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Congresswoman Katie Takes Hill by Storm

| Opinion | January 31, 2019

by Blair Bess
Barely one month into her tenure as representative for California’s 25th Congressional District, Katie Hill has become both a media darling and one of the most powerful members in the 116th Congress.

For those constituents who believe all Democrats are lefties and refused to vote for Hill, fear not. You’ve lucked out. Rep. Katie Hill believes in funding for some form of barrier at the southern border; even if allocated strictly for repairs of existing fences, or walls, or slats.

Hill’s position was clarified not only on “liberal” news outlet MSNBC, but on CNN and Fox News Saturday as well. It’s all just “semantics,” she’s explained.

Rep. Hill’s comments on border security got her into a bit of hot water with a number of those who voted for her last November. Onboard an early-morning Metrolink train bound for last week’s Women’s March, one woman told me that some Hill supporters posted their dismay on Facebook. A few even called her a traitor. I closed my Facebook account long ago so I can’t confirm that, but immigration was a significant issue for many Hill supporters.

Days after the flap, Hill was seen alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Socialist of New York. Joined by two other first-term congresswomen, Ocasio-Cortez and Hill chased Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell around the Capitol carrying a letter signed by 38 House freshmen demanding that he take steps to end the government shutdown. And while it did end last week, their missive probably played little role in bringing it to a conclusion. Then again, neither did Mitch McConnell.

Katie loyalists appear to outnumber those she may have agitated. When Hill took to the stage at last week’s Women’s March, she was hailed a conquering heroine. Hill has often said that it was the first March, held days after the Trump Inauguration two years ago, that inspired her to run for office.

She told a cheering crowd, “I think that this is showing (that) when women mobilize, we’re able to make great things happen.” For those who doubted Hill or opted to vote for her predecessor Steve Knight, she’s proving her point.

Whereas Knight spent two-terms in the House as an ineffectual back-bencher, in her first month in office, Katie Hill has secured two of the most powerful committee assignments in Washington: seats on the House Armed Services Committee (previously held by Knight and his predecessor Buck McKeon) and the House Oversight and Reform Committee. More impressive, Hill will be serving alongside Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) as Vice Chair of the latter.

For those unfamiliar with the Oversight Committee’s purview, take note. Katie Hill will be co-chairing the committee investigating two issues of great importance to her: rising prescription drug rates and healthcare costs. Oh, and let’s not forget. The committee is also looking into all things Russia; the Trump Hotel in Washington; immigration and border security issues; White House security clearance issues (watch out, Jared Kushner), the Emoluments Clause and much more.

It might be worth mentioning that while the more visible Ocasio-Cortez (known to her adoring fans as AOC) is also a newly-minted member of the Oversight Committee, it is the less-strident Hill who will be riding shotgun alongside Cummings. Which is fitting, as Hill is also a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights.

While a largely inconsequential faux pas over the presidential picket fence may have upset some of her supporters and is contrary to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s view that a border wall is immoral, Hill’s position is in keeping with the concerns of many voters in this congressional district. That’s a good thing.

During the campaign Hill told me, “There is no comparison to me and Nancy Pelosi. On most of the issues I’m going to be more progressive, but I’m going to look at it from the lens of what is best for my community.”

While Hill may not in the truest sense be a Pelosi Democrat, she clearly caught her eye. Just prior to casting a vote to re-elect Pelosi as Speaker, Hill could be seen chatting amiably with her on the floor of the House. Smart move. Plum committee assignments are not granted easily.

Which begs the question, who exactly is Rep. Katie Hill? Is she a snowflake, a closet conservative or the “pragmatic progressive” she claims to be? Though it’s too soon to draw definitive conclusions, Hill appears to be a woman true to her word: an elected official whose motivation is to place constituents above ideology. Which should be a welcome and refreshing change for all of us in this district. One thing is certain: Congresswoman Katie is clearly a natural born politician and she’s taking the Hill by storm.

Donald J. Trump: Master of Disaster

| Opinion | January 24, 2019

Threats to withhold federal emergency relief funds to aid victims of the forest fires that recently ravaged California offer further evidence that Donald J. Trump knows how to harbor a grudge.

The president is not popular in California. Results of the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton garnered nearly 9 million votes and trounced Trump by a margin of almost 2-to-1, are the most obvious indicator. Although having his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sporadically come under siege by paint and pick-ax wielding fans appears to be further confirmation.

No matter. Californians are just a bunch of losers anyway. Trump doesn’t like losers. Nor does he like to lose. And when he does, it’s inevitable someone else will be made to pay. Big league. In this instance, that might mean the 6,646 individuals who have already applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance to find temporary housing, pay for home repairs, or buy groceries, new clothes and furniture.

The men, women and children who have lost homes, friends, family members, pets, possessions and livelihoods to conflagrations in both the northern and southern parts of the state are already victims. Any actions on Trump’s part to keep them from gaining access to the nearly $50 million in FEMA aid that had already been earmarked would only further victimize them.

Then again, why should they be any different than the 800,000 federal employees who are now jobless as a result of the president’s intransigence over funding for his wall or steel picket fence or whatever he wants to call it? Or the 13,000 migrant children currently held in detention centers? Or the thousands of family farmers and small business owners whose livelihoods are threatened as a result of his ill-conceived and poorly executed trade wars?

Playing with the lives of working-class men and women is nothing more than a means to an end for Donald Trump. No matter the cost.

While the president’s declaration of Ventura, Los Angeles, and Butte counties as disaster areas was a momentarily presidential move, he couldn’t leave well-enough alone. It was quickly followed by his pronouncement that the devastation wreaked by wildfires in California was a result of “poor forest management.”

This analysis was part of a thoughtful, thoroughly-researched screed unleashed by the president via Twitter that went on to say, “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

What to do with those already-allocated funds? Here’s a great idea: take them back from people in need and use them to pay for the president’s steel slat monstrosity on the southern border. Better yet, how about clawing back disaster relief funds set aside for Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas as well? Why go to the trouble of declaring a national emergency when so much money is readily available? After all, those billions of dollars would be much better spent fulfilling ludicrous campaign promises rather than helping struggling U.S. citizens. And by throwing a few Republican bastions in the mix, no one could possibly accuse Trump of red-blue bias (that bias is limited to other colors in this president’s box of crayons).

Questions of the legality of the president’s use of funds apportioned for disaster relief, as well as bipartisan antipathy toward the proposal, have resulted in some of the president’s more lucid advisers walking back his more outrageous suggestions. Still, the president’s transactional approach to governance is disturbing and should serve as a clarion call no matter what one’s political beliefs or place of residence are.

True national emergencies arise. At any given time, any one of us could fall victim to fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or volcanic eruption. Catastrophic events happen. And insurance doesn’t always provide a solution to the problems that ensue.

Americans need to trust that petty partisanship will in no way interfere with our health, safety and well-being. We should feel confident that our leaders will have our backs regardless of whether one lives in a state that did or did not vote for the president. Left to his own devices, that appears unlikely so long as Donald Trump continues to occupy the White House and dominate members of the Republican Party.

Sadly, the trail of destruction left in the wake of this administration and the toll it’s taking on all of us may one day rival any natural disaster yet to befall this nation.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is an award-winning journalist and columnist. He can be reached at bbess@soaggragated.com.

When Being Liberal Isn’t Liberal Enough

| Opinion | January 10, 2019

As the 116th Congress convenes in Washington this week, one of the more interesting spectacles to take place will be the seating of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Much has been made of Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric and political philosophy since her defeat last year of former Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York’s 14th Congressional District, one of the most powerful Democrats in the House and a close ally of Nancy Pelosi.

In the wake of her primary victory over Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez told CNN, “We won because, I think, we had a very clear winning message, and we took that message to doors that had never been knocked on before.”

Ocasio-Cortez faced an incumbent who had grown complacent and disenfranchised from those he was elected to serve. She campaigned on a platform that promised to address issues that affected voters in her district including affordable housing, increased income inequality and poverty. Ocasio-Cortez called for Medicare for all, a federal jobs program, and has been quite vocal about abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Before taking her oath of office, Ocasio-Cortez targeted Pelosi intimate Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., leader of the House Democratic Caucus – a high-profile position a few notches below Pelosi’s own in the party hierarchy. Jeffries represents a district adjacent to that of Ocasio-Cortez. It appears she’d like a new neighbor. Preferably one she has hand-picked (or anointed) and who shares her own brand of progressivism, which Jeffries does not.

Therein lies a problem for the Democratic Party and their Blue Wave. How far to the left must a believer in more traditional liberal policies veer in order to satisfy those who believe party “elites” like Pelosi, Crowley, and Jeffries have failed average Americans?

Conservatives rarely (okay, mostly never) agree with Nancy Pelosi, but now a new breed of Democrat – or Democratic Socialist in the case of Ocasio-Cortez – poses an even greater challenge. In their eyes, Pelosi’s brand of liberal isn’t liberal enough. While that may be a fair assessment from their perspective, it would be somewhat self-destructive to arrive in Washington intent, as Ocasio-Cortez seems to be, on waging internecine warfare, status quo be damned.

During her campaign, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promised she would be responsive first and foremost to her constituents. She was critical of her predecessor, who focused more on building a political power base in D.C. than on the folks in the neighborhoods back home. It cost him his seat in the House. Yet, by her earliest rumblings, Ocasio-Cortez could suffer a similar fate two years hence should she not keep her word with those in the Bronx and Queens who put her in office.

In a recent New Yorker profile on Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., former New York Congressman Steve Israel recalled that when he and Schiff first came to Washington in 2000, they were told during their orientation that there were three kinds of members of Congress – “the ‘pothole member,’ who concentrates on district issues, the ‘political member,’ who works on moving up the ladder, and the ‘policy member,’ who digs down in specific policy areas and becomes the expert on the floor of the House.”

Most newly-elected members being seated this week are there for one reason. And it wasn’t Donald Trump. It was because voters at home believed they would be more responsive to “pothole issues” like healthcare than were their opponents. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected on that basis, yet she increasingly presents as though she is more intent on becoming a “political member” than she’d initially led her constituents to believe. As she well knows, it doesn’t take much to remind voters when a politician isn’t listening and doesn’t keep their word.
In these precarious times, it shouldn’t matter whether our leaders are conservative enough or liberal enough. What should matter is that they do the job they were elected to do, which is representing those of us back home. Squandering the opportunity to do so in exchange for building one’s own personal political brand is a betrayal of a constituent’s trust. Hopefully, the newest members of the 116th Congress will keep that in mind as they settle in to begin the business of governing.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is an award-winning journalist and columnist. He can be reached at bbess@soaggragated.com.

The Fix is In

| Opinion | January 3, 2019

“I alone can fix it.”

That’s what the current occupant of the Oval Office told cheering delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention.

He pointed to “war and destruction abroad” as one of the most critical challenges facing the United States. And he told the American people that he alone could “fix” it.

Unfortunately, the only thing Donald J. Trump appears capable of fixing is the 2016 election that put him in office.

