On Fair Play

Major League teams are in the process of beginning their Spring Training schedules, after an off-season marred by continuing and I believe undisputed revelations that in 2017, the Houston Astros engaged in a scheme, involving participants from its front office to its manager, coaches and players, to employ videography accompanied by trash can banging to systematically steal opposing teams’ pitch signs and alert Astro hitters to the specifics of the next pitch. Such activity was in flagrant disregard of Major League Baseball rules. For those that don’t follow Major League Baseball (“MLB”), the Astros won the 2017 Major League World Championship after defeating the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. A number of Houston executives and 2017 Astro players hired into non-player roles on other teams in the years following the team’s championship have now been dismissed from their positions as a result of the scandal. No still-active players have been disciplined by MLB, reportedly due to a deal that MLB made with the players and their union that no player would face retribution for speaking truthfully to MLB investigators about the Astros’ program.

A deal is a deal, and given the deal, no players should be disciplined specifically for their participation in the scheme (although one questions whether any 2017 Astros player should be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame or for any front office, manager, or coaching position when his playing days are done). That said, MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred should, without any change in individual players’ statistics, forfeit all 2017 Houston victories in which the team employed the scheme, strip Houston of its American League and World Championships, and declare the Yankees the 2017 American League Champions and the Dodgers the 2017 World Champions. He should accompany such a ruling with an announcement that any player determined to have participated in such a flagrant rules violation (admittedly a subjective standard) after the date of the announcement will be suspended from baseball for one full season, with more severe penalties including an outright ban from the game for any subsequent flagrant rules violations.

Such an approach is admittedly imperfect. The team most elevated in the standings by the recasting of the 2017 American League teams’ wins and losses will argue that it never had a fair chance to compete in the season’s playoffs, and the Yankees will argue that they never had a chance to contest the Dodgers for the World Championship. I would submit that such is irrelevant. The Astros, in 2017 an extremely talented team, would have earned a number of their forfeited victories without cheating. While there will be old-school sign stealing in baseball as long as there are bases in baseball – it’s as engrained in the game as the brushback pitch — it is a short step from the Astros’ technology-enhanced trash can banging to employment of sophisticated and undetectable technological means to gain illegal advantage in baseball and other professional sports. The point of the penalty is to make the consequences to the Houston organization and the threat to players’ careers for future violations sufficiently severe so that for the foreseeable future, every team and player will have significant pause before engaging in such a systemic flagrant violation of MLB rules.

I am tired of a culture that explicitly or tacitly condones and in some ways glorifies ignoring, bending, flouting, and breaking rules. We need honor again. Given the challenges we face as a nation, cheating in Major League Baseball is arguably “of as little account as sparrows’ tears,” as Ian Fleming concluded the James Bond thriller, You Only Live Twice; obviously, players have been seeking an illegal edge through spitballs, corked bats, and steroids for decades or more. That said, we have to start somewhere. Major League Baseball, given its proud claim to being the National Pastime, and its tens of millions of diehard fans across the political spectrum, seems as good a place to start as any.

It’s Donald Trump

For generations it was held that to win the U.S. presidency, a candidate had to reach beyond his party’s ardent adherents and secure the majority of the vote of the American political center. In 1992, the Clinton Campaign famously declared its overriding focus: “The Economy, Stupid.” In recent days, I have heard former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg intone: “To win the presidency, it’s not enough to tell people what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for.”

Sometimes … maxims are wrong. In 1980, Americans turned to the unnerving “Mad Bomber,” Ronald Reagan, because they had no confidence in President Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush and his strategist, Karl Rove, won in 2004 through a strategy of focusing almost exclusively on energizing and turning out Mr. Bush’s core supporters.

