February 21, 2021 [LINK / comment]
B-b-birding in January
The weather in January was fairly mild until the latter part of the month, when the "real" winter finally arrived, with snow and frigid temperatures. The month started off on a rather auspicious note, as I undertook an expedition to hopefully see a Snowy Owl that had been sighted near Mt. Crawford for the preceding few days. It's about a 20 mile drive, but to my surprise the effort paid off right away. The owl was perched on top of a row of plastic-encased hay bales, perhaps 80 yards from the parking area behind the local rescue squad where a number of birders had gathered. Someone said that there was a better view from the neighboring farm, so most of us drove over there, and indeed we had very good views from less than 40 yards away. The owl turned its head occasionally, but didn't fly at all during the half hour or so that I was there. Afterwards, I drove over to the nearby Cook's Creek Arboretum on the northeast side of Bridgewater, hoping to see an Eastern Screech Owl that often roosts in a nest box there. Bingo again: two owls in one day! On my way home to Staunton I stopped at Bell's Lane in hopes of seeing a third owl (Short-eared), but settled for a nice photo of a White-crowned Sparrow.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Eastern Screech Owl (Cook's Creek Arboretum), Snowy Owl (Mt. Crawford), American Kestrel, N. Mockingbird, Great Blue Heron, and White-crowned Sparrow (Bell's Lane, Jan. 2)
On Friday, January 8th, I joined Penny Warren's walk along Bells Lane, with several other Augusta Bird Club members. We may have set some kind of record with at least six and possibly seven Red-tailed Hawks at various places. Highlights of unusual birds included Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers (which seem to be quite scarce this winter), Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Winter Wren, an Eastern Towhee, and a Fox Sparrow. Later in the day, I returned in hopes of photographing the Fox Sparrow. No luck in that regard, but I did see a lone Rusty Blackbird in that same location.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-tailed Hawk, Carolina Wren, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Rusty Blackbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. (Bell's Lane, Jan. 8)
On January 10 I paid a visit to the home of Al Wolf, who lives in a restored mill house next to the South River near Crimora, north of Waynesboro. Al has frequently reported all sorts of unusual birds at his house or on the river, and this time it was a small group of Evening Grosbeaks. I had no luck with that species (once again), but I did see plenty of other birds, most notably some Brown Creepers. Al was a very gracious host, and invited me to walk along the wooded trails on his property.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, Carolina (?) Chickadee, American Kestrel, and House Finch. (Red Mill, Crimora on Jan. 10)
On January 17 I spotted a Cooper's Hawk in back of where we live, and managed to get a decent photo just before it flew away. A Sharp-shinned Hawk has also been terrorizing the songbirds that come to feed out back. I also got other nice photos of yard birds before Jacqueline and I went for a drive up to Bridgewater in the afternoon. It was a cloudy day, and we really didn't see any birds of note until I spotted a Kestrel on the Blue Ridge Community College campus on the way back to Staunton.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cooper's Hawk, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Kestrel*, and Downy Soodpecker. (North Staunton except * Mt. Crawford on the Blue Ridge Community College campus, Jan. 17)
On January 23, I led a field trip for a hike at Braley Pond, joined by three other members of the Augusta Bird Club who braved the freezing temperatures. Not surprisingly, very few birds were observed. Aside from a probable Winter Wren, the highlight of the day was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets about a quarter mile upstream from the pond, which was mostly frozen.
Golden-crowned Kinglet (upstream from Braley Pond, Jan. 23)
The rest of the month was fairly uneventful, but I did get nice views of a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Short-eared Owl, and some Snow Geese. Those photos and others can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly page.
On the very last day of the month my eight-year old Canon PowerShot SX50 camera malfunctioned, and given its age, it is probably not worth repairing. Between the cold weather and the lack of a camera, I hardly did any birding at all until yesterday. I bought a replacement camera that is an upgraded version of the same line: a PowerShot SX70. It has a stronger zoom lens (65x vs. 50x), with better quality electronics, and will be very handy on future adventures...
February 20, 2021 [LINK / comment]
R.I.P. Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh passed away at the age of 70 on Wednesday, February 17, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. His wife Kathryn* announced the news at the beginning of his radio show just after 12:00 noon. I wasn't listening that day and didn't find out until about 3:00, after the show was over. According to his website (rushlimbaugh.com), his last broadcast was on February 2nd -- Groundhog Day.
Limbaugh was born in Cape Girardeu, Missouri to a prominent Republican family, but he thoroughly disliked college and dropped out after one year, to take up his true passion, radio broadcasting. He worked as a disk jockey in Pennsylvania and later got a radio job in Kansas City, which didn't go so well, so he began working for the Kansas City Royals. In 1984 he began a radio show in Sacramento, California, replacing the loud-mouth Morton Downey, Jr. When the FCC repealed the "fairness doctrine" in 1987, Limbaugh was free to spout his own views without his station being obliged to offer equal time to opposing views. This was the genesis of right-wing talk radio as we know it today. Limbaugh quickly gained fame and/or notoriety, and accepted an offer to do a show out of WABC in New York City. Soon he was a nationally-syndicated celebrity, leading the conservative counter-charge against the Clinton administration. (I remember his daily tag line was "America held hostage" during those years.) In 2000, he lost his hearing, and I remember how strange his voice sounded before he was treated with cochlear implants, restoring most of his hearing. During the early years of the new century, other right-wing radio hosts rose to prominence (Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck being the biggest names), but none of them could match Limbaugh's combination of smooth style, wit, and bombast. As the conservative movement he helped build went in an extreme direction after 2008 or so (when Barack Obama was elected president), Limbaugh's negative attributes became more noticeable than his positive attributes. (Some of this material is from wikipedia.org, but I knew most of it already.)