Despite denials and repeated lies that he took no part in violating federal election laws, the Justice Department has clearly identified him in court documents as an unindicted co-conspirator.

More criminal is Trump’s unilateral decision to pull 2,000 American troops out of Syria, thus ending a critical mission that supported rebels intent on ending the authoritarian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move places at risk our longtime allies, the Kurds, stymies the progress we’ve made against ongoing threats posed by ISIS, provides solace and assistance to Russian troops and the Iranian military, and could lead to a terrorist staging ground for Hezbollah.

In addition, Trump’s misguided actions have compromised the security of our chief ally in the Middle East – the State of Israel.

In Trump’s perverse world view, making nice with murderous heads of state in Saudi Arabia is far more constructive to maintaining stability in the region than taking them to task and expressing outrage over the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Responsibility for the murder has been placed squarely at the doorstep of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the president’s own intelligence advisers. The same prince whose government is committing ongoing war crimes against the people of Yemen. With the full support of this president.

At the outset of the Trump presidency, many in Washington were comforted when Trump surrounding himself with experienced, competent advisers like Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose feet are now halfway out the door of the Oval Office. Also among that group: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster – gone. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – gone. And, now, Defense Secretary James Mattis – gone.

Syria was the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Mattis, prompting this much-decorated Marine Corps general with forty years of experience leading our nation’s most elite troops to sever his ties with the Trump administration.

In Mattis’s letter of resignation, the defense secretary wrote, “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

Contrast Mattis’s decades engaged in helping to formulate the strategic military and defense goals of the nation (as well as combat experience in various theaters of war) versus Trump’s boyhood time served in a military school due to incorrigible behavior and two years of diplomatic, military, and economic chaos while occupying the White House.

Mattis went on to say, “I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nation’s economic, diplomatic, and security decisions to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors.”

And there lies the rub, plain and simple: Russia. Remember, “No collusion?” Why then, within hours of the commander-in-chief’s move to withdraw troops from Syria, did Russian President Vladimir Putin laud Trump’s action? And why did Putin take it one step further and question when we would be withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, only to have Trump acquiesce hours later by ordering the draw-down of half our forces now based there? No collusion, indeed.

Under this administration, our country has been on life support. We are nearing a Constitutional breaking point and in danger of forfeiting our place as the shining light and spirit of free democratic societies throughout the world.

What is most frightening is that the true leaders Americans had counted on to guide us through the Trumpian debacle have either thrown up their hands in disgust and resigned, or have been unceremoniously kicked out the door of the Oval Office like rusty tin cans.

Not to worry, though. The “fix” is in. Because as long as Trump is in the White House and he has allies like Vladimir Putin to guide him, our nation’s position in the world will be forever secure.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is an award-winning journalist and columnist. He can be reached at bbess@soaggragated.com.

National Climate Assessment a Political Hot Potato

| Opinion | December 13, 2018

Timing is everything. Take for example the Trump administration’s decision to release the latest National Climate Assessment during last month’s Thanksgiving holiday. No shocker. The president and his team consistently dump unwelcome information at times they believe no one is paying attention.

Publication of the climate assessment is mandated by Congress. It has been released every four years since the requirement to do so was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. That’s right, Bush 41, whose recent passing we as a nation are still mourning. Again, timing is everything. In this instance, it’s the perfect time to pause and consider the significance of this piece of legislation.

The elder President Bush understood the disastrous consequences of climate change. According to Monica Medina, a former principal deputy undersecretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bush 41 knew that global warming posed “a risk to our health, to our prosperity, and to our national security.”

President Bush’s commitment to the environment is in stark contrast to opinions expressed by the current occupant of the Oval Office. When questioned about the climate report’s validity, President Trump reacted dismissively and said, “I don’t believe it.”

Climate change deniers like President Trump and many of his party’s leadership in Congress choose to pooh-pooh the findings of the climate assessment because it is contrary to “evidence” proffered by fossil fuel industry-affiliated experts and the special interests funding their careers. Their views are not predicated on potential environmental hazards or the health concerns of ordinary Americans. They are rooted in increased profits; the public be damned.

The consequences of the administration’s recent actions and inactions relating to environmental regulation and its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement are a far greater matter of national security than the attempts of undocumented immigrants to “invade” our southern border. They just don’t play as well with the Trump base.

Since the last climate assessment was released four years ago, states in the west and southwest have increasingly been subjected to devastating droughts. Dwindling water supplies have affected the livelihood of farmers. Uncontrollable wildfires have taken a human toll, causing loss of life, property, and natural resources.

Coastal flooding and erosion, which is attributed to a decrease in sea ice, have impacted Alaskans as well as Americans in offshore territories of the U.S., like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Hotter temperatures are life-threatening to both elderly and young Americans.

Scientists who contributed to the National Climate Assessment note that by 2050 those higher temperatures and dramatic changes in rainfall will also reduce agricultural productivity and impact the health of livestock.

The report further notes that extreme weather events driven by global warming are “virtually certain to increasingly affect U.S. trade and economy, including import and export prices and businesses with overseas operations and supply chains.” We may expect shuttering of factories and a resultant hardship for American workers at home.

It’s quite possible that climate change will eventually have a greater negative impact on businesses large and small than the administration’s ill-conceived tariffs on imports, and its “America First” trade policies.

During the administration’s first two years, the wholesale elimination of regulations enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government institutions have removed safeguards meant to keep Americans healthy and secure. The economic health of American workers – not their employers – is often cited as the motivating factor behind these changes.

To varying degrees, all administrations pander to those whose financial support helped put and keep them in office. The Trump administration is no different. Yet fixes that favor short-term corporate interests over those of ordinary Americans who voted for the president will inevitably yield economic consequences that affect the bottom-line and well-being of us all.

Global warming and the environment need not be a political hot potato. As the late President Bush told an audience thirty years ago, “Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.” In the wake of the latest National Climate Assessment, it is in everyone’s interests for the current occupant of that house to retake his temperature and reconsider his position on climate change.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is an award-winning journalist and columnist. He can be reached at bbess@soaggragated.com.

Reds are Singing the Blues

| Opinion | November 8, 2018

Results of Tuesday’s midterm election confirm that California’s 25th Congressional District is no longer a safe haven for the GOP. The former Republican bastion we call home is increasingly tilting in a different direction due in part to the growing number of Democrats and those who decline to state a party preference now residing in the district.

As much as the media and voices from both ends of the political spectrum had said this election would be a referendum on the president and one-party domination of Congress, it’s clear that kitchen table issues – specifically affordable health care and taxes – were matters that resonated more with voters in the Antelope, Santa Clarita, and Simi Valleys.

Witness the last-ditch efforts of Republican candidates – including the 25th District’s Steve Knight – who attempted to mislead voters, telling them the only way to ensure that health coverage would continue for Americans with pre-existing conditions was to cast their votes for Republicans. It was the party’s mantra for those in tight races throughout the country. They pulled this stunt only after polls indicated that health care was the number one issue among voters this year. In most instances, candidates who made those claims weren’t entirely truthful.

After Rep. Knight told a town hall meeting in April, 2017 that he would vote to keep protections for those with pre-existing conditions, he went back on his word. He voted for Republican-led legislation that effectively killed those provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Knight later proved that he had a pre-existing condition of his own: anxiety over losing his seat in Congress.

In late September – knowing a return to Washington might not be in his future – Knight cynically introduced the “Maintaining Protections for Patients with Pre-Existing Conditions Act.” His calculated move wasn’t enough to sway the majority of the district’s voters. Like many elected officials, he belatedly told his constituents what he thought they wanted to hear rather than listen to what they had to say in the first place. To be fair, it’s a malady suffered by many politicians from both parties.

Even though Knight voted the party line when it came to health care legislation, he at least did so politely and without making much noise. Unlike Arizona Rep. (and, as of this writing, presumed Senator-elect) Martha McSally, who ran campaign ads in the final weeks of her senatorial race in which she earnestly stated that she was “leading the fight to force insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions.” This is the same Martha McSally who, according to media reports, told a conference of fellow Republican leaders last year “let’s get this f***ing thing done!” The thing she was referring to was killing the Affordable Care Act.

Steve Knight is too nice a guy to talk like that. Well, maybe except for that time in Simi Valley when he told an unruly protester that he would “drop his ass” after the guy got in the congressman’s face. That kind of campaign rhetoric is a sure vote-getter (you can watch the instant replay on YouTube).

Representative-elect Katie Hill’s victory over incumbent Steve Knight this week is a testament to her impressive – some might say aggressive – get-out-the-vote strategy and grassroots support. She heard and listened to what voters were saying. Especially on issues like healthcare, which was a cornerstone of her campaign. Her campaign was about being responsive to the needs of the ordinary folks who live in the district; those who may have felt disenfranchised and ignored by the incumbent. Similar feelings drew many voters to Donald Trump in 2016. It’s what drew district voters to Hill this year for entirely different – and probably better – reasons.

Hill will enter Congress at a time when political parties are becoming increasingly factionalized and the electorate is feeling increasingly marginalized. Two years is not a long time to make a difference. Re-election efforts are almost immediately on the horizon and a return to office is never guaranteed. No matter how earnest Hill’s efforts once in office, ill-conceived acts of retribution and retaliation on the part of her Democratic colleagues could hurt her prospects to return to Washington in 2020.

This is a tough time for politicians to adhere to their principles. But it also appears to be the dawning of a new age in politics. By every indication, Katie Hill is her own person. In an interview earlier this year, she eschewed the old adage that “all politics is local,” saying instead that “all politics is personal.” She added that serving her constituents would take precedence over party ideology.

Our voices this week were loud and clear. And whether red or blue or anything in between, holding our leaders accountable for their actions is something district voters are quite comfortable with. Tuesday’s results were proof of that. As they will be in Tuesdays to come.

Shame is on Life-Support

| Opinion | November 1, 2018

Unlike the majority of staged presidential moments which have become all-too-familiar during his reign, Donald J. Trump’s arrival in Pittsburgh this past Tuesday was a somber affair. The tenor was not solely due to the nature of his visit to the Steel City, which was ostensibly to pay his respects for the eleven Jewish worshippers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue over the previous weekend. It was the mere fact that he had traveled to Pittsburgh at all.

Rather than being greeted at the airport by civic leaders as is customary when the President of the United States comes to town, Mr. Trump’s arrival was decidedly low key. He was effectively alone on the tarmac, surrounded by family members and aides. And not by choice. The president came to town, ignoring the requests of city officials and community leaders not to do so. They made clear that their priority was to the families, mourners and members of the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill who were directly affected by the devastating assault.

Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and other government officials were acting in the interests of their citizens, exhibiting true leadership, putting the needs of their constituents ahead of taking part in one more presidential photo opportunity. Mr. Trump asked members of the congressional leadership of both parties – including stalwarts like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan – to join him. They declined. Relatives of at least one of the victims chose not to meet with him.

