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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Afghanistan is the story of the week, for the second week in a row.

Q: Like many people, I've been most upset about all of the Afghans that helped the U.S. over the past two decades and were left behind in Afghanistan despite many having visa applications that were any number of years old.

This week, the mainstream news has reported on the huge numbers of people evacuated out of Afghanistan the past 2 weeks. But I have not seen a report on why we didn't start the evacuations earlier. So, my question is in two parts: (1) Is there an official reason why evacuations weren't started earlier?, and (2) Do you, or any of my fellow readers, have an opinion on this?
R.J.C., Salem, OR

A: We are going to address your first question, and leave the second question to the readers. If we are talking short-term—as in, "Why didn't substantial evacuations begin 6 weeks ago?"—the answer is that the White House had hopes that the Afghan government would prove at least nominally viable, and embracing that meant keeping many Americans (e.g., the embassy staffers) in Afghanistan, and not doing anything that would create chaos.

That said, it seems that you really mean long-term—as in, "Why didn't substantial evacuations begin 6 years ago?" One issue is that the process for inviting refugees into the U.S. is long and onerous, in part because some politicians want to discourage would-be immigrants, and in part because each individual requires a fair bit of investment, in terms of helping them to acclimate, find a job, find housing, etc., and there are only so many resources available. Slate just had a piece about this in which they interviewed Suzy Cop, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee's Dallas office. Why did they choose the Dallas office? Because Texas actually welcomes more refugees than any other state each year. (Surprised? Well, anti-immigrant rhetoric may keep the base happy, but cheap labor keeps the donors happy.)

The other part of the issue, which is particular to Afghanistan, is that the previous presidential administration was led by a man who disliked immigrants from "sh**hole" countries, and who often did the bidding of Stephen Miller, one of the most overtly nativist public figures of the last half-century. As The New York Times reported this week, that administration took steps specifically meant to reduce the number of Afghans admitted to the United States (mostly reducing the number of available visas).

Q: In the aftermath of the Kabul airport bombing, Donald Trump put out a video in which he said "this never would have happened if I were still your President."

What do you think would have happened had he still been President? Would we be in the middle of World War III by now?
C.C., Los Angeles, CA

A: To start, it is inconceivable that the Trump administration would have done better. The Donald loves to make such claims, but his administration was populated by a great many incompetents, and made a mess of every large-scale logistical challenge it confronted. If it couldn't deal with a hurricane in Puerto Rico, or distributing vaccine doses in an effective manner, how could the Trump White House pull off something like this?

And the thing is, Team Trump knows this, and has made it as clear as day. Obviously, neither the former president nor any of his adoring underlings would ever announce this directly. However, the agreement that then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated with the Taliban was substantially complete by February of 2020. If Trump and Pompeo thought that leaving Afghanistan would be easy, then they would have set things up to complete the withdrawal before the 2020 election, so Trump could run on that accomplishment. Instead, they pointedly set the withdrawal up to take place at a time about as far away from a presidential election, or a midterm, as is possible. They knew full well that a fiasco was likely.

If Trump had been re-elected, and so had been running the show when the withdrawal date arrived, we can only see two possible outcomes (neither of them World War III). Recall that The Donald rarely had, or has, the fortitude to make choices that have actual consequences. Further, he tends to yield to the influence of stronger people, and it is clear that the other Republican leaders (like Mitch McConnell) preferred to remain in Afghanistan. So, the likeliest possibility is that Trump would have pushed the withdrawal back, and pushed it back again, and so forth, such that it happened on roughly the same day as he released his tax returns (i.e., another day that was always imminent, and yet somehow never came).

The only other plausible outcome was that Trump followed through with the withdrawal, yanked the American soldiers and civilians out of Afghanistan (a much easier task than what Joe Biden is attempting), and then left the Afghan allies of the U.S. to their own devices. Their fault for being born in a sh**hole country.

Q: On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it had evacuated 60,000+ people from Kabul so far, and that there were 5,000 at the airport waiting for processing. Thursday, they announced that they had evacuated 19,000 in the previous 24 hours, were up to 83,000 people evacuated overall, and that there were another 10,000 at the airport waiting for processing.

Clearly the announcements by the Taliban that they won't allow people to go to the airport anymore aren't correct. Yet we hear about so many people who can't get to the airport. Can you explain what's likely to be really going on? How are people getting to the airport, and why can some but not others?
J.G., Albany, CA

A: For yesterday's post, we had to write a somewhat wonky sentence: "The damage was inflicted by a pair of suicide bombers, at least one of whom was wearing an explosive vest and managed to make it fairly deep into the airport before detonating." We wrote that because everyone was reporting that there were two bombers, but we could find no information on the second one. It turns out that there was no second bomber, something revealed about 6 hours after we went live. Fortunately for us, we did specifically note later in the piece that "facts" are subject to change when dealing with an unfolding event like this. And we reiterate that now: What the U.S. public "knows" about the evacuations may not be accurate, either due to Biden administration spin or, more likely, due to the difficulties that come from trying to make sense of chaos while it's happening. (As a sidebar, "breaking news" stories about Civil War battles—basically the subject of (Z)'s undergrad thesis—were notoriously bad for the latter reason.)

