The first Monday in October does not get a special note on most calendars, unless you are in the government or parts of the legal profession. This is the day the Supreme Court of the United States usually begins its term. And this term is expected to be more notable than most for the government’s least visible branch.
The expectations are probably the reason several of the usually reticent judges who sit on the court have been unusually public in their comments and complaints in recent weeks following a three month “recess” which was also unusual for the amount of news it made.
I’ve been trying to make sense of it because I’ve been here before. On the left, Saigon, April 29, 1975. On the right Kabul, August 16, 2021. In 1975 I was at my first post school job in the CBS newsroom in Chicago. The helicopters were evacuating Americans and Vietnamese who had worked with Americans as they fought the communists. In 2021, I’m at the other end of my career. The helicopters are taking out Americans and Afghans who worked with Americans as they fought the Taliban. Forty-six years between these similar scenes. It is eerie.
Yes of course there are many differences between the two events. But from my perspective, there are far too many similarities. We do not seem to learn from history. We just repeat it.
I doubt I will go to witness the ceremony of remembrance at the 9-11 Memorial this year, the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attack. I am never comfortable when I am at the 16-acre site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. It’s not the memories. Those come and go depending on what is going on in the world. It’s the images which lingered before me for months after that day. Now they almost never return. Unless I am at the site.
On September 11, 2001, my wife Amy and I lived in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. We had moved there from midtown just a few months earlier. Our apartment building was at the south end of the neighborhood, south and west of WTC Tower #2. I was the New York Bureau Chief and Senior Correspondent for public television’s Nightly Business Report and the newsroom/production facility/broadcast studio was just across West Street, even closer to the tower, due south of the site. Tower #2 filled the window of my bedroom, and of my office.
I don’t mean to brag but, well, yes I do. My hometown Chicago White Sox beat the New York Yankees 9-8 in the Field of Dreams game with a dramatic bottom of the ninth inning walk off home run by Tim Anderson. The lead had changed hands several times. There is no hiding the fact that baseball faces some big challenges in the years a ahead. Perhaps this event will help. It was a great game.
August 12, 2021
Tonight the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees will play the first major league baseball game ever in the state of Iowa. There will be eight thousand people in the stands. They will have paid from $1,500 to $5,000 for the privilege. The town of Dyersville, Iowa, the game’s location, has a total population of about four thousand. The game will be telecast on Fox at 7:15 Eastern Time.
The special game commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of one of my all time favorite films, Field of Dreams, which stars Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Timothy Busfield, and in his last film role, Burt Lancaster. The anniversary was actually last year but the tribute game, originally scheduled for 2020, was delayed by the Covid shutdown.
This is the story of a man named Ray Kinsella who came of age in the turbulent 1960s and has decided to head for Iowa with his wife and young daughter and take up farming in search of something he is not quite sure of. There, while out tending his corn crop he hears a mysterious voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.” And he sees a vision of a baseball field in the middle of the corn. He plows under his corn and builds the field. Eventually, a group of “ghost” players from the disgraced Chicago Black Sox team of 1919 show up to play.
Yes, this is a fantasy. If you can’t get your mind around that you may as well stop here and wait for my next blog on public affairs. It is also an ode to the sport of baseball, perhaps not as popular as it once was but still the great American pastime. It is a romance guys can shed a tear over without embarrassment, for it is the story of a man’s love for his family, his sport, and his father. And it is a teacher of life’s great lessons. Don’t put off telling people what they mean to you. If you wait too long you may never get the chance. And don’t search too hard for what is important, it is probably right in front of you.
I still remember seeing my first professional baseball game. My father took the nine year old me to watch the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. The Yankees were playing. I was already playing baseball at school and summer camp and I was never much of an athlete. But baseball was a game you could play at all skill levels, and later in life I still enjoyed playing whether is was an intermural game at college or a game of mixed softball between other newsroom teams in Chicago’s summer soft ball leagues.
The wonderful actor Kevin Costner, on the other hand, is a serious athlete with a special love for baseball. He is often involved with professional teams and might have been good enough to play in the majors if a little thing like his film career didn’t get in the way. He starred in three of the greatest base ball films of all time, Bull Durham and For Love of the Game as well as Field of Dreams. He played a retired baseball player in The Upside of Anger and narrated the documentary, Fastball. Costner has said he was reluctant to do Field of Dreams because he had just finished Bull Durham but changed his mind once he read the script by Phil Alden Robinson, who also directed, and W.P. Kinsella, author of the book, “Shoeless Joe” on which it is based.
