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Sunday Mailbag

We'll point out a few things before getting started. First, there are plenty of entries left in the Great American Novel series. For today, however, we're going to print some responses we've gotten to past entries. Next week, we'll move on to other books suggested by readers.

Beyond that, there are quite a few messages from and about the Commonwealth realms today, for obvious reasons. And the first group of those ("The Queen Is Dead") is very strong, if we may say so. Finally, anyone who said that "Trump" and "Intelligence" would never appear together in the same headline (or subhead, at least) failed to anticipate today's mailbag.

What's the 911?

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, writes: Today, we observe the 21st anniversary of 9/11. We all know where we were, what we did, and what that day meant.

For a brief moment in our history, we truly came together as Americans. We recognized the reason why 3,000 of our fellow citizens perished so tragically. We helped those who were suffering. We prayed for our nation to get through this dark moment. We understood what our Founding Fathers and Mothers wanted us to be when they created this country.

Fast forward to today. While we continue to be vigilant of threats to our homeland from afar, there can be no denying that our nation faces more urgent threats from within. Especially when it comes from folks who have considerable power and influence at the highest levels.

God forbid, should we ever have another 9/11, I cringe at how things would be in terms of our response today. It wouldn't be pretty.

The Queen Is Dead

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: I wanted to tell you how much your item on the death of Queen Elizabeth II impressed and moved me. In fact, I would say it was one of the best, if not the best, of the many I read. It is one thing to note that the late Queen was the second longest monarch to reign but quite another to see it in relief against the march of change. It is a peculiar feature of change that in the here and now that I, who have lived sixty-some years of Elizabeth's reign, find it hard to remember a time when I didn't carry a computer around in a handheld device, among many other modern wonders. Some of my earliest memories were of watching railroad tracks endlessly roll by on our old thick black and white TV, where the picture curled at the edges because of the roundness of the tube. Before my Mom passed away, I asked her what the hell I was remembering with the constant stream of railroad ties across the screen. She laughed and said she had forgotten that, but it was the aftermath of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, where as they transported his body back from California to the East Coast by train, the three—yes, three—TV networks had all placed a camera on the last car with the lens looking down as the tracks passed by. There were no scheduled shows broadcast for a couple of days, just train tracks with Walter Cronkite making periodic announcements about what town the train just passed through. A very far cry from our modern 24-hour news channels with nonstop talking heads babbling and of endless loops of repeating visuals that we have today. Looking back, it seems like I was alive in an alien time, one that is barely recognizable to me now.

Reflecting on the way we were when Elizabeth first ascended the throne reminded me greatly of Means of Ascent, the second volume of Robert Caro's masterful biography of LBJ, where Caro took a whole chapter to describe the literal hell the women of rural Texas had to go through daily before electricity was made available to them to clean their houses and feed their families. I doubt most of us, as pampered as we are with modern life, could cope with life just a hundred or so years ago. History seems so distant even when it is only a short distance away. As a great author once said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

As I look back at my sixty-some years, it seems like my memory is like a record player—remember those quaint devices?—with the arm skipping between tracks, highlighting brief moments of songs before skipping always forward. It is as if the persistence of vision doesn't apply to gazing back through one's life. As one of my favorite TV shows pointed out, if one is going to bounce around through time, one needs a Constant, to anchor one back to reality as it is. Queen Elizabeth was that Constant and now she's gone. She was always there and always steadfast, like a rock in a raging sea. Of course, I never knew or met her but still I feel quite adrift at her passing. She was always there, a reminder of the way things were, the way things should be and hopefully will be; but now she's gone.

As you and your readers have probably guessed, I would describe myself as having a very progressive viewpoint and, dare I say, I'm almost the caricature of a bleeding heart liberal. When George W, Bush and Hillary Clinton ran for president, at my core I disliked both because both smacked too much of a heredity monarchy, a stiff and rigid institution I feel should not come anywhere near the American system of government. Yet, when I look across the Atlantic at Great Britain—and yes, I am a hopeless Anglophile in every way imaginable—I can't help but admire the symbol that is their monarchy as a chain that links through their epic history. It is the one thing I think our country lacks, the institutions that serve as the strong links in the chain of our collective history that are meant to resound in our very souls. Our representatives and even our senators, as unmovable as they are, are like the flickering of the light as a movie reel starts. Our Presidents only occupy our memories for only brief fragments of time and then after their terms fade into talking points (well, all but one, unfortunately, who won't go away). The writer and dramatist in me revels in the tumultuous histories of the royal family. Our Presidents never quite reach the epic scale of drama that the royals do so with such ease.

I know from friends I've known from across the pond that they have a complicated and often contradictory relationship with their monarchy, so I can't speak for them. Still, even with my romanticized view, I find a lot to admire about the late Queen, although I would never wish a monarch on our country, even as a figurehead. Yet, this one singular thought occurred to me on hearing the news of Elizabeth's death: Here was a woman, descendant from absolute monarchs answerable only to God, who spent her considerable time as Queen acutely aware of the limits of her role, never pushing or straining the boundaries that defined her responsibilities. She played her role to perfection, but never seemed to desire more. Think about that for a second because that's an incredible thing to say of a person in a position of power. Especially when one turns one's sight to this side of the pond, where authoritarianism is a plague popping out in pustules all over our body politic, where individuals mad with power seek not only to push the boundaries but are hellbent in destroying any institution that stands in their way of having and ruthlessly using absolute power for their own capricious whims. If only certain American politicians could say, as the Queen once said, "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service." I guess that's why I find the rumor so plausible that she found our Former Guy so unpleasant and vulgar to be around because they were so antithetical. Of course, she had too much grace and awareness of the limits of her role to ever say that aloud.

As one of her more well-known subjects once said, "Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl but she doesn't have a lot to say." Yet when she did talk, people listened because her words were not only meaningful but were to be trusted as her bond. Thank you, Your Majesty, for a life well lived. You will be greatly missed and may God bless you on your journey! And long live the King!

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: I thought your write-up of Queen Elizabeth II was fascinating, especially putting into perspective all the changes in the world since she became Queen. However, I felt like you were way too easy on her while at the same time, oddly enough, being too hard on her uncle (the marriage thing; definitely not the fascism-loving thing).

The idea that her uncle Edward Ocho put "personal concerns over his duty" completely misses the point that the rules about whom he could marry were ridiculous in the first place, especially given Henry Ocho's sordid antics. To me, it was brave to go against arbitrary Church of England rules (seriously, "annulment"?). To borrow a phrase, "C'mon, man!"

Although I really don't have any personal stake in it, I feel the whole monarchy should have been abolished years ago. At best, a monarchy is a glorified, overpaid, unnecessary mascot and, at worst, it is a horrible relic of a brutal kleptocracy. Either way, the whole idea of a monarchy emphasizes class and race differences and essentially argues that some people (in this case, white, straight, rich Protestants) are better than everyone else. After all, if the point is to represent "the people," then why don't they just elect a mascot for Britain by popular appeal or select a new mascot every year by random chance, instead of a lifetime appointment decided by whose birth canal someone emerged from?

