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July 2016


Why yes, I did give up this column. And despite three weekly Thursday publications in a row, I really don't think it is back for good. But who knows; I never said never, I just said "not weekly."

Brexit Special: Expats Check In

From London, Larry King writes:

I'm gobsmacked, to use a Briticism, which under the alien registration acts soon to be enacted I might no longer be allowed to do. Or might be required to do. It's unclear so far whether the thugs will impose mass deportations or enforced assimilation.

I might be getting a little overwrought, but make no mistake, this was a victory for the thugs. The kind of people who voted to quit the European Union are the same kind of people who drool and gibber at Trump rallies. They are largely the uneducated, the ignorant, and the mean-hearted. Above all, they hate and fear foreigners, and an inch below the surface, they hate and fear anybody different from themselves.

I'm going to have to sit and think for a while about what it all means.

From Amsterdam, I hear from another friend:

We don’t read all the Dutch newspapers in depth, but we haven’t seen anything that would lead us to believe there’s a signficant movement here to leave the EU. The only people pushing for it seem to be the ones who are anti-immigration, but they are not mainstream here. Most Dutch continue to have “welcoming” as part of their genetic makeup, and as they have for hundreds of years, they recognize that they’re way too small to go it alone. They were one of the founders of the EU and I can’t imagine them wanting to leave. Of course I couldn’t imagine Bush winning (twice) or Trump getting the nomination, so stranger things have happened. But that kind of stuff hasn’t happened here, and I like to think people here are fundamentally different than in the U.S. That’s certainly been our experience so far and one of the main reasons we feel at home here.

A friend in Seattle chimed in:

As a college history major back in the 1960s, one of my insights (it earned me an A+ on a paper) was that the United States seemed to be following Great Britain by 20-30 years in many respects. I think this still has some validity, and I am not encouraged by what I'm seeing.

There was this thought-provoking note from another friend:

In the 1820’s the five Central American republics created a short-lived union. The 20th century saw the United Arab Republic, which attempted to fuse Egypt, Syria and North Yemen. In our own country, the founders quickly saw problems with the Articles of Confederation and, going in the other direction, replaced them with a strong Constitution. Then four score and something years later, we fought a great war to establish the principle that there’s no getting out.

I loathe Wikipedia, but it has some thoughts on the subject.

 [I used to tell my students the United States is like the Hotel California; you can check in any time you like but you can never leave. No article 50 in the U.S. Constitution, no matter what Texas says.]

Meanwhile, in another part of town


If you were to download a recent New York Times Book Review podcast, and listen at the 43:48 mark, you might well hear a familiar voice describing his experience with Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein.

Daniel Dern tipped me to this:


‘The West Wing Weekly,’ a Podcast With a Ringer


Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway, the podcast’s co-hosts, have set an ambitious goal: discuss all 154 episodes of one of TV’s most beloved shows.


I have gone, in the space of 24 hours, from mildly optimistic about the future of my country to wildly pessimistic.

After all, if the Little Englanders can sleepwalk their country into an economic abyss because of fear of incipient Turkish immigration, what will the birthers in this country do out of fear of immigration, or of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here? If I were living in England and were anything other than a Christian of Northern European descent, I would be very afraid today. Very afraid.

I think it is quite possible that European Council president Donald Tusk was right when he said, "As an historian I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilization in its entirety.” Or as Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) put it in Ghostbusters, after this vote there will be, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria.” Part of me expected British institutions (700-800 years old, depending on whether you count the Magna Carta or Parliament) to prevent a disaster like this, much the same way many people hope our 228-year-old institutions will serve as a check, should the worst happen here in November. Assuming we make it to November without some disruptive upheaval.

It CAN happen here.

It DID happen there. I write this next paragraph in full recognition of the fact that I am about to validate Godwin’s law. I can only say any lesser analogy seems insufficient. According to Wikipedia:

Godwin's law is an Internet adage asserting that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1." That is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.

