A Father, A Son and an Assassination – 50 years later

Fifty years ago this week, it fell to me to tell Sirhan B. Sirhan Sr. that his son had been identified as the assassin who had killed Robert F. Kennedy the day before in Los Angeles. It was a bizarre encounter in which, by meeting the father, I learned a bit about the troubled life and tortured mind of the son.
It was June 6, 1968, the day Kennedy passed away after lingering for hours after the shooting. I was not in Los Angeles. I was thousands of miles away in Israel, where I was a correspondent for The New York Times. I was stunned by the news about Kennedy, whom I had known and covered when he ran for the Senate in New York.
I was attending a cocktail reception at the home of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel that afternoon when Ambassador Walworth Barbour took me into his study, closed the door and told me that he had just learned that the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan Jr., had been born and raised in Jerusalem and that his father still lived in a West Bank village just outside Ramallah.
I thanked the ambassador, left the reception and raced to Jerusalem. With a translator and the Israeli military escort that was required to travel in the West Bank after dark in those post-war days, I arrived at the Sirhan house about 10 p.m. and rapped loudly on the door. After a minute, a light came on and Sirhan Sr. appeared, pulling a pair of pants over his pajamas.
I identified myself and though I am sure he was confused about being woken up this way, he invited me in and insisted, in the tradition of Arab hospitality, on making coffee. Sitting at his kitchen table, I asked Sirhan if he had heard the news about Kennedy. He said he had and thought it terrible. I asked if he had heard the name of the assassin. No, he said, he had gone to bed before that news.
Taking a deep breath, I asked Sirhan if he had sons. Yes, he said proudly, five. I pushed my notebook across the table and asked him to write the names of his sons in order of their birth. He did, including the fourth of the five, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Jr. I tapped my finger on that name and told him that was the name of the man who had been identified as the assassin.
Sirhan Sr. was stunned. He gave me a hard, disbelieving look and shook his head no. But he could see I was serious. Suddenly, he started to rant and cry, first about how much he admired the Kennedy family, then about how his fourth son couldn’t possibly have been the shooter.
“He was the best of the boys,” he said frantically, sobbing now. “He was the smartest, with the best grades. I was proudest of him.”
Then the father’s face darkened. “If he did this dirty thing, then he should hang,” he shouted angrily. “Kennedy could have been a great president, he could have finished what his brother started.”
Sirhan went on and on like this non-stop, back and forth, railing now, more and more excited, switching between how wrong it had been for Kennedy to be cut down and how good a boy his fourth son was.
By now it was one a.m. I excused myself and rushed back to Jerusalem to write my story
The next day, I located Sirhan Jr.’s former school, the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran School in the Old City. The headmaster confirmed that the boy had been a promising student, near the top of his class.
But the headmaster also said the Sirhan home was deeply troubled. The parents had terrible fights, he said. Sirhan Sr. had lost his job after the 1948 war, blamed it on the Israelis, became emotionally unstable and beat his wife and children repeatedly. The family finally split up and the mother, Mary, got financial help from a Christian missionary group to move with the children to the United States in 1957. They settled in California.
From the headmaster’s account, and Sirhan Sr.’s outbursts, it was not hard to imagine the roots of Sirhan Jr.’s bitterness, his anger at Israel and even his fury at the Kennedy family, whom he apparently saw as important supporters of Israel. It was that anger that motivated him to act on June 5, 1968, the first anniversary of the Six Day War.

News From Annapolis…

Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley announces new chief of staff

Mayor Gavin Buckley Monday announced a new chief of staff to take over after current chief Jane Hruska’s departure Wednesday.

Buckley named Susanne “Susy” Stout Smith, an Eastport resident, to replace Hruska on Thursday. Hruska plans to move to New Mexico.

Smith served as chief of staff for Norman Mineta when he was a U.S. congressman and Commerce Secretary under President Bill Clinton. She also advised Mineta when he was Transportation Secretary under President George W. Bush.

Smith also was chief of staff for former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, and legislative director of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

“Susy brings a great depth of knowledge and federal experience to our team, complementing a staff with outstanding local, county, and state expertise,” Buckley said in a statement.

Smith also served President Jimmy Carter; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Santa Clara County, California; and the City of San Jose, California. She belonged to the Eastport Civic Association and West Shady Side Neighborhood Association.

Her salary is still being determined, city spokeswoman Susan O’Brien said.

Smith is the wife of Terence Smith, a retired CBS White House correspondent and former columnist for The Capital.

No Winners in the Current Age of Cynicism

Have you noticed something?
We are living in an Age of Cynicism so deep and pervasive that it is distorting our politics, our laws and our society. It is the new normal. What was once clearly wrong now seems ok. Or, at least, “the way things are these days.”
The cynicism spreads across political parties, Congress, the courts, the gun lobby, the media, big business; you name it.
The cynic-in-chief, of course, is President Donald Trump. His lying, his Twitter storms, his crass character assassinations (“Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ James Comey, Little Rocket Man,” etc.) seemed funny at first, then cheap and crude, now, most destructive of all, routine. “That’s Trump,” we say among ourselves, and shrug, With every Trumpian rant, magnified by our cynical indifference, our political discourse descends into the toilet.
Fair question: who is more cynical? Trump, or those of us who voted for him knowing that he was a narcissistic fraud? Some, I suppose, didn’t pay enough attention during the campaign to realize that he was playing a joke on us and supported him in the hope that he really would do the preposterous things he said, like bring back coal and manufacturing jobs, make the economy grow by four or five per cent or magically curb illegal immigration by building a “beautiful wall.”
But what about the others who voted for him knowing he was wholly unequipped for the job? What about those who held their nose and voted for him in order to feather their own nests? Who, really, is the most cynical of us all?
The Republicans in Congress might deserve the title. The Mitch McConnells, the Paul Ryans and the others that indulge the President’s whims and outbursts in feigned pained silence and then vote to embrace policies they know are wrong in order to get their agenda signed into law. So what if the gun lobby makes a mockery of the deaths in school shootings by accepting meaningless “reforms” that do nothing serious to stop the carnage? So what?
Nor are the Democrats innocent. “Chuck and Nancy” may not be as consciously cynical as Mitch and Paul, but those in the minority rarely are. They stake out more progressive positions, call a press conference or two, then throw up their hands as the majority adopts its agenda. Meanwhile, the national Democratic Party tacks to the center to win special elections in Georgia and Pennsylvania as it readies a head-snapping move to the left for 2020. Or not, depending on what will win.
The Supreme Court defined cynicism with its Citizens United decision trashing the concept of campaign finance regulation, arguing that corporations have the same rights as individuals. Its justifications echo the corrupt politics behind Bush v, Gore in 2000 and the notion that the Second Amendment, despite what it says, guarantees the gun rights of individuals rather than “well-regulated militias.” Retired Justice John Paul Stevens finally said what must be said: repeal the Second Amendment, which was never meant by the founders to mean what the NRA says it means.
The media: what is more cynical than the excuses Fox News makes for Trump? Is it MSNBC, when the entire channel is devoted to tearing Trump down? Or talk radio? They are all competing for ratings, adopting the ideology they believe will attract more audience.
Cynicism is not new in Washington, of course, nor unique to the Trump era. LBJ was deeply cynical when he lied to the country about Vietnam because he didn’t want to be the first American president to lose a war; George W. was cynical when he lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to take out Saddam. Lying is not a new presidential activity.
And, even in an Age of Cynicism, there are striking exceptions among us: the young people demonstrating against gun violence in the schools, volunteers who commit time and money to make things better, charitable groups here and abroad. There are bright spots, to be sure.
But the most cynical act of all is to take cynicism for granted. Then we all lose.

