Jimmy Breslin — A Story From Long Ago

A Jimmy Breslin Story

America will miss his journalism and character.

A Jimmy Breslin Story

(Jim Cooper, File/AP Photo)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor

March 23, 2017, at 2:45 p.m.

The passing of Jimmy Breslin this past week reminds us not only of the rarity of great print journalism in our country, but also of the lack of true characters in American life. We are far too buttoned down, too prone to the 24/7 easy hit journalism, relying too much on talking heads and gladiator TV.

Breslin was a reporter’s reporter, a true “digger” of the news, a real writer who went beyond the who, what, when, where – and truly explored the why. He generated controversy and never hesitated to go off the beaten path. He was a character, a piece of work, and he made us think.


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I have one memory from the late 1970s when I traveled with my boss, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to Minneapolis where he was giving a speech to a very large conference of senior citizens. He was the chair of the Aging Committee in the U.S. Senate, and I was nearly a third of the age of many in the room. The other speaker that day was Breslin, and he spoke ahead of Church to the assembled crowd with their walkers and hearing aids.

I will never forget Breslin’s first line: “I hate old people.” To say that there was a loud gasp from the audience would be an understatement. Church and I looked at each other wondering whether we should head for the exits.

Breslin followed that up with something like, “You are wrinkled, you are losing your hair and your teeth, you have trouble walking.” He went on to describe the maladies of aging. He certainly had no trouble getting the attention of his audience.

Then he pivoted. He talked about growing up in Queens, about being around old people, his relatives and his friend’s relatives. He talked about living in the same house, or at least on the same block, with your grandparents or great-grandparents. He talked about taking care of one another, about the natural process of families nurturing the young as well as the old, of learning from one another, of love. He talked about what the elderly have given and contributed and sacrificed and what they still give to those closest to them. He talked about what he had learned from living under the same roof and how natural it was to be a part of a multi-generational family, close-knit and caring.


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Breslin was old school for sure, and on that day he talked openly and with passion about what it means to grow old in America, about the tendency for more nursing homes, old people living in assisted living, families spreading out across the country and the world and about the disappearance of what he knew of family as a boy in Queens. He understood, but he didn’t like it. Something was being lost. A part of him was gone. A part of America was no more. It was a plea to hug those closest to you a little bit closer, certainly if they were older and in the twilight of life.

He may have joked that he hated old people, but he really loved them, especially up close.

The Chaos Budget Has No Soul

The Chaos Budget

Donald Trump’s budget is abnormal, vapid and senseless.

The Chaos Budget

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor USNews & World Report

March 16, 2017, at 12:15 p.m.

First of all, let’s stipulate that the Trump budget is dead on arrival on the Hill. Most presidential budgets are wish lists and aren’t enacted as presented. No exception.

The big surprise is just how outrageous and out-of-line President Donald Trump’s proposals are in today’s world. Trump’s misplaced priorities and lack of pragmatism penetrate loud and clear. With cuts to 18 agencies and an increase to one, the Department of Defense, we are presented with a dark and depressing future. He is using a defense buildup to justify the tearing down of who we are as Americans.

When we are confronted with a climate crisis, he wants to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by over 30 percent and eliminate 50 programs and 3,200 jobs. When we are confronted with complex and new diplomatic threats across the globe, Trump wants to cut the State Department and Agency for International Development funding by 29 percent or $10.1 billion. He would cut the Treasury’s international programs, with widespread bipartisan support, by 35 percent or $803 million.


When we are confronted with public health issues such as Ebola, Zika and the need to combat cancer and opioid abuse, Trump seeks to cut the National Institutes of Health budget by $5.8 billion or nearly 20 percent. And while Trump talks a good game on rebuilding America’s failing infrastructure, he proposes to get rid of the Department of Transportation program that funds $500 million in just these kinds of road projects.

As Trump makes great promises to the inner cities, he proposes cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing, nutrition assistance and fixing up existing water and sewer issues. He cuts $6.2 billion or over 13 percent from the HUD budget. Let them eat cake.

As we see cuts to education, labor, agriculture and many other departments of double digits, we also get a clear sense of Trump’s priorities with the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, as well as PBS.

This budget has no soul.


John F. Kennedy, as we approach his 100th birthday, may have said it best at Amherst College in 1963, shortly before he died:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

This Republican president and this budget embodies an America we hardly recognize – based on a vision to wall us off, withdraw from engagement with even our own citizens and inflict unnecessary harm, all in the name of disruption and chaos. Why spend over $4 billion this year of a projected $22 billion on a wall with Mexico as you eviscerate funds for our environment, our health, our way of life?

There is no answer. This budget and this president are not normal, are not a reflection of American values, optimism, pragmatism. Vapid, empty, senseless.

Let us hope that Congress and the American people come to grips with that, sooner rather than later.

All Hell Breaking Loose….

Imagine Democrats Did It

Republicans would be apoplectic if a Democratic attorney general did what Jeff Sessions did.

Imagine Democrats Did It

(Alex Brandon/AP)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor USNews & World Report

March 2, 2017, at 3:05 p.m.