Remember, please, that Hitler was voted into power in Germany. There was no coup. The good people of Deutschland voluntarily placed a manifestly unfit man in charge of their country and paid a horrible price. They voted their fear and anger. I hope to God we will not do the same, but I now fear we will. These seem to be the times. We followed Thatcher with Reagan. Will we follow Brexit with...


Trying To Be Serious During The Primary

For the flip side of my story about failing in the general election at Beaver Boys’ State with a humorous speech that won me my party’s nomination, here’s Kevin Sullivan’s experience:

I tried a 'serious' speech in my own multi-person primary  for the Mass Boys State in the summer of 1968 which was held at UMass, Amherst. I had the misfortune to be from Town #1 and thus, spoke first. The remaining 11 speakers a) tore my speech apart (so much for introducing substance in an election where you only get to speak once), and b) were more humorous and memorable  (admittedly, a lesson I learned the hard way). I did not get my party's nomination.

On the flip side, I did end up running for the Senate seat which was not chosen by a general election, but by a panel judging a written essays on addressing national and world problems. I was chosen as the #1 alternate.

Wholesale vs. Retail Politics: UMOC Edition

Sometimes, the lessons we think we are learning turn out not to be the most large-scale lessons we could learn. For example, in 1976, two years after the events described, I wrote this:

Dignity? I proved I had none during my campaign for Ugliest Man On Campus, a charity campaign at MIT. It was fall of my senior year. It was not my idea to run really, although I certainly had the chance to withdraw if I wanted to. But the staff of the student newspaper, The Tech, entered me and knew I wouldn’t back down. My best fund-raising trick (I lacked the guts to walk around and ask people for money, I had to have a trick) was selling people a chance to throw a cream pie at me (actually, they were shaving cream, just like on television).

My then girlfriend thought it was an awfully cheap and undignified way to run the campaign and that it heaped unnecessary indignity on me. She also disliked the demeaning newspaper ad my managing editor ran several times in The Tech. She said somehow the other candidates managed to maintain their dignity and pride and I did not.

Do you see the lesson hidden in this story that is relevant to today? I do. In fact, I have been describing this incident for years as teaching me that retail politics work, wholesale politics don't. [It wasn't until I started typing up my 1976 journal that I realized I had thought, at the time, it was a lesson about dignity]. While I was running newspaper ads and holding [pie-throwing] "rallies" in the lobby of Building 10, my opponents were applying old-fashioned shoe leather, going from door to door asking people directly to put money in their tins. And I was beaten like a drum. In the years since, I have seen multiple political campaigns in which someone tries to win wholesale. Sometimes that happens. Usually, retail and personal wins in politics. I suspect that will happen again this year.

Wholesale vs. Retail Politics: Real World Edition

I don’t like mentioning the name of the GOP candidate, but if you’re interested you can listen to a discussion between Leon Neyfakh and Sasha Issenberg about his campaign, or rather, lack thereof.

It struck me because I am, for the most part, a huge fan of Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert. He did a corporate gig at my former employer while he was still working a day job at Pacific Telephone, and he was brilliant. His comic strip is brilliant. His books are thought-provoking. And brilliant. For the last year, he’s been using his blog to tell anyone who will listen that the GOP candidate is a master persuader (just like Adams) and will win the general election in a landslide. It scares me because Adams is a genius.


Sasha Issenberg, author of Victory Lab, The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, makes some strong points in the podcast linked above. Specifically, U.S. general elections aren’t about persuasion they are about turnout. Adams says the GOP candidate will change all the rules and romp to victory. Issenberg wasn’t arguing directly with Adams, but noted that the Republican has 30 people in his field operation, while Clinton has 700.

What difference does that make? Clinton is preparing to mount a field operation to get out the vote. The man with the spray tan has eschewed such things as data-driven campaigning and get out the vote. He says he doesn’t need them.