But beyond Costner’s wonderful performance and the great script, there are great moments for all of the supporting players.
There is Amy Madigan, who plays Kinsella’s wife, Annie. Also a child of the sixties, as am I, she stands by Ray even as their financial situation gets more and more dire because of the baseball field occupying space needed to grow enough corn to keep the farm in business. Even as Ray reacts to a second message from the mysterious voice, “Ease His Pain.”
Little needs to be said about the presence of James Earl Jones in any film. Here the great actor plays a J. D. Salinger like character, a reclusive author, the real Salinger whose name was used in the novel reportedly objected. Jones’s “Terence Mann” acts as an expository partner for Costner’s Kinsella until the end when he delivers a monologue, that ode to baseball I talked about earlier, as worthy as any Shakespeare performance you might see. “People will come” to see the mysterious “ghost” players from years gone by to play the game they love in Ray’s field, he tells his friend.
Ray Liotta plays “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” the player from the days of the Chicago Black Sox scandal who arrives at the field first. Timothy Busfield , who plays Annie’s pain-in-the-rear brother Mark who is allied with a group of investors who want to buy the mortgage note on the farm which Ray cannot pay. Mark can’t see the players on the field of course, because Mark does not believe. There is the child actor Gaby Hoffman, who plays Ray and Annie’s daughter, Karin and tells Ray that the people who come to watch the game will gladly pay enough money to save the farm.
And then there is the legend Burt Lancaster, in what was to be his last performance. Lancaster plays a doctor loved by the people of his small town. But Dr. Archibald Graham has a secret. He once played baseball in the minor leagues and was called up to the majors on the last day of a season. He played one inning. The ball was never hit in his direction. He never got to bat and never got another chance. “Moonlight” was the nickname they gave him. He regrets never having batted, and Ray commiserates after somehow being transported back in time to meet Graham, that it was a tragedy. (Skip over the time travel thing please, I told you this is fantasy). “No,” says Moonlight, “it would have been a tragedy if I had never had a chance to become a doctor.”
These lessons are all here to be learned. And at the end, Ray realizes that his father, John, played by Dwier Brown, is the catcher on the ghost team. “He” has come. Father and son have a catch, the catch Ray never had with his father when he was still alive. The “pain” was Ray’s. And it has now been eased. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.
So watch tonight’s game. Go see the movie. Appreciate what you have. Don’t regret what you have not. Be good to your parents. And to yourselves. And to everyone you love.
The racist party scored another infinite victory in the United States Senate with all 50 Republicans voting against even discussing legislation to overhaul election law in America. Of course the Constitution says in case of a tie vote the Vice President, currently Democrat Kamala Harris, breaks the tie. But this democratic majority rules standard doesn’t apply here because this wasn’t a vote on passing into law the “For the People Act.” This was a “motion to proceed to consideration.” This little bit of nonsense, known as a cloture vote, requires a three-fifths vote. A 50-50 tie doesn’t cut it. You won’t find this “filibuster” rule in the Constitution either. It has been a tool of the racists for years.
The law would protect voting rights, end partisan gerrymandering, establish new ethics rules for federal officials, and curb big money in politics. No wonder it didn’t stand a chance. Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell called it a “power grab” by Democrats.
Let’s just make a little reality check here. Senate Democrats represent 43 MILLION more people than Senate Republicans but 41 Republicans representing just 21% of the voters in the country can block the For the People Act, which is supported by 68% of Americans. Democracy is the loser here.
And what exactly are the terrible things this For the People Act would address? They are the things that would combat the seemingly never ending attempts to keep in force the Jim Crow laws which are designed to prevent primarily people of color from voting. These laws institutionalize the practices which interfere with the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of the right to vote.
Partisan gerrymandering as a tool for disenfranchising voters.
The principle that people should choose who represents them instead of the other way around.
That we should make it easier for people to vote, not more difficult.
That corporations should not be able to buy elections.