As much as I would like to, I’m not going there on policy, personnel, plans or programs to help people if Hillary Clinton were in the Oval Office instead of President Donald Trump.

Instead, I am going there on how all hell would have broken loose if her first 30 days were anything like Trump’s. Really. The investigations. The press conferences. The attacks. The calls for impeachment, resignations, firings. We can only imagine.

First, think about what Republicans would say if Clinton had appointed billionaires and multi-millionaires from Wall Street and big business, many of whom have no clue about their jobs – the likes of Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson or Linda McMahon. How about a cabinet nominee who didn’t pay taxes for an undocumented immigrant for five years and was accused of domestic abuse by his former wife?

What would Republicans say to a White House where a handful of iron-fisted aides attempted to justify “alternative facts” and choose to accuse the legitimate press of “fake news,” when this had been the modus operandi they and their alt-right crew had used throughout the campaign?

But the main event is now before us: the explosion of the “Russian problem,” wherein the nation’s highest law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has failed to tell the truth to the United States Senate and to the American people.

So, what if one of Clinton’s earliest political supporters, the appointed attorney general, had lied to congress about his meetings with Russians during the campaign? Not just once at his confirmation hearing but twice, the second time in writing? What if he constantly refused to investigate relationships between campaign operatives and the Russians or to support the appointment of a special prosecutor? What if the president had called over and over for a special prosecutor to investigate the opposition candidate, just as Trump had for months?

Suppose Clinton’s national security advisor had talked repeatedly with the Russians during the campaign and before the inauguration, downplaying sanctions for Russian meddling in our elections, and then lied about it? And what if it was clear that hacking of the opposition and leaks of emails were a deliberate effort to sway the election?

Would the Republicans not be up in arms with investigations and shooting subpoenas left and right for the Clinton administration to testify? Would there not be calls for “getting to the bottom of this criminal and traitorous behavior”? If the dominoes were falling one after another and the national security of the United States were at stake, would not Republicans be attacking and holding hearings and calling witnesses?

Instead, we have an attorney general who has lied and is stonewalling. We have a White House that is attempting to control the damage, to cover up what John Dean so aptly called “the cancer on the presidency” during Watergate. This is so Nixonian.


Enlisting members of Congress to go out and rebut the press, even including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., goes down a dangerous path. Nunes warned of a “witch hunt” and now finds himself in a very awkward position as his committee tries to uncover the facts.

The White House, which also insists on placing low-level operatives to oversee Cabinet secretaries and report back to political strategist Steve Bannon, is making the Nixonian mistake of thinking this is about dictating. Trump and Bannon are not kings. As Nixon discovered, this does not end well.

We are seeing the splintering of those in Congress who know that Sessions’ lies will not stand, that keeping the lid on an investigation of Russian ties to the Trump inner circle is a futile endeavor, that our democracy won’t allow a Watergate cover-up on steroids.

Americans know that if Clinton were in the White House a Republican congress would be all over her. Even some Republicans know that it is time to have a full and complete investigation of the Russian activities, despite the attorney general’s actions and the Trump White House’s desire to deep-six any inquiry.

The Jesse Ventura/Pat Buchanan Election

The Perfect Political Storm

Trump won over voters with his combination of Jesse Ventura’s style and Pat Buchanan’s substance.

The Perfect Political Storm

(Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor USNews & World Report

Feb. 24, 2017, at 12:00 p.m.

I have been thinking about this for quite some time – before November actually. What is the best way to characterize this unusual presidential election cycle?

The conclusion that I have reached is that 2016 might be called the Jesse Ventura/Pat Buchanan election. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, of course, was the professional wrestler elected as governor of Minnesota in 1998. Pat Buchanan worked in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan White Houses and ran for president several times as a populist conservative.

The bottom line is that the Trump victory was a triumph for an anti-politics, entertainer/outsider (Ventura), who also railed against immigration, “unfair” trade deals and a social and cultural elite (Buchanan).

Clearly, the high negatives of both Trump and Clinton played heavily as did the Russian, Comey and Wikileaks factors. But rather than dissect the back and forth, which has been discussed fully since November, I’ll stick to a more thematic explanation for 2016.


When it comes to Jesse Ventura, I remember well my Minnesota friends calling me on election day 1998 and telling me they were seeing a lot of voters showing up at their polling places whom they had never seen before. Riding in on motorcycles, lots of tattoos, many who were taking advantage of the “same day” voter registration law in Minnesota. These were not traditional voters who favored Ventura’s opponents, the Democratic attorney general, Skip Humphrey, or the Republican St. Paul Mayor, Norm Coleman. These were voters who were responding to Ventura’s rallying cry: “Don’t vote for politics as usual!” Ventura never led in the polls until election day – sound familiar?

Jesse Ventura (real name: James George Janos) was well-known as a “bad boy” professional wrestler, radio talk show host and elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. He was famous for wearing a feather boa, and his slogan in the World Wrestling Federation ring of “win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat” defined his role as an entertainer. But his ads for governor and his role in the debates characterized him as a candidate not afraid to take on the status quo, garner large amounts of free press and provide an alternative to the traditional two parties. One ad showed him as Rodin’s “The Thinker,” poking fun at himself and the system.

