Archive

December 12th

John Glenn survived space and celebrity - and still had a great marriage

    In April 1959, NASA revealed its first spacemen, the Mercury Seven astronauts, during a news conference in Washington, D.C. They became America's first reality stars, their lives documented by Life magazine for a sum of $500,000 a piece. It was an unprecedented time. The new silver-suited space cowboys, who mostly came from military test-pilot backgrounds, became instant sex symbols, and John Glenn was the poster boy.

    A model among the highly competitive group, Glenn even looked like the kid from Mad Magazine, freckle-faced and all-American. But what really set him apart from his fellow astronauts was the special relationship he had with his wife, Annie, even among the tremendous scrutiny and pressures that killed most of the astronauts' marriages.

    When I wrote my book on the astronaut wives, I learned that the Glenns were what NASA wanted all seven astronauts and their wives to be. They had what appeared to be the most solid love story in America, then and up until Thursday, when Glenn died at 95.

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Red states are finally going to be able to turn themselves into poor, unhealthy paradises

    In 2004, the journalist and historian Thomas Frank wrote an insightful and prescient book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?", in which he tried to puzzle out why voters in his native state backed Republicans whose policies undermined their own economic interests.

    Watching the apocalyptic response to Donald Trump victory in the liberal precincts I inhabit, I'm struck by a similar quandary: Why are voters in states that pay a disproportionately large share of federal taxes, and benefit from a disproportionately small share of federal spending, so upset about the prospect of a cut in taxes and federal spending?

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What does it take to get a police officer punished for killing an unarmed black man?

    Watch the video. Walter Scott, unarmed and slow of foot, tries to run away. Police officer Michael Slager calmly fires five rounds into Scott's back. Later, Slager approaches Scott's body, not to give first aid but apparently to plant evidence of a struggle that never took place.

    Now tell me: How cheap is black life in these United States of America?

    A jury in North Charleston, South Carolina, could not agree that Slager committed a crime, forcing the judge in the case to declare a mistrial. Prosecutors quickly announced they will try Slager again. In the optimistic view, this week's stunning result, or non-result, means justice deferred rather than justice denied. I'm trying to be an optimist, but at the moment it's not easy.

    Tell me: What does it take to get a police officer punished for killing an unarmed black man in cold blood?

    The whole thing is on video, people. A passerby named Feidin Santana used his mobile phone to capture Scott's final minutes. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Santana gave lengthy testimony at Slager's trial.

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Godspeed, John Glenn

    We've lost the last of the Mercury Seven astronauts, the prodigious test pilots chosen to be the first Americans to fly into space. In the 1960s, nearly every American youth could list them: Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper and Slayton. Only Gus Grissom would die with his spacesuit on (during the Apollo program), but all were heroically willing to go into the unknown - not for themselves, not for scientific purposes, but for us, the American people, made fearful by a strutting Soviet Union not only armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons but also clearly intent on carrying its hammer-and-sickle philosophy to the moon and beyond. It was a scary time for Americans, but the Mercury men, with their swagger and big grins, projected a confidence that we could share. We reveled in their boldness, not to mention (especially for us boys) their fondness for gorgeous women, hot cars and speed.

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Glenn was a star astronaut who stayed grounded

    John Glenn was the most celebrated American hero of the past 60 years, and he never lost his small-town Midwestern roots.

    The first American to orbit the Earth died Thursday, at 95. In addition to his exploits, he was a four-term U.S. senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate. The decorated pilot in World War II and the Korean War was one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. In 1962, aboard Friendship 7, he circled the globe three times; he went back in space in 1998, when he was 77.

    His first journey was at the height of the Cold War, when the Russians had leaped ahead in space, a source of both national embarrassment and worry over security concerns. Glenn's flight began to reverse these fortunes, and Americans fell in love with his clean-cut charm.

    There was a tumultuous ticker-tape parade in New York in 1962 -- there was another in 1998 -- and he was embraced by President John F. Kennedy, who encouraged him to go into politics.

