Our Imperial Presidency

Mark it down: April was when the wheels finally came off the Trump bandwagon.

After weeks of rambling, largely incoherent performances in the daily White House coronavirus briefings, punctuated by assaults on the media generally and individual reporters occasionally, President Donald Trump went into total meltdown on Thursday, April 23. That was when he mused, in spontaneous free-association, about the possible merits of ingesting disinfectants and projecting sunlight and ultraviolet light into the body to counteract the virus.

“I’m not a doctor,” he said, belaboring the obvious and tapping his temple, “but I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” Even for a “very stable genius,” as the President has described himself in the past, it was an extraordinary moment. Sitting off to one side, Deborah Birx, who is a doctor and the coronavirus response coordinator, was a study in self-restraint as she looked down at her hands folded in her lap.

In the momentary silence that followed, you could almost feel White House aides, Trump supporters and Republicans around the country cringing. This time, the President had strayed into clearly dangerous, life-threatening territory with no obvious escape route. This time, his Teflon coating had failed to protect him.

Even President Trump realized his blunder. The next day, he cut the White House briefing short and walked out without taking any questions; the next day he tweeted that he was too busy to attend the briefing. But by Monday, he was back in the limelight.

“You know, I can’t really explain it,” Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan said on one of the Sunday shows when asked about the President’s Thursday comments. Hogan, who has been careful and measured in his own statements on the virus, added: “It does send a wrong message…when you just say something that pops into your head.”

That is apparently what the President did. Aides reported later that he had attended part of a technical briefing just before the news conference on the impact of bleach and other disinfectants and sunlight on the virus. No one was suggesting this as a medical treatment for humans, but Trump took it there in his comments, urging the medical experts to test whether it could kill the virus in people.

You would not expect anyone to take this wacky idea seriously, but calls to state and local medical departments about it spiked in the immediate aftermath of the President’s off-the-cuff remarks.

The whole incident underscores a more fundamental question: why is this President — really, any President — briefing the nation on such a vital, highly complicated, public health issue as the Covid 19 pandemic? The answer in this case, of course, is that everything President Trump does is about President Trump. In this locked-down, socially-distant world, he is not able to hold the big, noisy political rallies that he enjoys so much. The daily briefings have been the substitute, an opportunity to lie, exaggerate and mislead, while making wildly-inflated claims about his Administration’s performance.

Instead, the nation should be briefed by medical and public health officials, who actually know what they are talking about, and who should be in a position to make the crucial decisions on testing and managing the pandemic that only the Federal government can make. Drs. Anthony Fauci and Birx have played that role, but only as supporting players to the President, who remains front and center.

Such is the consequence of our imperial presidency. As Congress has ceded more and more power to the executive in recent decades, we have created an impossibly demanding role for the President, any President. The man in the Oval Office — so far, all 45 have been men — is called upon to decide war and peace and, in the case of the corona virus, life and death.

No one, man or woman, can fulfill this limitless role. No one person can be the decider-in-chief on everything. Perhaps, in the wake of this virus, the nation can re-balance: Congress can reassert itself and the professional civil service can be given greater responsibility and authority in crises where expertise is crucial.


Corona Down Under

It was a simple, uncomplicated idea: three weeks in summery Australia at the dreary end of the U.S. winter, a long overdue visit with my son, Chris, his wife, Kerri, and two of my three granddaughters, Scout and Saylor, who are living in Brisbane, Queensland, for two-three years for his work. I hadn’t seen any of them in 15 months.
What could go wrong?

The flight over was long, God knows it was long, but mercifully uneventful. A mere 30 hours after leaving Annapolis, Maryland, I was deposited by Virgin Australia into the Brisbane airport at 6 a.m. the next day, or the day after that, who could possibly know which after a cross-country flight to LAX, crossing the international date line and a 13-hour leap to sunny Brisbane? Through my comatose fog, I heard my son say we were off for three days to Noosa, a breathtakingly beautiful beach and national park a couple of hours both of Brisbane on the aptly named Sunshine Coast. Swimming and surfing and eating and sipping commenced, more or less non-stop, for the next 72 hours. The weather was perfect, there were Koalas in the eucalyptus trees, probably sharks and other deadly things in the warm, soothing water, and an 80-mile-long deserted beach on which my son let his 9 and 11-year-old daughters violate all local laws and common sense by driving his four-wheeled SUV at lunatic speeds through the silky sand. No one turned an eye as we went by. When in Noosa.. .

