So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
(Dignity, lyrics by Bob Dylan)
On February 4, 2020, Americans were cheated.
Either as a Trump supporter or a Never Trump’er, we were entitled to a bit of dignity during the State of the Union address (SOTU). Instead Democrats and Republicans came together in a bipartisan moment of disrespect.
We’ve been here before under similar circumstances. We did measurably better then.
Impeachment loomed over the country in 1974 and 1999. Still, two different presidents and an opposing Congress managed to give dignity a front-row seat in the People’s House. I was in my early 20s when I watched Richard Nixon’s January 30, 1974 SOTU, and in my late 40s twenty-five years later when Bill Clinton delivered his on January 19, 1999.
Both speeches were judged as either brilliant or bunk, depending on where people placed their loyalties. Nixon, a Republican, gave his 1974 address to a Congress controlled by Democrats. Clinton, a Democrat, gave his 1999 address to a Congress controlled by Republicans.
While informal Watergate hearings were well underway, the formal impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon started on February 6, 1974, just seven days after his SOTU. Nixon and Speaker Carl Albert shook hands. And Albert presented Nixon to Congress with “distinct privilege and high personal honor.” At the end of Nixons’s address, Albert again extended his hand. Nixon took it and the men shook hands.
Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, thirty-one days before his 1999 SOTU. Because Clinton’s Senate trial was already underway (it started on January 7, 1999), there were suspicions that Clinton might postpone the SOTU. Rather than withering and whining in the face of impeachment, Clinton gave his address as scheduled.
Bill Clinton shook hands with Dennis Hastert, the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House. And Hastert introduced the President of the United States with “high privilege and distinct honor.” Like Nixon and Albert, Clinton and Hastert shook hands again at the end of the SOTU.
Nixon dodged the matter of Watergate through his formal remarks, but added a personal note before leaving the rostrum. Nixon called on Congress to bring investigations to an end declaring that “one year of Watergate is enough.”
Nixon got it half-right. The investigations didn’t end. But one year of Watergate was enough. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Bill Clinton didn’t mention impeachment at all during his 1999 SOTU. Instead, Clinton reflected on giving the final address of the twentieth century; a century of discovery, depression, war and revival. Then he said, ”A hundred years from tonight another American president will stand in this place and report on the state of the union, and he — or she — will look back on the twenty-first century shaped in so many ways by the decisions we make here and now.” Clinton and Congress ended the final SOTU of the twentieth century on a high note for the America.
And so it was with this backdrop I set my expectations for 2020.
Knowing that impeachment hung over the evening, and guessing thatTrump’s words would be both lofty and barbed, I still expected the speech to be bookended by a show of dignity. It wasn’t.
Trump immediately thrust the first foil. Handing his written remarks to the Vice President and the Speaker, and seeing Pelosi’s extended hand, he passed it by. Not by mistake. Intentionally.
Pelosi parried by dispensing with the traditional formal presidential introduction. No high privilege and distinct honor for Trump. Pelosi’s introduction was bitter and terse. Strangers on the street would do better. In fewer than sixty seconds the absence of dignity was obvious.
At the end of the president’s address, with Trump’s breath still warm from saying “God bless America,” Pelosi began ripping up his written speech. Not casually. Deliberately. Meant to be seen. Sure to be noticed.
Why expect Trump to shake Pelosi’s hand? She was the face of impeachment. And knowing full well that Trump was going to be acquitted by the Senate in fewer than twenty-four hours, why expect Pelosi to show Trump any respect?
Because we deserved better. For those ninety minutes the public deserved to be spared political indiscretions. Partisan knocks should have been saved for on-air pundits. Or for off-air living room and barroom brawls.
Watching Pelosi’s reactions to the braggadocious speech, and seeing Trump’s gallery antics, I was hoping Pelosi would search her memory for her first SOTU as Speaker of the House.
With the then president’s approval rating on track to hit all-time lows, Nancy Pelosi said she had the “high privilege and distinct honor” of introducing George W. Bush to Congress for his January 23, 2007 SOTU.
Then, beginning his remarks, Bush gave Pelosi an historic introduction.
He said, ”Tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the state of the union message with these words. Madam Speaker.”
Pelosi introduced Bush. Bush introduced Pelosi. And they shook hands. Politics aside, dignity carried the evening. Not just dignity. Class.