* Kathryn was Limbaugh's fourth wife. They married in 2010, about six years after he divorced his third wife, Marta. I was a fairly regular listener during that marriage, and remember him mentioning her quite often, but I must not have been paying attention when he married Kathryn.
As a regular listener for many years, I have a fairly good handle on Limbaugh's good and bad sides. For the last ten or so years, I listened to him less and less. [It is hard to disentangle him from the Trump phenomenon, signifying an extremist, authoritarian approach to governing, and the reliance upon dubious conspiracy theories to motivate the conservative "base."] This is what I wrote on Facebook the day after he passed away, citing a Washington Post op-ed piece on his legacy:
As with many things these days, I have mixed feelings about the passing of Rush Limbaugh yesterday. I remember being totally outraged the first time I heard him, in 1991 or so, but eventually I caught on to his biting style of satire -- taking "tongue-in-cheek" humor to an extreme. For many years I considered him to be a positive force in American politics, poking fun at silly liberal pretensions. Some say he was a hate-monger, but I would compare him to Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or Richard Pryor -- entertainers who used vulgar, blunt speech to amuse and sometimes enlighten their audiences.
But over time, the right-wing movement got derailed by conspiracy-minded pseudoconservativism, exploited by Donald Trump. For business reasons, Limbaugh got on board the "Trump Train," and the opportunity to restore common sense in the conservative movement was lost. Charles Sykes understands the two aspects of Rush Limbaugh's career, and I hope his supporters and detractors alike make the effort to do likewise. Rest in peace, "El Rushbo."
What will happen now? No one could ever replace Rush Limbaugh, but I suppose that in due course either Hannity or Beck will take over the prime 12:00 - 3:00 (eastern) time slot. Mark Steyn, Todd Herman, or Ken Matthews have been filling in as guest hosts over the past year, but I can't see any of them getting the job full time. Love him or hate him, Limbaugh's name will go down in history books along with such radio/TV commentators as Walter Winchell, Eric Severeid, Edward R. Murrow, Paul Harvey, and David Brinkley.
February 18, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Impeachment trial #2: Trump is acquitted again!
In the days immediately following the January 6 insurrection, there seemed to be a very real chance that then-President Trump might be convicted on impeachment charges. The House of Representatives wasted no time in impeaching Trump, exactly one week after the assault took place: January 13. That left exactly one week before the scheduled inauguration of Joe Biden, but in light of Trump's clear determination to exhaust all options to stay in office, anything was possible. The question became whether [to] hold a Senate trial immediately to ensure that Trump would be removed from office, or to wait until after the inauguration, in which case the only sanction would be to ban Trump from ever running for president (or any other public office) again.
As with my January 19 blog post on the election and insurrection, in what follows below I have incorporated lengthy passages from posts I made on Facebook in recent months.
On February 10, I summarized in specific terms what fundamental points were being addressed by the Senate trial:
In this impeachment trial, the U.S. Senate must answer three questions:
1) Was what happened on Jan. 6 an "insurrection"? (My dictionary definition leaves no doubt.)
2) If so, was it spontaneous, or was it incited by someone?
3) If it was incited, who did the inciting?
From Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition (1988):
insurrection : a rising up against established authority; rebellion; revolt
The objective of the rioters on January 6 was very clear and undeniable: to stop the counting of the electoral votes by Congress, and to pressure members of Congress to not recognize the ballots cast by the four states that Trump supporters were disputing: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Somehow Trump supporters seemed to think that the January 6 violence was little different from the various riots committed [by leftists] in Portland, Oregon, Richmond, Virginia, or other cities across the country. It boggles my mind that they cannot see that the January 6 violence was a literal battle for control of the U.S. government itself.
Did Trump want an insurrection?
The key to proving that Trump really did incite the mob into violent action is looking at the background. Ever since last summer, and even before, he has been deliberately undermining public confidence in the election system, providing his supporters with a reason to revolt. It might help to review what happened in the days and weeks following the November 3 election, starting with this Facebook post I made on November 6:
If our republic and its democratic institutions survive this election dispute, it will be thanks to the (few) honest politicians such as Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) who spoke out at the critical moment. On the Today show he flatly repudiated Pres. Trump's baseless claims of widespread fraud, while also pinning some of the blame on his state's supreme court, which allowed votes that arrived in the mail *after* election day to be counted. That was wrong, but at least they have kept the late ballots separate in case the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the case (again) and rules against counting them. In any case, it's not "fraud." The sooner Republican politicians and pundits step up and disavow the President's reckless and subversive words, the better off we'll all be.