Annapolis: A Mayor in Motion

Three months into his mayoralty, Gavin Buckley is in the vision business. Still. Just like his campaign last fall. Morning ’til night, the Mayor is out drumming up support for a vision of Annapolis remade.
In separate conversations several weeks ago and this past week, he described his vision of a different, more vibrant Annapolis:
” A remodeled, more inviting Market House, open and operating, he hopes, by May 1
” A repaved and redesigned Main Street, with a bike and trolley lane and expanded sidewalk dining
” Pedestrian and bikeways across busy thoroughfares like Forest Drive and Spa Road
” Improved public housing and expanded after-school programs.
” Swimmable creeks and coves
” Most ambitious of all, a completely redesigned and inviting City Dock area that he hopes will prove to be a magnet for Annapolitan families and visitors alike.

It’s an expansive agenda and being Annapolis, it will take time. Nothing happens quickly here, nothing. Especially not when you have to build coalitions among preservationists who treasure this lovely city’s rich history, and others who respect the past but want to embrace the future. Molasses, it seems to me, moves faster.
But Gavin Buckley is a mayor in motion. He has been out rallying support at community meetings and visiting, when he can, innovative city redevelopments elsewhere. Just recently he went to see and admired The Wharf, the completely transformed, newly hip waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment area in Southwest Washington D.C. He came back with photos on his cellphone that he displays to anyone who will take the time to look. Just ask him.
Of course, it all takes money. And he still has to balance a budget, negotiate with city employee unions, hire a new city manager and deal with all the daily crises that arise in this or any busy community. Inevitably, there will be opposition to many or most of his ideas.
But he is nothing if not enthusiastic.
“I’m loving it,” he says of his still-new job. “I’m going at twice the pace I did during the campaign, which I didn’t think possible.”
Of all of Buckley’s visions, he is most excited about the transformation he wants to see take place around City Dock, where a parking lot currently occupies the best real estate in Annapolis and cheapens the waterfront view.
In its place, he sees a piazza, a hardscape public plaza that he wants to call Lafayette Square, with a spray park for children and open seating, a promenade around the waterfront, a pumping station and two-level underground garage, a “Cannery” arts center like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria and, as an anchor, a boutique “Maritime” hotel with a penthouse-level terrace bar overlooking the harbor. A raised sea wall would provide an added three feet of protection against the sort of “nuisance flooding” that inundated the area during high tides last week.
In Buckley’s vision, a public-private partnership between the city and a development team led by the entrepreneur Harvey Blonder, the Washington architect Peter A. Fillat III and others would invest some $65 million in the hotel and underground garage. The city’s contribution would be the land, probably as a lease.
If the details can be worked out, the National Sailing Hall of Fame could be housed in the hotel or an adjacent building.
A few weeks ago, it looked as if Newport, Rhode Island, which thinks of itself as the “Yachting Capital of America,” might lure the financially-troubled Hall of Fame with an offer of a large waterfront building.
Not so fast: what seemed initially like a generous proposal has been watered down and has not yet been approved by the Newport City Council, so the Hall of Fame may well remain in Annapolis, especially if Gavin Buckley has anything to say about it.
“I hope we can keep it here in Annapolis,” he said last week. “It’s added value to our identity as the ‘Sailing Capital of America.”
That remains to be seen. But the Mayor in Motion wants movement, not the “analysis paralysis” that he says has been the city’s specialty in years past.
“We have a wonderful, beautiful city,” he says. “But we can make it better.”

A Skeptical View of Trump

If you are wondering how the rest of the world views the United States a year into the Age of Trump, a small, unscientific sampling was available last week aboard Crystal Symphony, a cruise ship sailing the waters off Western Australia.
The occasion was a panel discussion: “Ocean Views: Perspectives from Four Continents” in front of several hundred passengers who hailed from North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The panelists included your faithful correspondent from the U.S.; Michael, a British historian; Danielle, an Australian olympic gold medalist in water polo and Herta, a woman banking executive and lecturer from Nairobi, Kenya.
To a person, the international panelists said they were confounded by the first year’s performance of President Trump and dismayed by its impact on the rest of the world.
“It’s hard to understand what he is doing, much less why he is doing it,” said Herta.
The panelists lamented the loss of U.S. leadership in the world, expressed concern about the rise of China and alarm about the ongoing war of words between North Korea and the Trump Administration. The Doomsday Clock, they said, is rightly set at two minutes to midnight and the world has every reason to be anxious.
The discussion took place as the ship sailed the warm, blue waters of the Indian Ocean to Perth, the capital of Western Australia and, as it happens, the sun-drenched childhood home of Gavin Buckley, the new mayor of Annapolis. This being the height of the Australian summer, Perth was about 50 degrees warmer last week than Annapolis and the beautiful beaches were busy.
As part of the discussion, the moderator polled the audience on how they would vote for U.S. president today versus a year ago. On this same ship on November 10, 2016, two days after the U.S. election, the passengers aboard at that time chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, 52-to-38 per cent. Last week, the passengers currently aboard choose Clinton over Trump in a purely theoretical rematch 47 to 41 per cent. Not the same passengers, of course, but a significant switch in sentiment none the less.
Why the sour view of Trump? “We know him better now,” an Australian woman said.
Using hand-held polling devices, the passengers expressed their view on several other topics. By substantial margins, they said the ME TOO campaign in the United States and elsewhere was growing and likely to change the way men and women relate to each other over the long term. By equally big numbers, they said they saw a future for public broadcasting in an era of fake news, fragmentation and political polarization.
With an eye towards the upcoming winter Olympics in South Korea, the passengers and the panelists lamented the impact of doping on the Olympic movement and were pessimistic about the chances of curbing it. They also criticized the interference of international politics in the Olympics, but agreed that the prospect of North and South Korea marching into the opening ceremony under the same flag might reduce tensions on that peninsula much the way ping pong diplomacy helped thaw relations between the United States and China a generation ago.
The passengers were not unanimous on any of these topics, nor are they necessarily representative of a broader view, but they hail from more than 20 countries and share a similar, almost shocked view of President Trump and his foreign policy.
Danielle the Olympian said Australians in general were in disbelief over the headlines from Washington these days.
Herta the executive from Nairobi said the Trump Administrations’ skepticism on climate change was a huge concern. She said that as the United States deliberately shrinks its role in international affairs, China is rushing in to fill the gap, especially in Africa, which she described as the fastest growing continent with the greatest untapped potential. “China is buying up industries and investing,” she said. “Where is the United States?”
Michael the British historian agreed. “China is playing the long game,” he said, “the U.S. is focused on the short game. That alone changes the balance of power.”

