Sunday, July 31, 2016

Katie Ledecky

“She has an intensity to her swimming that I have never seen in a distance athlete. She’s completely fearless.” — Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach

JUNE 27 and 28 Paul and I attended the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha. It's the third time we've been to the trials. We went for the first time in 2008 during what we call 'our sporty summer' and absolutely loved it. We were back in 2012 to watch Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte duel, as well as other swimming greats. 

I've written a number of posts about the races we were lucky enough to see in 2012: US Olympic Swimming TrialsLochte vs. Phelps at the US Olympic TrialsWomen's 200m Back Olympic TrialsMen's 100m Fly Olympic TrialsMen's 50m Freestyle Olympic TrialsDara Torres in the Women's 50m Freestyle Olympic Trials

That year we saw someone swim (Women's 800m Freestyle Olympic Trials) who, in the opinion of notable swimming experts, might be positioned to become an even greater phenomenon in the sport than Michael PhelpsKatie Ledecky.

Below are photos we took of the women's 400 freestyle finals at the 2016 Olympic Swimming Trials. Katie is in lane 4.

I read this feature article on her with great interest that came out yesterday in The New York Times Magazine Olympics Issue. I've shared it with you below.

The Phenom

The most dominant swimmer in the pool this summer is 19-year-old Katie Ledecky. The question isn’t whether she’ll win, but by how much.

By Michael Sokolove

July 31, 2016

Katie Ledecky is so nice. So normal. “She’s a better person than a swimmer,” says her coach, Bruce Gemmell — a comment that, strictly speaking, would put her in the running for best person in the world. After she came home from London in 2012 with an Olympic gold medal, she rejoined her high-school swim team in Bethesda, Md., and when she wasn’t in the water, she stood and cheered on her teammates. At lower-level meets that she’s not attending, members of her club team can count on texts from her: Good luck! Swim fast! She stands just under six feet, but her coach insists that she is shorter than most of her rivals, which is not the case but advances the conceit of Katie being, well, normal.

Ledecky, 19, is also happy, seemingly just about all the time. When you start listing the factors that make her so freakishly good at what she does, being freakishly happy has to rank very high. She rarely has anxieties about her swimming or anything else, and when she does, she says: “I can get rid of them. I’m pretty good at doing that. If I’m worried about something, I’m able to make myself just think about something else.”

The sport she has come to dominate makes almost impossible demands of the body and spirit. It imposes a ratio of hard training to exhilaration that is depressingly out of whack. Top swimmers train as often as nine times a week, 50-plus weeks a year, with their heads submerged in water for two or more hours at each of those sessions. What they hear is the rhythm of their own strokes, their teammates’ kicking, their coach’s muffled voice. 

One of the sport’s cruelties is that all this extreme training produces, on the whole, lackluster competitive performances. Swimmers try to peak just once or twice a year, and they prepare for these occasions in scientific and ritualistic ways. They swim fewer yards in the weeks leading up to a big competition, in order to be rested and fresh. They also, on the eve of major races, shave: women their legs and arms, men their legs, arms, chests, backs and sometimes their heads. The idea is to feel sleek and fast in the water.

Ledecky wants practices and all but the biggest meets to feel harder, not easier. “I haven’t shaved my legs since Russia,” she told me late last year in one of our first conversations, referring to a competition many months earlier. She laughed, which she does often. She has a big, engaging smile. “I’m sorry,” she added. “That’s probably too much information, right?”

Ledecky grew up in the suburbs of Washington and started swimming at 6 in a local summer league. Early on, she was fast but not a prodigy. She participated in a weekly Irish dance program and until she was 11 still played soccer and basketball. Her emergence as an elite swimmer was sudden, and it surprised her parents. At a meet at a neighborhood pool when she was 13, the volunteer announcer introduced her before one heat by saying, “I’m sure you’ll see her in the Olympics someday.” It bothered her father. “I was like, Come on, she’s 13 years old,” David Ledecky told me.

His daughter, though, was quietly setting goals, sharing them only with her coach — first, make the Olympic trials, then qualify for the Summer Games. In one of her first meets with world-class competition, she swam a 400-meter freestyle against Allison Schmitt, a top American swimmer who is seven years older. “I gave her a bit of a race,” is how Ledecky recalls it. “After that, I knew I could compete against those people. I wasn’t afraid to race them.”