With that said, we will note a couple of things that are probably relevant. First, though it may seem a non sequitur, please recall the Monroe Doctrine for a moment. In 1823, the U.S. warned the powers of Europe that they better stay out of the Western hemisphere or there would be hell to pay. Sounds impressive, but it was basically hot air for 80 years or so, since the U.S. generally lacked the means to enforce the not-so-implied threat. Similarly, you should expect the Taliban to make a lot of declarations that they can't meaningfully back up, and this is likely one of them. In other words, a reverse Theodore Roosevelt: They speak loudly, and carry a small stick (and note that's not a small penis joke, unless you really want it to be).

Beyond that, Afghanistan is a somewhat sizable country with a poor network of roads, and a shortage of reliable transportation. Undoubtedly, people who live near Kabul or one of the other three international airports in the country (in Kandahar, Balkh, and Herat) are at an advantage when it comes to escaping, as are folks who live near the border. Further, some would-be refugees undoubtedly have the ability to pay bribes, and are doing so.

Q: What are the chances that, with a Republican Congress in 2023, President Biden is impeached based on Thursday's events at Kabul airport? E.H., Dublin, Ireland

A: Certainly above 50%, possibly way above 50%.

To start, given that the modern Republican Party lacks much of a cohesive policy platform (particularly when we consider things that might actually be enshrined into law), and that "owning the libs" is largely their unifying principle, then they have much motivation to "own" Biden by impeaching him. After all, they impeached Bill Clinton over something far less controversial than the Afghanistan evacuation, and in a time that was less polarized than right now.

Beyond that, the GOP is currently, to a large extent, the cult of Trump. There is a near-obsession with "proving" that Trump was more competent than Biden (see the question above for the latest example). Impeaching Biden would somewhat blunt the two impeachments of Trump, since it would make The Donald less of an outlier.

There are only three things we can see that would forestall a Biden impeachment, should the Republicans regain the House. The first is if Trump's power wanes dramatically between now and then. The second is if Republican leadership is persuaded that they would be absolutely crushed at the polls in 2024 if they tried it. And the third is if Mitch McConnell, concluding that an impeachment is suicidal, flexes his muscles, and tells Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) & Co. that if they try it, he's going to arrange a near-unanimous acquittal.

Q: You wrote: "Afghanistan is one of those countries that's more like a confederation of tribes, or city-states, or factions than it is a unified nation."

What are some examples of other current countries that fit into that category (other than the U.S., of course...wink, wink)?

P.S.: Now I want to try that Afghanistan restaurant, but do I really have to drive an hour to get there? Isn't there anything closer?
J.L., Los Angeles, CA

A: The obvious answer is Somalia, which had no government at all for about a decade, and now has a government that is basically in name only. Most of the other countries in similar circumstances, where government authority has clear limits, and doesn't really exist in some places, are also in Africa. South Sudan and the Central African Republic are the two most notable, though Libya is not far off, since they had two competing governments until just a few months ago. Some of the Asian countries are also less-than-unified, with Yemen (and, arguably Syria) leading the list, along with several of the -stan countries.

Then, of course, there's Canada. Spend a day in Montréal, then one in Toronto, and then one in Edmonton, and afterward try to tell us with a straight face that you spent all three days in the same country.

As to the restaurant, that's really the only Afghan option still open in the Los Angeles area. There was one in Pasadena, but it closed. However, there is a Nepalese restaurant called Tara's that has two locations, both located in the city of L.A. (in Brentwood and Venice). Nepalese cuisine has some flavors and dishes similar to Afghan cuisine. And while this may sound like a joke, it's not: If you do go to Tara's, consider trying the Sherpa stew with yak. It's quite good.

Q: A narrative that has become increasingly compelling to me over the years is that imperialist interventions disrupt the processes of self-determination, displacing firmly rooted social orders with artificial ones. Though done in the name of order/justice, these usurpations perpetuate chaos, oppression, and violence, and ultimately succumb to the self-deterministic forces that they attempted to stave off.

This narrative implies that territories left relatively unmangled by imperialists should have superior development. Are there countries that show what Afghanistan could have been in 2020 if it were not continually dominated by selfish foreign powers? What happens to countries that govern themselves for a few centuries?
A.N., Memphis, TN

A: Well, you have to understand that the nations of Europe got a jump on most of the rest of the world during the age of exploration, and eventually colonized damn near every other country on every other continent. And the nations the Euros didn't get to, the Ottomans did. So, there aren't really any "unspoiled" non-European nations to point to.

On top of that Afghanistan is especially unlucky, in some ways. It's in the middle of Asia, and is surrounded by larger and more powerful nations that have been around, in most cases, for a millennium or more. It doesn't have any coasts, so it's dependent on one or more of those large nations for trade purposes. Its land is not especially fruitful, agriculturally, and it was not until recently that it had substantial natural resources to offer (rare earth elements needed for electronics manufacturing). So, it was pretty much destined to fall behind many/most of the other nations of the world.

