The most popular subject of questions this week was the sh**show that is the United States Congress. Until the Hur Report came out, that is.
And if you need another hint for the headline puzzle, we'll say that if you want to solve it, you need to be in the right state of mind. And no, we don't mean you need to smoke some marijuana, although we suppose that might help if you could get your hands on the right strain, like some California Kush.
T.V. in Kansas City, MO, asks: Unethical or not, political hatchet job or not, the Hur Report is utterly devastating for Joe Biden because it is objective-appearing confirmation of what many voters already believe: that Biden is slipping cognitively. Sadly, Biden's own recent performance supports the perception—his mixing up of the names of multiple heads of state; his angry, foolish press appearance after the report's release; his dodging of a Super Bowl interview. Nothing is more likely to stick in the public consciousness than a finding that confirms a pre-existing belief.
I don't think there's a way the president can recover from this and win, even if Trump is convicted in his D.C. trial. So, once he cools off, and once new polls show his approval rating dropping into the 20s, is there any chance Biden withdraws from the presidential race and steps aside for someone like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)? It's what should have happened anyway, and it would be easy to portray Biden as dropping out for the good of the country, since Whitmer would almost certainly start off with a 10-point lead over Trump.
(V) & (Z) answer: To start, it is too early to assume that this will be devastating for Biden. Yes, it seems to be "trustworthy" affirmation that he's mentally infirm, and it will be weaponized in that way for a very long time. However, there are a number of dynamics in play that have the potential to mitigate the situation:
- February Surprise: When James Comey dropped his e-mail bombshell on Hillary Clinton, it was a literal October Surprise (Oct. 28, to be precise, 11 days before the election). She had zero time to develop or implement a recovery strategy. By contrast, Biden has the better part of a year to triangulate a response. He could, and really should, increase the number of interviews he does. He could take a test of cognition. He could boldly insist on debating Donald Trump, and then perform well if Trump agrees, or make hay out of it if Trump doesn't agree.
- Hur Overplayed His Hand, Part I: Robert Hur pretty aggressively oversold how feeble-minded Biden is. It is well within the realm of possibility that the (now-former) Special Counsel set the bar so low that if and when Biden does do interviews or debates, even an OK performance will persuade people that reports of his decline have been greatly exaggerated.
- Hur Overplayed His Hand, Part II: Similarly, Hur's report was so unsubtle that vast numbers of commenters, including us, saw it for the hatchet job it was meant to be. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces taking Hur to task. There were also hundreds of pieces in which various commenters either took Hur's generally understanding of memory issues to task, or specifically said that they have talked to Biden in recent months and that the President was perfectly fine. The overtly partisan, and apparently disingenuous, nature of the report may blunt its impact.
- Confirmation Bias: Before the Hur Report was released, there was some sizable portion of the voting public that already thought Biden wasn't playing with a full deck. And there was some sizable portion of the voting public that already thought the claims about Biden's mental fitness were a big nothing. Clearly, the report is going to make the former group more confident in their opinions, but will it cause people in the latter group to change their thinking? That is far from certain.
- The Other Guy: If Biden's opponent was someone 30 years younger, and clearly in total command of their faculties, then his mental lapses would be a big, big problem. But his opponent is 4 years younger, and clearly has his own (possibly worse) issues of mental acuity. How many voters will say: "I want to vote Biden, but he's not mentally sharp, so I guess I'll have to vote for the clear-minded stable genius Donald Trump"?
Please be clear, we are not saying the Hur Report WON'T be devastating, long-term. And we are not saying that it WILL be devastating, long-term. We're saying that there's just no way to know at this point.
Is it possible Biden steps aside? Sure, it's possible. But it is not prudent to expect something that has never, ever happened in 230+ years of government under the U.S. Constitution. It is true that Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, confronted with evidence of their political weakness, declined to run for reelection (in 1952 and 1968, respectively). But that was because they knew they probably wouldn't be renominated, much less win the general election. No presidential candidate has ever had the nomination locked up and then said "Nah, I don't want it."
Keep in mind also the dynamics of the presidential nomination process. If Biden steps aside this week, or next month, or in August, he cannot just give the nomination to the candidate he thinks would be most electable. He can endorse someone, and suggest that his delegates vote for that person, but if he's so damaged that he cannot run, then that endorsement might not mean much, and it might even be harmful.
Further, if he were to stand down, there would not be time for replacement candidates to get their names on the various ballots. So, the result of his stepping aside—whether on Feb. 11, or Mar. 22, or on Aug. 19 (the first day of the Democratic convention)—is that several potential candidates would emerge, each with their own fanbase. Since there would be little or no primary voting, there would be no objective way to determine which candidate was the strongest and/or most deserving. So, the result would be a brokered convention. Maybe that works out just great, but the fact is that voters of the 21st century are not used to brokered conventions, and so are not used to sucking it up and saying "better luck next time" if their candidate loses out. In other words, maybe the Democrats end up with Hillary vs. Bernie, part 378, and with just a couple of months for the breach to heal. Further, even if the Democrats select a candidate, sing a chorus of "Kumbaya," and unify strongly behind that candidate, that person will not have been subjected to the powerful microscope that is applied to wannabe presidents. Maybe the blue team would get lucky, and that person would be able to handle the heat, and would also not have any skeletons in the closet, just waiting to be discovered. But maybe not. Ask Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Rudy Giuliani, Jeb!, Hillary Clinton ca. 2008 or Ted Kennedy what can happen when a "surefire" candidate actually has to put up or shut up.
P.S. in Gloucester, MA, asks: Robert Hur seems to have engaged in behavior grossly inappropriate for a prosecutor. Can he be referred for sanctions? And can Joe Biden sue him for defamation?
(V) & (Z) answer: Since Hur has finished his work, he's no longer an employee of the federal government, so he can't be sanctioned by them. He could plausibly be sanctioned by the ABA; the organization's standards of prosecution say: "The prosecutor may make a public statement explaining why criminal charges have been declined or dismissed, but must take care not to imply guilt or otherwise prejudice the interests of victims, witnesses or subjects of an investigation."
Hur clearly violated this rule, as he otherwise explained why Biden would not be charged (his actions did not rise to the level of being criminal), meaning that the stuff about juries being nice to feeble, old men was unnecessary and gratuitous, in addition to being prejudicial. That said, special counsels get very wide latitude, and their reports usually engage in some level of editorializing like this (the Mueller Report did the same thing). So, it is improbable that Hur actually would be sanctioned by the ABA.
And there is no way Biden could sue for defamation. First, Hur is immune from such a suit because he was acting in his capacity as a government official. Second, the bar for a defamation suit is very high; one has to prove that the defamer was reckless in their regard for the truth. There's no way to prove that Hur did not believe what he wrote. Third, what Hur wrote may have been exaggerated, but it's not demonstrably false. It is entirely plausible, for example, that a jury would find Biden sympathetic due to his age and/or mental state, and would not convict.
J.C. in Lockport, IL, asks: After Robert Hur's "findings," would part of your strategy for Biden be to say "yes" to debating Trump? It might be his best chance to eventually right that ship; however, I understand it could also fail spectacularly. Or do you think it's moot because Trump would decline anyway?
