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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

The mailbag is always quite the mix, but today—wow. From polling, to silly lawsuits filed by former presidents, to assassinations, to debates about World War II, to William Faulkner, to chocolate chip cookie recipes. We started last week with the tribute to the U.S. from J.B. in Hutto, and this week we will start with the responses to it.

I Roamed and I Rambled and I Followed My Footsteps

A.R. in Newberg, OR, writes: I am trying to get something out of my eyes that is clouding my vision. Thank you, J.B. in Hutto, well said!

C.J. in Boulder, CO, writes: The letter with what J.B. loves about America reminded me of kind of a strange dichotomy I find in how Americans view their own country. They (by and large) believe it to be the best: the best military, the best hamburgers, the best sports, the best health care, the best entertainments, the best landscapes, etc., etc. While, strictly speaking, this is provincialism, it is kind of what most Americans think of when they think of American exceptionalism (as opposed to a more academic use of the term). And I've often wished more Americans would spend time living overseas somewhere—not traveling, but living there. I've had the good fortune to spend more than half a year living in New Zealand and a summer in Luxembourg, and even stays that short can broaden one's views of the world. And, in what is surely not a surprise to readers of, I found there are things about both countries that are superior to what we do in the U.S. as well as some things that were worse. In a sort of lifestyle way, the U.S. isn't that different from many other countries.

But there really is something pretty special in the U.S., and it was driven home for me watching a televised panel discuss New Zealand's quasi-founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, on the (relatively recently anointed) national holiday of Waitangi Day. This document "gave" the British crown sovereign rights to the country in a manner that, in many respects, resembles the various treaties between the U.S. government and Native nations, including differing interpretations and subsequent abrogation of the treaties. So this is not an aspirational document—and indeed, a key set of players were not part of it, namely the European settlers (Pakeha). While there is quite a winding path from there to today, New Zealand's modern governance kind of emerged as an afterthought. And the same sort of thing is true of Luxembourg, which is the stump of the immense holdings of a powerful medieval family whose fortress was so troublesome that the country in large part emerged so that none of the big players on the continent could have it. Nations as a rule don't define themselves so much as emerge from the various struggles over resources.

The U.S., in contrast, declared itself independent with lofty goals and has maintained allegiance to those goals ever since (however imperfectly). The Declaration of Independence, in particular, says what a country should be (before getting into a laundry list of grievances); it was, for instance, the model for Ho Chi Minh's Proclamation of Independence in 1945. We have, of course, fallen short of the goals in that document, and aspects of it were and are hypocritical, but it is a lever for all those disadvantaged by American society to lobby for change. It is not to say that other countries cannot advance civil rights or fair governance in the absence of such a document—they clearly can—or to say that countries cannot make aspirational documents when rebuilding their government (e.g., the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), but that by having such a document at the root of nationhood and part of the national identity, there is always a thorn in the side of those seeking to deny equality to all.

K.R. in Denver, CO, writes: At the end of the first Gulf War, I was at the parade/party/fireworks in D.C. when everyone came home. There were, of course, tanks, Humvees, helicopters, etc., on the mall, and there were plenty of men and women in uniform, as well as protesters, milling around. At some point, a shouting match broke out between a few "no blood for oil" protesters and a few soldiers on the mall between the Air & Space museum and National Gallery of Art. About 20 feet away, I was watching this and standing next to a guy in a Navy uniform. I asked him what he thought, and he said "I joined the Navy so those guys could yell at each other in front of the Capitol and it'd all be okay."

That's pretty much my favorite America moment.

J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, writes: J.B. in Hutto's beautiful paean to this marvelous collection of people and cultures and natural wonders that is the United States of America ("it brought the water to my eye") has inspired me to list what I love about this site.

I love the cool objectivity with which the various political strategies are discussed. I am hot-blooded ("check it and see") and a tiny bit moralistic, so this has a calming effect that goes well with my morning coffee.

I love the numerous light-hearted references to music and sports and movies. I myself am very fond of throwing in rock 'n roll lyrics or examples from the Dallas Cowboys' glorious history, so this makes me feel right at home.

I love the snark! 'nuff said.

I enjoy the Saturday Q & A, but I absolutely adore the Sunday Mailbag, which makes me feel a part of a diverse community of intellectually curious fellow travelers of democracy. The July 4th edition was particularly delightful, so I offer the following in response:

I live an hour from J.B. in Hutto, but here in Texas that is just around the corner, and also, that is no guarantee that we would agree on as much as we do. The key to enjoying the different BBQs is to order brisket in Texas and pork in Memphis and stay away from the nasty vinegar sauce in Virginia. The key to great breakfast tacos is to shop where the tortillas are not cooked until after you order. I don't know about Frank Sinatra, though... I am much more an early Chicago, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top kind of guy (three groups with one interesting thing in common). Oh, and back in the '70s my Westlake High Chaparrals ran circles around your Hutto Hippos!

Regarding religious matters: My politics has always been an expression of my faith. My faith has emerged and evolved from a deep, ongoing study of many things spiritual, starting with reading the Christian Bible cover to cover (OK, so I skipped a few verses in Numbers), then reading about the history of that Bible, then reading the newly discovered Gospels and culminating in reading the Jesus Seminar's The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? My self-identification has evolved from "I am a Christian" to "I am spiritual but not religious." I believe two main things about Jesus. First, he was naturally embroiled in the still ongoing debate about whether God is a strict Father or a Loving Parent, and he came down strongly on the side of the Loving Parent. Secondly, my reading leads me to believe that Jesus thought that he contained an essence that was inseparable from the divine "I AM," and that all of us also contain that essence. He said this repeatedly, in several different ways. This message is threatening to the institutions of religion because it does not require a go-between to communicate between each person and the mysterious divine creator of the universe, so it has been twisted throughout the ages, in my humble opinion.

So, my political self identification (which for me flows inevitably from this faith of mine) is "I am a Jesus-inspired, market-based Democratic Socialist." (This technically means that I am a social democrat, but try explaining that to anyone...) I agree that faith-based progressives are an invisible group in American politics. I agree that the mainstream media is part of this, but I think there are a couple of more causative factors at play here. For one thing, progressives are welcoming to those with different or no faith background, so we tend not to talk about our faith in political circles so as not to make others feel uncomfortable. I think it would be helpful if we did more (carefully worded) sharing of our own personal stories, but then, I have never shied away from making others feel at least a little uncomfortable. LOL. Secondly, for various reasons such as the scriptural admonition to pray privately and/or the experience of persecution by the "strict Father" believers, many of us are less vocal about our spiritual lives.

There were more very interesting letters in that mailbag, but I will stop here... for now. Peace to you all.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: I think J.B. in Hutto, TX, demonstrates that you have the most spectacular readers, which is testament to the quality of your site. Thank you for your dedication and tremendous effort.

V & Z respond: Indeed, and thank you for the kind words!

Advice for the Democrats

M.U. in Seattle, WA, writes: I can't help but find the rhetoric coming from the talking-head Democrats about the new Republican-backed voting laws to be a little—nay, a lot—histrionic, hyperbolic and, well, just hysterical. Not to mention arguments that completely contradict each other. Case in point: I was watching MSNBC over the course of a few nights and not once but twice did I hear the commentator say, unequivocally, that if these laws are passed that there is NO WAY Democrats could win. None, zip, zilch, our gooses are cooked, that's it, we are done for. I find that not only to be completely wrong (even with tighter restrictions, people will still be able to figure out how to, when, and where to vote), but dangerous rhetoric on their part—if your voters are hearing you say that, basically, your vote can't or won't matter, then what's the point of voting?! (One of those commentators was none other than Beto O'Rourke, a seasoned politician he is not.) On the other end of that spectrum, there was someone else angry—commenting about the new voting law in Georgia all the while telling everyone at home not to worry, we're going to re-elect Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA); we're going to make sure it happens, it's in the bag; do not worry. So then if it's a sure thing and in the bag then what is all the fuss over?

