Tag Archives: Trump

Let’s Get Serial

It has never occurred to me to start a cocktail-party conversation with Oxford commas or dangling participles or split infinitives. If someone else brings them up, I’m happy to participate, but generally those are topics for newsrooms and annual conventions of the American Copy Editors Society. I’ve seldom if ever heard grammar and style discussed over dinner, and I’m not aware of the Oxford comma ever making the news …

Until now! Just when you thought that subliterate tweets had taken over American discourse for good, a contentious grammar issue actually made headlines in March when Maine milk-truck drivers won $10 million in back pay thanks to the absence of an Oxford comma in their employer’s overtime guidelines.

Oakhurst Dairy’s official literature spelled out that the following activities do not merit overtime pay: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The so-called “Oxford” comma, or “serial” comma (I’ve also heard “terminal”), is the comma separating the last two parallel items in a series of three or more. For example: Her dress was red, white, and blue. That last comma is the Oxford comma, used by writers and editors who adhere to Chicago Style, or who simply swear by its absolute clarity.

Now if you adhere to AP Style, or you believe that the directive to always insert the Oxford comma is unnecessary, even silly, then you would write the sentence this way: Her dress was red, white and blue.

Oakhurst Dairy lost its challenge to the overtime-pay lawsuit because there was no comma after “shipment,” thus joining “shipment” and “distribution” into a single item as objects of “packing for.” The distribution of products (the activity at issue in the suit) was not listed as exempt from overtime pay; only “packing for shipment and distribution” was. So a missing comma cost Oakhurst Dairy $10 million, and rightfully so. But the absent Oxford comma is only half the problem; there’s another issue in the sentence that makes the ruling a grammatical slam-dunk. I’ll come back to that.


The debate over the Oxford comma has raged for god knows how long (and even has inspired satirical treatment by The Onion), although if (like me) you were taught by your English teachers that the serial comma was unnecessary, or (like me) you worked at newspapers where AP Style ruled, you might not have noticed. Adherents of the Oxford comma like to use rather extreme examples to prove its necessity:

I’d like to thank my parents, Gloria Steinem and Jesus Christ.

Now without an Oxford comma, you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

The AP Style camp would say that’s merely an exception that proves the rule: as with anything else, when there’s a clarity problem, recast the sentence. I’d like to thank Gloria Steinem, Jesus Christ and my parents.

I’ve come around to the Chicago view on this issue, in part because using the Oxford comma almost never creates a clarity problem (the examples that Oxford haters give in response to the above are far less likely to come up), and in part because of something I’ve learned over the years in training editors. Many perfectly literate editors are never going to be style and grammar geeks; in other words, while they’re capable of memorizing a rule and generally using good editorial judgment, they’re not going to obsess over the finer points of style, or learn more about grammar than they think they need to, or notice an exception to a rule they’ve learned—it’s easiest to simply follow the rule every time.

So, if your junior editors need a rule on serial commas that they can apply every time and almost never be wrong, would you teach them AP or Chicago? Game, set, and match.

Having said all that, I have noticed lately a more serious issue involving series, a form of grammar abuse that seems to be getting past editors with increasing regularity: the false series. And while the necessity (or not) of the Oxford comma remains amusingly debatable, the increasing failure to understand and apply parallelism is no laughing matter.

Parallelism in writing involves balancing like items (nouns with nouns, infinitives with infinitives, participles with participles, etc.) to promote clarity, prevent awkwardness, and improve readability. Sometimes the failure to use parallel structure is not wrong, but also not pleasing: I enjoy hiking, watching movies, good books, and when my partner surprises me with flowers.

But sometimes it is just plain grammatically incorrect, as with many false series:

He stole a soda, a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In this example, “soda” and “bag of chips” and parallel nouns identifying what he stole, but the last clause introduces a new predicate and just doesn’t work with the series; the reader will trip over “and” when a third noun does not appear. The fix is to insert “and” between the two parallel items:

He stole a soda and a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In the next example, I deliberately misapply AP Style to enhance the point:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts and I should always make sure no one was hiding in the store.

The first three elements of this series are parallel: “lock,” “sweep,” and “tally” are verbs forming infinitive clauses with “the instructions were to.” Again, the “and” signals a fourth parallel item and does not prepare the reader for the wild left turn. One fix is to reduce the series to three items, and recast the final clause slightly:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, and tally the receipts, and I also knew to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

But a better solution is to simply make the last clause parallel:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts, and check to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

Now, back to Oakhurst Dairy.