The president spent thirteen minutes visiting the synagogue, as well as a hospital where some of the wounded first responders and victims remained. Then, it was off to the airport, tail between his legs, for the flight back to Washington where preparations were already underway for campaign rallies throughout the country. Normally verbose, Mr. Trump boarded Air Force One stony-faced and silent. How could he not? He’s used to adoring fans and cries of “Lock her up” – whether the “her” in question is Hillary Clinton, Christine Blasey Ford, or Maxine Waters.

Mr. Trump is not used to protesters, like those he encountered in Pittsburgh. He shields himself from them. He’s not used to people – 50,000 of them – signing online petitions expressly telling him that he is not welcome in their city. No matter. He came, he saw, he left with nary a word spoken. One day later – with many of the dead yet to be buried – Trump was back on the campaign trail, his spirits invariably lifted as orchestrated throngs cheered him upon his arrival in other cities and towns throughout this divided nation.

The senseless murders committed in Pittsburgh and the attempted assassinations of a dozen other “enemies of the state” (including former presidents, government officials, members of the media, and others who don’t share the misguided Trumpian vision of America) over the last few weeks, as well as the increase in white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, nativism, all underscore a brutal reality. We are daily bearing witness to the slow, painful death of shame. It is on life-support and barely breathing.

From calls for the arrest and incarceration of political opponents, attacks upon the free press, his blatant support for extremist groups, his flouting of ethics and societal norms, his disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law, his violation of human rights and so much more, Mr. Trump is using words as weapons. It is the American ideal of democracy that will be his ultimate victim.

When an emboldened serial bomber composes a hit list comprised of individuals the president has targeted, Mr. Trump bears a measure of responsibility. When his description of oppressed people as “invaders” finds its way into the social media screeds of racists and is used as motivation for the taking of innocent lives, he shares some degree of blame. When a Southwest Airlines passenger gropes a woman aboard a flight and tells federal agents he did so because “the President of the United States said it’s okay to grab women by their private parts,” Mr. Trump needs to reassess the impact his words.
Despite his cagey denials, the president knows that “globalist” has long been a buzz word for Jews and that the term “nationalist,” whether it includes “white” as a modifier, describes racists and anti-Semites. No matter. It plays well with the proverbial base. Unfortunately, the base only accounts for a portion of the people he was elected to serve.

Rather than unite us as a country, the president is growing increasingly emboldened and divisive. He is tapping into the very worst of who we are rather than lifting us up as one people. It’s time politics is cast aside.

Donald J. Trump is an intelligent man; far from book smart, more street smart. He may be ignorant of the nuances of leadership, the Constitution, and the role of the president. He may not understand the concept of moral leadership. But make no mistake. He is cunning and has his finger on the pulse of a stable third of the electorate. He has tapped into a culture of hate that has been percolating under the surface of our country for quite some time. And he readily, repeatedly and shamelessly exploits those who share his sentiments to his advantage.

There is still time to resuscitate shame. We can only hope the president will do so before it flatlines.

Kushner and Trump: A Hit with the Saudis

| Opinion | October 25, 2018

It pays to be friends with Jared Kushner. You can get away with murder. Or so thinks Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Early in his tenure as a special adviser to his father-in-law, Kushner went out of his way to become Best Friends Forever with the monarchical autocrat.

Last year, Kushner travelled to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to promote a multi-billion-dollar arms sale, encourage MBS – as the prince is known in diplomatic circles – to take part in Kushner’s plan for peace in the Middle East, and privately discuss other matters of importance. Exactly what they talked about is as clear as the private discussion the president had with Vladimir Putin earlier this year.

The two must have hit it off. The Intercept reports that in the wake of their meeting, MBS bragged to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed that Kushner was “in his pocket.”

MBS rose to power after ousting his cousin as next in line to the Saudi throne and installing himself as heir apparent. A week after meeting Kushner last October, the prince further consolidated his power by arresting dozens of family members and associates, calling it an “anti-corruption crackdown.” He extracted billions of dollars from them to gain their release. One of them wasn’t so lucky. Multiple news outlets reported that Saudi general Ali Alqahtani died of a broken neck while being tortured by government operatives.

Mounting evidence now indicates that, at the direction of MBS, a government hit team was responsible for the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. MBS wasn’t happy that Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and a legal resident of the U.S., made a point of speaking truth to power and calling out the Saudi regime for rampant corruption and its autocratic rule.

Silencing its enemies has long been a practice of the House of Saud. And with an American president who continually calls the press “the enemy of the people,” why wouldn’t MBS think he could get away with one more atrocity?

President Trump initially said there would be “serious consequences” if allegations that Khashoggi was murdered were true. Within days of saying so, he flip-flopped, claiming that the killing may have been done by “rogue killers.” This was after a phone call with MBS, during which the prince used those very words, “firmly denying” he had anything to do with Khashoggi’s murder. Trump believes MBS. Because he said so. Just as the president believes Putin didn’t meddle in our elections. Because Putin “strongly and powerfully denied it.”

The Saudi government has now concocted a scenario admitting their involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, claiming it was an “interrogation” gone awry. And that Mohammed bin Salman had absolutely nothing to do with it, yet nothing in the kingdom is done without his blessing.

The Saudis are now relying on plausible deniability to get MBS off the hook and keep his friendship with Kushner and Trump alive and intact. Yahoo News reports that Jared Kushner is “deeply involved” in the White House response to the Khashoggi assassination. What are friends for?

Saudi Arabia is of strategic importance in the Middle East, but there is such a thing as taking the moral high ground. Turning a blind eye to autocrats prone to punishing their so-called “enemies” does not bode well for America’s reputation or standing in the world. And it certainly isn’t in the best interests of the American people. It does, however, appear to be in keeping with the president’s foreign and domestic policy, and his desire to defend anyone with whom he or his family – including Jared Kushner – have a personal relationship.

When she recently announced her resignation as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley called Jared Kushner “a hidden genius.” Cozying up to Mohammed bin Salman, however, may not have been the smartest move he could have made.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

When Donny Met Kim: A Love Story

| Opinion | October 11, 2018

The president’s bad breakup with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G7 apparently left him feeling vulnerable and angry. He was a man ripe for a rebound relationship, and found it several days later when he first met North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. As the president noted at a rally in West Virginia this past week, “we fell in love.” Then again, love is blind.

There’s no question that the president yearns for a peace treaty with Kim and he should be lauded for his efforts to secure one. He wants to prove he’s a great negotiator on the international stage, that he succeeded where his predecessors failed, and that a deal with Kim will help secure his place in history as the greatest American president ever. His choice of the Supreme Leader as his next bromantic conquest, however, has consequences that are far-reaching and potentially dangerous. And lest we forget, Kim is a two-timer.

During their hot date in steamy Singapore, the Supreme Leader signed a marriage contract of sorts with the president, yet almost immediately afterward, he cheated. Vowing that he would begin to denuclearize, Kim instead ramped things up, starting work on new nuclear facilities. He extracted assurances from the president that the U.S. would divorce itself from the “provocative” war games it holds each year with South Korea, a promise Mr. Trump did, indeed, deliver on much to the consternation of U.S. diplomats and military leaders. “Beautiful letters” from Kim aside, the president has repeatedly been blindsided by him, despite Kim’s professions of undying love.

Speaking of dying, the president should be advised that North Korea’s “Dear Leader” is prone to domestic violence and not to be trusted. The objects of his abuse have been family members, close advisers and military officials, musicians and even the manager of a turtle farm who tried to explain to Kim that his critters were expiring due to power failures and lack of food and water. The Institute for National Security Strategy has reported that they were among the 340 North Koreans executed since Kim first came to power, in 2011. Those deaths don’t include the tens of thousands of his countrymen who have died in gulags and of malnutrition; a conservative estimate.

Of North Korea, the president says the Supreme Leader “ran it tough.” It’s the type of tough love any normal person could do without, but Mr. Trump spoke those words approvingly.

Senator Lindsay Graham (R, S.C.), who enjoys his own bromance with the president, told an audience at the Atlantic Festival this past Wednesday, “this love crap needs to stop. There’s nothing to love about Kim Jong Un.”

And yet, Trump is now eagerly awaiting a second date with Kim. His attempts at seduction include suggestions that he may extricate the U.S. from a trade deal with South Korea and remove all American troops from the Korean peninsula. According to “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s tome on the Trump White House, when that idea was floated, Secretary of Defense James Mattis explained to the president that keeping troops there was to “prevent World War III.”

Unfortunately, the so-called “adults in the room” at the White House hold little sway over a man who, two years ago, told the Republican Convention, “I alone can fix it.” But when it comes to North Korea, Russia, China, the Middle East, the EU, NATO and beyond, the president is out of his league. Rather than consult with State and Defense Department officials and the intelligence community, Mr. Trump prefers, instead, to fly solo and take a scattershot approach to diplomacy. In doing so, someone may very well end up getting killed, be they American soldiers and their dependents, the Korean people, or regional allies like the Japanese.

The president said of Kim, “we have this great relationship.” Maybe. For now. It might, however, be wiser to listen to Lindsay Graham, who said, “If Rocket Man believes that he’s got Trump loving him and backing off, then we are all in trouble.”

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

Kavanaugh Deserved Better… and So Do We

| Opinion | September 20, 2018

Judge Brett Kavanaugh was never going to get a fair break during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The fault lies not with obstructionist Democrats, however, but with Republican leadership and members of the committee.

By not turning over all documents in their possession, Republican members of the committee did the judge and the American people a disservice. And dumping hundreds of thousands of selected pages of documents, emails, and other correspondence on Democrats the night before hearings were scheduled to begin wasn’t a solution.

Releasing all relevant material would have provided a fuller picture of Kavanaugh’s legal philosophy and writings for both the majority and minority. Not doing so only further riled Democrats still fuming over Republican obstruction of Judge Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination in the waning days of the Obama administration. It succeeded in provoking confrontation and partisan conflict. Whether or not Judge Kavanaugh escapes the wrath of Democratic committee members, the real losers are the American people.

Questions have arisen based on actions Kavanaugh took during time spent in the George W. Bush White House, including discussions about detainee torture during the early years of the war on terror, as well as a breach of secret Democratic files on judicial nominations. His writings have advocated broad presidential powers that have implications on ongoing investigations into Russian election meddling and questionable actions on the part of the president. Kavanaugh equivocated when asked whether he would uphold long-standing legal precedents, including those related to Roe v. Wade, LGBTQ rights, and affirmative action.

There are indications that Kavanaugh may have perjured himself, not only during his recent confirmation hearings, but during testimony before the Senate committee when he was originally nominated for the federal appellate court in 2006. These charges have been corroborated in emails and other work product that several committee members brought to light against the wishes of the majority.

And now comes the latest bombshell: allegations that Kavanaugh assaulted a young woman during a party while in high school. These are inflammatory charges that must be explored.

What really needs further exploration is the entire process by which the Senate evaluates nominees for lifetime positions on the high court.