Issenberg also noted that, in today’s hyper partisan political environment, only about 8 to 10% of the voters are actually persuadable. The rest of the voters make up their minds based on party affiliation and are immune to persuasion, or facts for that matter. Plus, he noted, if you have a get out the vote effort that is not done properly you will be getting out the vote for your opponent. Which is worse than no get out the vote effort at all.

Even if Adams is right, and Mr. Funnyhair persuades vast swaths of low-information, seldom-voting Americans to prefer him, it is useless if they don’t turn out at the polls. Again, this is the downside of wholesale politics versus retail (see article above). The candidate is not going to conclude each speech with, “Here are the deadlines to register to vote in all 50 states, and the hours the polls are open. Then I will read you a list of all 185,000 polling places. Listen for yours.”

Here are the numbers:

Voter Registration Statistics


Total number of Americans eligible to vote


Total number of Americans registered to vote


Total number of Americans who voted in the 2012 Presidential election


Percent of Americans who voted in the 2012 Presidential election

57.5 %

Now, Ronald Reagan believed facts were stupid things (I have never believed that was a slip of the tongue), but facts are facts. A wholesale campaign, dependent on rallies of thousands and TV coverage of millions will reach 218 million people, of whom a third cannot vote. And 14% of those who can vote, won’t.

Do you even know where your polling place is? I don’t, but I know how to look it up, and I care enough to take the time to do so. In the Republican primary, the candidate was speaking to the fired-up and the converted. In the general election—not so much. All of his new fired-up independent and nominally Democratic voters may find, on election day, that they aren’t registered, don’t know the polling hours and can’t find their precinct. Election day isn’t even a holiday in the U.S., so some people have to take time off from work to vote. And some people can’t or won’t do that, especially the high-school educated angry white men that form the candidate’s core constituency.

This issue is particularly ironic for a Republican (if he really is a Republican) since it is Republicans who have led the nationwide effort to make voting harder, through such tactics as eliminating early voting, reducing the number of precincts and making registration harder. They will surely succeed in suppressing the votes of poor and minority voters. Alas for them, they will also suppress the votes of unenthusiastic white votes as well.

To get people to vote, you need a ground game. Not only does he who must not be named have no ground game, he says he thinks he doesn’t need one.

Adams is probably right about the master persuader. A majority of Americans may come to believe the GOP candidate should be our next president. But he actually becomes president only if a majority of the people who actually vote think he should win. And for that matter, only if a majority of people in the right states who actually vote think he should win (because Electoral College).

And while Adams says everything is different now, I’m betting on human nature. People are lazy (I am sure Adams would agree), and tend to do what they are told or asked to do. Hillary Clinton’s thousands of volunteers (who will be recruited by her 700 and growing field staff) will ask millions of people to vote for her. Mr. Funnyhair won’t ask because he doesn’t think he needs to. We shall see if he is right.

This and That

Dan Grobstein shared this touching tweet with me:

Nick Groke (@nickgroke)

6/17/16, 11:31 PM

Let me tell you a story about The Denver Post, a place I love like a family (which means sometimes I hate-love it)... #newsmatters

He also shared this New York Times story, with accompanying comment:

Editorial says Kosovo has "an education system that does not encourage critical thinking." “Saudi Arabia has spent heavily to promote the radical form of Islam that inspired 9/11 and now inflames the Islamic State. Tiny Kosovo is a victim.”

Is part of the problem causing young people to believe the radical teachings.

I'm just wondering how much teaching to the test in this country hurts critical thinking. You're a former teacher. Any comments?

Yes, I do have comments. Well, just one really. We don’t teach anywhere near enough critical thinking. In fact, we teach too much obedience to authority. It is, I fear, a residue from the days when the purpose of school was to create a docile workforce for the new factories that were springing up.

Daniel Dern passes along an article by a West Wing actress who ended up in Washington for real.


