as a grave threat to their dominance.

Over the course of my faith journey, I have wondered: Why was a hallmark of Jesus’s ministry intimacy with and the inclusion of the unwanted and the outcast, men and women living in the shadow of society, more likely to be dismissed than noticed, more likely to be mocked than revered?

Part of the explanation surely has to do with the belief in the imago Dei, that Jesus sees indelible dignity and inestimable worth in every person, even “the least of these.” If no one else would esteem them, Jesus would.

Among the people who best articulated this ethic was Abraham Lincoln, who in a 1858 speech in Lewiston, Ill., in which he explained the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, said, “Nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”

Yet another reason for Jesus’ connection with outcasts undoubtedly had to do with his compassion and empathy, his desire to relieve their pain and lift the soul-crushing shame that accompanies being a social pariah and an untouchable.

But that is hardly the only reason. Jesus modeled inclusion and solidarity with the “unclean” and marginalized not only for their sake but for the sake of the powerful and the privileged and for the good of the whole.

Jesus must have understood that we human beings battle with exclusion, self-righteousness and arrogance, and have a quick trigger finger when it comes to judging others. Jesus knew how easily we could fall into the trap of turning “the other” — those of other races, ethnicities, classes, genders and nations — into enemies. We place loyalty to the tribe over compassion and human connection. We view differences as threatening; the result is we become isolated, rigid in our thinking, harsh and unforgiving.

Jesus clearly believed that outcasts had a lot to teach the privileged and the powerful, including the virtues of humility and the vice of supreme certitude. Rather than seeing God exclusively as a moral taskmaster, Jesus understood that the weak and dispossessed often experience God in a different way — as a dispenser of grace, a source of comfort, a redeemer. They see the world, and God, through a different prism than do the powerful and the proud. The lowly in the world offer a corrective to the spiritual astigmatisms that develop among the rest of us.

It’s easy for us to look back 20 centuries and see how religious authorities were too severe and unforgiving in how they treated the outcasts of their time. The wisest question those of us who are Christians could ask ourselves isn’t why we are so much more humane and enlightened than they were; rather, it is to ask ourselves who the modern outcasts are and whether we’re mistreating them. Who are the tax collectors of our era, the people we despise but whom Jesus would welcome, those around whom are we determined to build a “dividing wall of hostility,” to use the imagery of the Apostle Paul?

“How Christians, including me, responded to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s haunts me,” my longtime friend Scott Dudley, senior pastor of Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., recently told me. “Had we, like the first Christians, cared first and cared most for modern day ‘plague’ victims, I think we’d be in a whole different conversation with the L.G.B.T.Q. community. We may still have significant differences of opinion. However, I believe the dialogue would be one of more mutual respect, and I believe the L.G.B.T.Q. community would feel less afraid of the wounds Christians can inflict.” But even if the conversation were not different, as Scott knows, caring first and caring most for those victims of a plague would have been the right thing to do.

No society and no religious faith can live without moral rules. Jesus wasn’t an antinomian, one who believes that Christians, because they are saved by grace, are not bound to religious laws. But he understood that what ultimately changes people’s lives are relationships rather than rule books, mercy rather than moral demands.

Jesus’ teachings are so challenging, so distinct from normal human reactions and behaviors, that we constantly have to renew our commitment to them. Every generation of Christians need to think through how his example applies to the times in which they live. We need our sensibilities to align more with his. Otherwise, we drift into self-righteousness and legalism, even to the point that we corrupt the very institution, the church, which was created to worship him and to love others.

The lesson from Jesus’ life and ministry is that understanding people’s stories and struggles requires much more time and effort than condemning them, but it is vastly more rewarding. And the lesson of Christmas and the incarnation, at least for those of us of the Christian faith, is that all of us were once outcasts, broken yet loved, and worth reaching out to and redeeming.

If God did that for us, why do we find it so hard to do it for each other

Article of the Day: 12/23/20 How congress works…

Buried in Pandemic Aid Bill: Billions to Soothe the Richest

The voluminous coronavirus relief and spending bill that blasted through Congress on Monday includes provisions — good, bad and just plain strange — that few lawmakers got to read.

Published Dec. 22, 2020Updated Dec. 23, 2020, 8:28 a.m. ET

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, at the Capitol last week. He said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals to the spending bill.
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, at the Capitol last week. He said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals to the spending bill.Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Tucked away in the 5,593-page spending bill that Congress rushed through on Monday night is a provision that some tax experts call a $200 billion giveaway to the rich.

It involves the tens of thousands of businesses that received loans from the federal government this spring with the promise that the loans would be forgiven, tax free, if they agreed to keep employees on the payroll through the coronavirus pandemic.

But for some businesses and their high-paid accountants, that was not enough. They went to Congress with another request: Not only should the forgiven loans not be taxed as income, but the expenditures used with those loans should be tax deductible.

“High-income business owners have had tax benefits and unprecedented government grants showered down upon then. And the scale is massive,” said Adam Looney, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Treasury Department tax official in the Obama administration, who estimated that $120 billion of the $200 billion would flow to the top 1 percent of Americans.

The new provision allows for a classic double dip into the Payroll Protection Program, as businesses get free money from the government, then get to deduct that largess from their taxes.

And it is one of hundreds included in a huge spending package and a coronavirus stimulus bill that is supposed to help businesses and families struggling during the pandemic but, critics say, swerved far afield. President Trump on Tuesday night blasted it as a disgrace and demanded revisions.

“Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests, while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it,” he said in a video posted on Twitter that stopped just short of a veto threat.

The measure includes serious policy changes beyond the much-needed $900 billion in coronavirus relief, like a simplification of federal financial aid formsmeasures to address climate change and a provision to stop “surprise billing”from hospitals when patients unwittingly receive care from physicians out of their insurance networks.

But there is also much grumbling over other provisions that lawmakers had not fully reviewed, and a process that left most of them and the public in the dark until after the bill was passed. The anger was bipartisan.

“Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, tweeted on Monday. “This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, agreed — the two do not agree on much.

“It’s ABSURD to have a $2.5 trillion spending bill negotiated in secret and then—hours later—demand an up-or-down vote on a bill nobody has had time to read,” he tweeted on Monday.

The items jammed into the bill are varied and at times bewildering. The bill would make it a felony to offer illegal streaming services. One provision requires the C.I.A. to report back to Congress on the activities of Eastern European oligarchs tied to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The federal government would be required to set up a program aimed at eradicating the murder hornet and to crack down on online sales of e-cigarettes to minors.

It authorizes 93 acres of federal lands to be used for the construction of the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota and creates an independent commission to oversee horse racing, a priority of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.

Dealbook: An examination of the major business and policy headlines and the power brokers who shape them.

Mr. McConnell inserted that item to get around the objections of a Democratic senator who wanted it amended, but he received agreement from other congressional leaders.

Alexander M. Waldrop, the chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said on Tuesday that Mr. McConnell had “said many times he feared for the future of horse racing and the impact on the industry, which of course is critical to Kentucky.”

That the racing legislation — versions of which the industry had debated for years — passed as part of the Covid-19 relief bill was of no particular mind, Mr. Waldrop said.

“It just developed this way over the last several weeks,” he said. “The only approach left to us was a federally sanctioned, independent, self-regulatory organization. It was our only viable option left, and this legislation accomplishes that.”

But the tax provisions — including extending a $2.5 billion break for racecar tracks and allowing a $6.3 billion write-off for business meals, derided as the “three-martini lunch” expense — have prompted the most hand-wringing.

The bill also lowers some taxes on alcoholic beverages.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”Al Drago for The New York Times

No break is bigger, however, than the deductions that will soon be permitted under the Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses had been lobbying the Treasury Department and the I.R.S. since the spring to deduct spending from the program’s loans, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was firmly opposed, saying deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”

The Paycheck Protection Program was the most visible part of the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts in the spring to keep small businesses afloat. So far, the government has distributed more than $500 billion in loans, which could be forgiven and turned into permanent grants as long as the businesses use most of the money to pay workers and keep people employed.

In passing the law in the spring, Congress explicitly said that the Paycheck Protection Program funds should not be included as taxable income — unlike, say, unemployment benefits.

Despite that largess, businesses wanted more. In May, the heads of the tax-writing committees — Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts — wrote Mr. Mnuchin urging him to reconsider his opposition.

“Small businesses need help maintaining their cash flow, not more strains on it,” they wrote.

But a Brookings Institution analysis said the change would help far more wealthy than mom-and-pop business owners.

“So there’s no cost on the way in and no cost on the way out — those two don’t add up,” said Richard L. Reinhold, the former chairman of the tax department at Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a professor at Cornell Law School. Congress could have simply expanded the program, but instead it did it almost by stealth, through a tax deduction.

“That’s the part that is troublesome,” he said.

Although there had been discussion of limiting the deduction to Paycheck Protection Program recipients below a certain income threshold, the final provision was made available to anyone, regardless of income.

The Small Business Administration this month released data showing that just 1 percent of the program’s 5.2 million borrowers had received more than a quarter of the $523 billion disbursed.

That 1 percent included high-priced law firms like Boies Schiller Flexner and the operator of New York’s biggest horse tracks, which received the maximum loan amount of $10 million.

“The year 2020 is going to be one of the most unequal years in modern history,” Mr. Looney said. “Part of the inequity is the effect of Covid, which hammered service sectors the most and allowed rich, educated people to work on Zoom. But the government totally compounded these inequities with their response.”

