The Sunday Driver, S1, E8: The Decent and The Ruthless

A good but glum Sunday afternoon to you all. Wherever you may be at this moment, please understand that each and all of us are witnessing a singularly historic era in our nation’s life; let us hope and pray Lady Liberty survives as we have known her heretofore.

An awful lot has happened since our last road trip, which in part explains the tardy arrival of this new one. On the home-front, we’ve been managing house, health and work duties. Meanwhile the national narrative has featured the disparagement of our fallen warriors, a revealing, smoking-gun tape, the duplicity of a lawless attorney general and the tragic demise of one of our finest jurists.

So for now I will attempt comfort and distract from despair with a cruise through yesteryear, do a drive-by past the Trump and Biden camps, and park us in the somber, contemplative valley of constitutionally-possible disaster. You’re gonna need snacks today.

As we must, let’s check the gauges. Near to this writing, per reliable sourcing, the US has a reported 6,952,723 total Corona virus cases, 203,503 cumulative deaths, 78,127 new cases in the past 24 hours and 1,290 newly and dearly departed. Here in the mitten, we have experienced 115,870 total cumulative cases, 6,653 deaths, 483 new cases and 15 new deaths.

On those lovely notes, it’s time to head for that gauzy nostalgia.

The Simple Decency of Jerry

“Get down outta that tree right now,” the firm, low, no-bullshit voice commanded. Briefly from the perch above, my 13-year-old eyes looked down to behold the solid, suited Secret Service agent locked on me from behind his Ray-Bans. As I climbed down, I thought to myself, how is this guy secret? He’s menacing and armed, has a wire hanging out of his ear and a lapel pin that says “Secret Service.”

It was May 12, 1976 and the 38th POTUS, Gerald R. Ford, was appearing at a rally in Shain Park, downtown Birmingham. The magnificent fair which was held there every early May had already come and gone; that carnival, with its various rides, games, midway foods and generally amazing elan, was the highlight of the year for many of us growing up in these environs. I learned to love blue-moon ice cream there.

So other than getting pulled out of a tree, and seeing my first of four US Presidents in person, to my young eyes and ears the Ford event was not nearly as intriguing as the fair. Here was this rather nondescript, 62-year-old man, beyond balding, six-feet tall and 190 pounds, wrapped in a dark, three-piece suit. I had followed politics from a naive distance, I had listened to my father cuss out Democrats, and I had even been to D.C. with my 6th grade class back in ‘74, as Nixon was hanging on by his fingernails. I knew a mere smattering of stuff, but it just felt like there should be something more, something I didn’t know or understand.

And there was plenty. The day I saw Jerry Ford, he had risen in the White House and clocked into work at 7:10 AM. He had already met with his principals, including Henry Kissinger, conducted multiple phone calls with folks ranging former Gov. George Romney (R-MI) to Arnold Palmer, and had flown into Michigan’s Selfridge AFB aboard Air Force One, together with Sen. Bob Griffin (R-MI), seven additional Michigan GOP congressmen and Ford’s youngish assistant, Dick Cheney. He had already done live Q & A and taped interviews with the likes of WXYZ’s John Kelly and Jack LeGoff, as well as the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press.

That same May 12th, now in the company of beloved Gov. Bill Milliken (R-MI), Ford had already met with more journos, attended more meetings, and was honored with a reception by the Detroit Economic Club at Roma Hall on Telegraph Road. Finally getting to Shain Park for his rally at 5:30 PM, he was miraculously running only a bit behind, and his day was about half over.

Ford had yet to make a brief touch-and-go stop to freshen up at the Somerset Inn, head to the East Side to tour a chassis plant with Lee Iaccoca, and hold a rally at the Macomb Mall. He would then tour Macomb County GOP headquarters, return to Selfridge AFB to meet with three colonels, a captain and a commander, and finally depart aboard Air Force One, wheels up at 10:16 PM.