Throughout the hearings, many of Kavanaugh’s responses to questions posed by committee members were evasive and rife with subterfuge. His discomfort was, at times, palpable. He did an inadequate job in presenting or defending his legal perspectives on issues that will certainly come before the Supreme Court.

To think that members of the judiciary cannot or do not hold personal beliefs, opinions, or philosophies is naive. We all have opinions, ideologies, codes of ethics and moral conduct. Americans have long lived under the rule of law and a system of government that affords us the opportunity to hold them. That said, we have the right to know if appointees at every level of the federal bench can divorce themselves from personal feelings in relation to the law of the land. That they must, to the best of their ability, make rulings that consider established precedent. Kavanaugh’s record must be allowed to speak for itself without obstruction or obfuscation.

Republican members of the Judiciary Committee fueled a smoldering fire by hindering the Democrats ability to fully-explore and accurately gauge where Kavanaugh stands on established law and how he might approach his deliberations as a member of the high court. This would have provided an opportunity for senators from both parties to make an educated choice in determining whether Kavanaugh should earn the committee’s blessing for confirmation and a subsequent vote by the entire Senate. Instead, their actions do nothing more than pave the way for Democrats to engage in future games of tit-for-tat in times they hold the majority.

The modern judiciary – the last bastion of independent thought and final arbiter of our nation’s laws – has become grossly politicized. This is a bipartisan issue, and members of both parties must be held accountable for this deterioration.

The entire Senate Judiciary Committee treated Kavanaugh unfairly, but we the people are the ultimate victims of its injustice.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

Nicaragua Could Be Trump’s Wag the Dog Moment

| Opinion | September 13, 2018

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent warning to the United Nations Security Council that civil unrest in Nicaragua poses a threat to the stability of Central America may have set the stage for Donald J. Trump’s “Wag the Dog” moment.

The reference is made to a 1997 movie about a U.S. president embroiled in a sex scandal who attempts to save his presidency by staging a fake war in a country far from American soil.

The idea of this president attempting to divert the American people’s attention from investigations into his conduct in office in similar fashion is not such a far-fetched idea. Redirecting attention from “fake news” is an everyday occurrence through tweets, talking points, spin by the president’s surrogates, or outright lies.

New revelations of increased turmoil in the White House and a president described by intimates as “unhinged,” has left many questioning whether the country may be in store for a much bigger distraction. Nicaragua could be the answer.

Trump has a habit of casting out shiny objects to lure our attention away from the ever-increasing list of dilemmas he’s been forced to confront since the beginning of his presidency. Last year’s missile strikes on Syria – launched in retaliation for that government’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians – were viewed by many skeptics as manipulative and an effort to demonstrate his willingness to take on Russian interests at a time when he was accused of being a puppet of Vladimir Putin.

The Associated Press reported last summer that at a meeting with his military and national security advisers, Trump floated the idea of invading Venezuela. He believed escalating violence and unrest there posed a national security threat and warranted a swift military response. At a time when special counsel Robert Mueller was ramping up an investigation into Russia’s meddling in our elections.

Many at the meeting, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, were stunned. They made a concerted effort to walk the president back from carrying out such an action, explaining that it might backfire and destroy a decades-long initiative by the U.S. to build good will among governments throughout Latin America.

The president clearly had his own idea. At a press conference soon afterward, Trump told reporters that the U.S. had troops all over the world in distant places and that “Venezuela is not very far away and there are people suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary.”

Woof.

When addressing the Security Council last week, Ambassador Haley said: “With each passing day, Nicaragua travels further down a familiar path. It is a path that Syria has taken. It is a path that Venezuela has taken.”

Woof. Woof.

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia. In a 1986 Washington Post Op-Ed, President Ronald Reagan’s Communications Chief Patrick Buchanan wrote, “If Central America goes the way of Nicaragua, they will be in San Diego.”

Nicaragua is slightly closer to our southern border than Venezuela. Hundreds have been killed there since April, thousands injured, tens of thousands are seeking asylum in Costa Rica. A small number have considered coming here. It might be enough to set off alarm bells, precipitating something tantamount to a national security crisis that by little stretch of the imagination could, with the stroke of a presidential pen, lead to military intervention. To protect our borders, of course. Why wait for a wall to be built when guns are so much more effective?

Covert actions to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980’s, as well as questionable activities regarding their funding, came very close to toppling the presidency of Ronald Reagan. When their actions became known to the public, their deception, as well as their lack of transparency and candor got them into trouble. Despite the ethics and legality of what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan administration decisions were rooted in a combination of ideology and realpolitik, not optics.

Commitment to an ideology isn’t in this president’s DNA. Commitment to, and the preservation of, Donald J. Trump is. He loves pretty pictures and staged events that depict him as a decisive leader who keeps promises and gets the job done. He’s a master of reality television. And nothing could be more real – or distracting – than a small televised intervention somewhere south of the border – in the interests of the American people of course. And Donald J. Trump.

Woof. Woof. Woof.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

Google Politically Incorrect? Search Me.

| Opinion | August 31, 2018

The White House has launched a new salvo in its ongoing assault on the media and free speech. Instead of railing against newspapers and cable news channels, Donald J. Trump’s ire is now being directed at Google.

Somehow the president’s gotten it into his head that the search engine’s algorithms are “rigged.” He’s convinced that whenever anyone inputs “Trump news,” only negative stories – the ubiquitous “fake news” stories – about him rise to the top.

It’s a little unclear how the president’s developed this theory, although his favorite “real news” channel, Fox, had reported similar claims early Tuesday morning. If Mr. Trump was more adept at using computers, he might realize that sites linked to “real news” organizations tend to take precedence over blogs and conservative opinion sites.

The president’s aversion to email and computers is well-known. It appears his only nod to technology manifests itself in his compulsive urge to tweet whatever happens to be on his mind. If he was truly concerned about the negative coverage he invites, he might re-think some of the actions he takes and statements he makes. Major news organizations are focused on fact, not fiction.

Late on Tuesday, the president said, “Google and Twitter and Facebook, they’re really treading on very, very troubled territory. And they have to be careful.”

That may not sound like a threat, but nothing the administration does should be taken at face value. Mr. Trump’s ongoing assaults on the media and his obsessive attempts to employ government agencies – including the FCC, the IRS, and the Department of Justice – to bend established norms is on display for all the world to see on an almost-daily basis. Presidential musings are often menacing and meant to intimidate; rarely are they oblique.

Portions of a pair of Tuesday’s Trump Tweets read as follows: “They are controlling what we can and cannot see. This is a very serious situation – will be addressed!” He also queried of algorithm-driven search results: “Illegal?”

Realistically, the only thing the president wants anyone to see is what he wants us to see: good news about Trump, 24/7. Anything else should be outlawed. Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow stated that the White House is “taking a look” at whether or how Google should be regulated by the government.

Republicans, as a rule, do not believe in government overreach. They find excessive rules and over-regulation abhorrent. So, it should come as no surprise that they and their Democratic nemeses actually agreed in pointing out that government has no place monitoring search results or regulating online content. Nor did advocates of free speech –both conservative and progressive – or the folks in Silicon Valley.

Several weeks back, an internal letter – made available to The New York Times – circulated among Google employees that voiced concerns over the company’s willingness to adhere to censorship requirements “that raise urgent moral and ethical issues.”

Google’s employees were responding to the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China. Which, if Mr. Trump had his way, is exactly what he would have Google do for all of us here at home.

Most Americans don’t understand what bots are. We don’t quite get trolling. For many, cookies are something that make us gain weight; not annoying tech tidbits whose purpose is to clutter our computer screens with useless junk and unwanted ads. We may not understand how algorithms work or how invasive revolutionary forms of artificial intelligence programs are fast becoming. It sounds a bit ominous. You can almost understand how it makes the president a little crazy.

Enduring nuisances and sensory overload is a necessary evil when consumers opt to use search engines like Google. As bad as it may be, however, it’s a lot better than having Big Brother – or Donald J. Trump – dictate what we can and cannot see, hear or think.

For Manafort and Cohen, the Truth and Nothing But the Truth

| Opinion | August 24, 2018

There may be hope for the American judicial system. The felony convictions of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is evidence of this, as is the plea agreement of former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen.

Despite the incoherent ramblings of one-time law and order advocate Rudy Giuliani, the truth is the truth.

Despite being unable to convict Manafort on all 18 counts for which he was charged, a jury of twelve Americans weighed the evidence against him and agreed with the government’s assessment that he was guilty of committing serious crimes. That he was not telling the truth.

Despite Cohen’s long-ago willingness to “take a bullet” for Trump, the consequences of actions he took on Trump’s behalf were cause enough for him to plead guilty to eight criminal counts – including election law violations – and tell the truth.

In his riveting book “On Tyranny,” author Timothy Snyder writes, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom… If nothing is true [as Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump insist], then all is spectacle.”

The Trump presidency is certainly that. As was the now-defunct Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Trump continues to mislead. He continues to lie. He continues to speak anything but the truth.

In the wake of Manafort’s conviction on eight counts of criminal misconduct, Trump called the newly-convicted felon “a good man.” Just as he refers to white nationalists as “fine people.” He reiterated that the Manafort trial had “nothing to do with Russian collusion.” No one suggested it did.

Manafort was convicted on tax evasion and bank fraud charges, and lying about having bank accounts in foreign countries. Whether Manafort is also guilty of being involved in activities related to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and acting as a foreign agent remains for another jury to decide next month.

“No collusion, no collusion, no collusion,” Trump drones repetitively.

Snyder’s book notes that Victor Klemperer, a renowned German scholar who witnessed the rise of the Third Reich, wrote that this type of “endless repetition” is meant to “make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.” It is fascistic in nature and tyrannical in intent.

Trump and his minions would have us believe that verifiable facts are a distortion of reality, his reality, and that anyone who says otherwise – meaning the press and the opposition – is an “enemy of the people.”

At one of his Munich-like pep rallies in Kansas City last month, Trump told attendees, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news… what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

That’s right. Don’t believe your own eyes and ears. You’re hallucinating.

When presented with cold hard facts, twelve jurors independently and collectively reached the conclusion that Manafort lied. Through their deliberations, they uncovered the truth. Not the truth according to Trump. The real truth.

In Cohen’s case, the president himself has been implicated in criminal behavior. Cohen told a court that his felony campaign law violations were made in “coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” Meaning, Trump. He did so for “the principal purpose of influencing the election.” This is not “deep state,” this is truth, sworn to under oath.

Trump also took an oath: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.” He consistently thumbs his nose at that very Constitution and, by extension, the people he was elected to serve. He might eventually be named an unindicted co-conspirator for two of the felony charges to which Cohen pled.

Many Americans have been lulled into complacency by Trump’s exhortation that he alone can solve the nation’s ills. It’s worked on those Republican members of Congress who’ve abrogated their constitutional responsibilities. Like many of his followers, they have bought into Trump’s cult of personality and a fictional narrative rife with “alternative facts” and lies, one that is antithetical to the foundations of our democracy. That is a truth for which they will eventually be held accountable by the people they serve.