Yet in the end, only six senators, all Republicans, voted against the coronavirus relief package and spending bill, mostly citing fiscal concerns about runaway spending, while 85 House members — a mix of Democrats and Republicans — voted against its military provisions. The bill increased military spending by about $5 billion.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, opposed the military spending but voted for other aspects of the bill. He and his liberal colleagues had lobbied for direct payments for most Americans as part of a relief package, and he said he shared colleagues’ concerns about a lack of time to review the final piece of legislation.

“We need a better system to have members review online text as it is being drafted and have input,” Mr. Khanna said. “That said, leadership did keep us informed on almost daily calls about the essential aspects of the bills and the issues at stake.”

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and one of the leaders of the bipartisan group that pushed for a $900 billion stimulus, said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals.

“Leadership likes the process the way it is,” he said. “Wait until the deadline, and then there’s no input at all. They say, take this or not. I’m sick and tired of how this game has been played.”

That said, there was plenty for lawmakers to cheer for. They sent out news releases promoting preferred provisions like the ban on most surprise medical bills, the restoration of college financial aid for incarcerated people and the restrictions on the use of powerful planet-warming chemicals that are commonly used in air-conditioners and refrigerators. The bill also creates new museums honoring women and Latinos.

“What you see at the end of every Congress is a clearing of the decks,” said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “It’s all the stuff we wanted to pass but couldn’t. Everybody would love for legislation to be passed individually, but that is really a function of a bygone era that is not coming back.”

“There’s a lot of good stuff,” he said, “but something definitely gets snuck in.”

Luke Broadwater covers Congress. He was the lead reporter on a series of investigative articles at the Baltimore Sun that won a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award in 2020. @lukebroadwater

Jesse Drucker is an investigative reporter for the Business desk. He previously worked for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News where he won a pair of awards in 2011 for investigative and explanatory reporting from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for a series on how U.S. multinationals shift profits into tax havens.  @JesseDrucker

Rebecca Ruiz is an investigative reporter based in New York. She previously worked for the Washington Bureau, the sports section and the business section. @rebeccaruizA version of this article appears in print on Dec. 23, 2020, Section A, Page 7 of the New York edition with the headline: Among Items Buried In 5,593-Page Package: Billions for the Richest. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | SubscribeThe historic moments, head-spinning developments and inside-the-White House intrigue.

Article of the Day: December 21, 2020

How Trump drove the lie that the election was stolen, undermining voter trust in the outcome

Amy Gardner

Incoming GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other supporters of President Trump protest the election results outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 7.
Incoming GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other supporters of President Trump protest the election results outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 7. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

Elena Parent, a Democratic state lawmaker from the Atlanta area, listened incredulously in a small hearing room in early December as a stream of witnesses spun fantastical tales of alleged election fraud before the Georgia Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

A retired Army colonel claimed the state’s voting machines were controlled by Communists from Venezuela. A volunteer lawyer with President Trump’s campaign shared surveillance video that she said showed election workers in Atlanta counting “suitcases” of phony ballots that swung Georgia’s election to former vice president Joe Biden. The president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, told the panel: “Every single vote should be taken away from Biden.”

“Since this has been debunked repeatedly, what evidence can you give to us that counters what our elections officials presented us with only an hour ago?” Parent asked one of the witnesses, her voice rising in exasperation. When she tried to ask a follow-up question, the Republican committee chairman cut her off.

Her questions — and the fact that the claims were misleading, unsubstantiated or just plain false — did little to keep the rumors in check. It didn’t matter that state and local election officials had explained what was in the video and conducted a hand recount to show that the machines were not rigged. It didn’t matter that multiple news outlets detailed, over and over, that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. It didn’t matter that, amid a global pandemic and massive demand for mail ballots, a system under historic strain in fact held up decisively.

To preserve his hold on power, Trump has spent the weeks since Election Day promoting falsehoods about voting problems in Georgia and five other states, successfully persuading tens of millions of his supporters to believe a lie — that the election was stolen from him, and from them.

Election results under attack: Here are the facts

He has done so by harnessing the power of his position, using his pulpit at the White House and his Twitter feed to let loose a fusillade of conspiracy theories. His assault on the integrity of the election has gotten a hefty assist from pro-Trump media outfits and an assortment of state lawmakers and lawyers who gave oxygen to the debunked allegations — and a majority of congressional Republicans, who called on the Supreme Court to overturn the results in four states.Since Nov. 4, President Trump has repeatedly claimed his election loss as a result of massive fraud. The following is a roundup of his claims. (The Washington Post)

Trump is continuing to press his case, even now that the electoral college has formally elected Biden. In a meeting with allies on Friday, the president discussed deploying the military to rerun the election and appointing attorney Sidney Powell, whose conspiracy theories about election fraud have been widely discredited, as a special counsel to investigate the outcome.

Along the way, Trump has willfully damaged two bedrocks of American democracy that he has been going after for years: confidence in the media as a source of trusted information and faith in systems of government. It might be one of his lasting legacies.

A Fox News poll released on Dec. 11 shows that more than a third of registered voters believe the election was stolen from Trump — a number that rises to 77 percent among those who voted for Trump. Conversely, 56 percent of voters believe Trump weakened American democracy by contesting election results in various states, with the number rising to 85 percent among those who voted for Biden, according to the poll.

Trump’s campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, declined to answer specific questions about the damage the president has done or the untruths he embraced.

“President Trump owes it to the 75 million Americans who voted for him — and to those who voted for Joe Biden — to ensure that the election was free, fair and secure,” he said.

Even now that the electoral college has voted, and the GOP’s top leaders have publicly accepted Biden’s victory, both parties and the country overall must reckon with the mark Trump has left on American democracy. Biden will start his presidency with nearly half the country believing he is not the legitimate occupant of the White House. Many Americans who voted against Trump andhave watched with horror as he has tried to subvert the results are equally disillusioned about the strength of the system, which they fear could have toppled but for the courage of a cadre of election officialsstate Republicansand judges who held the line.

‘The last wall’: How dozens of judges across the political spectrum rejected Trump’s efforts to overturn the election

Few anticipate that the mistrust and divisions will fade with the 45th president’s departure from the White House. One reason: The most ardent purveyors of unfounded accusations say they have no plans to back down.

“The fact is that President Trump was reelected by what will be known soon to be a landslide victory unparalleled in this country,” said L. Lin Wood, a Georgia lawyer and Trump ally who has filed unsuccessful lawsuits on the president’s behalf.

Wood said he spoke to the president in a phone call earlier this month, encouraging him not to concede in what he described as “a battle between good and evil.”

Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, said that kind of rhetoric has emboldened some in the country to doubt the results merely because their preferred candidate lost.

“We’re entering a very dangerous phase where a sizable share of the population has no faith in the basic mechanics of the democracy,” Persily said. Millions of voters, he added, now see the fight over who should lead the country as a function of “the willingness to exert power as opposed to playing by fair rules of the game.”

A base willing to believe

Trump has demonstrated a unique capacity to rally supporters to his war cries, even when they are false or unproven. He gained notoriety nearly a decade ago as the leader of the so-called birther movement, asserting falsely that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

This year, Trump’s obsession with election fraud has tested his followers anew, and their willingness to go along with him has shown how powerful his hold is on the GOP.Thousands of President Trump’s supporters converged on Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14 to falsely claim he won the election. (The Washington Post)

The president’s false claims about voting ramped up in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when election officials were gearing up for a historic surge in mail balloting. He got help from a chorus of Republican allies, who echoed and amplified his untruths on the campaign trail, on conservative television and in state capitols in key battlegrounds.

In challenging election defeat, Trump cements his control over the Republican Party

In the days following the election, his rhetoric defied logic as he cited more and more outlandish accusations and echoed unverified Twitter accounts. “They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 4, suggesting falsely that ballots still being counted a day after the election were fraudulent. “So bad for our Country!”

On Nov. 30, the president retweeted an account named @Catturd2 that claimed in Arizona, “Truck Loads of Ballots Kept Coming in For 10 Days After Elections Officials Thought They Were Done Counting.”

Many of his increasingly outrageous accusations — blasted out to his 89 million followers on Twitter — came straight from one of his new favorite news sources, One America News.

“Pennsylvania Poll Watcher: USB Drives uploaded to machines, gave Biden thousands of votes,” the president tweeted on Nov. 27.

Dec. 16: “Study: Dominion Machines shifted 2-3% of Trump Votes to Biden. Far more votes than needed to sway election.”

Cobb County election workers recount votes by hand in Marietta, Ga.
Cobb County election workers recount votes by hand in Marietta, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

Trump and his allies also claimed to have scores of “affidavits” alleging fraud on a massive scale. But the sworn statements his campaign and his allies submitted in lawsuits contained meaningless observations, such as one complaint in Michigan that a “man of intimidating size” had followed a poll watcher too closely, and another who said that a public address system was too loud and therefore “distracting to those of us trying to concentrate.”

In poll watcher affidavits, Trump campaign offers no evidence of fraud in Detroit ballot-counting

Trump and his allies have lost overwhelmingly when they tried to overturn Biden’s victory through the courts, with at least 88 judges across the country ruling against them either on procedural grounds or on the merits in more than 50 cases. The president’s campaign on Sunday said it was filing a new petition with the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the result in Pennsylvania, challenging state voting procedures similar to those that the court has so far declined to act on.