The next two weeks in Brisbane were a delightful blur: lunches with Chris in the glass-and-steel, high-rise central business district, which gives Brisbane its derisive nickname, Bris-Vegas; rides on the City Cat ferry up and down the wide Brisbane river, a couple of strolls along the cleverly-designed Southbank, with its museums, Ferris wheel and rain-forest walk (really.) A couple of rounds at the Bulimba Golf Club, which features pig racing with pari-mutual betting on Sundays and one round at the hilly Victoria Park Golf Course, with spectacular views of the downtown skyline.

Evenings featured kid things: an almost professionally-run, weekly junior swim meet, with, mercifully, beer, wine and food for sale to the parents and grandparents, especially the grand parents; two sixth-grade basketball matches, silly games of HORSE with the girls on the basketball court in the neighborhood park, that sort of thing.

There were a couple of fun weekend trips to the Gold Coast and, on the Sunshine Coast, the wonderfully-named Mooloolaba Triathalon, where parents and children, thousands of them, biked, ran and swam along a beautiful beach. Important information: the crispy salmon at the Mooloolaba Surf Cub (temporary membership free when we were there) is outstanding. Don’t miss it on your next trip to Mooloolaba.

MEANWHILE, the world was tuning on its axis , making a mess, as usual, Biden was up, Bernie was down, everybody else was gone, Super-Tuesday seemed to cement it, but there were Joe and Bernie debating one Sunday night (Monday morning for us) on CNN, to no discernible consequence. AND, from China, and South Korea, Iran and Italy, of all places, came reports of some virus thing. Trump said not to worry, but I was down under and Australia does a lot of business with China, with a great deal of travel between the two nations, so I did worry a bit, despite the President’s cavalier dismissal of the whole fuss. The Australian government’s not-inspired response to the crisis was to quarantine the returnees from China on Christmas Island, off the south coast, for 15 days.

THEN, all hell broke loose, especially on the airwaves and internet. Quarantines, national shutdowns, travel bans, schools, bars and restaurants closed, businesses shuttered, people told to stay at home in Europe and, gradually, the U.S. President Trump finally realized this virus thing is not going to go away and may, annoyingly, be serious. From my home of Annapolis, MD, comes word of a general shutdown! Not down under. Australia initially barred gatherings larger than 500, but the schools , restaurants and businesses remained open. Life goes on. How long before Australia catches up?

I was scheduled to fly home on Virgin Australia (great food on board,) when country after country was closing its doors. No one was moving. I went to the Brisbane Airport and indeed, it was unusually quiet. BUT, my flight to Los Angeles, connecting to Washington DC, was packed. A long, anxious line of hopeful passengers snaked around the boarding gate. These were Americans, not sure they would get home at all if they didn’t get out of town. The passengers had cut short cruises, tours and personal travel to return home while the returning was still possible. To a passenger, they were concerned that Trump was going to shut them out and air travel to the U.S. would be suspended. As a result, the flight was virtually full, prompting me to pony up for Business Class, where the three-course lunch comes with a crisp Chardonnay and a lovely, light New Zealand Pinot Noir is served with the cheese course. Eight hours later, coffee and crumpets for breakfast. This may be a world-wide crisis, but there is no reason to suffer.
When our Virgin Australia 777-300 ER (Extended Range) landed at LAX, we were shuffled through immigration and customs by officials wearing masks and gloves and sent to the Delta Customer Service desk to rebook on-going flights since the Virgin flight was nearly two hours late and most connections had been missed. For me, instead of a direct flight to Washington and home, I won the prize of a stop in Detroit.

When I finally reached Reagan National, it was 7:15 p.m. on March 18, the same day I had departed Brisbane 36 hours and four airports before, and the terminal was deserted. The Uber driver told me on the way to Annapolis that everything was shut down, bars and restaurants closed, Washington’s famous rush hour was a thing of the past. “I haven’t been in a traffic jam all week,” he said glumly, almost as though he missed it.

The moment I arrived home, my wife, Susy, made me launder all my clothes and shower from head to foot. I then began a self-quarantine that continues to this day, mostly staying home and walking the dogs.
Frankly, it was more fun in Australia.

Remembering Jim Lehrer

Let me tell you a brief story about Jim Lehrer, the longtime anchor of The PBS NewsHour, who died yesterday in his sleep at 85. The story illustrates his integrity and his commitment to news and fairness.

