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Sorry, another late day. Clearly, someone needs a talking to from the HR department. Or a visit to the iron maiden.

Saturday Q&A

Still lots of Ukraine questions, but few enough that we can put them in the Current Events section, and resume normal order..

Current Events

S.Ó.C. in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, asks: I am very confused about the amount of aid being given to Ukraine. We are told that if they are given fighter planes, that is a sign of war and Russia will potentially attack or declare war on those who supplied them, like the U.S. or Poland. But, many countries (including those just mentioned) are openly sending weapons to Ukraine. How is that anything but an overt act of war? I'm not against helping Ukraine, I just don't understand why that line somehow exists?

V & Z answer: The line between bombs/guns/bullets on one side, and planes on the other, certainly isn't a bright, red one. Even the Russians can't claim that. During the Korean War the North Koreans flew MiGs, and during the Vietnam war the North Vietnamese did the same. Where do you think they got them from? It wasn't Santa Claus, we can tell you that.

By all indications, the transfer of planes to Ukraine was going to go forward until E.U. officials started talking a little too openly about it. In the court of world public opinion, it looks like that loose talk moved things just a little too far in the direction of "the U.S. is waging war against Russia." The war's only a month old, and this sort of thing has to be ramped up slowly, something that Franklin D. Roosevelt did with particular skill before the U.S. entered World War II. We wrote last week, and we continue to think, that the U.S. is working on ways to get the planes to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and that he will get them if the war lingers.

It is also very likely that Joe Biden knows things that we do not. He may have been told by, say, Xi Jinping, that transferring planes to Ukraine would be viewed as an act of aggression if done right now.

M.B. in Cleveland, OH, asks: I appreciate your nuanced commentary on the delicate dance that Poland and the U.S. and other nations are engaged in, trying to get MiGs and other weapons to Ukraine.

At the same time, there is a humanitarian crisis in Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other cities, where residents who didn't evacuate are running short of food and clean water. I haven't seen any buzz about the U.S. or other countries attempting to alleviate that by delivering food, water, and medical supplies, something like the Berlin Airlift.

Is there anything happening in that vein that you have heard about? If not, why not? There's always the danger that Russia would shoot down the humanitarian planes, claiming they were delivering military supplies, but it seems like that would be a bridge too far, even for Putin, since the outrage would surely invite an all-on assault on Russian troops in Ukraine, and perhaps even on the military bases in Russia itself that supported the attack.

V & Z answer: The Berlin Airlift involved just one city, and even then it was a massive logistical undertaking, with it taking many months to get the supply chains fully up and running. At the height of the Airlift, there were about 3,000 plane drops every single day, delivering a daily total of 12,000 tons of goods. That is no small feat.

Part of the $13.6 billion that Congress just appropriated is for humanitarian aid, and you can bet that the White House is working on the question of how to deliver that aid. It's possible that American planes will deliver goods directly, although presumably not via air drops. The reason the air drops were necessary was that the Berlin Airport was in the Russian quadrant of Berlin, and so non-Russian planes could not land in the city.

We would guess it is more probable, however, that the Biden administration will deliver the aid through a neutral, third-party intermediary like the Red Cross.

C.G. in Washington, DC, asks: In 1990, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. The U.N. condemned the invasion and authorized military action. Within a matter of weeks, U.S. troops (and others) were on the ground, pushed Iraq out, and restored the country's independence. I am not a historian and do not ask this question facetiously: What is the difference here?

V & Z answer: Russia has a seat on the U.N. security council, and Iraq does not. Russia has nuclear weapons, and Iraq does not. There are other differences, but those are the two that matter.

J.G. in Albany, CA, asks: Why hasn't Ukraine launched any attacks on Russian soil?

I understand they don't have the troops or equipment to muster such an attack, but surely they must have had access to a few missiles capable of striking 20 miles into Russia to hit a military staging target or infrastructure target.

Not that they could win, but a few such attacks could have helped put cracks in Putin's lie that this is just a "special operation" and not a war, and raise the pressure on the Kremlin.

