The churches of Cades Cove

Townsend, Tenn. – The people of Cades Cove are long gone, their homes and history absorbed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But their churches remain, and the graves behind them still tell stories.

The Primitive Baptist Church tells the story of the Civil War in the border territories. Slavery wasn’t common in the mountains of East Tennessee, and Union sentiment ran strong. But the region was very much split, and things got personal. The church stopped meeting during the war made their reasons public: “It was on account of the Rebellion and we was Union people and the Rebels was too strong here in Cades Cove. Our preacher was obliged to leave sometimes, and thank God we once more can meet.”

A gravestone in the graveyard nearby reads: “Russell Gregory 1795 – 1864 Murdered by North Carolina Rebels.”

A short ride down the road and you’ll find the Methodist Church, which split in two during the war. Half a mile further is the Missionary Baptist Church. It also stopped meeting during the war, and when it began meeting again, Confederate sympathizers weren’t invited.

What a hard time that must have been.

Slide show: Alaska

Alaska is huge, too big to see in a single visit, and we didn’t really try. I went north of Anchorage, up to Denali, and south of Anchorage to Homer, on the coast. We stopped in Palmer to visit the Alaska State Fair and spent a little time in Anchorage, where 40 percent of the state’s population lives. I wrote five columns about Alaska. I wrote five columns about Alaska, and barely scratched the surface.

I also took a lot of pictures, so here are some of them.

The emotionally stunted president

In watching Trump’s reaction to Putin and the Mueller probe, two questions keep nagging at me:

1.    If he’s really innocent, why is he acting so guilty?

2.    If he’s really guilty, why is he acting so guilty?

Whether Trump’s innocent, guilty or something in between, sucking up to Putin is a strategy with little upside. It doesn’t win him points with any significant group of voters. It doesn’t help him in Congress, in court, in the court of public opinion. You’d think even Putin would advise him to cool it a little with the fawning, to take a couple of shots at Russia to maintain his credibility.

In Helsinki, Trump doubled-down on his position, acting much more like a Russian asset than any self-respecting Russian asset should. And not like any president America has seen.

It reminded me of a conversation I’ve been having with a friend who is that rare bird: a thinking person, no stranger to politics, who still likes and supports Trump. He tells me to ignore Trump’s tweets. They are shiny objects meant to distract us from what’s really going on. Behind the tweets is a disruptive genius transforming politics and the country.

 The problem is that Trump’s tweets show us the man: how he sees the world, what he cares about, his impulsiveness, his disregard for truth and facts. He shows the same qualities in interviews and off-the-cuff remarks.

I haven’t heard people saying the private Trump is different from the public Trump. Mostly I’ve heard that he’s worse in private - more whiny, more angry. Maureen Dowd quoted one White House insider describe Trum as “the meanest man I ever met”?

In other words, there’s no genius within the self-absorbed twit, no method to his madness. What we see is what we got: a man who is emotionally undeveloped: shallow, self-centered, impatient, impulsive, incapable of empathy.

Emotionally undeveloped people can be self-destructive. They don’t understand how their actions look to others. They don’t always act in their own best interests, don’t always act rationally. Hence, Trump’s bizarre relationship with Putin.

I’m sure there are smart people around Trump who are using him to advance policies Republicans generally favor. For them, it's working: While the clown in the center ring grabs all the attention, men in understated suits quietly pick the pockets of the spectators.

But Republicans are riding a tiger. In the real world, emotionally undeveloped people tend to make bad decisions that end in disaster, the latest being Trump’s crazy week in Europe.

The only questions are how many disasters Trump will create before karma takes him down in flames, and how many Republicans in understated suits end up going down with him. That, and what remains of America after the curtain comes down on this circus.

Hard time to celebrate

It’s been a tough week here in America.

 

It started with an uncivil debate over civility, after the president’s press secretary was denied service at a farm-to-table restaurant in lovely Lexington, Virginia. I’ve been to Lexington, and had a meal at the Red Hen a few years ago, for what that’s worth.

