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Saturday Q&A

Lots of interest in the possibilities for a Donald Trump prison sentence. Wonder why?

Current Events

L.S., Black Mountain, NC, asks: There's something that puzzles me about the brouhaha over The Former Guy destroying/taking government documents that should be preserved under the Presidential Records Act. Granted, his actions violate the law and should be condemned and prosecuted—but surely they do not mean those documents are actually destroyed. Those individual sheets (and stacks) of paper are not the only form in which the documents exist, since these days everything (except handwritten personal notes) is produced on a computer and saved on a server somewhere. So for the committees and prosecutors, and for the archivists, the documents are not actually "destroyed" and unretrievable. Am I misunderstanding something here?

V & Z answer: First of all, a general note and reminder. In the questions on Saturdays and in the letters on Sundays, we generally try to let readers' authorial voice stand, and we only edit for grammar, clarity, and matching the site's style guide. That is why two questions in a row speak of "The Former Guy."

As to the question, you dismiss handwritten notes too quickly, we think. Those are often very important evidence, either for historical or criminal purposes, as to what the person knew and thought in the moment. In addition, there are some documents that may exist in infinitely reproducible form, but the White House/presidential copy is the only one that is accessible to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Think, for example, of a letter from Kim Jong-Un, or a proposal from Vladimir Putin. Finally, if the White House decides that some document is really problematic, the staff certainly could try to find and destroy all versions of that document. Think, for example, of Donald Trump's phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, or the "smoking gun" Watergate tape.

J.F. in Ft. Worth, TX, asks: Why did TFG seemingly give up 15 boxes of records to NARA without putting up a legal fight? This greatly surprises me, as he tends not to give up anything without a vigorous legal battle, even if it's destined for failure.

V & Z answer: Apparently, there actually was a fair bit of resistance and friction, until NARA threatened to go to Congress and the Department of Justice.

Reading between the lines, our guess is that Donald Trump's instinct was to fight, because that is what he does, and that someone in his orbit spoke to him and pointed out that: (1) he was certain to lose this fight, and (2) refusing to release the records would make it look like he has something he's trying to hide. So now Trump is aggressively spinning this to emphasize how cooperative he was, and how happy he was to straighten this whole misunderstanding out.

It is also the case that if Trump was using this as subterfuge to sneak documents out of the White House so he could hide/destroy them, then he's had plenty of time to accomplish that particular mission.

M.W. in Northbrook, IL, asks: I appreciate the national archives item from Thursday. What do you think the chances that like Al Capone and tax evasion, this become the offense that brings Donald Trump down? It seems pretty cut and dried and he clearly "knew" he was breaking the law if you go back and listen to his comments about Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) ripping up a copy of his State of the Union speech.

V & Z answer: Before we answer, we must reiterate that prosecutions like these take a lot of time. Proper investigations take a lot of time to execute, and once a case is ready to go, the courts' dockets are very full. Further, defendants tend to be pretty good at dragging things out. To take three semi-recent examples, it took about 3 years from "first public revelations of wrongdoing" to "conviction" for H.R. Haldeman (1972-75), Oliver North (1986-89), and "Scooter Libby" (2004-07). And those folks were not president of the United States, nor did they have an army of supporters who are potentially willing to riot.

Anyhow, we would guess, first of all, that the various folks who are pursuing Trump are not eager to be the first to file charges, given the security and other risks that will come with that. However, once the seal is broken, as it were, it would not surprise us to see several DAs/U.S. Attorneys file in short order. Also, we suspect that nobody is particularly eager to start off with a somewhat technical crime, like mishandling of documents. However, obvious guilt on those issues might well be used to pressure Trump or his underlings to cop a plea deal.

J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: Following up on the question from P.N. in Wilmington about taking Donald Trump into custody under state and/or federal charges: Suppose the former president is indicted, arrest warrants are issued, and, of course, the news is splashed everywhere, giving him time to summon his supporters. ("Come on down to Mar-a-Lago! It'll be wild!") Then hundreds or even thousands of his craziest, most "Ammon Bundy-ish" supporters show up heavily armed and block access to the place. Who do you suppose handles that situation and how?

