It was a week when Donald Trump dissed his own daughter on Twitter (”Ivanka Trump,” he affectionately called her) and a bunch of aging male golfers took Saudi Arabia’s blood money. Also known as the run-up to Father’s Day. Anyway, there are millions of busy, hardworking dads out there who aren’t famous and aren’t jerks (those things seem to be related) so raise your glass and toast those good fathers this Sunday.
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January 6 hearings are a booster shot of truth for a nation immune to reality
The January 6 hearings on Capitol Hill fit right into our nightly primetime lineup of sequels and warmed-over remakes, in a pop culture struggling for new ideas. So a comparison between today’s House spectacle and the classic blockbuster they emulate under hot TV lights and ornate chandeliers — the 1973 Senate Watergate Hearings — would have been inevitable even if they weren’t held on the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors.
Maybe things just looked different through the widening eyes of a then-14-year-old, but that sacred Watergate Summer — despite its tawdry revelations of deleted expletives in the Oval Office from a president who employed a goon squad of burglars and thugs — thrived because of the faint light at the end of its tunnel: a promise of justice, and an American system that would prove stronger than its worst leaders.
Five decades later, that light seems to have finally burned out. This despite the fact that the January 6 hearings, which launched last Thursday with a prime-time extravaganza and continued Monday with a fast-moving mix of video highlights and truth tellers from the self-anointed “Team Normal” wing of Donald Trump’s GOP, has managed to hit all the high notes of its Watergate predecessor, with its headline reveals of a president increasingly “detached from reality,” under the sway of drunk uncle Rudy Giuliani.
Monday’s production — starring Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson as the modern upgrade of Sen. Sam Ervin’s folksy Southerner and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in the Howard Baker role of the Republican eager to learn what her president knew and when he knew it, featuring tough questioning from California Rep. Zoe Lofgren — was as tightly constructed as a Perry Mason re-run. And like a black-and-white courtroom thriller, it inexorably built its case that Trump and the clownish advisors he let inside his late-2020 Berlin bunker knew their false election claims were a blatant act of fraud, yet pushed that fraud to stage a failed coup and incite a mob to commit deadly violence, all while raising $250 million from a MAGA nation of willing marks and rubes. Yet this episode lacked what every Perry Mason episode (save one) delivered: a just verdict — or much hope that we’ll see one soon.
After all, Trump was already impeached for inciting the January 6 insurrection, and he got away with it, leaving justice seekers to pin dim hopes on the Justice Department led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, a man who loathes politics yet is now an eyewitness to the political crime of the millennium. The most damning evidence — Trump’s infantile blithering that “frankly I did win this election,” framed by ex-AG William Barr’s Captain Obvious observation that the president was “detached from reality” — was a fraud too lazy to even try to hide 18 months ago.
The prospect of justice is what can turn a criminal proceeding into a catharsis. But lacking that potential, the January 6 hearings instead become merely a documentary – a late-night Netflix mouse click with the boozy predictability of an MTV-style “Behind the Music” production, except the shaggy rock star spiraling toward an overdose or a small plane crash or whatever, despite his sober friends’ warnings, was instead the United States of America.
It pains me to write that, because I am not in any way criticizing the January 6 committee or its work, which has been nearly flawless. They have built a compelling, exquisitely presented case that the president of the United States and his inner circle attempted to overthrow the incoming government of President Biden by seeking to defraud the American people and, for the added heck of it, Trump’s loyalist donors. Those are felonies, all.
But the jury pool is tainted.
A nation knocking back martinis of Watergate nostalgia, in the Giuliani style, waits for a hero of the magnitude of Judge John Sirica or Archibald Cox or Woodward or Bernstein to steer democracy back to safety. But any modern savior would be trying to save a country weighed down by its citizens like Angela “Burnitdown” Rubino of Rome, Ga. — a Trump supporter and subject of a remarkable profile by the Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen — who is far too busy accusing her local school board of grooming children for sexual predators to be moved by anything presented by a January 6 committee that’s largely banned from Fox News anyway.
You think you’ve got it tough these days? The January 6 committee is trying to get people to care about the principles of democracy on the week when the price of gasoline hit $5 for the first time, and when global stock markets seem teetering on the brink of collapse. If you look hard enough, you might realize that the lies that have kept us buying gas-guzzling SUVs in a time of searing climate change and the lies that propped up Wall Street’s magical quarterly earnings and now the lie that frankly, Donald Trump did win that election, are all really just the same Big Lie of a failed nation-state metastasizing across our weak body politic.
Indeed, the American middle class has been so bombarded and beaten down by the decades of lies since Richard Nixon resigned that we have now learned to simply embrace them, much as Winston Smith learned to love Big Brother. That’s why it’s so jarring to watch the January 6 panel dropping its 50-megaton truth bomb on the heartland — and why what’s supposed to be our wake-up call feels more like a blast from our distant past.