It's kind of the obvious answer, but if you want a "best-case scenario" model of what Afghanistan could have been, then how about neighboring Iran? It's not a perfect example, since Iran has ports, and oil reserves, and is in a better position for self-defense. But the geographies are similar, the sizable number of powerful neighbors is similar and, obviously, the theocratic impulses are similar.

Q: In your item Trump World Legal Blotter, Part I: Trump Sued, you discussed the various cases against Donald Trump for allegedly fomenting insurrection and placing people in danger. I have not heard of Trump being sued for dereliction of duty and allegedly failing to do the minimum requirements of the job of president to take actions to rescue those in deadly peril. Is Trump being sued for the delayed response to send support? Could he be? It does not seem to me that he could face criminal charges for the delayed response, but maybe I'm wrong. Could he face criminal charges for failure to take action resulting in damage to property, injury, and death? G.W., Oxnard, CA

A: There's no way this would even get past even summary judgment.

To start, "dereliction of duty" is a military crime, not a civilian one. Further, even if you were to try to work with the general concept, it's very hard to prove that if Trump had just done [X], then [Y] would not have happened. Most importantly, and as we've discussed a few times in the past, elected officials are largely immune from being sued for things they do in their official capacity, even if their actions (or inactions) are incompetent, harmful, etc.

When it comes to the civil suits we discussed in that item, Trump's lawyers will undoubtedly argue that he was acting in his official capacity as POTUS when he spoke to the crowd that day, and that he is thus immune to being sued. The plaintiffs' lawyers will argue that citizen Donald Trump was speaking on that day, on behalf of his own personal interests, and was not "on the clock" at that time.

Q: Wednesday's item on the Candace Owens defamation suit got me thinking of something that's probably crazy, but might be just crazy enough to work. Could the plaintiff of one of the OAN/Newsmax defamation suits plausibly also sue cable/satellite companies like Comcast and DirecTV? The intention wouldn't be to get a verdict or a monetary settlement (though these companies are presumably a lot more financially sound than any of the other defendants), but to reach a quick settlement on the condition that the carriers drop the network involved.

This seems like kind of a stretch to me, but it might be the next logical step from the argument that the networks provide a platform for unhinged pundits, because the cable companies provide a platform for the networks. Even if this argument wouldn't hold up in court, I could see Comcast deciding that it's not worth the expense of litigating just to preserve their ability to keep carrying OAN. I know you guys aren't lawyers, don't play them on TV, and probably didn't even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but is there a good reason not to try this?
M.C., Newton, MA

A: As with the scenario posed by the previous question, this would never, ever fly in a court of law. And you actually included the critical concept in your question: "platform." The Communications Decency Act of 1996, specifically Section 230 of that act, says that businesses that provide platforms for content producers are not publishers, and so are not liable for the content produced by third parties that use their platforms. In other words, you can't sue Twitter because @realdonaldtrump slandered you, and you can't sue Comcast because someone on OAN slandered you.

The reason it is possible to sue OAN or NewsMax or Fox is that they are not only broadcasting content, they are producing it. Put another way, they are most certainly acting as publishers, and so are liable for what is said on their airwaves.

Q: Other than wanting to hand President Biden a defeat, maybe the six Republican-appointed justices had a personal interest in their decision to end the eviction moratorium: Do any of them own rental property or invest in companies that own rental property? Is there a way of finding out about this by looking at their financial disclosure information? H.F., Pittsburgh, PA

A: Yes, the Supremes file the same basic disclosure forms every year that members of Congress, and other high-ranking federal employees do. We think you are going to be disappointed in the answer to your question, though it's possible you'll say "Well, I'm not surprised to learn that if there is a justice who's up to no good, it's..."

First, there are four justices whose disclosure forms include no residential rental income of any sort: Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett. And incidentally, as a sidebar, most of the justices have extensive portfolios, which isn't too much of a surprise since many of them come from wealth, and most have had high-paying jobs for decades, and they tend to be careful and disciplined folks. See, for example, the disclosure form of Gorsuch, (who has pages and pages worth of assets). However, the disclosure form of Brett Kavanaugh (who has a bank account with $15,000-$50,000 in it, and a 401k with $15,000 or less in it, and that's it) makes clear that Kavanaugh is far and away the least well-heeled of the nine justices. And that, in turn, serves as a reminder of not-really-answered questions about how Kavanaugh managed to discharge a quarter-million dollars in debt basically overnight.

Then there are two justices who are earning rental income, but from properties outside the country. John Roberts owns part of a house in Ireland, and Stephen Breyer owns a property in Saint Kitts and Nevis. Undoubtedly, these are vacation houses that they rent out when they are not using them.

There are also two justices who are renting out a single-family residence" Sonia Sotomayor in New York City and Elena Kagan in Washington, DC. The disclosure forms do not require much detail, but these look to be former homes that the justices have retained ownership of and rented out. It is doubtful that tenants well-off enough to rent what must be fairly high-end housing would fall into arrears on their payments. And even if they did, well, Sotomayor and Kagan wanted to keep the moratorium.