V & Z answer: This is very, very unlikely. First of all, the government is very good at timing these things, specifically so as to avoid defendants who might flee or otherwise resist arrest. Second, we've seen little evidence that Trump and his supporters have the fortitude for something like this, which would not only entail an armed standoff with the mighty federal government, but also taking Trump's U.S.S.S. detail as hostages. Recall that even when the supporters of Trump turned to violence on 1/6, many of them were not armed, those who were largely did not utilize their weapons, and the then-president was nowhere to be found. This is not what it looks like when a person and their movement are willing to do "whatever it takes."

That said, if we assume that events unfold in the way you describe, then we'd be looking at a situation fairly similar to what happened in Waco, TX, in 1993. In that case, the Branch Davidians were besieged (and ultimately fired upon) by an amalgamation of FBI and ATF agents, backed by national guard troops, state troopers, and some U.S. military. Presumably it would be much the same should there be a need to subdue the Branch Donaldians.

S.T. in Glen Rock, NJ, asks: Overall it appears the Biden administration runs a tight ship staffed with competent people. A key principle in any organization is succession planning. Further it would be obvious, given history, that one very likely succession planning event that will happen at some time in your presidency would be that a Justice of the Supreme Court would retire or otherwise pass this mortal coil. Of course, you may not know who or when but that is why you plan ahead of time. So when the event happens, it would seem the administration should have a very good idea of whom it will nominate. Now maybe you wait a few days to celebrate the departure and arrange logistics after the retirement announcement but it seems if there is a "name in the hat," why not announce it in a few days and get on with it? The longer it takes the longer it looks like you don't know what you're doing, while giving time for different factions to emerge you wrote about this week.

Joe Biden will have to pick someone, there is probably no one to make everyone happy, so why not just get on with it sooner rather than later.

V & Z answer: There was a time when a seat on the Supreme Court could come open, have a replacement nominated by the president, and have that replacement approved, all in the same week and with time for a three-day weekend.

You can bet every dollar you have that Joe Biden has had a shortlist since the day he was inaugurated, and probably before that. Even a less-well-run administration, including that of Donald Trump, has a shortlist. But, the hyper-polarization of the process is what has dragged things out, such that there are some benefits to pausing a few weeks before making an official nomination. First, for an administration to "take its time" causes the process to appear methodical and deliberative (even if it actually isn't). Second, it affords time to do heavy-duty background checks, and to make sure there are no skeletons in the closet. Undoubtedly, someone like Ketanji Brown Jackson has already been vetted, but this is time to turn the vetting up to 11, and also to catch anything that might have emerged in the last 6 months.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, if the nominees' names are out there, but without being official, then it operates as a trial balloon, and allows the administration to gauge if there are going to be any huge political problems. Back in 2007, because of unusual circumstances (the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor followed by the sudden death of William Rehnquist), and because he thought he had bipartisan support, George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court without letting her be "rumored" or "under consideration" for a few weeks. If he had trial ballooned her, he would have learned that conservatives saw her as insufficiently committed to their views and that liberals saw her as unqualified. He could have spared himself a lot of embarrassment, and from the need to withdraw the nomination.

C.S. in Minneapolis, MN, asks: Would you dust off your crystal ball, please?

Reports and logic suggest that Iran will continue with its apparent goal of becoming a nuclear power. Not coincidentally: (1) Iran will continue to deny Israel's right to exist and (2) Israel will be increasingly uncomfortable with Iran, its posturing and its enrichment progress.

If so, the alternatives seem to be two: (1) Add Iran to the list of those who have nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them across borders, and see how things play out, or (2) stop them via "non-diplomatic means," which might perhaps be Israel's preference.

So, what do you believe are the odds of Israel/Iran war in 2022? 2023?

V & Z answer: Very low. Well less than 1%.

Iran and Israel have been in a cold war for the better part of 40 years. And, pretty much without exception, the reason that nations end up in a cold war is that a hot war would be too costly. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, the costs of a hot war just go up, which makes it even more likely that the cold war keeps going, not less likely.

B.B. in St. Louis, MO, asks: Why are the truckers in the Canadian COVID convoy so upset about mandated vaccine requirements, but not mandated urine drug tests? Or, for that matter, even requirements of only driving while sober? These are all potential public safety issues.

V & Z answer: The distinction that they draw is that drunk driving laws or mandatory rest laws or things like that govern their behavior, which is within the province of the government. By contrast, vaccine mandates decree what a person must do with their physical body. And infringements on bodily autonomy cross a bright, red line.