Yo, do this
Some of the best journalists that Philadelphia has ever produced grew famous elsewhere — none more so than Wesley Morris, who’s now won two Pulitzer Prizes as a cultural critic for the New York Times. In the latest episode of his podcast Still Processing, he returns to Philly because — intrigued by the recent conversation around the impact of interstate highways on urban neighborhoods — he wanted to see how the 1991 opening of the Vine Street Expressway had altered life in Chinatown, from its food bank to the cemetery where the remains of 89 Black people were relocated.
Nothing speaks to the power of photojournalism more than the lengths that some governments will go in order to keep it under wraps. Unfortunately, that list includes the United States of America, which was determined not to let the public see the harsher realities of life at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for hundreds of people that it alleged — not always convincingly — were 9/11-era terrorists. But after 20 years, the New York Times was granted its Freedom of Information Request to obtain and publish photos of how inmates were dealt with in the early 2000s — a critical step toward understanding this moral stain on America.
Ask me anything
Question: Do state legislators have the legal right to recall a DA who was elected in Philly? If so, why bother voting? — Via John Starbuck (@JCStarbuck3) on Twitter
.Answer: John is referring here to an announcement Monday by three Republican members of the Pennsylvania House — from no closer to Philadelphia than Gettysburg — of a resolution to impeach Larry Krasner, the city’s district attorney who ran on a platform of progressive reforms to curb mass incarceration and was elected twice by landslide margins, most recently in 2021. His critics — sure to find other supporters in an increasingly extremist GOP caucus — aren’t accusing Krasner of wrongdoing; they just disagree with his policies, which they blame (with a lack of hard evidence) for the city’s rising murder rate. It’s not at all clear whether it’s constitutional for state lawmakers to remove a local official they simply disagree with — Krasner doesn’t think so, nor does a Duquesne University law professor quoted by the Inquirer — but that’s not really the point. The move smacks of authoritarianism, and it’s a prelude to what we can expect from Harrisburg if an anti-Democratic wave sweeps more GOP lawmakers and extremist Doug Mastriano into office in November.
Backstory on the futile hunt for a GOP policy to fight inflation
There’s no longer any question that inflation at the gas pump, the supermarket, and elsewhere is becoming painful to all Americans — now raising the risk of a recession by the fall election. So if I told you that the response to the crisis by President Biden and his allies was merely to hold a public hearing, you’d probably think that was incredibly lame. Yet that very idea was floated Sunday night — not by the Democrats, but by the No. 3-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. “This is going to be one of our Number One priorities, so Number One, Trey, is, have a hearing on inflation!” she told Fox News’ Trey Gowdy.
Stefanik’s non-answer dramatized the Number One irony, if you will, hanging over American politics in 2022. Every political pundit — including, sadly, your correspondent — believes Republicans will easily retake the House and maybe also the Senate in November, thanks to pitchfork-carrying voters blaming Biden’s party for maybe-by-then $6 gas, or $10 steak burritos. So you’d think that top Republicans like Florida Sen. Rick Scott — who said the quiet part out loud for the GOP when he called inflation “a gold mine” for his party late last year — would be running on a plan to address America’s biggest problem. But they don’t have one, not really.
When pressed (not often enough, in my opinion) on what they’d do differently to lower inflation, Republicans tend to say they’d rein in government spending — even though it seems like Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is already taking care of that problem. Other GOP ideas — like restarting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would take years to build and then ship fuel to overseas markets — wouldn’t realistically put money back in voters’ pockets. Maybe that’s because the global issues driving U.S. inflation are the same that have caused runaway prices in Europe or insane gas prices in Canada — i.e., mostly beyond the power of any U.S. politician. You won’t hear that from your screaming TV set between now and November, of course.
Recommended Inquirer reading
For my Sunday column, I featured my one-on-one chat with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, my favorite 2020 presidential candidate, who is lobbying for the Biden administration to cancel $50,000 per individual in student debt, which would wipe out much of that $1.75 trillion burden and boost America’s young adults. She explained why she thinks $50,000 is the best number for racial equity. Over the weekend, I took a deep look at a little-explored aspect of Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s radical agenda for Pennsylvania: An education plan that would slash per-pupil spending by more than half, and free up the remaining dollars so families could spend them on religious schools or home-schooling.
Frequently I’ve used this space to highlight the work of my Inquirer colleague Samantha Melamed, who’s focused on criminal injustice in Philadelphia and wrongful convictions. Over the weekend, as part of the paper’s A More Perfect Union series digging deeply into the city’s sordid history of systemic racism, Melamed took the saga all the way back to 1790, when Philadelphia opened its first penitentiary. Even then, inmates were disproportionately Black. Wrote Melamed: “It set the tone for two centuries of American carceral expansion that evolved, explicitly or implicitly, to contain advances in Black freedom.” It takes a tough newsroom to ask these tough questions, and you support that when you support The Inquirer with your subscription.