Then the Supreme Court closed its term with a handful of unfortunate 5-4 decisions. One made it harder for labor unions to survive. One made it easier for politicians to draw legislative districts to their advantage. One upheld a presidential decree denying entry to people born in certain Muslim countries that don’t have business ties to the Trump Organization.

Then Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, meaning Trump gets to name a new Supreme Court justice, putting in jeopardy rights we thought had been firmly established in law.

Then came the mass shooting at a small newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. It was the 179th mass shooting of the year, with half a year to go. Every one of them is an outrage and a tragedy, but this one especially hit home for me.

I worked for 37 years in the newsrooms of small newspapers very much like the Capital Gazette, most of that time as editorial page editor. We dealt with crazy and angry folks all the time: people mad about an editorial I wrote, an obituary that stirred up a family dispute, a letter to the editor I wouldn’t print, an arrest record we wouldn’t cover up, or a carrier who wouldn’t leave the paper on the porch like the customer wanted. They threatened to cancel their subscriptions, call the owner, file a lawsuit or do us physical harm. I always tried to take it in stride. These were our readers and dealing with crazies was part of the job. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried about one of these angry readers showing up with a gun. My wife worried too.

Tom Marquardt, former executive editor of the Capital Gazette, worried especially about one local crazy who had been harassing folks in his newsroom for years. Jarrod Ramos had been upset over a news article that cast him in a bad light. He had sued, and he had threatened. “I said at one time to my attorneys that this was a guy that was going to come and shoot us,” he told the New York Times. Thursday, he did.

I didn’t know any of the five people killed by Ramos, but I worked closely with people just like them: Wendy Winters, 65, who knew everyone in Ann Arundel county and covered neighborhood news no one cared about except readers; Rebecca Smith, 34, a recently-hired sales assistant, described as kind, likeable and enthusiastic about finding a media job; John McNamara, 56, a former sports writer who was now the single reporter covering Bowie, Maryland, and who also edited two of the company’s weeklies; Rob Hiaasen, 59, an editor and features columnist, formerly a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, who was considered a mentor by young reporters at the Capital; Gerald Fischman, 61, the longtime editorial page editor, known for his tightly-reasoned editorials and for the influence his writing had on community leaders.

Local journalism is a public service and a fun job, where you can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s also a constant struggle to survive in a dying industry. At papers like the Capital Gazette and my MetroWest Daily News, downsizing forces everyone to take on multiple jobs. You work long hours for crappy pay and leave the office feeling like you still didn’t give the community the newspaper it deserves.

I was one of the lucky few who squeezed a full career out of newspaper journalism, retiring 18 months ago on my own schedule, before the corporation laid me off or bought me out. Four of the five Capital Gazette journalists killed Thursday were within a few years of being able to pull off the same feat. I cry for them, their colleagues and families.

Meanwhile, we’re coming up on the Fourth of July, a holiday dedicated to feeling good about the U.S.A. For many people, that’s going to be tough this year. In my column this week, I do my best to recall the ideals that underlie our patriotism, and to find in the folding of a giant flag in a historic fort a lesson in freedom and unity. You can read it here:

https://www.rickholmes.net/what-the-flag-asks-of-us/

 

 

Standing tall in Alton

I wrote this week about Alton, Ill., a Mississippi River town that became a flashpoint in the years leading up to the Civil War. It’s a pleasant town in a scenic location, not thriving in the way it once did – it rivaled Chicago at one point in the 19th century – but not desolate like some places we’ve passed through.

My column focused to the 19th century, but there are two 20th century figures who stand tall in Alton.

In the first case, really really tall. Robert Wadlow was born in Alton in 1918 with a pituitary gland disorder that made him grow fast and keep growing. At 8 years old he was six feet tall. When he died of an infection at 22, he stood 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall and weighed 439 pounds. He still holds the Guinness record as world’s tallest man.

In Alton, Wadlow was known as “the gentle giant.” He toured with the circus and made personal appearances for a shoe company, but he always came home to Alton. Almost 10,000 people came out for his funeral. There’s a full-size statue of him in town, and it’s a thing to behold.