So, when you averred that "the day Elizabeth became Queen she gave up any chance of a normal life" you missed the idea that if she truly wanted a normal life, she could have abdicated as well, or better yet advocated for abolishment of the monarchy. Instead, she chose a cushy life of privilege, and, furthermore, she chose not to use any vestige of her power to advocate for causes she believed in. Being a "classy" model of silence showing a "stiff upper lip" in the face of oppression you benefit from, when you have some power to change it, hardly seems admirable to me.

Even though I'm also not a big fan of now-King Charles Tres (or, obviously, of using Roman numerals) at least he speaks out about climate change instead of just sitting on a throne of the relic of an empire made possible by environmental degradation.

I know this sounds very harsh in the wake of the Queen's passing, but I could have written it years ago, and it still would have represented my views on the matter. In fact, the sentiments I've shared were expressed years earlier, better and more humorously by none other than Eddie Izzard. Every time I hear "God Save the Queen" or "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," I always laugh (privately) at Eddie's much better NSFW version.

S.Ó.C. in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, writes: There has been a lot of outpouring of support for the Queen and her history of diplomacy and staying above the political fray. She, however was always able to speak out and chose not to, which is a de facto endorsement. It's like those who choose not to vote because, oh, they are all the same. You and effectively endorsing the winner because you don't care. I always urge voting and spoiling your vote because that is the only way to show you endorse none of the options.

It does not matter that she was encouraged not to speak out. She could have grabbed her own bully pulpit and spoken out about what was happening in Northern Ireland. In Australia, with the whites-only policy. In South Africa with Apartheid. Those of us from former colonies tend to cheer when we hear of this passing. Even if we are not hopeful about the replacement. I argue against the new popes every time they claim to have a more liberal stance but then will not speak out about the abuse of former regimes, whether it be moving abusive priests, or covering up the death of thousands of children in residential schools. It costs nothing to use your voice about a former regime that you had no say in. She had the bully pulpit and allowed her monarchy to reign over regimes of terror and didn't choose to use it. She should be consigned to history on the side of evil.

P.K. in Marshalltown, IA, writes: I will never understand the American fascination with the British monarchy. Perhaps it's my Irish heritage, my Fenian heart. The Irish Long Memory: Cromwell, the Penal Laws, An Gorta Mor, the execution of the leaders of the Rising. I was stunned, however, to know that the American broadcast networks televised the first speech of Bonnie Prince Charles but did not run that of our own President when he called out MAGAism as the enemy of democracy and freedom. I've seen many tributes by people I know on Facebook, though my "tribute" was to post the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen." Our Constitution established in Article 1, Section 9 that we will have no titles of nobility. We fought two wars with these people—won one and tied the other—so that we don't have to recognize the Crown. Too many West Britons here, I reckon.

The British Political System

S.T. in Worcesteshire, England, UK, writes: Your response to S.S-L. in Norman about the monarch's power in the U.K. governmental system was largely correct. Most of the powers which once belonged to the king or queen have long since devolved to Parliament or, in many instances, directly to the prime minister. Given the lack of a written constitution and the extreme centralization of power in the U.K., this gives the PM in particular a level of control which most U.S. presidents can only marvel at.

There is, however, one interesting exception, which The Guardian has been running investigative articles on for a couple of years and which, curiously, the rest of the U.K. media seems to reluctant to jump on, and that is the crown's involvement in framing legislation. There appears to be a convention that the Palace is consulted before laws are drafted, adopted and voted on. The Guardian has alleged that this convention is utilized far more frequently than most people realize, and has in the past been used to exempt the monarchy from complying with legislation which applies to everyone else in the U.K. When these articles were first published, royal representatives, in a classic non-denial denial, claimed that they do not lobby for laws to be changed. If, as suggested, that practice occurs whilst the law is still being drafted, they would not need to.

It seems unlikely that this procedure would directly involve the monarch and prime minister at their weekly meetings. It is, however, highly likely that members of the civil service and the palace staff would be responsible for this type of liaison and, given the notorious level of deference within both bodies, it seems unlikely that a request for an exemption from or change to legislation which favored the monarchy would be denied.

D.K. in Leicester, England, UK, writes: I've been reading with interest your reflections on the recent very sad news from our country, and would agree with most of it. However, I feel that your answer to S.S-L. in Norman, whilst largely correct, is nevertheless a bit misleading.

Yes, the public life of the Royal Family is largely one of planting trees, cutting ribbons, and unveiling plaques. Oh, and, yes, handing out awards for public service—although even those are largely on the 'advice' of the government. And it is also true that the monarch's public political role is largely theater, a bit like... oh, I don't know... say, the vice president's opening of the certificates containing electoral votes. The monarch today has no power over policy or day-to-day governance. That power was delegated to the prime minister about 300 years ago, and although for the next 100 years the monarch continued to have a major role in deciding who the prime minister should be, that power too melted away between the 1830s and the 1930s. Today, the Palace would not want to get itself involved in anything so overtly political.

Nevertheless, the monarch remains more involved in the running of the government than your answer would seem to imply. They retain the right to be kept fully informed of what is being done in their name, and the late Queen was, by all accounts, very diligent in reading the official documents that were passed to her—to the point that, on some matters, she proved to be better informed than her prime minister!

And then, of course, there are the weekly audiences. Although very occasionally the cameras are allowed in for the preliminaries—indeed, the last public photos of Elizabeth II were of her receiving Liz Truss this Tuesday—these audiences are otherwise strictly private and confidential. However, a number of former prime ministers have spoken about them in general terms, and the impression one is left with is that they are political therapy sessions, where the prime minister of the day can bare their soul—well, their political soul, anyway—safe in the knowledge that for once whatever they say will remain private. In return, the Queen would offer her advice or insight from her many years of experience and of meeting world leaders. She was, I think it's fair to say, Britain's longest serving and most successful envoy—and whilst Charles III has only just become king, of course, he has been in training for this for decades, having himself been meeting world leaders since he was a kid.

However, as the late Lord Callaghan—Jim Callaghan, who was PM from 1976-9—once made clear, what the Queen would say in these audiences would stop short of offering an opinion. That, the Queen considered, was his job! I doubt this will change under Charles. Faced with the fact that he would be open to criticism whatever he did, he decided, to his credit, to try to use his position to be a force for good, and campaign—in a non-party political way—for the issues that were dear to his heart. But he has also made it clear that he recognizes that this must now come to an end, although he might, perhaps, still try to influence public opinion through personal example.

So yes, the monarch now has very limited formal power, but does still possess a degree of "soft power." And not quite in the way that you suggested.