I am in no way diminishing the obvious mendaciousness of these new laws. They should be pushed back on and I hope the state Republicans pay a price for such self-serving and Trump-exalting legislation. But I can't help but think what message the Democrats' talking-heads are trying to articulate: Is it something that cannot be overcome or is it something that's not to worry about? Of course, as always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle—it is concerning, but it's not an impossible situation. I think the DNC's new $25 million investment in voter outreach to counteract these new laws is exactly what needs to be done. I guess as long as the real work is being done behind the scenes, the talking heads can happily go on about doomsday as they are wont to do...and I will keep culling my cable news consumption.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: Other than in Illinois, Democrats want to continue to play nice with Republicans, opting for independent commissions to draw district maps, when Democrats should be doing that in blue states. Most Republicans would throw their mama in front of a truck if it meant one more congressional seat in a red state, whereas Democrats want to have a Carter vs. Ford debate on the issues. I truly wish we could just have passionate debate on the issues, but that's not the reality in 2021. Most Republicans think Trump won—how do you have good, honest debate with people like that?

Democrats in blue states choose to have independent commissions draw the maps, while Republicans in red states gerrymander to their hearts' content and laugh like Robert DeNiro in "Cape Fear" while doing it.

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: You wrote: "And so, we have one side that has dug in on 'no corporate tax increases.' And on the other side, several members have dug in on 'there must be corporate tax increases.' If you can figure out a way to resolve that contradiction, you are cleverer than we are. And cleverer than Joe Manchin..."

Well, I'm certainly not more clever than you two, and I doubt that I'm more clever than West Virginia Joe. But I am a firm "progressive" and I advocate the following approach to the progressive wing of the Senate Democrats. No corporate tax increases? Fine. No corporate tax increases. But we will apply a 1% tax on personal assets above $10M, a 2% tax on assets above $25M, and a 3% tax on assets above $50M. For income tax: one filing status, one class of income encompassing earned, capital gains, dividends, interest, gifts, inheritance, gambling, theft, etc., elimination of all deductions and replacement with a single deduction of $500,000, and a flat tax rate of 70%.

The only people who have to pay even a dollar in taxes are people whose income exceeds $500K or whose assets exceed $10M. Everyone else: no taxes and your tax return becomes a postcard. And life for the rich is still not so bad. If you're lucky enough to make $1M a year, your effective rate is 35%. Not so terrible.

Corporate taxes are ultimately regressive. If a worker's pension fund is invested in a corporation, then on her share of the corporate earnings, she is being taxed at the same rate as a zillionaire share holder. How is that fair? Corporate taxes should actually be lowered. The taxation would then be on the dividends sent to the shareholders and the increased stock prices (via capital gains when sold or asset taxes when held).

Look, Ma! No corporate tax increases!

Saxony-Anhalt and Other Polling Challenges

S.F. in Leipzig, Germany, writes: I was shocked—in a good way—that I was reading about my home state of Saxony-Anhalt on your site. The election result was indeed unexpected, as you wrote. I think your analysis of the observer effect is on the mark, but I thought I would give you a bit more color.

The last election, in 2016, was at the height of the refugee crisis and a lot of CDU voters stayed home because they didn't like the policies concerning refugees. So, when pollsters asked them this time around "Did you vote in 2016?" they said "no." Combine that with them saying "I might vote" and you have a plausible reason for a pollster to disregard this voter as a non-voter, thus lowering the share of votes for the CDU in the polls. My guess is that this and the observer effect lead to the extreme difference between polls and results.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, writes: You mentioned the election in Saxony-Anhalt. I'd add one more aspect: It's common in Germany that only a few days prior to an election, between 33% and 50% of voters don't know which party they will vote for. So, every pollster in Germany says that their polls are no prediction for the outcome of the election. By the way, I guess that it was the first time that Saxony-Anhalt was mentioned on and that 99% of your readers have never heard of it. Probably even (V) and (Z) didn't know anything about Saxony-Anhalt prior to this election.

D.S. in Berlin, Germany, writes: The outcome of the election in Saxony-Anhalt surprised the German public as well, given the enormous discrepancy of the result compared to pre-election polls.

I believe your explanation—that also has been echoed in German media—is pretty sound. Probably the last minute neck-to-neck polls between center-right CDU and far-right AfD drove many moderates and left-leaning voters to support the former in order not to give victory to some Trump-loving extremists. Your point is supported by the fact that left-leaning Greens, although being on or near an all-time high in nationwide polls and thus hugely outpolling their result in the last federal elections (20-25% vs. 8-9%), in Saxony-Anhalt only made marginal gains compared to the last election there in 2016 (5.9 % vs 5.2 %). Similarly, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and left-wing "The Left" even lost votes compared to 2016, their voters presumably also opting for CDU.

However, this might not be the only explanation. Comparing the three elections in German Federal states this year (besides Saxony-Anhalt, also Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg) it strikes the eye that each time the party of the incumbent minster-president (the head of government) exceeded expectations by a fair margin irrespective of their party or ideology (Rainer Haseloff of CDU in Saxony-Anhalt, Malu Dreyer of SPD in Rhineland-Palatinate and Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens in Baden-Württemberg). I believe that in times of crisis, like the COVID pandemic, voters—and particularly those making a last minute decision—appreciate leadership they view as effective (which might also explain why they didn't break for The Donald in 2020).

Oh, and there might have been a shy-AfD effect as well, if something like this really exists.

P.N. in Austin, TX, writes: Regarding your item on the Saxony-Anhalt election: Come on, please. This doesn't even pass the smell test. Do you really think that, if there was a tool that could move election result fifteen points, someone would not have stumbled on it previously? What candidate wouldn't use this so called effect? Has something changed about the way people consume polls, so much so that it would allow for polls now to do what they've never done in the past?

It seems far more likely that one of the many typical ways polls can go wrong is at work. I would guess that it's incorrect assumptions about the voting behavior of certain demographic groups. Perhaps they overestimated Tusken turnout or did not account for the changes to suburban Jawa voting patterns.

V & Z respond: If they thought they were polling Tatooine, rather than Saxony-Anhalt, that would indeed explain it.

F.M. in Hatfield, PA, writes: Your insights on the observer effect are exactly what I have been saying since 2016. I think the reason Hillary Clinton lost was not that Donald Trump was a better candidate or was running on a more appealing platform, but because her supporters presumed she was going to be elected anyway and didn't bother to vote. If true, the average American voter has not made a lurch to the right as some might presume, but simply become more complacent.

R.L. in Glendale, CA, writes: In 2016, some of those on the left who voted third party definitely assumed that Clinton would win. I had a friend (since deceased) in Maine who felt it was proper he vote Green to indicate his protest that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was not the candidate. He believed, per polls, that Clinton would win and there was no risk that she would lose.

How much did the polling data move would-be Clinton voters from "certain to vote" to "might vote," or even from "vote for" to "protest vote against"?

S.K. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I thought I would point out that my husband and I didn't change our votes in the 2020 presidential primary because of polls. We both wanted to vote for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), though of course by the time California voted, it was clear she didn't have a chance. We nonetheless wanted to "make a point" by voting for her, but not if it meant splitting the progressive vote so much that it screwed Joe Biden. So, up until the last moment before sealing our ballots, we were obsessing over Biden's chances in the polls, and considering holding our noses and voting for him instead. We ended up voting for Warren, but only because things were looking so good for Biden.

A.L. in Highland Park, NJ, writes: Several years ago I had a back and forth with Prof. Charles Franklin of UW-Madison about pollsters not understanding systematic uncertainty. He agreed that getting a handle on likely voter screens could be difficult, but added that not having one is equally problematic. Systematic uncertainty is your gut telling you how good a measurement was. You can give it fancier names (we call it "developing your physics intuition") but yes it is basically a hunch and sometimes you get it wrong.

Here is the line from the UVA Center for Politics summary of the AAPOR report that stands out for me: "We need to increase awareness that, unless details are provided, anything labeled 'likely voters' is essentially a pollster's best guess about what the electorate will look like—nothing more."

The discussion about technique (telephone vs. internet vs. focus groups vs. Google trends...) misses this problem. Pollsters do not have a good understanding of what they are sampling and come up with heuristics (number of hang-ups, etc.) to cover this lack. I suspect pollsters are mostly male, coastal, Caucasian, and very good at integral and differential calculus. They are trying to measure the entire country, most of which does not look like that. Bringing in education, religiosity, (or whatever they come up with next) can only do so much.