And that leaves us with Clarence Thomas. His disclosure form lists a property owned by "Ginger, LTD., Partnership" that generates $5,000 to $15,000 a year in income, and that has a value of $250,000 to $500,000. It seems improbable that he was much affected by the moratorium or that, even if he was, he was affected enough to influence his vote, especially since his vote was entirely consistent with his staunchly conservative philosophy. But if there is a justice who benefited from the ruling, then it's him.

Q: Do you think it was a mistake for now-Governor Kathy Hochul (D-NY) to state that she would definitely run for re-election after the resignation of Gov. Andrew Grope-mo (D-The Doghouse) but before actually taking office? It might have sounded presumptuous to some voters, and she could have easily dodged the question by saying something like, "right now my focus is entirely on the transition to becoming your next governor." Do you think this statement might hurt her in the inevitable primary against New York AG Tish James (D-NY)? Finally, why do we talk about "re-election" for her in this case, because she technically wasn't elected as governor, but rather ascended to the office? Is this different for appointed elected officials? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: We don't think it was a mistake. Hochul wants the next year to be her audition for the people of New York, and the sooner that voters start thinking in that way, the better. Plus, she comes from a position of greater strength by beating James to the punch, rather than going second. We're not New Yorkers, of course, but we doubt too many voters there will be offended by a politician admitting they would like to be reelected. If, on the other hand, she had admitted that she likes Montreal-style bagels better then New York-style bagels, she'd be done for.

As to your "reelection" question, we have two answers. The first is that, according to most dictionaries, "elected" actually means "chosen," and not necessarily "chosen by a vote." If someone was appointed to office, they were still chosen, even if there was no vote. And if someone was elected to one office, and then succeeded to a higher office, they were chosen for the higher office by the succession process. After all, there are more than 20 million people in New York who could have become governor when Cuomo resigned, but Hochul was the one selected, thanks to the terms of the state constitution.

The second answer is that "reelected" is used because there is no alternative that really sounds right. Does it really work to say "Gerald Ford was hoping to be elected president in 1976" or "Kathy Hochul hopes to be elected governor in 2022"? It doesn't sound great to us, at very least.

Q: This California governor recall is completely insane. Was there an actual stated reason given by the financial backers of this recall? Was it simply to throw a wrench in the works just to bring chaos to a very big Democratic state? There isn't a single reasonable candidate in the very long list of candidate replacements. The Democratic and Republican parties aren't backing any of the candidate replacements. We could end up with a governor replacement disliked by over 80% of the voters. Surely this is the definition of madness and we have entered the realm somewhere on the other side of the mirror? H.C., Santa Cruz, CA

A: This is hardly the first time that California has been home to nuttiness. It was over a century ago that the poet Carl Sandburg said "God once took the country by Maine as the handle, gave it a good shake, and all the loose nuts and bolts rolled down to southern California." So, the reputation has been in place for a while.

In any event, the supporters of recall have not articulated much of a justification for recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). When Gray Davis (D) was booted in 2003, the clear issue was the power crisis of that era, and his sluggish response to dealing with it. There was an argument, at the time, that he was in the thrall of big-donor energy concerns like Enron, and that is why he was hesitant to act in order to limit sky-high energy prices. This has not been proven, but if it were true, it would be corruption and would be a pretty good basis for recall. The point is that there was at least a plausible case being made, even if it was not supported in any meaningful way with evidence.

In Newsom's case, the "issue" is his management of the pandemic in particular, and his "competence" in general. That's not much justification for overturning the will of the voters; even if one agrees Newsom has been incompetent (and the case isn't strong), there are lots of incompetent governors out there. Heck, on occasion, the U.S. even elects an incompetent president. You may not believe it, but it's true! In any event, if someone is incompetent, then that is an argument for not re-electing them, not for ripping them from the office they've been chosen to occupy.

Q: Sirhan Sirhan has been recommended for parole in California. Gavin Newsom may uphold or reject the recommendation (as I understand things).

What do you guys see as the pros-and-cons of each decision for him? Does your staff astrologist see the stars lining up for Sirhan's imminent release?
S.R.G., Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

A: This seems like a pretty easy call for Newsom (and you're right that it's up to him). The parole board—that is, the experts—say he should be paroled. Several of Kennedy's kids have asked that he be paroled. The people of California, particularly the ones whose support Newsom needs, tend to favor a "people can be redeemed" worldview, rather than a "lock 'em' up and throw away the key" worldview. And Sirhan's crime was committed more than 50 years ago. If he hasn't been redeemed by now, then when will he be?

So, we think it is overwhelmingly likely Newsom will grant parole. That's also the "easy" choice, since it would just be going along with what the parole board and the family want. The only way he decides otherwise is if he concludes that Californians are really upset about crime right now, and this is a high-profile way to put forward a "tough on crime" image.