V & Z answer: Only Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his top generals know for sure what their thinking is, but from where we sit, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Ukraine to go on the offensive like this, even a little.

Ukraine is outmanned and outgunned by the Russians. And in a circumstance like that, every soldier, gun, bullet, etc. is precious. If the goal is to undermine the Russian military machine, it's much easier to do that once said machine is actually inside Ukraine, with supply lines stretched thin, very possibly stuck in the mud. The only real purpose to attacking Russia itself would be to undermine Russians' support for the war effort by making them feel "the hard hand of war." This pretty much describes the grand strategy of both sides in the Civil War, incidentally, with Robert E. Lee implementing the approach poorly and William T. Sherman implementing it effectively.

The problem for Ukraine is that undermining support for the war effort means attacking civilians. And that is not going to look good from a PR standpoint, particularly since Ukraine is currently telling the world "We are victims, please help us!" In particular, there's no way they ever get those fighter planes if it looks like they'll be used for offensive rather than defensive purposes.

It's possible that the situation might change, and that offensive strikes against Russia will eventually make strategic sense, but they do not seem to be indicated at the moment, at least to us.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: In your answer to A.L. in Highland Park, you wrote that Russia has deployed almost its entire army to Ukraine. Surely this leaves the rest of Russia uniquely vulnerable? Isn't it unusual and unwise for a military power to leave itself so exposed? I'm not thinking Finland would invade or anything like that, because of the nuclear deterrent. But what if separatists in Chechnya or Abkhazia or Tuva decide that now is the time to secede from the Russian Federation, and lead an armed uprising to achieve it? Is the Russian military completely absorbed with Ukraine, that it will not be able to mount sufficient responses elsewhere?

V & Z answer: You're thinking the same thing we are. Vladimir Putin is clearly counting on nationalist sentiment to restrain any domestic issues that might arise, and on the fear of World War III/nuclear war to keep foreign nations from making a move. But Japan is already making a bit of noise about reclaiming territory they believe to be theirs, the Chinese are always lurking, one or more of the -stans could act up, and if some sort of American-led coalition were to attack, they could be in Moscow in a week. Putin is playing very recklessly right now.

D.R. in Cincinnati, OH, asks: Last night, while watching the news, my 10-year-old pointed out that Russian tanks in Ukraine were flying the flag of the Soviet Union. Do you think this is Vladimir Putin's way of stating his ultimate intentions to restore the Soviet Union, or is it just some lower level commander's idea?

V & Z answer: It's not coming from Putin, or it would be ubiquitous, rather than just the occasional tank. So, it's coming from a few "patriotic" tank commanders.

And the message is not "we're going to re-create the Soviet Union," per se, it's "we're going to re-create the old relationship between Russia and Ukraine" (i.e., Ukraine under Russian control). The rough American equivalent would be the yokels who waved Confederate battle flags while riding into cities that had ongoing Black Lives Matters protests.

R.M in Norwich, CT, asks: Let's say Vladimir Putin has a senior moment and loses the nuclear codes and absolutely can't use his nuclear inventory. Ok, that's not going to happen. But if there was an absolute one hundred percent guarantee that nuclear weapons would never be an option, do you think the governments of NATO members, including the U.S., would be willing to not only enforce a no-fly zone, but to use their arsenal in Europe, including cruise missiles, drones, long-range artillery and aircraft to stop the invasion in its tracks? Knowing enough about the capability of our armed forces, I feel like a combined operation with NATO would clear up the situation in a day and a half before we even put boots on the ground.

V & Z answer: The problem is that the situation in Vietnam in the 1960s seemed like it was going to be so easy, given the United States' superior firepower. And the situation in Iraq in 2001 seemed like it was going to be so easy, given the United States' superior firepower. And the situation in Afghanistan that same year seemed like it was going to be so easy, given the United States' superior firepower.