When he invited me to join The NewsHour in 1998, it was to establish and anchor something new: the Media Unit that would report and analyze the news and the way it is reported to the American people. Jim believed that news about the news IS news and should be covered as such. He was prepared to devote a portion of his broadcast to it and had even secured a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to fund it.

The grant was for three years and lasted for seven, precisely because Jim backed it all the way. He never wavered from his conviction that it was important, even crucial, for the news to be presented honestly, fairly and with respect for the intelligence of his viewers. He might have called it “Fair and Balanced,” had another organization not co-opted that phrase.

I came to the NewsHour from decades in the news business, at The New York Times and CBS News, two fine organizations. From the first morning meeting at the NewsHour, I discovered that Jim and his former partner, Robin MacNeil, had created a culture at their broadcast that was special. The news and truth came first. It would be presented fairly and honestly. Every day. It was not a competition for ratings and eyeballs. It was more important than that. Did we “Dare to be dull” at times? Guilty as charged. Did we make mistakes? Of course.

Integrity was the key word. And it still is. That was Jim — and Robin’s — gift. To everyone.

Back in 2001, Jim was quoted in the American Journalism as follows:

“I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity. News is information that is required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but it is the truth.”

Amen, Jim.

Carter, Rockefeller and The Shah of Iran: What 1979 Can Teach Us About The Dangers of Shadow Diplomacy

An edited transcript of an interview on NPR’s Here and Now with the host, Robin Young, on January 2, 2020:

The attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad this week is serving as a warning about the dangers of shadow diplomacy.

The Washington Post reported this week that Rudy Giuliani was part of a back-channel effort to ease President Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela. President Trump’s personal lawyer was also involved in an effort to interfere in U.S. policy in Ukraine, the subject of the upcoming impeachment trial against the president.

Shadow diplomatic efforts like those orchestrated by Giuliani and others are “not new,” says former New York Times reporter Terence Smith. Smith reported on this in the late 1970s when David Rockefeller, heir to the Standard Oil fortune and chief executive of Chase Bank, tried to convince a reluctant President Jimmy Carter to bring the Shah of Iran – who was deposed in the 1979 revolution – to the U.S.

Nearly 40 years later, the Times’ David Kirkpatrick used Rockefeller’s private minutes to corroborate much of what Smith wrote in a 1981 piece about those puppet masters.

Carter’s decision to bring Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran to the U.S. prompted angry Iranians, who wanted the shah tried for corruption, to attack the U.S. embassy in Tehran – holding 52 hostages for 444 days.

View of a massive demonstration against the Shah of Iran in downtown Tehran, Iran, Oct. 9, 1978. (Michel Lipchitz/AP)
View of a massive demonstration against the Shah of Iran in downtown Tehran, Iran, Oct. 9, 1978. (Michel Lipchitz/AP)
After he was deposed, Mohammad Reza Shah went on an “odyssey,” Smith says, looking for a country that would accept him, his family and small band of supporters. Carter didn’t want to let the shah into the country for a number of reasons, including the fact that he wanted to establish a relationship with Iran’s new leaders.

Carter reluctantly brought the shah to the U.S. because he was told that Mohammad Reza Shah was very sick, and he could only get the treatment he needed in New York. Smith says when he asked Carter in 1981 why he admitted the shah, his answer revealed he was misinformed about the shah’s health.

“He said, ‘Well, I was told that he was close to death and that he … needed to come to New York for medical treatment and that New York was the only place where he could get this,’ ” Smith says.

“I had interviewed Dr. Benjamin Kean, who had examined the Shah and knew firsthand that that was not true,” he adds. “So I said to the president, ‘You know that’s not correct. That he was not at the point of death, and New York was not the only facility that could save him.’ In fact, the work that needed to be done could have been done anywhere, including in Mexico where he was.”

Smith says Carter “insisted vehemently” that he was told this narrative. “And I don’t doubt him for a minute,” he says.

Kirkpatrick’s latest reporting in the Times shows that Carter was in fact misled. But Carter was perhaps oblivious as to who was pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Picture of exiled Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini overshadows huge anti-Shah demonstration commemorating 25 years of the monarch’s rule and symbol of his power, Dec. 10, 1978, in Tehran. (Michel Lipchitz/AP)
Picture of exiled Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini overshadows huge anti-Shah demonstration commemorating 25 years of the monarch’s rule and symbol of his power, Dec. 10, 1978, in Tehran. (Michel Lipchitz/AP)
Rockefeller, a Republican, and his supporters were working very closely with the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan – Carter’s opponent in the 1980 election – to ensure the hostages weren’t released until after the election. If they had been set free beforehand, Carter might have won reelection.
“David Rockefeller was a great friend and supporter of the Shah of Iran, along with Henry Kissinger and [former shah attorney] John J. McCloy, and so they had … their own agenda, as you say, their own foreign policy, if you like, which was to persuade President Carter to admit the shah,” Smith says. “And so they mounted quite a campaign to do it.”