As a counter example, see J. Ann Selzer of Iowa. She restricts her field of study to a population that she understands properly, and therefore has a good handle on her systematics. She is considered a gold standard, but I suspect if she were to routinely poll New Jersey or New Mexico she would be wrong as often as the other large pollsters.

So perhaps the fix is smaller and nimbler polling firms that cover a single state or region, run by locals who understand the population.

G.T.M. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, writes: From the mid 1950s to 1990, British Columbia had an electoral phenomenon dubbed "the 30-Second Socred."

That was a voter who consistently derided the center-right Social Credit (a.k.a. "Socred") government from the moment they left the voting booth until they entered it again at the next election. During the 30-second gap between entering the voting booth and exiting the voting booth, the voter voted for the Social Credit candidate.

B.C. pollsters were, at first, befuddled by this behavior, but, after a few elections learned to compensate for it.


D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Hard to believe that a New Yorker like S.O.F. would consider the 2021 primary a defeat for progressives. The progressives won the Comptroller and the Public Advocate spots, as well as 4 out of 5 Borough Presidencies (including the Bernie-endorsed candidate for Brooklyn). Tiffany Caban and something like 20 other progressive candidates for City Council won. The City Council will be chock full of women of color and working class activists, and will likely have a strong progressive Speaker. At the other end of the state, Buffalo elected a Democratic Socialist.

The progressives lost the mayoralty because they ran such weak candidates. The only progressive candidate that had any credible municipal experience was Scott Stringer, who, rightfully or wrongfully, was sunk by two allegations of sexual harassment. Maya Wiley's experience was being a civil rights attorney for the despised Bill de Blasio administration and Dianne Morales couldn't run a campaign, much less the solar system's most important city. However, in the future, because of the progressive victories in the positions described above, there will be a deep field of experienced, municipal-savvy progressives to run for mayor in 4 or 8 years.

Finally, Adams, though hardly the choice of progressives, is not exactly anti-progressive. He is committed to police reform, though not "defunding." And he has a track record of that in his own background. I didn't vote for him, but the ranked-choice voting (RCV) made me confident that the people have spoken, and overall this was a progressive victory, not a defeat, and I am very optimistic that my adopted city since 1973 will make great strides going forward.

S.W. in New York City, NY, writes: In response to questions about the progressive vote in the New York Democratic mayoral primary: perhaps another significant factor in two moderates (Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia) being the top primary choices, is that every single person in New York City is sick and tired of Mayor de Blasio's failures as a progressive. His "one size fits all" approach just doesn't work—poorly deciphered policies, incompetent administrators, flip-flopping on important issues, failure to address major problems (increased crime, police conduct, etc.), running for president, and just being an everyday fraud, spelled trouble for progressives.

J.A. in New York City, NY, writes: Just as an additional tidbit regarding turnout in the Democratic primary in New York City: New York is a closed primary state, so only party members can participate.

There are about 3,376,000 registered active Democrats in the five boroughs. 937,699 Democrats participated in the primary for a turnout of 27.7%.

In 2020, the New York State Democratic presidential primary had total turnout for all candidates of 1,759,039, and a total Democratic active registration in Nov. 2020 of 6,189,227, for a turnout of 28.4%. Granted, this was a non-competitive primary, since Bernie Sanders conceded prior to the election.

In 2016, a competitive primary, the total number of Democrats in New York State participating was 1,970,703, and the total registered number in November 2016 was 6,189,227, for an approximate turnout of 31.8%.

It looks like Democratic voters in New York in general just aren't too tuned into primary elections, since most party members (mostly rightfully) assume that the Democrat will win no matter who it is, and the "D" next to the name is all that matters to a large chunk of people. A competitive presidential primary only produced turnout figures about 3.5% higher than the NYC mayoral primary, so I don't think that the turnout figures for the city were all that low by comparison.

C.L. in Boulder, CO, writes: I'd like to caution readers that the RCV label is often misused. Some people think that any ranked-voting method must be RCV, but what all the RCV methods have in common is (1) ranking candidates and (2) transferring a ballot's vote from an eliminated first-choice candidate to the next-highest candidate who is not yet eliminated.

The "enemy-of-the-people" media has reported that Denver used RCV in the 1930s, but Denver and dozens of other cities actually used Bucklin voting, which involves counting first and second choices when nobody gets a majority of the first-choice votes.

The New York City form of RCV is instant-runoff voting (IRV), used for single-winner contests. If RCV just meant IRV, then containing the confusion might be possible. However, RCV also includes some multi-winner voting methods, among them the problematic preferential block form of RCV recently adopted in Utah, where some people's ballots get counted for winning candidates again and again, while other voters just "waste" their vote again and again. (In this video of a sample election, the former is exemplified by ballots #1 and #4 and the latter by ballots #13 and especially #14.) Preferential block voting is controversial enough that many "RCV" advocates distance themselves from it.

Clearly, there is a language dilemma when one umbrella RCV term includes both good and bad forms of RCV. Here is a breakdown of several different ranked-voting methods, most accompanied by short video explanations. With various forms of "RCV" gaining traction, specifying which form is being discussed leads to a higher level of discussion and a more enlightened electorate.

S.O.F. in New York City asked if progressives need a post-election "'autopsy' to figure out what went wrong." My response: No. Just read and next time follow the pre-election advice in the New York Times op-ed by Rob Richie of the pro-RCV organization, FairVote. Specifically, Richie wrote, "First, because New York limits rankings to five, the best way to guarantee your ballot counts in every round of the tally is to include at least four of the five most viable candidates." About 15% of the ballots were exhausted (i.e., did not rank either Adams or Garcia on the ballot). Those Maya Wiley voters whose ballots were exhausted may lament not filling out their rankings more strategically.

Adams was elected by 43% of the voters who cast a ballot (403,000 votes out of 938,000)—this is what opponents of IRV call a "false majority." Adams can definitively claim the win, but to claim a mandate in such a scenario is more questionable.

The North Carolina Senate Race

D.J. in Concord, NC, writes: I really think you are selling Jeff Jackson (D) short in the North Carolina Senate race to replace Sen. Richard Burr (R). His second-quarter haul was $700,000 putting him at $2 million so far, which probably puts him second to Cheri Beasley (D) in that category. He has embarked on a 100-counties-in-100-days town hall (remember those?) experiment, going to some of the reddest counties in the Tarheel State and taking questions directly from the people. He has the backing of Jim Hunt, a former governor. He is an active-duty reservist and very prevalent on social media. And he's an honest and hardworking family man with three kids under the age of 10. He has fought tirelessly for teachers and to end gerrymandering in North Carolina (mostly unsuccessfully, since the Republicans have a solid majority). He's basically a better version of Cal Cunningham without the zipper problem, and an example of what we want our politicians to aspire to be.

I don't know if he can beat Beasley, but he is very popular in Charlotte and has won re-election to the state legislature several times very comfortably. At any rate, he merits more discussion than a one line statement about being the "white guy" in the race.

D.B. in Durham, NC, writes: I've lived in North Carolina for most of my 48 years. No politician has impressed me more than Jeff Jackson has in the past several years. He does all of the little things, like constituent services. He was at the leading edge during the COVID crisis last year. He posted to Reddit, Facebook and other places to get the word out about how the state legislature was approaching the pandemic and what numbers they had when numbers were rare. He took time to post about emergency legislation they passed so folks wouldn't have to get their cars inspected during the pandemic. All of these things have created dedicated support for him.

Jackson raised the exact same amount as Cheri Beasley did in the first quarter, but the only words you used to describe him in your post today was that he was white. Now, maybe he has a zipper problem we don't know about, but you're lumping him in with Cal Cunningham by completely ignoring his potential. You may continue to sleep on him outside of the state, but believe me he's not just another "white guy." If it weren't for him, I'd endorse Beasley and be thrilled about it. I wish she had run against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). It may be a real tough choice for North Carolinians, among whom Jackson has earned a lot of trust up to this point.