U.S./NATO armed forces can certainly use force to aid Ukraine, restore order, and boot the Russians out. But if the only thing keeping Ukraine safe thereafter is the ongoing presence of American/NATO peacekeepers, then you've got yet another military commitment without end (i.e., a quagmire), and this one involving a particularly dangerous, nuclear-capable enemy.

Alternatively, the U.S. could almost certainly invade Russia herself and knock Putin out of power. However, this is the exact situation where nukes might actually fly. Plus, it could (and probably would) destabilize Russia, with unknown effects for Europe, Asia, and the world. Also, the person who replaces Putin could be even worse; the U.S. seems to have particularly bad luck with "downgrades" in these situations.

We would not say these things are off the table. But, in a recurring theme across many of today's answers, we must point out that the war is only a month old. Assuming these kinds of risks is not currently justified, and public sentiment is also not prepared for another military commitment, especially since the last one ended less than a year ago.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: Do you think our deep political divisions here at home gave Vladimir Putin encouragement to invade Ukraine? Specifically, I'm thinking about a good percentage of Americans who still don't accept Joe Biden as the legitimately elected president. I'm also referring to the Jan. 6 insurrection in which Putin himself appeared to be sympathetic to the rioters.

V & Z answer: There is a 100% chance Vladimir Putin was carefully monitoring American domestic politics, and that he was influenced by what he saw.

That said, we think you may have missed the most important event in shaping Putin's thinking: the unsuccessful attempt by Donald Trump to extort Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Russian president surely concluded that Ukraine would become another "culture wars" issue, and that many Trumpers would hate and oppose Zelenskyy because he refused to play ball with The Donald. Putin was right about this, though the anti-Zelenskyy sentiment is not as widespread or as impactful as he had hoped.

Reader J.G. in San Diego, CA, has suggested to us that if the Democrats don't make this a major campaign theme, namely that Trump's shenanigans helped cause this war, they are making a big mistake. We are inclined to agree.

L.P. in Chippewa Falls, WI, asks: What would be the cost vs. benefit of doing public service announcements on taking shelter during a nuclear explosion? You know, "Duck and Cover"-type stuff. Politically, what would it do?

V & Z answer: (Z) actually shows "Duck and Cover" in his lecture on the Cold War. And his argument to students is that the film's advice on how to prepare for a nuclear attack was worthless, and that its real purpose was to serve as Cold War propaganda (i.e., "The Russians are scary and dangerous! We must do what we can to stop them!")

The only thing that is different today is that the nukes are more powerful. So, if the goal is to teach children (or adults) to protect themselves by ducking and covering, that's a waste of time. If the goal is to make people frightened and/or angry, by contrast, then that is certainly doable. However, a frightened and angry populace tends to do irrational things, like support a red scare or elect fascist politicians. We presume the Biden Administration would not be stupid enough to open that can of worms.

H.C. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: Who exactly gets to pocket the extra windfall profits now rolling in with the higher gas prices at the pump? I know that gas in the underground storage tanks at the gas station didn't magically become more expensive as the pump prices were raised daily this week as I filled my gas tank. Someone is evidently laughing all the way to the bank on this game. Has the flow of money in that business been documented by scholars of that industry?

V & Z answer: Large corporations in general, and petroleum corporations in particular, are not exactly rushing to open their books to prying, scholarly eyes. That said, the average gas station has about 2 days' worth of gas on hand, which means that any profiteering is going to be very short lived, since they will soon be paying market rates for their next supply. By contrast, the major petroleum producers made a record $174 billion in profit in the first three quarters of 2021, largely by resisting demands to increase production. You can reach your own conclusions about who must be raking it in right now.

G.T. in Truro, MA, asks: I saw PBS' story about the incarceration of WNBA star Brittney Griner and hope you may have some insight. While I have my doubts about the "evidence" the Russians believe they have, I have a broader question about why these stars believe they must play in an authoritarian country to receive adequate compensation for their services. Isn't the WNBA sponsored by the NBA? Why would they agree to allow their players to play in an extremely risky environment to pursue wages they cannot receive in what is considered one of the richest leagues (NBA) in the world?