A Primary Is Not A General Election: A Political Anecdote from 1969

In 1969, after my junior year in high school, I was chosen by Benson High to participate in Beaver Boys State, a week-long summer program supported by the American Legion which was designed to teach young men about civics.

Elections for “governor” were part of the program (which still exists to this day). During the multi-candidate primary election, I gave a humorous speech (I was experienced; I had given numerous humorous speeches at Benson assemblies) and designated myself the “edible can man.” (Don’t ask) That night, the other people in my dorm woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me I had won my party’s nomination!

The general election was the next day (now THAT’s a short campaign). Like one of the presidential candidates this year, I concluded, “it worked in the primary, why not the general.” On a stage with the other major party candidate and an independent—just the three of us—I gave the same speech again. This time: crickets. I came in third in the election, and the independent won. Many of my fellow Boys Stater’s felt the independent won because of my lackluster performance.

It turns out, I realized rather quickly, that “look at me” tactics work fine in a multi-candidate primary field. But when you get to the general election, and the field is winnowed down, the electorate expects you to get serious. I didn’t, and I paid the price. We can only hope that history repeats itself. And don’t you wish there was only a day between the primary and the general!

Writing Quirks: The Long Windup or Overwrought Lede

During this week’s Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, Dana Stevens, a regular returning from book leave, noted her writing problems: the things she does that she notices when editors point them out. One of them she mentioned was “long windups.” It brought back memories; I, too, suffer from that writing fault.

In journalism, the first paragraph of a story is known as the lede, so spelled to distinguish it from lead, the metal used to make type. The coinage always irritated me, since I cannot imagine a sentence in which you could mistake one for the other. “I don’t like the lead on this story.” Could that possibly refer to the type in the pressroom? “This linotype machine isn’t working because the lead is too cold.” Is there any universe in which the first paragraph of a story could affect the operation of a typesetting machine (linotype machines were the devices used to set type for newspapers before computers. Each had a pot of molten lead. Did you think I meant “molten first paragraphs of stories”?)

Anyway, I was thrust into the past by the comment because I, too, had a problem with long wind-ups, AKA overwrought lead paragraphs. In the days when stories were typed on paper, I would often burn through one or two dozen sheets trying to get the first paragraph right. I rarely had trouble after that.

Newspaper stories are organized in an “inverted pyramid” which means the first paragraph should contain sufficient information that you could know what the story was about just from reading it. The most important information comes first, followed by successively less important information. This organizational form was required in the days of nearly illiterate press operators, who had to cut stories without the aid of editors at the last minute. In an inverted pyramid, you never ran the risk of losing important information.

The lede in a newspaper theoretically included who, what, when and where and why (The 5 Ws). Most of mine did.

Magazine ledes, on the other hand, are different, as I discovered in 1986. Magazine articles are, for the most part, not organized as inverted pyramids. The lede is usually a scene setter, and almost never deals with the five Ws. It can be a quote or an anecdote. The 5 Ws are generally dealt with a few paragraphs later, in what is known as the “nut graf.” (Yes, journalists also have another spelling for paragraph) Important information should be spread evenly throughout the article.

 In fact, many magazine articles end, not with the least important information, but with a “kicker,” which is often the best quotation of the story. Alternatively, magazine articles can also end with “only the future will tell,” which offers questions or predictions about the future.

In a way, nearly everything I have written to this point in this blog entry could be considered an “overwrought lede” for the small story I wish to tell on myself. I chose to consider it context.

In 1992, I went to work for Windows Magazine, where my editor was Mike Elgan. After we had worked together for a year or so, he told me one day, “In every story you turn in, you take several paragraphs to clear your throat before you actually begin telling us something.” He told me he had considered writing a Microsoft Word macro that stripped the first three paragraphs from every story I turned in, to save him the trouble. I tried, with limited success, to change my habit of long windups, overwrought ledes and throat-clearing, but, as you can see, I have it still. What some people call a fault, I prefer to think of as a style.