Even as his accusations have collapsed under scrutiny, they have gained traction among his most ardent supporters.

They have been spurred on by Trump-supporting cable and online news outlets such as OAN and Newsmax, which touted unfounded theories about the Dominion machines, dead people voting and poll workers in Michigan allegedly covering up windows with cardboard to prevent observers from watching the process.

At a rally in Valdosta, Ga., earlier this month for two Republican senators facing a runoff election on Jan. 5, Trump paused his speech and turned to giant screens that played misleading news reports on fraud. Thousands in the crowd watched the videos, rapt.

Trump supporters chant at a rally in Valdosta, Ga. in early December.
Trump supporters chant at a rally in Valdosta, Ga. in early December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s arguments made sense, his supporters said. They couldn’t believe that Biden fared better than Obama had in his races, and they were suspicious that Trump was ahead in some states on Election Day but fell behind as mail ballots were counted — either unaware or untrusting of news reports explaining why that was expected.

“Do you truly believe that Joe Biden got more votes than Barack Obama?” asked Wendy Mick, 53, who traveled from New Jersey to a “Stop the Steal” rally in the District on Dec. 12, and said that Newsmax and OAN are her new preferred sources for political news. “He never campaigned. There’s no way that Biden got so many votes.”

How the lie took hold

The relative silence of Republicans lawmakers in the initial days after the election, both in states and on Capitol Hill, quickly gave way to a flood of support for Trump’s posture.

A stock line emerged among Republican leaders who refused to acknowledge Biden’s win: The president has the right to pursue all legal avenues available to him.

But Trump has done more than pursue all legal avenues. He has openly cajoled his supporters to join the fight. And they did.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., home of Phoenix, his supporters lashed out at local election officials, accusing them without evidence of improperly verifying signatures, switching Trump votes to Biden votes on duplicate ballots and keeping observers too far away from ballot-counting to see anything.

In Wisconsin, they claimed the use of drop boxes for mail ballots was illegal. With most municipal offices closed to the public because of the pandemic, many city clerks set up secure drop boxes not just for ballots, but for other city business such as utility bills.

“I had customers dropping off absentee ballots and saying, ‘How are you going to differentiate my ballot from a utility bill?’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you must really think I’m dumb that I can’t differentiate a ballot envelope from a utility bill,’ ” said Lori Stottler, the city clerk in Beloit, Wis., on the Illinois border. “But then I thought, ‘Well, they don’t know what I do.’ And I took a step back and I tried to explain.”

GOP Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler’s Facebook page was inundated with demands from constituents that he reverse Biden’s win in the state. Protesters also gathered outside his rural home in Lancaster County on Dec. 5 with bullhorns and signs.

“Petition your governor for a special session!” an organizer shouted. “Why haven’t you petitioned him?”

“Do your job!” the crowd chanted back. “Do your job! Do your job!”

Trump supporters pray and sing outside the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Dec. 14, as the state’s electors cast their ballots for Biden.
Trump supporters pray and sing outside the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Dec. 14, as the state’s electors cast their ballots for Biden. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

At one point, Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican lawmaker from York County, Pa., said a conservative activist confronted him at the Capitol in Harrisburg, demanding that the legislature take action to seat Trump’s electors — even though state law does not allow such a move.

Grove said he was stunned when the longtime tea party organizer proclaimed, “You know, the Constitution doesn’t limit government!”

It was a reminder, Grove said, of just how much power Trump has amassed over the Republican electorate, to the point that some of his supporters are no longer guided by political principles they have claimed adherence to in the past.

“I looked at him. I’m like, ‘What?’ ” Grove recalled. “It shocked me. Shocked me.”

Lawmakers in Arizona and Pennsylvania rebuffed the president’s efforts to stage official hearings to examine potential fraud. But back benchers in both states assembled media spectacles in hotel ballrooms, labeling them hearings but presenting “witnesses” that were not under oath and offering no evidence for their claims.

Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Georgia did hold official hearings, giving Giuliani an additional platform to unspool a series of false claims.

“I know they are under a lot of pressure from their base, from the lies being spun by Trump and his enablers, right-wing media, etc., but it was really disappointing,” said Parent, the Georgia senator. “The hearing was obviously a sham that wasn’t designed to answer any questions about the election.”

Republicans on the committee did not respond to requests for comment.

One witness at the Michigan hearing, Mellissa Carone, gained notoriety for a stream of unfounded accusations, including one claim that she’d seen a van pull up to a Detroit vote-counting center that was meant to bring in meals for election workers but was actually filled with phony ballots. Carone had previously been deemed “simply not credible” by a state judge.

Trump lashed out at those who refused to bend to his will. He called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, an “enemy of the people” for failing to embrace the president’s accusations of fraud. He accused the Michigan secretary of state, Democrat Jocelyn Benson, of “breaking the law” by rigging voting machines.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks at a news conference in Atlanta.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks at a news conference in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

And he threatened Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, with a primary challenge in 2022 for not helping him reverse the outcome — even though Kemp had explained in a contentious phone call that he did not have the power to do so.

Trump’s rhetoric has spurred some of his supporters to do more than merely protest.

Raffensperger and his wife began receiving death threats and accepted a state security detail at their home in suburban Atlanta. Protesters trespassed at Benson’s home in Detroit, some armed with bullhorns and some with guns, ignoring neighbors’ pleas to go home because they were scaring children, including Benson’s 4-year-old son.

Inside the ‘nasty’ feud between Trump and the Republican governor he blames for losing Georgia

In Houston, a former police captain was arrested Tuesday after allegedly slamming into an air-conditioning repairman’s truck to thwart what he said was a vast election-fraud scheme. The man, Mark Anthony Aguirre, was paid $250,000 by a right-wing organization to pursue fraud conspiracy theories and believed that the truck contained 750,000 fake ballots, police said.

The truck, it turned out, was full of nothing but air conditioning parts. 

‘The fraud happened’

Vanishingly few national Republicans have been willing to stand up to the false statements, despite privately acknowledging that the election is over. “The future will take care of itself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in early December, refusing to acknowledge that Biden had won.

In Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers who had initially resisted the president’s entreaties wound up signing onto an emergency petition to the Supreme Court that sought to overturn Biden’s win in the state, though they never cited fraud in their filing. They also sent a letter to Congress urging federal lawmakers to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes when they convene on Jan. 6.

Grove, the GOP lawmaker from Pennsylvania, said he and other Republicans had assumed the letter would go nowhere. A challenge requires support from a member of both the House and Senate, but Grove and others incorrectly thought they had to be from the state in question, and they knew that Pennsylvania’s two senators, Republican Patrick J. Toomey and Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., would not support it.

“We didn’t know that anyone can do it from any state,” Grove said. “That was a surprise.”

Congressional Republicans also began echoing Trump’s claims; 126 of them ultimately signed onto an emergency petition to the Supreme Court seeking to overturn results in four states Biden had won.

Where Republicans in Congress stand on Trump’s false claim of winning the election

“The fraud happened,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at a hearing last week in Washington to examine election irregularities.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who called the hearing despite acknowledging that Biden had won a legitimate election following the electoral college vote, declared at the start of the proceeding: “There was fraud in this election. I don’t have any doubt about that.”

That idea that something went wrong with the vote this year has now taken hold among many Americans.

Anna Van Winkle, a retired aesthetician in Savannah, Ga., who voted for Trump, has accepted her candidate’s defeat, but believes lawmakers must fix the election process to make sure such broad doubt in the outcome can’t happen again.

“My concern is that we don’t go down this road again,” she said. “We had a problem. We had a big problem. And now, going forward, the best way to deal with this is to fix this where somebody like me is not going to wonder, ‘Okay, was there fraud here?’”

Van Winkle was perplexed when she received multiple absentee ballot request forms at her address, and worries that others willing to commit ballot fraud would have been able to do so by requesting more than one ballot. Although Georgia requires identification to request a ballot online — and signature matching on ballots themselves — Van Winkle doesn’t understand why states don’t require mail voters to get their ballots notarized.

Clayton County election workers recount votes in Jonesboro, Ga.
Clayton County election workers recount votes in Jonesboro, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

Voting-right activists, meanwhile, are concerned that such sentiments will now be cited as an excuse to try to erect new barriers to casting ballots.

Indeed, GOP lawmakers in Georgia have already floated a proposal to eliminate no-excuses absentee balloting, meaning only those with a qualifying reason such as illness or an overseas assignment could vote by mail. In Texas, lawmakers have filed bills to limit distribution of absentee ballot applications and make it a felony to help voters fill out ballots. Pennsylvania Republicans have discussed tighter identification requirements for mail ballots and signature matches.

Defenders of this year’s elections also recognize the need to shore up public confidence. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who advocated unsuccessfully for billions in election aid for states this year, believes Congress must act to curtail misinformation on social media companies, which she said fell short in their civic obligation to restrict false claims on their platforms.

Klobuchar said she was heartened by the Republicans who immediately acknowledged Biden’s win, by those who did so after the electoral college vote and by the dozens of judges across the country, many of them Republican appointees, who roundly rejected the fraud claims of Trump and his allies.

“All of those things mean our democracy is working during a really hard time,” she said.

