I Don’t Like Mike

In a radio interview a few days before the New Hampshire primary, the conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke—himself a Granite State resident—revealed that in 2016, after a lifetime of supporting Republicans, he walked into a voting booth and marked a ballot for Hillary Clinton. He did this neither happily nor particularly willingly, explaining, “I went in, I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I stuffed my ears with cotton and marked [Clinton] off because New Hampshire is a swing state and I just couldn’t do it.”

By “it,” O’Rourke meant voting for the nominee of his own party, on the grounds that that candidate, Donald Trump, was simply too beyond the pale as a human being to justify installing in the Oval Office and passing a bunch of Republican-friendly legislation.

In other words, faced with a pair of evils, O’Rourke chose the lesser of the two—even as the very thought of Hillary as the nation’s chief executive filled O’Rourke with a bottomless supply of nausea, dread and general ennui.

Now that Mike Bloomberg has ascended to the top ranks of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, I understand exactly how he felt.

From the very beginning of the 2020 campaign—really, since November 9, 2016—I have been in complete concordance with the majority of my fellow liberals in vowing to vote for the eventual Democratic nominee come hell or high water, on the grounds that the imperative of de-Trumpifying the executive branch must take precedence over every other consideration. More than ever, the perfect cannot be made the enemy of the not-completely-terrible.

And for virtually all of 2019, this tacit agreement went more or less without saying, insomuch as every last Democratic hopeful seemed, to varying degrees, like a perfectly palatable representative of the anti-Trump resistance in matters of both policy and character. While it was inevitable that not every liberal voter would be entirely satisfied with how the primary process ultimately shook out, there was real confidence—much more so than in 2016—that the sheer horror of four additional years of President Trump would shock the party electorate into putting their differences aside and falling in line behind a single candidate for the greater good of the republic.

If that nominee is Mike Bloomberg, all bets are off.

To be clear: Should the two names on the ballot on November 3 be Trump and Bloomberg, I will side with Bloomberg without a moment’s hesitation. Having lived in the New York metro area for a chunk of Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, I have long admired and appreciated his relentless efforts to make America’s largest city greener, healthier and safer than ever before, even when questioning his means of doing so.

That said, in the years since he relinquished the reigns from the Second Hardest Job in America, Bloomberg’s personal and professional shortcomings have come into dramatically sharper focus—particularly the horrific impact of his baldly race-based approach to crime fighting known as “stop and frisk.”

Following Bloomberg’s debut performance at last week’s debate in Las Vegas—during which he pooh-poohed the myriad sexual harassment suits against him as bawdy jokes gone awry—it has become quite clear that the ninth richest man in the world is a fundamentally nasty and empathy-free windbag who regards the American presidency not as a prize to be won but as a commodity to be purchased. Elections? Strictly optional.

It begs the question: Even in a lesser-of-two-evils context, what exactly would we left-wingers be voting for here? With a President Bloomberg, which of Trump’s many vices would we actually be ridding ourselves of, and what new benefits would we be getting in return?

Sure, Trump is a racist pig, but is the architect and lead cheerleader of “stop and frisk” really that much of an improvement? Yes, Trump is a would-be authoritarian who delights in delegitimizing the free press, but is it any less troubling that Bloomberg literally owns a major news organization and has forbidden it from investigating him for as long as his campaign—and, in theory, his presidency—lasts? (As Bloomberg charmingly explained, “I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.”) And certainly, Trump’s record of mistreating women is singularly revolting, but Bloomberg’s binders of NDAs with female underlings doesn’t quite cry “change we can believe in,” does it?

I know, I know: Having ruled over a city of eight million people for 12 years constitutes an infinitely more appropriate dry run for the presidency than hosting a TV show or bankrupting multiple casinos. And when push comes to shove, Bloomberg really does take major crises like climate change and gun control seriously and presumably has the gumption to ram legislation through even the most obstinate Congress.

The question is: How many moral compromises are liberals prepared to make in the mere hope that, if elected, Bloomberg will deliver the goods on a handful of pet issues, transformative though they might be? How much rationalizing and whataboutism will be required to convince ourselves that an arrogant, sexist, aristocratic robber baron should be the face of both the Democratic Party and the nation at this particular moment in history?

Whatever the answer is, the calculation is eerily reminiscent of that made four years ago by conservatives, who were forced to ponder just how much Trumpian nonsense they were willing to endure for the sake of tax cuts and a right-wing judiciary. Some, like P.J. O’Rourke, decided the tradeoff simply wasn’t worth it. Most—then and now—looked the devil in the eye and signed on the dotted line.

