QUARANTINE

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I know one needs to be cautious in the use of quarantines but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry — which is why I’m calling on President Obama to use an executive order to quarantine the governors of Maine, New York and New Jersey at the U. S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay until the Ebola panic subsides.

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Their hysteria is probably more contagious than the Ebola virus itself.  The governors could be kept in comfortable quarters, given psychiatric counseling and then returned to normal life when they were no longer presenting symptoms of irrational paranoia.

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We have to balance their civil rights against the need for public order — and we have an obligation to the men themselves.

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You just have to look at them to know they need help.

NEWS

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In a fascinating and thoughtful essay for the Brookings Institute, former Washington Post editor Robert G. Kaiser takes a look at the dire future that lies ahead for the traditional news media:

The Bad News About the News

A few thoughts about it occur to me.

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First of all, at the time of the founding of the republic, when the founders determined that a free press was essential to a free state, there were no major news organizations like the ones we’re used to.  There was plenty of press, vast numbers of competing newspapers in the major cities and in the provinces, and occasional broadsheets on every sort of subject published by the thousands.

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These media were typically partisan, highly partisan, and not always scrupulous about the facts — there were no news sources “of record” people could consult for anything like an objective arbitration of the competing voices of the press.  And yet for generations the people, from New York City to the bayous of Louisiana, were able to conduct a more or less rational conversation about national policy, to raise up politicians of skill and even at times genius to conduct that policy.

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Civic engagement at the local level, decentralized as it may have been, translated into national movements and initiatives.  A national postal service, like the Internet of its day, enabled distant people to communicate with each other about politics all over the country, and itinerant political speakers, seeking office or influence, mounted the stump in the most remote frontier settlements.

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It was chaotic, as the Internet is today, but it worked remarkably well.

When the great metropolitan newspapers arose in the second half of the 19th Century, the ones that somewhat resemble the great metropolitan newspapers of the second half of the 20th Century, the ones that are dying today, the modern form of media was created — but there was a crucial difference.

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The great 19th-Century newspapers, and magazines, earned their money directly from readers, by sales and subscriptions.  In the 20th Century, revenues came more and more from advertisers, and the loss of advertising revenue now, in the digital age, is what is killing 21st-Century newspapers.

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Is this a bad thing?  Depending on advertisers makes newspapers beholden to them, unwilling to publish news unfavorable to them.  Depending less on readers makes newspapers less responsive to their wants and needs.  The great newspapers of the late 19th Century were filled with entertaining nonsense alongside the hard news, but also with entertaining and brilliant popular art, in the form of color comics and graphic illustrations.

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The dynamic of traditional advertising-based media worked well when they were the only game in town, but now they’re not.  People are finding their news and their entertainment and their visual stimulation elsewhere, advertisers are following them, and traditional media are being left behind.

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Something tells me that American democracy is capable of surviving with a chaotic, decentralized electronic press, in many ways so much like the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  Something tells me that if the modern corporate media have to rely once again on their consumers for revenue, rather than on their advertisers, they will put out a livelier if perhaps less respectable product, but one still capable of delivering hard and relatively objective news.

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Meanwhile, a word about Texas, which in so many areas bucks the trends in the rest of America.  Texas has some of the most energetic, shrewd and entertaining local political reporting in America right now.  It’s aided by the fact that Texas politics and Texas politicians are so eccentric — they must be fun to write about and they are certainly fun to read about.

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[Photo above by Roxanne Rathge]

I got interested in Texas politics through reading Big, Hot, Cheap and Right, Erica Grieder’s fascinating survey of the state today.  Grieder (above), one of the sharpest political reporters in the nation, writes provocative articles for Texas Monthly — a magazine that also has a barbecue editor, a guy who reports only on barbecue.  In other words, it takes a comprehensive populist look at affairs in the Lone Star State.

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The Texas Tribune is a non-profit online newspaper based in Austin dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Texas political scene. It also hosts public events with speakers and panels discussing current political issues of interest to Texans.

I don’t know how local Texas newspapers and magazines are faring financially, but they are fielding teams of journalists who keep a close eye on local Texas politics and report on it entertainingly.  They converse and debate with each other goodnaturedly, from both ends of the political spectrum, on forums like Twitter.  They like to talk about barbecue.