Jesse Ventura was a lot like Donald Trump – loud, outspoken, often outrageous, easy to mock and criticize, but always giving the press good copy. Also, Ventura tended to suck all the oxygen out of the room in the debates.

We will see when the final turnout and voter registration numbers are in this summer for 2016, but Trump may have not only communicated well with disaffected voters but may have brought new ones to the polls. According to a study by Ohio State University researchers Dean Lacy and Quin Monson, Minnesota turnout as a percentage of voting-age population was 60 percent in 1998 compared to 53 percent in 1994. In addition, 15 percent of voters registered on election day in 1998 compared to 10 percent in 1994. It is also important to note that there weren’t any Senate or presidential contests on the ballot in 1998, so the turnout of 2.1 million votes was a high-water mark given that the governor’s race was the main game in town. It may well be that we will find that turnout of new voters or less likely voters was critical for Donald Trump in the key battleground states.

But there is no question about it, Donald Trump was a Jesse Ventura-type of candidate, certainly in style.


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Having spent nearly a decade going back and forth with Pat Buchanan on Saturday mornings on MSNBC, I can attest to the similarities between his views and Donald Trump’s. For over two decades Pat has hit the theme of America First. In his campaigns for president, in his books, in his speeches, he has been clear about his opposition to trade deals, his fight for workers in the Rust Belt, his opposition to immigration, his anger at the establishment. Way back in November of 1993, his column was entitled “America First, NAFTA Never.” His sub headline was “It’s not about free trade – It’s about our way of life.” Pat Buchanan has been consistent.

In his famous speech at the Republican Convention in 1992 he talked about a culture war. In many respects the Trump campaign tapped into those same concerns about a society that was leaving what they termed “traditional America” behind. Here is what Pat Buchanan said in 1992 and has reinforced ever since:

“Friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America – abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat–that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.”

Pat Buchanan’s hard rhetoric, in many respects, became Trump’s 25 years later. Some of it was nuanced for the times, but the sense that America was no longer first, that it was no longer “God’s country,” that the world that they grew up in was just changing too fast, that they were powerless and left behind – that penetrated in 2016 with a certain key, white segment of the electorate. Rural America and those highlighted in J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” flocked to Trump in record numbers. The Buchanan Brigade of the 1990s was back with a vengeance.

It seems that Democrats should come to better understand the convergence of these two men, Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan, in style and substance, if they are going to understand not just the election of 2016 but where a segment of America is coming from with their political choices.

Trump: The Apprentice in More Ways Than One

The Apprentice President

Trump is proving the presidency is no place for on-the-job training.

The Apprentice President

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor–USNews & World Report

Feb. 22, 2017, at 7:00 a.m.

Watching President Donald Trump for the last month, I have made many of the same observations as other critics: He is unstable, his ego knows no bounds, he has no allegiance to the truth and he is unquestionably ignorant of anything other than what he sees on cable news (crisis in Sweden!) or what he gets from briefings from his small and alt-right staff.

But his press conference and Florida rally of the last week show me something else. He is going to behave as president just as he behaved as the star of his TV show “The Apprentice.” He will read from teleprompters when he needs to, he will ad lib and expound on a whim when it suits his fancy, and he will lash out at perceived slights or seek to berate and put down anyone who he perceives as in his way. He will make any statement, no matter how outrageous (the press is “the enemy of the American people”), he will never apologize or admit he is wrong, and he will act as a circus reality-show performer from the stage, not as what is an acceptable president of the United States.


Thus, anyone who believes that there will be a Trump-change and that he will grow into the role of president is, in fact, dreaming. “The Apprentice” show is now “The President” show. Or, at least, it has been over the course of the last 30 days.

His press conference was jaw-dropping. The first two rows in the room were filled by family and staff, then a break before the press was seated. This was absurd and a total departure from precedent – or as Trump would say, “president.” Just as was his January appearance at the CIA, where he reportedly brought cheering and clapping staff.

At least they didn’t applaud at his press conference. At the presser, he read wild accusations from notes written for him and proceeded to attack the press. He repeated ridiculous claims of his electoral victory that he had been making for weeks, which he had to know were wrong. He made statements about General Michael Flynn’s resignation, the role of his campaign with the Russians and his own business dealings which raised more questions than they answered.

I could not help but think – as this presidency is unfolding with the fleeing of the White House for Mar-a-Lago, the continued nasty tweets, the senseless attacks on “enemies” and the embarrassing appearances – that we are experiencing one more episode of “The Apprentice.”

The other thought that occurred to me is that we are in the throes of an old adage: “the presidency is no place for on-the-job-training.” In fact, Trump is the apprentice. But there is no one to supervise him, no adult in the room to help him out, no David Gergen to guide him. Instead, he has Mr. Chaos, Steve Bannon, and his clueless, but arrogant assistant, Stephen Miller, whispering in his ear.

So we have an apprentice president in more ways than one – a P.T. Barnum showman and a man with no sense of history or ability to actually do the job. That is a dangerous, combustible combination.

Time for Democrats to Flood the Zone!

Flood the Zone

Stopping Trump’s deluge of atrocious policies requires ceaseless opposition.