But there remains the reality that Trump and millions of his supporters still refuse to accept Biden’s win, creating a disturbing precedent, Klobuchar said, in a political system that has prided itself on the peaceful transfer of power and acknowledgment of election results.

“I’m concerned about our democracy in the long run if these civil mores change,” she said, “so people don’t even have to tell the truth about who won.”

Emma Brown, Robert Barnes, Emily Guskin, Rosalind S. Helderman, Elise Viebeck and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Article of the Day: December 19, 2020

Punch After Punch, Rape After Rape, a Murderer Was Made

The execution of Lisa Montgomery would be an injustice on top of an injustice.

Dec. 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Aidan Koch

By Rachel Louise Snyder

Ms. Snyder is the author of “No Visible Bruises,” about domestic violence.

On Jan. 12, Lisa Montgomery is set to become the first woman executed on federal death row in nearly 70 years. The last executions, both in 1953, were of Bonnie Heady, killed in a gas chamber in Missouri, and Ethel Rosenberg. Ms. Montgomery would be only the fifth woman put to death in a federal civilian execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

On Dec. 16, 2004, Ms. Montgomery drove to Skidmore, Mo., where she strangled a pregnant woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett, then sliced open her belly and took the baby to the home she shared with her husband, Kevin, in Kansas. The baby survived.

These basic facts, however, are nearly all that is not under dispute in the case. Her post-conviction lawyers, Kelley Henry, Amy Harwell and Lisa Nouri, have sent a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that Ms. Montgomery’s trial “fell far short of minimum standards of fairness” and thus violated international law, and that the United States government itself bears some culpability for her crime given its abject failure, throughout her life, to protect her from severe child abuse and sexual violence.

On Dec. 1, the commission ruled that the execution would result in “irreparable harm” and requested a delay until it has had the chance to reach a decision on Ms. Montgomery’s petition. The commission’s rulings are not legally binding, but past ones have resulted in stayed executions in Ohio and Texas.

In addition to this petition, more than one thousand supporters have put forth their own letters and petitions, including prosecutors, anti-trafficking and domestic violence organizations, and mental health practitioners.

But none of this has any real bearing on whether Ms. Montgomery’s execution will go forward. Her only chance at clemency rests entirely with President Trump — whose administration has ordered an astonishing six people be executed during his final days in office.

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide found that 16 other women across the United States have committed comparable crimes to Ms. Montgomery’s since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, yet none of them have been executed. Even cases that captured the national spotlight — like the attacks by the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, for instance — have not resulted in the death penalty.

So why is Lisa Montgomery going to be executed?

A capital case has two distinct parts: the trial, or culpability; and the sentencing, or punishment. The Supreme Court has held that “death is different.” Because the punishment is irreversible, the standards for a death sentence should be higher. In the sentencing phase of a capital trial, mitigation evidence in the form of life history and mental health testimony is presented to the jury; these narratives are meant to humanize the defendant and offer context to determine the appropriate punishment.

Ms. Montgomery’s guilt was never in question. But she was sentenced to death because her trial lawyers, uninformed about gender violence, didn’t seem to understand how to defend her.

Ms. Montgomery has bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, traumatic brain injury and most likely fetal alcohol syndrome. She was born into a family rife with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Ms. Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, claimed to have been sexually assaulted by her father.

Ms. Montgomery’s own father left when she was a toddler. Her family moved every year, sometimes more than that — to Washington, Kansas, Colorado, back to Kansas. She was abused by her mother in extreme and sadistic ways, according to court documents and mitigation investigations with nearly 450 family members, neighbors, lawyers, social workers and teachers, most done only at the behest of the post-conviction attorneys.

She was forced to sit for hours in a highchair if she didn’t finish her food. Ms. Shaughnessy so regularly covered her daughter’s mouth with duct tape to keep her quiet, Lisa learned not to cry. Ms. Shaughnessy told an investigator that Lisa’s first words were, “Don’t spank me. It hurts.”

Lisa’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, began to sexually assault her when she was around 13. He built a shed-like room with its own entrance on the side of the family’s trailer outside Tulsa, Okla., and kept Ms. Montgomery there. Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team learned that Mr. Kleiner, who was a rampant alcoholic, would bring friends over to rape her, often for hours, often three at once. Ms. Shaughnessy also began to prostitute her daughter to offset bills for plumbing and electric work. (She refused to speak to her daughter’s post-conviction counsel, and has since died.)

Before he died in 2009, Mr. Kleiner videotaped a statement denying the abuse, but his employer testified that Mr. Kleiner had admitted to raping Ms. Montgomery. Her half brother Teddy Kleiner confirmed that their mother would make the other kids go outside while she was being raped (his statement wasn’t made until 2013).

The jury in her 2007 trial heard very little of any of this. Ms. Montgomery’s male attorneys failed to offer a comprehensive picture of her decades of torture. Instead, they suggested that Tommy Kleiner was the actual killer, despite having his own probation officer as his alibi.

In Her Words: Where women rule the headlines.

The jury never saw the M.R.I. scans of Ms. Montgomery’s brain, which showed tissue loss in her parietal lobe and limbic structures, and larger-than-normal ventricles, which indicate brain damage. They never saw the PET scans, which showed an abnormal pattern of cerebral metabolism indicative of brain dysfunction. These areas can be affected by traumatic experiences and are responsible for regulating social and emotional behavior and memory.

And, perhaps most important, her trial lawyers did not adequately explain the insidious ways sexual and domestic violence alters one’s very neurology, behavior and sense of self. One expert witness for the government even described the rapes by Ms. Montgomery’s stepfather as consensual. “My recollection,” he testified, was that “she was a willing participant, at least at some point.”

The jurors deliberated for under five hours before reaching a guilty verdict. Days later, they recommended the sentence be death, and the judge ruled accordingly.


Many children are abused in secret. What’s striking about the violence in Ms. Montgomery’s family is how many people knew about it — or at least had good reason to suspect it.

Diane Mattingly, Ms. Montgomery’s half sister, was sent to foster care after being raped by one of Ms. Shaughnessy’s acquaintances when she was 8. (Lisa was around 4, and the sisters shared a room so small they could hold hands in bed.) Ms. Mattingly testified that she threw up as she left, knowing what would befall her younger sister. Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team found no evidence that anyone followed up on the other children.

Others noticed, too. Lisa, an A student in elementary school, was placed in special needs classes in middle school. An administrator thought deep emotional trauma was a likely cause but it appears that the school failed to alert anyone.

When Lisa was a teenager, she told her cousin, David Kidwell, then a deputy sheriff in Kansas, that Mr. Kleiner and his friends raped her. According to court documents, he said he knew she was telling the truth — she was “crying and shaking”— and he still lives with regret about not speaking up.

When Ms. Shaughnessy and Mr. Kleiner divorced in 1985, Lisa, then 17, was forced by her mother to give a statement about the rapes for their divorce proceedings. Ms. Shaughnessy sat so unmoved during her daughter’s testimony that the judge reprimanded her for lacking empathy. A social worker found Lisa’s allegations of abuse credible and turned the file over to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, where it appears no one ever followed up.

When she was 18, Ms. Montgomery married her 25-year-old stepbrother, Carl Boman, the son of Ms. Shaughnessy’s fourth husband. A report called a Biopsychosocial History, which documents Ms. Montgomery’s neurodevelopmental and social history, notes that Ms. Montgomery told a mitigation expert that Mr. Boman assaulted her vaginally and anally and with bottles, tied her in stress positions, held a knife to her throat. One of Ms. Montgomery’s half brothers told an investigator that he saw a video of Mr. Boman raping and beating her. “It was like a scene out of a horror movie,” he said, but this, too, never came up at trial. (Mr. Boman, who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of child sexual abuse, could not be reached for comment.)

By 23 she had four young children, and her grip on reality was growing ever more tenuous. At one point, she woke the kids in the middle of the night for what she said was to be an educational trip to the Alamo. She put a diaper on a pet goat, put it in the car, and drove from Kansas to Texas in a haze of mania.

Eventually, she and Mr. Boman divorced, and she married Kevin Montgomery, who has remained supportive of her throughout her legal battle. Ms. Montgomery’s Biopsychosocial History says that Mr. Montgomery insisted on incorporating sexual violence into their relationship, but that he “was not as violent or hurtful as Carl.”

In the time leading up to her crime, Ms. Montgomery repeatedly pretended to be pregnant, and each time claimed to have lost the baby. Her ex-husband, Mr. Boman, knew she was lying — Ms. Montgomery had undergone sterilization after the birth of her fourth child. Mr. Boman filed to take custody of two of their children in December 2004 — very near the time of the homicide, which surely weighed on her.

There would have been good reason to take the children away. Lisa Montgomery was an abusive and neglectful mother. The prosecutor in her case made much of this. He spoke about Ms. Montgomery’s inability to feed and bathe her children and her own lack of hygiene (she had lice for several years).

Her defense team, on the other hand, mostly avoided the subject, presumably for fear it would make her look even worse — a common mistake by lawyers in cases involving domestic violence, a miscalculation that feeds into a persistent stereotype about what a victim should look and act like. As a result, both sides flattened Lisa Montgomery’s personhood; in one version she’s a monster, and the other a myth.

Sandra Babcock, the founder and faculty director of the Cornell death penalty center and an expert in gender discrimination in capital cases, says such trials often become about a woman’s character. “Prosecutors have a set playbook in capital cases involving women,” she said. “They condemn women who are bad mothers, or who don’t fit an idealized version of femininity.”