V & Z answer: Pro sports owners are not known for their generosity. They are management, and as is generally the case with management, their goal is to keep labor costs as low as is possible. That's true in the WNBA, the NBA, MLB, the NFL, the NHL, and every other pro league.

That said, even if the WNBA were to be most generous league in the world, and were to use some NBA money to double or triple their players' salaries, that would still be a relative drop in the bucket. The average WNBA player earns a salary of $130,000, while a top star like Griner can earn $1.5-$2 million playing in Russia. Heck, even if the average WNBA salary was $1.3 million, the players would still play in Russia, since the Russian season lines up with the American offseason, and who doesn't want to double their income with a few more months of work?

It is true that NBA players make far more money. However, the reason that none of them play in other countries in the offseason is that the NBA schedule lasts much longer and involves far more games (81 plus playoffs for the NBA vs. 34 plus playoffs for the WNBA). There's no way an NBA player could play two entirely different seasons, one in the U.S. and one elsewhere, in the same calendar year.


S.B. in Hood River, OR, asks: I have been following Evan McMullin (I) with interest for several years as someone who is trying to reclaim conservatism from the extremists. What do you think his chances are in the Utah Senate race?

V & Z answer: They're not zero; the limited polling of the race so far has him about 5 points behind Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), with 25-20% undecided. So, the math could work out.

The first problem for McMullin, however, is that it's tough to beat an incumbent. The second problem is that he will have to walk a very fine line in an effort to court never Trump Republican votes, but also Democratic votes. And eventually, he will have to say which party he would caucus with, if elected to the Senate. That answer alone will hurt him significantly with one party's voters or the other's.

J.C. in Washington, DC, asks: I'm watching the Ohio Senate race very closely. It could be a game changer in '22 (like many others).

In your humble opinions, which Republican candidates pose both the strongest and weakest candidacies vice the presumptive Democratic nominee in Tim Ryan?

V & Z answer: Where did you get the idea that our opinions are humble? They are never humble. They are the way, the light, and the truth.

Anyhow, we would guess that the strongest Republican candidate is Mike Gibbons. He's generally leading in polling right now, and he's an amateur politician and a businessman. Those are selling points for many Republican voters these days. He seems to be in a position to run a campaign in the style of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA), where he's not too committed to "Trump" or to "never Trump" because he's a somewhat unknown commodity without a track record.

The weakest candidates are Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance. They're both giant phonies and Trumpy poseurs, and their fakeness emanates from their very pores. Mandel has a track record of losing U.S. Senate elections, having done so twice before, and Vance has a track record of saying anti-Trump things that will come back to haunt him, now that he's running as a Trump clone.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: A record number of Democrats are leaving Congress, apparently because they don't want to be on the losing team. I keep wondering if this is giving Democrats who are not afraid of a long fight or who think long-term an opportunity to serve. Do you think there is there a chance that Democrats could end up with a stronger team, long term?

V & Z answer: Sure, the churn keeps both caucuses as strong as they can be, replacing older, more tired blood with younger, more hungry blood. It's not unlike a professional sports team, where veteran players retire and are replaced by young stallions (or young fillies).

That said, it's kind of a lousy job these days, given the partisanship in Washington and the endless fundraising. Things may well be churning a bit faster these days that is optimal for the two caucuses. The 30-year or 40-year House career might be on its way to extinction.

M.H. in Boston, MA, asks: The New York Times notes that Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are having trouble finding a bumper-sticker slogan to focus their midterm message. The article mentions two options, "Build Back Better" and "Democrats Deliver," that have not taken off. Both are related to the failed infrastructure push. My question is, what slogan would you recommend to them?

My suggestion is "Protect Democracy," which pulls together the war in Ukraine and voting rights at home. It implicitly binds together the Republican's support for Russia and their corrupt voter suppression tactics. Depending on a district's lean it could also include protecting the right to choose, gay and transgender rights, etc. It's a little macho (you can picture it covered in American flags) and has "Democrats" right in the name, more or less. But I'm curious to hear what you would suggest.