R.K. in Pepperell, MA, writes: In The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot famously wrote that "the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn." That's nothing to scoff at. Imagine if you folks had 30 minutes every week alone with Joe Biden—and he was required to answer any question you asked him! Whether it's always followed in practice, traditionally nothing is supposed to be kept secret from the monarch. If memory serves me, George VI knew all about the Manhattan Project, while our Veeps Wallace and Truman did not. Some PMs must come to relish the opportunity to discuss policy options with the only other person on Earth who knows information they've withheld from their own cabinet.

R.O. in Manchester, England, UK, writes: A few notable statistics about U.K. politics:

If the U.K. were in central Africa or central Asia, we'd likely be referring to it as a failed state by this point.

Thoughts from Canada

S.M. in Toronto, ON, Canada, writes: Regarding the answer to S.S-L. in Norman, while you were broadly correct that a monarch in a constitutional monarchy system generally doesn't have the power to block laws that they are presented with, that isn't absolute by any means. It's rare, but it has happened.

In fact, that situation might be playing out right now in Alberta, where a particularly nutty candidate for premier (...well, leader of the United Conservative Party, who are in government and therefore the winner of their leadership race becomes premier, but I know I have to greatly simplify things so that the Americans reading this will be able to understand) is proposing that her first act will be to pass legislation that will essentially allow Alberta to ignore the constitution with respect to areas of federal responsibility. Even the people who came up with this idea have basically admitted that it is unconstitutional and is a political stunt of a particularly Albertan bent.

That's not the fun part, though. Here's the fun part: Alberta, like most Canadian provinces, has a lieutenant governor, who serves as the Queen's—er, King's (that is weird to type...)—representative in the province, whose legislative purpose is to give royal assent to provincial legislation. And Lt. Gov. Salma Lakhani has come out and said that she likely wouldn't give royal assent to the proposed bill, as it is basically unconstitutional on its face. She referred to herself as a "constitutional fire extinguisher," in a very amusing turn of phrase. The implication is that she will wait for the Supreme Court to issue a reference decision on the legislation; this is allowed in the Canadian court system, which thankfully doesn't require "standing" for the SCC to rule on the constitutionality of topics which the government wants their opinion on.

This isn't without precedent in Canada, and the precedent is (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the province's... rather odd predilections in contrast with the rest of the country) from Alberta. In 1937, Alberta's government attempted to essentially grant itself powers over banking (constitutionally reserved to the Federal Government) and stifle freedom of the press. The lieutenant governor refused to grant royal assent, and essentially punted consideration of the constitutionality of the bills to the Supreme Court, which unanimously rejected the legislation as unconstitutional.

My understanding (although keep in mind that while I am called to the Bar in both the U.S. and Canada, I don't hold a UK law license and am working off open-source material here) is that the monarch has similar powers in the U.K., even if they haven't been exercised for even longer—Wikipedia tells me that the last instance was in 1708.

R.B. in Calgary, AB, Canada, writes: You wrote: "the U.S. surely is culturally different from Canada. And if (Z) was to try to explain why, he probably wouldn't focus so much on the origins of the two nations as the fact that the U.S. is much more diverse than Canada (so, more tribalism)."

This is in fact dead wrong, on a purely factual basis. There are many, many easily Google-able sites on this matter; here is a good one. There are a lot of reasons for this; one of them is that Canada's immigration rate has been substantially higher than the US's (currently 23% higher), and has been for some time.

Canada is politically and socially very, very tribalized, indeed, it's just that it isn't polite to say so. Our political culture is somewhat different; there is an old trope positing that where the U.S. national ethos is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the Canadian equivalent is "peace, order, and good government." Old and hackneyed as this is, there is some truth to it. "Freedom" is a word you hear relatively rarely in Canadian political discourse (the recent anti-COVID-restriction truck convoys notwithstanding; indeed, they garnered very little popular sympathy and their net political effect was more to hand the Conservatives a political hand-grenade, probably not an insignificant contributor to the reelection of the Trudeau government, and the probable impending victory of the quasi socialist NDP in Alberta of all places).

Which is not to say that Canada is any less free than the U.S.—indeed, by incarceration rates it is considerably more free in the most literal sense. (Nor is it to say we have particularly good government; the contrary opinion is possibly the most unifying thing Canadians have...)

V & Z respond: We were thinking of diversity historically, and not just racial/cultural diversity as it is currently understood. For example, Irish immigrants vs. native-born whites was a major source of strife in the 19th century, and yet would not be considered an aspect of diversity in 21st century thinking.


V.S. in Charlottesville, VA, writes: After my message last weekend, I noticed that Trafalgar released additional polls over the past week, in particular for New York and Vermont. In the case of the New York poll, it was a joint poll with InsiderAdvantage. In the gubernatorial race, they had Kathy Hochul (D-NY) up by only 5 points. That's just unbelievable. I'd think they would want to preserve their reputations. For some reason, they didn't produce a result for the senatorial race. In Vermont, they had Phil Scott (R-VT) up by 53 points in the gubernatorial race, which is probably overinflated. However, Peter Welch (D-VT) was up by only 7 points in the Senate race. If Welch hadn't been a fixture in Vermont politics for decades and this was back in the 1990s, I might buy that margin. In either case, neither of these polls make any sense.

Regarding the polling from Emerson College and InsiderAdvantage, I read that Emerson was using a very tight likely voter model. That probably explains why their polling results are more inline with Trafalgar's results. As far as InsiderAdvantage, I have an impression of them having a conservative bias. However, checking the FiveThirtyEight pollster ratings, the firm is listed as Opinion Savvy/InsiderAdvantage. It doesn't appear that Opinion Savvy is working with InsiderAdvantage anymore. FiveThirtyEight claims that the firm (Opinion Savvy/InsiderAdvantage) has a slight Democratic bias. That mostly seems to come from their polling in 2016, as the group was more favorable to Clinton and Democrats that cycle.

E.D. in Saddle Brook, NJ, writes: I'm not sure why there is any surprise about Joe Biden's approval rating being low. Biden didn't become the Democratic nominee because people liked him, he won the nomination because he was the least offensive candidate. He was going to be bland and generic. He wasn't going to rock the boat and do anything drastic. He'd return America to normal after the chaos of Trump. He was the guy most likely to get votes from the "Republicans who dislike Trump" crowd.

So far, Biden has walked a middle ground. He's been more progressive than anyone expected, which upsets the right wing of the Democratic party and anyone right of that. As far as the progressive wing of the party is concerned, all of Biden's actions are half measures. There's a pretty narrow range of people that are truly happy with how Biden has led the country. Most of the level of satisfaction people have with him is just because he's handling the baseline competency of the job just fine, which is a massive improvement over the previous guy.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, writes: You wrote: "Oh, and this just so happens to be a time when the Democratic Party is desperately trying to get organized labor back in the tent, and may be willing to stick its neck out on some pro-labor legislation."

Democrats have the trifecta, so they should really have already passed pro-labor legislation if they are desperately trying to get organized labor back in the tent. That would likely have persuaded many blue-collar workers to vote for Democrats in the midterms. I don't know why Democrats didn't pass such legislation. Perhaps their big donors don't like unions, and Democrats don't want to displease their big donors.