That dark (or untraceable) money does not belong in politics.
That government should work for the people, not the special interests.
These are all things Republicans cannot stand for the simple reason that when people vote, Republicans lose. And Mitch McConnell doesn’t like to lose. The man who represents the four and a half million people of Kentucky just loves telling presidents elected with 80 million votes where they can stuff it. He blocked the agenda of Barack Obama. Now he’s blocking the agenda of Joe Biden.
But McConnell isn’t the only winner in this vote. Let’s not forget that it represents a great victory for John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States. John Roberts has made the destruction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 his lifelong crusade. His opposition to the Act dates back to his days as a law clerk for then Associate Justice William Rehnquist. Rehnquist, also to become a Chief, notoriously wrote a memo in 1952 stating, “I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be re-affirmed.” Plessy was the infamous “separate but equal” case institutionalizing racism in public schools. It was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Roberts, made Chief by President George W. Bush in 2005, got his ultimate chance to fight back for the cause of racism in America in 2013, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the typical Republic talking point that the courts should defer to the legislative branch and refrain from “activism” in their interpretation of law. In Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, Attorney General et al. Roberts, writing for a 5-4 conservative majority, gutted the Voting Rights Act. In Shelby, Roberts struck down the Act’s formula determining which states had to receive advance federal approval for their changes in election law and procedure. Roberts complained that the “preapproval rule” for some states should not remain in force for such a long time without Congress updating the data on racist regulation in their territories which led it to enact the remedy. He mocked critics, telling them the states would not be so bold as to resume their racist activities. “Our country has changed,” he concluded.
Five years after the ruling, nearly 1,000 polling places had closed, many of them in predominantly African-American counties. Research shows that changing and reducing voter locations can reduce voter turnout. A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (a bipartisan, independent commission of the United States federal government) found that there had been an increase in laws making it harder for minorities to vote. The commission found that at least 23 states enacted restrictive voter laws, such as closures of polling places, cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls, and imposition of strict voter ID laws.
According to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, so far 18 states have put in place more than 30 laws restricting access to the ballot. These laws will affect around 36 million people, or about 15% of all eligible voters. In Georgia, a new law means that county election boards will no longer be bipartisan but will be appointed by Republicans; other states are similarly stripping power from Democrats to put Republicans in charge.
Roberts does not limit his disfavor to legislation designed to protect voting rights. Housing rights are on his radar as well. Is the Chief a racist or is he just naïve? His history indicates he is getting exactly what he wants.
There are some Democrats who believe the loss of this vote, preordained and expected, is just part one of a series of battle that will eventually produce voting rights legislation that will be less expansive than the For the People Act but still effective. One can only hope.
But history shows wishful thinking is not a viable political strategy and I see little likelihood Republicans will do anything that can be labeled bipartisan. The only answer seems to be to keep the votes, and losses, coming and run on these issues in 2022.
Perhaps a few extra seats in the Senate can be won by Democrats. But with Republican state legislatures left to gerrymander the boundaries of their districts, see my personal favorite abomination below ,designing them to disenfranchise people of color in Houston, one has to wonder if there is any hope for Democrats. Or for Democracy.
The district is represented by Republican Daniel Crenshaw, who is one of the insurrectionists who tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election of Joe Biden. The boundaries of the district have been drawn to take as many black and Hispanic voters out of the other districts more generally in Houston, to reduce their numbers, while still being fewer than the number of white suburban voters included. That insures a Republican seat and renders ineffective a large number of minority voters who might prefer a Democrat. What a racket.
Money has always been a big factor in American politics. You can’t outright pay politicians in return for their vote on an issue of interest to you. That’s bribery and it’s a crime. 18 U.S. Code § 201. But you can come very close. That’s because it costs a tremendous amount of money to run for public office and we leave it to the politicians to raise their own funds.
State-wide races for governor, state legislator, or U.S. House or Senate seats can cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. A major state-wide campaign requires a hefty advertising budget and paid staff to handle things like communications, strategic planning, finances, and legal compliance.
So the holders of public office, from the smallest local post to the highest in the land, spend a great amount of their time raising money to finance their elections. In fact, both the Republican and the Democratic parties have offices located within walking distance of the Capitol. That’s because it is illegal for members to raise money from offices paid for by taxpayer dollars. The party offices contain phone banks and members are expected to put in time working those phones. Dialing for dollars as it were.