What the defense team should have done is frame her inability to care for her children — and herself — as a symptom of her years of abuse.

On an Adverse Childhood Experiences test, Ms. Montgomery scored nine out of 10 — a number reserved for the most extreme forms of torture. On a different test, the Global Assessment of Functioning, given by one of her therapists a year or so before the crime, Ms. Montgomery scored a 48. A normal score is 80 to 100. Such a score points to “severe impairment” in daily activities. (In prison, it took Ms. Montgomery an entire month to learn to make her bed according to the guidelines.)

A social worker who spoke with Ms. Montgomery after she was arrested found she sometimes recounted her experiences in the present tense, as if she was reliving them, unable to distinguish between the present and the past. Her defense team suggested that she suffered from a rare condition called pseudocyesis — when a woman believes she is pregnant and will even develop physical symptoms. But pseudocyesis, if she had it, was a symptom of a bigger problem. (It didn’t help that the defense’s expert witness, who wasn’t a licensed mental health practitioner in this country, later said he had no special expertise in pseudocyesis.)


There was chaos and churn in her defense team, and she ended up with three male attorneys, John O’Connor, Frederick Duchardt and David Owen. From 2004 to 2007, when the trial finally took place, several female attorneys either withdrew from the case or were dismissed. A lawyer who once worked with Mr. Owen, Laine Cardarella, told Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team that Mr. Owen was overbearing and misogynistic. (“You’re not one of those militant female lawyer types, are you?” Mr. Owen asked her once, she says.)

A particular blow to Lisa Montgomery was the loss of Judy Clarke, a renowned lawyer who helped Ted Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui (conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks) and Jared Loughner (the Arizona gunman who nearly killed Representative Gabrielle Giffords) avoid death sentences. Ms. Clarke, who has twice argued before the Supreme Court, was described in a 2015 profile in The New Yorker as quite possibly “the best death-penalty lawyer in America.”

Ms. Clark was dropped from the team in April 2006. The judge in the case, Gary Fenner, said he dismissed her because “her involvement was obstructive in getting a defense for Miss Montgomery put together.” Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team believes that Mr. Owen, who attended a series of unrecorded meetings with the judge leading up to Ms. Clarke’s dismissal and later described Ms. Clarke as bossy and “emasculating,” was the one who convinced Judge Fenner to dismiss her. (Mr. Owen, Mr. Duchardt and Judge Fenner declined to comment for this article.)

Ms. Montgomery, whose understanding of her own circumstances appears to wax and wane, was shattered at the loss of Ms. Clarke, who seemed to be the first attorney Ms. Montgomery had ever trusted. She was so upset, she wrote a letter to Judge Fenner, who told her Ms. Clarke was let go because she was “no longer necessary and/or helpful.” Once Ms. Clarke left, any semblance of teamwork seemed to disappear.

A year and a half later, Ms. Montgomery was convicted, and four days after that, her sentencing hearing was held.

It’s standard practice at such hearings to present mitigating evidence collected by a trained investigator called a “mitigation specialist.” Ms. Montgomery’s lawyers went through four different mitigation specialists, all of them women. Mr. Duchardt called the profession of mitigation specialists “laughable.” None of the specialists were asked to testify at Ms. Montgomery’s trial, though they have all since spoken under oath during post-conviction proceedings.

As Ms. Henry, one of the post-conviction lawyers, put it, “We’ve had a lot of training when it comes to implicit bias as it relates to race, but I don’t think we’ve had enough on gender bias.” She said she didn’t “mean to suggest the men in this case thought they were engaging in misogynistic behavior, or that their ideas of gender norms” affected the case, “but they did.”

Ms. Montgomery’s execution, far from righting a wrong, would in itself be an injustice atop an injustice.

The prosecutor, Matt Whitworth, an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., used the famous Alan Dershowitz phrase “abuse excuse” in his closing argument. But what Mr. Whitworth and so many others refuse to understand is how abuse is cumulative. Traumatic brain injuries are cumulative. Punch after punch, kick after kick, rape after rape. Injured brains do not heal like injured bodies.

Of course, boys and men are also victims of abuse and sexual assault. But courts can’t treat experiences like Ms. Montgomery’s as genderless. Her rapes, her teenage marriage, the multiple pregnancies with an abusive partner — Ms. Montgomery endured a lifetime of abuse because she was a woman. She was trafficked and raped because she was a girl. And the severe cognitive impairment she suffers today is a direct result of those crimes.

“Were it not for her being a woman,” Ms. Babcock told me, “she would not be on death row, because she wouldn’t be subjected to the kind of torture that she was.” Her case, she said, “is all about gender.”

Systems failed her again and again. Child protective services failed her, the education system failed her and law enforcement failed her; later, when she was an adult, mental health services failed her and domestic violence advocacy failed, and eventually, all these failings resulted in an unimaginable crime.

No one is arguing that Lisa Montgomery should be freed from prison. But her abuse should take death off the table.

That the Department of Justice is ordering executions in the middle of a pandemic is itself cause for alarm. Since the Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of people who are mentally incompetent, Ms. Montgomery is entitled to be assessed by a mental health professional close to the date of her execution — something that might not be possible during the coronavirus outbreak. No one can visit her at her prison in Texas except her immediate family and her lawyers, two of whom are based in Nashville and are recovering from Covid-19. The third lawyer is based in Kansas City and cannot travel to Texas because of the risks posed by the virus.

As Ms. Montgomery’s legal team wrote to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “In its haste to execute her notwithstanding the pandemic, the government has violated her rights to petition the authorities and to due process.”

Retribution is one method of accountability for criminal acts. But Ms. Montgomery’s life, however much she has left of it, is already irreparably shattered. For many of us, that might seem punishment enough.

Rachel Louise Snyder is an associate professor at American University and the author of “No Visible Bruises.”

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Article of the Day: 12/18/20 from Prof. Heather Cox Richardson

December 17, 2020

Heather Cox RichardsonDec 18

Four days ago, on December 13, Reuters broke the story that computer hackers had breached U.S. government agencies, including the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department. It was serious enough that the National Security Council had been called into an emergency meeting on Saturday. While no nation has yet been charged with this attack, officials agree that it looks like a Russian operation.

On Monday, the story got worse. Also hit were the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the National Institutes of Health. Officials at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the Department of Homeland Security told all federal agencies to disconnect the products containing the malware that had been used to breach the firewalls. Those products had been installed as far back as March, meaning that the attackers had been able to observe crucial aspects of our government from the inside for as much as nine months. Government officials found out about the breach only after a private cybersecurity firm, FireEye, realized it had been hacked and alerted the FBI. Hackers planted the malware they used to get into the systems on a patch issued by the software company, SolarWinds, which produces widely used management software. 

The story is getting worse still. 

Today CISA said that the hackers used many different tools to get into government systems, taking them into critical infrastructure, which could include the electrical grid, telecommunications companies, defense contractors, and so on. Officials said that the hacks were “a grave risk to the federal government.” 

Later in the day, it came out that the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees our nuclear weapons, was also hit, although a Department of Energy spokesperson said that there is no evidence that the hackers breached critical defense systems, including the NNSA.

Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, today said the company had identified 40 different companies, government agencies, and think tanks the hackers infiltrated, and that those forty were just the tip of the iceberg. Smith said that more companies had been hit than government agencies, “with a big focus on I.T. companies, especially in the security industry.” 

The Associated Press quoted a U.S. official as saying: “This is looking like it’s the worst hacking case in the history of America. They got into everything.” Tom Kellermann, the cybersecurity strategy chief of the software company VMware, told Ben Fox of the Associated Press that the hackers could now see everything in the federal agencies they’ve hacked, and that, now that they have been found out, “there is viable concern that they might leverage destructive attacks within these agencies.”

It is not clear yet how far the hackers have penetrated, and we will likely not know for months. But given the fact they have had access to our systems since March and have almost certainly been planting new ways into them (known as “back doors”), all assumptions are that this is serious indeed.

Initially, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplayed the attack, saying that such attacks are common and that China, not Russia, is the biggest offender. Trump has said nothing about the attacks, and administration officials say that they are simply planning to hand the crisis off to Biden. 

But this attack does not come out of the blue for the Trump administration. There was discussion of strengthening our security systems against attackers after the 2016 election, and on July 9, 2017, Trump suggested we would partner with Russia to address the issue. “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded,” he tweeted.

Congress instead created the CISA within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018 to protect against precisely the sort of attack which has just occurred, shortly after Russia hacked our electrical grid, including “multiple organizations in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation, construction, and critical manufacturing sectors,” according to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security report. 

In response to the Russian attack, the U.S. hit Russia’s electrical grid in June 2019.

Since then, administration officials have deliberately forced out of CISA key cybersecurity officials. The destruction was so widespread, according to Dr. Josephine Wolff, a professor of cybersecurity policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School who holds her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “they signify the systematic decimation of the personnel most directly responsible for protecting critical infrastructure, shielding our elections from interference and guarding the White House’s data, devices and networks.” 

Almost exactly a year ago, on December 19, 2019, Wolff warned in the New York Times that “As we head into 2020, worrying about the integrity of our elections, the growing scourge of ransomware and the increasingly sophisticated forms of cyberespionage and cybersabotage being developed by our adversaries, it’s disconcerting to feel that many of our government’s best cybersecurity minds are walking out the front door and leaving behind too few people to monitor what’s coming in our back doors.”