Legal Matters

R.S. in Tonawanda, NY, writes: When I read about Donald Trump's First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and others, I wondered who in hell is representing him in these. I thought, "Can you spell sanctions?" Any halfway informed citizen knows that the First Amendment operates against government, not private enterprises.

But reading further, it appears that the theory will be that the social media platforms were coerced by members of Congress, and so they were acting under color of law, or effectively acting as an agent of government. This is a recognized, but extremely narrow, exception. Still, it might be enough for Trump's lawyers to argue that they are bringing these cases either to avail themselves of that exception or to argue in good faith for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law. That way, they may not even survive a motion to dismiss, but they avoid sanctions, collect their legal fees from Trump (or not), Trump fund rages off the whole thing, and keeps himself in the news.

As far as coercion by members of Congress, it will be interesting to see what facts are alleged. If any are.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Donald Trump's suit against Facebook, Google and Twitter presents an interesting opportunity if one of them wants to take it. All of the commentary focuses on how frivolous the suit is and how quickly it should be dismissed. But suits don't dismiss themselves; a defendant has to move to dismiss. Suppose one of the Tech defendants just answers the complaint instead of moving to dismiss. What happens next is discovery, and in particular, documents and depositions. It would cost a lot of money (the defendants would likewise have to produce documents and witnesses), but can you imagine what Facebook would earn in revenue if it started posting Trump's documents and testimony on-line? Moreover, all of the motion-to-dismiss arguments could be made at any time with a motion for judgment on the pleadings (Rule 12(c) instead of Rule 12(b), for the folks keeping score at home.) Or the defendant could wait until the completion of discovery and then move for summary judgment—any legal arguments that would work now would likewise work then.

By the way, the defendants might not mind keeping the case in Miami federal court. The assigned Judge, Robert N. Scola, Jr., was appointed by President Obama a decade ago (before that he was a state-court judge for 16 years, and before that first a state prosecutor, then criminal defense lawyer).

D.T. in San Jose, CA, writes: As a matter of political strategy, it is never a bad idea to force your opponents to ally with unpopular entities. In addition to the fundraising grift you mentioned, Trump's cases put Democrats in the unfavorable position of appearing to defend Facebook and Twitter.

Most people dislike social media companies. Conservatives think they are biased. Liberals think that they don't do enough to fight bigotry and misinformation. Everyone thinks that social media companies profit from by stoking controversy and encouraging tribalism.

"Democrats Defend Mark Zuckerberg" is a headline that is going to hurt Democrats. It doesn't matter that, in this particular case, Trump is the bigger villain.

J.P. in Bronx, NY, writes: My theory about Donny suing the social media companies: Donny is an idiot and does not understand the First Amendment.

B.R. in Union, NJ, writes: As a lawyer, I wanted to offer a few comments about Donald Trump's newest stupid lawsuit.

To start with the jurisdictional issues (since we learn in law school that the first issue in litigation is assessing jurisdiction), it is clear from the terms of service that filing in Florida leaves the suits open to challenge. That challenge is (1) likely to be made, and (2) likely to succeed. Facebook and Twitter and Google will file the challenges because it would not look good if they asserted the venue provisions of the terms of service against others after passing on asserting it against Trump. The challenges when filed are likely to succeed because the relevant legal principles generally give effect to such clauses when included in a contract (which technically is how the terms of service are viewed in the law).

That said, it does not mean the cases will be dismissed (and the statements in several of's posts to that effect are wrong, a mistake I've seen repeated in lots of other news sites). That is because Trump (being ever the showman) chose to file in federal court, not state court. There is a federal statute (28 U.S.C. § 1406(a)) that provides that when a party files a civil action in federal court but in the wrong location, then the court can either dismiss or transfer the case to the federal court in the proper location. In my experience, a transfer is the preferred resolution. I would expect that these cases will wind up in the United States District Court for the District of Northern California (which is based in San Francisco). So Trump will get what might just be among his worst nightmares—being in a court in the home region of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Turning to the merits of the claims, there are both strategic and substantive considerations that are interesting.

From a litigation strategy perspective, there are several interesting questions, in particular about the timing of the inevitable motions to dismiss based on the substance of the claims. Will the various defendants file those simultaneously with the motions challenging the location? If they do, will the judge in Miami hear them, or will that judge order the transfer and let the San Francisco judge who gets the case handle them? Or will they wait until after the matter is transferred to the proper location? Or even later, waiting (as some have suggested might make for a lot of fun) until after Trump's depositions are taken?

In that regard, assuming the other two complaints are very similar to the Twitter complaint (and is there any reason to suspect otherwise?), I can say after skimming it that if a judge wanted to, they could in good faith deny a motion to dismiss the complaint based on the substance of its claims. Understand that such motions do not consider the actual facts of the case (that is done by summary judgment motions and trial motions). Instead, such motions look purely at the face of the complaint, and accept all factual assertions as alleged in the pleading, and then consider whether those assertions, if established by actual evidence, would make out a legally cognizable claim. The complaint on its own, while borderline at best, could be seen as doing so.

While, as been noted on and almost everywhere else, the First Amendment as such does not apply to non-governmental entities, and so does not apply to Twitter, etc., the complaint does include some very creative allegations which assert that the relationship between Twitter and the government was such that they could be deemed subject to the constitutional limits. This invokes a recognized exception to the general rule that the Bill of Rights protections only limit actions by the government. It's the same exception that applies when the government farms out control of prisons to private entities—those entities are not exempt from the Eighth Amendment limits on jail conditions that constitute cruel and unusual punishment. While the Trump complaint allegations in this regard are very weak, a judge could decide that the plaintiffs have alleged just enough to allow them the chance to show that there is sufficient evidence to support them. Particularly if the judge wanted to see Trump deposed, as much as many of us would.

But even if the case survives the initial motion, it seems very clear that in the end the claims against Twitter, etc. will get dismissed. As already stated, it is very well established by the Supreme Court that the Bill of Rights protections—including, but not limited to, the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech—do not prohibit action by private persons. The protections only address action by government actors (and those who might be called quasi-government actors). The cases that have applied the limits to non-governmental actors have required a very close relationship to the government—much closer than what we know about the relationship between government officials and Twitter, etc.

Lastly, I will note that if Trump is in fact deposed, it will address much more than his involvement in January 6—though that, of course, will be front and center. The complaint opens the door to questioning about any number of elements of Trump's handling of the COVID crisis, including his pushing of hydroxychloroquine, his use of "China virus," and his disagreements with the CDC and Dr. Fauci and many others. And many, many other topics. If I was Twitter and Facebook, I'd offer viewing of the deposition on a pay-per-view basis. Could well be the greatest pay-per-view audience ever, replacing the various boxing matches that are now on top.

R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: Perhaps your lawyer correspondents will respond with more detail, but in my professional practice, I have given 75 expert witness depositions over the years and read around 1,000 fact and expert depos. With few exceptions, the rules of discovery limit the amount of time a witness can be questioned in a deposition, in most instances six hours max. While the witness swears to tell the truth, there is very little an attorney can do to compel the witness to give a relevant answer or an answer at all. Even though the Fifth Amendment doesn't apply in civil cases, witnesses can answer "I don't recall," and there is no way to force an answer. The witness can also give an answer that doesn't fit the question or goes off topic. The answer is recorded in the transcript, but the attorney will enter an objection to the answer as "nonresponsive" and would not try to use that answer with the jury at trial. Usually, answers that go against the other side's narrative will also draw a "non-responsive" objection, even when they were on point.

M.M. in Charlottesville, VA, writes: You wrote that God "would have no hope of finding an attorney in heaven." I beg to differ. If Mohandas K. Gandhi, Esq., is unavailable for samsara reasons, I'm sure that Thurgood Marshall would be willing to take the Lord's case—along with co-counsel Abraham Lincoln.

D.B. in Goleta, CA, writes: While it would be a certain sign of retirement if Justice Breyer hadn't hired clerks, the fact that he has doesn't necessarily mean anything, Justice Kennedy hired a full slate of clerks before retiring. Justices generally have agreements to take on each others' clerks if they depart (either through retirement or otherwise). In Kennedy's case it seems he didn't want to tip his hand, because he also didn't make the traditional announcement at the end of the Court term, instead waiting another week or two. So while my money would be on Breyer staying at least one more term, that's not a done deal just yet.