Q: I guess this is a COVID question: Once the congressional districts, etc. are all sorted out, will there be an assessment of the impact of COVID on the next election cycles, or will all that be folded into the more generalized estimations that occur every time without regard to the reasons behind those numbers? This seems like an important factor, since the demographic picture from the census is to some degree "pre-pandemic" whereas the redraw itself is potentially more "post-pandemic."

Do you think the map drawers will consider pandemic mortality into their exercise?
C.W., Carlsbad, CA

A: We get a lot of questions on this basic subject: How the pandemic and, in particular, the likelihood that more Republicans than Democrats will die, will affect redistricting, the 2022 election, the 2024 election, etc. You can bet your last dollar that we'll write a bunch about that, once we have the information to do so. But for now, we're stuck with two rather significant known unknowns: (1) how the maps will end up, and (2) what the population will look like once the pandemic dust has settled.

The mapmakers also have that second known unknown to deal with. It is possible that they will try to make some projections, and will try to build those into their maps, but we tend to doubt it. First, a lot of the states with high mortality either have nonpartisan maps or else are ruby red. Second, projecting the pandemic is nigh-on impossible because there are so many wildcards: a dramatic change in masking/vaxxing policy by someone like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), or the emergence of a new variant, or Wal-Mart declaring its stores off limits to the unvaccinated, or any of a dozen other things that could have a major impact in one direction or the other.

Third, and most importantly, is that population change wrought by the pandemic is nowhere near as significant a question as population change wrought by normal demographic change (people reaching the age of 18, people dying off, people relocating, etc.). Florida, for example, had 247 COVID deaths yesterday, which was yet another new record for that state. If we increase that to 300, assume that it remains that way for the rest of 2021, and also that 75% of those who perish are Republicans, that's a net loss of 18,900 GOP voters. Florida will soon have 28 congressional districts, which means an average of 675 Republicans lost per district. And that's making the most aggressively-bad-for-Republicans assumptions possible. Meanwhile, the average district size in Florida is a bit more than 767,000 people. If the gerrymanderers are making choices where 675 voters have a meaningful impact on the odds of holding a district, then they have made a much broader choice that Florida demographics are likely to remain stable. What this means is that if the map-makers are going to try to project the future, they are better off focusing on demographic change than on pandemic impact.

Q: My question is about bitter primaries. You often write something similar to this, which came from this week's item on the Ohio Republican primary: "A lot depends on how bloody the Republican primary is. If the winner comes out bruised and broke, the Democrats have a chance." The idea that a nasty primary fight can leave the winner wounded may have been true in an era of less hyper-partisanship, but is it really still true today? Have there been any studies examining whether primary winners that survived bloody primaries actually fare worse in the general election than those who cruise to an easy primary victory? S.C., Washington, DC

A: This question has been studied extensively. And you are right that in an era when the (R) or the (D) next to the name is often king, the impact of a bloody primary can be muted. Actually, there are even circumstances where a bloody primary can be helpful, by "battle hardening" the winning candidate and allowing them to get some PR and some name recognition.

However, there are also some serious potential downsides to a rough primary. Skeletons could emerge from a candidate's closet. They could be forced to adopt positions that will please the primary voters, but that will come back to haunt them in the general election. They could burn through most of their money. There's also a significant risk that the losing candidate's supporters will be angry and will stay home or will vote third party on Election Day.

For these reasons, different studies have reached different conclusions, largely depending on which elections they examined, and which factors they considered. However, there was a particularly notable study conducted a few years ago by political scientists Alexander Fouirnaies (U. of Chicago) and Andrew Hall (Stanford). They focused on the most extreme primary situation, namely those close enough to go to a runoff. Not only does that extend the infighting, but it also usually means that the candidates have to go way over the top with their rhetoric as they try to win over the base (e.g. "I'm the Trumpiest!" "No, I am!"). In primaries that went to runoffs, Fouirnaies and Hall found that it cost candidates 6-9 points in the general election, on average, and that it made them 21% more likely to lose, on average. So, while it's not inevitable, and doesn't happen in every race, a brutal primary absolutely can do a lot of damage, and often does, particularly if it's very close.

Q: Your site and others have referred to elections which don't distinguish party affiliation and just throw all candidates into the mix as "jungle" elections. What's the origin of this particular affectation? L.V.A., Idaho Falls, ID

A: As with many word origins, there isn't much information available. The term first appeared in the pages of newspapers, and entered wide use in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Beyond that, there is nothing specific about who came up with it, what they were thinking, etc. That usually means that several different folks came up with the term independently.

The basic logic of the term—a large, no-holds-barred competition for survival—is plain enough. And actually, whether those folks knew it or not, they chose a particularly apt metaphor. In some biomes, there are very few viable strategies for long-term survival. If the terrain is freezing cold, for example, then the native species better evolve a layer of fat and an ability to go long periods without food. That's about the only option, and is why the polar regions have very few native species. On the other hand, in a jungle, water, food, and energy are abundant. There are many, many possible survival strategies, and only the species with the most effective ones will prosper. It's nature's purest example of survival of the fittest. And a jungle primary is politics' finest example.