Rockefeller was such a staunch supporter of Mohammad Reza Shah because his bank was very profitable with Iran when the shah was in power, Smith says.

“In fact, by 1979, the bank had syndicated more than $1.7 billion in loans for Iranian public projects. And that’s the equivalent of maybe $5.8 [billion] to $6 billion today,” he says. “So as they say in Washington, there was real money involved.”

The attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by an Iran-backed militia is almost a repeat of history, Smith says.

“The outbreak of violence in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in the last couple of days is so haunting because it’s almost a carbon copy of what happened in Tehran, actually nine months before the hostages were taken, and then again, when the hostages were taken,” he says.

Smith says the difference between what happened in the ‘70s and the shadow diplomacy of today is that Giuliani’s tactics are “much more direct.”

“This is the president’s personal lawyer … Rudy Giuliani taking an active role to try to bring about events that would, he hoped, help President Trump in his reelection and damage his presumed opponent, Joe Biden,” Smith says. “So this, I would argue today, is a much more blatant and out front obvious manipulation by, in this case, the president’s personal lawyer, than what you had before [which] was positively subtle and gentlemanly by comparison.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 2, 2020.

Election Contagion

Here’s what worries me in the wake of the recent Israeli elections and in anticipation of the U.S. 2020 Presidential election:
In a sentence, I worry that the American voter may arrive at the same sort of transactional decision that a plurality of Israeli voters apparently did, namely hold their collective noses and vote for Donald Trump for a second term.
Break it down with me: after 10 years of Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister, Israeli voters have no illusions about Bibi.
They know he is a narcissistic power addict who will do anything to keep himself in office. If he survives through July, he’ll become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s 71-year history after the founding father, David Ben Gurion.
They also know that if the pending prosecutorial charges against him are true, he is personally corrupt. They know he has fallen in love with the good life of fancy cigars and pink champagne and has apparently enriched himself with investments in some of Israel’s arms suppliers.
And yet they voted for him in sufficient numbers to give him the opportunity to form what will be the most hard-right, religiously-conservative government in their nation’s history.
The vote was partly a referendum on Bibi, but it was more than that. It was a decision that, despite his many personal and political failings, Netanyahu has steered the country to a strong economy, relative security and a standoff with the Palestinians. He also has a close and profitable relationship with President Trump and his family, a cozy cooperation that has already borne fruit with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and overt support for Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Can U.S. support for Israeli annexation of key West Bank settlements be far behind? Is it already baked into the “deal of the century,” the U.S. peace proposal that is expected to be unveiled soon?
The bottom line, the Israeli voters seemed to be saying, is all that really counts.
Will the U.S. voter come to a similar conclusion in 2020?
If the U.S. economy is still strong, if unemployment is still low, if wages are up measurably, if Trump’s trade wars have not destroyed American agriculture, if U.S. troops are not committed to any new wars, will the American voter give the President another turn around the dance floor?
If no broadly-appealing Democrat emerges from the primary pack, will the voters settle for the devil-you-know?
After two-plus years in office, and especially after the damming documentation in the Mueller report of President Trump’s lies, the American voters can have no more illusions about their president’s character than the Israelis do about Bibi. Will they hold their collective noses as significant numbers of Israelis did?
The answer depends largely on the Democrats. It depends on how they frame the debates and whether the candidate who emerges from the primaries can appeal to the centrist voters in the industrial Midwest who defected to Trump in 2016.
Stay tuned.