The other is a giant in music. Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton in 1926, the son of a dental surgeon and a music teacher, and soon the family moved to East St. Louis. His father gave him his first horn at 13, and a few years later he earned admission to the Julliard School of Music in New York. But his real education happened uptown, where he began playing with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. The rest is history. Over the next 50 years he was among the most influential figures in American music.

Miles Davis went through several musical reinventions through a trail-blazing career. For awhile he was a singular figure in jazz – the inventor and popularizer of the cool jazz that was the soundtrack for an era. If you didn’t have “Kind of Blue” in your record collection in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you didn’t know music. If you don’t have it now, you’re still missing something.

There’s a statue of Miles Davis in downtown Alton, striking a characteristic pose. It doesn’t exactly fit in. You don’t think of someone so authentically cool – in some ways, the inventor of cool – growing up in an upper middle class house in such an All-American small town. But there it is.

The desert in black and white

Georgia O’Keeffe lived most of her adult life in Manhattan, where she was part of the New York arts scene. So was Alfred Steiglitz, the famous photographer, who became her sponsor and later her husband. Then she fell in love with northern New Mexico, and brought her New Yorker husband with her.

 

At the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, I was moved by her paintings of the Southwest, and especially her use of color. But I was also struck by Steiglitz’s photos of the desert, which were – like his Manhattan work – in black-and-white. How could anyone go into the desert of New Mexico, which is so alive with natural colors, and see it in black and white?

The next day we went for a hike at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, a spectacular but uncrowded corner of the desert. I decided to give the Steiglitz method a try. Here are some of the results.  

In praise of Western Movies

I close my column this week with a quote that’s been rattling around my brain for at least 40 years. That’s one of the things that make what I do fun.

The line - “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” - comes from John Ford’s classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” which includes echoes of the Lincoln County War I wrote about. It’s a wonderful movie with a great cast: James Stewart as the lawyer trying to bring order to a lawless town, John Wayne as the loner who saves it and Lee Marvin as the outlaw terrorizing it.

Now that I’ve revealed myself as a western movie fan, I might as well make a few recommendations. First, a few directly related to the stories I wrote about in the column:

The Left-Handed Gun (1958): Hollywood’s version of the Lincoln County War, with Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Sam Pekinpah’s take on friendship, violence and politics in Lincoln County, with Kris Kristofferson as Billy, James Coburn as Garrett and Bob Dylan as a mysterious stranger. Dylan also supplies the soundtrack, which gave us “Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

Young Guns (1988): The Regulators, portrayed as a collection of young ‘80s hotties, with Emilio Estavez as Billy, and Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips as his sidekicks.

And here are a few others I fell in love with at an impressionable age:

Red River (1948): John Wayne and Montgomery Clift play out an emotional father-son conflict in this Howard Hawks masterpiece set in a cattle drive. Wayne turns into a tyrant in a fine piece of acting.

How the West Was Won (1962). This was created to play on an ultrawide screen, with three projectors running at the same time. It had three directors, too, and three all-star casts. On the right screen, it can be spectacular.

Rio Bravo (1959): Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson take on an outlaw gang intent on springing their buddy from Wayne’s jail. It’s another Hawks classic.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): Paul Newman and Robert Redford in one of the great buddy movies of all time.

There are more I could name, but I’ll leave it there. If you’ve got any favorites, feel free to share them.

 

 

Red states, blue states and the travesty of the Electoral College

In my year of wandering and wondering across America, I’ve thought often about how many of the institutions that bind us together have lost credibility. Americans have lost respect for public education, for established religion, for traditional media, for government and public service in general. For many of these institutions, it’s hard to imagine getting that credibility back.

Politics in general, and the election system in particular, have also lost credibility. Politics has always divided Americans, but elections have also worked to bring us together. We come together to debate the issues, evaluate the candidates and make decisions on Election Day. But the tribalism in American politics has grown worse in my lifetime. The debates don’t change anyone’s minds and the elections don’t decide anything. Mobilizing the base has become more important than persuading the undecided. Loud voices from all sides denounce the system as “rigged,” so the results it produces carry no weight. We don’t come together the day after Election Day; we just start the next campaign.

