Equivocate, Equivocate, Equivocate…Oops!

If you’ve followed the news recently, you’ve seen a huge backlash against Harvard, Penn, and MIT for their presidents’ answer to Republican U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik’s question about their schools’ codes of conduct. Stefanik asked for a single word answer: “Yes” or “No”. 

She had spent her part of the five hour hearing trying to get the three presidents of these “elite”and “woke” institutions to admit to anti-semitism.  But every question she asked got weasel answers. Then, during a break she came up with an unweaselable question: would “calling for the genocide of Jews” violate their schools’ codes of conduct?

The answer she got was, in effect, a third single word: “maybe”, which blew the lid off of the hearing and got Stefanik and the GOP huge PR points. All three presidents, in one way or another, said it would depend on the situation or “context”.

Now President M. Elizabeth Magill of Penn has been forced to resign and all three universities are covered in Oops!

A college President’s primary task is fundraising. The number two executive, the Provost, runs the school. So, those three “maybe” answers put fundraising for Harvard, Penn and MIT in jeopardy. Magill resigned after one donor immediately withdrew his $100 million dollar donation to Penn.

To most people, any call “for the genocide of Jews” – or genocide of any group – would instinctively violate our code of not just conduct…but humanity. And these three heads of Ivy League schools are more astute than most people. 

So, what went wrong? In a word: Lawyers.

Let’s go back for a little, if you’ll pardon the expression, context.

Lawyers are rarely straightforward. They equivocate all the time. Ditto politicians, many of whom are lawyers. As a result, people who appear before Congress are equally evasive. A committee hearing is frequently a high stakes word-dance.

As a result, in order to prepare for testifying in front of a committee as hostile as this one was, all three presidents hired WilmerHale, a law firm that specializes in preparing people for Congressional testimony. And, guess what they taught their high profile students? Equivocate, Equivocate, Equivocate.

Sefanik’s questions involved the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech clause. A legalese expert trying to duck a straight answer might allow that some speech “calling for the genocide of Jews” could be legal, if unpleasant. It might be a joke in a satire, part of a discussion of WWII  history, a line in a play, or part of a history class debate.  As a result, a lawyer might advise their client that the context, as with most Freedom of Speech issues, would affect the answer. 

Beyond their lawyer’s advice, all three presidents knew their institutions, long admired by Americans, were reviled by MAGA types for revering intellect and nuance over one word answers. They knew that Stefanik, a Harvard  graduate who had converted to Trumpism, was out to get them. In addition, their student and faculty populations are deeply and painfully riven by the Israeli/Hamas war. So for the sake of their students, faculty – and fund raising, these university presidents had a deep interest in not taking sides.

Which set them up to be clobbered by Stefanik. 

So, rather than answer candidly, they pulled a Clinton: 

1998 “Whether or not Mr. Bennett knew of your relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the statement that there was ‘no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton,’ was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?”

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Said Clinton.  

Later he added,”“While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.”

These three presidents are highly educated and highly respected. They know that genocide is vicious, evil, deranged, even stupid (there are always a few who escape and never, ever forget or forgive). 

But instead of giving that answer, they equivocated, equivocated, equivocated.  

So Stefanik and the MAGAs gloat while three of the finest universities in the world are left to scoop up all those Oops!

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Dear President Biden: Here’s How To Win.

First, stop playing by Gentleman’s Club rules. Stop being polite, even courtly, toward your opponent. Stop being civil. Stop being nice.

As with all human evolution, politics has advanced and improved with time. Integrity and character are Old School now. What’s New School? Street fighting, with a capital “S”.

For example, your opponent has 91 indictments. How many indictments do you have, Joe? Ok, almost had one over secure papers you left in your garage. But they passed on it, right? So, 91 to 0. And  his approval ratings have gone up while yours have gone down.

Not good. Not good at all.

Your opponent has four court cases so far.  How many court cases are you involved in? Zero, for crying out loud! ….No, no, no! Don’t even think of citing Hunter’s problems. He’s your son, not your alter ego.