Note that it's not a great argument. A lot of people who resist the COVID mandates have, in the past, yielded to other vaccine mandates without complaint. There is no substantive difference between a chicken pox vaccine and a COVID vaccine. Further, the people of both the United States and Canada have accepted that, in case of national emergency, the government can conscript people into military service. And if the man can tell you what to do with your entire body (including putting it in extreme danger) in the service of the common good, then they surely can tell you what to do with your arm.

C.R. in St. Louis, MO asks: Sarah Palin's libel case asks the question: Is it time for the 1960s New York Times v. Sullivan decision to be revisited to lower the bar for libel, and to bring the U.S. closer to libel rules in the U.K.? I'd hate to see libel used to stifle real journalism, but modern journalism sometimes consists of parroting twitter fabrications or quoting politicians' retweets of made-up stories. A little dose of consequences for people and publications who spread false and malicious stories could be healthy for a society awash in paranoia parading as news. Then again, we've seen that the rich (ahem... Trump) are able to run out the clock, on efforts in the courts whereas a local newspaper doing actual investigative journalism could be smothered in legal bills.

V & Z answer: Just so everyone is on the same page, Sullivan was the case that was primarily responsible for establishing that the bar for libeling public figures is much higher than the bar for libeling private citizens.

Palin has a pretty weak case here, and it's not because she's a public figure. First, while the original wording of the New York Times editorial she is suing over was a little clumsy, "a little clumsy" does not mean "reckless" or "intentional." Second, Palin has to show damages, and how was she damaged by this? Her political prospects have dried up, as have her TV opportunities. Was she forced to cut her price on Cameo? Palin just desperately wants to be relevant again, and this was clearly an attempt to gain some "own the libs" credibility.

It is true that misinformation spreads more easily these days than was true in the past. But major newspapers and cable outlets rarely say things that are even in the ballpark of defamation, even when they are lying/fearmongering/propagandizing with all their might. If Tucker Carlson lauds the 1/6 insurrectionists as patriots, or says vaccine mandates are straight out of the Adolf Hitler playbook, or decrees that Ukraine belongs to Russia, then those things are problematic, but they're not close to being defamatory. And on those occasions that such outlets do push their luck, e.g. OAN and their willful, malicious rhetoric about Dominion Voting Systems, they get popped.

Most of the really bad stuff—Hillary Clinton is a pedophile-enabler, or Barack Obama isn't actually American, or George Soros is funding a shady cabal of power brokers—circulate on social media, and on fringy websites, and sometimes on fringy media outlets like The Blaze. Changing libel law wouldn't affect things all that much, if at all. First, because it's hard to argue that a person was legitimately damaged by statements made on a known-fringy platform with a limited audience. Second, because many of these platforms are excused from responsibility for their content by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Changing that law might reduce the spread of misinformation, but that's the purview of Congress and not the courts.

Also, note that British libel law, since the passage of the Defamation Act 2013, is actually moving in the direction of American libel law.

D.C in Brentwood, CA, asks: What does the "critical" in critical race theory mean? In the context of criticism, I feel like the negative connotation of the word could be part of the reason it triggers such a strong response from people, but critical could also mean "important" and "necessary."

V & Z answer: In this context, it means something like "analytical," just like a film critic is an analyst of films.

It could well be that the word "critical" is a little off-putting. But we think 99% of the resistance is because of the second word, not the first.


B.C. in Farmingville, NY, asks: I know it is early in the year, but why aren't the Democrats doing more to get out the vote and register new members? Everyone knows that every midterm election is all about turnout. The Republicans always turn out, it seems. But despite my e-mail being on multiple Democratic e-mail lists, I have yet to see an organized get out the vote effort. Do they know this and have just not yet got their act together? Are they perhaps waiting for the COVID-19 cases to go down?

V & Z answer: We would suggest you are assuming facts not in evidence. There isn't a central clearinghouse for voter registration data (each state publishes its own figures on some predetermined schedule), and "some voters were registered" doesn't make for a compelling news story right now. So, there's no reason that even a well-informed person would be aware of successful registration operations at this point in the process. The parties have very detailed information about people on their e-mail and phone lists, and aren't likely to bombard you if you're already registered. So, the absence of such e-mails in your inbox is not instructive.