(V) & (Z) answer: As we note above, this absolutely could, and probably should, be a part of Biden's strategy. If he is well-rested and well-prepared, he should have no problem delivering a performance that is somewhere between "acceptable" and "pretty good." And if the bar has been set low (see above), that should be enough to do the President some positive good. If Trump were to have a few screw-ups at the same time—say, confusing Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi—then that would be a bonus.
Meanwhile, if Biden were to make clear that he'll show up to debate anywhere, anytime, and Trump were to decline, then Biden could make much hay out of "What's Trump got to hide? What's Trump afraid of?"
Incidentally, in our write-up yesterday, (Z) noted that he has also conflated Egypt and Mexico because people remember things associatively, and both of those places are known for their ancient pyramids. That's a historian's mental slip-up. News coverage on Friday suggests we had the dynamic right, but the association wrong. To wit, Biden has been dealing with the leaders of both countries when it comes to immigration and asylum. So, in his mind, they have something very much in common, even if that commonality is different than the one that is in (Z)'s mind.
K.E. in Newport, RI, asks: Although you wrote about the failure of the Senate to pass the bipartisan immigration bill, you did not go much into details about the political repercussions of it. Do you think Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will have much of a political career after this? Lankford really put himself out there to forge a compromise with Senate Democrats, but Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), killed it. Even McConnell couldn't save the bill, which indicates his influence in the party is on the decline.
It really seems like Lankford was stabbed in the back by fellow Republicans. The base is going to take him to the woodshed for negotiating with "satanic Democrats." Even though the bill addressed many Republican priorities, they still killed it because Donald Trump wants to make inaction on border security a campaign message.
I have no doubt that Trump allies will primary Lankford if he chooses to run again. Do you think Lankford would be able to survive a primary challenge after being thrown under the bus like this? And has McConnell been marginalized by Trumpers?
(V) & (Z) answer: Lankford certainly did not help himself here, given that his bill went up in flames. That said, he's an incumbent (90% reelection rate!), he has a long track record of conservative governance, he's got time for the passions of the moment to fade (he's not up again until 2028), and he can talk about how the provisions of the bill reflected conservative priorities. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tried to hammer out an immigration bill back in 2016, he suffered some damage too, but he ultimately overcame it. We think the same will be true for Lankford.
As to McConnell, his power is clearly on the wane. He's unquestionably out of step with the current iteration of the Republican Party. He's got health problems that he's never fully explained. He's older than Joe Biden (by 10 months). He's not likely to run for reelection, which means he's a de facto lame duck. It is improbable that he will get the Kevin McCarthy treatment, but it's fair to wonder if he'll win reelection as Republican leader when the next Congress takes its seats on Jan. 3, 2025. In fact, it's fair to wonder if he'll even stand for reelection to the leadership.
M.G. in Davis Junction, IL, asks: If the Supreme Court rules that Colorado does not have the right to prohibit Trump from appearing on the primary ballot, what repercussions would the Colorado Secretary of State face if she were to disregard the Supreme Court ruling and only print and distribute Republican primary ballots without Trump's name?
(V) & (Z) answer: This would not work in any state, and would especially not work in Colorado, which has all-mail-in voting, and thus produces its ballots well in advance of Election Day. As soon as it became clear Donald Trump's name was not on the ballot, he and the RNC would sue, and they would win instantly, with a judge ordering Colorado to print and distribute new ballots.
J.A. in Woodstock, VA, asks: As expected, while reading the appeals court's decision regarding Donald Trump's claim of immunity, the ruling contained innumerable references to other court decisions, the Annals of Congress, the Federalist Papers, correspondence among the founders, and the wording of the Constitution itself. I found that the summary by one of your contributors, A.R. in Los Angeles, was excellent, and had I known that summary was imminent, I would not have waded through the ruling.
Not expected was the use of centuries old dictionaries to define two words. The first word, "neverthele'ss," found on page 44, is defined using the Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1773). The second word, "liable," found page 46, is defined using the John Ash, New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1795).
My question is it usual and customary to use such old dictionaries to define terms in appellate decisions, or is this a case of out originalizing (not a spell checker word) the self-proclaimed originalists on the Supreme Court?
(V) & (Z) answer: We have not read as many court decisions as A.R. has, of course, but we've read enough to know that this is reasonably common, in cases where it's apropos. The meanings of words change over time, and one cannot use the modern meaning if it's not accurate. Otherwise, for example, a book from the early 1900s that read: "'Look at that gay man sucking on that fag!' I ejaculated," would be... badly misunderstood. And note that example is not entirely hypothetical; the Sherlock Holmes stories use all three words with their 19th century meaning. In particular, both Holmes and Watson ejaculate constantly when in each other's presence:It was a winter's day in the year 1899, towards the end of that very august century. My fellow lodger Mr. Sherlock Holmes was stalking around our shared rooms at 221B Baker Street. He was, although he'd never admit it, bored.
"HA!" Holmes ejaculated.
"What is it Holmes?" I asked...
L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: There's a huge issue in Trump's ongoing immunity case that I haven't seen discussed anywhere. Trump's argument is that he's entitled to immunity from prosecution for any official acts, even criminal ones. But isn't this an admission that he did, in fact, commit the crimes he's charged with? He's not saying he didn't break the law; he's saying that he was allowed to commit those crimes because this fell within the realm of his official duties. It seems akin to someone accused of murder seeking to get the case dismissed because it was in self-defense, not because they didn't do it. Can Jack Smith bring this up, or am I off base?
(V) & (Z) answer: We would say you are off base (your words, not ours).
Once someone is indicted, they are entitled to use any legal means possible to avoid conviction. There are good reasons to try to quash a prosecution, regardless of whether one is guilty or not. For example, defending oneself costs a lot of money. Also, sometimes juries get it wrong. So, trying to avoid prosecution does not, in fact, imply guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.
The only way it would be a problem is if Trump's argument right now is at odds with his future theory of the case. For example, if he tried to change course during the actual trial, and to say that he's not guilty of [CHARGE X] because he was acting in his capacity as a private citizen, and not as a sitting president. He could not switch gears like that and make it credible, having already argued for immunity on the basis that he was acting in his official capacity.
V.F. in Orlando, FL, asks: It is clear to anyone bothering to watch that U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon is in the tank for Donald Trump, as she has constantly sided with him no matter how ridiculous the filing. Since there is such clear evidence of bias, why hasn't Jack Smith requested the circuit court assign a new judge?
(V) & (Z) answer: Because it is very hard to get a judge removed, as the courts are loath to do that. And if Smith tried, and failed, he would then have an even more hostile judge to deal with.
D.M. in Santa Rosa, CA, asks: Rep. Tim Burchette (R-KY) has said that the various Chambers of Commerce were secretly behind the defeat of the Senate's border bill. He says that they want cheap labor and labor that cannot sue them if a worker gets hurt. That seems like a pretty big accusation, and one that should be getting more attention if it is true. It is also strange to hear such an anti-business statement from a Republican instead of one of The Squad. What do you think?