The truth will, in all probability, not set Manafort and Cohen free. But it should send a very clear message to Donald J. Trump that no one is above the law. Not even those closest to him. Trump, however, can’t handle the truth. Nor, it would appear, can his most ardent supporters.
Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

Devin Nunes: From Dairyman to Disgrace

| Opinion | August 9, 2018

After railing against the FBI, the intelligence community, and the Department of Justice, the character of Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), Chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, is increasingly being called into question. In fact, when character counts, the sum of the man just doesn’t add up.

A new set of potential improprieties by Nunes has emerged as a result of reporting by McClatchy’s Kate Irby. Irby details possible unethical use of campaign funds by Nunes’ political action committee, New Pac. Funds used to pay for private jet transportation, tickets to sporting events, meals in high-end restaurants and hotels in Las Vegas, and $15,000 for a single day of winery tours, including a limo and beachfront hotel accommodations.

Not to worry. There’s still plenty of cash in his campaign coffers. Nearly $7.4 million dollars, in fact. All to mount a re-election campaign in a district in which he’s held sway since 2003.

That’s a remarkably odd amount of money given that, in previous campaigns, Nunes typically raised between $1.5 – $2 million. There are roughly 348,000 registered voters in Nunes’ 22nd Congressional District, which translates to about $20.11 per vote, or roughly four times the amount he spent in elections past.

So why has Nunes felt compelled to fill his campaign war chest with that much money while defending a “safe seat” in a historically red bastion of the Republican party?

Maybe Nunes is just a generous, likable guy who likes to spread the wealth around.

So generous and likable that in March and June of 2017, he transferred $300,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign for contributions to various races around the country. Guess it pays to have friends. And lots of them. Especially when being investigated by an Ethics Committee dominated by fellow Republicans and having your Republican colleagues remain mum when others in government are questioning your actions.

Since taking on the “Deep State” and becoming Mr. Trump’s prat boy, Nunes is now a darling among far-right conservatives throughout the country, receiving an impressive amount of small individual contributions. That’s in addition to the $63,000 he’s gotten from the Koch Brothers; $71,000 from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Association (guess Devin likes wine, remember the $15,000 tour?) and many others. And, of course, the $74,500 he garnered from California Dairies, Inc.

Dairy is an important product in Nunes’ agriculture-reliant district. And yet, while riding off into the sunset, leaving his district behind on a quixotic mission to restore law and order throughout the land, his clueless leader has been imposing tariffs that will have a severe negative impact on farmers – almond, pistachio, walnut, and dairy farmers among them. Even Nunes’ father and brother’s dairy operation in Iowa will be affected.

The president has called Nunes “a man of tremendous courage and grit,” who may someday be recognized as a “Great American Hero.” That comment is probably making a lot of Americans grit their teeth, among them the almond, pistachio, and walnut growers who have consistently helped return Nunes to office.

According to bakersfield.com, almond growers will see tariffs on exports to China rise from 10 to 25 percent. Many of those farmers and growers might like to voice their concerns to their congressman. Good luck. Nunes reportedly hasn’t held a town hall meeting in the district in seven years. Probably because he’s been spending more time in the Deep State rather than the State of California.

That dairy farm in Iowa? That’s where the Nunes Campaign Committee’s Treasurer, Toni Dian Nunes – the candidate’s mom – lives. As Treasurer for the campaign, she received a notification, earlier this year, from the Federal Election Commission requesting “information essential to full public disclosure” about three potentially illegal campaign contributions, one of which was made by a pistachio grower from a district bordering Nunes’ own. While that pistachio grower’s contribution was peanuts in comparison to that of California Dairies, it’s probably safe to assume he made it in hopes that his neighbor would stand up for him and others in his industry. Nutty thought.

Devin Nunes is as wanton, wasteful, and potentially as unethical as any other swamp dweller Donald J. Trump swore to throw out of Washington. Nunes was not elected to forsake constituents for the national stage, launch inexplicable and confounding witch hunts, or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with leaders who impose tariffs that are harmful to those at home, while simultaneously putting the national security of our country at risk.

Recent polls indicate Nunes is no longer meeting the expectations of his constituents. For good reason. Nunes willingly chose to lie down in the swamp, as have a significant number of his Republican colleagues in Congress. Clawing their way out may prove to be a very sticky proposition for many of them come Election Day.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

Facebook’s Off the Mark Zuckerberg

| Opinion | July 26, 2018

Every time Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opens his mouth, he somehow manages to stick his foot in it. It’s not so much what he says that is harmful to both himself and his company, it’s how he says it.

Last week, Zuckerberg managed to infuriate a large segment of the population by defending Facebook’s policy to permit blatantly anti-Semitic posts on the site. His rationale for allowing hate speak to continue unfettered was a veritable cornucopia of double-speak; the kind that is both acceptable to and tolerated by an ever-increasing number of Americans.

During an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher which alluded to Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists – a group that includes Infowars host Alex Jones – Zuckerberg seemed to liken those who push alternative realities (i.e. that the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened) to Holocaust deniers.

While Zuckerberg pointed out that he is Jewish and that he finds those who propagate lies regarding the Holocaust offensive, he also said that he didn’t believe they were “intentionally getting it wrong” by misleading readers, nor that those who disseminated this type of misinformation should be taken off his platform “if they get things wrong, even multiple times.”

Like many public figures prone to confounding or deliberately misleading statements, Zuckerberg found himself under fire for his comments and attempted to walk them back. He even resorted to having his sister, Randi, come to his defense as his surrogate.

Randi Zuckerberg is active in Jewish organizations so she lends credibility to her brother’s position when she says “those bent on lying, sowing misunderstanding, and breeding hate will never be truly silenced.” She went on to say that, “Unfortunately, when we give a voice to everyone, we give it to people who use that voice for good and to people who abuse that voice.”

Fair enough. But again, it’s not so much what was said, rather how it was said; and in Zuckerberg’s case, stated somewhat cavalierly.

One of the things that has always made America great (always, not “again”) has been the freedom its citizens and its press have possessed to voice their opinions and observations, to report the news, keep us informed, and share ideas. Sadly, the very thing that makes us great can sometimes contribute to our vulnerability as well.

The First Amendment and our open, uncensored channels of expression are part of the reason Vladimir Putin’s regime was so easily able to meddle into the 2016 presidential election. They provided Russia’s security services and intelligence apparatchiks access to the hearts and minds of the American people through the deployment of highly effective disinformation, or dezinformatsiya as the Kremlin calls it. And they did so through outlets like Facebook.

While Russian stage-management of public opinion is not the sole reason for Mr. Trump’s current occupation of the White House, it certainly contributed to the American people’s opinion of him and his opponent which, in turn, may or may not have led to a favorable outcome for Vlad’s favorite marionette. More significantly, the propaganda and disinformation promulgated by Russian intelligence was highly effective in re-opening festering cultural wounds and in manipulating the emotions and reason of the American people.

As evidence continues to mount that Russian dezinformatsiya played a significant role in influencing public opinion leading up to the 2016 election, we are faced with a larger dilemma: namely, can we combat future intrusions into the American psyche without sacrificing a cornerstone of our democracy? The answer – fortunately – is no.

The First Amendment sets us free, but it also leaves us susceptible to those who wish to manipulate the beliefs and values that have long set this nation apart. At a time when the current administration is disseminating “alternative facts,” and while they continue to accuse the mainstream media of spreading “fake news,” it’s up to all of us individually to dig deep and verify what we read and see online and on-air rather than blindly accept that which is placed before us.

And while it is not Mark Zuckerberg’s obligation to protect us from the ills of the world, it is his responsibility to be more introspective when assessing the impact his creation has on the nearly 2.2 billion active monthly Facebook users around the globe.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

There Goes the Neighborhood

| Opinion | July 12, 2018

I was never a fan of the children’s show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” when I was a kid. My eyes were usually focused on the town of Bedrock. There was a lot more going on there than in the sleepy place where Mr. Rogers lived. If I wasn’t hanging out with “The Flintstones,” I might be found immersed in the hyperkinetic world of Warner Brothers’ “Looney Toons.”

Mr. Rogers’ hometown was slow and boring. But “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a new documentary about his show, now in theaters nationwide, has caused me to re-evaluate my opinion.

Television in the 1950’s and 1960’s was (especially when it came to children’s programming) often inane and consumer-centric, pitching foods that were high in sugar and low in substance, household products we didn’t necessarily need, and toys like Barbie that defined feminine beauty. There were also the toys that not-so-subtly hinted at what it meant to be a man, like G.I. Joe action figures, which promoted the sale of plastic weapons of war.

I didn’t have the patience for someone as dull as Mr. Rogers. I couldn’t appreciate his subtle, nuanced message extolling the specialness in all of us. Tackling issues like race relations, death, divorce, love, loneliness, anxiety, hatred, and violence was clearly over my head back then. Even though I and many other kids were forced to confront them in our own lives.

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister with training in child psychology; a man who wrote, composed and played music, designed, produced, and performed nearly everything viewers saw and heard on his show. He was also the pre-eminent spokesperson for both children’s programming and the value of public broadcasting.

Funding for public television was then, as now, a target of conservative leaders in Washington. Some considered it a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money at a time when President Richard Nixon was demanding increased funding for the Vietnam War. Despite this, the soft-spoken Rogers managed to convince Rhode Island Sen. John Pastore, the gruff tight-fisted Democratic Chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications at the time, of the value of programming that spoke to the need for the social and emotional education of children that public broadcasting provided.

After listening to him, a visibly moved Pastore said Rogers’ words gave him “goose bumps.” His gentle advocacy helped convince the committee to more than double public television’s budget the following year. Rogers’ appearance before Pastore’s committee, in 1969, is a stark contrast to the overwhelming number of congressional hearings currently gracing our television screens today, and a testament to those who still believe that differences in political and fiscal ideologies, as well as the truth, need not reek of partisanship and hostility.

Not everyone, however, subscribed to Rogers’ philosophy. After his death from cancer, in 2003, a Fox News commentator took to the air stating “this man, this evil, evil man ruined a generation of kids.” She was followed up by another member of the panel who said that Rogers’ message that everyone is special filled kids with a “with a sense of entitlement.”

That idea was also floated several years back by The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial staff (not its reporters) often acts as though they’re publishing the house organ of the Republican Party rather than a newspaper. It was re-iterated in a Journal column by Jeffrey Zaslow this past week. He quotes Don Chance, a Louisiana State University finance professor, who arrived at the highly original conclusion just last spring that Mr. Rogers is, indeed, to blame for the sense of entitlement displayed by many young people today.

Conservative finger-pointing is often obtuse and extreme. I think most parents would agree that their children are, in some way, special. Whether they’re kids in cages or the progeny of those who espouse hate and anger. Being special is not about entitlement, it’s about what makes us unique individuals and valued members of society. Just as being at opposite ends of the political spectrum makes us unique, though not always valued.