I have heard more than one pundit voice something that all Americans can agree upon: anyone that mounts a campaign for the presidency has a huge ego. What’s more, the Democratic candidates on the stage Wednesday night, aside from former New York, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have all been on the trail for at least a year, and their respective beliefs in themselves have undoubtedly been reinforced by the fact they have thus far survived in a brutal contest that has felled 15 or more other candidates. In his book, Marathon, Jules Witcover described a campaign for president: “It is a grueling, debilitating, and often dehumanizing ordeal ….” I suspect that their inner faiths now include a visceral feeling that because each has absorbed so much adversity, s/he deserves the presidency.  These gut inclinations are now arguably augmented by envy and resentment toward Mr. Bloomberg, who has surpassed most of them in the national polls through profligate use of his essentially unlimited means. I fear that the debate will degenerate into a mud-slinging scrum that benefits only President Trump.

This week, Wall Street Journal Columnist Gerald Seib laid out the dichotomy between the respective theories of the campaigns of U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mr. Bloomberg:

“Mr. Sanders believes Democratic voters are ready to overthrow the system. Mr. Bloomberg thinks they merely want to overthrow President Trump….[T]he fact that Mr. Sanders is running against Mr. Trump is almost secondary; the Sanders view of society’s economic injustices is the same one he would be offering regardless of who was on the Republican line….Mr. Bloomberg touts [his positions on] health care … gun laws and battling climate change. But … [t]he animating argument is that Mr. Trump is dangerous … that beating Mr. Trump is way more important than ideological arguments.”

As anyone that reads these pages recognizes, my sentiments echo those attributed to Mr. Bloomberg. This year, it’s not the economy. The general perception – whether or not accurate – is that Mr. Trump’s economy is booming. Yet his approval rating is below 45%. In Wisconsin, his disapproval rating is 10 points higher than his approval rating despite a state unemployment rate of 3.3%. He is 12 points under water in Michigan despite an unemployment rate of 4.1%. He is 9 points under water in Iowa despite a state unemployment rate of 2.6%. He is at best even in the other swing states although all have unemployment rates below 5%.

Mr. Trump’s low approval rating is presumably not related to Americans’ perception – again, whether or not accurate – of our national health care system. A significant majority of the states that U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate have the highest percentages of uninsured will almost certainly be won by Mr. Trump in 2020.

Mr. Trump’s low approval rating is presumably not related to Americans’ perception – again, whether or not accurate – of his handling of foreign policy. He has been making good on his campaign pledge – whether or not wisely – to reduce the level of America’s foreign entanglements.

One could add to this list, but three is enough. Mr. Trump’s low approval rating is because … it’s him. A majority of Americans have at least tentatively concluded that Mr. Trump is unworthy of his office: that he has no regard for truth, with demonstrable indications of racism, sexism, and religious bigotry; that he seems an unstable, incompetent bully; that he relishes in stirring division and openly welcomes the assistance of foreign enemies for his own ends. They are concerned that he apparently considers himself unrestricted by all norms, rules, and laws. They are bothered by his evident contempt for the institutions and practices that have made us different from the rest of the world – an honest judicial system, a free press and free speech, respectful disagreement — and for those that act with honor, conviction, and principle – such as John McCain, Purple Heart Recipient Alexander Vindman, and Mitt Romney. They are troubled by his clear willingness to trample anything that gets in his way. They inherently know that it is wrong for an American President to use his power against a domestic political adversary, and they know he did. They inherently know that it is inappropriate for a President to financially profit from the responsibility that they have entrusted to him, and they know he does. They are uneasy with the notion that even if they are not in the crosshairs today – as he has focused his venom on his critics, brown immigrants, and Muslims – they could be tomorrow. They have come to realize that Mr. Trump is, in the words of another Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan: “A bad man, and half mad.” That he is, indeed … un-American.