Texas seems to have a healthy free press operating at the moment, in both conventional and unconventional media — a press as healthy as its economy.  Perhaps it’s just an illusion — perhaps the prominent news media in Texas are facing the same bleak prospects as the prominent news media elsewhere — but it sure doesn’t feel that way.

As with jobs creation, is Texas doing something right with respect to its press that the rest of America ought to take a look at?

HORROR

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Every time there’s a new school shooting we get a look at the places American kids are educated these days and they’re always grim — like industrial warehouses, or abattoirs.  They seem more fit for holding animals than people, inhuman pens, purely utilitarian and forbidding.

Soulless buildings built by soulless architects for soulless citizens.  What a message to the young people of America, one they get almost every day of their lives.

SHOCKING NEW REVELATION

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In a press release issued with little fanfare, The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has confirmed that it’s possible to contract Ebola through reading about it online or watching CNN’s coverage of the epidemic.

Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers, insists there is no cause for undue concern as long as people moderate their online reading and CNN viewing and keep a careful watch for symptoms.

SYSTEMIC CORRUPTION

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If you take a peek inside the N. Y. Fed, courtesy of Carmen Segarra (above) and the tapes she made of meetings when she was working there, you’ll discover a truly egregious breach of public trust by the institution, one which should have criminal consequences for its leaders, past and present, like Timothy Geithner below:

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We the taxpayers pay the members of the N. Y. Fed to regulate Wall Street, to make sure it doesn’t engage in reckless and criminal behavior that might, just possibly, bring down the world economy, as it very nearly did in 2008.

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They take our money and do just the opposite — they coddle and suck up to Wall Street, in essence shielding it from meaningful scrutiny and regulation, all the while knowing that if they do this well they can cash in with lucrative jobs on Wall Street once they leave the Fed.

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This is direct theft from the public treasury for personal gain — those who engage in it should be in jail.  Any president who condones it — I’m talking to you, Barry — should be impeached.

GOOD RIDDANCE

Attn. General Holder Testifies At Senate Judiciary Hearing On Justice Dept Oversight

. . . to one of the most corrupt public officials in American history.  He invented the “too big to fail” concept that kept Wall Street firms intact in the wake of extreme and disastrous criminal behavior and kept their executives out of jail.  His relentless war on the press kept it tame in the face of his boss’s equally relentless war on the Constitution.

He leaves behind a legacy of momentous villainy in the service of the plutocracy and state tyranny.

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AN AMERICAN HERO

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Carmen Segarra, the Edward Snowden of Wall Street.  If I were her, I’d be exploring the possibility of sanctuary in a foreign country.

Listen to her story here – for a portrait of the New York Fed as a culture of systemic corruption, like the office of a crooked small-town sheriff working to protect an illegal gambling joint run by his brother-in-law.  The stench is nauseating.

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GEORGE WASHINGTON

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America’s first President is usually seen as man easy to admire but hard to love.  In his public life, and to a great degree in his personal life, he mastered a kind of cordiality without warmth, a modest reserve mixed with a forbidding austerity.  He had a genius for silence, for withholding his true feelings, yet when he made up his mind to something he acted with unflinching resolve.

He was a man you underestimated at your own peril.

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If you read Ron Chernow’s brilliant recent biography of the man, however,you will find it hard not to love George Washington — and not just for his services to his country.  Beneath the artfully crafted facade he presented to the world was a man of deep sentiment and emotion and sensuality, sacrificed over and over again to his sense of honor and duty.

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He was not a natural stoic, not a cold self-satisfied prig — he chose service over inclination as a matter of principle, and endured the sacrifices this entailed fully sensible of the pain and personal loss this choice cost him.

Towards the end of his life, after leading the Continental Army to victory over the British Empire, presiding over the creation of the American Constitution, serving wisely and indispensably as the first American President, he wrote a letter to a woman named Sally Fairfax, the wife of a good friend, with whom he’d had an intense and passionate if platonic flirtation in his younger days.

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He said that the times he’d spent with her were the happiest of his life.  She must have represented all he could have had in this world if he’d been willing to overstep the bounds of propriety, violate his honor, and hers, given up his notions of civic and personal probity, the record of integrity that enabled him to spearhead the creation a new country and bind it into a workable union.

He was not the sort of man to second guess the course he chose, but he was human enough to hold on to a longing for something simpler and sweeter and more enchanting.  You have to love him, if only for that.