This is a nation of neighborhoods, though it often seems we’ve drifted far afield from the “kinder, gentler” one former President George H.W. Bush spoke of nearly three decades ago; the kind espoused by Fred Rogers. Too bad. The neighborhood where he once resided seems like a pretty darn good place to live.

Maybe we can all buy a home there someday.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

It’s Time for Nancy Pelosi to Go

| Opinion | July 5, 2018

Will Nancy Pelosi continue to make the House her home for much longer? Two recent events give one pause for thought.

During a press conference in June, Pelosi assailed the president’s policy of separating children from their undocumented parents at the border. She said matter-of-factly, “I just don’t even know why there aren’t uprisings all over the country, and maybe there will be when people realize that this is a policy that they [Republicans] defend.”

Uprising is an extremely potent word. Even for those who don’t support the president’s stance on immigration. Protests would have been more appropriate. Indeed, civilized marches in opposition to the president’s policies have been going on throughout the country for weeks. But to use language so inflammatory only further fuels the right and does a disservice to us all.

Pelosi has been called the Republican Party’s greatest fundraiser because of her stridency and the positions she’s taken over the years. Most are critical to maintaining the well-being of the middle and working class; on affordable healthcare, women’s health and reproductive rights, a living wage, fighting tax policies favorable to the rich and big business, supporting regulations that protect the American people from abuses by banks and Wall Street, as well as legislation to combat environmental hazards. She argues her case vigorously and clings to beliefs she feels are just.

Pelosi has long been vilified by the right. She’s a tough political infighter who knows how to keep members of her party in line and push her legislative agenda through – alternating between finesse and intimidation of fellow House members. And there’s the rub. Many of those who have long supported Pelosi are coming to the realization that her time has passed; that she is a relic of another era. An era when politics was more collegial and House members from both parties were inclined to work collaboratively despite ideological differences; and when it came to Pelosi, there were many.

As liberal as Nancy Pelosi is, however, there are an increasing number of Democrats who don’t believe she is left-leaning enough. That she has taken positions far more moderate than most Republicans would have the American public believe. It’s been argued that she and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), in their desire to cut deals, have turned their backs on the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party and those who affiliate with it, including Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Rep. Ruben Gallegos (D-AZ), who is Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Imagine that. Nancy Pelosi. Too moderate?

Which brings us to the second event. A shift more seismic than Pelosi’s verbal misstep: the stunning defeat of Pelosi protégé and presumptive successor Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent from New York. Crowley, the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House, was overwhelmingly trounced by 28-year-old neophyte Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose only previous exposure to politics was as an organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Crowley is a product of old-school Democratic Party machine politics. Ocasio-Cortez ran as a Democratic Socialist.

Ocasio-Cortez ran a grassroots campaign on bread and butter issues in her largely Latino district: putting people to work, Medicare and higher education for all, affordable housing, tax reform to help middle and low-income families, and the abolition of ICE (not even Pelosi has called for that). Crowley spent more time in D.C. than his district and spent significantly more money on his campaign. Ocasio-Cortez, who relied on social media to get her message out, lives in the district and is one of the faces of its changing demographics.

Clearly, an increasing number of Democrats want something more than the establishment is offering, perhaps something more radical. That’s not necessarily a winning strategy in the short-term if they hope to win back Congress come November. Then again, moderation doesn’t appear to be working for them, either.

For the Democratic Party to thrive, it needs to commit to its core beliefs and principles, roll the dice, and take the chance that it may take a decade before the electorate at large is ready to embrace their message. Under the party’s present leadership, the odds of that happening sooner than later are almost nil. And given the direction the current administration is heading the country in, a decade’s wait may be too late.

One thing’s for certain. For the Democratic Party to rediscover itself, Nancy Pelosi must go. And that’s something an increasing number of Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

This is Us

| Opinion | June 28, 2018

This is us, America. This is who we are at this precise moment in time. A nation that separates families. A nation that interns children and infants in detention camps far from their parents, farther still from those the Trump administration perceives to be his meddlesome enemies; those whose prying eyes, brimming with empathy, and voices of reason are a threat to his regime.

This is us, America. This is who we are – or have become – in the eyes of the world.

This is exactly what other autocrats – among them, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan – would like their own people to believe. For them, this is the perfect “I told you so” moment. A time when they can accurately point to America and say, “They are no better than us. They are not who they claim to be.”

The president’s immigration policy is a disaster. To those true believers, those who continue to ride the Trumpian Trolley to hell, the president is a man of his word. In their eyes, he is fulfilling the promises he made while campaigning for office. He tells them what he wants them to hear and believe.

President Trump and his apostle, Jeff Sessions, are, in the minds of their followers, guiding Americans toward security and salvation. Yet, the path these two men and others in the administration are forging leads us further into the wilderness, isolating us from those who remain free to speak the truth and true to their values.

As in previous authoritarian regimes throughout history, the president and his minions have sought and found a scapegoat. For the Romans, it was the Christians; for the Czars, it was the downtrodden who threatened their autocratic reign and personal fortunes; for the Third Reich, it was the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and political opponents.

The president claims those being detained are criminals, murderers, rapists, and members of roving gangs from whom only he, the great and powerful Trump, can save us. Save us from infants and children being removed from the loving arms of their parents?

This distorted outlook on immigration is not about safeguarding jobs. It is not about protecting the vast number of Americans from criminals. The president continually points to the “animals” of the MS-13 gang as one rationale for his immigration initiatives. What he doesn’t tell his followers is that, according to FBI statistics, the grand total of MS-13 members currently residing – legally or not – in the U.S. accounts for approximately .00323 percent of the population; a number that has remained stable for the last dozen years.

The president’s immigration strategy – if there is one – is not about border security or making America great again through ludicrous trade tariffs. It’s about separating “us” from “them.” It is a page ripped from a scrapbook of atrocities perpetrated by others; torn by “advisers” and “experts” whose lack of decency and ignorance of history are causing this presidency to become increasingly dangerous.

The Trump immigration policy – and it is the president’s policy, not that of his Democrat or Republican predecessors, no matter what he proclaims – is an abject failure. Rather than protecting the American people, he is currently in the process of creating a new generation of terrorists whose separation from their parents at a tender age is causing them incalculable psychological and physical harm; harm that may come back to haunt us at some point in the future in a manner more violent than the president could ever imagine.

President Trump’s legacy may well lead to the radicalization of children and infants whose memories of America and its people may rival the perception of Palestinian children held hostage beyond the walls and fences of the Gaza Strip; those whose dire circumstances have led them to participate in violent assaults upon Israel.

Today, the Department of Defense is readying military bases – inaccessible and off-limits to the press and public – capable of holding 20,000 people. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Andrews told reporters it is for the internment of “unaccompanied alien children.” Innocent children who truly are being treated as though they were “animals.” So much for President Trump’s recent executive order to keep undocumented families together.

Americans must bear witness. We cannot turn our backs on reality. Right now, activists, the clergy, journalists, righteous citizens, and an increasing number of true public servants from both parties are attempting to expose and condemn the tragedy currently unfolding on our southern border. In so doing, they are struggling to reclaim the ever-diminishing reputations of us all and rekindle the beacon of hope for the marginalized and oppressed that was once the U.S.

Copyright 2018 Blair Bess distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.soaggragated@gmail.com.

With Friends Like Us, Who Needs Enemies?

| Opinion | June 14, 2018

During WWII, when the communist government of Josef Stalin joined the United States and Great Britain in their battle against Nazi Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Somehow the interpretation of this message has been lost in translation on President Trump. He’s turned friends into enemies and enemies into friends. The gnawing question continues to be: why?

The Russians meddled into our elections. Our intelligence agencies have made this abundantly clear. They present ever-increasing evidence that the Putin regime did so to favor one candidate over another. This does not mean, however, that the Russian government alone was responsible for President Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

The former Secretary of State blew her chances of occupying the White House in any number of ways. A President Clinton II would, by now, most likely have been juggling more china-laden plates than even President Trump and, under this Republican Congress, might well be on her way to impeachment proceedings.

Vladimir Putin and his regime are the beneficiaries of a type of turmoil that would have occurred regardless of who had won the 2016 presidential election. Since then, disagreements and differences of opinion have devolved into a national sickness, viciously pitting those with one set of political beliefs against those with another.

The Russians have fomented a level of chaos and distrust that has opened the door for the desecration of civil American society; a democracy that, until now, has been a form of government that has been more successful than any other in history and the envy of all. All except Vladimir Putin, who now watches with glee as alliances designed by the U.S., and of which we have long been the leader, develop fissures so deep it will probably take decades for them to be mended.

And yet, the president – on impulse, though he claims it’s strategy – is willing to embrace the head of an oppressive regime and suggest he and his corrupt government be brought back from the economic dead and invited to rejoin the G7 nations (or the G6+1; or, quite possibly, the G6 the way things are going). This is not strategy; this is ignorance of the very reason why Putin was absent during the summit held in Canada this past weekend and from four previous meetings: a response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

This ignorance of history should come as no surprise. During the presidential campaign, candidate Trump displayed a stunning lack of knowledge regarding Putin’s invasion of Crimea. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, he said he might recognize Russia’s claim to land that was an undisputed part of Ukraine, a sovereign nation. Trump said, “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they are.”

That wasn’t exactly true. While some people of Russian heritage living in Crimea may have welcomed the candidate’s remarks as much as they did Russia’s invasion, most Ukrainians did not.

Trump’s opinions would be tantamount to saying some Americans would rather be with Russia than where they are. Most likely, Americans whose ancestral home may once have been Smolensk – or those who favor foods like borscht, caviar, kotlety, and Beef Stroganoff.

Or Americans like President Trump.

The president appears to enjoy spending quality time with Vladimir Putin more so than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Theresa May of the U.K., French President Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti; as well as his favorite golfing buddy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. You know, those G7 members who counted on us and we counted on as allies.

But hey, let’s be fair, President Trump had a lot on his plate this past weekend, so he decided to skip dinner and get out of Dodge – or Quebec – as quickly as he could. Before the G7 summit ended. Trade wars be damned.

The president had more important things to do, places to go, people to see. Like North Korean Dictator and fratricidal crown prince Kim Jong Un, whose reputation for dispatching political rivals and relatives (some, one and the same) is known the world over. But, like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un is, in the president’s words, “very honorable.” He’s someone we should trust to uphold any agreement, even those that are meaningless fluff – like the one just ironed out by the president in Singapore.

Why shouldn’t President Trump trust Kim Jong-un? After all, he looked into “Little Rocket Man’s” eyes; perhaps got a sense of his soul. The president probably liked what he saw: a mirror-reflection of himself. Only shrewder and smarter. Like Vladimir Putin.

President Donald Has a Farm

| Opinion | May 24, 2018

President Trump’s latest assault on undocumented aliens reached a new low last week when he said, “These aren’t people; these are animals.”

Essentially, the president believes undocumented aliens are subhuman, or untermensch, which was part of the justification used by leaders of Nazi-Germany to herd “undesirable” groups into death camps. These undesirables included Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political opponents of the Nazi hierarchy, and anyone else Adolf Hitler and his cronies didn’t like.