V & Z answer: Slogans are such a crapshoot. Who could have known that "I Like Ike" would be wildly successful. Or "MAGA," for that matter?

If the Democrats were to ask us for our feedback, we would tell them to call up Shepard Fairey, and to have him create a poster with the slogan "Hope... Again." That would be forward-looking, and yet would also be a callback to the popular Barack Obama. Doing a Biden version of the Obama mugshot would look cheesy and presumptuous, so Fairey would have to find a different angle, we think. Maybe an American flag, or a group of diverse American citizens, or some scenes of American life that reference Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms.

That said, we think your proposal is a pretty good one, too. Do readers have other suggestions?

R.S. in San Mateo, CA, asks: I know that you like "what if" scenarios. After Trump's election win, perhaps to assuage my horror, I tried convincing myself that just maybe he could actually be a transformative and potentially even a great president.

Suppose he had come in as a true outsider/businessman and denounced the corporate patsy politicians and turtles. Suppose he co-opted popular Democratic policies by adding a Republican framing (something that actual Democrats should do, by the way). Green energy because it creates jobs and China is eating our future tech lunch. Social tax credits and healthcare subsidies because it's refunding excessive taxation and making the government work for the people. Compassionate border policies because he's successfully stopped the rapists from coming in. Of course, his reign would still be full of bloviation, braggadocio, and lies. But being the same man, he would still aggressively attack any Republican who dared to oppose him, and keep them in line. The difference is those policies would have broader appeal and support. Might he actually have succeeded in moderating the Republican party, leaving the Democrats with little platform to stand on (and headed for irrelevance), and enjoying record-setting approval? Or was this all nothing but a fantasy?

V & Z answer: We don't think it's a fantasy. Indeed, (Z) spoke to his students the day after the election, when many of them were shell-shocked, and said that no matter how good or how poor a president-elect might seem, you can never really know until they do the job, and that Trump's outsider status might prove to be a real asset.

(Z) also added, however, that there were two essential things that had to happen in order for Trump to have a real chance at a successful presidency:

  1. Get Out of the Way: There are several presidents, notably Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who acted largely like CEOs of USA, Inc., and who set the vision for the country but largely delegated the day-to-day work to competent people who knew what they were doing. Inasmuch as Trump knows almost nothing, and could never possibly be a hands-on president like Theodore Roosevelt or Barack Obama, it was essential that he find good people, delegate to them, and then stay out of their way.

  2. Stop Behaving Like a Petulant Child: There is no way to turn the temper tantrums and public score-settling and grudges into a political asset. In fact, those behaviors serve only to make it impossible to build viable coalitions. LBJ had no issue with punching below the belt, and Dick Nixon was the same way, but they didn't do it in public.

Of course, none of these things happened. Trump was unable to attract quality people, and was unable to leave the people he did attract to their own devices, instead constantly meddling in the affairs of those departments he understood (he left HUD, Energy, etc. alone because he has no idea what they do). Trump also refused to grow up and act like a president, and to this day, he remains a man in his seventies with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old.

J.K. in Silverdale, WA, asks: Regarding the Jan. 6 Select Committee wanting to see John Eastman's e-mails, you have noted that Eastman is claiming that he was Trump's attorney and thus his e-mails are protected by attorney-client privilege." Does anyone know if Trump actually paid Eastman?

V & Z answer: Normally, an attorney drafts a memorandum of understanding, an engagement letter, or a contract that makes clear that he or she is representing a particular client. This has a number of purposes, not the least of which is establishing attorney-client privilege. In the absence of such a memo, payments for legal services would also be evidence of an existing professional relationship.

The fact that Eastman has not mentioned either sort of evidence, given the argument he is making, suggests to us that there was no memo and that there were no payments. However, only Eastman and Trump know for sure.

N.O.D in Chicago, IL, asks: Since TFG is notoriously cheap, when he endorses a candidate, does he or his super PAC donate financial support or does he only offer his recommendation?