In the days that followed, Trump refused to commit to leaving office, raising fears that the democratic transfer of power might be in jeopardy. My November 12 post on Facebook elicited a variety of sharp comments from both sides:
Thus far I've refrained from commenting much on the election results, preferring to wait until all the votes are counted. But it must be acknowledged that President Trump has continued to undermine American democracy with his allegations of fraud and abrupt leadership changed at the Pentagon. What does it all portend? No one but Trump really knows, and as Margaret Sullivan points out in "How to cover a coup -- or whatever it is Trump is attempting" (Washington Post), his actions are consistent with a variety of possible survival strategies. It's hard to understand how any intelligent person could accept (or even support) such anti-democratic actions. I hope they're correct that indulging Trump's refusal to admit defeat poses little risk. But whatever he does, as Sullivan states, the damage to our democracy is likely to be substantial and long-lasting.
(Me responding to others' comments) Chances of an overt coup are almost nil, but he may be trying to incite leftist violence to justify martial law, etc. His public statements and tweets are unlikely to influence any court, so the remaining rational (?) explanation is rallying his "troops" to undermine the Biden administration's ability to govern.
(Bruce Elder) [*]
When Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, he insisted, against all evidence, that there was voter fraud on a massive scale. This triggered a massive investigation in all 50 states at taxpayer expense by a Republican led commission. The results are easily found in a simple web search. Before anyone comments further about a "stolen election", please read about this last investigation.
* Bruce Elder, a prominent local businessman and former Staunton city councilman who ran [against] Chris Saxman for the House of Delegates in 2005. His words are shaded to distinguish them from my own words. Sadly, he passed away in early February after a battle with cancer.
Throughout the controversy, I tried to keep an open mind and consider what sort of nefarious plots that might actually have occurred, possibly creating a reason for a legitimate protest to occur. Aside from various isolated cases of election irregularities, however, I learned of no such thing. On November 20 I cited the National Review article "Americans Deserve the Truth, Even If It's Unpleasant." This sparked a few angry retorts by pro-Trump folks who brought up the alleged vote tampering in machines made by Dominion, and other conspiracy theories.
Key excerpt: "Ask yourself, if what Giuliani and Powell are claiming is true, why is the Trump campaign not even making the accusation in court? Why are they not presenting evidence?"
To be perfectly blunt, the only reason the election is still disputed is the mass delusion of paranoid pseudo-conservatives who have come to dominate the Republican Party, aided and abetted by well-paid purveyors of red-meat rhetoric aimed at the Trumpster base. How long can they sustain the Big Con?
January 6 insurrection chronology
This chronology of the January 6 insurrection is based primarily on the January 10 edition of the Washington Post (link below). Retracing the timeline and watching videos of Trump's speech and the violent aftermath leave very little doubt about cause and effect.
||Pres. Trump tweets that V.P. Pence needs to send electoral votes back to the states, "AND WE WIN."
||Trump begins speech near Ellipse, urging "peaceful protest" but also "never give up" and "fight like hell."
||First wave of Pro-Trump protesters storm barricades on west side of Capitol.
||After senators and V.P. Pence enter House chambers, joint session begins.
||Trump ends his speech saying "We're going to the Capitol" to get Republicans to "take back our country."
||More protesters arrive, overwhelming police and climbing steps outside Capitol. Pipe bombs are found.
||Rioters force their way into Capitol; House and Senate quickly adjourn and evacuate.
||Trump tweets that V.P. Pence failed to protect U.S. from "fraudulent" election.
||Trump phones Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) who tells him Pence is in danger.
||Trump tweets in support of police, ending with "Stay peaceful." (He was reluctant to include the last part.)*
||Ashli Babbitt is fatally shot by Capitol Police while trying to force entry into Speaker's Lobby.
||In a recorded video, Trump asks his supporters to go home, still insisting the election was stolen.
||Maryland and Virginia send National Guard troops into Washington.
||Police begin to clear the Capitol, and the interior is secured.
||As D.C. curfew takes effect, Trump tweets that violence resulted from the election being stolen.
||Facebook and Twitter delete Trump's posts because they encourage violence.
||V.P. Pence reopens the Senate session
|| Speaker Pelosi brings the House back into session, vowing that "justice will be done."
|After challenges to the Arizona and Pennsylvania elections were voted down, V.P. Pence announced Joe Biden's election victory.
SOURCE: Washington Post, January 10, 2021.
* First-hand sources provided this information about Trump; Feb. 14, 2021, p. A10.
It is important to understand that the killing of Ashli Babbitt just before 3:15 was probably what stopped the assault. Up until that time, they had been hell bent on smashing windows and breaking down doors in pursuit of Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and other top leaders. God only knows what they would have done if they had not been stopped by the use of deadly force by the Capitol Police. At 6:37 PM on January 6, as the Capitol building was being cleared of the insurrectionists, I posted the above photo (a larger version, actually) of the U.S. Capitol which I had taken the previous June, and wrote:
This beautiful building, originally built in 1800, and expanded several times over the past two centuries, has long been known as a temple of democratic self-government. Today it was assaulted by fascist mobs who had assembled near the White House at a rally led by President Trump. Apparently, my warnings about where this country was headed with Trump in the White House were not taken seriously by many people. Since his election four years ago, I have endeavored to be restrained in my characterizations of him and his supporters. Why? As a principled conservative (yes, we exist!), I have fancied myself some kind of bridge between the opposing sides in the escalating civil strife, but it is time to acknowledge quite frankly that my efforts have been of little use.