Where You Stand is Where You Sit on Trump

The first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration seems a good time to take stock of the first full year of the most chaotic, disruptive, unpredictable presidency ever.
Our “very stable genius” in the Oval Office assures us repeatedly on Twitter that he is “the greatest” and that no president before him has achieved so much in so short a time. Neither assertion is demonstrably true, but candid self-analysis has never been our leader’s strong suit. Self-absorption, yes; self-criticism, not so much.
Sui generis was one of the first latin phrases the nuns taught me in St. Raymond’s School in Lynbrook, Long Island. It means singular, unique, nothing quite like it. I’ll give President Trump that much. He is sui generis. None of the 44 presidents before him compares and I doubt any that follow — not even a President Oprah — will seem the same.
None is likely to match his loose relationship with the truth, with facts, with the constitution and the English language, even though he tells us that he “is, like, really smart.” None of his predecessors, not even George W. Bush, who struggled with “strategery,” is his equal as a stream-of-consciousness phrase-maker. None would refer to Haiti and parts of Africa as “shithole countries.”
Now comes Michael Wolff, whose new book, “Fire and Fury Inside the Trump White House,” reports that the President’s closest aides consider him to be an overgrown child who is hopelessly unequipped for his job and a candidate for removal under the 25th amendment because they believe he is “losing it.”
Wolff, whom I have known for years, is not to be taken literally. He has a checkered history of first ingratiating himself with prominent sources (i.e. Rupert Murdoch and others) and then burning them between hard covers. It’s a profitable line of work, but his reporting hardly qualifies as even the first draft of history.
That said, the quotes in his book from Steve Bannon and others about the President and the Trump inner sanctum have the ring of truth. Bannon himself is a relentless, self-promoting loose cannon, but it is worth noting that while he apologized for his comments about the President and his family, he did not deny them.
A far better, more revealing book about Trump and what makes him tick is “The Trumps, Three Generations of Builders and a President,” by Gwenda Blair.
It is a portrait of Trump’s immigrant grandfather, Frederick Trump, who came from Germany and prospered in the Klondike gold rush; his late father, Fred, who capitalized on government subsidies and loopholes to become a major builder in New York’s outer boroughs, and of the President himself and his swaggering career as a Manhattan developer and playboy.
Read it and you’ll understand how, for Trump, life is one “deal” after another and “winning” is not the important thing, but the only thing.
He is taking the same approach to running the country. In each case, he has pushed himself relentlessly, played fast and loose with the truth and claimed credit for the accomplishments of others. His gutter language is just the topper.
Of course, his supporters applaud his performance. They look at Trump’s first year and they see tax cuts, reduced regulation, more money for the military, Justice Neil Gorsuch and other conservatives appointed to the Federal bench, a tough line against North Korea, Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital and a relentless assault against the “fake news” media.
What’s not to like? asks the base, that 38 per cent that supports Trump in the polls, gets their news from Fox and would vote for him again in a heartbeat.
His critics look at the same record and see more income inequality, discarded environmental protections, wasteful spending, right-wing judges, heightened danger of a nuclear confrontation with North Korea, setbacks to the already troubled Middle East peace process and a frontal assault on the first amendment. They also are offended by the President’s style: the bragging, the bullying, the thinly-veiled bigotry and the outright lying.
So, where you stand at the end of the first year of the Trump presidency depends on where you sit. You either see the President as fulfilling his campaign promise to upset the Washington apple cart, or as tearing down the structure and integrity of government.
Take your pick. Your next opportunity to express your opinion of Trump comes in November.

Annapolis VS Newport: Which is the “Sailing Capital of America?”

Annapolis and Newport have a lot in common: both are historic, beautiful, waterfront cities and, for years, both have claimed to be the “Sailing Capital” of America.
In the first column I wrote in this space three years ago, I questioned whether Annapolis deserved its self-anointed “sailing capital” title, given the cramped, crowded harbor and relative lack of amenities for the visiting yachtsman. Lots of readers agreed with me, but a vocal minority cried foul. Hell hath no fury, I discovered, like an Annapolitan challenged on the sailing pre-eminence of his or her city!
I was in the crosshairs — the fire and fury — until Molly Winans, the editor of SpinSheet Magazine came up with a Solomonic solution. Noting that Newport routinely hosts mega-yachts and huge sailboats and that Annapolis is home to an active fleet of 30-40-foot racing sailboats, she decreed that Newport is the “Yachting Capital” of the U.S. and that Annapolis is the “Sailing Capital.”
Controversy resolved!
But wait: Newport now has thrown down a gauntlet that threatens Annapolis’s sailing capital title. Newport’s Mayor, Harry Winthrop, has invited the National Sailing Hall of Fame, currently housed in temporary quarters on Annapolis’s harborside, to move to Newport and settle into the city-owned Armory building, a handsome, turreted stone structure on Newport’s beautiful harbor.
The Mayor is offering to sell or lease the building to the NSHOF, which has been struggling for 13 years to raise the money to build a new Hall of Fame and museum at its postage-stamp site at Annapolis’s City Dock. The NSHOF has raised some $4.5 million in cash and pledges, but needs $9.5 million to meet its commitment to the Maryland state government and obtain a long-term lease on the land, which it currently occupies on a $1-a-year interim lease.
Gary Jobson, the reknown sailor, Annapolis resident and president of the NSHOF’s 27-member board, admits that they are tempted by the Newport offer, although they need more details.
“We in Annapolis claim we are the U.S. sailing capital,” he said this week, “but in reality the big yachts and the big donors don’t come here. They go to Newport.”
Jobson said his board is confronted with three options: continue their fundraising efforts in Annapolis, move to Newport or convert the Hall of Fame into a virtual, online operation. The board members are deeply divided, with some supporting each of the options, but Jobson is determined to bring the matter to a head and make a decision at the Board’s next meeting on January 8.
Would Annapolis forfeit its claim as the sailing capital if the Hall of Fame departs? Not necessarily, but one board member, former Delegate Dick D’Amato, thinks it would be a shame. He’d like to see the NSHOF raise enough money to build a striking building on the Annapolis waterfront, something that would catch the eye of any sailor coming into the harbor.
“It would be the first thing that they see,” he said, “and it would effectively hang out a sign that says “Sailing Capital.”
Moreover, D’Amato says, the Hall of Fame and museum would be a singular attraction in Annapolis. In Newport, it would be one more sailing institution, along with the majestic J Class yachts, the America’s Cup yachts racing in the harbor and the International Yacht Restoration School. The America’s Cup Hall of Fame is just up the road in Bristol, RI.
Jobson, clearly frustrated by his protracted fundraising shortages, says the zillionaire celebrities who spend tens of millions on America’s Cup challenges, the Ted Turners and the Larry Ellisons, aren’t interested in contributing to a Hall of Fame here. “Believe me,” he said, “I’ve asked, more than once.”
But there is one new player in this continuing drama, as of last Monday: Mayor Gavin Buckley. He said in an interview that he is “100 per cent” behind keeping the Hall of Fame on City Dock in Annapolis.
So, as they say in live television, stay tuned.