Flood the Zone

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor USNews & World Report

Jan. 30, 2017, at 4:35 p.m.

Anyone who expected Donald Trump, or the likes of White House strategist Steve Bannon, to conduct a government that was reasoned, deliberate, thoughtful, fact-based, collaborative or even somewhat rational or professional should have had their heads examined.

For those who felt that it was time to “blow up” our government, discard the advice and counsel of those with expertise and experience and issue dictatorial declarations from day one, they have their man. And for those who thought campaign rhetoric was just another way to vent anger and frustration but would not result in devastating policy to match the blowhard candidate, you were hopelessly naive and voted to install someone who is going to do what he said, and more.

The main tactic of the Bannon-Trump administration is to flood the zone with one action after another without vetting, without serious explanation, without consulting Congress or even those within their own administration. They then follow up these executive declarations with tweets and invective directed against one perceived enemy after another. The desire to create chaos, regardless of the consequences, follows on from the writings of Bannon and the speeches of Trump.


The theory is simple: Flood the zone. Put so much out there, so fast, that all the press and the public can do is react as one outrage after another sucks the oxygen out of the room. So, as the furor builds over the ban from seven Muslim countries, they announce that a Supreme Court appointment will be unveiled earlier than planned on Tuesday. This all resembles a cynical magic trick, where our eyes are kept shifting to the next shiny object.

As Republicans become concerned with one policy and begin to coalesce around alternatives, the Bannon-Trump administration changes the subject. The Republicans will now have a nominee to the Supreme Court to focus on, with likely unanimity. Some will breathe a sigh of relief that they aren’t being asked by the press about the previous outrageous actions – silliness over ego-driven inauguration crowd estimates or spending hundreds of billions we don’t have on a wall we don’t need or Bannon’s takeover of the critical National Security Council or the horrendous immigrant and refugee ban or any of the other executive orders that weren’t vetted or discussed outside the Eagle’s Nest.

Inside the Eagle’s Nest, they are counting on this disruption to further their “alternative facts” and put the press in the position of creating much sound and fury that they say signifies nothing. They will use the demonstrations and the marches to isolate vast numbers of Americans in opposition to “making America great again.”


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The worst thing we can do is play their game – lose focus and allow them to move on to the next atrocity. Or, for that matter, overly engage in the silly tweets that are emblematic of Trump’s outrageous narcissism. We must build our case and our own movement against his policies, engage experts and lawyers, go to court, go to the media (mainstream and social), continue protests, contribute money, volunteer on the front lines, convince those who may have voted for Trump and Republicans now in elective office that our fundamental values, and even our country, hang in the balance.

In short, we must flood the zone ourselves. We must not lay back and assume that someone else will step forward, that traditional means of waiting two years until the next election will suffice, that we are in normal times. And let’s be clear, we need a growing consensus among the vast majority of Americans and a large coalition of Republicans that what is taking place must be stopped – now. If Trump cannot be convinced to alter his policies, his behavior and his method of governing, removal from office should be considered. At the very least, his policies need to be blocked and investigations conducted into his actions. This is not about Democrat vs. Republican, this is about taking our patriotic duty as seriously as ever.

What we are facing with this administration has real and sustained and, possibly cataclysmic, impact. Whether we are talking about fundamental civil rights and civil liberties, voting rights, destroying our health care system, dismantling environmental protections, upending international alliances or undermining human rights around the world, Bannon-Trump is not playing around the edges. And neither should we.

Trump’s Speech: Will Be Forever Known as “The American Carnage” Inaugural Address

The ‘American Carnage’ Speech

Trump’s inaugural address indicates that his presidency will be just like his campaign.

The ‘American Carnage’ Speech

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor, USNews & World Report

Jan. 23, 2017, at 12:20 p.m.

Clenched fist salute. Hardened jaw. As dreary and downcast as the rainy weather. Depressing. Or as Donald Trump tweets so often: “Sad!”

If you listened to Trump’s crass campaign speech on Jan. 20 – not an inaugural address – you would come away with an image of America in the deepest, darkest depths of its history, with everyone beside him and behind him to blame. Only he, Donald J. Trump, will save us.

If you expected something different from what you have seen and heard from Trump over the past year and a half, forget it; what you saw over all that time is what you’re going to get.

This will be forever known as “The American Carnage Speech.”

For my nearly 94-year-old father, who has all his marbles, this speech was particularly galling. Just like many of his generation, he grew up during the Great Depression, he fought Hitler and Mussolini in Italy during World War II and he lived through those periods of real carnage. While the baby boomers came of age with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, fearing a war between the Soviet Union and the United States, my Dad served in the Kennedy White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now that was a time when the U.S. and the world faced possible carnage.


What we have now is a country that has emerged from a deep and dangerous recession with unemployment falling to half of what it was, now 4.7 percent, a stock market that has tripled since its low point eight years ago, an auto industry that has been saved and average earnings on the rise. The threat of nuclear Armageddon is past and we see the end of American involvement in two wars. Do we face serious problems to be solved? Of course. But are we in the throes of a cataclysmic disaster in America? You have got to be kidding.