January 6, 2021 will be remembered as a day of infamy not unlike Pearl Harbor or 9/11, and all of us will be held accountable for how we reacted to it. I want to make it clear that anyone who excuses or rationalizes what happened in Washington today, and who fails to draw the obvious lessons from it, simply lacks the political judgment to engage in constructive discourse. Sadly, this applies to many of my Facebook friends who consider themselves loyal Republicans. Abraham Lincoln would be mortified by what has become of the party that he helped to launch. In the Gettysburg Address he described the Civil War as a test of whether government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" could survive in the United States. I will no longer tolerate repeated insults, and I will call out the propagation of falsehoods, and I will not waste my time arguing with idiots and panderers.
Did those words register with anybody on the pro-Trump side? I don't think so. Instead, based on all the Facebook exchanges that day and in the six weeks since then, they have almost without exception dug in their heels, refused to acknolwedge what is obvious about Trump and about what happened on January 6. Some of them say that it wasn't really an insurrection, others say it was no different than what leftist rioters have done over the past year, and others say the the main perpetrators of violence on January 6 were members of Antifa. These are people who are so blinded by hyperpartisanship that there is simply no possibility of rational discourse. Some of them may be gullible minions, others may be too cynical to care an earnest search for the truth, but in either case, they are collectively a symptom of America in decline.
Trump's dysfunctional cabinet
Aside from impeachment, the other option for removing Trump from office after January 6 was getting the cabinet to vote to invoke the 25th Amendment, which provides for the vice president to assume the responsibilities of chief executive whenever the president is deemed incapable of carrying out his duties. Vice President Pence signaled that he was not considering that, however, and the matter was dropped. Part of the problem was that there were so many acting secretaries in the cabinet, due to a series of resignations over the preceding year. This was standard operating procedure in the Trump administration. Given his penchant for stirring up strife and blaming underlings when things go wrong (You're fired!), it is no surprise at all that President Trump's cabinet underwent so much turmoil and change in personnel. Over time, the proportion of professionals declined, as the cabinet came to be dominated by Trump's minions. (See the Executive branch leaders page.)
A prime example of tumultuous cabinet changes was when Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at the President's request, immediately after the November 6, 2018 election. Matt Whitaker then served as acting Attorney General until early 2019, when William Barr was confirmed by the Senate. (Barr had previously served in this capacity under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s.) Barr had a solid reputation for professionalism, but he turned out to be one of Trump's strongest defenders. His loyalty had limits, however, and in mid-December 2020, it was announced that Barr had resigned as Attorney General, two weeks after publicly disputing President Trump's claims that the election had been stolen. He was soon replaced by Jeffrey Rosen on an acting basis. Barr has yet to explain his motivations [for departing early], but as head lawyer in the administration, it is quite possible that he felt uneasy about Trump's continued efforts to undermine legal processes in order to stay in office.
As Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo was probably the strongest Trump loyalist in the cabinet. He replaced Rex Tillerson in that position in April 2018. Pompeo had [previously] been serving as Director of the CIA, and was replaced by Gina Haspel.
[Another] such incident was when Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis resigned in December 2019 to protest the President's decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Patrick Shanahan then served as acting Secretary of Defense until the summer, when Mark Esper was confirmed as Secretary of Defense. Although not well known previously, Esper was a combat veteran of Desert Storm, and had a Ph.D., two very strong qualifications. But after the public relations stunt last summer in which Trump posed with high military officials and others in front of St. John's Church near the White House, Esper resigned. His replacement, Christopher Miller, only served in an acting capacity, however.
The final "top four" cabinet member was Steven Mnuchin. He served as Secretary of Treasury for Trump's entire four-year term, one of the relatively few cabinet officials to enjoy Trump's confidence. None of the other prominent cabinet members spoke up during January. In sum, we'll never know whether there was enough support in the cabinet to temporarily remove Trump...
The Senate impeachment trial
There was some doubt about the constitutionality of holding an impeachment trial for an ex-president, since the penalty of removal from office was moot after January 20. But as explained by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and other House impeachment managers, the provisions in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution do not have to be applied jointly:
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
(For a detailed explanation of these provisions, see Cornell.edu.)
On Tuesday, February 9 the Senate voted 56 - 44 in favor of going ahead with the trial, with six Republicans joining the 48 Democrats and two independents. The trial per se began on Wednesday, and the House impeachment managers made a very persuasive case using a series of graphic and ugly videos of the riot taking place in and around the Capitol. All senators were obliged to be present throughout the trial, since they were serving in effect as a jury. There were frequently several absences, however, and some observers noticed that some of the Republican senators were not paying much attention. Some of them, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), derided the entire proceeding as a farce, and he didn't even pretend to take his duties seriously. It was disclosed that Republican senators actually met with the Trump defense team in the evenings after the sessions were adjourned, evidently to plot strategy. Although not technically illegal, it further undermined the trial.
On Friday the defense began, and there really wasn't much they had to say. The preliminary arguments made by lead defense counsel were embarrassingly weak, but it really didn't matter. Parenthetically, I did pick up on one of their points:
It's not really relevant to the impeachment trial, but the Trump defense team is at least raising a valid point that many people would rather forget: When it comes to affirming the legitimacy of elections they lost, Democrats have a bad record. Likewise for abiding by the rule of law and repudiating mob violence. Partisan blindness afflicts both sides.