Stacey Abrams and Michelle Obama, among others, have announced that they are working on voter registration efforts, and there's no reason not to take them at their word. It's also worth noting that they are best served investing most of their resources in the months immediately before the general election in November. Excepting in the few states with jungle-style primaries, it doesn't especially matter how many people vote in the primaries. And if someone is registered now, but then moves in June, that was basically a wasted effort.

E.H. in Ossining, NY, asks: Can you imagine a scenario in which the Democrats lose control of the House this November by a fairly slim margin, then ally with some faction of a splintering GOP to elect a GOP Speaker of the House who is not Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)? I am specifically imagining a scenario in which Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and a handful of GOP "suddenly find their backbone" folks vote along with every Democrat in the House to elect Cheney Speaker. I realize it's a crazy longshot of an idea, but in your opinion, could just the right set of circumstances make it possible?

V & Z answer: Is it possible? Sure. Given the choice between McCarthy and a Republican who is willing to push back against Trumpism, the Democrats would obviously prefer the latter.

However, for the Democrats to agree to this, it would have to be just the right Republican. They don't want to give too much legitimacy to someone with political positions the Party generally finds odious, nor do that want to get slammed by the left wing of the Party for selling out. Meanwhile, any Republicans who got on board with this scheme would become pariahs—targets of resolutions of censure, and attacks from Donald Trump and his acolytes, and the like. They would probably also be ending their careers. So, it wouldn't be easy to find too many takers on that side of the aisle.

M.S. in Kansas City, MO, asks: I was wondering if you think there is a possibility that the Trump/Reproblemcans become so divided that it will cause a split in the voting for the nominee, or if they will come together in service of their agenda and vote for him anyway?

V & Z answer: If Trump does indeed run in 2024, which is no sure thing, then it is very likely that some other Republican will also put themselves forward as an alternative. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) may decide that he can knock off Trump, or maybe Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) will reach that conclusion, or possibly someone will run in the "traditional Republican" lane—a Mike Pence, or a Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

It is improbable that the party will split into roughly equal factions, each backing their own candidate in the general election, as happened with the Democrats in 1860 (Stephen Douglas and John C. Breckinridge) or the Republicans in 1912 (William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt). And if Trump ultimately lands the nomination, we think the Party will suck it up and unify behind him. But if Trump runs and is rejected, it is entirely plausible that he tries to mount a third-party campaign out of spite—something along the lines of what John Anderson did in 1980 (although Anderson wasn't motivated by spite). It would not make much sense, since sore loser laws would likely keep Trump off the ballot in many states. But we could see him doing it nonetheless, just to try to take the GOP candidate down.

M.H. in Boston, MA, asks: It seems to me that your take on "defund the police" has evolved. You (Z) seem to be consistent that it is a problem with the slogans rather than the policy, but you seem to have flipped from avoiding "defund" to embracing it:

Following the Nov 2021 elections, you wrote: "[The Democrats] need to come up with an alternative to defund the police, pronto, since if it's not playing in liberal cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, it's definitely not playing in suburbia."

This week, you wrote: "In our view, the correct thing to do is to own them, and to come up with good answers as to why 'defund the police' [etc.] are not what Republicans/right-wing media say they are, and instead are attempts to address issues X, Y, and Z."

Has your thinking on this changed or am I misreading your comments?

V & Z answer: We would say that it's not our thinking that's changed, it's circumstances. At this point, "defund the police" clearly isn't going away, in part because some Democrats won't allow it to go away, and in part because the right-wing media won't allow it to go away. We'd actually argue the latter force is the more powerful one; consider how quickly Democrats dropped the word "deplorables," and yet the right-wing media is still kvetching about it 6 years later.

In that circumstance, then advice from folks like James Carville to "get rid of the wokeness" is largely impractical and unrealistic, just like "stop talking about abortion" or "nobody wants to hear complaining about the minimum wage." The issue is out there, and while it's not necessary for every officeholder to "embrace" a progressive perspective, they need to figure out how to bend the discussion in their favor.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: In your item about Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and wokeness, you wrote, "but are there really that many people that would be willing to vote Democratic, but for the wokeness, and so are going to vote for Trumpism instead?"

What about people who decide not to vote at all, even though they might be sympathetic to Democratic views, but for the wokeness? I could imagine a low-information voter saying something like "Trump and the Republicans are all crazy potential fascists, the 'woke' Democrats are all crazy social justice warriors, and neither party seems to care about my issues, so who cares about voting anyway?" Although I personally wouldn't agree with that statement, is there evidence that wokeness is turning potential Democratic voters into non-voters?