He still wasn’t done. Ford would arrive back at the White House at 11:32 PM, and proceeding to the Map Room, he would hold a final 90-minute meeting until 1:08 AM the following morning. Not a bad day’s work for a 62-year-old man LBJ once said “is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” It should also be noted the above itinerary had very little, if any, “executive time.”

There were plenty of additional things about President Ford, his decency and his historical centrality that the 13-year-old version of me did not know. Born Leslie Lynch King, his mother left his abusive father shortly after Ford’s birth, he was raised by his step-dad, and eventually took Ford as his surname. He was a stand-out center for the Michigan Wolverines, and coached for them after undergrad, while attending Yale Law.

He joined the navy during WW2 and served on a flattop in the Pacific, seeing significant action, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander and nearly losing his life in 1944 during a deadly typhoon that killed hundreds. And in 1948, the year he won his first and only elective office, as Republican Congressman from Grand Rapids, he married Elizabeth Anne Bloomer (Betty Ford), with whom he had four children.

Ford went on to serve in the House for 25 years. LBJ appointed him to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy in ‘63. In Congress, Ford voted in favor of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968, as well as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Well-liked and much-trusted, Ford was known to his colleagues in the House as a “Congressman’s Congressman.”

So finally in 1973, when Nixon’s sketchy vice-president Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign from office in disgrace, Nixon had no choice but to nominate the only Republican whom the Dems in Congress would approve; the ever-affable Jerry Ford. In December of that year Ford was resoundingly confirmed by the House and Senate as Veep; the following August 9th, when Nixon fled in his own cloud of disgrace, Ford became the 38th POTUS, and the only vice-president and president never elected to both offices. Ford declared “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Beginning his checkered tenure, Ford would offer amnesty to Vietnam draft-dodgers (hailed by many), but grant Nixon a full pardon (scorned by most). He would appoint East Coast “liberal” Republican Nelson Rockefeller as his own Veep, preside over a testy economy, steward the end of the Vietnam War, and escape two assassination attempts in one month, the first of which involved a member of Charles Manson’s “family.” Yeah, it’s almost like Forrest Gump for presidents; he was everywhere.

Ford would endure the ire of conservatives for continuing to negotiate the repatriation of the Panama Canal and for setting the detente table with the USSR through the Helsinki Accords. It would earn him a primary fight with Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA), an internecine war which may have cost Ford his own and only election to the presidency. Never elected POTUS in his own right, Ford is still the only Eagle Scout to have ascended to the office.

On a brief personal note, six months after being rousted out of the tree, I would help work a phone bank on behalf of Ford. After the polls closed, my pal and I were taken to a “victory” party at the Troy Hilton. The returns were coming in slow, the lady in charge of us had too much to drink, my friend’s Mom had to retrieve us, and still there was no result at bedtime. Arising at 5 AM the next morning to deliver the Free Press, I flipped on my black & white Zenith; it warmed up, and said “WXYZ projects James Earl Carter, Jr. to be the 39th President of the United States.”

Opining warmly on his colleague, future SOTH Tip O’Neill (D-MA) would say “God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford–the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.” Developing a deep friendship with his ‘76 opponent Jimmy Carter in later years, Ford himself would say “Our constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

Can many of us at this stage even recall or imagine what it would be like to have such a decent, noble and humble servant occupying our highest office? An empathetic leader who puts service above self? A leader who deeply seeks to act in the best interest of his fellow citizens, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin? A leader who does not relish in two sets of rules? Paraphrasing Justice Ginsberg, a leader who does not seek to place his feet on “our necks?”

A leader like Jerry, who said “Here the people rule?” From Ford’s lips to Trump’s ears.

Just Passing Through

The Trump and Biden campaigns spent significant time and energy in the Battleground region this week, with town hall events and other appearances in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Glancing down at RCP Polling as we drive, Joe Biden currently holds a 3.9 percent lead in the battlegrounds of FLA, PA, MI, WI, NC and AZ. The leads are 1.6, 4.3, 4.8, 6.7, .9 and 5.0, respectively.