(V) & (Z) answer: It is improbable that any one factor was responsible; Donald Trump surely played a role, right-wing media played a role, interpersonal dynamics in the Senate played a role, etc. It's also impossible for those of us who are outsiders to know exactly how much arm-twisting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which is the one that usually takes on lobbying responsibilities) did.
That said, there is no reason to think Burchette is lying. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with its subsidiaries, has been pro-undocumented immigration for generations, for the very reason the Representative suggests. Other business interests have lobbied in this direction as well, perhaps most notably the various super PACs run by the Koch family.
M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Now that A.I. tools are available to everyone to use in whatever nefarious manner they choose, does the FCC have any authority to police the Internet, and could laws and regulations addressing false advertising be used to tamp down online fakery and to limit claims of censorship by those creating and posting deep fakes and disinformation? If the FCC has no jurisdiction, could the DoJ take up the gauntlet?
(V) & (Z) answer: The DoJ has both more resources, and a clearer claim to authority here, and so it would be that bureaucracy that took the lead in something like this. And the basis for it would be federal law that makes it a crime to "engag[e] in voter suppression by knowingly attempting to prevent or deter another person from voting or registering to vote based on fraudulent, deceptive, misleading, or spurious grounds or information."
There was actually a story on this front just this week, as a Texas company was identified as the source of AI-generated robocalls using Joe Biden's "voice." In this particular case, the investigation was conducted by the New Hampshire Department of Justice, as opposed to the federal one. There haven't been charges filed, as yet, but there might be in the future.
E.M. in Durham, NC, asks: In the past, you've talked about how polling methodology is more challenging these days because many pollsters have relied on random phone calls to reach a statistically significant array of respondents. This seems, to me, to be extremely flawed these days and I'm wondering if you can talk a bit about how pollsters are adjusting their collection methods for a society that is increasingly suspicious of random phone numbers. I've tried looking up methodologies on polls that you've cited but many of them just sort of handwave their collection practices away because, I presume, they don't want to share the secret blend of herbs and spices that make up their special sauce. As experts on polls, can you share any insight on how these operate these days?
(V) & (Z) answer: There is no magic formula to deal with a subgroup of the population that refuses to cooperate with pollsters. The problem nowadays is that something like 90% of the people called won't talk to the pollster simply because they are too busy and are not interested in politics. This is separate from the problem of Trump voters not wanting to talk to pollsters to skew the results.
Polls used to be random-digit-dialing on landlines. Now that is usually supplemented by calls to cell phones. In addition, some pollsters do some (or all) of their polling on the Internet. The samples they get there are far from random, but they can be forced into a demographic model. For example, if only 25% of the online respondents are women and the demographic model says half the voters are women, then each woman contacted online counts as two respondents. Similar corrections are made for every other demographic category. Contacting voters on landlines, cell phones, and on the Internet provides a bigger universe of respondents as there are people who will fill in a form online but not take a call from a pollster.
A totally different approach that some pollsters may use is getting lists of people from some source. The best one is the list of registered voters, but not all states provide this. Then these are contacted one way or another and demographic weighting is applied. This at least focuses on people who voted last time. A correction is needed for new voters who turned 18 since the past election. But this method also suffers from the problem of Trump voters refusing to cooperate. If the core problem is that they are embarrassed to tell a human being that they are going to vote for Trump, online surveys might be better. We don't know.
One potential way to correct for the shy-Trump-voter problem might be to compare the final 2020 polls with the election results. If Trump did 2% better in some state than the poll indicated, then the pollster could add 2% to Trump's score in the poll. We don't know if any pollster is doing this. As you note, they tend not to be very forthcoming about methodology.
One thing to note is that the 2022 polls were pretty good. Click here to see our final page for 2022. We felt Georgia was too close to call. And indeed, Raphael Warnock won by just 0.95% in the first round. We called Nevada wrong. Other than that, we got all of the other 33 Senate races right. The problem seems to be mostly when Trump is on the ballot. All we can do this time is hope the pollsters have found a workaround.
O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: You have said a number of times that polls this far out are not particularly useful or meaningful. And I know you have explained why on a few occasions. But could you please restate the reasons why we shouldn't be freaking out about Trump's seemingly dominant lead in the polls right now? I think many of your readers would like to hear some reassuring words in this regard.
(V) & (Z) answer: First of all, Trump's current lead is not dominant. On average, he's up about 3.5 points in national polls conducted this year. And that's primarily because he had a pretty good month of polling in January; in February his average has dropped to about 2 points, with the two most recent polls putting him up by just 1 point.
In any event, there are some general reasons not to pay attention to early polls in any election cycle. One of those is that it's hard to separate likely voters from not-likely voters. Those two groups tend to produce results that are different enough to be meaningful, and if you can't tell who is who, then you end up with muddy predictions. A second issue, stemming from the first, is that poll respondents often use their early-cycle responses to make some sort of statement. For example, most people who say they plan to vote third-party don't actually do it; they're just signaling unhappiness with the two major parties. A third issue is that 7 or 8 or 9 months is a very long time, and many things can and will happen to change the dynamics of the race.
For the current cycle, the third factor is particularly profound. Consider just the known unknowns: the Hur Report/Biden gaffes, Israel, immigration, abortion access, Donald Trump's criminal prosecutions, Trump's mental state/gaffes, etc. The second factor is very possibly profound; there is a distinct possibility that many respondents who want Joe Biden to step aside are currently "undecided" or "third party" voters, but will eventually hold their noses and vote Biden when the only remaining alternative is electing Trump.
R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: Why do we send aid to Israel? I can understand sending aid during Israel's early years, when it probably actually needed it and was the only democracy in the Middle East. Today, Israel is a wealthy, European-style, western nation, is it not? Can't they afford to buy their own military hardware now?
Why aren't we sending humanitarian aid to the Gazans? We are actually doing the opposite, threatening to cut off payments to UNRWA, the one organization that is getting as much humanitarian aid into Gaza as possible. This is because 12 of its 12,000+ employees (.001%) have been accused of participating in the Oct 7 attack on Israel. For an administration that is bleeding support among Arab-Americans and Gen Z progressives, this is not a good look.
(V) & (Z) answer: There are two primary reasons the U.S. sends aid to Israel. The first is that it is politically necessary, as both liberals and conservatives place enormous value on that nation's continued survival (albeit for different reasons). Israel's government knows this, and has some serious lobbying muscle ready should any president (or other politician) waver in their support for that nation.
The second is that Israel plays a fairly large role in the United States' national-security-related operations in the Middle East. Needless to say, the general public does not and cannot know most of the details of that partnership. However, to give one example, there is a U.S. military base in Israel called "Site 512." Details about it are classified, but it's widely known that one of its purposes is to watch for potential missile attacks, particularly those that might come from Iran.
And the U.S. has sent humanitarian aid to Gaza. The administration wants to send more, such that there was a big chunk of money for that purpose in the border bill. But we all know which party killed the bill.
R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, asks: What do you think it will take to break the right-wing information bubble that exists in this country? When I was a teen and first started using the Internet in the late 90s, I thought it would help bridge divides because it would give people access to many different viewpoints and sources of information. The opposite happened, and many people are being fed poison in their social media circles.