(Here’s the contentious clause again: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”)

If the company’s lawyers wanted to argue that the Oxford comma was optional and would not change the meaning of the guideline, they would still have a grammatical problem on their hands: “distribution” is not parallel with “canning, processing, preserving,” etc., which are gerund forms of verbs functioning as nouns. “Distribution” would have to be “distributing” to continue the series. Without the comma or the gerund form, “packing for shipment or distribution” makes grammatical sense only as a single concept.

There. I have written almost 1,200 words on series and Oxford commas, I have lost most of my readers, and I have decided to move on. Did you see what Trump just tweeted?

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

A Night Off From Language Abuse–Not Quite


As expected, there have been plenty of news organizations and social-media watchdogs to point out the substantive problems in President Trump’s speech last night to the joint session of Congress: the factual inaccuracies, the hypocricies, the credit taken for things that already had happened or were under way before Trump took office. But for once, Trump’s remarks—written by smarter people and read from a teleprompter—did not give editor geeks like me too much to work with. On any other night, his off-the-cuff ramblings would contain so many unfinished sentences and other grammatical errors, so much hyperbole and vague language, that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Still, as an editor, I do have a couple of complaints. This minor one is from the Department of Redundancy Department: “I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future.”

Now the Stephens who wrote the speech might argue that both “recent” and “past” were necessary for full clarity, but this Stephen strongly disagrees. “Decades past” alone would not have focused sufficient attention on the “mistakes” of the Obama administration, but “recent decades” removes any need to add the word “past.” Recent is defined as “belonging to a past period of time comparatively close to the present,” so “recent decades past” is redundant, period. There is no “recent future.”

Another editor’s complaint involves a passage that is a combination of hyperbole and illogic, and may have been overlooked by the fact-checkers precisely because it doesn’t make enough sense to be singled out as factually inaccurate.

“The rebellion started as a quiet protest … But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus … Finally, the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out, by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first.”


OK, before I pick this statement apart, I will acknowledge that its intent seems clear. And even though Trump probably didn’t write it, it’s a page right out of his playbook: keep repeating that I inspired a huge turnout, that I won in a landslide, and that I’m one of the most popular presidents ever, and people surely will believe me and love me.

There was no earthquake, no huge turnout. People have turned out by the tens of millions for presidential elections since before I was born. In terms of sheer numbers, both Barack Obama election years saw higher turnout. In terms of the percentage of eligible voters, 2016 had the smallest turnout in twenty years.

And of course, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million. And the voters were not united in their values or “demands”—they were very sharply divided, and still are. Again, the only thing resembling an “earthquake” here is the fault line between red and blue America.

My parting shot comes not directly from Trump’s speech, but from a campaign incident that last night’s event brought immediately to mind. In the emotional high point of the speech, Trump paid tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of William Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL who died in a January raid in Yemen. No further comment on that tribute, except to say it stood out in sharp contrast to Trump’s exchange during the primaries with the parents of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, an American Muslim who died while serving in Iraq. The soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, gave a memorable speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in which he questioned Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and respectfully offered him his pocket-sized copy of the US Constitution to read.

In the aftermath, Trump belittled the Gold Star parents and then defended himself by saying he had been “viciously attacked” by Khan.

In its definitions of “vicious,” Merriam-Webster offers words including “savage,” “malicious,” “spiteful,” and “dangerously aggressive.”

You saw it. Khan delivered his criticism of Trump in gentlemanly, reserved tones, offering his copy of the Constitution as a pointed but polite challenge. There was nothing remotely vicious about it.

Trump’s response was hyperbole. It was loaded, exaggerated wording that can’t be defended. It was abuse of the English language. I wouldn’t accept it from students, and I don’t accept it from Donald Trump. But he does it all the time.

Last night, crutches at hand, Trump sounded, for once, almost articulate. If I sound disappointed, I’m also sure it won’t last. Before you know it, he’ll be in front of a microphone again, without a script.

And his next Twitter rampage can’t be more than a day or two away.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


I’ve Seen This Road Before

And in some ways, it was darker then

If you’re old enough to remember Neil Gorsuch’s mother, then you’re old enough to remember that the practice of appointing people to run government agencies whose mission they fundamentally oppose is nothing new. To put it another way, Donald Trump is hardly the first president to hire anti-government thugs to dismantle those parts of government that actually serve ordinary people—schools, parks, environmental protections, social security, etc. President Ronald Reagan did the same thing back in the eighties. The difference was, Reagan had a charming smile—and a lot more popular support than Trump will ever have.