Tom Mathews R.I.P.

This recollection of the gifted, mischievous political gadfly Tom Mathews, my splendid pal for 40 years, was written by his son, Tom Mathews Jr., shortly after Tom Sr.’s recent death at 96. It was a life worth remembering — Terence Smith

Tom Mathews 1921-2017
Grand Druid of Liberal Causes and Campaigns
by Tom Mathews Jr.

Sargent Shriver called him “My Peace Corps poet.” When Shriver sent Tom Mathews a lofty invitation to Camelot, saying, “Come as you are,” Mathews caught the first flight out of Utah and arrived in ski boots. His first job in Washington was to sell dubious reporters and a hostile Congress an idea that Dwight Eisenhower was calling “infantile” and Richard Nixon “an escape for cultists and draft dodgers.” A nimble shaper of words, images and liberal causes, Mathews never lost his faith in the art of the impossible. With a mountain man’s relish for high altitude and a river boat gambler’s sense of the odds, he worked the city’s halls of power, its smoke-filled steak houses and gossipy saloons, and all the best poker tables in town. And within a year, Time Magazine, Ike and Dick’s own court historian, was calling the Peace Corps John F. Kennedy’s “single greatest accomplishment.”
“For Tom, politics was always David against Goliath,” says Mark Shields, dean of liberal columnists and the PBS NewsHour, who tracked Mathews for more than 40 years. “He was the happiest of warriors, the best of companions, the most American of Americans–always standing with the little guy against the big guy.”
Over the decades that followed the Kennedy years, Mathews evolved from press secretary into the go-to guy for dozens of activist bands that grew into the country’s most powerful voices of liberal public interest advocacy: Common Cause, the National Organization for Women, Emily’s List, and Planned Parenthood; the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society; the Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU; Greenpeace and Amnesty International, to name just a few.
“Tom had an uncanny talent for stirring outrage against injustice,” says Roger Craver, founding partner of Craver, Mathews & Smith, a consulting firm that grew over the decades from just the two of them to an outfit with more than 100 operatives. “His finely honed political skills, amplified by a cadre of press comrades who trusted his judgment, gave credibility to these percolating organizations at a time when few people had ever heard of citizen’s lobbies, environmental activists, or issues like reproductive rights.”
When a reporter for the New York Times once asked him to describe his portfolio, Mathews rubbed his hands cheerfully and said, “We are the bomb throwers.” He loved flame-throwing metaphors, but the hand behind them rarely blew his cool. He believed that the little guy, who could be a woman as surely as a man, occupied the vast center of American politics, not the free-fire zones of the far right and left.
“Mathews was an idealist in a cynic’s profession,” wrote Peter Goldman in Quest for the Presidency: the 1988 Campaign. “He and Craver dreamed for years of finding the perfect citizen candidate, a man or woman of the center left with a feel for issues, a history of independence, a winning television manner, and, most important of all, a center–a core of beliefs more important to him or her than getting elected.”
He first put the idea to John W, Gardner, President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, an elegant writer on leadership, psychologist, and man of conscience who broke with LBJ over Vietnam. “You’re crazy,” said Gardner, who had, all the same, taken his advice in forming Common Cause and hired him as the group’s Vice President. Four years later, he tried again with Congressman Morris K. Udall, a maverick Democratic from Arizona. Mo Udall looked like Abraham Lincoln without the beard and he agreed to walk the walk. He fell short to Jimmy Carter, but Craver Mathews & Smith made him a serious contender all the way to the Democratic National Convention. In 1980, Mathews flew to Boston to buck up Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois, the freethinking Republican who had floundered through the primaries against Ronald Reagan. “A shattering concept,” he thought, when Mathews promised to raise $14 million for him–but the idea would only work if he ran as an independent. Pulling himself together, Anderson bought the pitch, got the $14 million, then blew it that November. But Mathews didn’t give up.
In 1988, with Reagan on the way out and no one of equal throw weight in sight to the right or left, Mathews flew to New York to sip a Coke with Bill Moyers When he said, “Bill, I’m here to tell you that you should be running for President. Now,” Moyers said, “I’ve been thinking about it myself.” But what would the great mossbacks of the Democratic Party say. “Fuck ‘em,” Mathews replied. Conventional politics had become “fatuous.” Moyers, the citizen candidate of his dreams, nibbled, but in the end didn’t bite. “I’m not ready to be what you think I am,” he said. “I’m still on pilgrimage, still en route. I have not yet arrived to where I can move others.”
Mathews told friends that his only truly sad day in politics was managing the press aboard the funeral train that took Bobby Kennedy from Manhattan to Union Station in D.C. He felt philosophical about Moyers, the big one that got away. The thing that disturbed him most was the growing strength of right-wing political leaders and movements after they started using the same tools Craver Mathews & Smith had perfected on the left. From out of the ruins of the GOP came a citizen candidate who was, if nothing else, not Bill Moyers. “Donald Trump tested even Tom’s optimism,” said Terence Smith, once of the New York Times, CBS News and PBS. “Nothing else did.”
Thomas Richard Mathews, born August 1, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah, drew his activist genes from the Mormon Conquest, the Roaring ‘Twenties and the Great Depression. The first Mathews to reach Zion was a miner from Wales who fell in with early missionaries and gave up digging coal, singing all the way home and drinking himself to sleep every night. He then found himself shipping out of Liverpool, catching a riverboat up the Missouri, and transferring to a Conestoga wagon across the Great Plains. He wound up cutting stone for Brigham Young’s new Mormon Temple. For a while, the Mathews family produced good Mormons. Then they didn’t.
Tom was the first son of a Jack Mormon named Wesley Chase Mathews, who smoked Camels, guzzled coffee, and drank whisky like a fish. He boxed for a time as Kid Salt Lake. For a dive he took as a featherweight in San Francisco, he was paid five bucks and enough Hershey bars to see him home. He later ran a Union Pacific track gang. At night, backlit by the whorehouses of Wendover, Wes and his crew from the International Workers of the World would stagger back to their tents trading policy ideas like: “You tell me one goddam thing the goddam Republicans ever done for the goddamn working man.”
One day toward the end of World War I, he rode into Salt Lake to get a dynamite license and buy a truckload of TNT. In the basement of the old City and County Building, a tower of stone with its moon-face clocks and a courtroom where the Copper Bosses railroaded Joe Hill, Edith Alm processed the forms for a bouquet of Red Rose nitro and a box or two of blasting caps. She was Swedish: blonde, beautiful, and not a Mormon. Irresistible. After a high-octane courtship, he persuaded Miss Alm to loan him her life savings, which he invested in a Model T at the dealer’s discount and then sold at full price to a Madam out in Magna. With the $200 profit, he bought a diamond ring for Edith. His son also developed a distain for conventional finance. “You can always find money,” he was fond of saying. “The important thing is to keep your nerve.”
Wes and Edith married in 1918 and had three children: Tom, his brother Dick, and his sister Peggy, all of them raised on their Pop’s three-part code of parenting: (1) Every man has the right to go to hell in his own handbasket; (2) Pay all poker debts first, but don’t forget your grocery bill; (3) Never point a gun at a man unless you mean to kill him. Before he was out of short pants, Mathews was delivering newspapers. He once took the dare of a carnival geek and bit the head off a chicken for a quarter because his mother needed the money back home. Later, he bussed tables at the Rainbow Rendezvous ballroom, siphoning dregs and selling refilled bottles to Mormon backsliders so dumb they couldn’t tell good gin from bad anyway. He skied the purer slopes of the Wasatch Mountains, climbed its crags, and fished its pocket water, shot ducks and pheasants in its shadows. He was first in his family to go to college, where he wrote short stories and poems, keeping one eye on the style of Scott Fitzgerald and the other on the substance of Wallace Stegner. In 1942 he graduated from the University of Utah, where Stegner taught. In Zion’s city of the Saints, owned and run by LDS Republicans, he made his own witness and registered as a Democrat.
Up at the U, he met an elfin radical named Bonnie Johnson who was paying her way through college as a carhop, delivering burgers and shakes on roller skates at Fred and Kelley’s Drive-In on State Street. Eager to keep one step ahead of Fred, who was a touchy-feely sort of boss, she accepted a call from Mathews, whose idea of a hot date was a four-hour hike up Lamb’s Canyon. When they got back, he staked her to a shake and a burger of her own at the posher A&W uptown. “I like you, Johnson,” he said, beating Fred’s time by a mile. They married just before Christmas and quite soon had a son they called Tommy Two; then a second son, Colin, who became Mayor of Virginia City up in Montana, trumping his old man, who always talked a good game but never held elective office. When a daughter arrived, they named her Anne, rechristened Anna Livia Plurabelle by her godfather, George Kittle, name-checking and outing her dad’s most artful secret: the shock of recognition that eventually drove Mathews to politics was the day it finally dawned on him that he’d never be another James Joyce.
His command presence was always bigger than his frame. He was skinny as a green aspen when World War II broke out. He served in the 10th Mountain Division, a legendary outfit with a red, white and blue shoulder patch flaunting a ski crossed with a bayonet. Its recruits were drawn from the ranks of reckless young skiers and rock climbers who’d made their bones long before chairlifts and the definition of extreme sport was playing tennis without a net. The day he volunteered, he weighed in at 137 pounds; by standing on his toes, he made five foot seven. “Mathews,” roared a skyscraping Captain. “You’re too goddamn small. Next!” Undaunted, he snuck in as a muleskinner at Fort Sill, where he trained to hump the 10th Mountain’s 75mm Howitzers through the Apennines. After an unimpressed mule kicked his knee, reducing his value as a ground-pounder, he flew combat missions as a forward observer, directing artillery strikes from a tiny, unarmed Army Air Corps L-4, the military version of the Piper Cub. “I was a butterfly up there,” he said later, “floating, floating, floating,” tossed in the propeller wash of P-47 fighter-bombers.