So while I concede that no Democratic candidate can spend all of his or her time addressing the stain that Mr. Trump has placed on our national fabric, I nonetheless submit that in this campaign year, Mr. Buttigieg is wrong: the Democrats’ key to victory is not what they’re for, it’s what they’re against. It’s Donald Trump. If in tonight’s debate the candidates too pointedly attack each other, it will seem to me a counterproductive ego trip. If they aggressively attack Mr. Bloomberg, it will demonstrate almost criminal political incompetence: the only way that any Democrat will be able to counter Mr. Trump’s overwhelming financial advantage in the fall is through maintaining Mr. Bloomberg’s largesse. They should put aside individual ambition for the good of the nation.

A Stunning Loss

Attached are two links to articles reporting about the death of Brazilian journalist Lourenço “Léo” Veras, who was murdered on February 12 in his home in front of his wife and two children by an organized crime gang operating at the Brazil-Paraguay border, where Mr. Veras was based. The Washington Post article attached to the first link will make clear how deeply Mr. Veras’ death resonates for our family. I don’t know how many of those that read these pages have access to the Post’s online version, so the second link is to the report of the tragedy appearing on the Committee to Protect Journalists website.

These accounts lay bare – yet again — the dangers journalists across the world face every day.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/he-showed-me-a-lawless-border-town-then-masked-gunmen-killed-him-in-front-of-his-family/2020/02/14/53693762-4eb5-11ea-967b-e074d302c7d4_story.html

https://cpj.org/2020/02/brazilian-journalist-leo-veras-shot-and-killed-in-.php

“I Want Nothing to Happen While …”

As all who care are aware, on February 7, 2020, President Trump removed from their respective positions European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondlund and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, two witnesses whose testimony implicated the President in a scheme to pressure a vital but vulnerable ally for his own domestic political purposes.  The President has since commented that he “imagine[d]” that the military would “take a look” at disciplinary action against Lt. Col. Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient.  There is a link below to a National Public Radio account of the removals; what follows is included within the NPR piece:

“Sondland and Vindman join a long list of other witnesses in the Trump impeachment investigation who have moved on from their jobs. Former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovich has retired from the foreign service.  William Taylor, who had replaced Yovanovich in Ukraine after Trump recalled her, left in early January.   Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, resigned as the impeachment process was unfolding.  Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer who was assigned to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, recently left for a new position.  And Tim Morrison, Vindman’s boss at the NSC, left after he testified.”

https://www.npr.org/2020/02/07/803904417/lt-col-alexander-vindman-escorted-out-of-the-white-house-his-lawyer-says

On February 11, 2020, the United States Department of Justice, led by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, said that it was reducing the sentence it was recommending for convicted Trump confidante Roger Stone after the President tweeted that the 7-9 year term initially recommended by DOJ was “disgraceful” and a “miscarriage of justice.”  There is a link to an NBC News account of the DOJ’s shifted stance immediately below.  The four U.S. attorneys involved in Mr. Stone’s case, career prosecutors, have withdrawn from the matter in protest.

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/doj-backpedalling-sentencing-recommendation-trump-ally-roger-stone-n1134961

All, literally, within the first week after the President was acquitted by the Senate.

If I were any Republican Senator save U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney, I would be thinking:  What have I done?  (I concede that they are all probably too busily engaged, cowering in corner stalls of Capitol Hill washrooms, to have such reflections.)

In a note I posted almost two years ago about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the interactions between Mr. Trump and his associates and the Russian government, I quoted passages from Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, and suggested that Mr. Trump’s legal fate might rest upon whether Mr. Trump had read the novel and utilized the manners employed by the fictional Don Vito Corleone to insulate himself from prosecution for untoward activities.  My speculation was obviously entirely wrong; Mr. Trump has ignored the safeguards practiced by the Don, and yet seeming flourished; clearly, whether or not he ever read the novel, he did see and internalize The Godfather Part II:

https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/1fac5597-4d66-4a04-9a9d-979b45357926

One cannot help but be dismayed at these events, and at the prospect of more like them.  I would, however, submit that they contain a silver lining that is not insignificant, if one still believes in the good intentions of the majority of our people:  the President is overplaying his hand, is moving too soon.  He is flaunting his self-perceived omnipotence, lack of scruple, contempt for the rule of law, voraciousness, and vindictiveness in the face of our people before securing his re-election, instead of sitting back, and letting his Fox News and Alt-Right propaganda machine, the Democrats’ disarray, and and the seemingly strong economy do his work for him.  He’s perhaps making a mistake, one that the fictional Michael Corleone would never make.  It’s not too late.