There are lots of factors involved in this decline: Big money donors drown out the voices of individual voters. Media has become more partisan, and even media that try to carry on the traditional role as objective reporters and judicious referees are denounced as biased. One party has convinced its voters that electoral fraud is rampant, while the other argues that voter suppression is tilting the results. Then there’s the Red State/Blue State business, which I criticize in my latest column from Texas.

I blame Chuck Todd, who popularized the shorthand way of painting states in primary colors during the long election night of 2000, and the graphics editors who perpetuated it. It’s now so prevalent that you’d think Democratic states were blue and Republican states were red since the days of the Founders.

But mostly I blame the Electoral College, and the winner-take-all formula nearly every state uses to allocate electors. It devalues the votes of those in the minority in their states; it depresses turnout; it has created a situation where national campaigns concentrate on a handful of “battleground” states and ignore the rest.

And in two of the last five elections, the Electoral College has awarded the White House to the candidate who came in second in votes. That’s just crazy, and undemocratic. No wonder the electoral system has lost credibility.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who is giving Ted Cruz a stiffer challenge than anyone expected, call for the abolition of the Electoral College at a town hall event outside Austin last week. “One person, one vote,” he said, with the same weight given to a vote whether it’s cast in “blue” Massachusetts, “red” Texas, or “purple” Ohio.

More on O’Rourke in the column you may find in a GateHouse newspaper near you or here: https://www.rickholmes.net/can-beto-flip-texas/

 

 

Personal history

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I had personal reasons for making Louisiana a stop on our travels. My mother grew up in Louisiana, and across the river in Mississippi. She was one of five children of a Presbyterian minister whose job entailed establishing new churches, so they moved around quite a bit.

My parents met in Washington, DC, during World War II. She was staying with my grandfather, who was an interim pastor at a Washington church. He was in the Navy, helping build aircraft carriers. They corresponded when he shipped out to the Pacific on the carrier he’d helped build – he was one of several GIs she wrote to as part of the war effort, she said. In any event, thus did a New England businessman and a music teacher from the Deep South fall in love. On his way back from the Pacific, he stopped in Baton Rouge, where hey were married, in my grandfather’s church, on June 21, 1946.

So since I was in Baton Rouge, I went to take a look at the scene of that momentous event. What I found at the Hiawatha Street address was Interstate 110.

So it goes. Small churches have a pretty short lifespan, I believe, especially those founded by charismatic preachers like my grandfather. People have a limited lifespan too: Near as I can tell, every participant in ceremony has now passed on. All the more reason to write down what little we can recall.

Anyway, for more of my observations in Louisiana, see my Mardi Gras column:

https://www.rickholmes.net/new-page-1/

And my take on Huey Long and Louisiana politics:

https://www.rickholmes.net/time-of-the-kingfish/

Down at the Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in Louisiana is a season, not just a day, which means I’ve been able to celebrate it in several places: New Orleans, Lafayette and, on Fat Tuesday itself, in Eunice, the gateway to the Cajun prairie.

The Eunice parade was the most distinctive. Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans and bigger cities like Lafayette are pretty similar: People in a wide variety of costumes rolling through the streets on floats that look like they all came from the same float factory, dancing, drinking and throwing beads at people.

Mardi Gras in Eunice and some other small Cajun towns hews more closely to the Courir de Mardi Gras tradition, with elements that go back to medieval villages. Prairie Cajuns feature horses in their parades (bayou Cajuns relied more on their boats). Celebrants’ costumes feature lots of fringe, tall pointed hats, and masks with pointy noses attached. Some of the paraders engage in ritual begging, plunging into the crowd with their hands out, sometimes growling. The tradition says they are begging for food to be added to the community gumbo. Some of them carry live chickens. Their floats, like their costumes, are homemade and many of them have port-a-jons riding on them, for reasons I can't explain. The the folks in the parade also dance and drink and throw beads at people.

As they all say down here, Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.

 

Black, White and the Blues

I got to Clarksdale, the Mississippi Delta town featured in my latest column, just in time for the last night of the Clarksdale Film Festival. This was no red-carpet affair. The venues aren’t fancy – the screening I attended was in Our Grandma’s combination barber shop/pancake restaurant/sports bar – and the people attending aren’t fancy either.