V & Z answer: Certainly, there are some people like that, though their number would be hard to measure. And if they are low-engagement and low-interest enough that "one party supported insurrection against the government and other depredations against democracy" and "the other party argues about pronouns and wants to talk about racism in classrooms" are all the same, then they're probably not all that available to the Democrats anyhow.

In the end, there's only so much accommodating that a Party can do when it comes to a particular segment of the voting public. And the amount of accommodating available shrinks noticeably when that segment isn't even loyal and reliable. In other words, labor unions can insist on a lot more fealty to their issues and their views than can low-engagement centrists.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: I was surprised that the Liberal Party in Australia is considered the center-right party, just given its name. Is there any rhyme or reason to which names get used by left-leaning and right-leaning political parties around the world?

V & Z answer: Generally, yes. Left-wing parties tend to have names that emphasize their connections to the people (e.g., Democratic Party), or to progress (e.g., La République En Marche!, which means "The Republic On The Move"), or to specific leftist ideologies (e.g., Communist Party), or to a specific leftist constituency (e.g., Labour Party), or to a specific leftist concern, particularly environmentalism (e.g., Green Party).

Right-wing parties tend to have names that emphasize their belief in a strong central government (e.g., Republican Party), or to restraint (e.g., Conservative Party), or to specific rightist ideologies (e.g., Fascist Party), or to a specific rightist constituency (e.g., Religious Zionist Party), or to a specific rightist concern, particularly patriotism/nationalism (e.g., National Rally). The Liberal Party of Australia is using the classical definition of the term "liberal," which has a meaning roughly equivalent to the American term "libertarian."

This is not to say that some political parties' names aren't a little bit (or a lot) of a stretch. Quite a few parties claim to be the "people's" party, even when such a claim is dubious. And the really famous example is the Nazis, or National Socialist German Workers' Party, who stood for—at most—only half the things listed in their party name.


S.G. in Rochester, NY, asks: Since Donald Trump and his acolytes keep going around saying increasingly outlandish, and perhaps incendiary, things on TV and elsewhere, would a judge be within their rights to issue a gag order preventing people from talking about the ongoing litigation? Could this happen? If so, is it not a solution available now because no charges have yet been filed? I can't help but think that this might be a great tool for keeping Trump from instigating more unrest.

V & Z answer: Well, there is no litigation until some sort of criminal or civil suit has been filed. And once one has, judges do indeed impose gag orders, at least sometimes.

Imposition of a gag in the absence of litigation is called prior restraint and, with only a handful of exceptions, the courts have found it to be a violation of the First Amendment. One of those exceptions is "protecting national security," so one could try to argue that some of what Donald Trump and his acolytes say would be covered under that rubric. However, it would be a stretch; that exception is really meant to cover things like gagging people to stop them from leaking state secrets.

S.W. in Orland Park, IL, asks: Very exciting to see two separate mentions of Archivist David Ferriero on the same day. Big archivist energy up in here. With regard to his ability to certify amendments to the Constitution, a quick visit to Wikipedia informed me that we've only had an Archivist of the United States since 1934. Further down the rabbit hole, I noticed that the Constitution accumulated 21 amendments prior to 1934. So the obvious question: Who was certifying amendments prior to the establishment of the National Archives? Who made sure that we were officially no longer handing the vice-presidency over to the runner-up?

V & Z answer: The Secretary of State. For example, here is the proclamation from William Seward declaring that the Thirteenth Amendment was official.

G.S. in New Plymouth, TKI, New Zealand, asks: I honestly thought your references to post-office naming by Congress was a metaphor for general small items they deal with and not for real. But your item this week today made me realize it is really something that Congress actually does. Most sensible democracies delegate this type of operational function out to officials. Why does the U.S. Congress still do these little things? Is there a sane reason to have it in legislation? And has anyone calculated the cost (pay for 538 elected people and staff and legal costs, etc.) for this? What other ridiculously minor stuff is dealt with by law?