Impeachment Impressions from a Hemisphere Away

While the Senate impeachment trial unfolded in Washington, we were half a world away, visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on a trip planned months before. While south of the equator, we were only vaguely aware of the reports that former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s upcoming book included allegations directly implicating President Trump in the events at issue in the Impeachment trial, of the controversy surrounding Trump Defense Lawyer Alan Dershowitz’ bizarre argument in the president’s defense, and of the speculation as to whether the Senate would call additional witnesses.

One of the highlights of our visit was a tour of Rio’s historic district, Centro, provided to us by Daniel, an extremely personable and truly trilingual Carioca. (I came to the city understanding that all Rio residents were Cariocas; with a twinkle in his eye, Daniel advised me that one needs to be born in Rio to truly be considered a Carioca; mere Rio residence, no matter how lengthy, is not enough to qualify.) He quickly felt like a friend. He has an extensive background in Brazilian history. Well into the tour, I asked him about an article that had run that week in the major Brazilian daily, O Globo, which reported that Transparency International had placed Brazil in the bottom half of all of the world’s countries in its Corruptions Perceptions Index. (Full Disclosure: O Globo is published in Portuguese; this was the only article I could decipher all week because “corrupcao” readily translates to “corruption,” and the piece depicted by graph Brazil’s corruption ranking among the world’s nations.)

Brazilians have contempt for most of their politicians, due to the country’s level of corruption. Of their three prior presidents, one has been convicted of corruption, a second faces charges for leading a “criminal organization,” and the third has been impeached within a context that she had served as Chairwoman of Petrobras, the semi-public Brazilian oil and gas company, at a time when billions derived from Petrobras operations were illicitly changing hands at Brazilians’ expense. Other Brazilian officials are in prison due to illegal enrichment related to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Daniel hadn’t seen the O Globo article, but wasn’t surprised by it; he is angry at the level of corruption in his country. As an example, he pointed to the new train tracks at our feet, installed in the historic district’s cobblestone streets prior to the Olympics to facilitate transportation during the Games, and indicated that the project ended up costing Brazilians millions of Brazilian Real (R$) more than necessary, due to kickbacks. He is an enthusiastic supporter of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current right-wing President elected in 2018. President Bolsonaro is a nationalist and a populist. As widely reported, Mr. Bolsonaro is skeptical of environmentalists’ claims about the Amazon, and favors more development in the region. He opposes socialism and LBGT rights. But Daniel made a passing reference only to Mr. Bolsonaro’s positions on the Amazon, instead emphasizing a factor rarely mentioned in the Western media: Mr. Bolsonaro appears to be honest – a unicorn in Brazilian politics. Although a member of the Brazilian national legislature for decades, he was not tainted by any of the scandals that have felled his predecessors. He ran on a pledge to reduce crime and root out corruption. Daniel believes his country has greatness within it. He sees that it can only be achieved through honest government.

The contrast between Daniel’s belief in Mr. Bolsonaro’s honesty and Daniel’s aspirations for his nation, on one hand, and Mr. Trump’s tribal-driven impeachment acquittal, on the other, could not be starker. U.S. TN Sen. Lamar Alexander stated before the vote: “There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this … The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did …. [Mr. Trump’s removal via impeachment] would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist …. Let the people decide [Emphasis Added].”

U.S. NE Sen. Ben Sasse stated: “Let me be clear, Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.”