The main defense seemed to be that Democrats have used the phrase "fight like hell" on many occasions, just as President Trump did on January 6, so there was no reason to construe those words as an incitement to engage in violence. That might be true if the context in which the words were spoken were ignored; in fact, however, Donald Trump has a long history of urging his supports to get violent (e.g., "knock some heads") and his words to the right-wing Proud Boys militant group during one of the presidential debates ("stand back and stand by") clearly implied that he wanted them on hand for a showdown. My rather sarcastic response on Facebook:
"FIGHT LIKE HELL!" I am shocked -- SHOCKED -- that Democrats have used the same words many times! But in any of those cases was a large, angry crowd present? Did they involve an attempt to overturn an election result? It all boils down to a common-sense interpretation of what then-Pres. Trump meant. This in turn raises the question of whether we should take Trump (and his words) literally or seriously, or neither or both. Ingesting Clorox? Obviously not. Should his habitual ambiguity in speaking let him off the hook? Not if the question is whether he should be allowed to serve in public office again.
It seemed almost certain that Trump would retain enough Republican supporters to thwart the conviction, but a big surprise on the morning of Saturday, February 13 altered the situation. The Senate voted to hear witnesses, after the revelation that an aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had overheard some damning words from President Trump, in response to McCarthy's plea in a telephone call for Trump to call off his supporters as the Capitol was being invaded by a mob calling for Vice President Pence to be hanged [on January 6].
"Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are."
This quote, relayed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), made it clear that Trump was aware of the physical threat posed by the invaders, and of their motivation for engaging in violence, to which he himself had contributed. If it wasn't an open-and-shut case already, that quote made it so. But after the would-be star witness said that she had nothing more to say beyond what had already been made public, the senators huddled and quickly reversed the decision to hold witnesses. And so I wrote in the early afternoon of February 13:
As the Senate impeachment trial nears an end, many people may either be cheered or dismayed (depending on their political affiliation or belief about Trump's culpability) by the likely verdict not to convict. Perhaps some people don't really grasp what is at stake beyond the possibility that Trump may be able to run for president again in 2024. It is, rather, whether the United States has irrevocably crossed the fateful threshold dividing normal politics from a state of civil war.
To illustrate this, consider the likelihood that what motivates those who vote not to convict is not ordinary partisan blindness and stubbornness, but rather the fear of reprisals from an authoritarian network of power that tolerates no dissent. Senators such as Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz who were formal rivals of Trumps have all been assimilated into the Trumpista cabal. Seeing them make statements they know to be false is sad, and almost pathetic. (If they have been blackmailed or if they genuinely fear for their families' well-being, I can understand why they might cave in to pressure.) As long as the pro-Trump faction is assured of keeping at least 34 senators on board, the cost of voting one's conscience far outweighs the benefits.
So now the Senate will decide whether someone will be held accountable for the tragedy of January 6 -- which even Trump's defense attorneys agree WAS a "violent insurrection." If not, such violence will become normalized, and we can expect the same thing to happen over and over again in the future, perhaps escalating beyond what any of us can imagine. The gung-ho Confederate sympathizers who have been aching for a repeat of 1861, advocating secession of "red" states or other such nonsense, will get what they wanted.
May God bless America, and forgive us all for failing to govern ourselves peacefully.
A few hours later, the Senate voted 57 - 43 in favor of convicting Donald Trump, but that was ten votes short of the two-thirds needed for a conviction. All 48 Democrats, two independents, and seven Republicans voted to convict. The Republicans were:
- Mitt Romney (UT)
- Susan Collins (ME)
- Ben Sasse (NE)
- Richard Burr (NC)
- Bill Cassidy (LA)
- Lisa Murkowski (AK)
- Patrick Toomey (PA)
Thus, Trump was acquitted and is therefore eligible to run for president again in 2024, unlikely as that may seem. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell then made a ten-minute speech in which he excoriating Trump for having committed a "disgraceful dereliction of duty." Watch it at youtube.com.
While most Trump supporters are celebrating their "victory," nobody really won, and indeed nobody could have "won," no matter what the verdict was. America is as divided as it has ever been, with partisans on opposite sides holding utterly different views of reality, with very little chance of narrowing the divisions any time soon. Whether most Republicans heed Mitch McConnell's words and eventually engage in some serious rethinking about whether Donald Trump had a positive or negative impact on the country remains to be seen. In the mean time, things are going to be very ugly.
Originally posted: 18 Feb 2021, 9: 05 AM; minor editing at 8:57 PM.
February 12, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Return to normalcy? Joe Biden becomes president
Three weeks ago, the United States of America underwent what was certainly the most hostile transfer of power in history, testing the resilience of democratic institutions. Until the very end, many people wondered if Donald Trump would somehow try to cling to power, but in the end he faced up to reality and departed. The sight of moving vans at the White House in the days preceding January 20 was a big relief.
Biden's inaugural address was well-received but not especially stirring or noteworthy. As expected, the dominant theme was restoring national unity, declaring, "On this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation." He identified the common foes our nation faces as "anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness," but the means to accomplish the goal of unity were not spelled out very clearly. Biden lamented what he called the "uncivil war" between political sides, but overall the tone was positive and hopeful, with an olive branch extended to other countries. No more "America First" isolationism, as Trump had heralded in his 2017 inaugural address. (Biden's full speech text appeared in the Washington Post.)