The national RCP average is Biden +6.5, yet a Democratic sweep in the White House and Senate could all be for naught based on the sudden chaos and fresh hell at the Supreme Court; we’ll get there on the last leg of the drive. President* Trump spent most of the week undercutting his medical experts, inciting ignorance, misinforming the public and arguing with regular citizens who were permitted to ask him questions at an ABC town hall event.

Speaking to the pandemic at Trump’s town hall in Philly, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked “Could you have done more to stop it?” “I don’t think so,” the President* responded. Trump has ostensibly been at the helm of the strongest, most modern, advanced, and powerful nation on earth since 2017. The country that beat Hitler and Tojo, beat polio, beat Russia to the Moon and put a computer in everyone’s pocket. And yet we have the highest infection and death rates of any industrialized nation based purely upon Trump’s politics. After all, he doesn’t want to panic anybody by suggesting we wear masks or wash our hands. Free-dumb isn’t free.

Contrary to his own voice on the Woodward tapes, Trump told one questioner “Yeah, well, I didn’t downplay it. I, actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action.” And still, within the same broadcast, Trump yet again made rosy Corona predictions, stating “We’re going to be okay and it is going away . . . (even) without the vaccine.”

Zeroing in on national health care, which the POTUS has incessantly asked the SCOTUS to dismantle, a suffering citizen asked Trump what the plan going forward after the ACA might be. “Within a 36 to 72 hour period, without my medication, I will be dead. And I want to know what it is that you’re going to do to assure that people like me, who work hard, we do everything we’re supposed to do, can stay insured?” The woman pleaded, “It’s not my fault that I was born with this disease.” Reviving his empty 2016 sales-pitch, Trump yet again trashed Obamacare: “It’s a total disaster. You’re going to have new health care, and the preexisting condition aspect of it will always be in my plan.”

“But you haven’t come up with it,” Stephanopoulos shot back.

Moving over to Trump’s white whale of 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, he spoke there to a mask-less horde of folks he referred to as his “protest against stupidity,” shouting “I’m your wall between the American dream and chaos.” Trump took the time to make fat jokes about Hillary Clinton, stating she’s not “big into yoga . . . If she is, she’s not getting her money’s worth.” This of course prompting vintage chants of “Lock her up!”

Staying on the misogyny theme, he also attacked Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “How the hell did she win the election? How did she win? It’s unbelievable,” he said of Omar. “Every family in Minnesota needs to know about Sleepy Joe Biden’s extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet.”

Looking at our gas gauge, we must turn to Biden’s remarks at a CNN town hall from Scranton, in which Biden played a distinctly hard-scrabble chord, stating “I view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue.” Biden continued “All Trump can see from Park Avenue is Wall Street. All he thinks about is the stock market.” Asked about the very concept of white privilege, Biden both acknowledged its presence, and placed it into the context of his own origins, stating he “benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my Black brothers and sisters have had to go through.”

Biden continued “Like, guys like me, who were the first in my family to go to college–up here, my dad busted his neck. My dad came up here, worked here, lost his job, like a lot of people did here. There used to be a bad joke in the 60’s in Scranton . . . no one’s in Scranton, everybody’s from Scranton, because so many people lost their jobs. We are as good as anybody else. And guys like Trump, who inherited everything, and squandered what they inherited, are the people that I have always had a problem with, not the people who are busting their neck.’

Citing this theme, CNN’s Chris Cillizza observed “Biden can make a credible and convincing case that he knows far more about what it’s like to struggle . . . than Trump ever has. That Biden was born into nothing while Trump was born with a $1 million gold spoon in his mouth. Biden’s life is a testament to the lived experience that Trump can only nod at rhetorically.” Biden would be the first POTUS without an Ivy League degree since Reagan. And during his decades in the Senate, Biden was notoriously one of its poorest members, which to Trump, prolly makes Biden “a sucker.”

Putting a fine point on his point, Cillizza concluded “If Biden can disrupt Trump’s messaging to working class voters and cut into the President’s advantage among that group, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how the incumbent gets to 270 electoral votes this fall.”