(V) & (Z) answer: Earlier this week, (Z) had the TV on in the background, waiting for M*A*S*H to come on. And so, he ended up semi-watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which the town got a new doctor (played, coincidentally, by William Christopher, who would go on to play Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H). The plot of the episode was that the new doctor looked very young, and he—gasp!—owned a set of golf clubs. So, nobody in town trusted this interloper, and nobody wanted to avail themselves of his services. It wasn't until a semi-emergency forced the issue that the doctor began to be accepted.
That show pretty accurately captures the culture of midcentury small Southern towns, especially since the fictional Mayberry, NC, was based on Andy Griffith's real hometown of Mt. Airy, NC. And the point of this narrative is that human beings are by nature tribal and insular, and tend to gravitate toward safe and comfortable bubbles. That is not a dynamic unique to the 21st century by any means.
In other words, the current right-wing bubble will undoubtedly evolve, and ideally become less fanatically partisan, but it will never collapse entirely (or even mostly). And we can speculate, with some confidence, about what that evolution will look like. The demographic that watches Fox is quite old, on average. Plus, more and more people are abandoning TV/cable. The time will come when that channel no longer has a meaningful audience. The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent, with the listenership of talk radio. So, in some number of years (5? 10? 15?), the current drivers of the right-wing mediasphere will take a backseat, and will be replaced by new drivers. The most likely candidates to lead the right into the next generation are podcasters like Joe Rogan, whose views do not line up exactly with the platform of the Republican Party, and whose main shtick is that they are anti-authority iconoclasts raging against the machine. In other words, more Steve Bannon than Tucker Carlson.
D.E. in Irvine, CA, asks: Virtually all responsible media, including yourselves, have framed the Stormy Daniels case as merely a bookkeeping error. I have wondered why it has not been viewed, at least in the chattersphere if not in the legal world, as an election interference case. After all, the publicly available information on the matter seems to indicate that the principal reason for all of the financial shenanigans was not to keep the aggrieved spouse ignorant of the affair, but rather to keep the matter quiet so that it would not affect the imminent presidential election. Have you any thoughts on the matter?
(V) & (Z) answer: We would not use the word "interference," we would use the word "fraud." And we absolutely believe that is what happened here, and that it's a crime worthy of prosecution.
When we write that it can be waved away as a bookkeeping error, that is not a statement of our views, it's us anticipating the line of attack that Donald Trump and his acolytes will use, probably successfully, to keep this from doing him much harm, even if he is convicted on all counts.
R.C. in Shawnee, KS, asks: Can a House Democrat make the motion to vacate the Chair, or would it have to be a Republican member? Even if the Democrats can make the motion, would they ever be able to force it to a vote on the floor of the House?
(V) & (Z) answer: A Democrat can make such a motion, and it's a privileged motion, so it would get a floor vote whether or not Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) likes it. However, if the Democrats don't have the votes, then it would be an empty political stunt, not unlike the impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas. And the Freedom Caucusers are unlikely to provide the needed votes to put the motion over the top, since they hate doing anything that the Democrats want. To make this work, the Democrats would have to round up a few Republicans, possibly from the pool of members who are retiring, willing to cross Johnson.
B.L. in Reading, MA, asks: In your item about the impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas, you wrote that Rep. Blake Moore (R-UT) switched his vote to nay so as "to preserve his right to bring up the articles again." Can you explain the mechanisms of the House that explain why this would make a difference? Is it the difference between a loss and a tie?
(V) & (Z) answer: To avoid a severe case of "sore loser" syndrome, if you are on the side that lost a vote, you cannot ask for another vote and another and another and another; only the "winning" side can ask for another vote. In this circumstance, the winning side was the "nay" votes, and so Moore was switching so as to be on the winning side.
J.A. in Monterey, CA, asks: Could the Democrats threaten Mike Johnson with impeachment if he continues pursuing the impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas, provided they take control of the House in 2024, because of his dereliction of duty in turning down an opportunity to make the border more secure by rejecting the Senate proposed bill?
(V) & (Z) answer: Well, they can't impeach him because only members of the Judicial and Executive branches can be impeached. For members of the Legislative branch, the penalty for misbehavior is expulsion, as happened to "George Santos." The good news for the Democrats is that expulsion requires no involvement from the Senate. The bad news is that it requires a 2/3 vote of the House, which would never happen with Johnson. And the Democrats would never try it, since expulsion is basically limited to criminal acts, and not to behaving in a highly partisan fashion.
T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, asks: Your mention of Westbrook Pegler (who I had heard of, and who Frank Sinatra hated so much that he urinated on his grave) aroused a question in my mind. Who are the 10 worst Americans from America's past that are almost completely forgotten today? I'm not talking about Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, Richard Nixon, Jerry Falwell, etc. Also not the various serial killers, spree killers, assassins, etc. who have (mercifully) faded from memory. I'm talking about people with reprehensible ideas who were famous in their day but would elicit "who?" from most of the current American populace.
(V) & (Z) answer: We are going to include people who would have been somewhere between "reasonably well-known" and "extremely well-known" in their day, but wouldn't be familiar to the great majority of modern Americans (even if a couple of them are probably somewhat familiar to readers of this site). In alphabetical order:
- Henry Billings Brown: The Supreme Court justice who wrote, with some enthusiasm, the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
- Eugene "Bull" Connor: If you see a picture of police and dogs attacking civil rights activists, the odds are they were acting on Connor's orders. He was the face of Southern, establishment opposition to racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement.
- Charles Coughlin: A demagogue who used his radio program to rail against the New Deal, and to insist that the country would never recover from the Great Depression until it "dealt with" the Jews.
- George Fitzhugh: The leading pro-slavery "intellectual" in the antebellum South; he wrote books and articles that celebrated the many upsides of slavery; presumably Ron DeSantis is a fan. At the same time, he denigrated industrialization and urbanization, often using dishonest or misleading arguments.
- Henry Clay Frick: He was a key figure in the construction of a luxury fishing resort for the wealthy people of Pittsburgh, including the cutting of corners in the construction of a man-made lake. He is thus substantially responsible for what happened when the lake's retaining wall collapsed, leading to the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which left 2,000+ people dead. On top of that, he was responsible for instigating and then breaking the Homestead Steel Strike, which was one of the bloodiest labor actions in U.S. history.
- John Heller and Raymond Vonderlehr: The two doctors responsible for the Tuskegee Experiment, in which Black men were used as lab rats without consent, and without proper treatment for their health problems, particularly syphilis.
- Denis Kearney: A mildly successful businessman who decided to get involved in politics, and who decided that the path to power was telling blue-collar white men that immigrants were to blame for all their problems. Yes, we know, hard to believe something like that could work. Kearney's anti-Chinese rhetoric led to all sorts of racial animosity and violence, and played a significant role in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The joke's on him, however, as the decline in the number of Chinese laborers merely led to a dramatic increase in Japanese immigration.