In 114 days of blood-soaked combat, the 10th Mountain Division broke Hitler’s Gothic Line, driving the Germans into headlong a retreat across the Po River and all the way to the Alps. Along the way it lost 945 men killed in action. One morning, flying through a sky full of hotly popping flak, Mathews spotted the largest concentration of Germans he had ever seen, fleeing up the eastern shore of Lake Garda. “I hated those bastards, wanted to kill every one of them,” he recalled, adding that he later came to hate the Army for turning him into such an effective weapon. He radioed an air strike, but the American batteries refused to fire. When he landed in Verona, he leaped out the tiny cockpit of the L-4 and yelled, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” at an officer standing on the airstrip, who shot right back, “The war’s over.”
“You tell that to those Nazi sonsabitches up at Garda,” Lieutenant Mathews roared, pointing toward the Alps, where he’d come within one pop of dying on the last day of the war.
He never really recovered from what he had seen and done in Europe. Outwardly, he kept his best poker face. He made a game of passing himself off as a paisano, laughing at the way American soldiers thought that by adding a vowel to the end of every word they became instantly fluent in Italian. Landing his first a job as a reporter at the police shack of the Salt Lake City Tribune Telegram, he sold his souvenir Luger to a cop and splurged on a Chevvy Suburban Carry-All. “Load-o the truck-o,” he’d say, packing wife, kids, skis and a gallon of rot-gut for the ride up to Brighton and Mt. Millicent. “Andiamo. Sempre Avanti.” Let’s go. Never look back.
He rose quickly up the masthead from cub to culture editor of the Trib’s Sunday magazine, but the city’s religious and culture provincialism made him restless. On an assignment to do a story on Bing Crosby’s ranch in Elko, Nevada, he played cards with Scott Newhall, the executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a smooth bandit from California who owned a cut-down piano and a thumping gutbucket and filled his house on Grizzly peak with jazz musicians. He also ran the most colorful newspaper in the West. Mathews hesitated when Newhall offered him a job, but after the Tribunes’ moss-bound editor ordered him to tone down a review panning the local ballet (“We’ve got to think of business, see the big picture. You know how hard they tried”) he quit, stuffed his family and a few suitcases in the Carry-All and lit out for Baghdad by the Bay.
San Francisco had everything Salt Lake City didn’t: Black people and Jews, writers, painters, poets, homosexuals, lesbians. DEMOCRATS. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the city attracted fresh young thinkers and tinkerers full of optimism and energy. The Chronicle staffed its city room with some of the brightest, many of whom set up shop in Sausalito where Tom and Bonnie bought an old Victorian house on a steep-wooded hill facing the Bay. The owner was a then unheralded painter named Richard Diebenkorn. When Diebenkorn abandoned, in the attic, a dozen of the canvases that ultimately made him famous, Mathews innocently and blindly stuffed them into a convertible with the top down and packed them off to Diebenkorn’s new studio, thereby blowing roughly ten million bucks.
On the Chronicle, he became a star feature writer, celebrated in Hanno’s Bar on Mission Street for his puckish leads (“Does everyone have a wand?” inquired Enid Foster, the Edith Sitwell of Sausalito’s Bloomsbury Set.”) For a picnic on Angel Island, he encouraged his friends to freeze Mason jars of Martinis, pointing out that there would be no ice when they arrived. The revelers forgot that their cubeless jars would melt into straight gin. By the time they returned to the boat dock, one of them was so wrecked he had to be shuttled onto Spike Africa’s Tahiti ketch in a wheelbarrow. The survivors started calling Mathews “The Instigator.”
He was dead serious about more significant issues. After Brown vs. Board of Education, he took his son’s championship grammar school basketball team to the Sausalito Sweet Shop to celebrate. Seven of the nine players were black kids from the Marin City ghetto, named for a shipyard and the black workers left high and dry in Marin County after world War II. When the Greek-American owner refused to serve their table, Mathews stormed into the kitchen. After some yelling and a crash of pots and pans, the owner came out sheepishly and said the hot dogs and fries were on the house. After explaining the Supreme Court’s decision, Mathews pointed out that good kids screwed by a bigot bastard was the Chronicle’s idea of a first rate front-page story. He covered the San Quentin execution of Caryl Chessman, a martyr to crusaders against capital punishment, but only if the Chronicle agreed to a run another story about the execution of somebody no one knew or cared about. The night he returned from his second visit to the gas chamber, his son heard him sobbing downstairs. The next morning his notes were illegible.
If the Chronicle had made him its political editor and sent him to Sacramento, he might never have left the pleasant Bay Area world he called Lotus Land. Newhall thought that would be a waste of talent just at the time Mathews began thinking that the journalist’s job as professional, detached witness, exciting, as it was, was just near beer. He wanted to stop seeing life from outside the window. The field position he really needed was inside. More important than that, he didn’t just want to watch things happen; he wanted to make them happen. He quit the Chronicle and set up a small consulting shop in a loft overlooking Juanita’s Galley, owned by a Sausalito fishwife who covered her huge girth in a billowing MuMu, cursed most of her customers but lavished love and bacon and eggs on him.
His first client was the state’s attorney general, Edmund G. Brown. Everyone called him Pat. He wore huge glasses, had a young son named Jerry and he was a solid Democrat. He hired Dick Tuck, a rogue who had made his name punking Richard Nixon. The night before the election they had a few drinks, in Sacramento, climbed a ladder up the Capitol dome, and unfurled a pennant that said “Brown Knows.” At dawn reality seeped in, and they woke up, horrified. Would one little pun cost them the election? Fortunately for everyone, it rained that night. Rushing back to the dome, they found, to their relief and the preservation of their careers, that a high wind had whipped the pennant around the flagstaff and blown it away.
A few weeks before Christmas in 1960 Mathews went to Utah to see his mother and father and do a little skiing. Late one afternoon, with the light on the slopes at Alta fading from hot white to pale blue, he walked into the bar of the old Alta Lodge. His face was a skier’s mask: sunburned forehead, eyes circled in white where the goggles had been, his stubby Welch Nose daubed with zinc oxide.
Settling into his seat, he saw, an elbow or two away, Robert McNamara, newly tapped to be John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. The phone rang.
“Washington calling,” yodeled the barkeeper.
“I’ll take it,” McNamara said stretching out a well-practiced hand.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Secretary,” whispered the barkeep. It’s for Tom.”
After that the rest was history.
The soon-to-be White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, an old friend from the Chronicle, had touted him to the Kennedys. “He arrived on the fifth floor of the Peace Corps Building in those boots and a Russian hat,” recalled William Haddad in the oral history he left with the Kennedy Library in Boston. “He just walked through the door and said, ‘I’m here.’” Haddad was a hard-nosed reporter up from the New York Post who, like Salinger, had joined the Kennedy’s Round Table to change the world. He accurately sized up Mathews as part Sir Tristan, a great shot also from Wales, with more than a whiff about him of Sir Percival, always chasing the Holy Grail.
Over at the White House, JFK’s Irish Mafia let it be known that they didn’t want to take any crap from Peace Corps water walkers stoned on Hallelujah. They had Mathews all wrong. In a conference room once staffed by the high rollers of the Marshall Plan, he himself liked to shoot craps with Franklin Williams, a lanky civil rights attorney out of Thurgood Marshall’s shop who later became Ambassador to Ghana. And there was more. “He played poker every Monday night with Salinger and all the top press corps guys,” Haddad remembered. “He transacted more business for the Peace Corps and its image over that table than almost anywhere else in town.”
The work was high maintenance, fueled on adrenaline and Scotch. From the Peace Corps he moved to the State Department as Deputy Secretary for Congressional Affairs, where he worked the Hill on behalf of Dean Rusk as the country squeaked through the Cuban Missile Crisis and crept up on Vietnam. The wear and tear was tremendous, even on a mountain man’s constitution. Staging a tactical retreat, he withdrew to Park City, Utah. He needed to chill out.
It was the best of ideas, the worst of ideas. The old mining town was even more depressed than Mathews. He bought a saloon on Main Street and called it “The Bucket” after the compact ore cars that emptied the Silver King Mine. Wearing an old Tuxedo jacket over blue jeans, he settled arguments among brawling miners with the Encyclopedia Britannica set he kept behind the bar. At the Bucket, you could look it up or you could take it outside.
He tasted so much of the stock himself that within a year he had to take a sabbatical at the VA hospital down in the valley. This cost him some dignity, but never his sense of the absurd. The first day in rehab a fellow dipsomaniac sidled up to him and whispered, “You ain’t here to kill me, are you?” “No,” Mathews replied, more sober than he’d felt for some time, “not if you behave yourself.”
He recovered and returned to the East fighting. For a few years he puttered around Manhattan, here a campaign for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose only ambition at the time was to be City Council President, there a freelance gig for American and Continental Can companies. Once in the space of a single week, he wrote the annual report for both giants, not, of course, showing his sly hand. Each side came away thinking it had kicked the hell out of the other. Then he did an image makeover for Lincoln Center, returning it from the toffs to the citizenry. “They’ve got a guy in there at the Met you wouldn’t believe,” he told friends. “You step into the Royal Box, you park your cigar with him first. Between acts you step out, he’s got it there for you, all lit and ready to go.” One night Mathews was sitting in that same box listening to Madame Butterfly. When Pinkerton, the rotten cad, stepped out on the stage, before the tenor could get out a single note, Mathews hissed so loudly you could hear it in the Dress Circle. Heads whirled. From the next box, a dowager encrusted in jewels stared across the rail at him, then said in her best Locust Valley lockjaw, “That’s a good idea.” And she hissed, too.