What we have seen in the Trump campaign, culminating in this address, is a rejection of reason, a nihilistic vision of America that demands closing our borders, curbing civil and individual rights and pulverizing the social contract with our citizens. All this from a president who has determined that to achieve his objectives, truth will be the first casualty. Facts don’t matter; tweets that are wrong don’t matter; sending your political operatives out to deny the truth is now a daily occurrence since he placed his hand on that Bible. The operative Trumpian phrase, uttered by Kellyanne Conway over the weekend, is “alternative facts” – otherwise known as falsehoods.

The destructive nature of all this is inescapable – from little things such as crowd sizes or who is better on “The Apprentice,” to big things such as our relationship with our allies or what the real nature of the Russian-Trump arrangement is or has been. We are faced with a man in the White House who is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. And to him, it does not matter. It is about winning, but winning what? He does not understand governing; he does not understand solving public policy problems; he does not revel in the details of the issues. He will govern by gut. He will make decisions on the fly, just as he tweets on the fly. By all accounts, he has the attention span of a gnat. He can delegate to Mike Pence or whomever, but at the end of the day he is the one who sits in that Oval Office. The hard decisions come to him, as they have to every president for over 200 years. One page flash memos won’t cut it, a clenched fist or angry retort won’t solve the problem and blatant narcissism will simply lead to disaster.

Declaring war on the press or Democrats or Hillary Clinton or the CIA or those who question him is getting old very fast. If he chooses to demonize and degrade and destroy our democracy in order to save it, we will suffer the consequences.

I cannot believe that even the most loyal of Republicans are buying what he is selling, and they must be deeply worried about these first few days in office. A number of Republicans may have thought things might get better after he won, but Trump is not a reassuring figure. In fact, his speech has been condemned by conservatives and liberals alike (George Will: “Trump Gave the Most Dreadful Address in History;” New York Times editorial: “What President Trump Doesn’t Get About America”).

Let’s face it, Donald Trump is not capable of changing. There is no transformation. The American Carnage Speech says it all.

So when my father tells me that Trump is a wolf in wolf’s clothing, I take notice.

The Democrats’ Way Forward

The Democrats’ Way Forward
US News & World Report
Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

(Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor

Jan. 13, 2017, at 4:15 p.m.

I have not written in this space since mid-November when I published a post-election letter to my granddaughter, my first grandchild. For Democrats, and many Americans, it has been a rough couple of months. Grand understatement.

But I think it is time for us, or at least me, to come out of the fetal position. So many people are concerned. “What can I do? What should I do?” they ask.

Some of us are old enough to remember the tsunami of the 1980 election. The conservative movement and the nation’s problems swept Ronald Reagan to a resounding victory over Jimmy Carter and flipped the Senate, unseating 12 Democratic senators, including my boss. Many of us who worked for those senators found ourselves standing in a special unemployment line in what is now the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Building. Joining us were other Democratic committee staff members, also unexpectedly out of a job. And, of course, there were thousands of people who worked in the Carter administration who were also ousted from their positions.

Dejected. Depressed. Scared. Angry. Plenty of emotions for a lot of young, idealistic, committed people. Some left Washington to look for jobs, some went home to the states from whence they came, and some stayed.

I was lucky. I was offered a job with a political media firm in New York and, also, offered a job as the executive director of Democrats for the ’80s, a new political action committee started by Pamela Harriman and an impressive group of political luminaries, including a young Bill Clinton. I chose to stay in Washington and direct the PAC. The goal was to help rebuild the Democratic Party and to work across the country to elect Democrats at all levels. Juice fundraising, help with messaging, bring together those in the political wilderness to inject a sense of hope and confidence — those were our hopes. I learned a lot from that experience that may be relevant now.

Of course, Pamela and Averell Harriman could get almost anyone to come to the issue dinners at their home, to participate in a salon to discuss the way forward. Anyone in Washington would take their phone calls. Some people even took mine, a 30-something, invisible, former Hill aide.


Here are some of the things I learned from that experience long ago, in a galaxy far, far away:

Focus. As former Sen. Russell Long said at one of the issue dinners where there was intense hand-wringing: “Y’all don’t seem to understand – the job of the minority is to bethe minority.” What he meant was, you’re not in charge now, get over it, and take the Republicans head on. Fight with your ideas, work with them if it works for the country, but it’s time to bring a message to the American people that wins elections. And organize, organize, organize.

This Trump presidency and his appointments, plus the Republican Congress, provides Democrats the chance to be the minority and take them head on. Fight with the confidence and conviction necessary to stop what is wrong and destructive and propose solutions that work and galvanize voters.

Listen. After 1980, the noted pollster Stan Greenberg did ground-breaking work in Michigan, listening to what became known as the “Reagan Democrats” – those working class and disaffected voters who switched their allegiance. We face similar problems today with voters who are angry and frustrated with government, Washington, power elites in general, and their personal lives, in particular. Read “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance and you get a pretty good picture of the state of our union. Democrats need to listen to and communicate with their natural constituency – working class voters.