Even against the devil himself, is this a road Democrats want any business walking down? After cycling through some two dozen possible alternatives over the past year, do we find that the anti-Trump party’s one true savior is a pompous, plutocratic misogynist who has contempt for the First Amendment and believes all problems can be solved with money?

Seems like a bad look to me, but then I’m not a Democrat, so what do I know?

The Lady of 10,000 Lakes

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the moment I knew I would never vote for Amy Klobuchar for president. To mark the occasion, I am—for the first time—entertaining the possibility that I should reconsider.

It was, indeed, late February 2019 when the New York Times published a story, “How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff,” that featured an alarming number of horror stories by former minions of the senior senator from Minnesota—some named, some unnamed—portraying her as something of a petty tyrant in her Senate office, complete with a hot temper and a tendency to embarrass and demean those whom she feels are not living up to her harsh, exacting standards.

While the most memorable and amusing nugget from that article involved Klobuchar ordering an assistant to wash her comb after she used it to eat a salad on an airplane (the assistant had apparently misplaced the fork), the truly disturbing details concerned Klobuchar’s penchant for hurling office supplies in the general direction of aides who had pissed her off, as well as her obsessive preoccupation with her public image, for which she seemed to take little personal responsibility (“We are becoming a joke!”).

Whether these anecdotes are representative or exaggerated—the Times reporting included a fair share of compliments and warm memories as well—Klobuchar has, in fact, presided over one of the highest staff turnover rates in the Senate throughout her dozen-plus-year tenure. By definition, she is firing or otherwise driving out employees at a record clip relative to her colleagues, and it would be downright negligent for voters not to take this into account when ascertaining whether she is a proper fit for the highest office in the land.

When these whisperings first came to light—and the pundit pontificating that naturally followed—many questioned whether Klobuchar was the victim of a sexist double standard. That is, whether a male politician with a comparable personnel record would be treated more forgivingly, as though treating one’s employees like crap is attractive in a man but unseemly in a woman.

Personally, I find abuse of one’s subordinates repulsive in any context—particularly by someone running for president—and I fully subscribe to the behavioral rule of thumb that, as Dave Barry put it, “If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.”

Hence my previous skepticism toward Klobuchar, an outwardly genial and nonthreatening figure—her 2015 memoir is titled “The Senator Next Door”—whose affable exterior apparently conceals much rougher edges that only surface offstage and after hours.

Why, then, am I now mulling the prospect (however remote) of voting for her anyway? Why, for that matter, did the good people of New Hampshire rank her their third-favorite candidate in last week’s primary, well ahead of so-called frontrunners Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden?

Partly, I suspect, it’s due to Klobuchar’s sheer doggedness in the face of long odds. Among other things, her ability to stick to her centrist talking points through thick and thin; to repeat her cheesy mom jokes endlessly and without embarrassment; to cut her opponents down to size without resorting to rudeness or infantility.

Her secret sauce, in short, is to be the very embodiment of friendly midwestern passive-aggressiveness coupled with steely D.C. competence and resolve. As a third-term senator, she has earned her reputation as an old-fashioned senatorial workhorse and dealmaker whom one underestimates at one’s peril. If these achievements have sometimes come at the expense of overworked underlings—well, you know what they say about making an omelet.

In truth, the list of exceptional leaders who have also been extremely unpleasant bosses is longer than we might care to admit, and that correlation is not always accidental. As seen in “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Whiplash”—not to mention in virtually every college football coach in the history of sport—sometimes driving one’s charges to physical and/or mental extremes is the way to bring out the best in them and generate excellence for the whole team. If tough love is purposeful and strategic, the payoff can be revelatory.

Of course, for every Miranda Priestly there is a Selina Meyer, and commentators weren’t wrong in having a little “Veep” déjà vu upon reading that Klobuchar once quipped to an aide, “I would trade three of you for a bottle of water.” There is no contradiction in being both an effective lawmaker and a poor manager of people, and it’s possible Klobuchar’s compassion and empathy—such as they are—simply don’t extend inside her own office.

That said, in a universe where the sitting commander-in-chief is both an inept lawmaker and so emotionally insecure as to fire Cabinet-level officials via tweet, even the worst possible version of Amy Klobuchar would seem to be a more-than-acceptable risk for the republic to take on November 3, particularly in light of her many obvious strengths.

More than anything, Klobuchar’s appeal lies in her personal and ideological inoffensiveness—her Goldilocks-like lack of polarities—which, while not particularly inspiring, seems tailor-made to put the maximal number of voters at ease in an age of never-ending hysteria and existential dread.