V & Z answer: Thus far, it's mostly his recommendation. Despite the millions upon millions he's raised, his America First Action PAC has given $0 to candidates this cycle, while his Save America PAC has given $175,000, spread among 24 different candidates (who got $5,000 each). It is true that Trump's PACs can only give $5,600 to each candidate, at least directly. But he could at least have both PACs donate, and he could also give money to the candidates' PACs (if they have one), or he could give money to the various Republican campaign committees, or he could do direct buys of advertising. He's not doing these things.


S.K. in Ellicott City, MD, asks: I enjoyed reading the short item about the confirmation of Shalanda Young as director of OMB. Within that, you made the statement: "Biden promised Black women that he would put Black women in positions of power and he has absolutely kept that promise." I am old enough to recall that Jimmy Carter made similar campaign promises and he seemed to keep them, especially regarding the federal judiciary. However, I would be curious to see the track records in terms of gender and ethnic diversity appointments for U.S. Presidents for federal officials requiring Senate confirmation. I admit to being more curious about such appointments since Carter (the first to actually state it as a priority), but prior to Carter would be enlightening as well.

V & Z answer: Tracking all of the Senate-approved offices would be prohibitively difficult, even for a scholar who made this their full-time research project. So, hopefully it's OK that we're just going to limit this to cabinet officers. Percentage of cabinet appointments that were non-white, by administration, from Jimmy Carter onward:

President Number
Jimmy Carter 19%
Ronald Reagan 8%
George H.W. Bush 21%
Bill Clinton 43%
George W. Bush 36%
Barack Obama 40%
Donald Trump 20%
Joe Biden (so far) 42%

Percentage of cabinet appointments that were female, from Jimmy Carter onward:

President Number
Jimmy Carter 19%
Ronald Reagan 0%
George H.W. Bush 7%
Bill Clinton 21%
George W. Bush 21%
Barack Obama 27%
Donald Trump 13%
Joe Biden (so far) 35%

Not only was Donald Trump's cabinet the whitest and the most male in recent memory, it was also the oldest in U.S. history.

As to the presidents prior to Carter, there wasn't a whole lot of diversity in their cabinets. The first Black cabinet member was Robert C. Weaver, tapped by Lyndon Johnson, while William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. served in the Ford administration, and that was it prior to the Peanut Farmer. The first Latino wasn't until Lauro Cavazos was appointed by Reagan, and the first Asian was Elaine Chao, appointed by George W. Bush (Patricia Hatsue Saiki served as Administrator of the Small Business Administration under George H.W. Bush, but it was not a cabinet position at that time). As to women, there was only one to serve in a cabinet position before Carter, and that was Frances Perkins, who served under both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

J.G. in Fremont, CA, asks: If the Republicans gain control of Congress next year, what are the odds that they refuse to let Biden do his State of the Union, or do something crazy like impeach him?

V & Z answer: They might well impeach him, if they are convinced that their voters demand it. However, as the Clinton impeachment shows, a just-for-political-grandstanding impeachment can blow up in the face of the party that tries it. So, the Republicans will have to think long and hard about it.

As to blocking the SOTU, that's not going to happen. As both a president and as a former senator, Joe Biden has the privilege of the floor in the Senate. So, even if Republicans tried to block him from speaking in the House chamber, which would look childish and petulant, he would just toddle over to the Senate chamber and speak from there. Wouldn't make a bit of difference on TV, and would look really bad for the Republican members of Congress.

J.D. in Chesapeake, VA, asks: My question surrounds how the court chooses which case to take. I know at least four justices must agree. However, with what I guess are the thousands of petitions they get each year, and assuming many are hundreds of pages long, there is no way they can read everything. Does it fall onto the law clerks to do a one page summary or some other streamlined review of the case before deciding?

V & Z answer: Yes, the Court gets about 7,500 petitions per term. Those are divided up among the nine justices, and then, with only rare exceptions, each justice's 800 or so petitions are divided among their 3-4 clerks. The clerks write up a summary of the petition along with a recommendation as to whether it should be granted (while keeping in mind that only 1-2% actually are granted, so the bar is very high). The justice reviews these memos, and generally shares them with their eight colleagues. The actual vote to accept or reject is generally taken at one of the justices' two regular weekly meetings.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: Can you explain the history behind the term "first-past-the-post" when it comes to voting? Why does this describe plurality-plus-one-vote-winner elections, instead of something else?