Whatever most normal people’s opinion of undocumented aliens is – positive or negative – it’s unlikely that the majority of Americans view them as “animals.” The exception to that statement, of course, is if they concur with the opinion of the president. Or Adolf Hitler.

But why resort to sticks, stones, and names that never hurt you? That would merely put those of us who disagree with the president’s perception of humanity – or inhumanity – on his level. Which is a place on earth most Americans have indicated they would rather not be.

Note to the president: You lost the popular vote and, according to numerous polls, less than half of all Americans approve of you or your regime.

It’s mind-boggling that this president has called many of the supporters of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last year “very fine people.” Clearly, in his worldview, undocumented aliens are not. Because they “aren’t people,” they’re “animals.” And while the president subsequently back-peddled a bit, saying he was referring to the violent, predominantly Latino gang MS-13, he fails to recognize that gang members are people as well.

In the president’s mind and in the minds of many around him, including John Kelly, his Chief-of-Staff, it’s perfectly acceptable to separate children from their undocumented parents, should they all be rounded up at the border and routed to immigrant detention facilities; or, as Kelly said, “foster care or whatever.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions summed up the administration’s policy on undocumented migrants succinctly: “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

The terminus – literally and figuratively – for many of those arriving at Nazi concentration camps was frequently the scene of children being separated from parents. Infants didn’t fare as well. On more occasions than not, they were immediately “eliminated.” That’s a tame euphemism for what actually happened.

What the attorney general fails to recognize is that he is referring to human beings. They are not smuggled contraband; not animals. Then again, AG Sessions isn’t exactly known for his sensitivity regarding race, culture, or sexual preference.

The president’s attempts to muster compassion and emotion at a so-called “immigration round-table” last week devolved, yet again, into an opportunity to play politics. As usual, his failings as a leader, policymaker, and as a human being were – according to him – the fault of the Democrats, a majority of whom do not agree with most of the president’s immigration decrees.

Our beneficent leader had this to say to those attempting to cross the border without proper documentation, “I know what you’re going through right now with families is very tough, but those are the bad laws the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law.”

No. They did not. The president and his administration did.

The president doesn’t have a clue about the plight of undocumented aliens. He should. According to published accounts in The Guardian and on CNN, historian Roland Paul notes that President Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich, left Germany, the president’s ancestral homeland, illegally; failing to notify authorities of his intention to emigrate. And escape the draft. Apparently, Friedrich Trump – unlike his grandson – didn’t have bone spurs on the heels of his feet.

A document Paul found in local archives in Bavaria notes that Friedrich Trump, having already become an American citizen, should leave the area by “1 May… or else expect to be deported.”

Imagine that, the Trump family was punished for leaving a country illegally rather than arriving in one.

Perhaps if this nation hadn’t welcomed the Trump family to America, we wouldn’t have the leader we have in office today. Well, as the president told the knights of his round-table, the U.S. has “the dumbest laws on immigration in the world.” Touché.

Awesometown from Afar

| Opinion | May 17, 2018

While on an out-of-town assignment, I missed being here for the City Council’s vote to make Santa Clarita a “Sanctuary City.”

For white people.

I found out only after being asked where I was from. When I offered up the name of our fair city, most people first responded by saying, “Oh, yeah … the place where they do that diet show about cannibals and zombies.”

I responded that the only people eating their own in Santa Clarita were disaffected Democrats so inured to the unfettered antics of their elected officials, that they’d come to resemble shell-shocked survivors of some cataclysmic event. Others, more abreast of current events than I, proceeded to tell me that our civic leaders decided by a 5-0 vote to oppose SB 54, California’s “Sanctuary State” law, and planned to file a brief in support of the Trump Administration’s lawsuit against the state – meaning a lawsuit against those of us who live here. All of us. Not just brown or black, or of Asian descent, but white folks too. Their vote made Santa Clarita first among equals. Or at the least, makes our city the first to formally stand in opposition to the law. Which makes many who dwell here very happy. Santa Claritans who have made this community their home for more than a few decades might recall the glittery billboard that was once visible from the northbound 5 Freeway, the one that resembled the sequined costume of an oversized Vegas showgirl. It was an invitation to those seeking refuge from the city down below, specifically, tempting them to settle in Stevenson Ranch. The sign proclaimed that the valley’s newest community was a “masterpiece in master planning.”

That catchy slogan was somewhat discomfiting to many, as it sounded as though it had been penned by a member of some master race. One who believed that the recently-hatched City of Santa Clarita and its surrounding environs would be tempting to those quietly migrating north as part of some massive white flight, ostensibly in hopes of settling in a place with good schools, relatively affordable housing, quaintly coiffed lawns, one that is now among the top 10 safest cities in the state. Given all those wonderful qualities, Awesometown sounds so much better than “masterpiece.”

Our city fathers and mothers would have us believe they aren’t “anti-immigration,” just “anti-illegal immigration.” They seem to forget that restrictions on immigration were the creation of many politicians as like-minded as themselves, who forged laws specifically targeting those who were not like them, meaning White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from Western European countries, and that our doors were once open to people of all races, colors, and creeds.

Many members of this community, indeed members of our City Council past and present, are descendants of some of those groups targeted by immigration laws and religious intolerance: Asians, Eastern Europeans and Russians (read: Jews), Italians and others of Mediterranean (read: Latin) descent, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints … all encountered persecution by their very own neighbors. American neighbors. As for black Americans, many came involuntarily and were subjected to even greater persecution and racism.

There’s a key point upon which I agree with the council. Anyone who has entered this country illegally and is convicted of a serious crime should not be permitted to remain in the U.S. That just makes sense. But it doesn’t mean a floodgate should be opened to hunt down anyone and everyone who has crossed our borders in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. To a degree, this is what the Trump administration is proposing and what our City Council appears to support.We are in dire need of immigration reform. Without question. But not at the expense of innocent children being separated from their families and placed into what White House Chief of Staff John Kelly calls “foster care or whatever.” Note to General Kelly: During the 1800s those of Irish descent such as yourself were persecuted by groups who preceded them – Europeans who referred to themselves as “native Americans.” Tell that to the original Native Americans.

Many on the council have made clear that they are merely adhering to the Constitution which they took a sworn oath to uphold. And that’s a very fair argument. In opposing SB 54, they are violating state law with the intent of staying true to one that may very well supersede it. Note to council members: Donald Trump also swore he would uphold the Constitution, yet appears to be in the process of gutting as much of both it and the rule of law as he possibly can. All five members of the City Council who voted to oppose SB 54 clearly did so with the best of intentions, small-minded as those intentions may seem to many Santa Claritans. No matter. The council’s vote is, by-and-large, symbolic. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is not going out of its way to make undocumented residents’ lives miserable. They have far more important things to do. Like keeping Santa Clarita one of the U.S.’s top 50 safest cities in which to live (caveat: with populations over 200,000).

So, why do it? Really? Because in voicing its opposition to SB 54, the council is playing to its base, just as President Trump plays to his. Long term, the council’s actions may be irrelevant, but not to those who voted for them. And therein lies the rub. The political composition of the City of Santa Clarita is not what it once was. The city’s Awesometown marketing campaign is partially responsible for that. In a state that is increasingly comprised of Democrat and Independent voters, those who bleed blue (or remain neutral) are also increasing in number in our own community. They seek the very things that have attracted families to the Santa Clarita Valley for generations. Just as those who’ve made their way to the U.S. from south of the border have also sought a better life. To find their own Awesometown, as it were. By and large, those protected by SB 54 are not criminals. They are not here to suckle greedily at the breast of the federal and state governments. They are here to work; at jobs most of us choose not to do. They want safety and security.

Symbolic or not, the leaders of this community have sent a clear message that undocumented residents are not welcome in the City of Santa Clarita; any undocumented resident, not just those who break the law. The council has voted its collective conscience. But, on many matters of policy, they speak for a dwindling number of residents here.

To those who may not like what members of the current City Council have to say, a few words of advice. Show up or shut up. At council meetings, at the ballot box, and at community organizing events. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill frequently noted and is famously quoted as saying by politicians from both parties: “All politics is local.” So, all you Awesome people, if you want to see change nationally or globally, start small. And act locally.

California Elephants Face Extinction

| Opinion | May 4, 2018

Many disheartened (read Republican) Californians are awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s departure with glee. It’s understandable. Brown’s last two terms in Sacramento have certainly leaned in a more moderate direction than his previous two terms back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, yet he’s still a thorn in the side of many conservatives who continue to view him as Governor Moonbeam, or some variation of a “snowflake.”

While Brown remains committed to the environment and believes climate change actually exists, while he supports sanctuary states and cities, while he has pushed for prison reform, and stands firm on any number of other hot-button liberal policies and philosophies, Brown has been more of a dealmaker and practitioner of realpolitik than many of his predecessors from either party.

Gov. Brown’s a fervent fiscal penny-pincher, much in the mold of traditional GOP conservatives. Though firm in his opposition to blanket deportations and crackdowns on Dreamers and undocumented residents, he recently demonstrated a willingness to use the state’s National Guard to enhance border security (security, not to supplement enforcement). The point is, Brown, despite what alt-right stalwarts say, is a player who’s ready to cut a deal if it’s in what he perceives to be the overall best interests of Californians.

The same might be said about incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein. No Barbara Boxer-style liberal, and certainly no Nancy Pelosi, Feinstein has also been vilified by the far right. Yet, she too has shifted her stance on many issues near and dear to Republicans over the years. So much so, that many liberal critics have assailed her as being an enabler to a fascist regime – you know to whom they’re referring.
Feinstein’s been accused of being soft on the NSA’s domestic spying program, she voted for the Iraq War, has views on immigration that lean a little too far right for some supporters, and is considered out-of-touch with a new generation of voters who would prefer exchanging experience for responsiveness. She is considered by many to be the most conservative member of the Democratic Caucus. And she’s vulnerable to a challenge, both in the primaries, and in a general election. She couldn’t even manage to win her party’s endorsement at the state’s Democratic Convention. Despite her liabilities, however, a weak Republican Party doesn’t stand a chance this coming November because they are incapable of fronting a candidate who is moderate enough to tempt more middle-of-the-road and independent voters. An opportunity is being squandered.

Republicans in California are a different breed. Though many voted for President Trump, a considerable number did not. And lest we forget, the 25th Congressional District swung left, favoring Hillary Clinton over her opponent. Do Republicans opt for a more Trumpian candidate or one who is reflective of the state itself? Good question, because even those who bleed red politically aren’t particularly enamored by some of their options. Take one Republican candidate in particular: Patrick Little.

For those who may be unaware of who Patrick Little is, he is an avowed White Nationalist and a raging anti-Semite. Last month, Newsweek reported that Little’s social media account on Gab included a statement that included, among other diatribes, the proposal that “government makes counter-Semitism central to all aims of the state.” Of a people “free from Jews.” A government that forbids “all immigration except of biological kin, where no person of Jewish origin may live, vacation, or traverse.”