Fight back. After the election of 1980, Democrats wallowed in their misery for a while but we fought back. We took on right-wing groups and aired ads against those who tried to take down Democrats such as Paul Sarbanes in Maryland. We produced a factual guide to what the other side was doing, including quotes from the leaders of New Right groups, exposing the hateful rhetoric and attacks against our basic institutions. We used the press, worked with state parties, sent out speakers and engaged in direct mail to get out our message.

We brought together, at Democrats for the 80s, the leading experts in issue areas from agriculture to the environment, from job creation to education, from foreign policy to infrastructure. And we created, for the 1982 elections, a Democratic Fact Book that highlighted the Republican record, the Democratic response, the way forward and speech ideas for our candidates on the stump. These experts wrote chapters and each chapter had the same format and was easy to digest and use by the Democrats, not just in Washington but across the country. We paid for thousands of these books to be printed and distributed. (Now we could just send them electronically!)


Recruit candidates. The Democrats need to expand their efforts to recruit candidates for state and local office, as well as the Senate and House. For years, many of us have worked with some fine state parties that have strong caucus operations, recruiting and training strong candidates. But not enough time and effort has been spent to fund and support local efforts to build up our farm team. To be honest, the other side, especially the far right, has spent much more on their state operations to great effect. If we ignore the grassroots and local activity, we do so at our peril.

Money, money, volunteer. Money is not the only answer but it sure helps! Donations to progressive causes such as Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sierra Club, the ACLU, NARAL, Emily’s List, Human Rights Campaign and so many others have surged since the election. This happened after Reagan was elected: People were willing to dig deeper when the threat was clear. Not only are they now ready to contribute but many are willing to volunteer and work for grass roots organizations, lend their legal and policy expertise, join online groups to share information and work for candidates for office. But if there was ever a serious threat, this is the time; if there ever was a moment to ratchet up fundraising and volunteering, now is the time.

Coordinate. One of the most effective tactics we used after the Reagan election was to bring together every few weeks various political and progressive groups to share information, coordinate messaging, divide up the workload and focus our energies. Labor, women’s groups, liberal PACs, environmental groups, gay rights, civil liberties, etc. would meet at our offices next to the Harriman house. For over 20 years Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has convened a Wednesday morning group to coordinate his conservative groups. It is time for regular, disciplined meetings to strategize and plan even more so than has been done in the past. Given the proliferation of organizations these might be divided up by issue area or political focus into smaller meetings, but still share strategy and tactics with one another.


A mid-term June 2018 convention. Democrats have tried mid-term conventions in the past (’74, ’78 and ’82) with mixed success. My guess is 2018 will be quite a different time. We will surely have to deal with what is likely to be a disastrous two years of Trump. Such a gathering could focus the party on the upcoming mid-term elections and set the stage for a presidential race in 2020. Voters will be looking for a reset from the Democrats and ready to listen to solutions for the upheaval that the Trump administration will have wrought.

Messaging. It is hard to conceive that Democrats have lost the message war to a tweeting P.T. Barnum, devoid of a moral compass and severely lacking in basic policy knowledge. One of the difficulties during the campaign, and even now, as he prepares to become president, is that we are so appalled and perplexed with his nasty and unrestrained tweet-storms against individual people and events – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, Russian hacking, the intelligence community, whatever – that we take our eyes off the ball.

Harnessing anger, cynicism and distrust of politicians is easy, and sadly, quite effective. Offering grand, sweeping promises is also a traditional, simple strategy to win elections. But Trump took all this to a whole new level and convinced many voters that he would be the champion of the working class, the disaffected, those in rural towns and those who resented the social change that was taking hold in America. He carried the pitchfork and many rallied to the outsider message of economic populism. It sounded absurd to Democrats that their hard work on education, health care, the minimum wage, family and medical leave, saving the auto industry and lifting America out of the great recession would be overtaken by a charlatan with a “Make America Great Again” hat.

But his message was simple and ours was complex; his rhetoric was hot, ours was lukewarm; his promises, however absurd, were simple and easy to grasp, ours were wonky and hard to communicate. And Trump had the advantage of being the change candidate, someone who never had to get his hands dirty worrying about what it meant to actually govern. And Democrats were the status quo party, with an anti-status quo electorate.

As most in politics know, you can have all the data and money and metrics in the world, but if your message is weak, you are in deep trouble.


So, do we need to get back to our roots and our rhetoric on “fighting hard for hard working families”? You bet we do. Is this about a clear contrast between those Republicans whose policies and programs fight for the wealthiest in our land and those Democrats who battle for everyone else? It sure is. Do we, as Democrats, need to get our heads out of the clouds and realize it isn’t just about white papers on the issues but about connecting with those people who are yearning to hear that we care about them, their plight and their predicament, and that our prescriptions are the right ones to truly improve their lives? No doubt about it.

Fundamentally, we can see from Trump’s cabinet appointments and his decisions thus far that he is the wrong guy, with the wrong party, ready to do the wrong things for working people who trekked to the polls and voted for him. We just witnessed the most issue-less election in modern memory and we failed to draw the right contrasts on what it means to be a Democrat versus a Republican.

