The Sunday Driver, S1,E9: The Land of Mixed Fortunes

Buenos Tardes to you all from Thunder Island, 1,400-odd nautical miles from Old Fort Detroit, where the mercury is near 90 as we tap away in sight of the Atlantic. With 15 days to go in the 2020 elections, it is my privilege to share the road and some fellowship while holed-up here in kitschy old Hollywood Beach.

Before we embark on our drive, we must mind the numbers. Near to this writing, the US has logged 8,288,278 Covid-19 cases, with 71,687 newly-diagnosed folks for a single day. In sum, we have seen 223,644 souls perish, with 928 newly reported deaths to start the weekend.

In Autumnal Michigan, 143,106 total cases have been confirmed, including 6,987 total deaths, 2,015 new daily cases and 14 newly and dearly departed. From here in that other peninsula, where most everything is bigger, hotter and dumber, Florida will admit to 748,437 total cases, 15,837 total deaths, 3,449 new cases, and 100 daily and dearly departed.

So then, let’s put some miles on and distract ourselves for a spell.

Florida: Fuente de la Juventud, Tierra de Criminales

Florida, that fountain of youth and land of felons, was ostensibly “discovered” by Ponce de León, avaricious adventurer for the Spanish crown, in 1513. Turns out Ponce was searching for the magic fountain on Bimini (in the Bahamas), a ruse he was sold on by some indigenous folks with a sense of humor. This still happens down here hourly.

So that March, Ponce and his posse put in on the coast of Florida between modern St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach. At the time he failed to realize he was on the mainland of North America, but instead hoped he had landed on Bimini or a neighboring island, so he could take the waters and live forever. He promptly claimed all he surveyed for King Ferdinand II, and named the region Florida as in Pascua Florida, or festival of flowers, it being nearly Easter. Thus, the first Florida land-grab and spring-break were born as twins 507 years-ago.

As for ol’ Ponce, he was pierced by a poison arrow (a cool ABC song but painful way to go) on his return trip to FLA in 1521; this is what hipsters call karma, what Mom called comeuppance, and why I maintain the truest state slogan should be “Florida: Land of Mixed Fortunes and Much Sunburn.” Still, the Spaniards held fast to FLA, built a kick-ass fort in St. Augustine, and enjoyed plenty of adventures and misdeeds until giving the region over to the Brits in 1763, then getting it back after our Revolution. As everyone knows, any savvy bar-owner sells and reclaims his tavern numerous times before calling it quits.

What followed was a wide-open era of fun, frolic, misery, chaos and genocide, featuring a murderous Andy Jackson and three Seminole Wars. Spain officially cleared off in 1821, but reading the white pages down here, it looks like they played a good hand of cards. Regardless, Florida became a (slave) state in 1845, seceded from the US in 1861, was dragged back into the Union after the South lost, and has pretended to be part of the United States ever since.

The way the Google Machine sees it, “Florida is the south-easternmost U.S. state, with the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. It has hundreds of miles of beaches. The city of Miami is known for its Latin-American cultural influences and notable arts scene, as well as its nightlife, especially in upscale South Beach. Orlando is famed for theme parks, including Walt Disney World.”

The way I see it, from agony to ecstasy, villainy to virtue, spaceflight to sodomy, if you can imagine any scenario right now, it’s happening somewhere in the state shaped like a semi-flaccid penis, filled with 21-million souls, lurching into the Atlantic. So, how did y’all discover Florida?

Circa 1970, the Urich family took the long and sometimes torturous motor trip from our driveway in Oakland County all the way to Naples, FLA in my Dad’s sky-blue Chrysler New Yorker. It was a very big deal; my Mom even bought us some newer clothes and bathing suits for the occasion. The general plan in Dad’s head was to cement his ascension to the helm of Gripco Fastener by visiting its recently-retired skipper, one “Boots Bovenkirk” (Dad never got the top job). And while the family had ventured forth in our regions to Mackinac Island, Gay-El-Rancho in Gaylord, Traverse City, and lovely Fort Wayne, IN, the parents had never attempted a long-distance dare like this one. 1,355 miles, three kids, a flatulent beagle, a tender and loving Mom and a mostly-loving bear at the wheel.

Amid the myriad memories, three things stand out: a magical map called a “AAA TripTik” which only my older brother was permitted to handle as navigator; the song “Sweet Caroline” in a seemingly endless loop all the way down I-75 to its terminus; the charming phrase “knock it off or I’ll reach back there and crack you one” coming from my Dad responsive to the hysteria which accompanied crossing any state-line. The stay itself had all the romance that nearly anything away from home does for a seven-year-old, and the Sunshine State still holds all such salty possibilities for us and millions as its stock-in-trade.