J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: Over the last year or two, you wrote many times that you didn't think the GOP had really thought out a cohesive strategy letting their activist bases overturn Roe v. Wade and then enact the strictest possible abortion bans. "If they achieve this victory, they remove the motivation for support from a large bloc of single issue voters," the argument went. "What's the upside, given that the political leaders don't actually care about the issue except insofar as it enhances their partisan agenda?"

I wrote multiple letters challenging this view. Surely victory doesn't deflate the movement, but rather energizes it. Give them optimism to take the fight to the next milestone (more state bans, deeper criminalization for the doctors and eventually the women, too, national ban, etc). Also it seemed a bit too cynical by far to say that the political operators don't believe in the core moral argument of their cause.

Now we're watching it unfold, in the wake of the Kansas referendum failure. Most clearly right now in the South Carolina legislature, as the video went viral of one state senator who sponsored the previous bill and then learned that he had condemned women to risk sepsis to birth dead fetuses. Now we have the coalition of a handful of female Republicans and the entire Democratic caucus filibustering the new ultra-restrictive bill. And across the country we have Republican candidates walking back their hardline statements and scrubbing their campaign webpages. They don't really believe in it, once they realize it's a political loser. And the base isn't energized to go for further victories, but is in retreat. Exactly as you predicted.

At this point I can only say, while your comments were astute predictions, the idea that party leadership could have somehow avoided this outcome remains dubious. Even if an astute operative like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) or RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel had foreseen this outcome, they couldn't have stopped it, any more than they could've stopped Donald Trump's election in 2016. As Nate Silver said in the wake of that election, as a post mortem of the "the party decides" hypothesis, partisanship is stronger than ever, but parties themselves are weaker than ever.

D.F. in Cedar Rapids, IA, writes: After reading your item on conservative children's books, I am reminded of the antisemitic Nazi books for young children, such as the The Poisonous Mushroom.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: Hmmm, can't wait til a kid points out that if there was "cannon control," the hyenas wouldn't have been armed in the first place and could be easily dispatched by the gorillas wielding stout sticks or bones a lá 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Trump Legal Matters

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Along with its notice of appeal, the Department of Justice also filed a motion for a partial stay of Judge Aileen Cannon's order. This was a smart move for a number of reasons: (1) they're asking for a stay of the order regarding the classified documents only, which, if granted, will allow them to continue their investigation with respect to those documents and ensure the IC can continue their damage assessment; and (2) they gave the Court a deadline of Sept. 15 to rule on the motion.

In the motion, they say that, if granted, the DOJ "plans to make available to plaintiff copies of all unclassified documents recovered during the search." This is clever because it's signaling to the judge that if she excludes the classified documents, this whole process becomes much more straightforward and a special master would be unnecessary at that point. Trump's team can review the documents and present any arguments as to those they assert are privileged, which will necessarily be a much smaller universe and much easier for the Court to review and rule on.

They also ask the Court to stay its order "to the extent the order requires disclosure of classified documents to a special master." That use of the phrase "to the extent" is important because, in her order, the judge didn't define the scope of the special master's duties and asked the parties for input as to the "duties of the special master." So, in its filing on Friday, they repeated their assertion that the special master's review should be limited to unclassified documents. Certainly, if the Court restricts the special master's duties in that way, that would make the process much more straightforward. At that point, the DoJ could very well drop its appeal since they'll still be able to continue with the most important aspects of its investigation.

The deadline of Sept. 15 is also important because there was no indication how long it would take the Court to rule on that issue. It could be that she was always going to exclude the classified documents from review, but now, the DoJ has asked for a ruling by Sept. 15 or else they'll move for an immediate stay in the Eleventh Circuit. I suspect Judge Cannon knows that denying the DOJ's motion as to classified documents would be quickly reversed by the appeals court so I'd be very surprised if she doesn't grab this chance to narrow her ruling.

Given the unpredictability of the Eleventh Circuit, not to mention the incumbent delays of an appeal, this is creative lawyering by the DoJ to make the best of a difficult situation.

B.C. in Chippewa Lake, OH, writes: As someone with 30 years' experience as a prosecutor and defense attorney, I think everyone is missing something when it comes to this special master and AG Merrick Garland's options to respond. When a search warrant is executed, it gets docketed on a special docket because there usually isn't an active criminal case at the time the warrant is applied for, issued, executed and returned. Because there is no ongoing criminal case, it invites the type of shenanigans Trump pulled of looking for a friendly judge and filing such a nonsense request. However, that judge would not have jurisdiction over the criminal case unless the indictment was filed in her court. So, rather than appealing the special master decision and all of the foolishness that goes with that, Garland has another option. He could simply indict the guy who was illegally in possession of those documents. And if the indictment was filed in the D.C. district court, Judge Cannon's special master decision is suddenly an unpleasant reminder of the importance of good judges and nothing more. The judge assigned the criminal case would then be in charge.

It is rare and troubling to watch a prosecutor allow a defendant to control the narrative and drive the course of a prosecution. But that is what Garland has done from the beginning, and every concession he has made to Trump, Trump has managed to use to Trump's advantage. Garland may be playing chess while Trump plays checkers, but Trump has brought a gun to Garland's knife fight.

R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: While I am not an attorney, I work for attorneys for a living so I have some experience to work from. After reading your reply to J.N. in Freeland, I am not as confident as you are about the ability of a judge and the voir dire process to screen out all the MAGA Republicans that would lie about their impartiality and vote to acquit regardless of the facts of the case. It would be hard to catch them all, and they would be trying to get onto the jury rather than give obnoxious answers to get themselves off.

To convict, you have to get a jury free of MAGA Republicans. That means 12 non-MAGA jurors. If I make a reasonable assumption that 1 in 4 members of the jury pool are MAGA, the probability of a non-MAGA tainted jury is 0.75 to the 12th power, or 3%. Odds of conviction become far too low for a sensible prosecutor to bring the case to trial. Let's say that voir dire screens out half the bad actors. Then the odds of an honest jury go up to 0.875 to the 12th power, or 20%. Still not great odds of a conviction, even if the case itself is airtight. The only way to overcome this is to keep trying Trump on one crime after another until something sticks. A Democratic strategist would have no hair left if that was done.

C.P.S. in San Jose, CA, writes: H. in Geneva expresses a concern that Donald Trump will likely be a flight risk and, accordingly, has proposed that, post-indictment, Trump be held in custody without bail. As much as I would love to see Trump spend even a moment incarcerated, his attempt to escape justice by fleeing to Riyadh or Moscow would be even more valuable to American democracy inasmuch as this would surely prevent him for being the Republican candidate for president in 2024. Moreover, since hope springs eternal, this might finally be the moment which breaks the hold of the most transparent, obvious con-man in American history on a massive segment of our population.