The first thing I noticed was that, in a county that’s 80 percent African American, the small crowd at the film festival was at least 80 percent white. The entrepreneurs behind Clarksdale’s blues-based revival are mostly white as well, and mostly from out of town. The audience for traditional Delta blues has also become mostly white, and most performers of this music – invented exclusively by black people – are now, more often than not, white.

Why? I can’t tell the story of race in Clarksdale with any authority, but it’s easy to speculate. Coahoma County, which is mostly Clarksdale, has lost more than 22 percent of its population just since 2000. The people most likely to leave include the educated, the ambitious and the young – the kind of people that could help fuel an up-from-the-bootstraps, arts-based revival. White people, especially those who moved here out of love for the blues, are more likely to have the money, interest and time for things like local film festivals. Part of the legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow is a stubborn tendency toward self-segregation, which may also come into play.

Whatever the reasons, the race difference was undeniable. I found myself asking:  Can white people can save the blues?

The movie we watched reminded me that white people have already saved the blues, several times.

Blues was a local secret until Alan Lomax came to the Delta with his primitive recording equipment, researching folklore for the Library of Congress. He came to Clarksdale in 1941, and recorded Muddy Waters in his shack on the Stovall Plantation. (The location, under some pecan trees beside a cotton field, is marked by a Blues Trail sign; the shack is on display at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.)

His conversation with Lomax helped convince Muddy to bring his guitar to Chicago, where he became the father of Chicago blues. That’s when the blues started finding a white audience. The Rolling Stones got their name, and some of their early songs, from Muddy. Bob Dylan revisited Highway 61, borrowing liberally from Delta blues. In 1980, a couple of white Chicago guys – John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd (a regular visitor to Clarksdale) – introduced a new generation to Chicago Blues with “The Blues Brothers.”

Lomax’s original recordings of old folk musicians lay dormant for decades until a folk music revival hit college campuses in the 1960s. Obscure Delta musicians were suddenly being heard on scratchy recordings from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I was one of those guys. I remember sitting in my attic room outside Harvard Square, listening to Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee on a record I’d gotten from the Cambridge Public Library. It was one of Lomax’s recordings, and it was a revelation.

“Two Rivers Running,” the movie I saw in Clarksdale, tells the true story of three blues fans who left their Cambridge dorm rooms in a quixotic search for Son House, a blues great who had disappeared after a few recording sessions made when FDR was president. At the same time, another group of fans from California hit Mississippi looking for another long lost blues legend, Skip James.

The timing of their blues odysseys was perilous. It was the summer of 1964, and they showed up in the Delta just as thousands of other white students arrived for “Mississippi Summer,” to organize for voter rights. The two groups found their blues heroes on the same day three other students from up north met their deaths at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

When their young fans finally reached them, Son House and Skip James had no idea they were famous in some circles. “I thought the old music was all forgotten by now,” said House. “I never knew that so many people would want to hear it again.”

They heard it again, first at the Newport Folk Festival, as documented in the film. House and James had second musical careers. Their blues survived to be appreciated by people of all races, ages and nationalities.

I don’t know whether Clarksdale will succeed in turning the blues into an economic lifeline. I’d love to go back, though, maybe in April for one of their festivals. But I don’t really worry about the death of the blues. It’s too elemental in its rhythms, chord progressions and sentiments. The blues will always be there for new generations to discover.

 

 

 

 

Along the Forgotten Coast

Before I forget, I wanted to share a few words and photos of what they call it the Forgotten Coast – the Gulf coast on the eastern part of Florida’s Panhandle. It’s the section of coastline that wraps around what’s known there as the Big Bend, though I think of it as Florida’s armpit, with no negative implications intended.

Much of the Forgotten Coast feels like Old Florida – pre-AC, pre-Disney, pre-wealthy tourists. I saw no gated communities, no high-rise condos with water views, and very few national chains.