Maybe calling Anne Gorsuch a “thug” is a bit strong, but she certainly did her part, as the first female administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to undermine its mission. Gorsuch (who conveniently shed that professional name after it had been tainted by scandal, remarrying to become Anne McGill Burford) cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, relaxed regulations, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, and hired staff from the industries they were supposed to be regulating. Her already-tarnished reputation was irreparably damaged when the EPA was charged with mishandling monies for toxic-waste remediation under Superfund, and she refused to turn over records that Congress demanded. Gorsuch then became the first agency director in US history to be cited for contempt of Congress. The EPA at that point was widely criticized for being dysfunctional, and Gorsuch resigned under the pressure.

I am not bringing this up to cast any shadow over Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy (if there are shadows to be cast, let them come from his own record). It’s just an interesting coincidence to be reminded, by bloodline, of a time when the US government was behaving in a manner not at all unlike it is behaving today. The extreme and unusual features of Trump’s early administration (Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, his widely questioned mental state, his administration’s near-daily barrage of jaw-dropping lies) mask the fact that in other ways, this is business-as-usual in the era of Republican governance ushered in by Reagan.

Unlike Trump, and George W. Bush before him, Reagan did have popular support: in 1980 he beat Jimmy Carter in the popular vote by almost 10 percent, and then trounced Walter Mondale in 1984 by a whopping 18 percent. But while his voters cheered, his administration set about undermining the long-term prospects of the American middle class, most notably by lowering income taxes on the wealthiest Americans, an upward redistribution of wealth that triggered a long-term structural income inequality that persists to this day. Favoring privatization and deregulation, the Reagan team took on social goods and institutions with contemptuous disregard for the needs of the ordinary. And if you’re worried (understandably) about what sort of dangerous entanglements Trump and his foreign policy wackos might get us into, remember (or read up on it) how the Reagan administration was committing terrorist atrocities in several Central American countries, most notably Nicaragua, where Reagan’s own wacko supreme, Oliver North, was caught funneling illegal arms profits to fight a covert and illegal war against a democratically elected government.

The Reagan administration did all this and more under the cover of a popular mandate, and while it did mobilize some amount of dissent, “liberals” were very much marginalized in mainstream culture and media. To any mainstream Democrats still sore at Bernie Sanders for stealing Hillary Clinton’s thunder with his 2016 primary appeal to progressive millennials, you might want to reflect on a term that was coined in the eighties: “Reagan Democrats.” Yes, some of you voted for the Gipper—what was your excuse then? And what did you think of the results?

Today, the liberal/progressive opposition to Trump feels strong, organized, potent—I daresay it even feels like a majority. If you’re part of it, take heart and keep fighting. And thanks to Bernie Sanders, it’s okay to identify yourself as a socialist today without being laughed off whatever stage you happen to be on. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was afraid even to say he was a liberal. Speaking out in those days was trickier and more isolating. And we had no Jon Stewart or Samantha Bee to validate our feelings on national television.

(In a longer piece about my great-aunts, and a dying way of life in rural Washington County, New York, I mention my hapless attempt to counter Reaganism on a local call-in radio show circa 1985.)

Anne Gorsuch did not survive the fallout of her disservice to the American people, and perhaps more of Trump’s cabinet will meet similar fates. But Reagan’s legacy outlasted his presidency. Maybe it just took our nation too long to see through that wide cowboy grin.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Fasten Your Seat Belts

The runaway train is rumbling toward us. It’s almost here. What do we do? (A) Jump out of the way? (B) Lie down on the tracks and let it crush us? (C) Pop cans of spinach into our mouths, extend our now-bulging arms, and stop the train dead on its track (or get crushed anyway, trying)?

Okay, now, seriously, folks. We are about to enter partly uncharted (and partly charted) territory. When I feel like my head is about to explode, I like to stop, take a deep breath, and compartmentalize.

In the two months since Donald Trump was elected king by less than a quarter of eligible American voters, all of the impending disasters seemed to run together in one orange blob. But as we turn the corner into an actual Trump-led government, I’m beginning to see three areas of distinct concern that may have less and less to do with each other as we go forward: (1) Trump himself; (2) the hate-filled nutjobs who think they’ve just inherited the country with a mandate to mock and scare and drive out and possibly even kill their nonwhite, non-Christian, non-male enemies; and (3) the Republicans in the House and Senate who are licking their lips at the prospect of turning the clock back to 2000, or 1980, or 1850, or something like that.