The Manhattan chowder always tasted weak to Mathews, so he got out as fast as he could. His ticket back to Washington in 1979 came from John Gardner and Common Cause. Gardner looked like a CEO and talked like a Harvard professor but he’d served in the Marines during the war, and even though LBJ had given him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he couldn’t stomach Vietnam.
Gardner was prone to lapse into abstraction, writing things like “It’s hard to feel individually responsible with respect to the invisible processes of a huge and distant government,” but Mathews knew he could work with that. He buddied up with Roger Craver, a young guy who looked even more puckish than Dick Tuck. This was deceptive. Craver was a mass-mail magician. Together they sent out 250,000 letters saying “Everyone’s organized but the people.” And while Mathews told people that he and Roger were running “a sort of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern operation,” in the blink of an eye they had a $2 million kitty and a mailing list of 100,000 citizen activists. For the next 30 years, Craver, Mathews & Smith was his political home. “We called him The Captain,” recalls Paula Craver, co-equal in the firm. “He had command presence. You were always in good hands when Tom was rocking the boat.”
Speaking his mind with the bark off, seldom without the brown fedora pushed back on his head, he reveled in his own contradictions. After the war he refused to buy his sons cap pistols, no matter how loudly they whined and when one of them smuggled home a five-buck BB gun, Mathews spiked it by breaking the spring on the toy rifle’s air pump. Over the years he raised millions of dollars for gun control, but he also owned a Browning Sweet 16 shotgun and he was a member in good standing of the Wasatch Rod and Gun Club. He just prayed that that no one would catch him. Nothing ever tied his tongue. “He dispensed clear and concise strategic advice in an inimitable manner,” says Craver, recalling a presentation the two of them once made at the National Audubon Society. The bird watchers were impressed. When the organization’s president invited them to meet the full board and proposed a time, Mathews, said, “Can’t make it. That date conflicts with the opening of duck season.”
While you could take Mathews out of Utah, you could never take Utah, with its high-grade ski slopes and pristine trout streams, out of Mathews. He developed a sharp eye for real estate and young business talent, forming an alliance with Bill Coleman, a broker and developer, and Russ Coburn, a manager at the Silver King State Bank. Long before Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Festival breathed new life back into the dusty Egyptian house of movies on Main Street and the sagebrush-covered foothills around Park City started sprouting McMansions, he parlayed his stake in The Bucket into his own small paradise.
Once, as a kid, he had scaled the great rock face of Mt. Olympus, the peak commanding the Salt Lake Valley. Near the top he found himself straddling a razor back ridge with a drop of two thousand feet on either side of his boots. With one foot pointed west past toward the Mormon Temple and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the other aimed east in the general direction of the Washington Monument, he made it to the top, a climb that supplies an apt metaphor for his entire career. For the rest of his life he commuted between Park City and the ante-bellum hamlet of Waterford, Virginia, making big rain fall for CMS, plotting real estate deals and hook-and-bullet expeditions from Utah to British Columbia.
One day Coleman came to him to report that Jan Peterson, a popular outdoorsman who ran Wolfe’s, the biggest sports store in town, had been mangled in a wreck below Parley’s Summit. A hurry-up wagon had taken him to the hospital with severe brain injuries. “I’ve known him since he was a kid,” said Mathews. “Christ, I’ve fished with his father. We gotta do something.” When Coleman told him that Peterson’s boss had cut him loose and done nothing for his family, Mathews said, “What do you do with an SOB like that–you put him out of business. “He and Coburn scratched up some seed money, Peterson supplied moxie with dealers, and by the following winter, Jans, the new outfitters on the mountain, was snow- plowing Wolfe’s into oblivion.
Coleman, Mathews and Coburn made a perfect team. Bill was the broker and scout, Coburn the banker, Mathews the tough guy, the one who said, “You leave the trouble to me, “whenever the shit hit the snow machine. “When you brought him a good idea, he’d clap his hands, rub them together for four or five seconds, look you in the eye and say, ‘Let’s do it.’” Coburn says, “Tom earned his respect. He’d sit down, listen, look around the room, and say, ‘Discussion?’ Yes? No? OK let’s get out of here before we fuck it up.’”
Back in his bad old Park City days, the miners knew Mathews as the guy the town’s only cop, Whistling Bill, once jugged for vagrancy. Now he became catnip to a new glitterati. “He was a legend,” remembers Elspeth Gugi, who accepted an invitation to stay at his place while recovering from difficult time in her life. I always admired his insight into people. He saw things in them they didn’t see themselves. He knew when you needed a little push.” She created a day job of fixing up and re-selling houses out in Kamus. Nights she became an après-ski torch singer at the Goldener Hirsch (Golden Deer). Mathews sometimes turned up to sing his own version of Lili Marlene with her and the guy who played the accordion. His revised lyrics went like this: “We met the German Army at the Brenner Pass. We got hepatitis and a bullet up the ass,” a 10th Mountain ditty so subversive the Army threatened to court martial anyone caught singing it.
He got in touch with his old news pals to report that he’d built the finest bathroom with the greatest shower in the American West. They came out and formed a Non Governmental Organization called the Society of the Solid Muldoons. The outfit’s namesake was a famous Park City miner who could shovel 16 tons of lead or silver ore in a day, blow off steam at Lola’s Crib, hit every bar on Main Street, wind up at the Cozy (where the sign heading up the hill said First Chance and the sign heading down said Last Chance) and still turn up ready for to pick up his shovel the next morning. The charter members were: Bob Healy, Washington Bureau Chief of the Boston Globe; Fred Graham of the New York Times, CBS and Court TV, the best legal mind on the tube; Ed Fouhy, ace producer for NBC, CBS, and ABC, who could move a camera crew from the West Wing to the Hill faster than any man alive; Tom Scanlon, founder of Benchmarks, Inc., who started as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers and wound up as Chairman of the Public Welfare Foundation, boosting the group’s bankroll from $11 million to over $600 million and calling his political memoirs, “Sweet Grapes, “and Terence Smith.
“Tom led us all for 40 years,” Smith says. “He was the kind of newsman you could rely on not to sell you a bill of goods. I never had a better pal.” The Society had no bylaws, rules or purpose. Its mission was to ski all day, drink, play poker, and tell lies all night. They dubbed Mathews their Grand Druid and flushed their radiators once each year on Druid Fluid, a potent blend of Bordeaux and Merlot. They put Ethel Kennedy up for membership, but then reluctantly voted thumbs down when she said she’d rather die than bend her knee before any Grand Druid, even if he was Tom Mathews.
It wasn’t always so jolly. His first marriage fell on jagged rocks he couldn’t climb and there was a divorce. He met Ann Anderson of Atlanta. They had brushed past each other in the Peace Corps, where she had been a writer and editor. Decades passed. She worked as the fashion editor for the Nashville Tennessean, then handled the media for Rosalynn Carter, marrying Pat Anderson, one of Jimmy Carter’s best speech writers and a first rate novelist of suspense.
He loved Bonnie, but he told friends they had wound up circling each other like two scorpions in a bottle. Ann Anderson was beautiful, youthful and smart as a whip. She walked and talked like a lady and sang in the church choir.
After her divorce, they married and settled permanently in Waterford, Virginia, a lovely ante-bellum village where Mathews spent the rest of his life. He became stepfather to her daughter Laura, a free spirit with a set of effervescent twins, and son Michael, who held a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, founded an international NGO that brought English teachers to Thailand to volunteer in the countryside, and worked at USAID for Southeast Asia. Michael also had a little boy named Andres, so Mathews became a step-grandfather.
Once again he felt like a troubadour. In the Depression, he said, he’d felt like a kid always standing outside the candy store window. Now he had state-of-the-art skis, poles and boots, and all the best rods for browns and rainbows, cutthroats and steelhead. He and Ann fished the Weber and the Green in Utah, the Madison in Montana, the Bulkley in British Columbia. They traveled the world. They bought a little house with gingerbread trim and a view of the alpine glow on Mt. Timpanogos.
When his superstructure finally began to wear out, he fought back gallantly, bouncing back as a nonagenarian from brain surgery that drilled holes in his beezer.
But last winter, when Smith called up to organize the annual reunion of the Solid Muldoons, he said that his plumbing was rusting and he’d have to take a pass. “Not possible. We’ll postpone,” Smith protested. “But he just said ‘Go. Sempre Avanti.’” After Ann’s health grew fragile, for the first time in his life he seemed discouraged, but when she rallied, he did, too. “I’m alive,” he chortled over the phone. “I’m going for one hundred.” An infection pole-axed him. When the doctors in rehab said there wasn’t much more they could do, he said, “I want to go home.” The day before he died, he sat next to Ann in Waterford watching “A River Runs Through It” on TV.” And then he was gone.
He leaves a smooth shining track on the hill. His wife Ann Mathews survives him, along with two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, a stepson and stepdaughter, ten grandchildren and six great-grand children. The Muldoons are making plans to distribute his ashes on the Bulkley, the Madison and the far side of Mt. Timpanogos, where he first strapped on skis and hiked upward for hours to explode through the deep powder of the Wasatch Range.