D.R. in Yellow Springs, OH, writes: I respectfully disagree with H. in Geneva, who writes that once Donald Trump is charged with a crime, he should be held without bail until his trial. I doubt that the prosecution will even ask that he be remanded once he's charged with a crime.

Unlike auto executive Carlos Ghosn, who fled from Japan rather than stand trial, Trump is surrounded by the Secret Service. Sure, the agents are mostly there to protect Trump from being attacked, but if the judge tells them that they are responsible for making sure Trump doesn't violate any bail conditions, I think they'll comply.

Those conditions might include not leaving the Southern District of Florida (assuming he's facing federal charges there first), not coming within 5 miles of any airport and not getting on any helicopters. The Secret Service might also be tasked with looking inside any large crates taken out of Mar-a-Lago to ensure Trump doesn't flee the country in a cargo hold the way Ghosn did.

In addition to the Secret Service being available to ensure Trump shows up for his trial, I suspect the prosecution won't seek remand just because of the optics of it. A lot of people are going to be really angry once Trump is charged with a crime, and locking him up before trial will only make them angrier. The government has already bent over backwards to ensure Trump is treated as fairly as he can be, and I expect that will continue.

The only way I could see Trump being jailed before trial is if he violates his bail conditions. But I think even that is unlikely.

I.H. in Washington, DC, writes: You've written a few times about trying to compel testimony from Trump in the Georgia investigation. I don't see that ever happening—not just the compelling, but also the trying. Trump, it appears, is (or will soon be) the target of a criminal investigation. Compelling his testimony would violate his Fifth Amendment rights (unless he was granted immunity, which, no chance). Trump will never willingly implicate himself (nor should he) and everyone including DA Fani Willis knows it. There is no point in sending him a grand jury subpoena and, for that reason, it should never happen (at least, that's how it goes in federal white-collar practice where I've spent most of my career).

M.M. in Centralia, IL, writes: TFG's genius is propagating a huge DDoS attack on the judicial system.

As you wrote, it will not end until he does.

Trump Intelligence

D.G. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Two points about the totally irresponsible and dangerous handling of classified documents by TFG that I have not seen (or heard) highlighted:

  1. TFG stole the documents and kept them at Mar-a-Lago, and then abandoned them twice for extended periods of time. He left them there during the entire summer last year, and again this year, while he was at Basking Ridge, without supervising them or taking care that they will be secure. Some of these documents normally are clocked in and out of a safe inside a SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility).

  2. There has been very little mention of the damage to the cooperation with other friendly foreign intelligence agencies. Foreign agencies, seeing this unbridaled lax handling of classified documents, will stop sharing their sensitive information with the U.S. Way beyond that, not being able to ascertain the access by others to these documents, most probably has caused those agencies to dismantle compromised information gathering networks and loss of valuable assets.

Until these networks are recreated, an effort that takes years, the intelligence gathering capabilities of these agencies and the U.S. counterparts will be seriously damaged.

In the Pollard case, at least the extent of the distribution and the extent of information divulged was known, and still Pollard got 35 years of incarceration. The damage in this case is so much greater, shouldn't TFG get 350 years?

S.K in Atlanta, GA, writes: When I was an active duty Naval Intelligence officer some years ago, I was deployed overseas onboard a naval vessel. In the course of my duties, I read and analyzed classified material up to and including TS/SCI. The Analysis Room where I worked on the ship was an SCIF and there were rigid protocols on handling information, as one would imagine. On the shelves of this space, we had stacks of document folders with classification markings on their covers for various levels of material (CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, TS/SCI, etc.). These folders had nothing in them until one was grabbed for use.

One afternoon on deployment, I rather irresponsibly grabbed a SECRET-marked folder purely for the ease of throwing in a few non-classified personal documents I had in my stateroom that were loose on my desk (things like a copy of my passport, my credit card bill, etc.). The following day, this folder had been noticed by a crewmember cleaning out the staterooms and I was immediately barred from returning to my stateroom until it was fully searched and I was subjected to a command-level investigation on why that folder was in my stateroom and a full inventory of the classified materials I had handled the week or so prior to the folder's discovery. Ultimately, I was cleared of any wrongdoing and was issued a rather stern warning from a one-star admiral to never do something so foolish again.

I recount this incident from my life for two reasons: Firstly, to give direct evidence on how Donald Trump is being treated with kid gloves in this matter. I was put through the gauntlet for having an empty folder with a classification marker in a stateroom, on a U.S. Navy vessel, on deployment overseas. Had I had actual classified material in that folder, I would have found myself likely been dismissed from the Navy (the officer version of a dishonorable discharge). Had I had that same material at home, I would have found myself in Leavenworth.

Secondly, while I do not in any sense mean this as a defense of the former president, there is a much less nefarious possibility for the empty folders found at Mar-a-Lago than the material contained has been sold or otherwise squandered. Classified material is usually kept and transported in these types of folders in government buildings and there are usually stacks of these folders lying around in areas that they may be used. If a box was haphazardly filled with classified material that Donald Trump wanted to cart down to his beach house, it would be rather easy for a bunch of these empty folders to have been included in the stack.

A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, writes: I served in the Navy in the late '60s and had a TS clearance. The Seventh Fleet (Pacific Theater) had its own intelligence center on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor where I worked. To take a classified document home never occurred to me. No need to do that because the gray matter in my head had all that information and the security of our nation depended on integrity to keep it secret. Not sure what that says about TFG, if anything.

P.S. in Arlington, TN, writes: As someone who had a security clearance once upon a time, I can promise you the FBI knows exactly which documents Donald Trump should have in his possession. That's what's so bizarre about this to me. In short, every time that classified materials exchanges hands it creates a paper trail to establish who's accountable for that information. If it's destroyed, that creates a paper trail as well with witnesses. Each time there are multiple signatures establishing the responsibility for the document.

After watching Trump for long enough, he's obviously corrupt and extremely incompetent. To me, it's highly likely that he's gone beyond things known to the press such as possibly destroying these documents that he no longer has a right to even have in his possession. This would create further legal exposure, in my humble opinion. For example, would it be all that farfetched to imagine his lawyer telling him that it's illegal to have Top Secret documents and Trump thinking to himself, "I can just lie to my lawyer about having them and then destroy them myself"?

This wouldn't completely explain the situation, as he'd have theoretically destroyed some but not all of the documents, but who's to say that he wasn't distracted by whatever and never got to destroying all of them? In any event, someone knows exactly what was or wasn't in those folders as there are paper trails a mile long establishing what Trump did, didn't and maybe does have.

G.T.M. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, writes: Although not specifically covered by the statutes governing classification, a very good case can be made that executive privilege IS a form of classification, and a form that is: (1) only available to the sitting President of the United States of America, and (2) solely within the discretion of the sitting President of the United States of America.

Were that not the case, then anyone who had ever held the office of President of the United States of America could, at any time, "classify" any document as having "executive privilege," for any (or no) reason whatsoever.