All across the board, Democratic policies and priorities support working families, while Republicans consistently side with the 1 percet. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton, made this point. But not strongly or effectively enough. This makes it all the more important that we understand and empathize and help those who feel helpless – those whose jobs have been lost or incomes remained stagnant, those 29 percent of American over 55 who have neither a pension nor retirement savings, those who cannot survive without a strong Social Security and Medicare backstop.

Republicans in Congress are ready to not only destroy the Affordable Cafe Act and throw our health care coverage into chaos, but they are setting their sights on Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security. Their plans for tax cuts only further exacerbate the problems the middle class faces and reward the wealthy with more tax breaks. Ever since FDR, we have seen a fundamental and historic difference between Democrats and Republicans on the social contract, on standing up for working people, on the role and responsibility of government to create and maintain a safety net that makes our nation stronger. Democrats must rekindle and reinforce that message in the years ahead.

It’s true that there is a debate within the party about whether Democrats made a mistake by talking too much about women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, rights of Muslim Americans, racial and ethnic inclusion, etc. Many believe, sadly, that it is an either/or proposition – you focus on the rights of these Americans or you make a general case to the working class. I do believe very strongly that this is a false dichotomy and that a strong, viable, inclusive Democratic Party must do both.

If the message is created and conveyed properly, they are mutually inclusive and persuasive, one supports the other; it is not about pitting one group against another or one sacrificing their future while the other prospers. It is about, as Barack Obama said in 2004, one America. And melding that proverbial melting pot with a future we can truly believe in is still possible in America. That should be the Democrats’ cause, that should be our message.

A Letter to My Granddaughter — The America I Hope You Grow Up In

A Letter to My Granddaughter

The America I hope you grow up in.

A Letter to My Granddaughter

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor  USNews & World Report

Nov. 16, 2016, at 1:30 p.m.

Dear Gwen,

You were born the day after Valentine’s Day, Feb. 15, 2016, bringing great joy to your parents, grandparents and your 93-year old great grandfather (and many others!). You are the first of the new generation in our family. You were also born as the campaign of 2016 was in full swing. You were born during a time when we had the first woman nominated by a major party for president of the United States, raising the memory of my grandmothers who were born when women did not have the right to vote. You were proudly taken to the polls by your parents for the very first time before you were even a year old.

We watched you grow this past year as you thrill us with each passing day, your constant smile, your cheerful engagement with all that you experienced; you are such a happy baby and so fortunate to have loving parents and nurturing surroundings.

But I want to write you today not only about the election we just went through but the world you will inherit, shape and grow up in.

Many are not as lucky as you are. Many live in a world, at home and abroad, that is torn by strife, economic hardship and war. Many are victims of hatred and prejudice because of their religion, their sexual orientation, the color of their skin or where they come from. Many feel left out, ignored, looked down upon by the powers that be in our society. Many are victims of fear created by others to advance themselves. Many are frustrated and angry with their government.


Sometimes it is easier in political campaigns to fan the flames of division and discord than to offer up ideas for making things better. You will find growing up that you will be confronted by people who are mean or simply don’t understand the effect of saying something that is hurtful. You will find you have disagreements or differences of opinion that can escalate and bring out the worst in yourself and others. You will get angry, you will say things you don’t mean that are petty; you will not, alas, be a perfect person. No one is. But, I suspect, you will grow up to be a woman of unbelievable talent and grace, who will be a source of great pride and wonder.

I am glad, in many ways, you did not experience this campaign of 2016. It was not a source of pride, as it should have been, with our first woman nominee, but a source of some revulsion. It was full of petty and mean rhetoric – anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, full of fear – by the man who was ultimately elected president. Now, just two weeks after the election, many hope that this man will change and become more civil and more of a unifier than a divider. We will see; I wish I were more optimistic.

My grandmothers would never have tolerated the language used during the primaries and the general election, the debates on the Republican side, the takeover of Twitter to hurl insults and invectives. They would not have recognized their country during this past year. Nor, my guess, would have the past presidents. Nor did many of us. In a year when the transformative musical “Hamilton” highlighted the diversity and greatness of our country, we sadly went in the opposite direction with the Republican candidate for president. I so hope you will experience the extraordinary cultural phenomenon of “Hamilton” and understand how it affected so many.



But I want to write you about what kind of America I see for you and what kind of America I want you to grow up in. By the time you are old enough to shape this world, I hope that we can at least bring it back from this campaign of the year of your birth to what America has been in its finest hours – kind, tolerant, respectful, honorable and, yes, loving. An America that is increasingly diverse and vibrant with people of all religions, all nationalities, all colors, all sexual orientations, who live with and respect one another.

This is more important than I can express. We can overcome a lot in America if we don’t disintegrate into a country that pits white against Black and Hispanic, straight against LGBT, rural against urban, Christian against Muslim. We have had the benefit of an extraordinary president these past years, Barack Obama, who you will read about in your history books and may even have the honor of meeting one day.