Religious Matters

P.R. in Saco, ME, writes: D.R. in Portland wrote something with which I couldn't agree more: "A fair and balanced understanding of the role religion plays in our culture and politics—on the left and the right—is critical to our national discourse."

As a follower of Jesus, a.k.a. a Christian, I too have been appalled by the political direction taken by evangelicals in recent years. So I read to try to understand, but D.R. is right that there's not enough journalistic coverage of religion in America. With an almost entirely useless master's degree in theology, I spend a lot of time contemplating, "Who is this Jesus?" as posed to me by one of my seminary professors, a 70-year-old Catholic nun who considered Neil Young a latter-day prophet. When I get really stuck for understanding and take things too seriously, I return to Hayes Carll's song, "She Left Me for Jesus."

I figure if Jesus could withstand being strung up on a cross he could definitely withstand a little levity and irreverence in the pursuit of a righteous national discourse.

P.J. in East Haddam, CT, writes: Thanks to the comments from S.M. and R.L.D.; I stand corrected that Mary does give prior consent to her pregnancy, according to the Gospel of Luke, which was written by a man at least 60 years after the birth of Jesus. However, the point I was making is related to abortion. Let's leave religion out of it this time, and look at it this way: A group of people who abstain from sex have thus chosen never to have a child. This group is biologically unable to experience pregnancy or childbirth. Yet, they weigh in on the decisions of another group of people, who have not abstained from sex and who are capable of experiencing pregnancy and childbirth, but who may also choose not to have a child. What gives the abstainers the right to deny this choice to those who clearly have more experience in the matters of sex and its consequences?

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, writes: With all the discussion about religion and God, I want to point out that God is non-binary and gender nonconforming. God's pronouns are they/them/their. Regardless if you believe we are made in God's image or not, they didn't make mistakes when they created you. You are perfect whatever your gender, sexual orientation, and pronouns are. Just sayin'.

Sex Matters

B.B. in St. Louis, MO, writes: While I have not studied the sex industry, as has J.T. in Marietta, I do have contact with sex workers as part of my job at a local hospital providing controlled withdrawal for patients with alcohol and substance use disorders. My experiences are anecdotal evidence, not statistics, so I leave each reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

One of the questions that I ask patients coming into the hospital with opioid withdrawal is how they manage to afford their $50 to $100 a day habit. The answer is generally a variation of one the following: they are dealing to support their habit, they are stealing to support their habit, or they are resorting to prostitution to support their habit. Occasionally, I get told "Well, I have friends who give me money" to which my follow-up question of "And what do they expect in return?" is usually met with an uncomfortable silence. It is a bitter irony that some of these women originally turned to drugs to help them cope with memories of having been sexually abused as children.

I occasionally have patients who will give their occupation as "dancer," which is a euphemism for "stripper." They explain to me that most dancers are either single mothers trying to make ends meet, or opioid addicts trying to support their habit, although the two categories are not always mutually exclusive. Many of them either have to get drunk or high before they lose their inhibitions sufficiently enough to perform.

Is trading sex for drug money something someone does of their free will? I suppose that is a matter of interpretation.

C.L.C. in Petaluma, CA, writes: J.T. in Marietta is right. Most sex workers choose to work in the industry. Most of the danger in prostitution is from its illegality forcing prostitutes to do unsafe things, like work on the streets and get into the cars of strangers (this is very convenient for serial killers!).

Police are no friends of sex workers. Sex workers are beneath the law, while police are above the law. Police often sarcastically ask sex workers: "What will you do? Call the police?" while raping and robbing sex workers.

Educated Guesses

D.E. in San Diego, CA, writes: D.T. from San Jose asked a question about diplomatic ways to address the education gap between liberals and conservatives. It immediately called to mind one of my favorite quotes: "It is not true that all conservatives are stupid. It is true, however, that most stupid people are conservative."

If we substitute "Trump supporter" for "conservative," I think the bulk of moderate conservatives would agree with it and not feel insulted. After all, as Jascha Heifetz said: "No matter what you believe, you always find some people on your side that you wish were on the other side."

P.Y. in Upper Nyack, NY, writes: D.T. of San Jose asks how to handle negative reactions to the fact that the more educated voters tend to vote for Democrats. I don't see this fact as a negative for the Trumpers if explained in this (two-pronged) fashion:

For the working class: without a college education you are in competition with undocumented immigrants for employment and the GOP has created the perception that they are more opposed to "illegal" immigration.

For the upper middle class: Ph.D.'s (I am looking at you, V and Z) tend to cling closely to universities, which are very socialist organizations and they don't feel that, as academics, they get the respect they deserve in "the real world." As Marx and Engels explained: "[The capitalist] has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers."

Simply put, the communist/socialist/Democrat does not like wealth substituting for academic credentials—and thus you see efforts from the Democrats to exclusively hike taxes on those making over $400k, a level which roughly corresponds to the upper bound on a professor's income.

D.F. in Ann Arbor, MI, writes: With regards to your answer about the supposed higher levels of education and intelligence of today's Democrats (and your suggestions for delicately addressing that matter with friends and loved ones), there are a number of prominent Republicans who just perplex me. Ted Cruz (cum laude from Princeton, primary editor of Law Review at Harvard), Josh Hawley (Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, Yale Law where he was editor of Yale Law Review), John Kennedy (magna cum laude from Vanderbilt, executive editor of University of Virginia Law Review, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford), and Mike Pompeo (first in his class at West Point, Harvard Law Degree where he was a Law Review editor) are just a few examples of incredibly well-educated, and presumably intelligent, Republicans who say the stupidest things. I assume it's all political cynicism. They figure that's the easiest way to advance their careers.

V & Z respond: We have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that if Ted Cruz' family had moved from Canada to Oregon, rather than Texas, he would be an outspoken, pro-choice, anti-global warming progressive.

Assassin Nation

T.L. in Groton, MA, writes: S.R.G. in Playa Hermosa asked: "When is the killing of a political figure a murder rather than an assassination?"

In my view, an assassination is the murder of a person with political power for the purpose of preventing the use of that power.

D.C. in Delray Beach, FL, writes: As regards the list of most consequential non-presidential assassinations, on the early 1920s in the Osage area of Oklahoma, a number of Native Americans were murdered because they had land rights to what would prove to be very productive oil fields. The long investigation gave birth to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann, covers this story in excellent detail.

Also consider Leo Ryan, gunned down at the airport as he went to investigate what was going on in Jonestown in 1979. The mass murder/suicide of about 900 people followed almost immediately. We can hope that the incident stopped at least some people from joining dangerous religious sects, although when I see the Trump rallies these days, I'm not so sure.

And perhaps we should add the murder of George Floyd, inasmuch as it changed the usual narrative of the police always being justified in what they do.

D.K. in Chicago, IL, writes: One that was missed but should be covered is the attempted assassination of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, which instead claimed the life of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. It led to the almost half-century dynasty of "Bridgeport Irish" mayors of Chicago, including the late mayor Richard J. Daley, who many accuse of vote fraud in delivering Illinois to the Democratic ticket in the 1960 presidential election.

M.R. in Bowie MD, writes: Given the recent attention given by the excellent "Judas and the Black Messiah," would you consider the death of Fred Hampton to be (1) an assassination and (2) significant?

D.C. in Kent, OH, writes: Ambassador Chris Stevens (2012): Leads to seemingly endless Benghazi hearings and conspiracy theories. In the process, it's eventually discovered that Hillary Clinton used a private e-mail server...

L.B. in Savannah, GA, writes: While Lee Harvey Oswald's untimely death certainly fueled the JFK conspiracy theory industry, it's possible that we know more about JFK's assassination than we would have if Oswald had lived to stand trial. After his capture, Oswald steadfastly denied any involvement in JFK's death, and at trial, both he and his wife Marina would have been protected from self-incrimination. With Oswald's death, that protection no longer applied to Marina, allowing her to reveal information that otherwise might have remained hidden, such as Oswald's ownership of the rifle that fired the fatal shots, and where it was located at various times.