As long as the television cameras focused on the platform around the podium, it appeared to be a normal ceremony. But when the cameras panned toward the Mall, where many thousands of people ordinarily gather to watch the inauguration, all that was visible were acres full of flags representing the people who have died of covid-19 over the past year. (It was an ironic contrast to Trump's 2017 inauguration, which he boasted had a bigger crowd size than either of Obama's inaugurations, notwithstanding aerial photographs showing that the opposite was true.) The inaugural parade was extremely subdued, with no more than a token number of people watching from alongside Pennsylvania Avenue.
Once upon a time, in the good old days of American politics, there was a bipartisan tradition by which the losing party would extend a measure of courtesy and deference to new presidents, usually for 90 days or so. Biden will not get any honeymoon, however, and indeed one of the far-right pro-Trump members of Congress introduced a measure calling for Biden to be impeached on his very first day in office. Such an absurdly vengeful gesture was nothing more than pandering to the political base.
There was a hopeful sign when ten Republican senators joined to try to bargain with the Democrats over Biden's proposed $1.9 billion covid-19 relief package. They sought to reduce the amount to $618 billion, in recognition of the fact that the federal budget deficit is already in the trillions of dollars, and the national debt is soaring over $24 trillion, a crushing burden that will stifle future economic growth. Unfortunately, they couldn't narrow the gap, and Biden decided to proceed with his plan without Republican support. (Now that Kamala Harris is vice president and exercises the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the Democrats can do many things without support from the minority party.)
There are many signs that life in Washington is returning to "normal," such as regular press conferences with White House aide Jen Psaki. Under Trump, press conferences were few and far between, especially in the year or so after Stephanie Grisham took over from Sarah Huckabee Sanders in mid-2019. Joe and Jill Biden attend Sunday mass at a Catholic church in Georgetown, and they sometimes stroll around the neighborhood -- under tight restrictions, of course. Such symbolic gestures are like a breath of fresh air to Washingtonians, many of whom probably felt like they were being occupied by an enemy country when Trump was president.
While I admire Biden's casual personality and his earnest demeanor, especially when compared to his predecessor, I am quite wary of his economic policy agenda and have only modest hopes for his administration. Pushing for a $15 minimum wage and huge welfare benefits poses a big risk to the U.S. economy. Remember inflation? The people he has chosen for his cabinet seem qualified overall, and there aren't any "closet radicals," as far as I can tell. Fears that Biden would be a mere stalking horse for a left-wing cabal plotting the overthrow of American capitalism were a big part of what motivated the January 6 agenda, but I figure there is less than a ten percent chance of such a diabolical scenario unfolding. Biden's amiability is offset by his habit of blurting out absurd or insensitive things from time to time. Some say it is a side-effect of trying to overcome his early childhood stuttering. Biden used to be famous for outrageous gaffes in his public speeches, but thus far he seems fairly well under control. His record of misrepresenting aspects of his personal background or even plagiarizing speeches is well-known, and I'm sure he has professional handlers to prevent such things from happening again.
What I wrote on the day that Trump was inaugurated four years earlier (January 20, 2017) is worth repeating, as I plan to likewise cut some slack toward President Joe Biden:
As dubious as I am of President Trump's agenda and suitability to lead the country, I also have deep reverence for the institutions of American government, so I plan to give him the benefit of the doubt at least for the first few weeks of his presidency. During this "honeymoon" period, I hope he acts in a way that unifies the country.
White House, taken on February 10, 2012. Two blocks to the northeast, McPherson Square was being occupied by left-wing protesters, the "Occupy D.C." campaign was affiliated with "Occupy Wall Street."
Biden's executive orders
President Biden issued a record number of executive orders during his first week in office. (Many conservatives mocked him for having once said that President Trump's frequent use of executive orders was a dictatorial practice.) Most of them aimed at reversing policies enacted under the Trump administration, and Biden is using the slogan "Build Back Better" to characterize his policy agenda, in contrast to Trump's "Drain the Swamp." Here is a partial list of some of the most significant ones, in rough chronological order.
- Requiring everyone on federal grounds (incl. airports) to wear masks to fight covid-19.
- Requiring foreign travelers to show proof of a negative test before coming to the U.S.
- Invoking the Defense Production Act to boost supplies of vaccines, etc.
- Reviving an advisory body on global health within the National Security Council.
- Rejoining the World Health Organization as an active member.
- Revoking the Keystone XL pipeline that would have cut through midwestern states.
- Reinstating employment protections for federal workers.
- Having the Veterans Administration pause collections of debts.
- Asking the Agriculture Dept. to expand for aid programs for people affected by covid-19.
- Granting a waiver allowing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as Secretary of Defense.
- Rejoining the Paris climate accords.
- Lifting the ban on transgender people serving in the military.
- Strengthening housing anti-discrimination policies.
- Halting the use of contracts with private companies to run federal prisons.
- Granting more self-rule to Indian reservations.
- Combatting violence against Asians and Pacific Islanders, blamed by some for covid-19.
- Reopening the time window for people to register for ACA ("Obamacare") insurance.
- Ordering a comprehensive review of immigration policies, such as separation of families.
Trump exits "swamp"
Then-President Trump and then-First Lady Melania left town the morning of January 20, taking Air Force One southbound to Palm Beach, Florida. This was the first time since 1869 that the departing Chief Executive failed to attend his successor's inauguration. (That was when Andrew Johnson, who had been impeached the year before and barely survived a vote to convict, refused to pay respect to incoming President Ulysses S. Grant.) Fortunately, outgoing Vice President Mike Pence did attend the ceremonies, lending a thin veneer of institutional continuity to the transition.