What does the donor get for those dollars? As previously stated it is not as crass as, “You make the donation and I’ll vote your way.” But it’s damn close. Consider this scenario: Two constituents are on the line, both want to talk to you about a piece of pending legislation. One is an individual wage earner who is barely making ends meet and either doesn’t contribute to your campaign fund at all or gives a token $25 each election cycle. The other is a professional lobbyist who represents a Fortune 100 company. That company contributes $250,000 each year to a political action committee which runs negative advertisements about your political opponent. Which call will you take?
The Curse of the First Amendment
It is, I must painfully admit, our wonderful First Amendment which is primarily responsible for this problem. While many countries have limits on how much money can be spent on political campaigns, and restrictions on how much money can be contributed, we have to cope with the wisdom of the framers who wrote:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
U.S. Constitution, First Amendment
There is little question that the right of free speech allows one to stand on the tallest soapbox one can find and speak in favor of one’s favorite political candidate. Or that the right of a free press allows journalists to write what they will about the candidates. And that right to petition the Government? That is the right both our individual constituent and the lobbyist were exercising in the example I described above.
Make no mistake about it. Political speech is exactly the kind of speech the framers were writing about when they drafted the First Amendment. This was the kind of speech that could get your head separated from your body if you uttered it back then in many of the countries of Europe and the reigning monarch happened to take offense. So for our long history as a nation political speech has been some of the most protected.
That makes it extremely difficult to restrict the political speech of individuals and does give the rich an advantage. They can afford to buy expensive television commercials and web advertisements promoting their favorite candidates and policies. At least, that’s how Mister Justice Gurvey sees it.
But I am unlikely to preside from any bench other than the one in my garden. And those who sit on the federal benches of the United States have a far more expansive view of first amendment freedoms. I read the Constitution to apply to the relationship between people, as in the opening words of the preamble, “We the People,” and their government. Our federal judges have thrown corporations into the mix by ruling that corporations are people.
To me the concept is absurd. Business entities that survive the lives of their owners were well known to the framers who wrote the Constitution. In fact, most of the colonies were themselves business entities in the form of royal charters or grants. If the framers wanted these business entities to have the rights of people they would have said so. They did not. And that should be that for any originalist, textualist, or whatever the term the judges on the conservative right like to cite. Except, that they want corporations to have the rights of people. So consistent judicial logic goes out the window and they wave the rules of textualism where failure to do so might lead to a legal result inconsistent with their overriding ideology. Thus speaks the hypocrite.
So if you want to play the “let’s write the laws” game you have to pay the law-writers. But while “Pay to Play” is, thanks to the Supreme Court, perfectly legal, there is still one rule most people follow: You pay to play but you don’t talk about Pay to Play. That’s because it looks bad, because it is bad. And politicians are afraid of looking bad. At least in front of the voters.
Unless of course you are Ted Cruz, a man so out of touch with reality, or just so dumb, that he just puts it out there. Texas’s answer to all three stooges recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal complaining about corporations that are “woke.” By that he means, corporations like Coca-Cola, whose CEO James Quincey criticized voter suppression laws now being enacted in dozens of Republican controlled states saying he opposed “measures in the bills that would diminish or deter access to voting.” Quincey said Coke’s political action committee will not contribute to the campaigns of politicians who support these laws.
Well then, huffs and puffs Cruz, Senator guy who escaped for a vacation in Mexico while the people of his state were freezing during a power outage, if you don’t pay, don’t expect to play, Yes, Cruz supports voter suppression laws, and he tweeted:
It some ways it was certainly unusual. But mostly its normalcy made it a breath of fresh air. For more than an hour President Joe Biden delivered a report to Congress, the nation, and the world on the state of the state one hundred days into his administration. He laid out the achievements already accomplished, the programs now under way, and the proposals he is sending to Congress for enactment into law.
One way the speech was unusual was that there were two women behind the president. Presiding over the joint session of Congress were Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is President of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was a historic first. Another way was that the chamber, which normally holds 1,600 people for these events, was limited to 200 by pandemic protocols. The audience members were socially distanced and most were masked.