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Keith Ellison's coronation as DNC Chair hit a major hurdle this week

    Keith Ellison seemed to be on cruise control in his campaign to be the next head of the Democratic National Committee. The Minnesota Democrat had won endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer for the job and had emerged as the liberal favorite in a party that has become increasingly controlled by its progressive wing in recent years.

    Then this week his past came back to haunt him.

    Ellison has a long history of controversial remarks, many of which he has disavowed. Like the time he compared George W. Bush to Hitler. Or his defense of the Nation of Islam. Or calling his 2012 opponent a "low-life scumbag."

    But, this week another Ellison controversy emerged -- and this from the much-more-recent past.

    In 2010, Ellison gave a speech at a fundraiser hosted by a past president of the Muslim-American Society. In it, he says he wants the "U.S. to be friends with Israel" but adds: "We can't allow another country to treat us like we're their ATM." Then Ellison said this:

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If not on 'voter fraud,' when will Trump's inner circle stop going along with his false assertions?

    One would think that Reince Priebus, the guy in charge of the Republican Party's 2016 electoral efforts, would be unwilling to entertain the nonsensical idea that millions of people who participated in it voted illegally. After all, the Republicans did very well in 2016 - holding the Senate, holding the House and retaking the White House. And, after all, it would largely be up to Priebus as head of one of the two major political parties to maintain the integrity of the election - and up to the Republican attorneys general in the majority of the states to police things.

    That policing happens, of course. Any number of safeguards and protections are in place to ensure the integrity of the vote. Over the course of the election, we found a grand total of four proven instances in which someone was caught trying to vote more than once in person or by absentee ballot. The system works, and Priebus should both know and reiterate that point.

    Confronted by CBS' John Dickerson on Sunday morning, though, he didn't.

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Democrats have lost an entire generation of congressional leaders

    You might have missed the news this past week that Rep. Xavier Becerra will leave Congress to become California's attorney general. Becerra wasn't the highest-profile member of Congress. But his departure is a piece of a broader exodus of Democratic House members once regarded as the next leaders of the party in Washington.

    For Becerra, the move makes sense. His stock in Washington had fallen somewhat in recent months, and with Rep. Nancy Pelosi's reelection as minority leader last week - and the retention of the two other top leaders for House Democrats - it would be at least two more years before Becerra could move up the leadership ladder. Now he will be positioned to run for a statewide office (governor in 2022 or 2026, Senate in 2018) or be plucked by the next Democratic president as a Cabinet pick. Plus, he is being appointed to the job by Gov. Jerry Brown, meaning that he will run as an incumbent in 2018. (The job is open because Kamala Harris won election to the Senate last month.)

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Trump says he'll cancel Obama's 'unconstitutional' executive actions. It's not that easy.

    During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged to "cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama." The good news was that Trump did not simply use the phrase "executive order" to describe every administrative tool presidents can use. That simplification is inaccurate.

    The bad news was that it wasn't clear, then or now, which particular actions he deemed "unconstitutional." Many of those he complained most about on the campaign trail - about gun control, for instance - had little substantive impact on gun ownership or use.

    In any case, judging from his recent YouTube video announcing his own plans for "Day One" of his administration, Trump sees executive actions exactly as other presidents have: as a means to show leadership and to push forward his policy preferences fast, without the tedium of the legislative process. (In his two-and-a-half minute video, Trump never used the word "Congress," though other items from his campaign's "100-day plan" would clearly need legislative approval.)

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The faux teacher shortage

    Here's something I've been struggling to understand: What makes the prospect of a national teacher shortage such an immediately compelling narrative, capable of spreading with the speed of a brush fire?

    With almost no real data - because neither states nor the federal government collects the information that would be needed to pronounce the onset of a true teacher shortage - we witness the press, school districts, state school boards and even Congress conclude that we are in the throes of a full-blown national crisis.

    At the root of this crisis is a New York Times news article published two summers ago reporting on six school districts that were having a tough time filling positions (though all but two ultimately started the year just fine). Whoosh! Overnight the teacher shortage became real.

    That early spark was then steadily fed by news articles reporting that teacher preparation programs were facing unprecedented enrollment drops.

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