Just a month ago, Trump continued this process, firing Christopher Krebs, the former director of CISA, on November 18, saying he was doing so because Krebs defended the 2020 election as “the most secure in American history.” Krebs said that there “is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” 

And now, here we are. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) said to SiriusXM about the hack: “Our national security is extraordinarily vulnerable. And, in this setting, to not have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”

The timing of the exposure of this hack might be coincidence, but it is curiously well timed. It illustrates to the world that Russia now holds power over the U.S. while the perpetrators can assume, after four years of Trump’s refusal to stand up to Putin, that they will not have to face immediate retaliation for the attack as they would have to if it were revealed just a month later.

President-elect Biden was briefed on the attack today. He warned that his administration would impose “substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks, including in coordination with our allies and partners.” “A good defense isn’t enough; we need to disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking significant cyberattacks in the first place,” Biden said. “I will not stand idly by in the face of cyberassaults on our nation.”



Romney: Kyle Griffin @kylegriffin1Mitt Romney to SiriusXM on the Russia hack: “Our national security is extraordinarily vulnerable. And, in this setting, to not have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”December 18th 20201,846 Retweets8,742 Likes

Article of the Day: 12/16/20

Senator Jon Tester on Democrats and Rural Voters: ‘Our Message Is Really, Really Flawed’

Mr. Tester, a Montana farmer, detailed in an interview how Democrats had failed to connect with many voters: “You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people.”

Dec. 16, 2020Updated 9:26 a.m. ET

Senator Jon Tester said Democrats “have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, ‘Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.’”
Senator Jon Tester said Democrats “have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, ‘Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.’”T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

President Trump visited Montana four times in 2018 as part of the Republican Party’s attempt at unseating Senator Jon Tester. It didn’t work: Mr. Tester was re-elected that year to a third term.

But last month Mr. Tester’s Republican colleague from Montana, Senator Steve Daines, rolled to re-election against a formidable and well-funded Democratic rival, Gov. Steve Bullock.

Why did Mr. Tester prevail while Mr. Bullock lost? And more to the point, why do most Democrats keep faring so poorly in rural America?

Mr. Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, Mont. — and the only full-time farmer in the Senate — has a few ideas. He lays them out at length in his new book, “Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” a memoir that doubles as a policy manifesto.

He also discussed his views in a recent interview with The New York Times. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Beyond President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, which is no small thing, this was a difficult year for your party, and especially in rural areas. Why?

I think showing up is a fundamental rule of politics, and I don’t know that we showed up. Because of Covid, we didn’t show up on the campaign trail. And in a state like Montana, you have to give people a reason to vote for you or they’ll vote Republican — they’ll default to Republican. And I think that hurt us greatly in 2020. The Republicans, for the most part, didn’t see the pandemic as near as a threat to health as some of the Democrats did.

Do you think that the images of riots and arson in American cities may have motivated rural folks to vote for Republicans more than the people who actually lived in some of those cities?

Yes. And then what we didn’t do is we didn’t respond to them. We didn’t come out with strong advertisements saying: “Rioting, burglary, is not demonstration and it’s not acceptable. And you’d be punished by the full extent of the court if I’m in a position of leadership.” We didn’t come out with a very strong pushback on that, and certainly wasn’t timely when it was time.

How do you balance support for law enforcement with accountability for police officers who break the law?

You approach it from a standpoint that we’re going to do our level best to make sure we have the best-trained folks that we can on the beat, whether you’re in Big Sandy, or Great Falls, or wherever you’re at in the state of Montana.

Frank Bruni: A less conventional take on politics, cultural milestones and more from Frank Bruni.

And I think the whole idea about defunding police is not just bad messaging, but just insane. And I’ll tell you why. The area where we have the greatest poverty in the state of Montana is Indian Country. And where do we need more police officers than anywhere else? Indian Country. I mean, that’s a fact. Because of poverty, crime is more prevalent. We need more police officers, not less.

Can Democrats go on the offensive in rural America?

Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana.

Is the issue for Democrats in rural areas the appeal of President Trump, or is this a longer-term structural problem for the party?

There’s no doubt about it, he has an appeal in rural America. I can’t figure it out, but there’s no denying it.

But I will also tell you I think there’s a long-term structural issue. And by the way, I’ve had this conversation with Chuck Schumer [the Senate Democratic leader] several times — that we have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, “Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.” Because that’s what Trump has right now.

I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this president, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.

So that tells me our message is really, really flawed, because I certainly don’t see it that way.

We do not have a — what do I want to say — a well-designed way to get our message out utilizing our entire caucus. So we need to do more of that. You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain’t gonna sell. And quite frankly, I don’t know that you can have Jon Tester go talk to a bunch of rich people and tell them what they need to be doing.

Some Democrats believe they are never going to establish a durable Senate majority because of the nature of every state having two senators and the party’s difficulties with rural voters. When you hear that, does that tick you off?

Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does.


Because the problem isn’t that the country’s skewed against the Democrats; the problem is that the Democrats have not done a very good job talking about what we believe in.

If there’s one mistake that is made way, way, way too often by folks in public service, it’s that you walk into a room and who does most of the talking? The senator.

Now, some forums that’s what the people want. But for the most part if you’re in a town hall, and you let people tell you what they’re thinking, let them tell you what’s going on — and then search into your mental database to find out if there’s anything that we’ve done to help solve that problem — then maybe you can have a conversation. But to walk in and say, “You need to think this, and this is what I believe is the right thing to think,” that switch goes off.

In 2008 Barack Obama cracked 40 percent of the vote in a lot of rural America. Flash forward 12 years and Joe Biden is in the 20s in some of these counties. At this time 10 years ago, South Dakota had one Democratic senator, North Dakota had two, Montana had two. What has happened in about 10 years’ time?

You know where Barack Obama spent Fourth of July in 2008?


Butte, Mont. He showed up. Now, he didn’t win much in it, but he did a hell of a lot better than people thought he was going to do because he showed up.

What has happened in Montana as far as losing Max Baucus’s seat, and in North Dakota and in South Dakota, I think speaks to the fact that we’re not speaking to rural America. And look, Steve Bullock lost [this year’s Senate race in Montana] for a number of reasons. One was they nationalized it. They totally nationalized his race. They tried to do it to me, too. What I had that Steve didn’t have was there wasn’t a damn pandemic, and I could go out. And we did, man. We showed people that I was not A.O.C., for Christ’s sake.

You said, “Our party should stand for three words: ‘opportunity for everyone.’” Democrats always complain that they can’t distill their message onto a bumper sticker. But that’s three words — could that fit on a sticker?

Yeah, it could — it could work, yeah. It means you take care of the folks who need help, you give them opportunity.

In your book, you challenge Donald Trump Jr. to a day of “pickin’ rock” on your farm. Does your offer still stand?

You’re goddamn right.

You lost your home county in 2018 even though you exceeded 50 percent statewide. Did that personally sting you, and does that speak to the larger structural problems facing the party?

Look, for sure. I mean, yeah, I would love to win my home county, but it is very red.

How much of that is just people living on Facebook?

It is a big part of it, right? I’ve got good friends of mine, I might add, really, really good friends of mine, lifelong friends, that quite frankly say stuff that I go: “Really? That’s what you think? That’s crazy.”

When you started in state politics in 1998, I’m guessing that you had many more weekly and daily papers in Montana. And now people are getting their news from Facebook every morning.

That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And all from people that have the same view.

Your seat was once held by Mike Mansfield, the former Senate Democratic leader, whose tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery simply reads, “Pvt., U.S. Marine Corps.” Do you think any of your Senate colleagues will have a tombstone that modest?

[Laughs] Hopefully my tombstone will say “Jon Tester …”



Article of the Day: December 15, 2020

This Old Man

Life in the nineties.

By Roger AngellFebruary 10, 2014

Roger Angell and Andy Central Park January 2014.
Roger Angell and Andy; Central Park, January, 2014.Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

I’m ninety-three, and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of the thumb. Shingles, in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.

Like many men and women my age, I get around with a couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking. I also sport a minute plastic seashell that clamps shut a congenital hole in my heart, discovered in my early eighties. The surgeon at Mass General who fixed up this PFO (a patent foramen ovale—I love to say it) was a Mexican-born character actor in beads and clogs, and a fervent admirer of Derek Jeter. Counting this procedure and the stents, plus a passing balloon angioplasty and two or three false alarms, I’ve become sort of a table potato, unalarmed by the X-ray cameras swooping eerily about just above my naked body in a darkened and icy operating room; there’s also a little TV screen up there that presents my heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries. But never mind. Nowadays, I pop a pink beta-blocker and a white statin at breakfast, along with several lesser pills, and head off to my human-wreckage gym, and it’s been a couple of years since the last showing.

My left knee is thicker but shakier than my right. I messed it up playing football, eons ago, but can’t remember what went wrong there more recently. I had a date to have the joint replaced by a famous knee man (he’s listed in the Metropolitan Opera program as a major supporter) but changed course at the last moment, opting elsewhere for injections of synthetic frog hair or rooster combs or something, which magically took away the pain. I walk around with a cane now when outdoors—“Stop brandishing!” I hear my wife, Carol, admonishing—which gives me a nice little edge when hailing cabs.