The Trump Effect?

What is the message behind Gavin Buckley’s stunning, lopsided victory over Mayor Mike Pantelides in the Annapolis city elections this past week? What does it say about how Annapolitans feel about their city, about politics today and about President Donald Trump one year after his upset victory?
“Trump and turnout,” Pantelides immediately volunteered to me as he stepped down from the microphone after his concession speech Tuesday night when I asked him what explained Buckley’s remarkable win.
“Annapolis wanted a change,” he conceded, and indeed, despite a rainy, chilly election day, nearly a thousand more voters turned out Tuesday than during the hard-fought, incredibly close mayoral election four years ago. Clearly the voters of Annapolis had something to say and wanted to be heard.
“The national factor played a big part,” the Mayor continued. “Trump has ruined the Republican label.”
Pantelides may have been making excuses for his own poor showing, but his bitter feelings about the President were echoed among his supporters gathered in the second floor ballroom of the Annapolis Waterfront hotel. All the trappings for a blowout victory party were there: tables laden with hors d’ourves, music, a free-flowing, cash bar. But the Republicans in the room, almost all of them white and prosperous-looking in coats and ties and dresses, were angry with their national standard-bearer.
“I’m heartbroken,” said a blonde-haired woman standing with her grown daughter. “I’m a conservative and a lifelong Republican, but Trump has destroyed the party right down to the local level. “ “It is pretty scary,” her daughter agreed, “The Trump effect is real.”
Pantelides confessed that he had known he was in trouble two weeks before, when he got the results of a private poll conducted by his campaign. “It showed Gavin ahead 46-to-43 per cent, ” he said. That was when his supporters began flooding the city mailboxes with attack fliers mocking Buckley’s Australian accent, questioning his business record and accusing him of planning to raise taxes.
“The fliers hurt,” I know that.,” Pantelides conceded ruefully Tuesday night.
If the mood in the Republican gathering was sour and flat, the scene at the Metropolitan Kitchen and Lounge celebrating Buckley’s success was joyful and raucous. Hundreds of supporters, black, white and Asian, young and old, packed the three floors of the restaurant, laughing and cheering over the pulse of a disco beat. They applauded their hero’s acceptance speech, traded high fives and hooted approval when a reel of “Gavin’s Bloopers” — stumbling outtakes of Buckley’s video ads — flickered across the screen.
Buckley himself was exuberant. When a television reporter asked him on camera what his first act would be after the swearing-in on December 4, Buckley said: “Signing a peace treaty with Eastport!”
When Steve Schuh, the Republican County Executive shook his hand and promised that they would work together, Buckley said: “Great. Can I buy you a drink?” and led Schuh through the crowd to the bar.
The contrast between the two election-night parties mirrored the candidates themselves: Pantelides, the earnest, methodical plodder who trumpeted his first four years and promised more of the same; Buckley, the rakish, adventurous outsider who promised change, new ideas and excitement.
How big was the Trump factor? While the results here reflected the same-day Democratic sweep in Virginia, New Jersey and New York City and clearly represented a wider Republican setback, the Annapolis outcome was mostly local, mostly about the sharply contrasting candidates and the voters’ frustration with the glacial pace of improvements in their venerable city.
Annapolitans seemed to be looking at the endless squabbles over the Market House, the empty storefronts on Main Street, the frequently clogged traffic, the non-stop development, the shabby public housing, the increased crime, the repeated “nuisance flooding” lapping at the edges of downtown and the parked cars littering City Dock and asking: “Can’t we do better?”
Gavin Buckley seemed to be taking a page out of the Obama playbook and answering: “Yes we can.”
Come December 4, he’ll get his chance to prove it.