Bibi and The Donald

It is hard, these days, to miss the striking similarities between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and President Donald “The Donald” Trump.
It goes well beyond their nicknames.
Both of these embattled leaders are facing multiple investigations, both have launched relentless assaults on the media, both use the megaphones of their offices to push a nationalist, autocratic approach to power and both, of course, are running for re-election, Bibi in April and The Donald, presumably, in 2020.
Bibi is currently under the Israeli state prosecutor’s microscope; The Donald is a featured player in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Recent reports from Israel suggest that Bibi will be indicted for bribery in a month or so, before his April 9 re-election bid to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history; The Donald, aka “Individual 1,” has already been depicted as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Michael Cohen case and could well be the subject of a sealed indictment from the Southern District of New York, now universally described on cable news as SDNY.
Both men have dismissed the investigations as groundless witch hunts mounted by their respective “deep states.”
And both leaders are curiously close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bibi has traveled repeatedly to Moscow to confer with Putin on the growing Iranian presence in Syria; The Donald has met the Russian leader five times and had nothing but kind words for him since his 2016 campaign. One major difference: Bibi has not, as far as is known, been negotiating behind the scenes to build a Netanyahu Tower in Moscow.
When it comes to attacking the media, both men have launched full-scale campaigns. Bibi has complained early and often about his treatment in the feisty Israeli press and broadcast networks. His Likud Party recently unveiled a splashy election billboard featuring huge pictures of four leading Israeli journalists with the slogan: “They won’t Decide.”
The Donald, of course, has repeatedly denounced the U.S. media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” Over the weekend, the President celebrated the staff cuts at numerous news operations. One minor difference: Bibi is not known to spend hours each day watching cable news and tweeting his reactions.
The two men have been and remain politically close: Bibi has applauded The Donald at every opportunity, Trump has taken page after page from the Israeli playbook by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, an empty, but symbolic move that Bibi has sought for years. If there is anything else Bibi wants from The Donald, apparently he just has to ask.
Both men are adept at manufacturing crises, real and imagined, to distract attention from other problems. The Donald has conjured caravans of drug dealers and criminals assaulting the southern border in order to build support for his Wall; Bibi has repeatedly and dramatically pointed to Iran as an existential threat to Israel, launched multiple attacks on Hamas forces in Gaza, confronted Hezbollah along the Lebanese border and mounted hundreds of air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Many of these threats to Israel are real; confronting them aggressively tends to divert the public’s attention from other, politically awkward headlines.
Finally, both men are gifted political operators: Bibi became Israel’s youngest prime minister when he served in the late 1990’s, returned to office in 2009 and has beaten back repeated challenges over the last decade; Trump pulled off an amazing political upset in 2016 and has dominated the headlines and airwaves ever since.
At this point, the public opinion polls in Israel favor Bibi’s re-election, albeit by a narrow margin; Trump’s prospects are less promising. The President’s standing in the polls descended to new lows after the abortive government shutdown. But it is too early to count him out for a second term. No appealing Democratic candidate has emerged from the growing crowd of declared and undeclared, and the 2020 election is a political lifetime away.

Putin’s Delight

Even in the midst of a cold Moscow winter, Vladimir Putin must be feeling warm and satisfied as he reads the headlines these days from Europe and the United States.
I suspect he smiles to himself as he watches Britain’s Brexit debacle, Emanuel Macron’s desperate “listening tour,” Germany’s sagging economy and the nationalist, anti-immigrant, right-wing rumblings coming from Italy, Hungary, Poland and beyond. Yes, he must say to himself, yes, indeed.
And he no doubt feasts his eyes on the chaos in Washington: a shuttered government, a paralyzed Congress, daily Trumpian tantrums, trade wars, counter-intelligence investigations and roiling markets. Yes, yes indeed. It is all going according to plan, Putin says to his aides and cyberwarfare specialists.
Putin knew it would be a long-term project to destabilize the West; he never thought the wheels would start coming off so soon. He certainly never dreamed that Trump would suddenly pull U.S. troops from Syria, creating an inviting vacuum for Russia and Iran to fill. It’s simply too much to hope for.
So, now the stage is set for more Russian adventures in Ukraine, increased pressure on the Baltic states and more mischief in Syria and Afghanistan.
What a happy new year it is turning out to be!

