• 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Last weekend, I found myself in my kitchen cooking dinner and humming a song from decades ago.  The German rock band “Scorpions” had a global hit in the song “Wind of Change” that may be my favorite “end of the Cold War” song.  I searched for the music video on my phone, and as I watched it, I was reminded that November 9th marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    I was a Freshman at Providence College in 1989, basking in the autumn sun and devouring The New York Times each day as events spun out.  Long before social media, we relied on newspapers of record and broadcast news for understanding events.  And these were historic events. November 9, 1989, belongs in the same breath as July 4, 1776, and July 14, 1789: it signals an epochal shift, one moment in a long history that serves as our reference point for “before” and “after.”

    I texted a couple of friends the link to “Wind of Change” while I cooked, and we began slinging song titles back and forth—morphing from “end of the Cold War” to simply “Cold War” songs.

    In the Cold War classic “99 Red Balloons,” Nena, a West German artist, spun a haunting fantasy of the outbreak of war and its aftermath. It’s lyric, “This is what we’ve waited for/This is it, boys, this is war. . . .” stands in sharp contrast to the triumph and sense of relief of Jesus Jones just a few years later in “Right Here, Right Now,” when he boasted “I was alive and I waited, waited//I was alive and I waited for this. . . .” Jones was singing about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism, and the hope we all felt that the world was going to be better, safer after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

    Other artists bookend that period in popular music, too.  In 1985, Sting sang “Russians,” capturing the existential fears of many in Europe who felt trapped between the two superpowers.  He asked how to protect his children from nuclear war before noting the shared humanity of people on both sides of the struggle, singing “We share the same biology//Regardless of ideology//What might save us me and you//Is if the Russians love their children too.”  By 1989, Billy Joel was singing about the people on either side of the Cold War, too, not based on hope and fear, but based on first-hand knowledge.  In 1987, when he became the first major, Western rock star to tour the Soviet Union, Joel met a circus performer who, as Joel put it in “Leningrad” found “his greatest happiness. . . . in making Russian children glad.” More than Sting had hoped for just four years earlier, the song ends with Joel proclaiming that the Russians don’t just love their own children: “He made my daughter laugh, then we embraced//We never knew what friends we had//Until we came to Leningrad.”

    I remember the Cold War fears of the mid-1980s.  I remember President Reagan warning of the “Evil Empire.”  I remember watching “The Day After” in 1983 and having nightmares about nuclear weapons falling in my backyard.  No one dared believe that the Cold War would end peacefully or quickly.  It was still a “long, twilight struggle.”

    There was a nostalgia for the Cold War among my cohort of young, national security analysts in the 1990s in Washington.  As the world grew increasingly complex, the relative simplicity and familiarity of the Cold War looked comfortable in retrospect.  After 9/11, that sentiment reached its zenith.

    But the Cold War was a dark period in human history.  Nations developed the capacity to wipe humanity from existence and, in the face of that threat, artists gave voice to fears and anxieties, and—on rare occasions—hope. 

    Against incredibly long odds, those hopes were fulfilled 30 years ago this weekend.  We would do well to remember the fear that preceded it and the things that actually contributed to the West’s success: the universal desire for freedom; the appeal of democracy; the strength of free nations acting in alliance; and the belief that walls between people should be torn down.

  • Heroes

    Growing up, I watched more than my fair share of television.  One of my favorite diversions was a show I caught in syndicated re-runs long after it was out of production. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was a fictional account of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the Marine Corps’ ace of aces in the Second World War, and his squadron, VMF-214—The Black Sheep.  The show got virtually everything wrong in the history of the squadron, but it sparked my imagination.  Long before the internet, I spent hours in my local library looking for books and articles about the real Pappy Boyington.  When I found his autobiography, I was stunned to learn that Boyington recalled wistfully his time in a Japanese POW camp because it was one of the few periods in his life that he wasn’t able to drink.  The self-loathing that fueled much of his risk taking was summed up, famously, when he wrote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll show you a bum.”