Oh! Here’s another problem: How much did your opponent increase the national debt during his Presidency? 40.43%! That’s huge.  And you? A paltry 8.79%! 

Are you kidding?

And what did your opponent use the money for? He lowered taxes so much for the top 1% that their tax rate of 23% is actually lower than what the bottom half of American households pays, at 24.2%.  See, that’s the way to do it! He gave the top 1% – you know, the people who fund campaigns – much more money,  not to mention a way to express their gratitude toward him. It’s a win-win, for them and him.

And what did you do with your money? You helped everyone BUT the rich! During the the Covid pandemic you gave $1400 to low income people for food and rent, $300 a week for additional unemployment, $7.25 billion for small business loans, $128 billion for state educational agencies. Not to mention infrastructure and climate change investments.


Here’s the key to getting elected, Joe: spending unholy amounts of money, not on people, on ads and campaign events and PR. To do that you have to get unholy amounts of money, not from people who struggle to make ends meet, but from people who… have unholy amounts of money!!  

Forget the little guy, for crying out loud!   

Now, here’s the big key to success: LIE . All Presidents lie, but there are major league liars and minor league liars. The Washington Post counted 78 “misleading claims” by you in your first 100 days as President. That’s it! They counted 511 in your opponent’s first 100 days as President – over five times yours!. They counted 30,000 lies during his four years as President. Your numbers were so low the Post doesn’t even talk about them.  No one does. 

Remember the old adage  “Bad press is better than no press”? You need press, Joe. Now!

Lying is a time honored tool of all politicians. Ignore it and your whole career is in peril. Look at what happened to Carter’s second term. Gone-zo!

Which is where you are headed right now. An early November poll of registered voters shows your opponent leading you by 49% to 45%. 

C’mon, Man!

Here’s the second key to success: insult everyone who supports your opponent. Use the words he uses to describe people who support you:  “Sad”, “Corrupt”, “Crime loving”, “Crazy”,  “Bad”, “Waste”, “Animal”, “Dishonest”, “Low Life”, “Dummy”, “No Talent”, “Fake”, and that gem from Hitler in the 1930’s , “Vermin”. 

Finally, don’t bother with debates.  They are so 20th Century. Talking about ideas, plans, and policies is … Z-Z-Z-Z-ZZZZ!!   You get much farther with sneers and lies.

It’s time to stop being Mr. Nice Guy. Remember, the more you attack your opponent, the more your opponent has to defend himself, and the more time he’s on the defense, the less time he has to attack you or schmooze voters.

So, forget the old rules, Joe. It’s a new world.  Forget dignity, integrity, and character. They don’t matter any more. Lie, cheat, steal – Those are the new rules. Pay attention or leave the stage.

Follow my advice and I guarantee you will get elected for a second term. How do I know?  Who do think advised your opponent in 2015? If he had just paid me before I died, I wouldn’t be writing you now.

Somewhat Sincerely,

Roy Cohn 

(Former Chief Counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy/Consigliere to Donald Trump)

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I don’t want to scare you, but…

We’ve done well with our one proxy War, the one between Russia and Ukraine.  We’ve spoken up and armed up for babies, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers – all slaughtered or maimed for not giving up their freedom.

We also delayed sending the arms they most need, like F-16’s and Abrams tanks and long range missiles, because, hey,  who wants to poke The Bear too hard, right?  I mean he might actually be crazy enough to uncork a Nuke or two, despite knowing he’d be annihilated if he did… or at least rattle them. 

Kind of like how England’s Chamberlain avoided WWII.

Instead of sending Ukraine its most needed weapons, we have sent them enough lessor ones (missile, shells, etc..) to keep the war going, but not really win it, and, in doing so depleted our own supplies, you know, the ones we would use if, say, we got into a battle with Mexico or their cartels over drugs (OK, not likely, but actually proposed recently in the Presidential campaign). So no worries. Right?