V & Z answer: We'll start with your last question. Among other "minor" tasks, Congress also renames things other than post offices (e.g., H.R. 4172, "To name the Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic in Aurora, Colorado, as the Lieutenant Colonel John W. Mosley VA Clinic"). It awards Congressional gold medals (e.g., H.R. 3642 "Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act"). It designates parks, monuments, and other sites (e.g., H.R. 2278 "To designate the September 11th National Memorial Trail Route"). And it commissions studies (e.g., H.R. 3856 "To require the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study on disparities associated with race and ethnicity with respect to certain benefits administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs"). All of these bills were passed in the current session of Congress, by the way.

The primary reason that Congress does these things is that they are opportunities to score a few political points without paying much in the way of costs. "I spearheaded the push to honor Lt. Col. Mosley" might get a politician (in this case Rep. Jason Crow, D-CO) a few votes, and it probably won't cost them any.

D.M. in Granite Bay, CA, asks: I'm taking a crack at the stupid question award here. Given ALL the problems between big states and little states, has anyone ever suggested redrawing state lines, say every 10 years after the census comes out, to make fifty states of nearly equal populations? Would that solve the disproportionate representation problem? People don't seem to mind their local districts changing every now and then (unless, of course, they read your site and are well aware of the gerrymandering crisis).

V & Z answer: We are unaware of anyone who has proposed this, and doubt anyone has done so seriously, since it would be a mess.

To start with, people do not generally identify with their congressional districts. There is no unique AL-02 or CA-33 culture, and nobody is waving IL-13 flags or wearing FL-09 T-shirts. However, many people do have a strong connection to their states, and their identities as citizens of those states. Those folks would not take kindly to rendering those state identities meaningless.

Then there is the problem of governance. If state boundaries were to be redrawn in the manner you suggest, then all of a sudden the new state of MaiHampVerNorthYork would have four state capitols and four governors and four state legislatures. Meanwhile, New York City, which would be roughly entitled to two of each, would have none. How would that work? And what would happen if, say, the western 10 miles of Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles were the responsibility of the West Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the West Los Angeles state police, but the eastern three miles were under the auspices of the East Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the East Los Angeles state police? What if there's a criminal pursuit, or major repairs need to be made? How does responsibility work in that case?

There are also significant economic issues in play. If you drive to Nevada, and enter it via pretty much any major roadway, there are casinos along the border meant to be easily accessible for residents of nearby states. What would happen if those casinos were in Nevada for 10 years, but then all of a sudden were in Utah for the next 10 years, where gambling is illegal? What about businesses that opened up shop based on a certain state's laws about corporations, or labor, or liquor sales, or keeping produce bug-free, and then were promptly moved to a different state?

And as long as we're on the subjects of economics and governance, what about state taxes? Florida, for example, has none. How thrilled would north Floridians be if, overnight, they became residents of Georgia, and suddenly had to start paying taxes? Not very. And, for that matter, whose tax laws would be determinative? Florida's or Georgia's?


K.B. in Manhattan, NY, asks: You wrote: "In fact, in the 120 years before Donald Trump left office, there have only been two [former presidents who have not written autobiographies].""

Are several particularly known for readability and insight into the author? I've heard praise for Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs.

V & Z answer: Grant's memoirs are very good, but they don't cover his presidency. In fact, you wouldn't even necessarily know he was president from reading the book. About 95% of the volume is his military career, and about 95% of that is the Civil War. The book that Grant's autobiography is most commonly compared to is Caesar's Commentaries on the War in Gaul.

As to presidential memoirs, they tend to reflect the personality of the author. Theodore Roosevelt was given to wordy, flowery Victorian prose. Calvin Coolidge was dry. Dwight D. Eisenhower was straightforward and didn't waste words. Bill Clinton would never say something in 50 words when 500 would do. What this means is that if you find a president interesting, and you liked them as a person/leader, you'll probably like their books.

That said, there a few specimens that are generally considered outstanding, and those are the works authored by Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama. It is probably not a coincidence that each of them produced numerous books, and multiple memoirs—practice makes perfect.

C.M. in Winston-Salem, NC, asks: What impact have U.S. tariffs had on inflation?

V & Z answer: It may seem to be logical that, by artificially increasing the cost of goods, tariffs must therefore lead to inflation. However, historical data shows it's just not so in developed economies, including that of the United States.

If you were specifically asking about the Trump tariffs, then the answer is the same. Most of those tariffs were in place by 2019, and all of them by 2020, but the current high rate of inflation did not commence until the latter part of 2021.