Q: If the president dies and the vice president is abroad, who administers the oath of office to the new president? J.L., Baltimore, MD

A: The U.S. Code specifies a fairly long list of people who can administer federal oaths, from judges and members of Congress to notaries public. On the other hand, the portion of the Constitution that speaks to the presidential oath says nothing about who can and cannot administer it. And, of course, the Constitution supersedes the U.S. Code, especially since it could very easily be argued that limiting the list of oath administrators amounts to creating a new qualification for office.

Legally speaking, then, anyone should be able to administer the oath. However, the optics are much better if the person administering the oath is among the people specified by the U.S. code. And so, every president but one has had the oath administered by a judge, even if they had to work hard to scrounge one up. The judges included 15 chief justices, one associate justice, four federal judges, and two New York State judges. The only exception to the rule, thus far, is Calvin Coolidge. When Warren Harding died suddenly, a judge could not be found, and so Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a notary public.

If the VP is abroad when the president dies, then, they would try very hard to quickly find an American judge or, failing that, some other American entitled to administer oaths under the terms of the U.S. Code. It is likely that the vice presidential traveling party includes at least one such person on most occasions. Failing that, the VP would presumably get a judge on the phone, take the oath that way, and then do it again with the chief justice upon returning to the U.S. After all, nothing in the Constitution or the U.S. Code says the administrator has to be in the same room (or the same country) as the president. If all other options failed, then the newly elevated president would just have any person administer the oath—which again, is certainly legal—and then would do the ceremony again with the chief justice upon returning to the U.S.

Q: Along the same lines as the time travel question you've been running answers to: Which historical figure or figures would be the most fun at a dinner party? Ground rules: (1) only one historical guest per dinner party. The fun can't come from two historical guests interacting; no Winston Churchill plus Adolf Hitler combos; (2) the fun must not be at the expense of the historical figure and (3) we can assume that every guest would have food and drink to their taste.

As an opening suggestion, how about Richard Feynman and Benjamin Franklin as good choices?
M.C. in Reno, NV

A: The initial question was about meeting people in search of historical insight. Here, then, we are shifting the emphasis to personality, and entertainment value, and stimulating conversation. As with the previous list, we assume that language barriers are, in some way, negated. And with all of that said, here's our Top 10, with brief explanations:

  1. Eleanor Roosevelt: She was brilliant, and empathetic, and funny, and didn't give a damn what people thought, so her dinner conversation would surely be crackling, and would include plenty of unvarnished truth.

  2. Joseph McCarthy: We wouldn't actually stay for dinner; we just want the opportunity to punch the jerk in the face.

  3. Gautama Buddha: D.E. in Lancaster might not like this pick, but the Buddha was reportedly very calming, and would have fascinating things to say.

  4. Mark Twain: The great American author? Maybe. And certainly a great mind and a great wit who kept current on subjects ranging from politics to consumer trends to history to astronomy.

  5. Marie Curie: She's got a strong case as the most brilliant scientist of all time. It would surely be fascinating to hear her explain her work. While Einstein also has a case, he's too much of a cliché to pick. Sir Isaac Newton also has a case, but he'd probably waste a bunch of time talking about alchemy.

  6. Lenny Bruce: Maybe he was only "on" when he was onstage. But we don't think so. And one can only imagine where the conversation might go with him at the table.

  7. Leonardo da Vinci: Moving on from one Lenny to the next, da Vinci is history's best-known polymath. Presumably he could maintain his end of the conversation on a huge array of topics.

  8. Rosa Parks: This is possibly cheating, because (Z) did once meet her briefly when she visited UCLA. However, the opportunity to have dinner with her, and to hear her stories firsthand? Wow.

  9. Abraham Lincoln: He's pretty much going to make any list like this that we put together. Beyond his apparently magnetic personality, he was a world-class raconteur and joke teller. Maybe there could even be an impromptu wrestling match after dinner.

  10. Oscar Wilde: We like a bit of snark, obviously, and he was a snark legend, as well as being the archetype for "interesting dinner guest."

That's our list! If readers want to send in a person or two they would select, along with an explanation, we'll run some of those tomorrow, and possibly more next week if there are a lot of them.

Q: The Declaration of Independence cited the King of England as the root cause for so many reasons to declare independence. But wasn't the power in England really mostly held by Parliament? Didn't Parliament and the Chancellor of the Exchequer create the hated taxes and laws (I know they had many complaints like impressment, Proclamation Line, etc)? Why so much blame towards the king?

Also, this is a judgment, were their complaints overblown? Were they actually taxed "to death"?
R.B., Minneapolis, MN

A: They were not taxed to death, nor did they particularly feel that way. Their complaint was not the taxes, per se, it was that they had no role in deciding on them because they were not allowed representation in Parliament. This made clear, in turn, that the colonists were regarded as an inferior class, and were not fully Englishmen (and women), with all the rights and prestige that entailed. And while taxation was the first issue that got them upset about their status as pseudo-Englishmen (and women), they quickly took notice of a whole bunch of others. Notice that in the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence, taxation doesn't appear until the seventeenth item.