Still, the last thing any of us needs is a second proxy war. Right?

Like, say, between Israel and Hamas/Palestine. We turned our eyes for years as Israel put it’s knee to the neck of Palestine, hoping it wouldn’t actually get too unpleasant. Because, hey, without Israel’s help, who would help us keep Iran in check? So we just kept hoping Palestine’s terrorist street gang, Hamas, would just boil and not boil over.

But boil over is exactly what they did. With Iran cheering from supply depots and training centers, Hamas feigned few arms and lack of urgency and caught Israel flat-footed, wreaking agony and devastation back on Israeli.

Yep, that’s the same Iran whose relationship with Russia goes back to the 1500’s and who has been shipping swarms of drones to Russia for it’s war with Ukraine.

And, yep, that’s the same Iran whose relationship with China goes back to circa 200 BC and who signed a 2021 agreement with China re-cementing economic and strategic ties.

Meanwhile the US, which successfully fought a two-front war in WWII, decided around ten years ago that maintaining military  capability for a two-front actual war was too costly. So now we have a two-front proxy war.

Boy, it’s really lucky that China, which has been threatening to take back Taiwan despite our macho warnings, hasn’t actually done so.

Unless Xi now decides we’re properly distracted and does attack Taiwan, presenting us with a third separate proxy war.

Or, he teams up with Russia and Iran for a three-front actual war…or…WWIII… 

But hey, no chance of that, right?

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Pat’s Plaque

They start gathering in the lobby of McGuigan Hall in the evening on Tues, Sept 7, 2023, mostly white haired men and dye haired women. They are members of the Borough Council,  Police Chief Lou Marcelli,  Public Works Superintendent Ira Dutter,  Borough Manager Tiffany Loomis, other citizens and even a few elementary school kids. 

Paintings of Malvern from an earlier era by local artist Randall Graham line the walls – with one exception, which is covered with a grey tarp.

The crowd grows to thirty or forty. There is light laughter, shoulder pats, and handshakes as they watch the double glass doors for the reason they’ve gathered this Tuesday night.

A few minutes before 7:00 Pat McGuigan, grey haired with a military bearing only slightly softened by time, walks through the double glass doors and up a few steps to the main lobby. He is accompanied by Margaret McGuigan, slim, soft-spoken and elegant.  They chat with friends in the crowd. They hug their children and elementary aged grandchildren.

The Borough of Malvern started life as the “West Chester Intersection”. The last stop after the last stop on a train line, originally known as The Philadelphia Main Line, now just “The Main Line”, brought the wealthy out of 1800’s Philadelphia to escape summer heat.  

The “West Chester Intersection” became Malvern Borough in 1873. Unlike other stops on the line, the Malvern station offered not mansions, but a transportation hub for local farmers to bring their produce and pick up supplies. Eventually, as farms gave way to estates surrounding the Borough, Malvern Borough became a blue collar village. 

It stayed that way through the 1900’s until, between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, while the rest of the Main Line modernized, Malvern slowly slipped behind. King Street had dowdy storefronts and no streetlights. Sidewalks were in disrepair or absent. The one bookstore sold porn. Rust and rattles grew on the bridge built over the train tracks to connect one part of town to the other.  The water system was barely meeting state codes. 

At 7:00 PM sharp, Mayor Zeyn Uzman steps up to the covered picture. He tells the crowd why the Borough Hall was named for retired US Army Command Sergeant Major Pat McGuigan, who came to Malvern in 1982 and saw, as Pat put it: “a great little town that just needed to be brought into the 20th century.” 

The Mayor removes the cover and reveals, not a painting, but a plaque with photographs and text describing just a few of Pat’s accomplishments for the Borough: A new bridge, a new water system, new sidewalks, new street lights, refreshed store fronts, and the most significant – not just for the Borough – but the whole country: the rescue of the Revolutionary War Paoli Battlefield from developers. He talks about Pat’s Malvern journey, from joining the Planning Commission to leading it, to joining the Borough Council and leading it, to, when the town faced bankruptcy, being recruited as Borough Manager and turning it around to the point of reducing taxes four times in five years.