I gather that the phrase is a reference to horse racing... but what is the metaphorical "post" in the context of this type of election?

It seems like "first-past-the-post" would make more sense when there is a predefined victory threshold. For example, most ranked-choice systems.

Am I missing something? Where is the "Post"?

V & Z answer: You're right, it does come from horse racing. And in horse racing it means "the winner, and the only winner." And that's what the reference meant (and means); not that there's a hypothetical post, only that there's just one winner.

Who is to blame for this affront to English-language idiom? We would like to say the Canadians, but it's not them. It's actually the Aussies. The term first emerged there, and its first-known usage (for purposes of referring to an election) was on January, 29, 1913 in The Melbourne Herald:

"I like the system of electing the first man past the post, regardless of majorities or minorities," declared Mr. King O'Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, this afternoon, when references by the Premier of Victoria, Mr. Watt, to the Tasmanian and Victorian electoral systems were brought under his notice. "These systems that strive after perfection," added the Minister, "end in imperfection. I like the Federal system. Like Mr. Watt, however, I have always been strong for elective Ministries."

In case it holds your interest, King O'Malley was essentially the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) of early 20th century Australia.


D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: From time to time, I drop in on Real Clear Politics. There, I read an item by Carl Cannon where he maintains that the George Washington story about the cherry tree is not apocryphal, and also that it has broader implications with impacts reaching to Abraham Lincoln. As a historian, what say you?

V & Z answer: Anything Carl Cannon writes should be regarded warily. He's pretty partisan, and doesn't mind bending and twisting a bit to make things serve his narrative. Even within this piece there's an obvious distortion; Cannon writes: "I believe the tale, as originally related, is true. The peerless historian Garry Wills agrees with me..." But when Cannon quotes Wills later in the piece, it's clear that Wills agrees that the message of the story has been misunderstood. Nowhere does Wills say it's true.

(Z) does not object to Cannon's and Wills' argument that the real lesson of the story isn't the importance of honesty, it's being a tolerant parent. Similarly, Lincoln most certainly did read that story many times, and he certainly was influenced by it, though there's no way to know which interpretation he embraced. He probably embraced both, since he was a notably honest man and a notably tolerant parent.

However, there is simply no reason to believe the story is actually true. Weems did not identify his source, and no source for the claim (other than Weems) has ever been found. Weems lived in a time when it was apropos to embellish "factual" works in service of a point, essentially turning civic heroes into Biblical figures. There are other stories in Weems' books about Washington that are most certainly made up. And the cherry tree story didn't show up until the fifth edition of The Life of Washington came out in 1805. Sure, it's at least possible that Weems didn't talk to his alleged source until 1803 or 1804, but that source would have to have been closing in on 90 years old at that time, if they had memories of Washington as a child. That's awfully old in the early nineteenth century, roughly the equivalent of 102 years old today.

R.K.P. in Chicago, IL, asks: Decades ago, I read Andrew Jackson's biography and afterwards remember thinking, "Jackson hated Native Americans just as much as he hated the National Bank." The bank appears to be one of the big issues of the early 1800's. Now I'm reading Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen. It starts out with John Tyler, who, though elected on the Whig ticket, definitely had Jacksonian Democratic sympathies and opposed the bank as well. My question is: Was the National Bank ever re-established? I assume so, but many presidents around this time period were Democratic.

V & Z answer: There was no central bank for about 30 years after Jackson killed the Second Bank of the U.S. Then, for about 40 years, the U.S. government used a collection of several thousand privately-owned banks that were given status as "national banks," and were given certain privileges, like the right to print money and to hold government deposits. In 1913, this system was replaced by the Federal Reserve Bank, which is very similar to what the Bank of the U.S. once was.