There’s tourism here, especially in the summer, when families come from all over the South in search of ocean breezes. But there are other industries as well. In Tate’s Hell State Forest (great name, and there’s a story behind it) and Apalachicola National Forest, public/private partnerships have carved up and drained what once were swamps and grasslands so they can grow thousands of acres of scratch pine forest. The pines appear to be harvested before they can grow thick enough to make a 2-by-4. It’s mostly chipped up for composite products, a local explained.

In Apalachicola and Eastpoint, it’s all about oysters. Ten percent of the nation’s commercial oysters come from Apalachicola Bay. Oystermen go out daily in small boats, with tongs with 14-foot long handles. They use the tongs to dig into the sandy bottom of the bay and scoop oysters into the boat, which are then measured, with the ones under a certain size returned immediately to the sea. It reminds me of lobster-fishing in Maine, in that it is labor-intensive work no one has yet figured out a way to industrialize.

The white sand beaches are gorgeous on the Forgotten Coast. On St. George Island, the homes are fancier, prices are higher, and a beach-tourist vibe predominates. But in Eastpoint and Carrabelle, a lot of people are barely scraping by. If you want a place with miles of deserted beaches, tons of great seafood, but with few pretentions, don’t forget the Forgotten Coast.

 

Getting Jefferson Davis out of Memphis

One day last spring I took a long walk in Memphis along the banks of the Mississippi River. I watched the sun set from Confederate Park, and took the pictures you see here. I paused at the statue of Jefferson Davis, and couldn’t get past the inscription’s description of him as a “true American patriot.” In a city where a majority of residents are descended from people Davis waged a war to keep enslaved, the statue seemed a slap in the face at the very least. The inscription seemed an attempt to redefine treason as patriotism.

That statue, it turns out, was erected not in the wake of the Civil War, but in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It also turns out that the City of Memphis, which owns the park, had been trying for years to get the statue removed. But the Tennessee Legislature had prevented it with a state law prohibiting the removal of any historic structures from public lands. Some conservatives believe in states’ rights and local self-determination right up to the point when a state or locality tries to do something they don’t like. Just like they support individual freedom as long as the individuals don’t choose to do something of which they disapprove, but don’t get me started.

Last week, the Jefferson Davis statue came down, along with a statue of KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest in another Memphis park. City officials, committed to erasing the embarrassment before next year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and eager to get it done before the Legislature reconvened in January and tried to stop them, found a loophole in the law. They sold the parks to a non-profit, which removed the statues from the no-longer-public property. Slate has the full story here:

https://slate.com/business/2017/12/how-memphis-outsmarted-tennessee-to-remove-its-confederate-monuments.html

I’m now hunkered down in frigid New England, having left our trailer in much less frigid Macon, Georgia. We will reunite in early January to continue our journey.

New adventures await all of us. Happy New Year to all.

A visit with Joe Kennedy

 I've never cared to collect pictures of myself with politicians, but it's gotten so that politicians expect everyone to want a selfie, so I took one with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass.

I've never cared to collect pictures of myself with politicians, but it's gotten so that politicians expect everyone to want a selfie, so I took one with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass.

I first met Joe Kennedy III in 2012, when he ran for office the first time. Barney Frank was leaving Congress, and Democrats were lining up to run for his open seat. Joe had never run for office and wasn’t well-known, but he was a Kennedy and this was Massachusetts. His entry cleared the Democratic field, and he easily defeated a pretty strong Republican.

Because his district includes towns covered by the newspaper where I ran the editorial page, Kennedy and I have met with some regularity in the years since. He’s always struck me as smart, humble (for a Kennedy), and dedicated to public service. He’s principled, and as liberal as the bluest parts of his very blue district. But he also scrupulously visits every small town in his sprawling district, keeps in touch with his constituents and has the kind of quality staff that has long been the hallmark of the Kennedys.

During my recent trip to DC (my column is here) I sat down again with Joe. Here’s my report.

By Rick Holmes

Special to the Daily News

Washington, DC - First the good news. Ask Rep. Joe Kennedy III how he’s doing, and he’s all smiles. He and his wife are expecting their second child sometime in December, a boy. And how are things going in Congress? “Not great,” he says.