The Klobuchar proposition, then, is a variation of what her fellow senator (and former fellow candidate) Michael Bennet once tweeted about himself: “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for two weeks at a time. I’ll do my job […] so you can go raise your kids and live your lives.”

For a solid chunk of the American public, I imagine that sounds like a pretty good deal.

The Last Laugh

The trouble with being a free speech absolutist (as I am) is that you often find yourself having to defend awful people who say awful things. Even if you truly believe (as I do) that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression applies to all manner thereof—not just the pleasant, uncontroversial sort—there will inevitably be moments that test the limits of our most elemental constitutional right, leading reasonable people to wonder if some restrictions on public speech are in order.

This is not one of those moments.

In the first week of January—as you might recall—the United States very nearly started a war with Iran when President Trump ordered the killing of noted general/terrorist Qasem Soleimani. This in turn led the Islamic Republic to bomb U.S. bases in Iraq, at which point Trump threatened, via Twitter, to strike various locations inside Iran, potentially including ones “important to Iran [and] the Iranian culture.”

Ultimately, the administration ruled out the possibility of targeting culturally significant sites—presumably after being informed that such a move would constitute a war crime—but not before a gentleman named Asheen Phansey, the director of sustainability at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, mischievously posted on Facebook:

“In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomenei [sic] should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um…Mall of America? Kardashian residence?”

It was a cheap, naughty little quipsomething many of us undoubtedly thought and/or said ourselvesbut it evidently rubbed someone at Babson (Phansey’s employer) the wrong way, because four days later, Phansey was fired.

In a statement, the school wrote, “Babson College condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate. This particular post from a staff member on his personal Facebook page clearly does not represent the values and culture of Babson College,” adding, “[W]e are cooperating with local, state and federal authorities.”

In the weeks since Phansey’s sacking, there has been considerable pushback against Babson by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and PEN America. Thus far, however, Phansey has not been rehired, nor has the college shown any interest in doing so.

Speaking as someone who lives nearby and has attended on-campus events every now and again, I would advise Babson to offer Phansey his old job back and for Phansey to reject it out of hand. An institution so idiotic as to fire an employee for making a joke is unworthy of Phansey’s talents, whatever they might be.

I wrote at the outset that, as a First Amendment issue, this one is not a close call. Viewed in its full context—or, I would argue, in any context whatsoever—Phansey’s Facebook post was very obviously written in jest—an ironic commentary about a serious, if absurd, world event. In categorizing a knock on the Kardashians and the Mall of America as “threatening words and/or actions,” Babson seems to imply that it can’t distinguish humor from sincerity, begging the question of how it ever achieved accreditation in the first place.

More likely, of course, is that Babson was simply intimidated by the bombardment of complaints it apparently received following Phansey’s original post (which he swiftly deleted) and decided it would be easier and more prudent to cave in to the demands of a mob and fire Phansey on the spot, rather than defend Phansey’s right—and, by extension, the right of any faculty member—to comment on news stories in his spare time.

It was a terrible, stupid decision for Babson to make, and its silence in the intervening days has only brought further dishonor upon an otherwise sterling institute of higher learning. While it is undeniably true that a private employer has the discretion to dismiss employees who have violated official policy—the First Amendment’s provisions are explicitly limited to the public sector—the notion that making a mildly off-color remark on one’s own Facebook page constitutes a fireable offense is a horrifying precedent for a college to set, and is among the most egregious examples yet of the general squeamishness on so many American campuses toward the very concept of free expression.

As a cultural flashpoint, I am reminded of the (much larger) brouhaha surrounding Kathy Griffin in 2017, when an Instagram photo of the comedienne hoisting what appeared to be the severed head of President Trump led to Griffin being treated as a national security threat by the Justice Department and effectively banished from society for the better part of a year.

As with Phansey, no honest person could look at Griffin’s gag and say it was anything other than gallows humor—albeit an exceptionally tasteless manifestation thereof. We might agree, on reflection, that Griffin should’ve thought twice before tweeting an image of a bloodied Trump mask out into the world—to paraphrase Rabbi Mendel, not everything that is thought should be instagrammed—but there is a giant chasm between being a low-rent comedian and being a threat to public safety, and I am very, very worried that our politically correct, nuance-free culture is increasingly unable and/or unwilling to separate one from the other.

In short, we are slowly-but-surely devolving into a society without a sense of humor, a tendency that—if I may allow myself a moment of hysterical overstatement—is a gateway drug to totalitarianism. A nation without wit is a nation without a soul, and a culture that doesn’t allow its citizens to make jokes without fear of losing their livelihoods is one that has no claim to moral superiority and no right to call itself a democracy.  What a shame that our universities, of all places, haven’t quite figured this out yet.