As to the first portion of your question, the U.K. evolved from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy over the course of more than 200 years, and there were ebbs and flows in royal power during that time. Parliament probably held the upper hand in 1776, but the king still had plenty of power. More important, however, is that one person works a lot better than a bunch of people for purposes of propaganda/rallying the resistance. It's also true today; Joe Biden and congressional Democrats (as a group) probably have a near-equal share of power right now, but Biden gets 80% of Republicans' slings and arrows.

Q: Sincere question: Is there any indisputable evidence that Sen. Edmund G. Ross was bribed into voting for acquittal of Andrew Johnson, or is that rumor just based on speculation, hearsay, and conjecture?

Insincere question: Is there any indisputable evidence that John F. Kennedy ever read Profiles in Courage, or is that rumor just based on speculation, hearsay, and conjecture?
M.Y., San Jose, CA

A: We are going to answer the insincere question first, so it's clear why it makes sense here. Ross was one of the eight people profiled in the book, and was held out as American history's foremost example of putting principle above politics. That was probably...generous. Anyhow, Ted Sorensen clearly did most of the heavy lifting with that book, but Kennedy was certainly involved in establishing the tone and framework for the book, in editing, and in helping to write some chapters. There was nothing unethical about the production process which, in fact, is not all that different from how this site is produced. The ethical issues arose when Kennedy gave Sorensen no credit on the cover of the book, and accepted a Pulitzer for the book without mentioning Sorensen.

As to Ross, there is a fair bit of evidence, though it's circumstantial. He regularly consorted with a wealthy friend who had no problem paying bribes, including the bribe that landed Ross his Senate seat. Further, Ross dithered on his impeachment vote, and finally settled on "acquit" at the last minute, not long after having breakfast with that same friend. After Andrew Johnson was cleared, he appointed that friend to a prominent and lucrative government post. So, the supposition is that there was, in effect, an indirect bribe. Or, if you like, a three-cornered bribe. The friend (whose name was Perry Fuller) gave money to Ross, Ross gave his vote to Johnson, and Johnson gave the government job to Fuller. The House of Representatives investigated this, and found no evidence of the quid pro quo. However, since transactions back then were all cash-based, there really wouldn't have been any evidence unless someone spilled the beans.

That said, one should not conclude that, but for a bribe, Johnson would have been removed from office. A number of senators who voted to convict disliked Johnson, but really hated Sen. Benjamin Wade (R-OH), who was next in the line of succession under the rules of that era. It is generally understood that at least two of the "convict" senators would have switched their votes if that had been necessary to keep Wade from becoming president. In particular, Sen. Henry Wilson (R-MA), who cast his vote second-to-last by virtue of his late-in-the-alphabet last name, only cast "convict" votes because he knew for certain that Johnson would be acquitted.

Q: You wrote that the fighting in the Korean War ended "with the border between North and South Korea at nearly the same place it had been before the war. Sounds like a waste of time in hindsight." How is it a waste of time if a war to defend a country results in the borders of that country remaining unchanged? That's kind of like criticizing a football defense for stopping the opposing offense at the line of scrimmage because they didn't get a pick-six. J.K., Bergen, Norway

A: Well, in his speech to the Third Army, George Patton—who presumably had some sense of midcentury American values—declared:

Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.

A tie, or a stalemate, is not a win. That said, the point we were really trying to make is that people rarely look backward and see the sense in expending years, and billions of dollars, and thousands of American lives merely in order to preserve the status quo. That may have been a worthy goal at the time, but it does not tend to translate. And so, it is exceedingly unlikely that future generations will think well of the War in Afghanistan.

Q: I'm enjoying the concept of having existed in previous eras and I'm also fascinated by the continued use of our former President's last name as an adjective (Trumpy, Trumpist).

Have there been other politicians throughout American history that had such power over their party that they would have been similarly referenced?
M.M., Newbury Park, CA

A: Pretty much every popular president inspired a generation (or more) of successors who claimed to be wearing their mantle/carrying on their legacy. In most cases, however, this does not parallel the Trump situation because the popular president died in office (or soon thereafter). So, the wannabe Washingtons and Lincolns and FDRs didn't have to worry about kissing up, because the president they claimed to emulate was dead. We've never heard of anyone who labeled themselves Washingtonist or a Lincolnian or a Rooseveltite.

We can, however, think of a couple of pretty good answers to your question. The second-best answer is Ronald Reagan, who was wildly popular with the GOP base, and who lived for 15 years after leaving office. He didn't take much of a direct role in politics, in part because of his health/memory problems, but we're now into our second or third generation of Republicans claiming to be reincarnations of him. That despite the fact that often there isn't much overlap between their policy positions and his (except low taxes and pro-military). Anyhow, following in his footsteps was important enough that there is indeed an adjectival form of his name, namely "Reaganite."