- George Lincoln Rockwell: After being discharged from the military in the 1950s for being a nutter, he founded the American Nazi Party, and wrote widely on white supremacy, Holocaust denial, and other such topics. Though he was assassinated in 1967, his books are still read by, and still have an influence on, American ultra-racists.
- A. Mitchell Palmer: Woodrow Wilson's attorney general; he used the anxious climate that immediately followed World War I as pretext for deploying DoJ muscle to harass perceived "troublemakers." So, over the course of several months in late 1919 and early 2020, federal officials raided the homes and businesses of many alleged leftists, with the particular focus being on Italian and Jewish immigrants.
- Daniel F. Royer: Bureau of Indian Affairs agent who manipulated events so as to trigger the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which remains the deadliest mass shooting in American history, and which brought an end to the Indian Wars.
Did we overlook anyone?
B.C. in Walpole, ME, asks: Everyone seems to agree that Donald Trump and Mike Johnson are staying in close touch with each other, and that Johnson is taking orders from Trump. I can't think of an example of the Speaker of the House of Representatives taking his marching orders from a private citizen not currently in office. It seems to me that Speaker is an extremely important and powerful position, and that it would be difficult for a person to reach that powerful position and yet be weak enough to be a puppet. Is this another boundary Trump has crossed, or is this something that happens from time to time?
(V) & (Z) answer: Speakers do tend to listen carefully to what the donor class has to say, for obvious reasons. But there's never been anything like the current dynamic, in terms of a single person (private citizen or no) being able to say "Jump" and having the speaker say "How High?"
In general, the tendency is in the other direction. That is to say, speakers in particular, and members of the legislature in general, make a point of showing that they are very much independent of outsiders. The closest historical parallel to the current situation, electorally, is when Theodore Roosevelt decided he might like to be president again in 1910 or so. Though the speaker at that time, Joseph Gurney Cannon, was a Republican, he took particular delight in defying the Rough Rider, since no damn cowboy was going to tell him how to run his chamber.
C.F. in Waltham, MA, asks: As a historian, does living through the current time give you a different perspective relative to the human history you have studied? That is, from the historical records you studied, did you picture the way people are acting now? Could you see that a dictator has the unique trait of creating his own reality and the ability to sell that reality? Do you feel that none of this is surprising or crazy, because it has happened over and over in the past, or do you think what is happening today is fundamentally unique? Alternatively, does today's situation make you see many historical situations with a much deeper understanding?
(V) & (Z) answer: As the saying goes: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." There's a fair bit of truth to that.
So yes, present events do serve to illuminate the past for (Z). Two obvious examples: (1) recent developments help clarify how easy it is to light the fuse on vicious antisemitism, and (2) Donald Trump's closest historical analogue is Andrew Jackson, and so Trumpism certainly helps in understanding the dynamics of what is called "Jacksonian Democracy."
And, of course, past events do help to make sense of the present. And it's not just the similarities, but also the differences. (Z) has studied the various Western fascists and dictators of the 20th century, and is abundantly clear that there are significant and very meaningful differences between them and Donald Trump. He has some of the qualities, but not all of them. Nor does he have the context that makes a dictatorship plausible. We've written about this a number of times, endeavoring to explain why; some readers find our arguments persuasive, while others do not.
C.C.B. in Beavercreek, OH, asks: This week has shown me that the majority party in the House can't even count votes properly, resulting in a failed vote on the floor. This leads me to a question: Which Congress could be considered the least effective in history?
For purposes of this discussion, let's define "effective" as carrying out their constitutional duties, and to refine it a bit let's also include regular order (i.e. passing all spending bills rather than CRs). Any other metrics you may add are fine with me.
(V) & (Z) answer: The Gilded Age congresses were, on the whole, very ineffective because it was an era of extreme partisanship and divided government. Meanwhile, the 80th Congress actually passed 800 bills, but their efforts did little enough to change the lives of average Americans that Harry S. Truman successfully based his 1948 campaign on the notion that the 80th was the "Do Nothing Congress."
That said, those are the bronze and silver medalists. The gold, in our view, goes to the 36th Congress, which was the last one to sit before the Civil War. The 36th proved unable to defuse sectional tensions (understandable, but lamentable), made those tensions worse with its fumbling (not good), and then did absolutely nothing to prevent the South from seceding as a reasonably well-armed power (very, very bad).
J.M. in Houston, TX, asks: (Z) has often written that historians try their best not to judge people by modern standards, but rather the moral standards of their time. This comes up frequently in discussions about the moral difference between slave-owning Founding Fathers and slave owners in the mid 1800s. What prompted this moral change? Was it: (1) The development of republican forms of government? That is to say, with feudalism and the absolute monarchy on its way out, slavery became suddenly antithetical to the value system of most western nations?, or (2) A fundamental change in how slavery operated that caused values and opinions to shift? That is to say, the development of antebellum chattel slavery, which was certainly different than serfdom or other forms of slavery as practiced earlier in human history.
Was it predominantly one or the other? was it both? Was it other things that I am not smart enough to think of?
(V) & (Z) answer: You have correctly identified the two key dynamics, which exist in a chicken-and-egg relationship. That is to say, as republican ideals became widespread, maintaining the slave system became problematic and hypocritical. That caused the slave system to evolve; first to exclude indentured servitude and to limit slavery only to people of African descent, later to involve much harsher discipline and much more aggressive efforts to protect the institution (e.g., slave patrols, gag rules, attacks on abolitionists, etc.). The harsher that slavery got, the harder it was to square it with republican ideals, the greater and louder the opposition to slavery grew, and... the harsher the institution became. Rinse and repeat.
F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: What would have happened if Republican John C. Frémont had won the presidential election of 1856? Would the Southern states have tried to secede? If yes, how would Frémont have reacted?
(V) & (Z) answer: If Frémont had won in 1856, the South would still have seceded; they just would have done it a few years earlier. To start, Frémont ran on the same free soil platform (no slavery in the territories) that Abraham Lincoln ran on, and that prompted the actual secession of the South. Second, Frémont was much more overtly anti-slavery than Lincoln was. Third, Frémont was much less politic than Lincoln was, and tended to shoot off his mouth. So, even if the U.S. had made it to Frémont's inauguration intact, his response to Dred Scott (he would have denounced the decision loudly) or to the mess in Kansas (he would have come out in favor of admittance as a free state) would almost assuredly have convinced the South that Frémont was a danger to the slave system and that they had to go.
At that point, things get dicey. Because Frémont was not the politician that Lincoln was, he would have struggled to manage the Union war effort. In fact, he would have been very Jefferson Davis-like: whiny, often indecisive, prone to meddle in military affairs, etc. Given that the Union barely won, even with its significant advantage in political leadership and industrial might, it's fair to think that if it was Frémont running the show instead of Lincoln, the South probably would have achieved its independence.
E.M. in Inglewood, CA, asks: While I feel like I had a pretty decent high school education on the lead-up to the Civil War, and the various reprehensible laws (such as the Missouri Compromise), which were hard-fought between the Northern and Southern states, I'd never paused to think much about why the South cared so much about slavery in new states (beyond perhaps power in the Senate). Last week, in response to a question about why the South needed to expand the slave system, you wrote: "Because a major part of the slave economy was the sale of enslaved people to new slaveholders. For that market to thrive, it was necessary to constantly bring new lands under cultivation by slave labor."