World War II

C.J. in Redondo Beach, CA, writes: In regards to your response to J.H. from Boston, allow me to retort:

As much as Germany was hurting in the aftermath of The First World War, and the Versailles Treaty gets blamed, the Dawes Plan had really started to build up a nice German economy. It was sort of the original Marshall Plan, and Dawes did win the Nobel Prize for his effort. Germany's economy was chugging along pretty nicely by the end of the 20s. Sure, they were burdened with reparations, but not overly so—and, as a result, Hitler and his party were basically ignored.

Once the economy fell off a cliff and U.S. bankers pulled back money after the market crash, things went to hell again over there. So, I tend to agree with J.H.'s original assertion—Versailles gets too much blame.

I know Germany had to pay France and Britain large sums of money, but it was really the Keynesian view of the time that influenced how people tend to view Versailles so harshly after World War II occurred (and even before). Some more recent historians (like, say, Margaret McMillan), while critical, don't seem to think it was quite the devastating burden that was the primary view for generations. The reparations were actually less draconian than Germany inflicted on France in 1871, and France didn't fall to a proto-fascist state. I'm not saying the reparations didn't matter. I just believe they were being dealt with, and before the collapse of the world economy seemed to be figured out.

Obviously, it's really impossible to ever know.

M.K. in London, England, UK, writes: Regarding the question from F.H. in St. Paul about Hitler supporters, particularly "who on Earth could have been that naive?"

Edward, as with all other members of his generation, was brought up knowing he was part of (and, in the aristocracy's case, divinely appointed to rule over) an Empire which, at the time, covered a quarter of the globe and had as a foundational belief the white man's inherent racial superiority over all other populations (with a side salad of belief in communism and the nascent Soviet Union as an existential threat). It should not be in any way surprising that some of these people sincerely supported Hitler. They were no fools, they knew more or less what he was, and they supported him anyway.

P.P. in Waitsfield, VT, writes: Thank you for your response to F.S. in Cologne about Pearl Harbor. I've had many an argument with students about the various conspiracy theories surrounding Pearl Harbor. Several points that flummox them are pretty simple and logical. FDR did not speak Japanese. There had to be others in the chain of information that conveyed the messages—first—the actual radio operators, then the translators, then the code breakers/analysts. Yet not one in that chain wrote a book describing how he or a team knew that the Japanese were going to attack? Not in the United States with our "tell-all" book industry?

Then there are the exercises by the United States Navy (USN). U.S. carriers "attacked" Pearl Harbor several times in various war games, including on Sunday, February 7, 1932. The Japanese attack wasn't exactly an "out of the blue, never been done" kind of attack for the U.S. We simply didn't have the imagination to think that any other nation would consider it, even though USN and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) evaluators (spies) were both looking at the damage done to the Italian Navy at Taranto.

Then, the actual day of the attack, criminal negligence existed at all levels. The U.S. had plenty of warning—the well-documented radar intercept not taken seriously and the sinking of a submarine by the USS Ward are all part of the historical record. The biggest "what-ifs," for me, surround the latter. If the Ward's message was taken at face value, what would've happened to the IJN's attack squadrons sweeping over Oahu if they were met by every pursuit aircraft on the island, with every AA gun manned and ready, and with a potentially empty harbor?

There is one more facet to consider. Naval History published an article about the Japanese Carrier Strike Force. They were literally inventing and writing tactics of a multi-carrier strike group as they headed across the Pacific. No navy had operated that many carriers together as a strike group before. We take that concept for granted for the rest of the war, but then it was a new and untried plan that paid huge dividends initially for the Japanese. The USN and Royal Navy then got ahold of the idea and ran with it for the rest of the conflict.

T.L. in San Francisco, CA, writes: Regarding the following: "The Japanese, thinking that battleships would be the key to naval warfare (as they had been for half a century), chose to attack on a day when the American battleships were in port. However, it turned out that aircraft carriers would quickly supplant battleships, and the American carriers were at sea that day."

Actually, the IJN knew full well that carriers and their aircraft would be the primary offensive weapon (after all, that is what they used to attack Pearl Harbor), and hoped to find some of the USN carriers in port on December 7. However, the IJN got unlucky in that there were none, though only because the USN carrier Enterprise, which was scheduled to arrive the previous evening, was delayed by a storm on the way there and did not arrive until after the attack.

V & Z respond: Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.

L.A. in Huntington Beach, CA, writes: With regard to your comment about missing the repair facilities at Pearl Harbor, I seem to recall reading that an even bigger oversight was not targeting the oil storage at the base. Japan viewed the U.S. as having command of large oil supplies (as opposed to Japanese import dependence) and so didn't consider the storage important. Taking out the oil supplies could have effectively grounded the U.S. Pacific fleet for a substantial period of time until new supplies could arrive from the West Coast. This would have had a profound effect on the early part of the naval war.

T.T. in Bedford, NY, writes: As a former naval officer who worked in Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW), I suggest that there was a rational reason for Adolf Hitler to declare war on the U.S. right after Pearl Harbor. In 1941, USN and German submarines were already fighting an undeclared war in the North Atlantic. The United Kingdom was only being kept in the war by the increasing flow of food and material carried by American ships. By making the U.S. a combatant, Hitler's U-boats were unleashed and could attack U.S. ships at will. If Hitler's subs could knock Britain out of the war (and they came close, for the Allies didn't win the Battle of the Atlantic until the middle of 1943), the Americans would not have had Britain as a staging area for the invasion of Europe or for the air operations against Germany. From Hitler's perspective, he likely felt that he would be better off by declaring war on America in December 1941 and taking a good shot at getting Britain out of the war than by waiting for FDR to choose when America would enter the war against Germany.

J.B. in Bend, OR, writes: A follow-up to your answer to Saturday's question as to why Adolf Hitler declared war on the U.S. after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—first, Germany and the U.S. had been in an increasingly hostile duel in the North Atlantic for almost a year prior to the Japanese attack; second, Hitler felt that the US occupation of Iceland (which allowed the British to use their occupying troops against Germany in North Africa) was an act of war against Germany. In short, Germany declaring war on the U.S. didn't change the existing situation very much, and, as you note, the U.S. going to war against Germany was inevitable.

Other Historical Matters

J.M. in Stamford, CT, writes: In regard to William Seward's ill-advised comment about the irrepressible conflict, you wrote: "That was meant to curry favor with the left-wingers in the GOP."

I was immediately struck by the use of "left-wing" to describe the early version of the Radical Republicans—the extreme anti-slavery or proto-abolitionists. Sure, they were "liberal" on the issue of civil rights as we use the term today. But doesn't "left-wing" today convey not just social liberalism but economic liberalism, in the traditional sense of tending towards socialist or communist ideas? The Republican Party of the 1850s, as I understand it, was anything but "socialist," with its connotations of marshalling the power of the state on behalf of labor against the power of capital. For all the economic differences between the Democrats and the Republicans (ex-Whig, ex-Federalist, plus Free Soil), their fights dating back to Jefferson vs. Hamilton were entirely within the limits of small-L liberal capitalism as Anglo-America understood such things in the 19th century.

Once again I am abashed to critique commentary by an historian of the period, but is "left-wing" too casual or inaccurate a term to use to convey to your readers that Seward's audience was more "radical" than conservative on the issue of slavery? All I could think of was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders applauding Governor Seward's spin.

V & Z respond: Nobody, even someone with extensive training in the subject, is right all the time. The issue you raise actually comes up quite a lot; one can choose the historically accurate term (radical), which carries the risk that the modern definition will be applied. Or, one can choose the best available modern term, with the awareness it is anachronistic. Obviously, we chose option #2. That said, a fair number of the abolitionists were German immigrants who had helped foment the Revolutions of 1848 and fled when they failed. Those folks come pretty close to the proper definition of "left-wing."

J.A. in Henderson, NV, writes: I have always been bothered by the contention that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. South Vietnam lost that war, not us. The worst that could be said is we chose to "pull out" (not manly, as George Carlin would say) and end our involvement in this civil war, thank heavens.

V & Z respond: We would have made this same observation if yesterday's question had asserted that the U.S. lost the war. However, we did not, because the question said the U.S. did not "win," which is true, not that it lost.