S.N. in Santa Clara, CA, asks: If the Confederacy had gained their independence from the Union, how soon do you think at least one state would have seceded from the Confederacy, and which state(s) would have been most likely to do so?

V & Z answer: In answer to your first question, we'll guess 1910 or so. Had the Confederacy succeeded in seceding, it would have had much in common with Mexico—moderate population, economy based almost entirely on agriculture, relatively poor compared to the United States. Mexico had its own challenge to the national government in the 1860s (though it was external; mounted by the French), and then descended into violence and partisan strife in the 1910s. We can't see any specific event that might have precipitated a crisis for the Confederacy, so we'll just assume that it would have followed a similar timeline.

Of course, no Mexican states seceded in the 1910s, and it's probable the Confederacy would have stayed together. But if a state was going to secede, well, there are only two plausible options. Virginia was slowly transitioning from an agricultural to an industrial and service-based economy at the time of the Civil War, and that might have continued, leaving that state out of step with much of the rest of the Confederacy. It's possible that the Old Dominion State might have decided to leave and rejoin the United States, particularly given the opportunities to lay claim to lots and lots of government money (research, hosting government bureaucracies like the DoD, etc.) once the U.S. became a wealthy world power.

The other possibility is Texas, which was on the other side of the Mississippi River from most of the Confederacy, was somewhat different from the other Deep South states in terms of environment and culture, had already been an independent country, and was large enough and wealthy enough to consider making a go of it as an independent country once again.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: You wrote: "The most important events that wrecked the Democrats' credibility on communism were the Yalta Conference of 1945 (and the subsequent establishment of Soviet authority over eastern Europe), the Soviets' first nuclear test in August of 1949, and China's switch to communism in October of 1949". But do Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman deserve the blame for these events? Could they have prevented these events? And why wasn't Dwight D. Eisenhower blamed for the Sputnik crisis and Cuba's switch to communism in the late 1950s?

V & Z answer: That answer was essentially a summary of the first part of (Z)'s lecture on the Cold War. And the very next point, after where the answer cut off, is that FDR couldn't have done much at Yalta unless he was willing to go to war with Joseph Stalin (which he wasn't), and no person—not even the president—can shut down a rival's scientific research, or keep a nation of (at that point) nearly 1 billion people from choosing a new form of government. So no, they could not have prevented these events. But that's politics.

Eisenhower was not damaged (much) by Sputnik or Cuba (or by the 1960 U-2 incident, for that matter) because he was a military hero and a Republican, and was not regarded as "soft on communism." It also did not hurt that Ike's VP, Richard Nixon, was one of the nation's most outspoken cold warriors.


T.F. in Ridgewood, NJ, asks: Why do most of the anchors on CNN and MSNBC pronounce the country known as Qatar as "cutter"? That is definitely not correct. I have seen leaders from Qatar being interviewed, including their emir, and he definitely pronounces it as "Kah-Tar" with the emphasis on the first syllable. Shouldn't his pronunciation be the gold standard? If so, tell that to CNN and MSNBC.

V & Z answer: In both cases, it is native speakers of one language trying to be courteous to native speakers of a different language. "Kah-Tar" is what it sounds like when those letters are spoken using their English-language pronunciations. "Cutter" is fairly close to what the name of the nation sounds like in Arabic, except using the closest available English-language sounds (the hard "kh" in Arabic doesn't exist in English).

In other words, the English speakers are politely trying to honor the Arabic pronunciation, and the Arabic speakers are politely trying to honor the English pronunciation. You see the same thing, for example, with "I-ran" (English pronunciation) and "Ee-rahn" (Persian pronunciation).

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: If Russia was banned from the Olympics for doping, why are they in the Olympics? What changes were actually made so they could compete with a name change? I also heard part of the reason they were banned was that they a hacker group (normally sponsored by Russia) hacked the South Korean Olympics. Is there any truth to that?

V & Z answer: The Russians are being punished solely for doping, and not for hacking.

And the International Olympic Committee tries to balance fairness to the athletes (who may not have been aware of cheating, or who may have been coerced into cheating/remaining silent) with the desire to punish rogue nations. However, this results in "punishments" that are very light, and almost entirely symbolic. So, Russian athletes can't carry/wear their nation's flag, or compete under its proper name (they are officially the Russian Olympic Committee team), or have its national anthem played when they win gold (Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is being played instead). But, the athletes can still participate. Also, Russian officials are not given invitations to the Olympics by the IOC, though they are allowed to be there as guests of the host country (as is the case with Vladimir Putin right now).