H.S.W. in Ardmore, PA, asks: Most of the coverage of the Pennsylvania Senate race, including yours, understandably focuses on the high-profile Democratic candidates (Lt. Gov. Fetterman and Rep. Conor Lamb) and the equally high-profile Republican carpetbaggers like Dr. Oz. Recently, my neighbor hosted a meet-and-greet for State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), who is also a candidate for the Democratic nomination.

I knew nothing about Rep. Kenyatta but decided to stop by the gathering. I found him to be a very impressive and charismatic speaker so I decided to learn a bit more about him. His Wikipedia entry states: "During college, Kenyatta was also an avid poet and performer. In 2008, with the help of theater professor Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, he founded the award-winning poetry collective Babel, which has twice won the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational."

This got me wondering: How many actual poets have served in the U.S. Senate? I did some cursory googling, but the only names I came up with were Sen. Eugene McCarthy (DFL-Minnesota) and maybe Larry Pressler (R-South Dakota). Are you aware of others?

V & Z answer: Poetry-writing seems to be more of a presidential vocation. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were/are poets of various levels of stature.

As to U.S. Senators (beyond the ones who also became president), that's much tougher since they might well have kept their hobby to themselves. We know that James Phelan of California, while also a mega-racist, wrote some poetry during his term of service in the early 20th century. Among current members, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is a fan and has dabbled in poetry a bit, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is fairly well known for his verse, including a poem about COVID-19.

Do readers know any others?


M.B. in Granby, MA, asks: I was surprised when you referred to Noam Chomsky as "probably America's most important living public intellectual." It's an oft-repeated phrase, which makes me skeptical. In spite of agreeing with much of his ideology, I have some doubts about the quality of Chomsky's intellect.

Last year, I listened to an Ezra Klein podcast with Chomsky and found Chomsky's reasoning specious. Describing the federal government's 2009 bailout of the auto industry, Chomsky said, that the federal government had a "choice" in how to respond. Instead of giving money to the automobile companies, "There was another choice. Turn the auto industry over to the work force, and the stakeholders, the community. Let them have control. Let them think through what they ought to do. Maybe they'll decide on the sensible thing."

Chomsky uses the word "choice" several times in his answer, but the politics, not to mention the legalities and economics of the situation militated against this "sensible thing." His use of language obscures the material reality of the moment. Like anyone else, Chomsky's allowed to misspeak, but I don't think that was the case here.

And I so wonder, is Chomsky really an important public intellectual? If so, how?

V & Z answer: For the last 50 years of her life, Rosa Parks was one of the United States' most important living historical figures. She didn't do all that much to justify that distinction during that time, but she didn't need to, because she'd done everything necessary to justify it on December 1, 1955.

Similarly, Chomsky made crucial contributions to linguistics over the course of his career, and he also spoke truth to power in a manner that people of his stature largely did not do in the 1950s and 1960s. He thus had a significant impact on public discourse. This is why he's America's most important living public intellectual.

He's now in his nineties, of course, and a person rarely maintains their "A" game into their 10th decade on the planet. Further, he's been NOAM CHOMSKY for so long that he's basically just playing a character, whether or not he is consciously aware of it. So, he hasn't said anything particularly new or profound in a pretty long time, and on just about any issue, you can easily predict what his opinion is. Still, that doesn't take away from the important contributions he made in the past. And most public intellectuals eventually reach this stage; what we've written here is also basically true of Cornel West, Paul Krugman, and Niall Ferguson, among others. Better that than the public intellectuals who go off the deep end, like Alan Dershowitz has.

D.S. in Palo Alto, CA, asks: Your answer to the "-crats" question raises another: What's a "polity?" I can guess or look it up, but I believe in almost 8 decades I've never actually seen or heard the word before.

V & Z answer: It refers to a political community/structure of any size. We only used that term because we were talking about plutocrats/kleptocrats who might rule over a city, an oblast, a state, a territory, a nation, etc., and "polity" was more efficient than "a city, an oblast, a state, a territory, a nation, etc."

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