While the Mayor talks, Pat stands stiffly facing him. (His legs are hurting today, but he’ll be damned if he’ll admit it or give in to them. And he has always disdained this kind of attention – You do things for the common good, not for personal accolades.) But just for a moment, as Margaret looks at the ground, the crowd, the plaque – anywhere but her husband- the Mayor sees some mist in Pat’s eyes.

When the Mayor has finished, when the applause has died down, Pat speaks with a voice softened by 89 years. He reflects on 30 years of military service, a wife who supported him through myriad moves while raising 7 kids, and a town where he bought a house, sight unseen. 

He talks about the need for individual citizens – everyone – to contribute to their town, to care for it, to keep it as it was for him since 1982, “the United States of America the way it should be.”

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The Great American Balancing Act

Our democracy is a balancing act, deliberately designed that way. That’s why we have three equally powerful branches of government: the Presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court.

The Constitution is also full of balancing acts. For example, the First Amendment allows freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition. You can talk about your cheating spouse, but not state secrets; you can be a member of a truly stupid religion or cult, but not if it endorses raping or killing people; you can protest in front of the White House but not on the White House lawn; you can petition Congress, but you can’t storm the Capitol after a disappointing election. 

We’re a nation of laws that require balance, too. That’s why we have judges and juries, prosecutors and defense attorneys. 

One of the reasons our democracy has thrived for nearly 250 years is shared values. They are not just written into the Constitution; they are the pole that holds us upright and steady through the constant balancing acts.

I’m talking about “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or cheat”. These are values derived from most religions, including that bearded guy who carried stone tablets down from the mount.

Previous American generations were brought up believing in those values. Today, in many ways, they are artifacts, like black and white westerns.

Sure, politicians have skirted truth on occasion in search of their goals. Car dealers have been smarmy since just after WWII when cars were scarce and buyers plentiful, so plentiful that dealers would promise them all a car and then play them against each other for the highest price. And crooks have always been crooks. But they were the exceptions.

Most people didn’t lie or steal or cheat the way they do now. We had Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, not Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. Our heroes were stalwarts of good ethics, like Superman whose “Truth, Justice and the American Way” was a source of pride, not cynicism. We trusted the media, banks, hospitals, schools, local and national governments, police, the courts, and other institutions. 

That balancing pole of shared values enabled our democracy to move steadily forward, with the exception of those unbalanced years between 1861 and 1865.  

Over the last few decades, however, the country has begun wobbling again, like a tightrope walker with a flimsy balancing pole.

It is easy to blame it on “He Who Rode Down” his personal escalator from his personal mount carrying his own set of values, which resulted in 30,000 false or misleading statements in 4 years, 3900 children separated from families, and 91 indictments spread over four jurisdictions, not to mention millions of smitten fans who support him despite his values of lying, stealing, and cheating.

But let’s not forget two things: one, the citizens of this country elected him in 2016 and might do so again in 2024; and two, the rejection of shared values started well before The Don arrived, or he wouldn’t have been elected in the first place.

When Nixon was caught covering up for just one crime, the Watergate burglary, the nation was outraged and Nixon, with only 20% support, resigned rather than risk humiliating himself. When Ford pardoned him, the nation was outraged again, to the point of not re-electing him.

Compare that to The Don and his willingness to fight two impeachments while President, and 91 indictments while running for President again with the support of 40% of voters, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight poll.

What happened?

The same thing that put more guns into the country than people, the same thing that allows Comcast and Verizon, Amazon, Google and others to operate like monopolies, the same thing that has allowed Fox News to spew lies for years, the same thing that has broken trust in our institutions, from Congress to police to the medical system to public schools to the media. 

A loss of shared values.

Which is why this great American balancing act is teetering, the pole of shared values twisted into angry knots.

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