I’ll offer a few thoughts on each. I’ll try to be brief; I don’t want to miss Toby Keith.

The nutjobs. This is a very real and scary problem, but one you’d think all reasonable people should be able to unite behind. The litany of threats and attacks that have been made since Trump’s election is too long to recite, but it certainly came home to those of us who live in Albany when the local Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat yesterday (along with Jewish organizations across the country). I certainly hope anti-hate organizations will be joined by a vigorous law-enforcement effort to root out these assholes, but I also hope that the various targets of hate—foreigners, Muslims, Jews, blacks, women, and members of the LGBT community—will be reminded that we all need to be united in opposition to bigotry and hate. In the meantime, there’s a chance this fervor will subside when the hatemongers begin to notice that the billionaires in charge have stopped acting like they care, and also have taken away their health plans.

Trump. This is the real uncharted territory. Megalomaniacal, narcissistic, mentally unstable, unpredictable, unhinged. I don’t know if anyone knows what he is going to do at any given moment, except that he will send off blistering tweets to those who disagree with or mock or publish damning stories about him. And that he’ll revoke press credentials, but since he doesn’t like to give press conferences, I’m not sure how much difference that will make. His business conflicts of interest and international entanglements, his lack of interest in the fundamentals of national security, and his apparent readiness to hastily realign America’s place in the world order, are scary enough before we even consider how he will respond to foreign-policy crises (with tweets?). I should add that Trump also appears to lack interest in running a government, period. Besides clearly preferring to stay at Trump Tower over the White House, and blowing off security briefings, he is way behind in nuts-and-bolts staffing of his administration (see https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-01-18/the-empty-trump-administration)–which may well mean that basic government functions will be run ineptly, and also suggests that the appointments he has made (besides relatives) likely have been suggested by others who know exactly how the whole thing works.

Back to the business conflicts–I believe he will be in violation of the Constitution, and therefore impeachable, the second he takes the oath of office. But we’ll see who wants to go there (and remember, Mike Pence would not change the dynamic of part three below). I also think Trump is fundamentally at odds with the Republican establishment—even though there hasn’t been much talk of that lately—because of a fundamental difference in their agendas. Trump’s agenda is himself, his ego, his delusions of unlimited power and awesomeness (also frightening, though I for one don’t see him as Hitler). As for the Republicans who actually make the laws …

The Senate and House Republicans. I don’t think most of them give a damn about Trump, except that he has given them the enviable circumstance of having control over all three elements of the legislative and executive branches (and he has cheerfully provided them with the most deplorable of foxes to guard the cabinet henhouses). And what they want is nothing new—this is the “charted territory” part. They already have begun trying to dismantle all the good stuff government does, and they won’t stop trying until … they don’t have majorities any more! Now repeat after me, there’s no time like 2018, there’s no time like 2018 …

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Decency Is Not a Dirty Word

Meryl Streep.

Did you have a visceral reaction to that name just now?

If you know why I’m asking that, my guess is that you thought her speech at the Golden Globe awards was either powerful and eloquent and exactly what the country needs to hear as the Bully-in-Chief prepares to take office, or an inappropriate, off-topic, partisan attack on the president-elect by an out-of-touch liberal elite living in her privileged Hollywood bubble.

And if your reaction falls somewhere outside those polar stereotypes, I’d love to hear it. I dream of a society in which every single action and speech of consequence does not drive us to rush to one side of the room or the other to huddle in the comfort and safety of our supposed ideological soulmates.

Or to put it more simply, I dream of a society consumed less with ideology and more with cooperation, tolerance, kindness, and finding common ground. And enlightened enough to realize it is not always necessary or constructive to take sides—or for that matter, to make sides where sides don’t need to be.

In her speech accepting an award for lifetime achievement, Streep wove in a story about what she called one of the most effective acting performances of the year—by Donald Trump, in which he mocked a disabled reporter for calling out Trump’s lies about a story the reporter had written after the 9/11 attacks.

Here’s the portion of the Streep speech that, without naming him, directly referenced Trump: “It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

In 2001, reporter Serge Kovaleski co-wrote a story looking into claims that there were Muslims on New Jersey rooftops celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. The allegations were never substantiated, but Trump, during his presidential campaign, claimed that he saw “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks, and then cited Kovaleski’s story as backup. Kovaleski correctly countered that his story did nothing to support Trump’s claim. So during a campaign rally, Trump lashed out at Kovaleski—who has a disease that limits the function of his joints—and mocked him by flapping his arms spastically. If you watch this video and still deny that Trump was mocking Kovaleski’s disability, I’m pretty sure your trousers will erupt in flames.