Trump's failure to acknowledge the results of the election reflected intense disfavor toward Joe Biden and the Democrats, perhaps not that much different from the time when outgoing President Herbert Hoover largely refused to cooperate with his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the long four-month transition. (Inauguration Day was on March 4 back then.) Hoover's contempt for FDR, and the mutual distrust, almost paralyzed the U.S. government at a critical time during the Great Depression. (Ronald Shafer wrote an article on that intensely awkward episode in the Washington Post on November 10.)
During his last day in office, Trump issued more than a gross (a dozen dozen) controversial pardons -- 144 altogether, most notably to his political allies such as Steve Bannon who were in legal jeopardy. That was expected, as virtually all presidents over the past thirty or so years have done essentially the same thing. From Marc Rich (the wealthy campaign donor pardoned by Bill Clinton) up through the present, it just gets worse every four years. But for Trump the worst part was signing an executive order rescinding his January 2017 executive order that banned former executive branch employees from lobbying government entities in Washington, or working for foreign governments. That belied the reformist pretense of Trump's "drain the swamp" slogan.
Incumbents who lost
If Donald Trump had been re-elected, it would have been the first time in U.S. history that four consecutive presidents were elected to two terms. Instead, Trump became the first incumbent president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush (Sr.) in 1992. Here is a complete list:
- John Adams (1800, lost to Jefferson)
- John Quincy Adams (1828, lost to Jackson)
- Martin Van Buren (1840, lost to Wm. H. Harrison)
- Grover Cleveland (1888, lost to B. Harrison)
- Benjamin Harrison (1892, lost to Cleveland)
- William H. Taft (1912, lost to Wilson)
- Herbert H. Hoover (1932, lost to F. Roosevelt)
- Jimmy Carter (1980, lost to Reagan)
- George H. W. Bush (1992, lost to Clinton)
- Donald J. Trump (2020, lost to Biden)
February 8, 2021 [LINK / comment]
The Nationals in 2020: Lousy season ends well
As of the middle of August -- my last blog post summarizing the Washington Nationals' games -- one fourth (15) of their regular-season games had been completed. It was then that Starlin Castro, the Nats' new slugging second baseman, broke his wrist, ending his season and casting a shadow on the Nats' chances for contending. After that they went through an up-and-down phase for the next ten games, winning one day and losing the next. They peaked at a .440 winning percentage on August 23, and then went straight downhill until September 4, bottoming out at a .333 record. From then until September 20 they played well some days but not other, stuck in last place in the NL East. But somehow they pulled themselves together for the last week of regular season play, winning seven of their last nine games. Because of the need to make up all the games postponed due to covid-19, they played four double-headers during the last two weeks of September, including eight games during a five-day stretch. Talk about exhausting! The following paragraphs will describe the above-mentioned phases in sequential fashion, emphasizing the turning points and other highlights. (These are briefly summarized in the "memorable moments" section of the Washington Nationals annual (2020) page.)
During their "up-and-down" phase (Aug. 14 - 24), the Nationals won a series vs. the Orioles in Baltimore (2 games to 1), split a pair in Atlanta, and then came up a game short in a five-game home series with the Marlins. The second game on Aug. 22 was a makeup, with the Nationals as the "visitors." It was on that day that it was announced that Stephen Strasburg's injury was worse than expected, meaning that he would probably not return for the rest of the year.
Aug. 24 was the beginning of a prolonged slump, as the Nats lost a pair to the Phillies at home -- thereby falling in last place in the NL East -- and then began a long, agonizing road trip. The first game of the series against Red Sox in Boston went extremely well (10-2 final score), with 11 strikeouts by Max Scherzer over six innings, and home runs by Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick, and Josh Harrison. But then the Nats lost the next two games, as Austin Voth went only two innings on Aug. 30; the Washington Post headline read "Nats can't overcome another Voth dud." Ouch! The Nats also lost all four games against the Phillies in Philadelphia, being shut out on both Sept. 1 and 2, and coming up one run short (6-5) in the final game of that series. Then came four games against the first-place Braves in Atlanta, and the Nats were lucky to get a 2-2 series split, ending their losing streak at seven games. Thus they wound up with a 3-11 record from Aug. 24 to Sept. 6.
Returning home to D.C. on Sept. 7 provided a brief respite, as the Nats beat the Tampa Bay Rays in two straight games. Max Scherzer had another fine outing (7 innings) in the 6-1 win on the first day. The surprise star of the Sept. 8 game was 32-year old journeyman infielder Brock Holt, signed as a free agent in late August. (He had been let go by the Milwaukee Brewers.) But then the Atlanta Braves won three games out of four, with the Nats' only win coming in extra innings (12) on Sept. 11; the final score was 8-7.
Back on the road, the Nationals split a pair with the Rays. In the latter game (Sept. 16) Daniel Hudson blew a save opportunity in the 9th inning, but then the hot rookie prospect Luis Garcia hit a 2-run homer in the 10th to give the Nats a precious 4-2 victory. It also gave them a 3-1 season advantage over the soon-to-be American League Champions in Tampa Bay! Further south in Miami the next day, the Nats shut out the Marlins 5-0, with one of Erick Fedde's best outings of the season: six strikeouts in six innings. But then the Marlins won the next three games, the last of which (Game 1 on Sept. 20) being the most painful. The home team scored two unearned runs while Max Scherzer was pitching in the sixth inning, and that's all they need to win. But in the secon game that day, the Nats bounced back with five home runs, winning 15-0. It was their biggest win all year.