I wondered what was different now. What changed from 2007 to 2020?
Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed. Dignity never been photographed…
“Baseball isn’t statistics — baseball is DiMaggio rounding second.” (attributed to Jimmy Breslin by Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 1975)
Breslin’s mild dissent suggests that the language of results trumps the language of averages. Score the most runs and you win. But what about batting averages? That sacred statistic notwithstanding, score just one more run than your opponent, regardless of your opponent’s hits, and you win. 1-0 or 11-10. It doesn’t matter.
In September, October and November, Donald Trump took his game on the road to help four candidates in four states circle the bases. Let’s look at the president’s game in North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana considering each rally as an inning in an on-going game.
Fair warning. This Act is long. About 2,500 words. If you only care about the score at the bottom of the 4th, it’s 2-2. A tie. But where is the game headed? Who will round 2nd on the way to home for the winning run?
First inning: September 9, 2019 Fayetteville, North Carolina
On September 9, Trump went to bat for Republican Dan Bishop running in a special election on September 10 to become North Carolina’s congressman from the Ninth District. You may remember Bishop for his introduction of North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill” when he served in the North Carolina legislature. You may also have dismissed Bishop for that same memory.
You’re wondering, “Why a special election in September?” Here’s the short story. In regular election Republican Mark Harris, an evangelical minister, beat Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. But after uncovering the fraudulent mishandling of more than 1,000 absentee ballots by Harris’s team, the State Board of Elections called for a new election. Citing health issues, Harris decided not to run in the special election. Likely a good call for both Harris and the Republicans. Dan Bishop won the primary race and became the Republican candidate, again going up against McCready. There are plenty of news stories about Harris and the bungled election. But here is one from The New Yorker that sums it up.
Electing Bishop was important. At the Fayetteville rally Trump packed his team roster with Don Jr.’s girlfriend, Don Jr., the we-love-Trump Diamond and Silk duo, and VP Mike Pence. After the warm-ups the 5,500 crowd inside the Crown Expo Center erupted with “USA! USA! USA!” as the president made his way to center stage.
Trump immediately told the crowd, “Tomorrow you’ll head to the polls to elect a congressman who always puts America first, Dan Bishop.”
About 35 minutes into the rally, Dan Bishop, the champion of biblically apportioned toilets, took a six-minute turn at the microphone to remind the audience of why it was important to defeat “socialist Democrats” and to “send a congressman with backbone” to Washington. Referring to McCready, Bishop called him “another Nancy Pelosi clone.”
The replay in North Carolina’s Ninth District had to go right. While Harris’s fraud wiped out the general election results, Trump still needed a Republican congressional win. And he got it. Bishop beat McCready by 3,700 votes for a 2-point margin win. Certainly not a sweep; but close wins are still wins.
Trump was up 1-0.
Second inning: November 1, 2019, Tupelo, Mississippi
In 2016 Trump crushed a home run in Mississippi, beating Hillary Clinton by nearly 18 points. He was back in Mississippi on November 1 to carry the Republican Lt. Governor, Tate Reeves, into the Governor’s mansion. Reeves was running to succeed Governor, Phil Bryant, a Republican who was ending his second and final term in office. Reeves faced Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat in Mississippi holding statewide office.
The last time a Democrat moved into the governor’s mansion was 20 years earlier, in 1999. Trump was in Tupelo four days before the general election to maintain that hitting streak. Feeling safer than in North Carolina, there were no headliners or designated hitters here. Just Donald Trump.
The president opened with: “Four days from now, this state will head to the polls and vote to continue our extraordinary progress with your next governor, Republican Tate Reeves.”
But before Reeves had a chance to talk to the 10,000 folks gathered in the BancorpSouth Arena, Trump took a shot at the Democrats and impeachment.
“It’s all a phony deal, this whole impeachment scam, to try to undermine the 2020 election and to de-legitimatize one of the greatest elections, maybe the greatest … I mean, let’s give George Washington credit, but everybody expected he was going to win … that we’ve ever had.”
(Yes, George, let’s give you some credit. But your inaugural crowd was certainly smaller.)
After 50 minutes, Reeves took a three-minute turn at the microphone. While Bishop had harped on “socialist Democrats,” Reeves took his shots at “radical liberals” and included Jim Hood in that group.