It is, from that, obvious that an incoming president may continue the "executive privilege" assigned to anything and it is equally obvious that an incoming president may terminate the "executive privilege" of anything that a former President had assigned to it.

Since President Biden has already waived the claims of executive privilege advanced by Donald Trump, that would appear to actually be the end of the matter in that regard. However, possibly, it would be advantageous to actually have the courts make a formal determination that is the law.

Even if the matter went to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, I cannot see any rational bench deciding otherwise and I cannot see the current (without commenting on its rationality) bench determining that a "Democrat" (whatever that means) who had once been the President of the United States of America had the power to supercede the determination of a "Republican" (whatever that means) who was currently the President of the United States of America on whether or not a document should, or should not, be covered by executive privilege. Even the finest "artiste de mot belett" would find it impossible to craft a judgment which always allowed a Republican to supercede a Democrat, yet never allowed a Democrat to supercede a Republican.

Other Trump Observations

P.M. in Edenton, NC, writes: I had a thought about the constant coverage of Donald Trump, and everyone's seeming disgust about it—the basic idea being: "we and everyone else are sick of talking about him, yet we still are." I recall reading an article about this as long ago as March 2016, the main point of which was "we should stop talking about him, because it is unhealthy for us to keep doing so." Six and a half years later, and the exact same situation still stands.

My thought was this: for some (many? most?) people, thinking and talking about Donald Trump and all of his associated drama is an addiction. Addictions are always bad, no matter how you slice it, or how you rationalize it—they're still negative. The addict is often aware of that, but keeps going back to it anyway because they get some kind of enjoyment from the thing which they know is causing them harm. Not only that, but in the case of Trump, everyone constantly talking and thinking about him feeds into his huge narcissistic ego, which then continues the ever-vicious cycle even more.

A solution? Stop talking about him. Stop writing about him. Stop discussing him. If people ignore him entirely, wouldn't he just... fade away?

V & Z respond: Maybe this describes some people or some commentators, but we really don't think it describes us, and we don't think it describes our readers. If something were to happen tomorrow such that we would never have to write about Trump again, we would be delighted. Really, you honestly can't understand how pleased we would be. There are so many more interesting things to write about. However, even if the non-Trumpers collectively decide to ignore him, he still commands the loyalty of the base, and so he would continue to have influence and would continue to dictate the direction of the Republican Party. That being the case, we would not be doing what we claim to do (analyze U.S. politics, especially presidential politics) if we ignored him. We would say that, at least for us, the correct metaphor is not addiction, but instead something along the lines of Thomas Jefferson's famous observation about slavery: "It's like having a tiger by tail; you wish you didn't have him, but you dare not let go."

O.R. in Milan, Italy, writes: You wrote: "They say the cream always rises to the top. That's not true of the Saturday Q&A and the Sunday mailbag, it would appear. For them, the Trump always rises to the top."

Which makes perfect sense; see the concept of "floating stool."

M.C. in Friendship, ME, writes: Some say that life is like an Irish stew: You have to keep things stirred up or the scum rises to the top.

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, writes: I encourage people to watch the ESPN 30 for 30 Documentary entitled "Small Potatoes: Who killed the USFL."

The answer is "Donald Trump." But it is chilling to see the megalomania and narcissism on full display even way back then, ending in predictable disaster. And the documentary was made many years before any of his political aspirations, so there is no liberal ax-grinding here.

J.F. in Fort Worth, TX, writes: D. E. in Lancaster expressed surprise that the FBI noted that Donald Trump had a lot of books at Mar-a-Lago. I can only imagine that the FBI is referring to all the autographed copies of The Art of the Deal that Trump gives out like party favors to anyone who comes up to him and says, "Thank you, sir." He's probably got dozens of boxes of those lying around, bought specifically to boost the sales figures. This is the only possible explanation for how that overstuffed bag of word salad became a "bestseller."

All Politics Is Local

P.B. in Gainesville, FL, writes: I was watching The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night—which (along with is part of my regular political therapy—when the local station played a political ad for our current Governor. My instant reaction was, "Argh! Quick, change the channel!", but almost as quickly, I thought "Wow, he's starting early, let's see where this goes." So I forced myself to watch.

It was nauseating. It was quite long (a whole minute?) and consisted of a variety of people, including schoolchildren, saying "Thank you" to Gov. DeSatan for things like "keeping us free," "saving our jobs," "letting us learn," etc., etc. Nothing, of course, about how many more people died from COVID because of his policies, among other statewide fiascos.

More importantly, I see this as a bad omen for the election in Florida, because I live in a blue county (Alachua) and have not seen one ad for any Democrats on local TV. In fact, I never see any ads for Democrats in local elections. I watched with great disappointment 4 years ago as Andrew Gillum's candidacy fell apart, and Charlie Crist's (D) prior attempt at re-election also failed horribly, both with ineffectual coverage of Florida's huge and diverse TV audience, but also their general absence on radio, e-mail, flyers, etc., in north-central Florida. This is also true for congressional district races, and statewide offices. Republicans outspend Democrats very heavily in local markets like ours. Democrats are politically invisible here! If they don't turn this around right now, I predict Crist and Rep. Val Demings (D) are both doomed to lose in November.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: In response to J.B in Hutto, I can give some insight into the North Carolina U.S. Senate race. As many readers know, I am a resident of NC, transgender, and an Officer of the North Carolina Democratic Party, as well as a precinct chair in Wake County.

I am actually a bit mystified as to why this race is not getting more national attention, as I believe it is going to be so close that a razor might not be able to split the difference. First of all, contrary to the beliefs of most non-Carolinians, North Carolina is actually a very purple state, possibly the most purple state in the country right now.

Cheri Beasley (D) is running a very centrist campaign, with a few tidbits for Team Blue, like capping insulin costs and supporting a woman's right to choose. On the other hand, Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) is very much running away from Donald Trump's endorsement, which he touted in the primary. His focus seems to be on the economy, and blaming Joe Biden and Team Blue for inflation. His ads are full of misrepresentations, as you might expect from the GOP, and he is counting on people not being aware that inflation is a worldwide problem right now, and not unique to America. He is also counting on people to blame Biden for causing a bad economy, as opposed to inheriting many things beyond his control which are the proximate cause for the worldwide inflation problem.

Ted Budd has never run a statewide race. He comes from the old CD-13 (north-central North Carolina, north of the Triangle, part of the Piedmont), and he seems further right than would normally be elected from that area, and a better fit for the Mountains of North Carolina (The Sandhills or what we call "Down East"). And he is shying away from a lot of the "traditional" conservative issues, focusing on the economy like a laser.

Cheri Beasley has also never won a statewide race, having lost the last one she ran... by about 400 votes across the entire state. OK, the actual count was 401, but I digress. Her centrist campaign is right for North Carolina, and she also is making use of the Dobbs decision, which I think helps her. However, I am also realistic. She is a Black woman, and racism is unfortunately not dead in many parts of the Tar Heel State.