In the Wake of a Shooting

It is cold comfort, of course, but the murderous assault on The Annapolis Capital’s newsroom on June 28 was a colossal failure for the shooter.
If the shooter’s goal was to silence The Capital’s voice, he obviously failed at that. The paper has not missed an issue.
If he hoped to settle some years-old score, some twisted grievance against a columnist and an editor long gone from the paper, he missed entirely. Both were elsewhere when he attacked the newsroom.
If he thought he could echo the “fake news” and “enemy of the people” accusations that are hurled at President Trump’s rallies, he did not.
If, most importantly, he thought he could isolate the Capital from Annapolis by killing five of its finest people, his attack had exactly the opposite effect.
In fact, the tragedy instead vividly illustrated the extraordinary bond that exists between a community and its newspaper that, in the case of The Capital and Annapolis, has been built up in good times and bad over nearly three centuries.
That bond was expressed in the universal horror among Annapolitans at the first news of the attack, by the poignant candlelit vigil down Main Street the night after the shooting, by the flags at half-staff, by the applause that welcomed the contingent of Capital staffers in the July 4 parade and by the outpouring of sympathy and support that continues every day in every issue of The Capital.
That bond between the community and its newspaper was not nearly so obvious before the shooter acted. (Note: I’m deliberately not using the shooter’s name, lest he get some of the notoriety that he apparently craves.) Like any town and its newspaper, there have been controversies and even angry arguments over specific issues over the years between the Capital and some of its readers. Such battles are inevitable and doubtless will not stop.
But we can now see, from the public reaction to this attack, that the people of Annapolis care deeply about their newspaper and consider it an essential, integral part of the community.
“Journalism Matters” t-shirts dotted the July 4 parade, along with others that read: “Press ON Annapolis, “Annapolis Strong” and “Respect the Locals.” Those sentiments may not be surprising given what has happened, but they were not apparent or so close to the surface before the June 28 attack. The Annapolis public clearly sees the journalists at The Capital as what they are, not “enemies of the people,” but the people themselves.
The question has been raised whether the shooter was motivated or inspired by the hostile anti-media attitudes expressed nationally these days. Only he can answer that definitively, but put me down as skeptical. From everything we have learned about the shooter’s long-standing grudge with the paper, his assault appears to have been a personal act of vengeance rather than a political statement. He was trying to settle a personal score, not make some broader comment about the media. Even in that, he failed.
The true victims, of course, are the five who perished: Gerald Fischman, 61, the editorial page editor; Rob Hiaasen, 59, editor and columnist; John McNamara, 56, sportswriter; Rebecca Smith, 34, sales assistant and Wendi Winters, 65, features writer. And their families. And the two staffers who were injured, but survived.
The people of Annapolis have already shown their appreciation of the victims and will continue do so through the Families Fund that has been established. A fund-raising concert is being planned for later in the summer.
These and other efforts will illustrate again and again the palpable bond between the city and its newspaper that seems stronger than ever after the shooting.

A Vigil

In the end, after two nightmarish days set off by the mad shooting June 28 in the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital, after countless questions in a score of radio and television interviews, after trying to explain the unexplainable, it was the candlelit vigil down Main Street on Friday night that got to me. As a life-long journalist, I am supposed to be detached from the stories I cover, but this one hit my soul.
The vigil marchers were silent as they headed toward Annapolis’ City Dock. The respectful spectators on the sidewalks barely made a sound.
“Honor the journalists,” said one speaker at the rally of the five who died, of the injured and of those that worked tirelessly to put out a fine Friday edition of the paper under the most difficult of circumstances. In the darkness, the audience applauded and the intimate bond between the people of Annapolis and The Annapolis Capital was palpable.
Speaker Mike Busch, the delegate for Annapolis, spoke of his hometown paper — “The Evening Capital,“ he called it, as it once was known. He said he knew four of the five journalists “who were murdered.” “Murdered,” he repeated, “there is no other way to put it.” He was right.
As a guest columnist who has written in this space for the last three-plus years, I am not a member of the Capital staff, nor can I speak for them. But I’d like to think that I am a distant cousin in the Capital family and certainly I am a colleague.
As such, I fielded dozens of requests Thursday and Friday for interviews from near and far. News organizations called me for comment because editor Rick Hutzell and the surviving staff had rightly decided to devote all their energy into putting out their newspaper. “I’ll let my column speak for me,” Rick explained to me in an email Saturday morning. The “speechless,” nearly blank Capital editorial page on Friday was eloquent in its emptiness.
The breadth of national and international interest in the Annapolis story was remarkable. I got requests for comment from all over the United States, from Canada, the U.K., Australia and Brazil. This assault on journalists and journalism resonated far and wide.
As it happened, Jared Ramos’s attack appeared to be an act of personal vengeance, not partisan politics. He seemed to be settling a score against the newspaper, not scoring points in some ideological debate about “fake news.”
The journalists Ramos killed were not “enemies of the people,” they were “the people.” They were people doing a job that is worthy and protected by the first amendment to the constitution.
May they rest in peace.

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.