U.S. FL Sen. Marco Rubio stated: “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office. I will not vote to remove the President because doing so would inflict extraordinary and potentially irreparable damage to our already divided nation. [Emphasis Added].”

While there is certainly merit to the argument that Mr. Trump’s removal from office via impeachment could incite potentially irreparable divisions between our people – an apprehension held by one very close to me – I would nonetheless submit that for Senators who have taken an oath to protect the Constitution, such concern should have been irrelevant, and is no more than a self-serving rationale designed to protect the Senator’s own political position and/or legacy. Messrs. Rubio and Sasse, and those Republican Senators whom Mr. Sasse claimed Mr. Alexander “spoke for,” have, as was the case with former Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, abdicated the responsibility placed upon them by the Constitution rather than confront Mr. Trump. We are sacrificing to partisanship, greed, and fear our dedication to right, truth, and justice that the Brazilian tour guide and billions around the world yearn for: the very characteristic that actually made us great.

On Senator Mitt Romney

Although I suspect that most that wish to have already heard U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney’s speech on the Senate floor, setting forth his rationale in voting to convict President Trump under the Article of Impeachment alleging that the President had abused the power of his office, a link to the speech is set forth below. If you haven’t heard it, take the eight minutes to listen to it in its entirety. (I would submit that it is worth another eight minutes even if you have.)  Among his remarks, Sen. Romney offered the following:

“I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am [Senator’s pause]. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”

“The defense argues that the Senate should leave the impeachment decision to the voters. While that logic is appealing to our democratic instincts, it is inconsistent with the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate, not the voters, try the President …. The people will judge [Senators] for how well and faithfully we perform our duty.”

“I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision and in some quarters I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”

“[W]ith my vote I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me … We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history. But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siWFNYgnJdE

We watched the speech live. I was and remain moved by the faith and patriotism infused within it. I indicated to TLOML that I would prefer Sen. Romney as President over anyone now running from any party. Her reaction was more profound: “He’s a real man.”

Anyone that pays any attention to the hyper-partisan political environment in which we live is acutely aware of the virulent attacks and physical threats Mr. Romney and his family will face for as long as Mr. Trump retains his now cult-like grasp of the Republican Party. For what little it is worth – I have no illusions that I have much influence with the Almighty — I will say a prayer that they will have strength, and that their faith will sustain them. May the following provide them with greater comfort:

“How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen … Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. This is why the law is benumbed, and judgment is never rendered: Because the wicked circumvent the just …

Then the Lord answered me and said:

‘For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash man has no integrity; but the just man, because of his faith, shall live.’”

Habakkuk 1:2-4; 2:2-4

Nancy’s Percolating Brew … and a Pitch for Mitch: a Postscript

No one that watched the commencement of the Senate’s impeachment proceedings on January 16 could miss the solemnity of the occasion. It was striking to watch 99 Senators solemnly swear to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws.” The contrast between the Senators’ oath and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments, prior to the beginning of the trial, that he would coordinate closely with the White House in conducting the proceedings … was jarring.

In mid-November, in the post cited above, I referred to a solicitation that I had then recently received from U.S. IA Sen. Charles Grassley, seeking campaign contributions not for his benefit, but to aid the campaign of Sen. McConnell. I observed that it seemed odd for Mr. McConnell to be reaching all the way into the Midwest for support, and noted that a close friend much closer to the Bluegrass State than I am considers Mr. McConnell more vulnerable than those of us outside the region might assume. Mr. McConnell may attempt to rationalize the dichotomy between his comments and his oath, but I would submit that to people on figurative Main Street in the “Flyover Country” that the Republicans claim to represent – and perhaps in Lexington, Louisville, and Paducah – he looks like a liar. If Kentucky Democrats don’t run endless ads highlighting the contrast between Mr. McConnell’s comments about his impeachment coordination with the White House and his oath to do “impartial justice” in the Senate trial … I fear that they are passing up a significant opportunity.