Outgoing Governor Phil Bryant stood to ask “Is this Trump country?” to a thunderous refrain of “USA! USA! USA!” After Bryant, US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith asked, pointing to Trump over her left shoulder, “Is this guy incredible or what?”
Glancing around the press pool I imagined that others were thinking about “or what?”
Tupelo needed no headliners. With no election drama, Tate Reeves beat Jim Hood by about 48,000 votes. A solid win.
But were there some cracks in Mississippi’s Republican armor? Hood flipped five counties that went for Trump in 2016. And Reeves’s 5.5-margin win, while still healthy, was substantially off the mark of Trump’s 18-point win. Could Mississippi red be fading?
Trump up 2-0 after two innings.
Third inning: November 4, 2019, Lexington, Kentucky
If Phil Bryant was the popular outgoing Republican Governor of Mississippi, Matt Griswold Bevin, the incumbent first-term Republican Governor in Kentucky, was the opposite. Bevin ranked dead last or near the bottom of polls judging the popularity of governors across the United States. And Bevin seemed to be ok with that.
There’s a reason Trump saved his Kentucky rally for the night before the election. Even in red Kentucky, the race for governor was no sure bet. Going into election day, a Mason-Dixon Line Poll had Bevin and his challenger, Andy Beshear, in a dead heat, each with 46% of the vote.
With Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the Kentucky legislature, Bevin had passed conservative labor laws, including a “right to work” policy to undercut unions, and a repeal of the prevailing wage which guaranteed public works employees base salaries. He signed several anti-abortion laws, such as requiring ultrasounds and showing patients pictures of fetuses before performing an abortion. All deeds that normally play well for conservative Republicans.
But Bevin was his own worst enemy. He either misread or ignored the Kentuckians he served. Bevin fought to shove people off of Medicaid and cut teachers’ pensions. When teachers protested, he called them “selfish,” said they were throwing a “temper tantrum,” and suggested teachers had a “thug mentality.” When teachers went on strike, Bevin said, “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them. I guarantee you somewhere today a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone, because a single parent didn’t have any money to take care of them.”
Watch the video here and listen to Bevin in his own words. If Dale Carnegie’s spirit still roams, it’s sure to haunt Bevin.
Trump’s roster in Kentucky was a showcase of Republican southern strength. Country artist Lee Greenwood sang the president to the stage with God Bless the USA. Greenwood brought the 20,000 people in Rupp Arena back to their feet just as the national anthem had minutes earlier.
As the cheers died down Trump said, “Tomorrow, the people of Kentucky will head to the polls and you will vote to reelect your terrific Republican governor, Matt Bevin. He’s done a fantastic job.” When Bevin spoke, his directive was to “go top to bottom, run the slate, vote straight Republican.”
And to remind everyone of just how red Kentucky was, Trump called up US Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, supporters and potential jurors should impeachment move from the House to the Senate.
A strong team with great averages. Yet the combined powerhouse of Greenwood, McConnell, Paul and Trump fell short. Bevin lost to Beshear by a razor thin margin of less than 0.5%; fewer than 5,000 votes. After refusing to acknowledge Beshear as the winner, Bevin finally conceded the race on November 14 after a recanvassing of votes confirmed Beshear’s win.
Even though Trump pounded Hillary Clinton by 30 points in the 2016 election, Bevin was out. The pillars on the front of the Kentucky Governor’s mansion were now blue.
With the exception of Bevin’s race, Republicans took every other statewide office.
Had Trump hedged his bet on Bevin? Take a closer look by reading a few of Trump’s lines from the Lexington rally and you decide.
“Tomorrow, Kentucky has a chance to send the radical Democrats a message. You will vote to reject Democrats extremism, socialism and corruption, and you will vote to reelect Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin who’s done a great job. Matt’s a veteran. He’s a patriot. He’s done it all. He’s been a very, very successful business leader. He put his whole life at stake to help this state and the job he’s done is incredible. Under his leadership, Kentucky has created over 57,000 new jobs, but I helped also. We work together. Now, he is difficult. I have to say, you know, maybe because of the election, but it’s okay.”