Ruthlessness

If you’re still riding with me, we must now turn to the tiny, brittle elephant in the room. After 87 years of a brilliant life well-lived, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away Friday from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, three years short of her intended retirement age of 90.

Since the bio’s been running in a deservedly prominent loop all weekend, you don’t really need to hear it from me again, but to be safe: the Brooklyn-born Justice started her law degree at Harvard, just one of nine women in her class, and finished first in class at Columbia; she would politely but firmly trail-blaze for women, becoming first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School; she would found the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union to help craft the legal case for equality, arguing cases before the Supreme Court; she would be elevated to the federal appeals bench, and in 1993 she would become only the second female Justice in history.

She would earn the moniker Notorious RBG for her brilliance, tenacity, intellect and decency, and the nation has tragically lost a true treasure. So looking through the windshield toward the road ahead, the Constitutional and political shit has just hit the radiator fan and is spraying all over everywhere.

On the pure nuts-and-bolts bit, many of us who try and pay attention to these things were already concerned that similar to but worse than the 2000 election, given purposeful disruptions already set in motion by Trump, Russia, DeJoy, Barr, et al, the SCOTUS would be called on to referee, if not “call” the coming contest. Now with an even number of refs, or worse still, a fresh Trump toady on the high court, we might just be fucked, regardless of one’s views on MAGA.

Since 1789, there have been 58 presidential elections; in 53 of the 58 held so far (91%), the winner of the national popular vote has also carried the Electoral College vote. The winners of the nationwide popular vote and the Electoral College vote differ only when it’s real close. And a close, muddled, bloody and potentially violent election has already been promised by Trump & Co.

The Supreme Court was directly involved in settling the 2000 contest in Bush v. Gore, and five Justices sat on a commission that decided the 1876 race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. Other than that, the Court can get involved in settling disputes arising from the process, such as with gerrymandering and voting rights, but it was rare for a presidential election to be disputed after Election Day in the nation’s highest court. Not anymore.

If the coming presidential election is razor close as expected, the specter looms of a potential court fight over vote recounts in states where results are very tight. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 states and the District of Columbia have automatic recount provisions that kick in when elections are very close, and 43 states allow losing candidates to ask for a recount. And any dispute in the lower court system can wind up in the SCOTUS. Sounds like a riot, right?

Stepping away from the Court for just a moment, let’s review the goddamn Electoral College process. After November 3rd, theoretically, each state’s electors meet in their respective capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December to cast their votes. The results are counted in Congress, where they are tabulated in the first week of January before a joint meeting of the House and Senate, presided over by the vice president, as president of the Senate.

So here comes the fun part. Should a majority of votes not be cast for a candidate, the House turns itself into a presidential election session, where one vote is assigned to each of the fifty states, so the current 232-198 Democrat advantage doesn’t mean dick. As constituted right now, the GOP would win that vote, 26 GOP-majority state delegations to 23 Democratic. And voila, the elected president (winner in the House) and vice president (similar winner in the Senate) are inaugurated January 20.

At any point in the process, if there’s some glitch, bitch or hitch, the SCOTUS is standing by as uber-referee, which is why I’ve been telling any student, family member, friend or foe for the last 20 years this obvious Constitutional verity: we have three “equal” branches of government, but the Court is plainly the first among equals in many if not most respects.

And why it is so enervating to see the craven, perfidious, duplicitous conduct of GOP Senators the likes of McConnell, Graham, Collins, you name ‘em, as they swiftly flip the rules they themselves insisted on in 2015 to goon Merrick Garland and the Democrats out of the SCOTUS seat then stolen for Neil Gorsuch. To see Trump gloat, smirk, smear and campaign on the death of a legal icon before her body has even cooled is more than decent, polite folks should bear.

In those words of RBG herself, “I ask no favor for my sex; all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Decency. Centrality. Duplicity. Ruthlessness.

RIPRBG.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.