It didn’t take conservatives long to fire up the backlash, on Twitter and elsewhere. Meghan McCain tweeted that “this Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won, and if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how, you will help him get re-elected.” The clumsiness of her logic aside (one must assume she meant Trump voters were rejecting Hollywood-style elitism in general, not having a collective moment of clairvoyance), McCain left us wondering what exactly in the speech she objected to. Other conservative pundits criticized Streep for turning an awards ceremony into a leftist political rally. Former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway asked why Streep didn’t use her platform to address the public (on Facebook) torture of a mentally challenged boy by four young African-American adults in Chicago. Conway’s apples-and-oranges twist of logic might have seemed bizarre had not Fox News been employing the same diversionary tactic for years, blunting necessary discussions about police brutality against blacks by asking why the media weren’t spending more time covering black-on-black crime.

And the Supreme Tweeter himself shot back that Streep was “over-rated,” and repeated the provable lie that he had never mocked a disabled reporter.

Now Streep’s speech did hit one unfortunate sour note, called out by, among others, Trevor Noah and The Washington Post. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she said. “And if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” As Noah scolded on The Daily Show Monday, “You don’t have to make your point by shitting on someone else’s thing.” If you want to make people think you are one of those privileged Hollywood elites who doesn’t understand Middle America, go ahead, make fun of “low-rent” entertainments like football. (And by the way, Meryl, like many of us educated East Coast elites, I would have been watching a certain NFL game instead of the opening of the Golden Globes had I not been detained by soccer-coaching duties.)

That said, there is nothing about Streep’s takedown of Trump over the Kovaleski incident that warrants left-vs.-right hostilities. The core of Streep’s message was not about politics—it was about decency, and the abuse of power to encourage similar indecent acts. This is what saddens and disgusts me about the world that Fox News and its ilk have created and perpetuated. As with the obstructionist Republican Congress, nothing that comes from the other side can be validated as correct or even a pretty good idea. There is no common ground. It’s bad enough that the Republican Party rejects science and welcomes racism and homophobia within its ranks. When we cannot agree that the parents of a fallen soldier deserve to be treated with respect, or that language demeaning women and condoning sexual violence is disturbing at best, or that a disabled man who dared to speak truth deserves not to have his disability mocked in public—by the soon-to-be-most-powerful man in America, no less—then we are in deep trouble.

And as long as the right is programmed to avoid these questions by simply lying its way around them, our national discourse is doomed to parallel the obstinate sez-who of an angry Facebook argument. Meryl Streep is asking us to be better than that, and if it takes a “privileged elite” to have the platform, and the gravitas, to say so, I don’t have a problem with that.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Entertain Us

I never bought that Ronald Reagan was a “great communicator.” I thought he was phony and simple-minded. I didn’t like him as president and probably wouldn’t have liked him as governor. Come to think of it, I didn’t even like him in movies.

But I suppose even I have to admit that Reagan had a certain charisma. He was warm and positive and reassuring, and he smiled a lot. And for an old guy who seemed befuddled half the time, he was oddly telegenic.

And he was elected president twice—the second time by a landslide margin that no one has come close to matching since.

Charisma and likeability are pretty subjective qualities, but I’ve been thinking about them since reading an essay whose author thought even the establishment media subconsciously wanted Trump to win this year because, whatever his many negatives, he is more interesting to watch and cover (and they sure game him enough coverage) than the duller, wonkier Clinton—or as the media marketers might put it, he has more “pop.”

I know a lot of other things have an impact on election results (and you probably have read all you ever need to about the many factors that supposedly turned this election). Still, I find it scary to think that, in the end, the candidate who wins is almost always the most charismatic or interesting or entertaining or telegenic one. Even if many of us aren’t swayed by bluster passing as charisma, well, many others are.

Let’s work backward.

2016: Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, this one gets my thesis off on the wrong foot, because Hillary won the popular vote by 2.8 million. Still, Trump won where it mattered most. And many of you do not want to hear this, but he is more entertaining than Hillary. I never said that was an important qualification for president.

2012: Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. No argument here, right? Obama had the pixie dust, Romney didn’t.

2008: Barack Obama over John McCain. See above.