In 2012 in London, Ledecky, a little-known 15-year-old, won the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle, defeating Rebecca Adlington, a British swimmer and world-record holder so heavily favored that Prince William, Kate Middleton and other members of the British royal family were in attendance at the Olympic aquatic center, anticipating a coronation. As the crowd chanted Adlington’s name, Ledecky channeled its energy and imagined the shouts were “Ledecky, Ledecky, Ledecky.” 

In the four years since, she has been on a world-record spree, setting them at all times of the year and over a stunning range of distances. First she established her supremacy in the distance freestyles, then she took command of shorter events. She is now the world’s top female swimmer in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. She is among the best Americans in the 100 free. No swimmer has conquered this combination of distances in nearly half a century, and to many in the sport, her achievement is hard to fathom — it would be like the Jamaican star sprinter Usain Bolt taking up and winning mile races.

In mid-January, I attended a three-day meet at the University of Texas in Austin. A large contingent of top American and international swimmers were there. Most of them talked about using the weekend to measure the state of their training; no one, or almost no one, was expecting to produce particularly fast results.

On the day before the racing began, Ledecky, who took a gap year after high school to train for the Olympics before she enrolls at Stanford this September, was led into a small media room by a staff member of USA Swimming. Not uncommon for a swimmer, she can seem a little awkward on land, and she approached the lectern with a gangly, slightly slope-shouldered gait. When the questioning began, she seemed to try to fall in line with the other swimmers’ modest goals. She said, for example, that she was just hoping to “implement” some of what she had been working on in practices. A poised public speaker, she referred to the coming competition more than once as “one of these kinds of meets” — meaning not too big a deal. But when someone asked what times she anticipated, she smiled, and it was a thinner smile, almost a smirk. “I think it’s going to be a good weekend,” she said. It was Ledecky’s demure way of saying: Keep your eye on me.

On the meet’s last day, she broke her own world record in the 800 freestyle, her 11th world mark since London. At the United States Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., earlier this summer, she won three events. She could end up with four or possibly even five gold medals in Rio, depending on how many relays she participates in. The first eight nights of NBC’s Olympic coverage will focus on swimming, with about 90 minutes of live coverage from the pool every evening, and Ledecky will play a starring role. She will get the kind of exposure that recent American Olympians have eagerly converted into riches, but Ledecky has distinguished herself in another way too: She has not become a professional athlete. This has little to do with pursuing some notion of Olympic purity, which never existed anyway; instead, it is a savvy decision that serves her swimming and may very well give her a competitive advantage. While some others are out chasing endorsement dollars, she is focused only on gold.

When you see Ledecky race, it looks as if she is sprinting every length, even the distance events — which seems impossible, because who could sprint full-out for, say, 800 meters, 16 lengths of a 50-meter pool? But Ledecky does. “That’s kind of how I treat it,” she said when I asked if she was really sprinting. She saves her legs in the early portions of a distance event, kicking just enough to keep her body riding high in the water, but she pulls at a fast tempo and with near maximum effort. One way to explain how she has become a sprinter, adding shorter races to her area of dominance, is to recognize that it is what she has already been doing. (The 100-meter freestyle is considered a sprint, the 200 and 400 middle-distance events and the 800 and 1,500 distance races.)

In Austin, I sat down with Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach, whom I first met while writing about Phelps when he was roughly the same age that Ledecky is now. “She has an intensity to her swimming that I have never seen in a distance athlete,” he said. “She’s completely fearless” — by which he meant she goes out fast without the fear of fading at the end.

Swimming is a highly technical sport, and there are different approaches to each stroke, but Ledecky’s freestyle is a near replica of Phelps’s. In what she recalls as a “eureka moment,” it was taught to her in 2011, when she was 14, by her coach Yuri Suguiyama, who has since moved on to become the associate head coach of the men’s swim team at the University of California, Berkeley. He showed her a video of Phelps setting a world record in a 200 free at a world championship meet, and they set out to copy his form.