Kennedy spoke from his office on the prestigious side of the Cannon Building, where you can look out and see the Capitol, if you stand in just the right spot. The House was about to pass a tax reform bill he considers unfair, packed with bad policies and unlikely to accomplish much beyond blowing a hole in the deficit.

The tax bill’s flaws start with a bad process. No Democrats were allowed any input on the legislation, Kennedy says, drawing a contrast with the Affordable Care Act. President Obama’s signature legislation was shaped by months of public hearings and debate, while President Trump’s tax bill was written in secret. Democrats accepted “dozens and dozens” of Republican amendments to the ACA, he says, begging for bipartisanship. GOP leaders made no such efforts, including in the bill provisions – notably the repeal of the deduction for state and local taxes – that seem designed to punish states that vote for Democrats.

The House passed the bill without a single Democratic vote, and Kennedy’s not optimistic that it can be stopped in the Senate.

Kennedy came to Congress in 2013 determined to be an effective legislator, not a partisan bomb-thrower. He wanted to build the kind of relationships across the aisle that helped make his great-uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, such an effective lawmaker. His famous name made that difficult – some House Republicans didn’t want to be photographed with him, even at a softball game, he told me at the time, lest it upset GOP supporters back home. But he has persevered.

“I’ve got some very good friends here who are Republicans,” he says. He supports their issues when there’s no good reason not to. He has worked with them on low-profile legislation where there’s common ground, like efforts to encourage advanced manufacturing skills and opportunities. He worked with Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, to fend off a threat to the ability of websites like TripAdvisor – headquartered in Kennedy’s district – to post negative consumer reviews.

“I think that passed unanimously,” he says. But on the big issues, the ones managed by party leaders, friendship doesn’t come into play. “Just because we’re friends, I’m not going to vote for this tax bill, and they don’t expect me to.”

Americans of all political stripes are angry and frustrated with national politics, he says. He shares their frustration, and tries to put it in perspective. “Democracy is messy,” Kennedy says. “It is a big, loud, noisy place, and we want it to be a big, loud, noisy place.”

He points to a photo on the office wall of him and his wife with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. That’s where Lewis was nearly beaten to death while marching for voting rights long before Kennedy, 37, was born. Lewis is “the most optimistic guy in Congress,” Kennedy says.

“As frustrated as I might be at the moment, there’s nothing I’ve gone through in my time here that could compare to the frustrations Mr. Lewis must have seen over the course of his life,” Kennedy says. “If he can still be optimistic given the long view of what he’s been through, then it’s worth taking a breath and saying ‘we will get through this.’”

 

 

 

 

Franken's punishment

I just finished reading Al Franken’s recent book, “Giant of the Senate,” which is pretty good, as biography/polemics by politicians goes. Franken is a gifted writer, a good liberal, a risk-taker in entertainment and politics, and a nice guy who is willing to admit it when he screws up. He also comes across as the most straitlaced man on the SNL set, still happily married to Frannie 30-something years.

Well, he screwed up again, and he’s paying for it. He kissed a woman without her consent and a photo shows him grinning at the camera while (maybe) groping her while she was asleep on an Air Force plane. Both incidents happened while the woman, model and radio newscaster Leann Tweeden, and Franken were performing together on a USO tour for troops stationed overseas.

I can see how Tweeden could feel violated by the photo. That’s her, and she’s asleep. But the photo also looks a lot more like sophomoric mugging than sexual assault. The UFO organizers included the photo in a souvenir DVD made for those on the tour, which says something about the context.

We can argue the fine points. But to equate what Franken did with the accusations a half-dozen women have made about Roy Moore’s pursuit of teenagers – or the allegations of harassment 16 women have made against Donald Trump – reeks of partisanship. Trump tweet-slapping Franken over sexual improprieties just reeks.

There’s an important discussion happening now about how men treat women. The list of celebrities and politicians accused of behavior ranging from inappropriate to criminal grows with each day’s headlines. But this isn’t just about celebrities. Sexual harassment and sexual assault happen daily in countless situations far from the spotlight. Turning allegations of misconduct into political footballs makes it harder to hear what women are saying about the times they have been mistreated.