A.A. in Kingwood, TX, asks: Why is higher education so expensive in the U.S.? Was college affordable at any point?

V & Z answer: College definitely used to be affordable, particularly at state schools. (Z) knows people who paid their UCLA tuition with a month's worth of work at a part-time job. Even in (Z)'s time, a year's tuition was about $7,000 (about 25 hours/week, all year long, at minimum wage). Now it's $17,000.

Part of the reason that higher education has gotten expensive is the generally easy access to loans. If only 5% of students had $17,000 or $34,000 or $51,000 to spend on tuition for a year, then not many universities would be able to stay in business while charging that much. But now, nearly any student can reach that bar by going into debt.

Loans have also served as something of a drug for politicians. There was a time when politicians of both parties considered it to be enormously valuable to produce lots and lots of college graduates. There is no governor of California who steered more money to the UCs and CSUs than Ronald Reagan, because he believed educated people were needed to win the Cold War. Since the 1970s or so, however, politicians of both parties have often been content to cut the amount of money flowing directly to universities and to students, and to replace it with loans (or loan guarantees). The logic has been that the student should be the one paying their own professional/personal development, not the government.

In addition, the bureaucratic costs of operating universities have skyrocketed. In part, that is because of increased government regulations. Renewing a university's accreditation every 7 years used to be a fairly simple thing; now it's a long and drawn out process handled by a team of full-time professionals. Similarly, there have to be Title XI compliance officers, and folks who help students with disabilities, and folks who liaison with GI Bill recipients, and the like. Further, the bureaucracy always seeks to justify its existence, and one way to do that is to find more things to do. Which, in turn, requires hiring more bureaucrats.

Universities' capital costs have also increased. There was a time when students largely went to the local school (or the semi-local school). Now, they are often highly informed, and highly critical consumers who have to be "wowed" if they are to attend your university. And so, lots of money is spent on landscaping, and architecturally cutting-edge buildings, and shiny new lab equipment, and things like that.

One thing that is not responsible for increased costs is professor salaries. Yes, a tenured full professor is compensated very handsomely (low-to-mid six figures in most cases). However, universities hire fewer tenure-track professors these days, and more non-tenured adjuncts/lecturers to keep costs steady.

M.G. in Chicago, IL asks: You've mentioned the time spent producing the site. I thought that is what grad students were for: helping professors "produce."

V & Z answer: There are some contexts, particularly the sciences, where that is true. But in all cases, it is unethical to benefit from grad student labor without giving credit to them by name (so they can put it on their CV, among other things).

In case of this site, there is no grad student labor. We have a couple of very capable folks who help keep the site running, and one who has helped with the ins-and-outs of HTML and who has written some of the many programs that produce graphs, etc. We have about a dozen very helpful copy editors who read the posts after they go live and send in corrections and suggestions, and a very tireless and accurate volunteer who inputs polling data when we reach that part of the election cycle.

None of these individuals are graduate students and, in any event, none of them does any of the writing for the site. Every word you read on the site is written by one of us (or both of us), unless we explicitly indicate otherwise (for example, we make very clear the identity of question askers and letter writers). We also do our own research, excepting that we sometimes get tips from readers or from one of the folks who helps us with the site.

A.I. in Honolulu, HI, asks: Given that few others would have the needed expertise and willingness to make the significant voluntary commitment that you do, do you have a continuity plan for the site? On a related note, have you ever considered accepting donations to pay research assistants, editors or others to reduce your burdens?

I am sure I am not alone in being amazed at the volume of insight, analysis and humor that the two of you produce every day. I would hate to see either of you burn out or, worse, do harm to your health, careers or personal lives because of the site. Selfishly, I would also hate to see the site go on hiatus or vanish completely if your priorities or capacities change.

V & Z answer: You're very kind! We've actually been bandying about some ideas in these directions, about which we'll say more fairly soon. For now, however, your question gives us an opportunity to ask readers for feedback. It would be helpful to know what readers might like to see added to/changed about the site, either in terms of content ideas, or in terms of functionality. Is there any interest in premium content only for paying subscribers, modeled on on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire? If you have thoughts, please send them in.

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