2004: George W. Bush over John Kerry. This one is a little tricky for a couple of reasons. The election might have been stolen from Kerry in Ohio, but even so, Bush won the popular vote. And he remained president. Now what about Kerry’s personal appeal? Maybe the Swift Boat liars put him on the defensive, but whatever the reason, Kerry was not at all the second coming of JFK he was supposed to be. Meanwhile, Bush, as much as liberals hated him and thought he wasn’t very smart, had a certain je ne sais quoi—to many, he comes off as personable and likeable in a way that brother Jeb will never. Better still, George was the nice guy on the ticket. I’ll give the nod to Bush on this one.

2000: George W. Bush over Al Gore. What I said above (just insert “Florida” for “Ohio,” and invert the popular-vote result), including the part where I admitted Bush has a likeable personality. Now, picture Gore in his earth-toned suits, repeating the word “lockbox.”

1996: Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. Dole did have a very appealing dry wit, and I actually kinda liked the way he would say “Bob Dole” instead of “I.” But he was no match for one of the most charismatic presidents of all time.

1992: Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush. See below.

1988: George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis. In 1988, Bush (also the incumbent VP) had just enough fatherly appeal to ward off the boring and tentative Dukakis, who could barely bring himself to admit he was “liberal.” Four years later, Bush met his charisma match.

1984: Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale. The country must have been feeling good or something, because this was the big landslide. I’ve already talked about Reagan; apart from Mondale’s one “aha” moment in the debate where he jumped on Reagan’s “There you go again” cliché, I don’t remember a single thing he said or did, apart from picking a woman for his running mate.

1980: Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. Now I thought Carter was likeable. I guess more people thought Reagan was likeable. And what was it about those hostages?

1976: Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. When he was president, Ford always reminded me of my grade-school principal, who always had a blank expression and never said anything. Voters may have wanted a break from the party of Watergate, but Carter also was the more charming candidate.

This brings us back to Richard Nixon, and a very different time in history. I just wanted to point out that after Nixon, in my humble opinion, the more charismatic or entertaining candidate almost always seems to win.

Trump no doubt will keep us entertained. He also may be the most dangerous and unqualified president of all-time.

Sometimes charisma and style also come with substance and competence. Which is why I will miss Barack Obama.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon


Call Me Crazy


I often enjoy and entertain conspiracy theories. I don’t often believe them. But I do often find them fascinating, especially when the official story is even less believeable than the conspiracy theories (see Dallas, November 1963).

So here’s a “what if” for you. And if you’re already rolling your eyes, there are a million other fine websites you can visit that are just a click or two away.

Just suppose …

Sometime late in the presidential campaign, Donald Trump looked like toast. His numbers were sagging, he was insulting parents of dead servicmen and bragging about grabbing pussies, and Republicans were stepping away from him as if worried that his stench would envelop them too.

Then Trump’s numbers recovered a little bit, and the secret GOP brain trust, sensing an opening, went to work.

Trump already had three consituencies locked up: the “Make America White Again” people, the “Anything to Stop That Uppity Bitch” people, and the “Republicans Will Protect My Wealth Better Than Democrats Will” people.

The secret GOP brain trust looked at the electoral map and did the math. They calculated where Clinton might be vulnerable. They called their friends and operatives in key swing states. Someone paid a visit to James Comey.

With election day closing in and Trump gaining momentum, they performed their final magic tricks. These may have taken any of several forms. Use your imagination.

The day after the election, Donald Trump (arrogantly independent, radically unpredictable, dangerously combustible, laughably unqualified, and mired in a worldwide web of conflicts of interest) was president-elect.

And Mike Pence (predictably and zealously ultra-conservative, and practiced in the ways of Washington) was vice-president-elect.

The secret GOP brain trust smiled and helped Trump (who really had no idea what to do) pick out a snarling pack of right-wing attack dogs for his cabinet.

Now they can just sit back and wait for Inauguration Day.

How will they do it?

With all those conflicts of interest, not to mention Trump’s behavioral instability, treasonous liaisons, and daily lying, there ought to be a hundred ways to impeach him. They shouldn’t have to find another borderline crazy person to take the fall for an assassination.

And then we can say hello to President Pence.

Sorry, it’s just my imagination, running away with me. From one nightmare to the next.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

On Climate Change, No Defense Allowed


According to Reince Priebus, President-elect Donald Trump’s chief of staff, the Trump administration’s official position on climate change will be denial. If true, I’m saddened, but not shocked.

When conservatives deny climate change, I am often tempted to suggest that they check in with two groups they usually identify with: Middle American farmers, and the US military.