Franken’s statement Thursday is a more worthy contribution to this discussion than Trump’s boorish tweets. Here it is in full:

"The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women. There's more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it's the only thing you care to hear, that's fine—is: I'm sorry.

"I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

"But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

"For instance, that picture. I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.

"Coming from the world of comedy, I've told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren't the point at all. It's the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I'm sorry it's taken me so long to come to terms with that.

"While I don't remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women's experiences.

"I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

"And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.

Like I said, he’s a gifted writer.

As an editorial writer, I was never comfortable demanding anyone’s resignation, especially elected officials, over a personal scandal. Back in the late ‘80s, my paper called on Barney Frank to resign after he got mixed up with an escort, and I disagreed. Unlike Kirsten Gillibrand, I never thought Bill Clinton should resign over the Lewinsky affair. It’s up to voters to decide who they send to Washington, weighing personal and political issues as they see fit, not nosy outsiders - and especially those seeking partisan advantage.

Accountability comes in many ways. Barney Frank went on to have a great career and could still be in the House if he wanted to be. Ted Kennedy’s career survived Chappaquiddick, but he was never allowed to forget it. If more evidence comes to light that Franken is a terrible jerk, the voters of Minnesota will hold him accountable – and I won’t read any more of his books.

 

 

 

A confluence of rivers

I came to Harpers Ferry for the history, so I was surprised and stunned by the scenery. Here, the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers come together at a gap in the Blue Ridge. Jefferson came here in 1783 and admired the beauty. Naturalist that he was, he also saw forces at work. Here's what he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia:

"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been so dammed up by the Blue Ridge of mountains as to have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that, continuing to rise, they have at last broken over at this spot and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their disruptions and avulsions from their beds by the most powerful agents in nature, corroborate the impression.

"But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

Democrats win in Virginia

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I got to Virginia just in time for the biggest political event of the year. The governor’s race here was the closest thing we’ve seen to a referendum on Trump and Trumpism, and the results were heartening. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered Democrat, beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 points. Here are a few things I read in the tea leaves:

-       Trumpism lost. Gillespie is an establishment swamp creature who was nearly beaten in the primary by a Trump-Bannon radical. Running scared, Gillespie changed his tune in the general, beating the drum in favor of Confederate statues and against sanctuary cities. It was supposed to fire up the base, but it probably cost him more votes than he gained.

-       Trump lost. Gillespie borrowed some of Trump’s hot-buttons, but he rarely mentioned him by name and he never asked the president to campaign with him. In all but the reddest states, Trump is a liability for Republicans. (Trump, with characteristic class, bad-mouthed Gillespie in an election night tweet.)

-       Trump’s issues lost. A CNN exit poll found that 37 percent of voters care most about health care; just 13 percent about immigration. Obamacare won. Democratic gains in the legislature means Virginia may expand Medicaid. Maine voters called for Medicaid expansion there as well, endorsing a referendum designed to overcome resistance from Trumpite Gov. Paul LePage. Also, Obamacare enrollment is exceeding expectations in the early going, despite Trump’s attempts to sabotage it.

-       For once, the Democrats got their people to the polls in a non-presidential year. I haven’t studied all the numbers yet, but it looks like turnout was the difference. Democrats also swept down-ballot races and came close to taking control of the House of Delegates.

-       Northam beat a candidate to his left in the Democratic primary, but it was a clean campaign and the party came together for the general. Northam, a pediatrician and Army vet who is moderate in politics and demeanor, kept his integrity and didn’t get down in the gutter. And he won big.

-       The candidate who appealed to unity and respect – Northam – beat the candidate, Gillespie, who sowed division and resentment. Thanks, Virginia.

We always make too much of off-cycle elections because there’s nothing else to talk about. Governor elections often don’t turn on national issues or reflect national trends. But sometimes they do. In 1965, a year after Barry Goldwater and Republicans had been crushed by LBJ’s landslide, John Lindsay, a handsome, liberal Republican, was elected mayor of New York. I remember a political cartoon showing a beat-up GOP elephant getting up from the mat in Manhattan, declaring “I’m alive!”

The Democrats are alive.