This sentence struck me profoundly and I feel like I need to learn more than my survey of the topic in an AP class taught me years ago; where should I start?
(V) & (Z) answer: To start, here are four classics in the study of the slave system: Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams, is about the relationship between the two systems, and how capitalists benefited from slavery, but ultimately turned against the institution.
Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery, by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, is also economic in its focus, but is about the profitability of the slave system, and how Lost Cause arguments that slave owners were just beneficent paternalists who weren't in it for the money are nonsense. This one has a lot of statistical information.
American Slavery, American Freedom, by Edmund Morgan, advances an extremely influential argument that white elites, way back in the 1660s and 1670s, took aggressive steps to make slavery a race-based institution, and to cause poor white people to see themselves as white first, and poor second. In other words, the white elites made sure that Southern society was organized along racial lines, rather than economic lines.
And finally, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, by Eugene Genovese, is a magisterial work that digs into many different elements of the slave system, particularly daily life under slavery. When you're in grad school for U.S. history, this is the one book you're basically assured of having to read. Genovese was a Marxist when he wrote the book, incidentally, so it's pretty pinko, and tends to frame things in terms of proletariat (the enslaved) versus the bourgeois (plantation owners and managers). He later became a fairly outspoken conservative.
Note that all of those are serious academic works, which means that they're written at a pretty high level, and can sometimes be dry (especially Fogel and Engerman). That said, all of these scholars were above-average writers, and they know their subjects inside and out, so the books are certainly accessible for interested readers (especially Morgan). (Z) read Fogel and Engerman, the toughest of the four, in high school, and had no trouble with it.
If you want to read specifically about the issues raised in last week's question and answer, then take a look at Building a House Divided: Slavery, Westward Expansion, and the Roots of the Civil War by Stephen G. Hyslop, which was just published last year, and is more targeted at a popular audience.
D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: What is a dedicated MAGA crew member to do? They have to watch the Super Bowl, but who will they root for? They can't root for the Kansas City Chiefs because they will be mind-controlled by the She-Demon, Taylor Swift, to vote for more vaccines and Joe Biden. They can't root for the San Francisco 49ers because, well, it's San Francisco and Gays and Liberals and Woke and California all trying to force them into being gay, woke liberals living in San Francisco, CA, worshipping Nancy Pelosi. They can't root for an asteroid to slam into the stadium because that would destroy the city they go to cheat on their wives with underage girls and boys and blow all their money so they can have a legitimate reason to be angry and bitter all the time. That has to be the ultimate conundrum ever. Will someone think of the MAGAers!
(V) & (Z) answer: Guess they have to root for Reba McEntire to refuse to leave the stage after the halftime show, thus turning the Super Bowl into an unexpected country music concert.
A.M. in Lyme, CT, asks: How are you guys dealing with ChatGPT et al. in your courses, particularly in the context of writing assignments?
(V) & (Z) answer: (V) is emeritus, and doesn't teach too much these days. When he does, it's classes where ChatGPT would not be a problem. Operating systems courses do not ask things like: "Pontificate on the pros and cons of MacOS vs. Windows 11. The questions are very technical and long-winded answers from ChatGPT would never work.
(Z), on the other hand, has to be very much concerned about this problem. So, on the first day of classes, he shares some frank remarks about the risks of getting caught (possible expulsion), and that even if a student "gets away" with using AI, their essay will be a D+/C- at best, because ChatGPT produces terrible content (poorly written, and ZERO evidence). He also notes, quite correctly, that someone can B.S. their way to a diploma without getting an education, but that people who DO have an education can tell the difference between "educated diplomate" and "B.S. diplomate." And the problem, he observes, is that if a person graduates with a B.S. diploma, and THEN discovers that "my professor was right," the problem is un-fixable unless the person wants to re-start their education.
Thereafter, (Z) assigns essay topics that aren't really ChatGPT-able. To take one real example from November of last year:The former baseball player Steve Garvey is running for California's U.S. Senate seat as a Republican (he just announced a couple of weeks ago). Examine his campaign website, some news stories about him, possibly some videos of his appearances, and identify three of the political strategies that we discussed in class, and that you see him using.
It is plausible that ChatGPT might be able to produce some sort of essay on Steve Garvey the politician. But it won't be able to produce an essay that incorporates three ideas from (Z)'s lecture "Suburban Warriors: California Politics in the Postwar Era."
And finally, after the first essay has been submitted, (Z) does a homework assignment in which he gives the students three essays to grade. The first is an A essay written by an actual student (used with their permission, and with their name removed). The second is a B/C essay written to be OK-but-not-great by (Z), since you can't really go to an actual student and say "I need an example of a crappy essay. Can I use yours?" The third is written by ChatGPT. After the students have done their grading, (Z) calculates and shares the average grades. They always get the A essay and the B/C essay on the mark. They also tend to give the ChatGPT essay poor marks, and poor comments (for example, "you don't have any evidence") despite the fact that they don't know it's ChatGPT-generated (about 1 student in 100 figures it out). This exercise serves as a pretty good illustration that ChatGPT produces very poor work in identifiable ways.
Here is the question we put before readers last week:
T.P. in Cleveland, OH, asks: You wrote: "...Sesame Street, which is in the running with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and maybe 60 Minutes for the television program that has done the most positive good for the world."
OK, I'll bite. Fellow readers, what is the television program that has done the most positive good for the world, and why do you say so?
And here some of the answers we got in response:
J.A. in New York City, NY: I immediately thought of two shows, which, incidentally, both starred Levar Burton.
The first is more of a franchise, but Star Trek in most of its incarnations has had an immeasurable impact on the upbringing of so many children both in the U.S. and internationally.
Yes it spawns jokes and mockery about its impassioned fanbase, but it also instills a sense that all of us are in it together. From the very beginning, it brought together (mostly) white men, a Black woman, a Japanese man, and a—gasp—Russian character back in the 60s. It's hard to illustrate how much the show I grew up with (Star Trek: The Next Generation) impacted my view of humanity and gave me an innate anger and frustration toward xenophobia and racism. It also makes us believe there is something better coming, past all of this (albeit after a nuclear war, I guess).
The other one I thought of was Reading Rainbow. Kind of along the lines of Sesame Street, I still remember the jingle to the show, even though I just started on my fifth decade of life. A show hosted by a Black man, launched less than two decades after Black Americans were guaranteed their rights to vote, that was aimed at encouraging kids to read and to make it exciting affected me to this day. Even though I may have not cracked a paper book open for close to 15 years, when I was younger it made me bury my face in a book at the school library every chance I could, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
J.L. in Los Angeles, CA: You're gonna get a lot of Trekkies giving you the exact same answer: Star Trek. Granted, it's up to about a dozen different series, but let's focus on the original 1966-69 series. At a very basic level, Star Trek provided viewers with hope for a bright future where war, famine, disease, prejudice, and all sorts of other scourges of society has been eliminated to form a utopian Federation of Planets. The challenges that America and the world had to face in the turbulent 60s were now problems that the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise helped solve on different alien planets week after week. But beyond letting viewers to dream of a better tomorrow, it also inspired them to actually try to create that better tomorrow.