And then, there is the hands-down best answer, which is Andrew Jackson. He was an ex-president for about 8 years, and in that time (during which he remained politically active), nearly all national politicians defined themselves in relation to him. "Democrat" and "Jacksonian" were interchangeable for many years, and at least 8 or 9 Democratic presidential candidates made him as big a part of their résumé as possible—they served in his administration, or they came from the same state as he did, or they were "Young Hickory," etc. Meanwhile, until the Whigs settled on that name, they were known as the anti-Jacksonians.

Q: Have any First Ladies of the U.S. had advanced degrees, other than Michelle Obama (J.D.) and Dr. Jill Biden (Ed.D.)? R.H., Santa Ana, CA

A: We suspect you are going to kick yourself when we point out that you neglected to include...Hillary Clinton, who also has a J.D. In addition, Laura Bush earned a Master's degree in library science. That means that four of the last five first ladies had a postgraduate education. The fifth, by contrast, spent less than a year as an undergraduate and then threw in the towel.

Before this four-out-of-five run, there was no first lady who had a postgraduate degree. It is true that there are a small number of 19th century first ladies about which relatively little is known, but it's exceedingly implausible that Martha Jefferson or Nell Arthur happened to pick up a J.D. or a Ph.D. while bearing and raising a family, and before dying at a young age (33 and 42, respectively).

You didn't ask, but while we are at it, we'll tell you that the first first lady to have an undergraduate degree was Lucy Hayes.

Q: Did Louis Tussaud change his mind midstream, after first attempting to capture the likeness of Margaret Thatcher? D.L., Houston, TX

A: Well, he died in 1938, so he was not directly involved in producing the exceedingly awful wax figure of Donald Trump that we mentioned yesterday. You're right, though, that it looks like the love child of Thatcher and Trump. Or, alternatively, the love child of John Tesh and Trump.

In any event, the Louis Tussaud chain long ago embraced the camp, and no longer tries to produce anything close to an actual likeness of the person being portrayed.

Q: (Z) speaks the vocabulary of evangelical Christianity too correctly to be coming from anywhere but inside it. I've concluded that you must have been part of it at some point in your life. Did you grow up there? G.W., Dayton, OH

A: Sort of. (Z) was never an adherent, but did have a not-so-nice stepmother for 5 years or so who tried very hard to impose it on him. That got particularly intense when her parents were due for a visit, since she wanted to show off how she was helping raise a bunch of good, fanatical Christian evangelicals. An Easter break "Celebrate Jesus" youth camp from 1986 still looms large in his memory. And his nightmares. It was barely recognizable as religion, but was entirely recognizable as brainwashing, even to a 12-year-old.

For what it is worth, (Z) has also taught history of religions.

Q: Your answer about how much you know, and how much you need to look up when answering questions, led me to an obvious question. Have either of you been on "Jeopardy!"? If no, why not? It seems you would do well and (Z)'s SAT scores reinforces that. (Z) already lives in L.A., where it tapes. S.S., West Hollywood, CA

A: This is not so practical for (V), residing in the Netherlands, since "Jeopardy!" does not pay travel expenses for regular contestants (just for special tournament contestants), and since they tend to give only a few weeks' warning when calling someone to be on the show.

(Z) has passed the "Jeopardy!" test several times (you can take it once every 18 months), and was invited to audition once, but did not make the cut. It's very hard, in general, to get on the show, and most folks who ultimately make it end up auditioning in several different years before they do (for example, James Holzhauer, who is now among the most famous of "Jeopardy!" contestants, auditioned six times in total). (Z) has an additional issue in that when he was quite young he had to see a speech therapist because his thoughts outpaced his speaking so much that it resulted in, in effect, a stutter. And she pretty much programmed him to close his eyes whenever thinking particularly hard, so as to maintain focus. It worked, apparently, since no more stutter, but it's not a great look for TV, and it's essentially an impossible habit to break.

Incidentally, "Jeopardy!" is not exactly what it appears to be. As Claire McNear observes in her excellent book Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!, anyone who makes it on the show is pretty much the smartest person in their social circle, and is capable of answering some huge percentage of the questions asked (at least 80%, and usually 90% or 95%). The show doesn't want a bunch of wrong answers or, even worse, a bunch of non-answers. That's bad TV. And so, while being really good at trivia is helpful, that basically just gets you in the door, along with a bunch of other people who are really good at trivia. The most important factor in separating winners from losers is actually buzzer play: If you're too quick, you get locked out, and if you're too slow, one of the other players beats you to the punch. It's significant enough that former "Jeopardy!" champion Fritz Holznagel penned a whole book on buzzer strategy, entitled Secrets of the Buzzer: A Manifesto on Buzzer Speed for Quiz and Game Show Contestants.

Q: In discussing spiking COVID-19 rates in certain areas you wrote that "You did not need [your] crystal ball to predict that..." Your crystal ball!? Your crystal ball is always moody and unavailable. Just when does it actually do anything other than give people dirty looks? S.B., Los Angeles, CA

A: Never. And yet, it still does more than the damn staff mathematician.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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