A Broken System

Is it just me, or does it seem to some of you that the wheels are coming off our national political system?
Allow me to vent, please, as we look at our current dilemma:
Thanks to the electoral college and nearly 63 million voters, we have a President who is manifestly unsuited and ill-prepared for the job. He was duly elected under arcane rules that have denied the presidency to the popular vote winner in two of our last five national elections. In 2016, that meant his opponent got nearly 3 million more votes…and lost.
Thanks to gerrymandering and big money, we have a Congress that deadlocks over everything from health care to tax reform. It takes a disastrous hurricane to get anything done quickly, or to even kick the can down the road for three months.
Thanks to partisan redistricting and again, big money, there is precious little turnover in Congress. In 2016, 97 per cent of the House incumbents who stood for re-election won; 93 per cent of Senators who sought re-election succeeded. More often than not, incumbency equals job security.
Big money also has given special interests maximum leverage in Washington. No surprise, because campaigns have become ever more costly. Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm had it right when he said: “ready money is the mother’s milk of politics.” As if to prove it, a record $55 million was spent earlier this year in the special election to replace Tom Price in Georgia’s sixth district, most of it on behalf of the Democratic candidate, who lost. It demonstrated how hard it is to win a seat that has been skillfully gerrymandered over the years.
Look as well at what the U.S. presidency has become. It is an imperial office today, with vast powers to rattle nuclear sabers, tear up trade and international climate agreements, dismantle domestic programs and pardon convicted criminals.
The executive order is today’s all-purpose tool of convenience, used equally by our current and former chief executives. Occasionally, as in the case of the evolving travel bans, the federal courts step in. But most often, a stroke of the presidential pen prevails.
Nothing illustrated the current congressional fecklessness better than the Republican failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. After seven years of pledges and promises, the GOP leadership was unable to control the conservatives in its own caucus and deliver the votes to pass a substitute version.
Nor is tax reform likely to be any easier. Or the much-promised trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, or immigration reform or any of the other big-ticket items that were supposed to be adopted now that one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House. Gridlock is what we get instead.
I’m not sure this is exactly what the founders had in mind when they drafted the constitution and bill of rights and created a system of checks and balances. Congress was supposed to be a co-equal branch, not a frustrated and frustrating cave of winds.
Three things could make our democracy more democratic: non-partisan redistricting, serious campaign finance reform with spending limits and expanded public financing and revising or scrapping the electoral college.
Direct popular election of the President will not solve all our problems, but it certainly will better reflect the people’s choice. Independent re-drawing of congressional districts, based on population not partisan politics, will make more races competitive. Gerrymandering is a bi-partisan passion: the Democrats in Maryland are every bit as adept as the Republicans elsewhere. In Maryland, the politicians choose their voters, not the other way around.
And reforming the rules on campaigning, limiting the time and money involved, will open the process to more candidates and reduce the influence of special interests.
None of this will make for a perfect system. But it would be more fair, less beholden to the powerful groups that distort it today and yes, more democratic. With a lower-case “d.”