Category Archives: commentary

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.

On that date Voyager 1 was headed out of our solar system on a flight that began in 1977. It had already imaged Jupiter and Saturn and was now exploring Neptune. Carl Sagan, the great scientist and science evangelist was a member of the Voyager imaging team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The plan, following the Neptune encounter, was to turn off Voyager’s cameras to save power for its other instruments as it traveled beyond the outermost planets. Sagan suggested before they did that, that they turn the spacecraft around, point it toward Earth, and see what it saw.

The newly released image has been reprocessed and is sharper and brighter than the version released thirty years ago. Still as you can see, Earth is the tiniest dot within a scattered ray of sunlight.

For everyone who is stressed by humanity’s current state of affairs I suggest you take a break, stop, look and contemplate how insignificant these problems should be in the grand scheme of the universe. Sagan said it best:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Carl Sagan, Copyright © 2006 by Democritus Properties, LLC.
All rights reserved including the rights of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

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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.

We have also learned that the president is immune from impeachment as long as his political party controls at least one house of Congress. He is also immune from any oversight, free to spend funds as he sees fit even if his actions are in defiance of laws passed by Congress and signed by him, and free to ignore Congressional requests, even in subpoena form, for any documents or testimony.

In sum we have reached the stage where we have a president who has all the powers of an absolute monarch, save for the fact that he must win election and then reelection by the Electoral College. In that scheme neither the legislative nor the judicial branch are necessary.

There were a couple of unexpected moments in the impeachment proceedings. Utah Republican Mitt Romney voted to convict Trump on one of the two articles of impeachment. And West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, representing a very Republican state and thought to be learning toward acquittal, stood with his fellow Democrats and voted to convict on both articles. Their acts deprived Trump of his ability to claim a bipartisan acquittal or a unanimous display of loyalty by Republicans.

When President Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in 1999 following his impeachment by the House, he addressed the nation with a contrite apology. Those who expected something similar a move toward healing from Trump, I’m thinking of you Susan Collins, Republican Senator from Maine, were shown to be fools. Again.

Trump’s dance of vindication and retribution began the day before the final vote. Delivering the state of the union address to a joint session of Congress, Trump pointedly refused to shake the hand of the Speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California. After his address, during which he was in full political rally mode, Pelosi pointedly torn up her copy of the speech.

The day after the vote Trump attended the National Prayer Breakfast. Trump spoke after an opening call for unity and promptly announced that he could not agree with the lead speaker. He then went into a tirade of attacks on his political opponents, including Speaker Pelosi, who was also seated on the dais.

Trump then adjourned to the White House, where he staged a full blown campaign event, the audience made up of the people who had fought favorably in his defense. The rant was wall to wall a recitation of false claims of success covering events of his first three years in office. And ad hominem attacks on his perceived opponents, including many of the core institutions of the government itself. The broadcast news media, itself a target of Trump’s vitriol, covered it as if it were a news conference.

Trump finished the week with a little score setting and bloodletting. Trump threw Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman off the National Security Council. Vindman, an expert on Ukraine,  had testified during the House impeachment hearings. An active duty soldier, the Purple Heart winner will be reassigned. Trump also recalled Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Sondland, a political appointee who bought his post by giving one million dollars to Trump’s first campaign, also testified before the House committee.

Trump also dismissed  Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman from the NSC. Yevgeny Vindman is a lawyer and the only reason he drew Trump’s ire appears to be the fact that he is Alexander’s twin brother. Both Vindmans were marched out of the White House by security officers, just like you expel an employee you have found stealing from the petty cash drawer.

Of course the Tweeter-in- Chief, who seems to have time to write scores of “Tweets” at all hours of the day and night, argues that all of these people were inadequate performers. His syncopates have defended all these actions, noting that a president’s staff serves at the president’s pleasure. That may be true but the civil rights violations here just beg for lawsuits.

For many people commenting on what has become of our government, it is a sad day. But one need only to have watched Trump’s rambling disoriented performances on camera to realize that this has been the game plan all along. Better articulated by Trump’s Svengali Steve Bannon on the Bill Maher HBO show, this is the destruction of what they call the “deep state.” Others call it the destruction of our federal government and the rise of totalitarianism.

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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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I Have a Dream….

My dream is that Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican Leader of the Senate, solemnly announces that he has received from the House of Representatives Articles of Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, and that as detailed by the Constitution and the rules of the Senate he is turning the gavel over to the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, who will preside (Article I, Section 3, Clause 6).

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L’état n’est pas Donald Trump

L’affaire Trump has entered a new stage. In a scathing eight page letter to Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declared that Donald Trump “cannot participate” in the House’s impeachment inquiry, complaining the “inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections.”

The Trumpies of course love the letter even though it reads like Trump himself sketched it out, filling it with his long list of lies and manufactured grievances, and then handed it to Cipollone. I can imagine Cipollone struggling to take out Trump’s usual adjectives like, “lil’ Adam Schiff,” and adding some legalese. The resulting argument would get a failing grade in anyone’s first year Constitutional Law course.

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The Whistle Blows for Trump

I won’t even try to fight it, as I did in my last blog. Now the whistleblower’s complaint has been released and so was a summary memo describing the telephone conversation Donald Trump had with the President of Ukraine.

Please, I beg you. READ the complaint and the telephone call memo. Make up your own mind. Beware the pundits and the spinners. Even me. It remains both inexplicable and frustrating to me that two people can look at the same material and come to different conclusions. But that’s life. What I can’t abide is people voicing an opinion without having read the material. Each document is only a handful of pages long. Make the effort.

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