Not only because I am an officer of the NCDP, but because I also believe that Beasley has slightly more advantages, I believe she will win. But it will be a razor's edge that will decide this race. I honestly cannot imagine why such a close horse race isn't getting more national attention... although, as you wrote, neither candidate is making outrageous statements or doing outrageous things that attract eyeballs, like Mehmet Oz or J.D. Vance. I also believe that Budd really was the candidate on the GOP sde who would be hardest to beat.

That said, I think Dobbs alone should be worth 402 votes.

G.W. in Avon, CT, writes: I live in CT-05 and my reaction to your item on our House race is: "George who?"

I think I'm slightly more politically aware than average, but literally all I've heard about him so far came from a single pro-Jahana Hayes (D) ad that landed in front of me two days ago.

Apparently, he announced his candidacy a little over a year ago but you wouldn't know it by looking around. No flyers. No TV. No lawn signs. Apparently he was a state Senator for a district I don't live in for two terms, winning his re-election by less than 100 votes and then getting thumped on his attempt for term #3.

M.D. in Poconos, PA, writes: To add to your response to K.F. in Austin, there are groups in extreme Red or Blue states that have partnered with local political groups in swing states and swing districts to use funds to actually help get their preferred party candidates elected. The one we are currently working with to help Matt Cartwright (D) and equally threatened Susan Wild (D) get re-elected to Congress is MAflipPA. As an added benefit, they are working with several local groups here in Northeastern Pennsylvania to help get Democratic state legislative candidates elected to flip our legislature to Democratic to support our Democratic governor. Maybe some folks know of some other such groups in other extreme partisan states that are similar.

Legal Matters

T.M.M. in Odessa, MO, writes: You wrote about whether acceptance of a pardon was an indication of guilt, based on language from Burdick v. Street. A more recent discussion of the nature of a pardon came during some of the U.S. Supreme Court cases on whether an "actual innocence" claim could be a basis for federal habeas relief (the ability of federal courts to set aside state convictions). In particular, Herrera v. Collins (1993) includes an extended discussion of the power of the executive to use the pardon and clemency power as a means of granting relief to a wrongfully convicted offender. In short, a pardon can be used by the chief executive to correct a wrongful conviction or to prevent an improper prosecution of an innocent person.

Not that the pardon to Steve Bannon was a proper use of that power (being more in the nature of self-dealing by TFG), but Bannon can certainly claim that the pardon was an effort to prevent what he and TFG would falsely characterize as a politically-motivated prosecution, rather than an acknowledgment of Bannon's likely guilt.

J.K. in Boston, MA, writes: Searching for a portmanteau for lawyers who are also pundits, you wrote: "lawyer-commentators (attorneytators? lawyerscenti? advocate-dits?)"

Counsel-tators for the win?

P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, writes: How about "commentorters," "entertorters," or "tortespondents"?

V & Z respond: We like "tortespondents," but worry that people would think they are experts in French pastry.

A.R. in Raleigh, NC, writes: "Attorneytators" is the best one, and we should encourage all media outlets to refer to attorney commentators as such. I spit up my coffee reading that.

Mental Health

B.C. in Hertfordshire, England, UK, writes: I completely echo all of your comments about mental health and sport and would particularly draw your attention to the case of Michael Hooper, Australia's Rugby Union captain. I appreciate that most Americans are strangers to the sport of Rugby Union (even though you have a professional league and capable national teams, both men and women) but Hooper's case is worthy of attention.

As you know, Australia has a muscular, frontiersman culture with some similarities to that of the USA. Rugby (either Union or League), being a brutal contact sport without helmets or body armor, is well suited to that kind of culture, and Hooper is one of the finest players in the game globally.

Australia plays an annual four-nation tournament along with New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. Recently, the Aussies played back-to-back games in Argentina, but before he set foot on a pitch Hooper, their captain, announced that he felt mentally unable to play and that, with the support of the team doctor and management, he would be returning to Australia.

It was extraordinarily brave of him to publicly reveal his distress, against the background of such a macho sport and being from such a sport-obsessed nation, and it is to the credit of the team management and the Australian Rugby Football Union that they showed steadfast support for their unwell player.

We should all wish Hooper a speedy recovery and thank him for making it just a little easier for anyone, in any walk of life, to be honest and open about their mental health.

V & Z respond: Hear, hear!

R.T. in Austin, TX, writes: Interesting that mental health is still considered a stigma in politics. I read that Abraham Lincoln suffered a nervous breakdown more than once and Winston Churchill had regular bouts of depression which he called his "Black Dog."

G.K. in Blue Island, IL, writes: Regarding your freudenfreude piece on mental health, I'm reminded of a presentation humorist Art Buchwald would do at colleges, summarizing the state of American politics in 1972. While displaying a photograph of ousted vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton on the screen, he noted that Americans didn't want candidates who had been treated for mental illness... preferring instead those who hadn't (and the picture would change to Spiro Agnew).

The Art of Interpretation

M.A. in Knoxville, TN, writes: In your answer to H.F. in Pittsburgh about The Wizard of Oz possibly being an allegory, you mentioned that artists don't get to dictate what audiences take from their art. In addition to that, sometimes artists do things with their art that they don't consciously realize they're doing.

I learned this firsthand back when I was studying music composition in college. My professor required all works I wrote to be performed, with me as one of the performers. For one piece for piano and soprano, the soprano's private instructor insisted I come to her lessons so the instructor could work with both of us. She taught me things about my own piece of music I didn't realize were there. Notably, one piano passage invoked the feeling of strings playing. She was absolutely right, but I hadn't done it on purpose.

Baum may not have intentionally meant for it to be an allegory, but in the end, he wrote it as one.

M.D. in Poconos, PA, writes: Regarding your response to S.W. in New York City about White House presidential portraits, couldn't they just use one of Trump's mug shots from all his multiple upcoming arrests as his official portrait? Seems fitting to me.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: Speaking of Teddy Roosevelt's portrait, I heard an amusing story about how his came about. Of course, TR's official portrait was painted by the world renowned portraitist, John Singer Sargent, and is probably one of the better works of art for a presidential portrait, outside of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington. During my time living in DC, the National Gallery of Art had an exhibit dedicated to Sargent's works. While known mostly for his portraits, for which he was in high demand and thus only painted the very upper crust of the Gilded Age's society, he was also an incredible water colorists and muralist as well as dabbling in Impressionism, painting alongside the great Claude Monet.

While born an American, Sargent spent the vast majority of his life abroad and would only return grumbling to America to paint his portraits commissions. If his name is not familiar to some of the readers, I can guarantee they have seen his magnificent works, especially if they have ever picked up a Penguin Classic and looked at the cover of a Henry James, Anthony Trollope or Edith Wharton novel—his works are ubiquitous. This exhibit made him one of my favorite artists and I became fascinated with his life and mastery of craft. When viewing his portraits, one can instantly see why they made him famous. They all exude the force of the sitter's personality, so much so that the subjects seem like they could suddenly speak to the viewer, at least those who would deign to do so. This was the Gilded Age, after all, and arrogance and snobbery went hand-in-hand with insane amounts of personal wealth.