Here is what I hope we do for you in the coming months and years, Gwen. I hope we stand up tall against prejudice by supporting groups and organizations and people who need our help. I hope we march and protest and write letters and Facebook feeds and talk to neighbors and friends and relatives, to listen and bring people together, not tear them apart. I hope we don’t retreat and give up on politics because it is hard, but double down because it is important. I hope we cooperate when we can but are not afraid to confront when it is necessary. I hope we do what many of us did when defeat hit us in the gut in 1980: We form new groups and support old ones that bring about the kind of change that moves us forward into the light. We fight for the issues that matter – health care for all Americans, a protected environment that you can live and breathe in, jobs that matter and pay a decent wage, equal rights for all, a more educated and informed citizenry, a program of universal service in America so that everyone gives back.


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At the end of the day, Gwen, I hope you come of age when people believe in their government again, when they appreciate and understand that it is really about all of us and that it is a source for good. You should know that the people who serve in government are dedicated people who are doing their very best to help others, and should not be the subject of derision and cynical attacks. I hope that the campaign of 2016 won’t be a precursor of what is to come but an aberration that we will figure out how to overcome. Fear and intimidation should not be normal for our country and as you grow up I pray that we have the courage and the conviction and the ability to reverse the trend towards division and hate and prejudice.

Finally, I hope those of us who have a chance to make a difference choose to do so and don’t shrink from the responsibility, but welcome it. When your mother was a little girl, just after she was born actually, I worked for a wonderful woman, Geraldine Ferraro. She was a lot like Hillary Clinton and ran for vice president in 1984. Your grandma gave me her biography after the campaign, with a little inscription supposedly from your mom (not yet 3 years old): “Happy Birthday to Daddy – if she could do it, I could do it! Love, Kristina.” When I showed it to Gerry Ferraro, Gwen, she put another inscription underneath to your mother: “To Kristina, the campaign of ’84 was for you!”

We are not done yet, but we will get there.

So, to my granddaughter, it is for you that we will fight to make sure that, as Hillary said, “women’s rights are human rights,” and that we are, in America, “stronger together.” And I can assure you that we will never give up, or give in to the politics of irrationalism and fear, but instead, we will seek a newer and better world. Because you, and so many others, deserve no less.

Love from your Grandpa

The Better Angels of 2016

The Better Angels of 2016

There’s still cause for political optimism in the midst of a disheartening campaign season.

The Better Angels of 2016

(tomwachs/Getty Stock Images)

By Peter Fenn | Contributor USNews & World Report

Oct. 24, 2016, at 5:30 p.m.

As we approach the end of this long, tiring campaign season we seem to have almost cast aside any discussion of civil discourse as a bedrock of our politics.

In the midst of this years’ difficult back and forth, I have been privileged to serve on two boards that focus on the legacies of two men whose political careers were defined by members of the Greatest Generation: Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. The Frank Church Institute at Boise State University and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas both are at the forefront of involving students and the surrounding community in an effort to change the discourse and prove, once again, that politics is an honorable profession.

It’s not an easy climb. But let me tell you why I am encouraged and what I experienced this past week in Lawrence, Kansas. We had the first meeting of the new board of advisers, comprised of Republicans and Democrats, who have extensive experience in government, politics and business. They share one common thread: They are committed to democratic dialogue and they care deeply about the mission of the Dole Institute “to promote political and civic participation as well as civil discourse in a bi-partisan, philosophically balanced manner.”


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We discussed the many impressive programs of the Dole Institute and what we could do to help but, most importantly, we met with the students who are engaged in public life. Four student advisory board members representing the four classes were interviewed by the institute’s director, Bill Lacy, and gave one of the most impressive presentations I have seen during this whole campaign season. From first year Haley Pederson, to sophomore Amanda Bhatia, to junior Vince Munoz, to senior Kevin McCarthy, they were all lively, positive, smart, incredibly articulate and they nailed what is so critical to the future of our democracy: You have to listen, to learn from others, to debate and discuss, to question, to weigh the facts and arguments, and to do your damnedest to achieve common ground. They reveled in meeting with some of the nation’s leading reporters, advocates, office holders, even former presidents.

What I saw that evening lifted my spirits and gave me confidence that many of our young people are able to sort through the events of this campaign season and see the future a lot clearer than many of us who seem mired in the day-to-day. Their experience at the Dole Institute reinforces another part of the mission: “only through political and active participation can citizens redirect the course of our nation.”

As we were finishing our work, prior to the student panel, there was a knock at the door of the board room. It was a surprise guest. Bob Dole himself flew all the way out to Kansas, at 93, to thank all of us for our service. He spent time with the students and thanked them as well, just as he did when he traveled a couple of years ago to all of the 105 counties in Kansas to thank the citizens of his state. A class act.

Later this week, the Frank Church Institute will hold its 32nd annual conference to highlight a bipartisan presentation by former Reps. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Martin Frost, D-Texas, who have authored a book, “The Partisan Divide,” which discusses how best to end the gridlock in Washington. Similar to the Dole Institute, the Church Institute has also laid out its mission: “to provide a forum for open and informed discussion characterized by civility, tolerance and compromise.”


These two places are, in my view, jewels. There are others around our nation that strive to provide experiences for those who want to appeal to the best in America. As President Abraham Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

If our politics survived the great Civil War and so much more we can surely turn to the values and the missions of the Dole and Church Institutes to help lead the way. Once this election is over, that should be our calling.