That game may have been the trick that finally got the Nationals in the groove during the last week of the regular season. Back in Washington they beat the Phillies three games straight, including an eight-inning "extra" inning double-header game on Sept. 22. Juan Soto hit his 13th and final home run of 2020, and in the eighth inning, Yadiel Hernandez hit a 2-run walk-off homer as the Nats overcame a deficit to win 8-7. It was the Nats' only walk-off homer of the year. The Phillies won the final game of the series, but their postseason chances were essentially doomed, thanks to the Nats. Then the New York Mets came to town in a showdown to see if the Nats could climb out of last place in the division. The 3-2 loss on Sept. 24, but then they won the final three games of the season. In the finale on Sept. 27, the Mets scored two runs in the top of the 1st inning, but the Nats scored five in second & six in the third, winning 15-5.
Thus, the Nats ended the season tied with the Mets for last place with a 26-34 record (.433), the first time since 2011 that they finished below .500. Overall it was a bleak year, if you can even call the ten-week stretch a "year," but winning seven of the last nine games was a mark of redemption. The Nationals gradual improvement in September was due in no small part to fine performances by several young replacement players. Howie Kendrick did not play after the first week of September, due a a strained hamstring, and Adam Eaton and also missed the last few weeks due to a fractured index finger. Those two guys were the real spirit-raisers in the dugout that helped make the Nationals world champions in 2019. The one big bright spot for the Nationals was the amazing Juan Soto, who led the National League in batting average (.351), and Trea Turner was not far behind.
The chart above is now included on the Washington Nationals page, which will soon be updated with 2021 roster information, etc.
Rizzo, Martinez get new contracts
One of the big uncertainties hanging over the Nationals was whether the current leadership would continue beyond the 2020 season. In light of what Mike Rizzo has accomplished since he became general manager in 2009 (when the Nats were almost at their nadir), it seemed strange that the Lerner family which owns the Nationals was taking so long to nail down a contract. Finally, on Sept. 5, they did so, with a three-year extension that includes a salary raise of undetermined amount.
Likewise, on Sept. 25, Manager Davey Martinez received a one-year contract extension. Some doubts about his judgment regarding pitchers, etc. still linger, but it's hard to argue with success, so he is getting another chance. You can't deny that he has earned strong loyalty and trust from his top players such as Max Scherzer, and that counts for a lot. As soon as the season ended, he began an overhaul of the Nationals' coaching staff, putting in guys that he knew from his days with the Chicago Cubs. Now that the management situation is cleared up, the Nationals are primed to make another big championship drive in the 2021 season!
Memorial Stadium update
In reviewing the chronological log of diagram updates, I noticed that Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was among the most outdated ones. Not since 2013 have I updated those diagrams, so as a prelude to finishing the "final three" -- Griffith Stadium, Forbes Field, and Yankee Stadium -- I took care of that. So, what exactly changed? Overall, the stadium is about ten feet longer than before, and a few feet narrower. There is a new lower-deck diagram showing where the concrete pillars that support the upper deck are located. Additional details in the scoreboards and other structures at the north end of the stadium are included as well. The profile is now rendered more accurately, raising the top row by about eight feet. It also shows that the playing field was 10-15 feet below the level of the surrounding land, which was inclined slightly -- higher toward the north. There is also a new 1964 version, showing the inner fence (built in 1958), the upper-deck extensions, and the added rows of box seats, but not the new scoreboards, center field bleachers, the external pedestrian ramps, or the closer-in outfield fence that was built in the mid-1970s. Those features are included in the 1986 diagram. The "combined" (football plus baseball) diagram indicates the years in which those various changes took place. Finally, there is a "site today" map / diagram, rendered at half the scale of the other diagrams, so that you can see the entire jumbo-sized block of land on which the stadium once stook, and how it looks today. Also, as is generally the case, you can compare to new diagram version to the old (2013) version by clicking on the diagram image on that page.
One remaining puzzle is the distance behind home plate before the new box seats were added in 1961; Lowry's Green Cathedrals gives a distance of 78 feet (20 more than was the case thereafter), but I'm pretty sure that the extra rows accounted for more than 20 feet. My diagram indicates a pre-1961 backstop distance of about 82 feet. Stay tuned...
Tampa Bay: the capital of sports!
By now every single sports fan in America knows that Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their second Super Bowl title last night. (It was his seventh such title, eclipsing his former team's total of six.) I was rooting for the Kansas City Chiefs, who did not even score a touchdown in the 31-9 defeat, but I salute the champions nonetheless. While most of the attention has focused on Brady's amazing career, I would like to point out the singular situation in which a lesser-sized metropolitan area has come to dominate (or nearly so) the world of professional sports in the United States. Not only did the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League Championship last October, but the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup trophy (succeeding the St. Louis Blues) in late September. Boston has been dominant in football as well as baseball for many years, off and on, and you might say that Washington briefly dominated sports, as the NHL Washington Capitals became champions in 2018 and the MLB Washington Nationals did so in 2019, along with the WNBA Washington Mystics.
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