Hmm … wonder what the small-minded Mr. Little thinks about people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. He espouses anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, believes in racial segregation, and falls just short of calling for the extermination of Jews and anyone else he may not like. This man – and I use the term lightly – is, according to a SurveyUSA poll, running fourth behind other candidates running for Sen. Feinstein’s seat in the state’s open primary in June. He currently has 18 percent among likely primary voters, second only to Feinstein’s 39 percent. And make no mistake, Little relishes the opportunity to beat a Jew out of her Senate seat; if not literally, then figuratively. Scary stuff.

Despite winning the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Little is not overly enamored with what he calls alt-right media outlets like The Daily Stormer, whose editorial team has not warmly embraced him. Some comfort. This guy is outperforming many of the other candidates he’s challenging. What does that say about us as Americans? As boisterous as many of the opinions expressed in the pages of this paper may be, it is highly unlikely Mr. Little’s views are in step with those held by most conservatives in the Santa Clarita Valley. Nor is his outright bigotry in keeping with this community’s values. More corrosive than his rhetoric, however, is the danger he is to the party he professes to represent.

While it’s unlikely he will ultimately secure the GOP nomination, or a place on the general election ballot come June, Patrick Little is one more threat to the fragile existence of California’s Republican Party. If reclaiming the state Capitol is truly their goal, the party may very well face extinction long before the emblematic elephant it claims as its mascot.

The Views and Opinions expressed in these columns are those of the writer, not necessarily those of Valley Publications/Santa Clarita Gazette

The Amazing Grace of Judy Collins

| Entertainment | May 1, 2018

The entertainment industry is often prone to self-puffery. It’s a business where the term “legend” is overused and, in more instances than not, precedes the names of many artists undeserving of such an accolade.

Judy Collins is not one of them.

In a career spanning six decades, Collins has cast an indelible imprint on the sound and soul of both folk music and rock ‘n’ roll. One of the travesties of her industry is that she’s yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter. She’s been nominated for six Grammys, one of which she took home with her. Then, there’s her 1975 Oscar-nomination for producing the documentary “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,” the story of Antonia Brico, the conductor and classical musician who first taught Collins to play piano. But, most important of all, Collins has a fan base that spans generations. Parents, their children, and their children’s children are in evidence at any of Collins’ performances.

While Brico envisioned a classical career for her pupil, Collins had other ideas. At 15, she discovered the guitar and began singing folk ballads. Much to the consternation of her teacher, she was hooked and never looked back. “She never forgave me. Even after I took her to the Oscars,” Collins laughs.

Inspired by the folk scene and the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, among others, Collins headed east from her childhood home in Colorado to New York City. She’d been singing and playing professionally before making her way to Greenwich Village, where she began performing to full houses in downtown clubs. Her audiences included future folk legends Peter, Paul, and Mary, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs; and, of course, Bob Dylan, whose songs she’s covered over the years.

Collins has always cut a startlingly elegant figure upon any stage she’s played. The same holds as true today as it did in the early days of her career. The 79-year-old’s presence is commanding, her voice as melodious and moving as that of the 22-year-old woman she was when she first began recording. Her piercing blue eyes are as sharp and perceptive as ever. Maybe more so. Thus, comes the wisdom of age. You know those blue eyes by sight, and, in a way, by sound. They’re the eyes that provided inspiration for her close friend and former lover, Stephen Stills, to write “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

The first time Stills played the song for her was on her birthday, in 1969, in a hotel in Santa Monica, where she was then appearing. Stills’ song was written as a love letter and a plea to win Collins over after they’d separated as a couple. “It just blew me away, but it didn’t get me back,” Collins laughed.

Despite their long-standing friendship and occasionally crossing paths in the studio, they’d rarely paired musically. “We’d never sung together on the stage in a consistent way,” Collins told the Gazette. “A couple of years ago, we started talking about it. Then back in 2015 or ‘14, in order to see whether we could actually sit on a stage and talk, we did that at the Saban Theater in Los Angeles. We didn’t do any singing. Just talked and shared our stories.”

The experience went well enough that word got out around town. Soon, their conversations started to attract audiences. “It became kind of an ‘in’ thing,” Collins recalled. After the appearances ended, the pair began texting back and forth, discussing playlists. After a few months, Collins flew to L.A. from her home in New York and began rehearsing with Stills. They ended up in the studio last year, where they recorded their first album together, “Stills and Collins Everybody Knows,” then performing their repertoire before packed houses upon its completion.

“We went out on the road in July 2017 and did our first show in Chicago, and then did 50 others. My life is on the road. I do 120 shows a year anyway. As far as doing that, it’s no different. It’s a lot of fun. I get to be the 12-string guitar player and singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band with Stephen Stills,” she says, giggling almost girlishly. “I have a lot of fun and I think he does too.”

Good thing, because the pair has a two-month cross-country tour ahead of them.

Collins is, perhaps, best known for her interpretations of songs written by other artists, yet she has a way of claiming ownership in her performance of them. Of course, there’s Collins’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” her stirring take on the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace,” as well as her version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in The Clowns.” Though the composer’s moving ballad was featured in his Broadway hit “A Little Night Music,” the song will be forever linked to Collins, whose rendition earned it a Grammy for “Song of the Year” in 1976.

Yet, Collins is also a prolific writer in her own right.

“I get to express myself through my own songs as well,” she says. “One of my new songs is in the show, which I’m thrilled with. A song called “River Of Gold,” which Stephen loved. And “Houses,” which I wrote for him in around 1972, is in the show. And I get to sing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at the end. That’s really fun.”

Her commitment to new artists and writers has been apparent from her earliest days as a musician. Collins has mentioned often how fellow performers would run into her on the streets of Manhattan in the ‘60s, and hand her a song they’d written. For many, Judy Collins’ was the voice that opened doors to careers of their own. Her affinity for artists who brought poetry to their music was especially strong, with Collins being responsible for bringing wider audiences to musicians like Sandy Denny, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.

Social responsibility and activism has always been a very important element to Collins’ life as well. Her father, who she credits as being a very large presence and musical influence, was a Rodgers & Hart aficionado, but also performed songs associated with social justice, which had a tremendous impact on her throughout her childhood and beyond. Hers was a voice that rose alongside Dylan, Ochs, Joan Baez, and so many others whose music roused a generation in protest of racial inequality and a war raging in Vietnam that took so many young American lives. Collins says she believes that activist fever has jumped a few generations and is alive and well.

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins

“I’m so proud of these kids that started this movement against assault rifles,” Collins said. “When you resist, when you step out, that’s when your education really begins. I believe it. I think part of the function to keep the democracy alive is education. They have the freedom to figure things out. It’s exciting. It keeps hope alive.”

On the threshold of her ninth decade, Judy Collins’ own activist spirit continues to live and breathe in her every day. She’s currently working on a song about the Dreamers, tentatively titled “Maria,” and looking forward to introducing it to diehard fans and the next generation of listeners while on tour with Stills.

Judy Collins and Stephen Stills will be performing together at The Canyon, in Valencia, Thursday, May 17, 2018. For tickets, visit WhereMusicMeetstheSoul.com.

The Alternate States of America

| Opinion | April 26, 2018

We, in America, are living in alternate states of reality. They are neither red nor blue. They are states of consciousness and perception.

Like those drawn on a map, lines of division may be solid or dashed. Dashes, those lines with spaces between them, tend to be more fluid and porous, divides within a single body where people, commerce, and ideas flow readily and tend to be true. Solid lines demarcate more profound divisions. They’re often geographic – rivers, oceans; or topographic, like mountains, plains, and canyons. Some are made by people: Toll booths. Fences. Lines in the sand. Walls. These lines are often harder to navigate. They may be in place to deter outsiders, barriers against those who, in crossing, may bring with them differing, undesirable worldviews or experiences.

New boundaries have been erected over the last two decades. They are often numeric in nature; rising and falling with every stroke of a keyboard, button-push of a television remote, and swipe of a touchscreen. They open the gates of consciousness, while simultaneously shutting the door on reason. How we perceive our world is increasingly defined by the cable channels we view, the websites we surf, and to a lesser extent – sadly – the newspapers we read. For as long as the printing press has existed, journalists have expressed differing points-of-view. In their earliest incarnations, books and newspapers were put out by individuals who voiced their opinions in hopes of moving their readers to take a similar stance, even more than factually covering events. The “news” was an extension of those who had the means to publish.

Newspapers in this country historically followed this same pattern, in cities and towns, both large and small. People “took” papers that reflected their personal values and worldview. Multiple print news outlets existed, whose coverage and advertising targeted specific consumers. Many broadsheets appealed to traditional conservatives, some for more progressive audiences. Tabloids often spoke to the working class and, sometimes, the radical fringe. For the most part, reporters who wrote for these periodicals covered the same stories, fought for the same scoops, and spun their coverage based primarily upon those readers their owners and publishers hoped to influence. The papers were run by upstanding citizens, leaders of their communities. They wielded power but were not demagogues. Most sought to open readers’ eyes to new realities and societal changes. Few of them propagated lies and deception. If only this were true today.

Demagoguery does exist and it is motivated by both profit and perspective, no matter how distorted that prospect may be. Major media outlets whose leaders have included families with names like Murdoch, Sinclair, and Breitbart, open doors to those who, oftentimes, are not beyond expressing outright lies; at the same time, they accuse other mainstream outlets of purveying “fake news,” no matter how well-substantiated the facts may be. There lies (literally and figuratively) the rub. Brakes are rarely applied to the editorial content of many of these news outlets. It’s even worse online, where bloggers, creators of what are truly “fake news” sites, and some that are more legitimate, preach to choirs comprised of the angry and disaffected, giving voice to extremist positions. And let’s not forget those sites under the control of foreign intelligence services and other outside influencers whose sole intent is to foster discord among us.

It would be disingenuous to avoid examining the voices of other cable networks, those whose ownership is associated with corporate logos more so than surnames, the usual suspects, like MSNBC and CNN, that are targeted by right-leaning ranters. Sorry to disillusion their critics, but what is seen interspersed with opinion on those channels is news; based on hard, well-documented facts. And when mistakes or errors in judgment occur (and they sometimes do), those responsible are subject to intense scrutiny, with public apologies, corrections, or retractions being made.

While many mainstream conservatives may cringe when extremist or ignorant sentiments are expressed by colleagues, by the president, or the channels and sites that serve as their platforms, they are loathe to publicly denounce them. The swamp may very well be deeper than any of us – liberal or conservative – might imagine.

Ongoing cries of “fake news” and the constant repetition of lies and half-truths only strengthen the borders and boundaries that divide us. Those on both sides oftentimes remain cloistered, living in separate states of reality to the detriment of us all. In the days before cable news and online websites run amok, a legendary journalist named Walter Cronkite ended his television broadcast each weekday evening with the phrase: “And that’s the way it is …” And we believed him. These days, many of us don’t really know who or what to believe.

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