To take just one example, the person who invented the first handheld phones in the 1970s, Martin Cooper, said that he got the inspiration for his invention from Star Trek. The early flip-phones were, in fact, nearly identical to the flip-activated communicators used by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock a couple of decades earlier (but also three centuries in the future!). What are Tasers, but phasers set on stun? U.S. Army doctors developed "jet injections" in the 1970s, which use a high-pressure liquid injection under the skin rather than a hypodermic needle to administer vaccinations, essentially the same as Dr. McCoy's hyposprays. Lt. Uhura had the first-ever earbud. Spock was putting 3.5" floppy disks into his computer a decade and a half before the rest of us. We can now load a universal translator into our phone apps and activate our computers with our voices while they talk back to us. And each year, the QualcommTricorder XPrize offers $10 million "...to incentivize the development of innovative technologies capable of accurately diagnosing a set of 13 medical conditions independent of a healthcare professional or facility, ability to continuously measure 5 vital signs, and have a positive consumer experience." And let us not forget that the first prototype Space Shuttle orbiter was named Enterprise.
While not every one of these modern day technologies was directly inspired by Star Trek, tens of thousands of viewers growing up in the 1960s and 70s were inspired to become scientists because of Mr. Spock, engineers because of Scotty, and doctors and nurses because of Bones and Nurse Chapel. And Nichelle Nichols, the Black actress who played bridge officer Nyota Uhura, went on to help NASA recruit women and people of color to apply to become astronauts in the mid-1970s. The astronaut class in 1978 included Guy Bluford, the first Black American in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Later, Nichelle would help recruit astronaut Mae Jamison, who not only became the first Black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 but also made a cameo appearance herself on Star Trek: The Next Generation as a transporter officer on the U.S.S. Enterprise-D.
Having inspired so many to do so much, Star Trek must be considered a force for positive good in the world. Live long and prosper.
A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK: Doctor Who.
It's been running since 1963, and in terms of cumulative audiences and reach across time, has to be one of the most-viewed and most-influential TV shows in the history of the medium. It has fans on every continent (and I'm willing to bet that includes Antarctica). From the very beginning, it's tried to teach the virtues of tolerance and the need to understand other cultures (see, for example, 1963 story "The Aztecs"). The hero almost never wields a weapon and usually tries to avoid violence, and—when it's in the mood to—the show engages with important historical themes. As positive messaging for all ages goes, it's hard to beat the 12th Doctor's farewell speech (though the international pear lobby may disagree):I've got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember—hate is always foolish and love is always wise. Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and you mustn't tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway. Except children. Children can hear it. Sometimes—if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name. But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever.
Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.
Doctor—I let you go.
Also, while ostensibly a two-hearted shape-changing time-traveling alien from the planet Gallifrey, The Doctor certainly looks and sounds British.
P.C. in Austin, TX: I have a great fondness for all of the Norman Lear and derivative shows from the 70s: All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Rhoda, One Day at a Time, Maude, Sanford and Son and Good Times.
The diversity of character and message, taking on extremely controversial topics, especially at the time (homosexuality, abortion, racism and code-switching, poverty, drugs) with a firm but gentle, yet realistic, hand. This was in the days of "bussing," which may have been an awful and disruptive program, but I do credit it for opening my eyes to diversity and fostering empathy and understanding, and reinforcing that it is our commonality that is so much more important than our differences. For good or bad, television (done right) can be (or was able to be—past tense) a force for good.
What a juggernaut. In retrospect, I feel bad for the other networks. I remember my favorite nights were being able to stay up late enough to watch the entire set of back-to-back shows for about 3 hours, all on CBS, until The Carol Burnett Show ended at 11 p.m. Eastern Time.
Those were the days!
P.M. in Port Angeles, WA: I can't decide between All in the Family and Saturday Night Live. Both have profoundly influenced the way people look at one another. The iconic portrayal of the conservative/reactionary/patriarch by Carrol O'Connor stands as an outstanding representation of white male privilege, yet done in an endearing manner. Would it be so that this faction of the population behaved as civilly as Archie Bunker. Even his surname is indicative of the besieged mentality of this sector of our populace. I believe that show profoundly influenced positively many, many people.
So I guess that is my first choice. However, Saturday Night Live deserves mention for the many voices it has launched over the past half a century. It is, I believe, the longest running variety show on television. That in and of itself is prove of a profound influence on people. Clearly, I view them as a positive influence on the world. I was fortunate to be living in Brooklyn Heights when the show launched and viewed the first episodes from a vantage point of the Brooklyn Bridge. What a treat.
T.B. in Leon County, FL: M*A*S*H first came to mind, as both liberals and conservatives loved it for the portrayal of conservatives and liberals, respectively, as doofuses, and the reruns seem to remain popular. Hmmm—insight as to why The Donald, etc., remain popular with right-wing supporters: we easily overlook the negatives of the characters we associate ourselves with.
But then up jumped the show "that changed everything"—Desi Arnaz's keeping the reels of shown shows of I Love Lucy made the world of reruns possible. (How could I live without the occasional refreshing look at Gidget or Paladin?) It doesn't hurt that Wikipedia claims I Love Lucy "is often regarded as both one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms in history."
A.G. in Scranton, PA: Hill Street Blues, a brilliant and groundbreaking show in so many ways, gets my nod.
It made police shows about reality, it opened up evening television to long story arcs and plotlines, and it offered real and relevant (though very badly dated to some) discussions on race, homosexuality, sex workers' lives and predicaments, the militarization of inner-city police forces (depicted as comically inept), drug addiction, suicide issues among those who serve and once served, the vagaries and hypocrisies of criminal "justice," and, perhaps most tellingly of the writers, alcoholism.
The show was brilliantly written, realistically cast, rather sexist by today's standards... yeah, gotta admit that, kinda creepy when it comes to J.D. LaRue's obsession with underage girls... that's not so great, either, but it's one of those "in the context of the times it which it came about" things that are so hard to discuss with the hypersensitive people passing themselves off as critics of society today.
Women were depicted, most of them, as being rather flaky and a little too concerned with getting with a nice man, but many of them were strong, empowered, and tough. That wasn't common on television back then.
The gruffest character, the detective who was always growling at people and was the butt of so many jokes, showed the first real defense I can recall on television of a man he knew who happened to be gay.
The SWAT officer was initially depicted as being a model of Reagan masculinity, and so was insanely over the top about fighting crime with tanks and fully automatic weapons. Eventually, his PTSD from Vietnam became a storyline and his character's complexities became apparent and made more real and less humorous.
A.B. in Wendell, NC: I give props to Married: With Children. When that show came out, circa 1989, I just was amazed... finally a show depicting what families WERE REALLY LIKE!! Not the stupid Hogan Family or the Brady Bunch where everyone always kissed and made up. Then again, I came from a very dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father. I was just relieved to see a show that looked more like what MY family looked like... and that it was NOT just me.