I would not return to FLA again until the 80’s, when wanderlust, folding money from gainful employment, a steady girl and dive-gear would take us down there three Christmas breaks in a row. Generally our ultimate vector on these jaunts was the middle-and-lower Florida Keys in the chain. However we would dally with friends in the Lauderdale-Hollywood area before heading further south. I distinctly recall sleeping at the end of an airport runway in the KOA campground, jets with blazing landing lights screaming overhead. It was awesome. It was also during these explorations that I “discovered” Hollywood Beach, which is still our preferred spot to this day as near-adults.

Heading into the Keys, like dozens of other well-meaning vagabonds, we would make camp on levees and spits of coral jutting off of US 1, doing our best to drive tent stakes into hard rock, cooking on Sterno, hanging by the fire and staring awestruck at a sky full of stars. Come day-break, we’d historically draw the attention of the sheriff, and get tossed off the private landings we had found, scattering to re-congregate at Bahia Honda State Park.

There we would try and grab one of the tiny tiki-huts for shade, and laze the day away sunning, snorkeling, lobstering and otherwise simply embracing freedom, nature and the lack of a mortgage. Once the sun began to dip in the west again, we’d scout out a new hobo camp and repeat the process for days, until the heartbreak of a return to the north. The playlist during this era included Haircut 100, Style Council, The English Beat and whatever noises caught our attention.

Alas, this was what we can call Old Florida, a mystical place from nearly four decades and as many relationships ago, when that state’s population was half what it is today. As Theodor Seuss Geisel reminds us, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” With more return visits now than fingers and toes, Valkie are still making florid memories, visiting our daughter and others, getting in our long, hot hikes, exploring and reveling in this strange Land of Mixed Blessings, filled with birds, beasts, bugs, reptiles, fishes, hopes and dreams.

The Desperate Hours

Since we last took a drive together, we have witnessed an entirely unhinged debate performance, a Covid-19 hospitalization, a tacit endorsement of domestic terrorism and a raging river of lies. To say that the Trump campaign, White House and entire Cult-45 are in full-freak-out is a gross understatement. But for the fact that several saner GOP stalwarts appear acquiescent to an inevitable Trump-drubbing, the whole thing feels dangerous, like a cornered animal with sharp little teeth and rabies.

Hitting the massed hustings in Midwest, Trump was in Muskegon, MI Saturday leading chants of “lock her up” in denouncing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), who recently escaped a domestic terrorist kidnapping plot. 13 white men charged with various state and federal crimes in the conspiracy literally intended to blow up the approaches to her second home, black-bag Whitmer, “lock her up,” try her for treason in their “citizens’ court,” and hang her if necessary.

Later in the afternoon, Trump staged a largely mask-less rally with thousands in Paul Ryan’s town of Janesville, WI, Ryan himself conspicuously absent. Two quick points here: Trump appeared the same day Wisconsin reported its highest daily Covid-19 infection rate ever; the leap from Ryan’s robustly mainstream “conservatism” to Trump’s dime-store dictatorship was really just a few steps for his former constituents. Cut through Ryan’s wonder-boy, faux-wonky pablum, and all his friends and neighbors ever really cared about was God, guns, gays and making overt racism right again.

Going to some numbers, the RCP Polling national average has Biden up 9 points; even the NBC/Wall St. Journal poll shows Biden +11. In the battlegrounds of FL, PA, MI, WI, NC and AZ, it’s tighter, which is why they’re called battlegrounds. Biden is up an average of +4.5, showing at 1.4, 5.6, 7.2, 6.3, 2.7 and 4.0, respectively.

Mind you, RCP is still listing 197 electoral votes as toss-ups, but the likes of Sens. Mitch McConnell, Ben Sasse, John Cornyn, Martha McSally and others are now showing plenty of daylight between themselves and the POTUS*. The slash & burn “renovation” of the Rose Garden may just be the last personal touch Melania Trump gets to put on this White House.

“I think Trump might cause us a tidal wave,” said one top Republican strategist on the condition of anonymity, continuing “He is ankle weights in a pool on Senate candidates.” Even Flimsy Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has been reduced to begging for donations on Fox News Sunday. The hallowed Cook Political Report has downgraded his chances to keep the title “Senator,” observing “just how fast the GOP majority is slipping away if they have to defend turf like this, and also how much Trump’s numbers have fallen across the board.”

Perhaps even more telling, in a rebuke of the President* which stings the nostrils and makes the eyes water, retired USMC General and former Trump COS John Kelly recently stated “The depths of his dishonesty is (sic) just astounding to me. The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it’s more pathetic than anything else. He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life.”