The lower-middle sector of my spine twists and jogs like a Connecticut county road, thanks to a herniated disk seven or eight years ago. This has cost me two or three inches of height, transforming me from Gary Cooper to Geppetto. After days spent groaning on the floor, I received a blessed epidural, ending the ordeal. “You can sit up now,” the doctor said, whisking off his shower cap. “Listen, do you know who Dominic Chianese is?”

“Isn’t that Uncle Junior?” I said, confused. “You know—from ‘The Sopranos’?”

“Yes,” he said. “He and I play in a mandolin quartet every Wednesday night at the Hotel Edison. Do you think you could help us get a listing in the front of The New Yorker?”

I’ve endured a few knocks but missed worse. I know how lucky I am, and secretly tap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds. The pains and insults are bearable. My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.

On the other hand, I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. As of right now, I’m not Christopher Hitchens or Tony Judt or Nora Ephron; I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”

Let’s move on. A smooth fox terrier of ours named Harry was full of surprises. Wildly sociable, like others of his breed, he grew a fraction more reserved in maturity, and learned to cultivate a separate wagging acquaintance with each fresh visitor or old pal he came upon in the living room. If friends had come for dinner, he’d arise from an evening nap and leisurely tour the table in imitation of a three-star headwaiter: Everything O.K. here? Is there anything we could bring you? How was the crème brûlée? Terriers aren’t water dogs, but Harry enjoyed kayaking in Maine, sitting like a figurehead between my knees for an hour or more and scoping out the passing cormorant or yachtsman. Back in the city, he established his personality and dashing good looks on the neighborhood to the extent that a local artist executed a striking head-on portrait in pointillist oils, based on a snapshot of him she’d sneaked in Central Park. Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. Alone in our fifth-floor apartment, as was usual during working hours, he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm and went out a front window left a quarter open on a muggy day. I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.

Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.

A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here comes Slim Aarons. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. Here’s Ted Yates. Anna Hamburger. Colba F. Gucker, better known as Chief. Bob Ascheim. Victor Pritchett—and Dorothy. Henry Allen. Bart Giamatti. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Kitty Stableford. Dan Quisenberry. Nancy Field. Freddy Alexandre. I look around for others and at times can almost produce someone at will. Callie returns, via a phone call. “Dad?” It’s her, all right, her voice affectionately rising at the end—“Da-ad?”—but sounding a bit impatient this time. She’s in a hurry. And now Harold Eads. Toni Robin. Dick Salmon, his face bright red with laughter. Edith Oliver. Sue Dawson. Herb Mitgang. Coop. Tudie. Elwood Carter.

These names are best kept in mind rather than boxed and put away somewhere. Old letters are engrossing but feel historic in numbers, photo albums delightful but with a glum after-kick like a chocolate caramel. Home movies are killers: Zeke, a long-gone Lab, alive again, rushing from right to left with a tennis ball in his mouth; my sister Nancy, stunning at seventeen, smoking a lipstick-stained cigarette aboard Astrid, with the breeze stirring her tied-up brown hair; my mother laughing and ducking out of the picture again, waving her hands in front of her face in embarrassment—she’s about thirty-five. Me sitting cross-legged under a Ping-Pong table, at eleven. Take us away.

My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?

What I’ve come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me. In the days before Carol died, twenty months ago, she lay semiconscious in bed at home, alternating periods of faint or imperceptible breathing with deep, shuddering catch-up breaths. Then, in a delicate gesture, she would run the pointed tip of her tongue lightly around the upper curve of her teeth. She repeated this pattern again and again. I’ve forgotten, perhaps mercifully, much of what happened in that last week and the weeks after, but this recurs.

Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.

People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. and B.s, trips to the ballet, the time when . . . I can’t do this and it eats at me, but then, without announcement or connection, something turns up. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Maybe I’m getting old, I offer. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. I imitate an old man mumbling nonsense and start to walk with wobbly legs. Callie and Alice scream with laughter and hold me up, one on each side. When I stop, they ask for more, and we do this over and over.

I’m leaving out a lot, I see. My work— I’m still working, or sort of. Reading. The collapsing, grossly insistent world. Stuff I get excited about or depressed about all the time. Dailiness—but how can I explain this one? Perhaps with a blog recently posted on Facebook by a woman I know who lives in Australia. “Good Lord, we’ve run out of nutmeg!” it began. “How in the world did that ever happen?” Dozens of days are like that with me lately.

Intimates and my family—mine not very near me now but always on call, always with me. My children Alice and John Henry and my daughter-in-law Alice—yes, another one—and my granddaughters Laura and Lily and Clara, who together and separately were as steely and resplendent as a company of Marines on the day we buried Carol. And on other days and in other ways as well. Laura, for example, who will appear almost overnight, on demand, to drive me and my dog and my stuff five hundred miles Down East, then does it again, backward, later in the summer. Hours of talk and sleep (mine, not hers) and renewal—the abandoned mills at Lawrence, Mass., Cat Mousam Road, the Narramissic River still there—plus a couple of nights together, with the summer candles again.

Friends in great numbers now, taking me to dinner or cooking in for me. (One afternoon, I found a freshly roasted chicken sitting outside my front door; two hours later, another one appeared in the same spot.) Friends inviting me to the opera, or to Fairway on Sunday morning, or to dine with their kids at the East Side Deli, or to a wedding at the Rockbound Chapel, or bringing in ice cream to share at my place while we catch another Yankees game. They saved my life. In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”

Another message—also brief, also breathtaking—came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.

A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”

I am a world-class complainer but find palpable joy arriving with my evening Dewar’s, from Robinson Cano between pitches, from the first pages once again of “Appointment in Samarra” or the last lines of the Elizabeth Bishop poem called “Poem.” From the briefest strains of Handel or Roy Orbison, or Dennis Brain playing the early bars of his stunning Mozart horn concertos. (This Angel recording may have been one of the first things Carol and I acquired just after our marriage, and I hear it playing on a sunny Saturday morning in our Ninety-fourth Street walkup.) Also the recalled faces and then the names of Jean Dixon or Roscoe Karns or Porter Hall or Brad Dourif in another Netflix rerun. Chloë Sevigny in “Trees Lounge.” Gail Collins on a good day. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.

Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements. The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show. Or almost. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. “I’m tired of lying here,” said one. “Why is this taking so long?” asked another. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.

A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it. We have become tireless voyeurs of death: he is on the morning news and the evening news and on the breaking, middle-of–the-day news as well—not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death. A roadside-accident figure, covered with a sheet. A dead family, removed from a ramshackle faraway building pocked and torn by bullets. The transportation dead. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called “tolls.” The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed. The enemy war dead or rediscovered war dead, in higher figures. Appalling and dulling totals not just from this year’s war but from the ones before that, and the ones way back that some of us still around may have also attended. All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of. There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. At second hand, we have become death’s expert witnesses; we know more about death than morticians, feel as much at home with it as those poor bygone schlunks trying to survive a continent-ravaging, low-digit-century epidemic. Death sucks but, enh—click the channel.

I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems—by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more—which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now—late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier op cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.

I count on jokes, even jokes about death.

TEACHER: Good morning, class. This is the first day of school and we’re going to introduce ourselves. I’ll call on you, one by one, and you can tell us your name and maybe what your dad or your mom does for a living. You, please, over at this end.

SMALL BOY: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.

TEACHER: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?

SMALL GIRL: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.

TEACHER: How nice for you, Emma! Next?

SECOND SMALL BOY: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.

TEACHER: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we, class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?

LUKE (seizes his throat): He went “N’gungghhh! ”

Not bad—I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.

A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.

“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”

“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”

“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”

“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”

“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, ‘How many insertions?’ I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”

I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”

“Oh, come on, dear—they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.

That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still—you know, still doing it?”

“Yes, I did—yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”

This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”

More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number of remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”

This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk a further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse—we always thought it would be me—wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart—don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng and OkCupid in such numbers—but not just for this, surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden— / Ah—the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you’ve had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.

Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.

But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick”—a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”

This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone. ♦

Article of the Day: December 14, 2020

Love, death and pie: My last moments with my wife

Opinion by John Bare

Updated 12:38 PM ET, Fri December 11, 2020

John Bare is a photographer, songwriter and author who has worked for more than two decades in the nonprofit sector. His novel, “Fair-Skinned Brunette With the Porcelain Shine,” will be available in January from Wisdom House Books. John shares his house with rescue dogs Winston and Isadora. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) — My wife, Betsy, died in September from Covid-19.

A big part of me died with her.

Millions of families around the world are suffering from the same, sudden loss. I am part of this tribe, a new global community of survivors trying to find order in chaos, grinding through the emptiness this virus has created. With every sunrise, we count the minutes ticking off through the day, wondering if we can hold it together through Zoom meetings at work and well-intended queries about how we are doing. 

A slice of moon pie that John created from air-dry clay and acrylic paint.