Continuing minutes later…
“Look, he’s such a pain, when he needs something for Kentucky like money, like aid, like, he wants me to call one of the many manufacturers now that are coming into Kentucky. Could you call the head of Some company in Japan, please? I say, “Matt, do I have to do it?” Please, please. But isn’t that really what you wanted in a governor? That’s what you want. He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want. And the job he’s done, one of the best in the country. Not the best. He’s been incredible. Matt is strong on crime and tough on illegal immigration. Thank you. He’s pro-worker, pro-life and 100% Pro-Second Amendment.”
“But I helped also.” “He’s such a pain in the ass”. “One of the best” governors, But “not the best.”
Trump also said that if Bevin loses, “it sends a really bad message.”
Bottom of the third, and the score was now 2-1.
Fourth inning: A long inning with Trump taking 3 at-bats; October 11, 2019, Lake Charles, LA; November 6, Monroe, LA, and November 14, Bossier City, LA
I was at the Lake Charles rally on October 11, the day before the Louisiana general election on Saturday, October 12. I didn’t make it back for the rallies on November 6 and 14.
Governor John Bel Edwards was the sole Democrat in a southern state. And he was running for reelection. With Beshear’s win in Kentucky, a Trump win in Louisiana was an imperative.
Trump had carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016. The president would go to Louisiana not once but three times to shove Edwards out of the governor’s mansion and usher in a Republican. Any Republican.
In Louisiana’s unique election system, all candidates regardless of party run on a single ballot. If one candidate tallies up more than 50% of the vote, they win. But if the top vote-getter garners fewer than 50% of the votes, the top two vote-getters, again regardless of party, face each other in a runoff. So, the deal in Louisiana was to make damn sure that John Bel Edwards got fewer than 50% of the votes in the general election on Saturday, October 12.
Two Republicans were trying to boot out Edwards; Congressman Ralph Abraham and political newcomer, businessman Eddie Rispone.
Trump’s plea to the crowd of about 7,500 was to vote “for the entire Republican ticket, just vote.” Keep Edwards from getting more than 50% of the vote and force a runoff.
Trump’s strategy worked. John Bel Edwards captured 46.6% of the vote, falling short of a majority. Rispone bested Abraham to land in the second slot with 27.4%. A runoff was set for Saturday, November 16.
In his next two visits to Louisiana, Donald Trump would continue his assault on Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Joe Biden, the impeachment “witch hunt,” and on John Bel Edwards. On November 14 in Bossier City, Louisiana - just two days before the election - Trump said, “This Saturday, the eyes of history are looking upon the great people of Louisiana.”
Moments later he said, “If you want to defend your values, your jobs and your freedom, then you need to replace radical, liberal John Bel Edwards with a true Louisiana patriot.” Reflecting on what happened in Kentucky, Trump told Louisiana, “So, you’ve got to give me a big win, OK.”
The people of Louisiana were comfortable keeping their values in the hands of John Bel Edwards. The eyes of history were indeed looking upon Louisiana. Not to defeat Edwards but to keep him in place not as the only Democrat governor in the south, but now one of two. The Republican stronghold on the southern states was cracked if not broken.
Edwards beat Rispone by more than 40,000 votes.
Donald Trump 2. The Democrats 2, with Democrats scoring winning runs in Republican home territory, territory that Trump won handsomely in 2016.
Going into 2020…
Who will round second to score the winning run at home? In spite of what we think we know, or what we wish were true, we don’t know how the game will end. And until we see the final lineup, about all you can do is continue to root for your team.
Impeachment hearings start up again the week of December 2 and move to the House Judiciary Committee. I continue to wonder whether these hearings will eventually detract support from, or solidify support for, Trump’s reelection in 2020. The Democrats want to remove Trump; at the very least seriously erode his 2020 chances. I get that. But I also understand the power of distraction.
If there’s any reason to suspect that a Republican Senate will remove the president, that reason continues to elude me.
Meanwhile, in two dark red southern states, one Democrat has been turned out of office and another has been reelected by a substantive margin after facing down not one but three threats from the President of the United States.
I don’t think impeachment had anything to do with the wins in Kentucky and Louisiana. If not, what did?
And that’s the question Democrats should be trying to answer.
One constant in baseball is this - whether it’s to hit or to score, you have to keep your eye on the ball.
To see some photographs from all four innings, look here.