Flailing away in retrograde-mania, Trump is campaigning spasmodically in Georgia and Florida, two reliably red-hot states where Biden is actually ahead within the margin of error. Which is partly why U.K. odds-maker Betfair gives Biden a 74 percent chance of winning the election. And yet, to toss a wet blanket over all of it, those in the know also know the prim Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a near-lock for the Supreme Court, likely before election day.

And it is here where the irony, the paradox, the incongruity, the fuckity-fuck comes in; Biden and the Dems may win the battle for two branches of government while losing the war to the third. The Court is the FIRST among equals, as in, victory and hegemony over two-thirds of the government may amount to nothing more than a consolation prize. Or what my Dad used to call “kissing your sister.”

Supreme for a Reason

Climbing into Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine for a moment, we find ourselves in the Summer of 1789; Washington has been POTUS for about four months, Congress is actually in session, and everyone’s reading through the owner’s manual for their new Republic to figure out how to make it go. And in that owner’s manual, Article III reads, in part: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.”

Sounds simple enough, but not really. Without a prescribed number of justices, and more detail on how the hell the federal judiciary was going to run, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, and Washington nominated John Jay as Chief Justice, and five other men (yeah, an even number. Duh) to constitute the SCOTUS. Thereafter, the number of justices floated from five to ten for 66-plus years, finally resting at nine to correspond with the number of Federal Circuit Courts.

Continuing its existence gingerly, then putting on steam, the high court began to shape its own functionality and its affect and effect on every aspect of American life. Kicking off with the very concept of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, the Court has variously held: slavery is A-O-K (Dred Scott); separate but equal is too (Plessy); women cannot and should not vote (Minor v. Happerset); child-labor is not so bad (Hammer v. Dagenhart); minimum wage laws are illegal (Adkins v. Childrens Hospital); Japanese internment is just fine (Korematsu); forced sterilization of the “feeble” is permissable (Buck v. Bell), but, the state can also outlaw contraception (Poe v. Ullman); “homosexual conduct” is patently illegal (Hardwick). And that’s just a smattering of “justice” from the justices.

Thankfully, most of the above cases have been overturned with the advent of civilization and the slow recognition that the founders’ original plan for the nation was not simply building a workshop for the personal enrichment of a few lucky old white men. With decisions like Brown v. Board, Miranda v. Arizona, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges came the concept that, like Pete Seeger says, “this land was made for you and me . . . .” Need I remind anyone, it took 178 years for a black man to be seated on that bench, and 192 years before a woman was permitted to don that particular robe. A great deal of awful precedent was set aside under the leadership of the former Republican Governor of California, one Chief Justice Earl Warren, who many GOP-grandads still breathing dismiss as a “traitor.”

And all that informed progress, most occurring since the threat of “court-packing” caused a course-correction in 1937, could be dashed on the jagged rocks of a 6-3, Federalist Society wet-dream SCOTUS under Justices Blue-Eyes, Beach Week and Catholic-PTA-Mom. The worst of it is the blatant hypocrisy attendant to the most brazen exercise of raw power via two sets of rules in modern memory. We shouldn’t even be having a conversation about a nominee while a thousand Americans per day drop dead two weeks before the election. But such is the lust for lasting supremacy.

As scholar Dahlia Lithwick recently explained, “Conservative activists have failed to accomplish their agenda through popular and legislative means, but have managed nonetheless to push their priorities through favorable courts . . . This capture of the federal judiciary, financed largely by a clutch of anti-government billionaires, has also enabled a steady erosion of even the illusion of majority rule.”

To illustrate this point in Michigan, the very same week Trump came down with Covid-19, and the Wolverine Watchmen were caught in their conspiracy to kill the Guv, our own state supremes struck down the 1945 law that had enabled Whitmer to lead one of the the nation’s most effective public health responses. Decrying “concentrated and standardless power to regulate the lives of our people” and aping other Ayn Randian bullshit, the weasel-like majority threw out 75 years of state jurisprudence while barely citing one case supporting their whiny screeds.

As Prof. Nicholas Bagley of U of M wrote, “The larger lesson is that Republican judges are serious about using their power to obstruct Democrats in office, even when doing so is legally indefensible and blatantly undemocratic–indeed, even when it jeopardizes human life. There’s no reason to expect a conservative supermajority on the United States Supreme Court to act with more restraint. The Republican-appointed justices have the votes to impede pretty much anything Democrats aim to do . . . We may all be Michigan soon.”

In this larger Land of Mixed Fortunes, those who value decency, dignity and fair-play should hope a Biden-led victory is more than a consolation prize.

And certainly a better deal than kissing your sister.

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.