When Sargent was commissioned to paint Teddy Roosevelt, he posed the Rough Rider in several locations but was unhappy with every pose. Sargent very much strove to capture the personality of his subjects. When he went to paint Teddy, Sargent was at the height of his fame and abilities. Sargent would pose Roosevelt, pick up his brush to start to paint them throw them down in disgust. Sargent would then ask Roosevelt to move to a different room and try a different pose in different light. At first, Roosevelt meekly followed Sargent as he dragged him all over through the White House because even Roosevelt knew that Sargent would, if provoked, turn down some of the most famous and powerful people of his time (evidently, John David Rockefeller had begged Sergeant for many years to do his portraits, and Sargent refused until almost the end of his career). Sargent, like Roosevelt, was not one to suffer fools.

Teddy knew that this was the best painter to capture his likeness in his official portrait, so he tolerated Sargent, up to a point. But the great Roosevelt ego could only withstand the constant shuffling around, trying different poses, for so long. Sargent was in the process of dragging TR through the hallway to outdoors to see if he could capture his essence out in the natural light when Roosevelt snapped. Sargent heard Roosevelt growl behind him, "Damn it, man, will you make up your mind or I'm done!" Sargent turned to see Teddy's eyes glaring, one hand adamantly on his hip while his other hand gripped the staircase's newel post almost as if to propel himself forward as if to grab Sargent by his neck to wring it. Sargent later told listeners that he thought the President was going to throttle him for good measure. But suddenly, with Teddy's nostrils flaring, Sargent's eyes lit up and he exclaimed, "Hold it, stop, that's it, that's the pose I want! Now hold it just like that!" Surprisingly, Roosevelt obeyed without an objection. Thus, Teddy Roosevelt's Official portrait was born:

Roosevelt, posed with one
hand on a staircase banister and the other on his hip

If the man in this painting was carrying a big stick, he would certainly intimidate the hell out of me!

The Great American Novel, Part VII: Comments on Past Entries

P.V. in Kailua, HI, writes: I am awed by the analysis of M.M. in San Diego. I also loved Moby-Dick—even the chapters about whaling. I had always thought that the Great White Whale symbolized the devil and that Ahab was chasing it to purge his sins. But I like M.M.'s analogy of the whale being God far better. As to the book's length—I have spent a fair amount of time on the water. Being on a small boat in the vast ocean can give one a nebulous feeling of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia simultaneously. I think that it takes a work of physical heft to convey that discomforting aura. Dan Simmons' The Terror (992 pages) is the only other nautical story I've read that has managed it.

Regarding Uncle Tom's Cabin, you wrote, "The big point of confusion, for students and non-students alike, is this: Uncle Tom's Cabin did not convert very many Northerners into abolitionists. Abolitionism was the extreme position." The most succinct statement I've heard about the cause of the U.S. Civil War is that it was about slavery not abolition. Seems obvious to me now, but at the time it made a light bulb go off after years of listening to people go on about "states' rights." In later years, I came to understand that the underlying cause wasn't states' rights, it was expansionism. In a gedanken experiment where neither the North nor the South had expansionist or imperialist ambitions, perhaps war could have been avoided, but in the real world neither side was willing to allow the other to increase their territory without bloodshed—beginning with Kansas.

P.D. in La Mesa, CA, writes: To me, Moby Dick represents white racism. I believe Melville is sending a warning to his fellow New England abolitionists. They were right to oppose Southern slavery, but in their zeal to uproot that evil they have to "beware of self-righteousness," as Jesus said. Though against slavery themselves, they were still not very committed to abolition's necessary corollary: Black equality. (Hardly anybody else in America then was, either.) You have to take the log out of your own eye, said Jesus, before you're going to take the speck out of your neighbor's. This is what Captain Ahab forgets in his obsession pursuing the White Whale. Ahab needs to address the racism and inequality (white privilege) in his own heart (and on his ship) before he can dare to take on these evils in his society. Otherwise, they will overwhelm him—and do. He can peer through a telescope but Ahab lacks the self-awareness to peer into his own heart.

By the way, my vote for the Great American Novel is still The Grapes of Wrath. Second would be A Farewell to Arms, which introduced a new, pathbreaking literary style that still sounds fresh, as well sounding the alarm on the dangers of propaganda—the "big words" like glory, honor, duty that died by the thousands and tens of thousands in the trenches of World War I.

C.E. in San Jose, CA, writes: If we're still opining on the greatest American novel of all time, allow me to say I agree that The Grapes of Wrath is one of them, for all the reasons already listed by other readers. In my opinion the what makes The Grapes of Wrath the Greatest American Novel is the fact that an already-successful white guy novelist ripped off the story from a woman, a writer whose family was actually from Oklahoma. Seriously, what could possibly be more American than that?

P.F.D. in Portland, OR, writes: I agree with the many readers who nominated The Grapes of Wrath as the Great American Novel. Reading it as a young man had a whole lot to do with the political beliefs I have held my entire life.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: For everyone who nominated The Great Gatsby as the greatest American novel, I suggest you consider the parallels between Gatsby and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronté. Both are orphaned and adopted by a wealthy man who treats them as a son. Both fall passionately in love with a woman above their social class. Both go off and successfully seek a fortune in order to court their unattainable woman. At that point there is the departure, Heathcliff into darkness, revenge and madness, Gatsby sacrificing himself to become Daisy's savior at the cost of his own life.

I suspect Heathcliff really inspired Fitzgerald to create Gatsby as a parallel character whose ability to love selflessly steers him in an entirely different direction than the one Heathcliff takes.

I can also make the argument that without the social criticism in Gatsby, John Steinbeck doesn't see The Grapes of Wrath published, but that's for another mini essay.


K.K. in San Diego, CA, writes: Readers who enjoyed working on Z's birthday scavenger hunt might find it easier to track down additional examples of this genre using the search term "puzzle hunt." For example, tracks similar events held around the world, such as the massive MIT Mystery Hunt held every January.

V & Z respond: Good suggestion! If you don't have access to a puzzle designed by a UCLA grad, then a puzzle designed by an MIT grad is surely just as good.

P.N. in Austin, TX, writes: You wrote: "Samuel Alito, fire up Microsoft Word and start typing."

Ooof. I had to check and make sure (V) wrote that one. Question for you (V)... Are there any worse insults in your book? I suspect that's the most derision you've shown for a political figure on this site. Despite the fact that I support (much more complex) Microsoft products, I approve.

V & Z respond: That wasn't meant to endorse any Microsoft products, but simply to observe that lawyers are much more likely to use Word than, say, LaTeX or troff.

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