Though no show could ever really depict what my family was like, growing up... it would be a horror show, not a sitcom. That being said, today, Mom and I are very tight. My brother and father were the misfiring pistons in our family.
J.S. in Wada, NL: The program that has done the most positive good? To me, the obvious candidate would be The Muppet Show.
A world of inflated egos certainly benefits from some deflation, the more playful the better. A show that embraces human flaws lovingly, and that in a convincing "show, don't tell" fashion emphasizes the unbreakable connections that form humanity. As a bonus, it employs a supremely powerful device to do so: an infinitely deep joy of making music together, to such depth that the mockery ceases to be. Blissful. Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection!
W.F. in Orlando, FL: The television show Emergency! has literally saved lives. A study in 1968 showed that a soldier critically injured on the battlefield in Vietnam had a better chance of survival than a critically injured car accident victim on a California freeway. It's not hard to understand why. At the time, accident victims and health emergencies were not treated on the scene. Instead, would-be patients were scooped up by a couple of ambulance drivers without treatment and were driven to the hospital, where healthcare treatment was initiated. Many patients were lost by the delay in treatment.
Emergency! dramatized the lives of two paramedics in Los Angeles County. It's hard to imagine, but when the show premiered in 1972 there were only six paramedic units in the United States. The show was so influential that by the time the show went off the air after six seasons, there were paramedic units in all 50 states. A recent reunion show was entitled "The Show that Saved Your Life." It's doubtless that the improvement in medical services inspired by the show has saved countless lives.
D.S. in Newark, OH: America's Most Wanted. After the death of his son, John Walsh could have drowned his grief in a whiskey bottle and I would not have blamed him. Instead he took a horrible situation and made some good out of it. He helped apprehend murderers, rapists and other criminals, some who had fled the U.S. He did so by engaging the public. This made the U.S. and the world a safer place.
F.C. in Sequim, WA: As much good as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers have done in the world. At some point, you can count to 50 and you have several friends in the neighborhood. But what happens when the kitchen drain is clogged or the toilet won't flush? You won't be calling Ghost Busters. You will be looking through past episodes of This Old House! All hail Bob Vila!
C.S. in Newport, Wales, UK: BBC News.
Because BBC News set standards for news programming that have been copied all over the world over decades. And thus led to many TV news programs across the world striving for truthfulness, balance, etc.
H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA: The CBS Evening News, anchored by Walter Cronkite from 1962 to 1981. A national public opinion poll named him the most trusted man in America, and many people referred to him (either sincerely or sarcastically) as "Uncle Walter." He informed most citizens about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the failures and successes of space program, elections and assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the Iran hostage crisis. In February 1968, he speculated that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and the U.S. should seek a negotiated settlement. President Johnson supposedly said "If I've lost Walter Cronkite I've lost Middle America" and chose not to run for reelection a month later. As Cronkite said at the end of each newscast, "And that's the way it is."
R.G.N. in Seattle, WA: I would be hard pressed to pick a TV program that created a more positive good for the world than Edward R. Murrow's See It Now. The prototype of television newsmagazines, See it Now provided in depth coverage of the issues of its day; most notably Murrow's uncensored dissemination of information during the American anticommunist hysteria of the early 1950s, including the 1954 he exposé of the dubious tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
I.R. in Zurich, Switzerland: I want to nominate Planet Earth (and its successors and spin-offs). It brought the beauty and fragility of life on our blue marble to countless millions, in at the time unprecedented quality. And with the soothing, emphatic, but also insistent voice of David Attenborough, who simply has to live on until the last poacher on Earth gets caught.
C.J. in Boulder, CO: I'd nominate the original incarnation of Mythbusters, which my family first saw in New Zealand, which was produced by an Aussie outfit, but which was filmed in the U.S. and appeared on the Discovery Channel. This show was distinct from the usual science show of dutiful lecture, instead demonstrating excitement in devising and conducting experiments to test various myths. In other words, conducting a scientific inquiry with glee. As we lurch away from the Enlightenment, this at least was a place for non-scientists to better understand what science really is (a process, not an encyclopedia) and see how it can yield understanding that can be applied elsewhere (not to mention maybe inspiring some future scientists). How influential was the show? Well, then-president Barack Obama got to help test a myth...
B.B. in Pasadena, CA: The question asks what program has done the most positive good for the WORLD.
Being unaware of most programs outside of the U.S., if one posits that today's world IS better for it, and if I have to stick with just one program, I would nominate Watch Mr. Wizard with Don Herbert. Wikipedia states: "It enjoyed consistent praise, awards, and high ratings throughout its history. At its peak, Watch Mr. Wizard drew audiences in the millions, but its impact was far wider. By 1956, it had prompted the establishment of more than five thousand Mr. Wizard science clubs, with an estimated membership greater than one hundred thousand."
Countless number of scientists, engineers and many other related professions were spurred to the field by Mr. Herbert. They brought forth many of the marvels of our modern world. A fascinating list of inventions starting in the 50's and not limited to Americans can be found here.
Certainly a major impact for the entire world.
I was hard pressed to pick, but if you will allow me leeway, I'd really root for the genre, the top three that have affected me the most being the aforementioned Mr. Wizard, the memorable Bell Science series with Dr. Frank Baxter (which WAS broadcast but went on to be seen by countless millions of school children—including me—via 16mm film) and an NBC program called Exploring with Dr. Albert Hibbs.
G.W. in Oxnard, CA: The Big Bang Theory. A show that lets the rest of you understand the enormous burden of being the smartest person in the room.
K.S. in Baltimore, MD: It's the Olympic Games. Summer and winter. We see nations come together, and celebrate a new venue that showcases national pride. The Jamaican bobsled team! Nadia Comaneci! The Montreal streaker! Every opening ceremony a delight to see. There is no competition. Just when you think you've seen it all, it's back AGAIN.
M.S. in Canton, NY: Hockey Night in Canada. Since 1952, this show on CBC has given our neighbors to the north something to keep them entertained on dark winter Saturday nights, and thus diverted them from working on their plans for an invasion of the U.S.
R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA: The show that has done the most positive good for the world is... none other than NFL RedZone. You simply cannot watch the NFL any other way, especially if you play in multiple fantasy football leagues. It's got 7 hours of commercial-free football every Sunday and every TD at the end of the day's games are shown in a montage before they sign off. It is the most addictive sports programming you'll ever watch.
We're a little confused by that last answer. If NFL RedZone focuses on showing touchdowns, then why would someone in Pittsburgh want to watch? Strange.
Also, we had several requests for a rundown of the most common responses to the question. Star Trek and its various incarnations were in first place by a mile, followed by All in the Family, Planet Earth, Saturday Night Live and then a tie between Maude and The Jeffersons.
Here is the question for next week:
E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: If you got to ask the questions at a Trump pre-Super Bowl presidential interview, and he was compelled to answer the very first one honestly and fully (i.e., he took "truth serum"), what question would you ask?
Submit your answers to email@example.com, with subject line "Trump Truth"!