P.D. in La Mesa, CA, writes: I would gladly exchange Lyndon Johnson for Theodore (The Imperialist) Roosevelt in the presidential ratings at number 4. Apart from the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, you failed to mention Medicare and Medicaid as one of Johnson's greatest achievements. Read Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson , and you'll be in awe of a superlative political genius.

As for George Washington at number 2, that has always struck me as presidential hagiography. His refusal to serve more than two terms is hailed as an act of modesty and restraint. I'm not so sure. Washington was in poor health, died a few years later, and didn't enjoy the presidency (or politics) all that much. And what, actually, were his accomplishments besides being the nation's first?

I'm happy to keep JFK at number 10. He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis with skill, despite the American and Soviet militaries feeding off each other's fear, and achieved the best result possible. His legislative achievements were negligible but he did inspire the country with his idealism. Good leaders bring out the best in others. That's their job and that's what JFK did.

I expect that Barack Obama will keep ascending because we miss his extraordinary intellect and grace, and he made us proud as Americans for electing our first Black president; and that Ronald Reagan will keep sinking, because his bigoted and callous neglect of the AIDS crisis was damnable.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: I really enjoyed your take on the "handsomest" presidents in honor of pride month. It reminded me of this delightfully snarky opinion piece from 2016 about "looking presidential."

And am I the only one who thinks Trump would look much better if he were totally bald and skipped the spray tan? I'm thinking he'd look more powerful (à la Lex Luthor), as Trump does have a strong jawline. Being confidently bald works for many men, such as Jeff Bezos, Jason Statham, and Bruce Willis.

V & Z respond: There is actually a whole subreddit about what Trump would look like if he didn't go with all the fakeness. For example, this:

Trump with a bald head
and normal skin color; he definitely looks better

B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: In evaluating presidential appearances, you denigrated James K. Polk's "mullet." I must assume you know the danger of presentism in historical interpretation. I conclude, then that you are either being your usual snarky selves, or else that you're making the historical fashion statement that no matter what the style, no matter what the times, the mullet never looked good on anyone.

V & Z respond: Some of both, but mostly the latter. Sorry, Billy Ray Cyrus.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: In your writeup of the Carters' 75th wedding anniversary, you correctly note that they are generally good people who treat others well...and point out this is a rarity in American politics. You also noted that there were phonies and sleazeballs back in Carter's day, too, but that the trend over the last generation or two has been more towards sleaze and less towards decency in American politics.

I sadly agree with you on this. As you both know, I am a former and possibly future candidate for office, and I can tell you it takes quite a bit for a person to put themselves out there on that very large stage and run for public office...knowing they will be a target for trolls and snipers, that every dirty little secret that can be dug will be, and that some "dirt" may even get manufactured out of whole cloth. That's just politics, and it is not for the weak. Never was the phrase "if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" more applicable than in American politics.

That said, you fail to address what I see as the main reason for this shift towards sleaze and away from decency in politics. I believe it is directly related to the wane of civility in the general populace, which can be accurately tied to the advent and rise of social media. People tend to say things to others online that they would never say to your face. And the art of satire seems gone forever; most cannot even recognize it when they see it, even if the byline is Borowitz, or it is published by The Onion!

For my part, I like to think of myself as one of the decent ones. I ran a good and clean campaign about the issues, and even went to work for my former primary opponent after I lost, and we are still friends today. I just have always tried to be, in public and in private, the sort of person Mom would be proud of. I wish more politicians were that way. Maybe some of them think that nice people can't win, that nice folks finish last. That may be common, but it is not absolute. And, for my money's worth, if I have to become someone I am not in order to "win," then what have I actually won? I spent the first 23 years of my life being someone I was not, and will never again be anything other than who I am. What would it take, on a social level, to get a bit more decorum back into politics? I don't have the answer, other than to lead by example.

J.P. in Chicago, IL, writes: I volunteered on Barack Obama's Senate campaign, and spent at least 20 long non-consecutive days with him, Michelle, Sasha and Malia. His family relationship had a huge impact on my future family. I also believe that Joe Biden proved his character to Obama and has an outstanding record in his life as far as scandals, ethics, and faith. Your assertion that the balance has shifted away from these people stands at odds with evidence. It's not the people who have changed, it's the news coverage.

Light in July

E.K. in Brignoles, France, writes: Thank you for your answer to my question about William Faulkner. I can only regret that the younger generations (though I'm only in my late 30s, but started reading him 20 years ago) deprive themselves of this genius. Yes, Faulkner is perhaps offensive in 2021, I can't deny this. He used some words, some imagery that a modern writer couldn't use today, that's true.

But when she was asked by a French magazine who was, in her opinion, the greatest writer, Toni Morrison answered: "The best is Faulkner. Without a doubt." Because Faulkner was not some kind of Southern racist writing about "the good ol' days." He was a tortured, sometimes depressed man writing about the impossibility of resilience, the unbearable weight of the past, the futility of our lives, the pointlessness of communication, and many other things. So, please, if you have never read Faulkner, or if you find his style somewhat obscure or convoluted, try to start with Sanctuary. Just give it a chance.

And by the way, I think it was (V) who wrote the answer (given the reference to The Netherlands), and you've been very on point, because it just so happens that "Chinatown" is my second favorite movie (outranked only by "Sunset Boulevard"). I don't think you can be a genius while having Joe Sixpack's life. So, if someone is too sensitive, I'm probably not the kind of guy you'd like.

A.J. in Baltimore, MD, writes: I was surprised to read of E.K.'s perception that Faulkner is forgotten or unmentioned, since I think he continues to maintain a place of high esteem among literary critics, with multiple works (but especially The Sound and the Fury) sitting comfortably in the literary canon.

I doubt Faulkner's politics have much to do with it, in part because his novels contain more critiques of the disintegration of Southern values (as he saw it) than romantic visions of the South, in my opinion. Instead, it's probably that most Americans don't read classic literature outside of their formal education, and Faulkner's work is too difficult and near-impenetrable to high school students and even most intro-level college courses (in contrast to authors like Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald).

Language and Grammar Patrol

T.B. in Tallahassee, FL, writes: "Paint the world in black and white terms" is a common phrase you used in response to a question. Would it be smart to find non-racially-charged terms to replace it? How about "pro and con sides," "categorizing as apples or bananas but never fruit," "right or wrong," "left or right," "up or down"? You could have done worse, of course: "Black and White terms," "straight or crooked." Then you could just confound political combatants with, "Is this a democratic republic or a republican democracy or what?"

T.B. in Santa Clara, CA, writes: You wrote: "That said, just FYI, we don't usually use the Oxford comma." I use it obsessively, and it reminded of these hilarious examples from Steven Pinker's book, The Sense of Style:

  • Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard's two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
  • Highlights of Peter Ustinov's global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

L.O-R. in San Francisco, CA, writes: There are many excellent examples of why the Oxford comma is useful to convey actual information. This is my favorite:

It says 'With the Oxford comma:
we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin' and has cartoony pictures of JFK, Slatin, and two strippers, and then it
says 'Without the Oxford comma: we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin' and has cartoony pictures of JFK and Stalin 
dressed as strippers

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, writes: You had a headline "Yesterday Donald Trump sued Facebook, Twitter, and Google."

Is that an Oxford comma I detect?

B.E. in Mariposa, CA, writes: On Thursday, you had an item headlined "Trump Sues Facebook, Twitter, and Google". So, you use the Oxford comma after all. I knew I could count on you.

That's What a Hamburger Is All About

K.C. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: (V) put his initial to the item "Plentiful Jobs and Rising Wages Help the Democrats," but truly, it was unnecessary for him to claim that particular post, since the description of In-N-Out Burger as "a not-terribly-special burger joint" was a dead giveaway that (Z), a Californian, was not the author. I won't go so far as to call In-N-Out a religion in the Golden State, but good luck finding as many churches in California that feature visitors waiting out the door and down the block as you can find In-N-Out locations with lines that long on any day of the week (including, but not limited to, Sundays). I can assure you that those not-terribly-special burger joints can easily pay $16/hour and still turn a handsome profit. (Z) might need to treat (V) to a Double-Double...stat.