The relationship of farmers to climate change is tricky. Most say it is happening (when you’re raising crops, it’s hard to ignore changing temperature zones and increasing extreme weather), but then, a majority do not blame it on human activity. On top of that, studies have shown that farmers’ views on the subject depend on how much trust they have in their sources of information (generally speaking, less trustworthy sources include the federal government, mainstream media, and environmental groups, while agribusiness, farm associations and the farm press are considered more trustworthy). So the trust factor skews farmers’ beliefs on what causes climate change away, somewhat, from human activity, though all farmers do no not think in lockstep and some do put more faith in scientific evidence presented by environmental groups or the mainstream media. The important point is that most of them do agree that climate change is real.

So if Trump and his campaign staff were the ones listening to these folks, they weren’t listening very hard. Or now that he has won, Trump and his advisors who are pushing far-right cabinet appointments just don’t care. Both seem likely.

As for the Defense Department, there is nothing tricky about its position on climate change. For some time now, the Pentagon has been in the vanguard on this issue, arguing that global warming presents clear threats to US national security, and that the military needs to be planning accordingly. This is the Department of Defense’s job, to study evidence of potential future risks and take concrete steps to counteract them. And earlier this year, the department put a plan into action, issuing a directive that assigned specific duties to specific officials to prepare for climate change, covering areas like infrastructure, weapons procurement, and disaster response.

What did the Republican-led House of Representatives do in response to this directive? It passed an amendment prohibiting the department from spending any money to put its plan into effect. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the amendment, but the Republicans outnumbered them.

For as long as I can remember, we have been told that the Republican Party is the only party that gives top priority to our national security interests. The evidence has not always supported this assertion, and many would argue that the top priority over the years has been enriching military contractors. Today, we have a Republican Congress that won’t spend money on national security for no other reason than it collides with the party’s larger priority of denying climate change. And now, they have a president on their side.

Who knows, maybe they’ll stop making their bizarre, scientifically ignorant arguments against the measurable reality of global warming, and just say “I’m with Stupid.”

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon


Did the Democrats Screw Up the Election? It’s Not That Simple


I groaned through my tears when Chuck Todd, desperate to understand why Hillary Clinton’s insurmountable lead was crumbling, told election-night NBC viewers that “rural America is basically screaming at us, ‘Stop overlooking us!’ ”

Here it comes, I thought: The Democratic Party has to move back to the middle, stop yapping about renewable energy, stop coddling Black Lives Matter, stop worrying about which bathroom to use, and start appealing to the Average Joe on the shrinking farm in Wisconsin or in the unemployment retraining program in Pennsylvania.

By the way, I care about those guys. I want them (and all of us) to have decent incomes and healthy, productive lives. The Democratic Party should care about them and do what it can to help them, and also court their votes.

Within reason.

Some pundits have indeed argued versions of the italicized passage above. But never mind that for a moment. Let’s talk about the electoral map.


In terms of presidential campaigning, most states don’t really matter. California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts aren’t going red anytime soon, while lots of smaller Southern and Western states are red as red can be. Texas, Georgia, and Missouri are still red, but time will tell.

Currently, there are only a dozen or so “swing states,” and the most important ones this year were Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, which all went to Trump by razor-thin margins (Michigan, still not official, could tip back to Clinton, but it won’t change the overall outcome). Combined, that’s 75 electoral votes, and they made all the difference. Trump won Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by about 1 percent each; he currently leads Michigan by a scant 0.2 percent.

Barack Obama took all four of these states in 2012. Almost 10 percent of the Michigan vote shifted Republican this year, with about 8 percent shifting Republican in Wisconsin and 6.5 percent in Pennsylvania—all with relatively little change in voter turnout. Florida’s voter turnout increased by 11 percent this year, but its voters shifted Republican by only 2 percent.

What does it all mean? I don’t think anyone knows with pinpoint accuracy—probably a perfect storm of several things: 1. Overconfident Democratic strategists could have done more to secure these states, and blew it. 2. Some angry white males—and females—were energized by Trump’s message. 3. In the cities especially, Obama supporters, black and white, did not turn out in the same numbers for Clinton. 4. Clinton was attacked relentlessly for alleged ethics violations, which did not amount to anything but probably cost her votes, especially after FBI Director James Comey stirred up the hornet’s nest a little over a week before the election. 5. On top of all that, some fraction of voters still won’t vote for a woman president.