Caught in darkness, I have turned to pie to light my journey. I’m not eating pie. At least no more than usual. I use pie the way a student of meditation uses a mantra. To practice mindfulness. To soften sharp edges of the day. I carve pie slices from clay. I paint images of pies in acrylic. I photograph pie. I work on song lyrics about pie. I imagine writing murder mysteries where the plot turns on pie. I question the particulars of pie, wondering about the forces that shaped pie over the past thousand years. If pie could talk!Pie makes people smile. Betsy’s favorite was German chocolate pie from the local K&W Cafeteria. She’d frequently request a slice, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I would bring home a whole pie. Who buys one slice of pie? Coconut pie and chocolate icebox pie were back-ups.Betsy found joy in food. In her last year, as pain increased from chronic diseases, she requested cake and ice cream each day. When store-bought cake would not do, we retrieved a chocolate pound cake from the local bakery. On special occasions, she’d order a hummingbird cake or Lady Baltimore cake.Betsy loved biscuits, too. With illness limiting our travel options, we aspired to annual holiday retreats to Chapel Hill, NC — a two-hour car ride away. Her favorite breakfast there was a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and cinnamon roll from Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. She would nibble at both, not finishing either.Betsy in 2001 celebrating the third birthday of her niece in Concord, NC, with ice cream and cupcakes.Early on with Betsy, I learned not to reserve joy for special occasions. Turns out deprivation does not lead to salvation. It just leads to a hankering for pie.Betsy and I tested positive for the coronavirus at the same time in August. Our best guess is she contracted it at a local medical center — while waiting in a line for a Covid-19 test a pulmonologist required for her annual exam. Between tests administered during hospitalizations and doctor visits, Betsy had cleared four or five Covid-19 tests before the positive result.For me, the illness was nasty. Loss of taste, cognitive disorientation, low-grade fevers and a level of exhaustion I did not know was achievable.For Betsy, who suffered from what we call “underlying conditions,” the diagnosis arrived at the same time as a blood infection. For the first week, doctors described her coronavirus case as mild. By day eight, they described it as deadly. The virus grabbed her lungs and never let go.The terms “underlying conditions” and “chronic disease,” brought into public conversation by the pandemic, mask details we avoid. When we say our loved one is suffering from cancer, asthma, diabetes and kidney disease — which were all on Betsy’s list — it makes people wince. So, we hold our tongues and nod as acquaintances suggest certain fixes — from yoga to Pilates to forest bathing. Spousal caregivers become expert at helping partners suffering from chronic disease create an illusion that all is well. Now the ferocity of Covid-19 is tearing down this façade.

A spouse waiting in the car is one of the tells of chronic disease. When I would stop at a country store near Davidson on the pretense of buying organic eggs and artisan cheese, Betsy would put in her order and wait. The first things in my basket were ginger cookies and fried pies. Betsy would unwrap a fried pie and eat it on the drive home.

Now, I cry in the car. And I cry in the grocery store, at work, on the phone, in my doctor’s office. I have cried writing, painting, sculpting, sending emails and pruning shrubs. I have cried in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts and Montana. I am aggregating votes in the Electoral College of Crying.

Betsy in the 1990s during a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, NC.

The crying is more complicated than anyone knows. Grief is a source, surely. More often, the tears emerge when I recall how lucky Betsy and I were to write our own ending, more or less. I cry out of guilt when my fortunes turn positive. I cry because I don’t know how to order dinner now that I’ve lost my dining companion.I cry because I understand Roger Angell’s commentary on aging, published in The New Yorker in 2014 when he was in his early 90s: “Everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces.”

I have not cried at the hospital because I was not allowed to see Betsy there. Managing Betsy’s hospitalization by phone, one thing I learned is you never want to pick up a call and hear from palliative care. It signals the patient has slipped into a situation where life-or-death decisions are approaching.

A slice of sour cherry pie that John created with air-dry clay and acrylic paint.

Betsy’s nurses, who delivered updates by phone, were as encouraging as the angels. Their kindness props up hope, even when conditions are not so great. After a few days, the hospitalist described her illness as “mild.” Yet “mild” was still miserable for Betsy. The breathing supports hurt her face. Sleep was hard to come by. Her back pain flared. Out of caution, and worried about the need for emergency intubation, the hospital required a liquid diet. Betsy craved her own pizza creation — thin crust, white sauce, pineapple and mushroom. She craved a Mr. Goodbar.

The hospitalist was so optimistic that he sent Betsy home to recover. I was still under quarantine and recovering from Covid-19 myself, so we were frightened by the burden of my having take on the role filled by the medical professionals who had been caring for Betsy around the clock.

When health workers lifted Betsy into the hospital bed we had rented for home use, we realized the doctor had not made provisions to supply the Covid patient’s essential need: home oxygen. A nurse from the hospital called to check on Betsy, part of the “virtual” care the hospital provided to Covid-19 patients recovering at home. The nurse shrieked when I reported her oxygen level. “She needs to be in the hospital,” the nurse said.Egg custard pie by John.

In all, Betsy’s home stay lasted about one hour. The emergency medics arrived not long after the call from the virtual-care nurse. They loaded Betsy back into an apparatus to move her down a flight of stairs and into the ambulance. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Turns out returning to the hospital is not like checking back into a hotel, even when the hospital recalls the patient. The patient starts over in the ER. Brand new to a system already bloated with broken bodies. Betsy was left alone another night. No company, no solid food. In case an emergency surgery was required, as she described the experience to me later, she had to have an empty stomach. 

She was one of many bodies parked on one of many beds alongside the acute-care workstream somewhere in the warren of bays and hallways. When I called the next morning expecting to hear that the hospital had resolved the home-oxygen glitch, I was told she was in critical condition. Just like that. From our master bedroom to ICU, with conditions unfavorable.A few days later the palliative care lady called. Her candor was brutal. Betsy was trying to breathe. The docs were providing support, short of the ventilator. The support, I was told by the palliative care lady, was not working. The family had to make a decision.Imagine every breath as a new project. Each breath a heavy lift, requiring specific intent and effort. For days and days, Betsy worked to suck in air and to push out air. Every breath took more from her than it gave. For Betsy and millions of Covid-19 patients, breathing is no longer an involuntary act. Over and over again, lying motionless in that hospital bed without a friend in sight, all of life’s comforts stripped away. Stuck in whatever position the nurses have arranged their bodies, they focus all of their mental and physical energy on one thing: Breathing.”I’m trying,” Betsy would tell me in our calls. “I’m trying really hard.”Only a couple of us close to Betsy know that, pre-Covid, on bad asthma days she struggled to pull enough air to read aloud to her granddaughters. How could I tell her that she was failing, that her full-out effort to breathe was not good enough, even with the contraptions that helped push and pull oxygen?Betsy had made it clear to doctors and family that she did not want to be moved to the ventilator. In the end, she decided to try the ventilator, on limited terms, to see if an experimental treatment of antibodies would reverse her fortunes.In my private call with the palliative care lady, I asked about what would happen if Betsy tried the ventilator. If the ventilator failed, I wanted to know, would Betsy wake up for a final conversation before passing?No, I was told. If the ventilator failed, Betsy would pass without regaining consciousness.It was a Monday, just after lunch, when I was able to connect to Betsy by phone. Just Betsy and me. No docs or family members. Soon a nurse came in and said the medical team was ready to move Betsy to the ventilator. We knew that was coming but didn’t know when. Now the cold hard truth from the palliative care lady was no longer hanging out there in the future.We, of course, spoke of the chance of a miraculous recovery, of the excitement over the experimental antibodies treatment. We also acknowledged that, absent the miracle, this would be the last time we would ever speak to each another.You can watch this play out in the movies. You can imagine what you might say. In truth, there is no way to simulate the intensity. We both said to each other what we wanted to say. We were not rushed. The medical team would wait.I count this among the luckiest moments of my life. To have had this time together, for us each to say what we wanted to say, for us each to hear what the other said, was an incredible gift. Then there was nothing else to say. It was time. As we started to cut the phone connection, I could hear the medical team moving medical machines, readying Betsy for the intubation.The palliative care lady was right. Betsy never woke up. Her condition never reversed. Covid-19 took her.During the night and early mornings, in the state between asleep and awake, Betsy and I still talk. In our bed, I reach over and rub her arm. I wake up stroking a pillow. I am grateful for these encounters. They are sweet. Never bitter. On the shelves by her side of the bed, I have placed my first ceramics works, the clay carved and painted in the form of a slice of sour cherry pie. There is a secret compartment inside. Betsy liked secret compartments. I am grateful Betsy still visits me. I know that will pass one day, and it makes me sad to imagine it so. I have Betsy’s voice preserved on a couple of phone messages, asking me to call her at the hospital. That wasn’t intentional. Just that death comes on so fast. Only after the graveside service do you examine answering machines.With grief sweeping over me in waves that come without notice, my psychologist says I should seek out things that bring comfort. My first response: Not feeling like this would bring comfort! But I have to trust the journey. There is no switch to flip. All of this is self-indulgent, and that nags at me.People lose loved ones every day. Death is the only guarantee. Tragedy is thick in the air. Refugees, migrant children separated from their parents, the uninsured sick who cannot get care. Who am I to ask for grace? I am blessed in so many ways. Our two rescue dogs, the companions that prolonged Betsy’s life by filling days with wagging tails and kisses, now rush to lick my face. A friend in London gave birth to a girl the weekend Betsy passed, gifting me the circle of life. In the sweep of history, we are on this planet for a fraction of a fraction of any measurable unit of time.

All of this reflection makes me wonder about pie, which for more than a thousand years has brought comfort to humans. We all seek our larger purpose. We thrive when we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves, something that unifies us. For the moment, I shall be part of pie.