V & Z respond: There are even Biblical verses printed on the packages.

J.C. in Detroit, MI, writes: I assume I am one of many people who were triggered by the "not-terribly-special" comment. In-N-Out may not be the best burger in the world (although it's the only one I miss), but it is certainly the best at or around that price point, handily beating out competitors like Five Guys or Shake Shack in my opinion, even as comparable burgers at those chains are more expensive. The high, very consistent quality of the burgers, fries, and shakes from the 100%-company-owned restaurants (i.e., no franchises) means that your experience will be the same in Texas as it is in California. I could go on but I want to address this particular intersection as In-N-Out was actually my first job!

In-N-Out has always paid its workers well above minimum wage, and that is part of the appeal of working and eating there. I took a pride in my job that was definitely due, in part, to the level of training and excellence that was instilled in us. It's been a long time since 2005 but I'm still a harder, more polite worker as a result. It's pretty likely that an entry level employee (level 1—cleaning, handing out food) will get promoted several times within a year (level 2—registers, level 3—fries, level 4—outside orders/drive thru) with a pay increase each time. I was making $10/hour in 2005 as a level 4 in Goleta, CA, which included a $1 raise when I moved from a lower income area. I don't know where the picture of that sign you showed was taken, but in higher income areas, it's likely to be even more—when I lived in San Francisco before the pandemic, the starting wage was $15/hour.

R.S. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Your site is a daily read for me and I enjoy the content immensely! That being said, I'm sure I won't be the only one, but I have to respectfully disagree with your comment on July 5th. In-N-Out is a Socal institution and certainly is a beyond special burger joint!

For Whom the Cookie Tolls

P.A. in Redwood City, CA, writes: The true test of a chocolate chip cookie is whether the cookie itself, without any chocolate chips in your bite, is delicious. Many recipes fail on this, and a bite with no chips is bland or dry. But not the original Toll House recipe. (Z) is correct; this is the gold standard by which all other chocolate chip cookies must be measured.

T.S. in Memphis, TN, writes: For (Z) and J.L.G. in Beantown: Improvement on Toll House chocolate chip cookie.

Follow recipe on back of THC package, except:

  • Instead of 1½ sticks of butter, use 1 stick of butter and ½ c. smooth peanut butter.
  • Substitute 2¼ c. flour with 1½ c. flour (unbleached, please) and 1 c. old fashioned (whole grain) oatmeal.

Ta Da.

J.T. and N.S. in Greensboro, NC, writes: I wonder if (Z) has ever made Hillary Clinton's chocolate chip cookies? They're tasty and all-American (they use Crisco!) We made them for election night 2016, but they proved to be bad luck.

V & Z respond: No, but he'll give them a try right after trying the revised Toll House recipe from T.S. in Memphis.


J.P. in Horsham, PA, writes: You wrote that " just a little south of paradise, right?" According to Apple Maps, the fastest route from Paradise, PA, to Mar-a-Lago would have you driving 1224 miles (1970 km) and, assuming no stops, would take you 18 hours and six minutes. But yes, it is a roughly southbound drive. I could only get driving directions; walking and cycling directions were unavailable.

M.W. in Northbrook, IL, writes: I liked the song title game, but come on folks—one word songs seems a little ridiculous. I think in the future this game has to be at least three-word titles.

V & Z respond: Yes, (Z) is a better game designer than that. That only happened because the whole thing came together by accident.

J.K. in Boston, MA, writes: I didn't even write in, because I assumed that somebody would have pointed out the song "Yesterday" before I did. But it wasn't in the list. The Beatles, Paul McCartney, etc.

V & Z respond: Over 1,600 covers, including 500 Muzak versions.

R.C. in Eagleville, PA, writes: Thank you to T.B. in Santa Clara for sending in the "insanely catchy" Mungo Jerry video. 1970, high school, taking daddy's car for a spin, "In the Summertime" on the AM, cruisin' and bouncin'. When the chair opens nominations from the floor, I intend to nominate "In the Summertime" as the official anthem. I may be on a sentimental journey, but I hope someone will second that emotion.

T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, writes: Eagerly awaiting an album titled "" Perhaps by a reformed Peanut Butter Conspiracy?

V & Z respond: We've already been pretty well honored under the previous names of the site. You do know that before we were, we were known as "Abbey Road," and then "Led Zeppelin I," and then "Thriller," right?

J.M. in New York City, NY, writes: Regarding the item where you mentioned the rarity of left-handed shortstops.

This was a new thing to me, a fairly avid baseball fan. Doing a quick scan, I found this article. As the url suggests, they've got the stats and aren't afraid to deploy and digest em. Enjoy!

T.I. in...Everywhere, writes: Greetings, from The illuminati world elite empire. Bringing the poor, the needy and the talented to limelight of fame, riches, powers and security, get recognized in your business, political race, rise to the top in whatever you do, be protected spiritually and physically! All these you will achieve in a twinkle of an eye when you get initiated to the great Illuminati Empire. Once you are initiated to the Illuminati Empire you will get numerous benefits and reward.

Do you agree to be a member of the illuminati New World Order? If YES!. Then kindly reply us back on our direct recruitment e-mail only at: Please note, kindly make sure all your response are send directly to the e-mail stated above only at:

V & Z respond: Um, we've been a mouthpiece for the Illuminati for more than 10 years. Don't you people keep records?

If you wish to contact us, please use one of these addresses. For the first two, please include your initials and city.

To download a poster about the site to hang up, please click here.

Email a link to a friend or share:

---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul10 Saturday Q&A
Jul09 Biden Puts Monopolies in His Crosshairs
Jul09 Texas Is at It Again
Jul09 Another Potential Infrastructure Wrinkle
Jul09 The Republican Party Stands for Nothing
Jul09 Trump Says He Welcomes Deposition
Jul09 An Artful Solution?
Jul09 A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Part II
Jul08 House Group Approves Senate's Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
Jul08 Trump Sues Facebook, Twitter, and Google
Jul08 McCarthy Is at a Crossroads
Jul08 Biden Can Reshape the Fed
Jul08 Do Republicans Really Believe the Lies They Are Telling?
Jul08 Giuliani to Help the Democrats on Saturday
Jul08 Beasley Raises $1.3 Million for North Carolina Senate Race
Jul08 Pollsters Still Don't Know What Went Wrong in 2020
Jul08 Garcia and Wiley Concede
Jul07 It's Adams' Apple
Jul07 Infrastructure Talks Just Keep Getting More Complicated
Jul07 RNC Hacked by the Russians
Jul07 How Greedy Is Too Greedy?
Jul07 Vance Can't Dance
Jul07 Mary Trump: Ivanka's Less Loyal than Weisselberg
Jul07 Happy Anniversary, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter!
Jul06 Gang Warfare
Jul06 What's the Plan for the 1/6 Commission?
Jul06 How Not to Respond to Being Prosecuted
Jul06 Breyer Clerks Up for Next Term
Jul06 An Interesting Election in Saxony-Anhalt
Jul06 An Interesting Election in Brazil
Jul05 Biden Narrowly Misses Vaccination Goal
Jul05 DeSantis Is Preparing for 2024--Very Carefully
Jul05 Republicans Are Testing New Attacks on Biden
Jul05 Clyburn Doesn't Want Trump to Testify
Jul05 Biden Wants to Encourage Legal Residents to Apply for Citizenship
Jul05 The New Cold War?
Jul05 Plentiful Jobs and Rising Wages Help the Democrats
Jul05 Garcia Could Yet Win the NYC Mayor's Race
Jul05 Alvin Bragg Wins
Jul05 The Numbers Didn't Add Up
Jul04 Sunday Mailbag
Jul03 Saturday Q&A
Jul02 RIP Voting Rights Act, 1965-2021
Jul02 Pelosi Makes Her Picks for 1/6 Commission
Jul02 A Win for Biden (Not That Anyone Will Notice)
Jul02 Weisselberg Surrenders, TrumpWorld Spins
Jul02 At Least It's Not Just a Blog...
Jul02 It's a Date!
Jul02 New York City Releases Update on Mayoral Race
Jul01 Report: Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg to Be Charged Today