    I had other heroes, too.  One that I still carry today is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—the commanding officer of the 20th Maine at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  Sent to defend the extreme left-flank of the Union line on Little Round Top, the 20th Maine held off repeated Confederate assaults until their ammunition ran low.  Then, Chamberlain, improvising a maneuver similar to the pivot of a gate on a hinge, ordered his men to fix bayonets and sweep down the hill, chasing Confederate forces in front of them as they ran. With profound physical courage and the ability to keep his wits in the face of incredible danger, Chamberlain saved the Union line at Gettysburg.  Less than a year later, at Petersburg, he would be severely wounded, but recovered and was chosen by Ulysses S. Grant as the Union Officer to receive the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.  In that moment of triumph, Chamberlain called Union troops to attention as one last martial salute to their foes—a move heralded by some and criticized by others as the most gracious conceivable act of battlefield respect.

    Later, I learned more about Chamberlain: he wasn’t always a war hero, he wasn’t even a military man. He was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College who volunteered to serve the Union cause because he thought it was just and that for the Union to prevail, men in the North would have to leave positions of comfort. He was an idealist willing to put his life on the line for those ideals.

    Taken at face value, there’s not a lot of reason to see anything similar in Boyington and Chamberlain.  After the Civil War, Chamberlain would become President of Bowdoin College and Governor of Maine.  After World War II, Boyington struggled to hold down odd jobs, including a stint as a professional wrestling referee.  With some age and perspective, I came to appreciate that if we can get past hero worship—and its opposite, vilification—then we can see that the people in the news are not really any different than the rest of us.  They have jobs to do, but they are people: flawed, wonderful, cynical, idealistic, talented, mediocre, sober or drunk, who find themselves in the eye of history.

    That was certainly the case for Boyington and Chamberlain.  But it’s true, now, of others, too, including the steady stream of witnesses appearing before the Congressional impeachment inquiry: people like Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, NSC staffers Tim Morrison and Fiona Hill, and Ambassador Robert Taylor.

    Ultimately, the history of this era will be written by the quiet Americans who prize public service as a good they can perform for the benefit of all, not the benefit of one; who take their oath to the Constitution seriously; and who speak truth to power—even at great professional risk.  But that’s true of every era.  Heroes are normal people in extraordinary circumstances—whether they are an NSC staffer who hears something inappropriate in a presidential phone call or if they are an Army commando raiding a compound in Northern Syria.  None of those Americans were born heroes, but like Chamberlain and even Boyington, they all prize something greater than themselves: the Constitution, the rule of law, and the idea that there are some things worth fighting for.

  • Individuals of Honor and Good Intent

    When I was in high school, I kept a light-blue three ring binder full of quotes that inspired me.  It went to college with me, and grad school.  It’s moved every time I’ve moved since 1980-something.  At some point, I stopped adding quotes to it—the most recent entry being President George W. Bush’s address to the national prayer breakfast in 2001, not long after 9/11.  I don’t look at the notebook often, but I keep it, now, as a reminder of my once-youthful idealism. 

    I pulled the notebook out the other day as I was beginning to think about this essay.  There was a passage I vaguely remembered about Roosevelt’s moral courage in World War II that I thought might provide a stunning contrast with events in Syria.  But as I turned the pages, smiling occasionally at the memories it brought back, I stumbled across another quote:

    “What is often forgotten is that the worst abuses of power within our democratic societies are exposed by our own people. The spirit of resistance is opposed to all forms of tyranny. We purge ourselves while we resist our enemies. This is the response of a concerned citizenry, knowing freedom is in danger, putting the responsibility for defending it squarely on individuals of honor and good intent.  This is a sense of brotherhood that won’t fit into rules and regulations. And so long as this holds true, there will always be struggle, but there will be no final defeat.” [Emphasis added.]

    The author was William Stephenson, a British spy stationed in the United States during World War II and known popularly by his reported codename: “Intrepid.”

    Relying on “individuals of honor and good intent” is where we are right now.  It’s what motivated the intelligence community whistle-blower to document the President’s July 25 phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine.  It’s what compelled the intelligence community’s inspector general to alert Congress of the whistle-blower complaint.  It’s what motivated John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security advisor, to tell his staff to share concerns about impropriety with the White House counsel.  It’s what motivated Fiona Hill, the former national security council staffer responsible for Russia and Ukraine to testify in the House impeachment inquiry.  It’s what motivated George Kent to resign from the State Department.  It’s what motivated Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to speak truth to power.  It’s what compelled Ambassador Kurt Volker to turn over private text messages to Congress.  And it’s what motivated current U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor—whose opening statement to the committee this week is, in a word, stunning—to challenge others involved in the diplomacy that withholding military aid from Ukraine in exchange for a political favor was, as he put it, “crazy.”

    Every single one of the persons I just mentioned was appointed by President Trump, except for Ambassador Yovanovitch and the original whistle-blower who are career-public servants. 

    In that same passage from William Stephenson that I quoted earlier, he went on to talk about the “brotherhood” of honor that unites those who serve ideals and principles.  Similarly, Ambassador Taylor described in his testimony the contrast and essential tension between America’s principled, official foreign policy conducted, as he put it, through “formal” channels that supported Ukraine’s effort to fight Russian aggression and join the West, and the “irregular, informal” diplomacy conducted by Rudy Giuliani that sought political advantage for Donald Trump.

    Sometimes, in the day-to-day flood of headlines and events, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and pessimistic about the current health of our republic.  But I find reassurance in the testimony of Ambassador Taylor, in the idealism that still exists in government, and in the loyalty of so many officials to the U.S. Constitution over the personal political interests of the president.  Stephenson, the man called “Intrepid,” finished his thought by noting that as long as the spirit of resistance to tyranny motivates those who serve, “there will always be struggle, but there will be no final defeat.”  In those words and in the events of recent weeks, I find hope.

  • On Partisans and Truth

    On two separate occasions recently, I’ve heard variations of a critique: “Don’t be partisan,” someone said to me recently when I told him about a talk I’ve been asked to give in Washington next month.  “I’d like to share it, but it’s too partisan,” came from another friend who read a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago about the oath I swore to defend and uphold the Constitution.  In both cases, I was taken aback.  I know I’m a Democrat, but both of my friends know that, too.  They’ve seen my resume, they know where I’ve worked.  But why the criticism?  In my analytical work, I pride myself on reporting what the data says, not what I might want it to say.  I sincerely don’t think of myself as a partisan analyst, but I found myself preoccupied over the next couple of days reflecting on their remarks.

    On the one hand, I’ll own some of it.  In my opinion writing, I have a definite point of view.  I don’t apologize for it.  I believe I’m right and I believe the facts support my analyses.  But do I have a political bias?  In general, I do, and I know I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias (the tendency to find evidence that confirms our previously held beliefs) as anyone else.

    “But in my defense, I think I’ve also exhibited great restraint.  As a national security analyst, I’ve been researching, writing, and speaking about the Russian attack on American democracy in 2016 since the summer of 2016—and more generally about the use of political warfare for nearly 20 years.  Yet in all my engagements, I never accused the president of “collusion” with Russia because I simply didn’t know whether he had or had not.  I’ve also been a critic of Democrats when events warranted.  President Obama’s “red line” in Syria was a serious mistake that, like many of President Trump’s recent gaffes, was improvised.

    For some, however, the mere criticism of a president of the other party is a partisan act, and in some cases, it absolutely is.  But sometimes, criticism is simply the product of good analysis.  Let me give you an example.  Fifteen years ago, progressive politicians and activists dismissed the Iraq war with personal attacks intended to demean President George W. Bush.  Those attacks were explicitly partisan.  But a sober analysis could have questioned the judgment of a decision to go to war to change the regime in a place with no modern history of political stability.  After World War I, Iraq was administered by the British Empire under the authority of the League of Nations.  Between the end of the British “mandate,” as it was known, and the Ba’ath party’s seizure of power in 1968, there were 25 instances of extra-constitutional violence: coup attempts, assassinations, popular disturbances, and the like. That was one every 17 months.  After Saddam Hussein came to power, the frequency of those disturbances stretched to one every 18 months.  In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, we gave our military the unenviable task of stabilizing a country whose history is the very definition of the word “fractious.”

    When I first discussed that history in public in 2007, I can remember my heart-rate rising as I expected a heated response from the audience.  From the perspective of 2019, it feels more like reasonable analysis.

    The danger we face today is that in a hyper-partisan environment, criticism of a president—or the converse, the defense of a president—is seen implicitly as a partisan act.  That shouldn’t be the case.  As thinking citizens, we should all be able to speak our convictions, but know that they will be subjected to scrutiny.  If the facts and our analysis lead us to criticism, we can’t fear that.  Nor should we silence ourselves if that same process leads us to defend someone, no matter their political party.

    More importantly, as citizens who hold sovereignty in this republic, we need to be comfortable with critics of our political party, of our preferred candidates, of sitting presidents—as long as their criticism (or defense) is grounded in fact and good-faith analysis.  Especially in this age of social media, we have to puncture the bubbles of orthodoxy that surround each of us.  We have to look hard at our assumptions and biases.  We need to invite dialogue with people who see the world differently than we do.  We have to look for ways to find common ground and common solutions in response to common challenges. 

    The leaders of the early American republic understood that their task was not to ensure the political survival of a party or a politician, but to ensure the endurance of the republic itself.  That should be our guide today, too.

  • The Real Meaning of “Deep State”

    One of the proudest moments in my life had no witnesses—at least none that I know personally.  On my very first day working on Capitol Hill, I reported to the Senate personnel office.  I think I was told to go down to complete some paperwork.  I signed a couple of documents, and then a clerk—I remember he wasn’t wearing his suit-coat—told me to raise my right hand.  I did, and he administered the oath. 

    I remember wishing that I had known that was going to happen.  In the Aaron Sorkin version of my life, the music would have begun to swell when I raised my hand and the camera would have panned back to show me, this 30-something, newbie staffer, beginning his career the way every Congressional staffer does, as the swirl of the Capitol goes on around them.

    But there was no music.  Instead, the clerk told me “Congratulations,” like he had said it a million times before.  I looked around at the empty office and said, “I wish my parents had been here.”  I don’t think he responded.

    It would be a forgettable moment if it weren’t for what it meant.  Because that oath, like the oath taken by members of Congress, and by the president, and by every federal employee isn’t some kind of magical incantation, it isn’t a prayer, it’s a personal pledge of honor intended to center the focus and the energy of the person swearing it on what public service in our republic ultimately comes back to: the preservation of our Constitution.

    Let me be clear.  I loved working for Senator John Kerry.  But I didn’t swear an oath to defend him.  I loved working in Congress, but I didn’t swear an oath to defend its chambers or its dome.  I’m proud to be a Democrat, but I didn’t swear to up-hold their agenda.  The oath I swore was to defend and up-hold the Constitution of the United States of America.

    I’ve been thinking about that this week as I’ve listened to the president and his allies launch ad hominem attacks against the intelligence community whistleblower; as the president has warned of a coup; and as the president’s allies have alleged treason by individuals whose great civic sin, in these twisted minds, was adhering to the oath they took as federal employees.

    On Sunday, White House senior advisor Stephen Miller attacked the intelligence community whistleblower as a “deep state operative” who was out to get President Trump.  It’s a dangerous story the President and his aides are telling, for a couple of reasons.  First, it sets the president against the mass of the federal bureaucracy.  Second, at its core it equates the person of the president with the embodiment of the state.  We literally fought a revolutionary war about that.

    But if I’m honest, I know who the members of the “deep state” conspiracy are: they are everyone who took seriously their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  It’s everyone who believes that governments are created to defend rights, not advance the interests of individuals.  It’s everyone who believes that the ideals of liberal government are worth defending.

    I’m not talking liberal in the sense of “Democrats are liberal” and “Republicans are conservative.”  I’m talking about liberal as in Western liberalism.  In the course of the Enlightenment and our revolution, we developed a healthy skepticism in the reliability of individual leaders to protect the rights and liberties of citizens.  Instead, under western liberalism, we rely on free institutions to defend our rights, because institutions are more difficult to corrupt than any individual. 

    So when you hear someone cursing the “deep state” understand that they are attacking the oath of office every federal employee and office holder took—not to serve some potentate or would-be monarch, but to serve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.  In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that those critics of the “deep state” are questioning the very constitutional order we have relied upon as a nation since 1789.

  • The Responsibility of Citizenship

    We have heard a lot in the last couple of years—and even more in the last couple of days—about the challenge to the Constitution and our free institutions.  With momentum building for impeachment proceedings in the aftermath of the whistleblower complaint against the president, those concerns are rising, again.  The op-ed pages and the cable news channels are going to be full of breathless accounts of malfeasance, corruption, and violations of the Constitution.  Both sides will make these claims.  One side will be lying—and those lies are going to test not just the Constitution, not just our free institutions, but the most important player in our republic: the citizen.

    That’s not hyperbole. The citizen is the most important part of the republic.  Not only does sovereignty rest with us, but it is we who will, in our collective response to events and facts, shape the actions of our government.  In a 1910 speech, President Theodore Roosevelt reflected on the vital role of citizens in a republic.  Where the fates of monarchies are determined by the quality of the king, he said, and the success of oligarchies by the quality of a small group of leaders, the fate of a republic is determined by the quality of its citizens.

    In that speech, Roosevelt went on to celebrate the famed “man in the arena,” the person who steps forward to lead, who struggles with mighty issues, and who is defined by their ability to fight for what they believe—regardless of whether they succeed.  But it’s more than just action that we should celebrate. 

    In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, observed that “the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army.”  In that spirit, he wrote that if given a choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he favored newspapers, because they are a vehicle for informing the public.  To Jefferson, this was an essential feature of republican government and he urged the reader to “Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”

    With genuine respect for Roosevelt and Jefferson, their insights about the citizen are incomplete for 2019. They viewed citizens as participants to be led in a republic—and for me that makes the citizen far too passive a player in contemporary public affairs. 

    We’re living in a world, now, where the availability of information is unprecedented.  The smartphone, seemingly always within an arm’s reach, makes more information than the world has ever known available at our finger-tips at any time.  Just as importantly, that same technology makes it possible for all of us to communicate our preferences to our elected leaders easily.  When you take these realities together, the citizen is more powerful, now, than she has ever been in the history of our republic.

    I’ve long believed that Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, got it right when he observed that “with great power comes great responsibility.” And so we as citizens have homework to do.  It begins by staying truly informed. If we do anything with all the information at our fingertips this week, we need to take the time to read the memorandum of the phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine.  Don’t rely on your favorite talking heads to characterize it.  Don’t repeat ad hominem attacks.  Don’t spread talking points on social media.  Read the document yourself.  All of it.  The American citizen can think for him- or her-self, but we have to do the work of being truly informed and living up to the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship in the world’s oldest functioning republic.

  • We Can All Be Patriots

    Each year, in my “day-job,” I’m responsible for organizing a speaker series that brings compelling speakers—scholars, journalists, filmmakers, and more—to campus to share their insights with our students and with our community.  We kicked-off the fall series on Tuesday night with a Constitution Day lecture on American democracy and the authoritarian tradition of the west.  We had about 150 people in the room—a mixture of students and faculty and community members.  The speaker was my favorite professor from my undergraduate days who wrote a book on the very question.  This was an old-school lecture: no power point, no video, just an elegant discussion of the history of ideas, the enlightenment, democracy, republicanism, and their reception in America and in Europe from the development of British colonies in the New World until today.

    I love these events—and especially the question and answer session that typically concludes the night.  I think for everyone—even the speaker—that’s the most interesting part of the event: the back and forth, unscripted exchanges between curious audience members—who are often accomplished thinkers in their own right—and speakers willing to have their arguments inspected and challenged in front of a room of people.  This is the best of the academy as a public forum and I know I’m privileged to make a living doing this kind of work.

    After the event on Tuesday, however, an audience member—an older gentleman—came up to me.  He introduced himself and asked me a pointed question about money in elections.  I answered him honestly and that seemed like a relief to him.  He told me that he had wanted to ask a pointed question of the speaker but was worried the room would have booed him. I told him that next time he should ask his question and if the audience boos, I’d have his back.

    But the more I’ve thought about that exchange, the more frustrated I’ve become, because it reflects the toxins that permeate our politics today. A university forum should be the safest of places for anyone to ask serious questions.  No one should feel silenced by the unspoken bias of the other audience members.  No one should feel like a respectful question can’t be asked. Yet, this is where we are.

    For decades, the way we talk about people who have different political views than our own has grown coarser and coarser.  Everytime we call our political rivals “idiots,” or demean their intelligence or patriotism because they differ with us on policy issues, we raise the level of toxicity in our political culture.  That undermines the trust needed to govern, the confidence the public has in their free institutions, and the example we set for the rest of the world.

    More ominously, that same contempt for our political opposites—and contempt is precisely the word—is what animated the performance of President Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski before the House judiciary committee on Tuesday.  He has no respect for Congress, an attitude that is encouraged time and again by the president and his White House—and it’s evidenced in everything from the administration’s refusal to submit to traditional congressional oversight to, now, the thwarting of this mind-blowing whistleblower case involving, reportedly, a promise the president made to a foreign leader.

    The founders of this republic worried openly about the dangers of faction—loyalty to a subgroup smaller than the nation.  They didn’t imagine political parties as part of the American republic because they are examples of faction.  They believed that our loyalty must be to the nation, first, above all else.  That means loyalty to our Constitution, our laws, the norms that have developed over 230 years of practice, and to the structures of our government—including co-equal branches of government. 

    So let me submit this: we can all be patriots—and it doesn’t require acts of selfless courage on a distant battlefield.  In 2019, we can be patriots by engaging is respectful dialogue and even debate with people with whom we disagree about policy preferences.  We can be patriots by respecting the roles and prerogatives of all of our branches of government.  And we can be patriots by prioritizing the good of our country over the good of our party or any individual politician. 

  • Not Normal

    People who live in DC and people who don’t live in DC have a different standard of normal.

    When my wife and I were dating, she lived outside of Boston and I lived in Washington.  She came down a couple of times each month and we’d take in all the city had to offer.  I remember one beautiful afternoon sitting at an out-door table at a restaurant along the Potomac river in Georgetown when a military helicopter approached from down-river, banked hard with the bend in the Potomac, flashed the military star on its belly, and roared up the river.  I think I glanced up at the sound and the spectacle, but my then-girlfriend was fixated on it.  When we could hear each other again, she looked at me and said, “What was that?”  With the nonchalance of someone who’d lived in DC for 15 years at that point, I shrugged and said, “That’s normal.”  To this day, it is a running gag between us: I’ll describe something as “normal,” and my wife will protest “that’s NOT normal!” 

    But I’ve always thought that exchange offered an insight into the way people steeped in DC view the world differently than someone who, in this case, simply hasn’t seen a lot of military aircraft operating low over a major American city on a regular basis.  Things that seem “normal” in DC quite often are not.

    Today, even those of us who watch politics all the time are, I’m afraid, losing lock on what’s normal because we’re confronted with the abnormal with such frequency.  For example:

    • It was just five weeks ago that the Episcopal Bishop in Washington, DC, condemned the “escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States.” That the Bishop felt a need to speak out isn’t normal.
    • That same day, the commander-in-chief attacked Navy prosecutors via Twitter who had failed to win a conviction in a war-crimes trial the president had publicly criticized. That kind of intervention in a military criminal proceeding is simply not normal.
    • It was that same day that the U.S. government dispatched its top hostage negotiator, a diplomat by the name of Robert O’Brien, to Sweden to attend the trial of rapper A$AP Rocky.  That wasn’t normal.
    • It was just a month ago that the President of the United States attacked the City of Baltimore and its residents.  That wasn’t normal.
    • For months the president has minimized the threat from North Korea, focusing on meaningless and empty photo-ops while the regime of Kim Jong Un keeps testing short-range missiles and, according to experts quoted by The Wall Street Journal, expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons.  That’s not normal.

    Last week, the president tweeted an image that appears to have been taken from a classified photo in his daily intelligence briefing of an Iranian launch pad where a rocket blew-up.  This was a strikingly clear image taken, reportedly, from a sophisticated U.S. spy satellite.  Whenever previous presidential administrations have released satellite imagery, they have intentionally degraded it to obscure precisely how good our imagery is.  To the best of my knowledge, I can’t recall another instance when imagery as good as the item tweeted by the president has been released—or even leaked.  Presidents of course have the authority to declassify whatever they want—but it’s simply not normal for them to do so without a compelling reason.  The system that captured the image in the presidential tweet costs as much as an aircraft carrier and President Trump just let the world see our capabilities.  That’s not normal.

    Finally, on Wednesday of this week, we learned that the president would divert $3.6 billion dollars appropriated by Congress from 127 military projects to build his border wall.  Congress—which has the power of the purse—did not authorize these expenditures, nor did it appropriate them.  This is the president acting unilaterally, asserting a presidential power that may not exist.  The courts will ultimately decide if it does, but this is not normal.

    All of this matters because the American system gives immense power to the office of the president—power that has been expanded by national security legislation since the advent of nuclear weapons in the middle of the 20th century.  But make no mistake about it: authority doesn’t rest in the person of the president, it rests in the office of the president, and in the will of the legislature as expressed positively or negatively in the laws passed by Congress and the appropriations authorized and spent by Congress.  The president unilaterally declaring an emergency and seeking to spend money not explicitly authorized by Congress is not normal, and it may well prove impeachable.

  • Empathy not Sympathy

    It seems like the biggest story of the week in the world of sports was the retirement of Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck.  He cited years or injury, rehabilitation, and pain as his reason for retiring and the reaction was both horrifying and affirming.  For some, their hot-take reactions were really only about what his loss would mean for his team.  But others defended Luck’s motives and his right to make his decision.  One voice caught my ear, in particular, Martellus Bennett—a retired NFL player and children’s author.

    Reacting to Luck’s critics, he said simply, “Empathy.  Not sympathy.  No one’s asking you to be sympathetic, just for you to be more empathetic.”  He was talking about Andrew Luck, but I think that Tweet captures the spirit of this moment in our nation’s history better than just about anything I’ve read or heard.

    The distinction between the two terms is both subtle and profound.  Sympathy is a feeling of sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.  Empathy is sharing in that misfortune.  Bennett was challenging everyone being critical of Luck’s decision to share in Luck’s own emotional pain over the decision.  Sympathy is about my reaction to someone else’s pain.  Empathy is about that person’s pain.  Sympathy is about self; empathy is about other.  I learned long ago that I when I put myself in someone else’s shoes—even for just a moment—I see the world from a different perspective.

    Students will be coming back to Salve Regina University, where I work, this weekend.  We often talk about the world needing a new style of leadership: one grounded in empathy and a willingness of leaders to walk with others through the challenges of life.

    For me, this is powerful stuff.  It’s the difference between seeing migrants as pawns to terrorize in order to deter others from coming and human beings seeking a better life.  It’s the difference between offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence and actually doing something about it.  It’s the difference between watching waters rise and fires burn and finally doing something about climate change.  It’s the difference between complaining about the cost of healthcare and making sure that every American actually has healthcare.  It’s the difference between fretting overstandardized test scores and addressing the hunger, poverty, and violence that keep kids from learning in too many communities across America.  It’s the difference between mourning the loss of life to opioid addiction and giving people the help they need to get their lives back.

    There’s an old story about a man, let’s call him “Joe,” who fell in a ditch.  As others passed by, Joe would call up and ask for help.  One person walked by and seeing Joe in the ditch promised to call for help.  A priest walked by and said he’d say a prayer.  Then a friend walked by, and hearing Joe’s cries from the ditch, jumped into it with him.  Astonished, Joe looked at his friend and said, “What are you doing?  You should have gotten a rope or a ladder!”  The friend grasped Joe by the arm, looked him in the eye, and said, “Nah, I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

    Leadership today has to be like Joe’s friend.  It has to be empathetic.  We have to jump in that ditch with our friend, so that together, we find the way out.

  • A Well-Regulated Militia

    When I worked on the Hill, I was initially amused when Senators would submit a statement to the record about a bill that would pass overwhelmingly.  “Why were they spiking the ball?” I wondered to myself.  I eventually asked a more seasoned colleague who explained it wasn’t about vanity, rather it was about documenting legislative intent.  If there was ever a court challenge or controversy about the bill, the legislative intent could be understood by the statements members made at the time of passage.

    I’ve been thinking about that in the context of the second amendment—the right to bear arms—so I went back to read the intent of the founders.  I found the answer in Federalist #29 in which Alexander Hamilton explained the meaning of the phrase “a well-regulated militia.” To understand, however, it helps to put yourself in the context of 1789 America.

    The War of Independence was still a fresh memory—closer in time to 1776 than we are today to 9/11.  The memory of that experience included a well-developed suspicion of standing armies as a tool of tyranny.  Just look at the Declaration of Independence.  Its 27 grievances against King George III included protests over:

    • stationing a standing army among the population in times of peace;
    • rendering military authority superior to civilian authority;
    • seizing private property to house troops;
    • protecting soldiers accused of crimes from trial; and
    • the crown’s prosecution of war, encouragement of insurrection against local authorities, and support for native nations’ attacks on the colonies. 

    There are at least a half-dozen specific examples in our Declaration that warned about the threat to liberty of a standing army.

    So the founders, suspicious that a standing army could become a tool of some future tyrant, created a system of checks and balances to thwart a federal army ever threatening the liberties of American citizens.  Their solution was a well-regulated militia. 

    In 1789, a militia was not a self-appointed force of citizens in camo running around in the woods by themselves.  Militias would be raised by each state government, their loyalty and devotion to the new American republic was assured by the fact that they would be defending their families, their neighbors, and their homes.  Because they might someday have to operate as a combined force, the militias were to be “well-regulated”—meaning trained to standards set by the federal government. 

    There is a myth—or misconception—that the right to bear arms was a guarantee of individual gun ownership.  The Supreme Court didn’t adopt that interpretation until a 5-4 opinion in 2008—219 years after the adoption of the Constitution!

    Again put yourself in the mind of a founder in 1789.  This was a great experiment in liberal democracy and republican government.  As a “republic,” everything the state did was a public thing—including defense.  Liberal democracies rely on free institutions to protect rights.  So you have to see the potential power of the federal government—including a standing army—as offset by the power of a militia under the authority of the states that made up the union.  It wasn’t that one man with a gun would stop tyranny: it was that the free association of citizens organized in state governments would act as a bulwark against the power of the central government.

    In that context, the second amendment wasn’t about an individual’s right to bear arms: it was about preventing the federal government from interfering in the ability of the individual states to establish “well regulated militias” and thereby protect liberty.  Just as the founders created a constitutional system with three co-equal branches of government in opposition and balance with one another, they believed the militia would meet the needs of national defense while also balancing the potential tyrannical power of a standing army.

    The American republic was created to be a deliberative republic.  Reason and debate are supposed to prevail over emotion and cynical assertions of power.  Among the industrialized nations of the world, only the United States tolerates mass violence with guns like we’ve seen this week.  Where others have seen spasms of gun violence in recent decades—as in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere—governments have acted to protect their citizens by restricting access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  In the United States, today, we remain paralyzed—not by fear, not by Constitutional parameters, and not by the intent of the founders.  No, we are paralyzed right now by a Senate leadership that simply refuses to even consider legislation to address this crisis.  It is a willful dereliction of duty, and it must end.