BIG MEN

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Reading Ron Chernow’s magnificent biography of George Washington, I find myself getting emotional over the example of the men who led The American Revolution.

They weren’t perfect by any means.  They were motivated by economic self-interest as much as by idealism, and they were hypocrites.  They took the field in their great war for liberty accompanied by slaves.  They allowed blacks to fight beside them in the Continental Army without the slightest intention of allowing those blacks to share fully in the fruits of the victory they might win together.

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But when push came to shove, time and time again they transcended themselves.  They got caught up and swept along by the idea of liberty and it changed them, moved them to do fine and noble and courageous things, things virtually unprecedented in history and in their own lives.

They were big men, capable of rising to big occasions, big challenges.  In American politics today there are no men or women as big as they were.  We are squandering the great gift they left to posterity.

MASTER OF THE SENATE

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I just finished this third volume of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.  The fourth volume, The Passage Of Power, is now on its way to me.  I’ve tried to make my way through the work slowly, to prolong the pleasure, and so I won’t have such a long wait for the fifth and final volume, which won’t be out for several years, but it’s not working out that way.  Caro is just too compulsively readable.

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The Years Of Lyndon Johnson is like a vast Victorian novel, on a scale that would have daunted even Dickens (though perhaps not Tolstoy).  It bristles with life, with amazing characters and amazing incidents and amazing revelations that compel attention.  Indeed, if we didn’t have evidence of Caro’s prodigious and meticulous research, we might easily dismiss his work as fiction.

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It’s the most important work about the nation since de Tocqueville‘s Democracy In America — a comprehensive education in American institutions, American aspirations, American delusions, American idealism, American skulduggery.  Reading it ought to be considered a civic duty — a thoroughly pleasurable civic duty, like watching fireworks on the 4th Of July.

PERRY’S DEFENSE

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In their motion to dismiss the indictment against him, Rick Perry’s lawyers (above) made a curious legal argument.  They said that Perry had an absolute legal right under the Texas Constitution to veto funding, or threaten to veto funding, and an absolute legal right under the First Amendment to say anything he wanted to say while exercising that veto right.  Therefore, they conclude, these two acts, the exercise of a veto and the exercise of free speech, being both in themselves legal, can’t be linked to establish felonious coercion.

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Think about this in another context.  You are openly carrying a firearm (somewhere where this is broadly legal, like Alaska), you show your firearm to someone, you say, “Your money or your life.”  According to Perry’s lawyers, this would not go to establishing attempted robbery because, if openly carrying a firearm is legal, you have a legal right to show your gun to anyone, and because, under the First Amendment, you have a legal right to say anything while showing off your gun.

Hmmm . . .

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In the real world, of course, no state allows you to openly carry a gun and use it for purposes of intimidation or threat — just as Texas doesn’t allow a governor to use any of his otherwise constitutional powers for the purpose of coercing another public servant.

In some cases, exercising two legal rights in concert can add up to a legal wrong.

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THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON

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Epic, majestic, magisterial — it’s hard to find words equal to Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, now just one volume away from completion.

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Five massive volumes on any historical figure might seem like overkill, but not in this case, because Caro is just as interested in the social and political context of Johnson’s life as he is in biographical details.

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As a congressman in the 1930s, Johnson was instrumental in bringing electricity to his district, the hard-luck Hill Country of Texas, where Johnson was born.  Caro details the dazzlingly complex political maneuvers Johnson employed to do this, but he also wants you to know what the accomplishment meant — so he devotes a long chapter to describing the day-to-day life of Hill Country ranchers and farmers, and particularly Hill Country ranchers’ and farmers’ wives, in the days before electrification.  The result is the best, most powerful and most harrowing evocation of daily frontier life and labor ever written.

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And this is just one example of Caro’s ability to illuminate the world Johnson moved in, the world that made him and the world he changed, for better and for worse.

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Johnson was a fabulous, mythic creature, not least because he understood the way American political life was changing in the 20th Century — understood how a ruthless and tireless man could ride those changes to a position of unprecedented power.

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The story of Johnson’s life is wildly entertaining, wildly inspiring, wildly depressing — because it exposes the deep corruption of the American political process along with its unaccountable ability to accomplish great things.

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You simply can’t understand America in our own time without understanding the dark genius and eccentric idealism of Lyndon Johnson.  He was a man who, like America itself, can never be explained or fully known — a man at the very heart of the paradox that is America.

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