And what if the election was stolen? The notorious election investigator Greg Palast says it was, and cites both early exit polls (before they were “conformed”) and voter-purge operations as proof that Clinton should have carried several swing states, including not only Michigan but also Arizona and North Carolina. If Palast is too incendiary for you, I would suggest at least reading this interview with Jonathan Simon, an “election forensics” expert who (unlike Palast) does not claim to have proof, but observes that a consistent “red shift” from exit polls to final vote counts, which happened again in states where the voting apparatus is controlled by Republicans, is not consistent with sampling and margin-of-error issues in which the errors should, statistically speaking, move in both directions and mostly cancel out.

On the ground, there were election-day irregularities reported in states like Michigan, where would-be voters were turned away for not having IDs they were not legally required to show, and Wisconsin, where the state’s restrictive voter ID law was struck down, then reinstated, with the state promising to issue free IDs, which never materialized. While there are no hard data on the number of voters turned away in Michigan, observers in Wisconsin say the number of voters disenfranchised (as many as 300,000) cost Clinton the state. (Trump’s Wisconsin margin of victory stands at 0.9 percent, or 27,257 out of 2,791,677 votes cast; in Michigan, his lead now is a mere 11,612 out of 4,547,998 votes cast.)

Taking all of the above into account, it is quite possible that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party actually ran a sound campaign, good enough to win, only to be derailed by some combination (choose as many items as you like!) of overconfidence, racist anger, misogyny, scurrilous ethics attacks, voter disenfranchisement, and vote-count rigging. And by the way, she still won the popular vote, at last count by more than a million votes.


Now, back to “Average Joe” America.

A few days ago, Bernie Sanders said, “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite. … I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from.” I respect Sanders immensely, and he clearly believes the white working class can fit under the umbrella of his core progressive values. But listen to others making this plea, and the underlying message is not so progressive—sometimes even thinly veiled code for going back to the way America used to be, if you know what I mean.

Joan C. Williams, writing in the Harvard Business Review about how liberal elites don’t understand the working class, says that Hillary Clinton epitomizes the “smugness of the professional elite. … Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women [emphasis hers] from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.”

Besides the twisted logic (Donald Trump clearly is not working class—does she mean that a woman, by gender definition, is condescending even if she criticizes a billionaire?), the passage seems to apologize for all of the phobias and “isms” it cites—and it especially drips with how-dare-she sexism regarding the “mere presence” of Clinton as a tough-talking candidate. What was she supposed to do, keep quiet and offer to bake them all cookies?

Williams admonishes the Democratic party elites to understand why the white, working middle class resents the poor (I believe most educated people, especially those in politics, DO understand this—but what are the Dems supposed to do about it? Cut social programs so the middle class doesn’t feel so bad?). She suggests that Democrats stop prioritizing cultural issues like LGBT rights. And she criticizes liberals for their overzealous attention to police brutality and their attempts to identify and combat racism. “Avoid the temptation to write off blue-collar resentment as racism,” she writes.

Really? You could just as easily say “Avoid the temptation to write off blue-collar racism as resentment.” If you resent people because of their color, and don’t want them in your neighborhood because of their color, and think they don’t deserve whatever they have because of their color—and you vote for a candidate because says things about minorities and immigrants that make it sound like he’s on your team—that’s racism.

As the United States becomes steadily more multicultural, and as increasing numbers of younger citizens reject their elders’ cultural biases (and in some cases outright bigotry), the Democratic Party should be the party of inclusion, with principles that are far more progressive than those of the opposition party, and also, unavoidably, somewhat more progressive than those of the average working-class male in Middle America. We can find more common ground without giving up those principles.

And, as I’ve tried to argue, even this election shows that we don’t have to.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon


The People Have Spoken


About 1 percent of all eligible voters said they wanted Jill Stein, or Evan McMullin, or their dog, or someone else you never heard of, to be president.

About 1.8 percent of eligible voters said they wanted Gary Johnson to be president. His running mate might not have been one of them.

About 25.8 percent of eligible voters said they approve of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, random threats of violence, and random groping, and that they like that their president is no more qualified for the office than they are.

About 25.9 percent of eligible voters said they wanted Hillary Clinton to be president. That’s about 266,000 more people than voted for Donald Trump, in case you didn’t realize that the candidate with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win.

About 45.5 percent of eligible voters said they were too busy, or too lazy, or too apathetic to vote, or in some cases, to register to vote. Or they just forgot. As for their thoughts on the direction the new president takes the country in the next four years, they said, “Whatevs.”

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon