Category Archives: commentary

A Clear and Present Danger

I’ve been avoiding this issue for months. I just got tired about writing about Donald J. Trump. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that he simply could not keep up the pace. He could not commit, every single day of his administration, a bigger travesty than the one he had committed the day before.

I was wrong.

So here is the first of what will be a long stretch of blogs on Trump and the nation. The Trump reaction to a week of protests is just the latest manifestation. The groundwork had already been laid and was in the open for everyone to see. Take a look at April 17, 2020, the day a sitting President of these United States incited violent revolution. Here were Trump’s tweets:

Three calls to arms, to “LIBERATE,” one invoking the 2nd Amendment on gun ownership, all directed at states with popularly elected Democratic governors, who just happened to offend Trump in one way or another.

In the last week of May the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis led to protests which led to looting and arson. When the nation needed a calming voice, this is what Trump and then the official White House Twitter account tweeted:

Trump’s comment, “When the shooting starts…” is a 1967 quote from white Miami police chief Walter Headley, who targeted blacks ahead of the Republican convention. The words were repeated in 1968 by George Wallace, the staunch segregationist who was four time governor of Alabama. With these words Trump threatened to shoot his own citizens. A week later, he did just that.

Twitter initially blocked Trump’s tweet for “glorifying violence.” When the official White House account repeated the tweet, Twitter flagged it with the warning seen above. In response to Twitter’s decision to flag these tweets and others from Trump which the company believes promote lies or violence, Trump issued an executive order asking the Justice Department to look into legal remedies. Just what Trump’s lap dog attorney general will do is anyone’s guess. But while most legal scholars do not see the government having grounds to interfere with a private company such as Twitter, with the right wing zealots Trump and his Senate henchman Mitch McConnell have been putting on the federal bench in recent years who knows what will happen in the courts.

Remember, before he was elected Trump is the guy who bragged about having a concealed carry permit and often carrying a firearm although he was always in the company of a bodyguard who was built like an NFL defensive lineman. Now of course tough guy Trump is surrounded by the U. S. Secret Service. Typical of hypocrites, people who attend Trump rallies are not allowed to bring guns. Nor are visitors to the White House or the Senate’s public gallery. In fact, you can’t bring any guns to Capitol Hill.

But the Trump mob protesting state lockdowns to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 have no problem bringing assault rifles to the capitols of Michigan and Kentucky. Trump has repeatedly encouraged them and also supported protestors carrying guns and Nazi symbols because, in his mind, some of them are “good people.”

Trump is the guy who called out reporters during his campaign rallies and pointed them out to the crowds, prompting the Secret Service to escort the reporters to their cars after the rally to protect them on several occasions.

Even now, after the Secret Service had to temporarily lock down the White House because of unruly crowds gathering outside to protest Floyd killing, Trump was almost drooling at the thought of the agents engaged in violent confrontation with the protestors.

These are not the writings of a sane man. These are graphic descriptions of what he likes and how he would like things to be. This is not hyperbole, or speech uttered with a wink and a nod meant to solidify support from his “base.” This is “inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” which the Supreme Court says is not entitled to free speech protection.

The current massive mobilization of the innumerable Federal agencies authorized to physically enforce their own “rule of law” on the general population goes beyond anything a so-called government of the people has a right to implement.

Trump is a clear and present danger to the Constitution and the nation.

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From Ham to Dragon

Sunday May 31 2:00PM Update

They have arrived! Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley opened the hatch on the Crew Dragon and joined Expedition 63 on the International Space Station at 1:22pm Eastern Time and were greeted by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The crew will spend several days continuing to test the Dragon, making sure it is fully operational and ready to return crew members to earth. Then they will work with the other members of the space station crew to perform experiments and maintenance on the station, which has been in orbit with a human crew on board since the year 2000.

Sunday May 31 11:00am Update

It was just about 10:15am Eastern Time. The Crew Dragon, now named Endeavor by its crew, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, running on autopilot, approached and docked with the International Space Station. It had taken about 19 hours from liftoff Saturday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Saturday May 30 4:30PM Update

LIFTOFF! Crew Dragon is headed for the International Space Station. The first launch of American astronauts on an American vehicle from American soil went off without a hitch today. The Dragon with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board is now chasing the International Space Station with a scheduled arrival and docking about 10:30am Eastern Time Sunday morning. For some more detail on the orbital mechanics involved, check out the SpaceX site. And for continuous coverage through docking and the arrival celebration, check out NASA TV.

Wednesday May 27 5:20pm Update

Weather off the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida deteriorated throughout the day forcing a postponement of the planned history making launch of the Crewed Dragon with two NASA astronauts on board. SpaceX and NASA will try again to send Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on an American rocket from American soil for the first time in nine years on Saturday, May 30th at 3:22pm Eastern Time.


History in a Thumbnail

I remember my nine year old self begging my mother for permission to stay home one day from school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. But I had to watch “Ham,” the astrochimp, take off in a Mercury capsule on top of a Redstone rocket on a sunny January 31 in 1961, to become the first “hominid” in space.

This was the beginning of my life-long infatuation with space exploration.

When I was a senior in collage, December, 1972, I drove with classmates down the east coast to watch the liftoff of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon. I still remember the feeling as the Saturn V rocket lifted from the launch pad. It seemed like the entire earth was shaking.

In April, 1981, now working for CBS, I covered the first flight of the Space Shuttle. Another earth shaking moment as the ungainly combination of a huge tank with two rockets strapped to its sides and the shuttle itself riding its back rose into the skies.

Even more inspiring was the landing two days later on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force base in California. About the size of a 90 passenger DC-9 jetliner, the shuttle swooped out of the sky like an airplane on final approach. it was a beautiful sight.

I applied for a seat on the shuttle as part of the “Journalist in Space Project” There was also a “Teacher in Space Project” Both were cancelled when the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. 

Crew Dragon Demo-2

Which brings us to Crew Dragon Demo-2 (Demo-1 did not carry a human crew). If all goes according the plan (and I’ll keep refreshing the top of this blog with the latest developments), at 4:33 PM ET on Wednesday May 27th, 2020, veteran NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnkenas will take off on a journey to the International Space Station. They will be the first humans to ride in a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Both vehicles were designed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX under contract with NASA.

That marks another milestone. This is the first time a commercial company has been entrusted with a crewed mission to space. Donald J. Trump will be down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to bask in the limelight, and make sure he is in as many television images as he can be. Alongside Trump will be his trusted sidekick, Mike Pence, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma.

Commercial Crew was Obama-Biden Program

But make no mistake, this goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, returning Americans to space flight on American vehicles launched from American soil began in 2010, under the administration of President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. The NASA administrator was Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Charles F. Bolden, Jr.

The United States has been dependent on Russia for transportation to and from the space station since 2011, when the shuttle Atlantis, piloted by the same Douglas Hurley who will command Dragon Demo-2, landed at Kennedy ending what was the 135th and last shuttle mission.

Shuttle in History

The shuttle will, paradoxically, be remembered I think as one the greatest feats of engineering in history. The achievements of the shuttle program are too numerous to list here. It is hard to imagine how some of them could have been done with any other vehicle.

At the same time, we learned from the shuttle program that letting the politicians have control of the overall program goals led to fatal errors. The cost was two crews, 14 people, and two vehicles.

The shuttle was to be a “one size fits all” program, capable of doing anything that needed to be done in space. The lesson I hope we have all learned is that this is not practical. Humans are the most precious and the most fragile cargo that will ever ride into space. It is difficult and costly to protect us from that inhospitable and dangerous environment.

Humans will always have a role to play in space exploration. Any study of human history tells us that the need to explore is built into our very being. But we must not risk sending humans to space to do work automated systems can do.

In the early days of America’s human space flight program, the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, crew safety was first and foremost on the priority list. Still there were accidents and loss of life. In the shuttle, as anyone who has read the post-mortem reports of Columbia and Challenger can attest, there were points in the flight where a single failure could, and did, lead to catastrophe. In designing Mercury, Gemini and Apollo the goal was to always have a backup or abort mechanism in case of failure. I am happy to say that the backup/abort strategy has been followed in the design of the Falcon-Dragon about to make history.

Still it is worth saying one more time that the exploration of space is, at least today, a highly risky business. We will do it, because that’s just one of the things we humans do.

Godspeed Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnkenas, and the whole NASA-Space X team.

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Memorial Day 2020

On Memorial Day we in the United States honor the men and women who died while serving in the Armed Forces bravely defending the freedoms so many of us take for granted. It is a solemn occasion, meant to be a day for reflection. An acknowledgement of the sacrifices made and the lives cut short.

Presidents traditionally place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. The Tomb is marked with the words, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Presidents often mark the occasion with words of reassurance to the American people, expressing empathy and gratefulness for their loses. In this year of Covid-19, with about 100,000 Americans dead from the disease, many of them members of the military and many more from the front line of doctors, other medical personnel and first responders, such words would have been welcome.

But eloquence is not in Donald J. Trump’s vocabulary and empathy not in his playbook. Yes he did go and lay the wreath. After all, it made for a nice photo-op and will certainly get prominent play on the evening news. But Trump’s true emotions showed in his actions. After declaring houses of worship to be “essential” services and threatening the nation’s governors that he would “override them” if they did not allow churches to reopen this weekend, Trump immediately headed for the golf course. On both Saturday and Sunday Trump dragged his large contingent of security forces and hangers-on to his private Virginia golf course and played a few rounds. After his actions met with derision from critics and negative news reports, he took as usual to Twitter.

Trump’s obsession with President Barack Obama, more then three years into the Trump administration will by itself be fodder for the PhD dissertations of a generation of psychology students. It is just one item of evidence supporting the argument that Trump is a deeply troubled man.

Trump this Memorial Day weekend also threatened North Carolina that he would move the planned Republican Party convention from that state unless the Democratic governor Roy Cooper lifts all social distancing directives, allowing the Republicans to pack a stadium elbow to elbow, Covid-19 be damned.

Even worse then this holiday weekend’s series of direct tweets by Trump are the tweets of others retweeted by Trump. When you retweet, you pass along a message you came across to your followers. Trump has a history of retweeting some of the most inflammatory, vile, and crude screeds in this fashion. This weekend he passed along eight tweets from John K. Stahl, a failed Republican candidate for Congress from California.

Just in case you need a decoder for some of this garbage that Trump thinks you need to read, the first tweet takes a swipe at Stacey Abrams, the black former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives who might now be governor of that state if the Republicans had run a fair election. Abrams is considered a possible running mate for Joe Biden. The second tweet attacks Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who Stahl calls “PolyGrip.” And the third plants the moniker “Malarkey the Racist” on Biden himself while calling Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who beat Trump by almost three million in the popular vote count, a “skank.” Trump has been trying to brand Biden as a racist ever since Biden made a gaffe in a radio interview Friday. A gaffe for which Biden quickly apologized. Even hear Trump apologize for anything? Neither have I.

Contrast that with the message from our previous president, commenorating Memorial Day 2020:

I still miss him.

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Pale Blue Dot

A recent study found anecdotal evidence that our increased exposure to political strife is having a negative effect on our mental health, resulting in “frayed personal relationships, compromised emotional stability, and even physical problems.” So what else is new? I, for one, am getting sick and tired of writing about politics. I see it as a service, and personally cathartic. But still a stressful task.

So for once I’ll skip a political column and try something completely different. Pretty much lost in Donald Trump’s post-acquittal victory lap, NASA gave us all a Valentine’s gift. It reprocessed and re-released an image recorded thirty years ago, February 14, 1990, by Voyager 1, at the time 3.7 billion miles from the Sun.

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And So It Goes….

US Senate

It is over now. In the 241 year history of the United States there have only been three impeachment trials of a president. The impeachment of Donald J. Trump ended just as expected, with his acquittal by the United States Senate. The Senators sat as jurors but heard no live witnesses and read no documentary evidence other than that gathered by the House of Representatives. That was a marked departure from all other impeachment trials in the Senate.

What have we learned? We have learned that our government process has devolved into one where only party loyalty and raw political power counts. The House, with the Democrats in the majority, did not allow Republicans to call witnesses. The Senate, with the Republicans in the majority, blocked witnesses and documents and considered voting to “dismiss” the charges without even allowing the House managers to present their case.

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Jim Lehrer and the Future of News

Jim Lehrer - PBS NewsHour

Jim Lehrer, co-founder and for 36 years the anchor of the PBS NewsHour, died Thursday at the age of 85. He was also the executive editor of the broadcast, moderated 12 presidential debates, and wrote books of fiction and non-fiction, often on topics informed by his interest in journalism, politics and history. The NewsHour remembered and eulogized him on the program that night.

I cannot come close to the heartfelt feelings expressed by his NewsHour colleagues and I highly recommend the program to you. Although I worked for nearly three decades for the public television program Nightly Business Report, public television is about as siloed a group as you will find and I had the pleasure of meeting Lehrer only once. I do remember being tongue tied at meeting the man who is now being mourned as a “giant in journalism.” He of course was friendly and unassuming with me.

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National Archive Gets Trumped

As you know I don’t usually report on other reporters. Nor do I link to material behind paywalls, although I support the use of paywalls to enable reporters to make a living. But there is a story justifiably blazing through the cloud that touches on many of the topics I hold dear and deserves a shout-out.

My tip of the hat goes to Joe Heim of the Washington Post and his story, “National Archives exhibit blurs images critical of President Trump.” Tweet National Archives TrumpedHeim, in a Twitter post after the story went viral, said his story was in part due to “chance.” I’ll respectfully disagree. Heim was visiting the National Archive when he noticed something that had nothing to do with his reporting assignment. That’s not chance. That’s good reporting. I’ve often told journalism students the best story ideas come from their own observations. A good reporter always keeps eyes open.

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