Unlike Phelps, whose physique is built for swimming — a long torso, big hands that serve as paddles and relatively short legs (which create less drag in the water) — Ledecky is unremarkably proportioned. She describes her stroke as “loping,” but there is nothing leisurely-looking about it. She has what swim coaches call a “high elbow catch” and a quick connection to the water. Her arms are never up in the air very long. Like Phelps, she has a “gallop” in her stroke: She glides on one side just an instant longer, like a sailboat keeling.

Her future coach at Stanford, Greg Meehan, uses the term “aquatic strength” in talking about her prowess, adding that it’s hard to quantify and not related to how much weight a person can lift in a gym. “She grabs a lot of water and holds onto it through every stroke,” is how he explains it. “And she is able to do that again and again, without letting up.”

Until the year of the London Games, Ledecky breathed to both sides, every third stroke, but that creates too much side-to-side body sway for efficient racing. She now breathes to her right side, with her left arm in the water — and so smoothly that the goggle on her left eye never comes fully out of the water. You wonder how she even gets air.

“Her form is as close to perfect as exists,” says Russell Mark, a former college swimmer with a degree in aerospace engineering who is a high-performance consultant for USA Swimming. Mark compiles metrics for America’s top swimmers. His numbers indicate that Ledecky has been steadily increasing her tempo — turning her strokes over faster — while also improving the quality of her stroke, meaning each one takes her farther. This combination is enormously difficult to accomplish. When younger swimmers increase their tempo, they often “spin” — they don’t get anywhere — but even the best swimmers can fall into a version of the same trap. In her 800-meter races, in which her world record is 8:06.68, Ledecky is now completing a full cycle — or strokes with each arm — approximately every 1.4 seconds. After her push off the wall, she covers 50 meters with 20 cycles.

“People trying to go fast are like animals,” said Bowman, who happens to own thoroughbreds and sees in them some of the same biomechanical habits of the swimmers he trains. “You watch a horse. The first thing they do is increase their stride length. And the second thing is the rate. She followed the natural progression. She picked up the rate of her stroke to keep the thing moving forward, which is how she got from 8:14 to 8:06 in the 800. Sooner or later she’ll have to go back to length. It’s a balance. You can’t just do one or the other.”

Swimmers race the clock and one another every day in practice. Carol Capitani, who has coached male and female swimmers and now coaches the women’s swim team at Texas, says that women training together have “a different community” and often see one another as friends first, rather than competitors. Women “need to get permission from each other that it’s all right to lay it on the line every day,” she says. “They have to do it with grace and humility, but they have to learn, and sometimes I have to coach them to understand, that it’s not about taking turns or making allowances for someone having a bad day. You have to try to beat that person next to you every time. Be happy that you’re fast.”

Ledecky’s competitiveness is apparent at practices and in meets, even if it is expressed quietly. About 15 minutes before their events, swimmers gather in a “ready room” that usually consists of a few rows of chairs and a TV showing the races. Ledecky invariably sits in a kind of trance with her parka zipped up and her hood pulled over her head. The intensity she radiates causes even friends to keep their distance. “At practice, she’s a nice girl,” Anna Belousova, a 19-year-old Russian breaststroker who trains with Ledecky, told me. “At meets, I’m afraid to go near her.”

One afternoon this spring, I was sitting with Ledecky by the pool at Georgetown Prep, an all-boys school where her team, the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, practices. A couple of freshmen came over and asked for an autograph, and she signed. I suggested to her that she seemed to enjoy beating her opponents, not just by a bit, but really crushing them. “Sure I do,” she said. “It’s not like you can be nice when you race. But it’s not personal. I’m mostly focused on my own time, and you’ve got to be mean to the clock, right?”

In the starting blocks before a race, Ledecky does not stroke her biceps or pound her fists against her own body, as some male swimmers do. (In Omaha, a swimmer billing himself as the Dark Knight went to the blocks in a Batman mask.) She just stretches her neck a bit and shakes her arms out, then dives in the pool and wins.

In Bethesda, Ledecky trains with about 30 swimmers, spread out over eight lanes, coached by Bruce Gemmell and two assistant coaches. But she has only three real training partners, all of them male, because they are the only ones with the ability to keep up with her. They swim either in the same lane or in an adjoining lane to Ledecky. Her training mates told me that when they are supposed to be going at a slower pace — practices consist of repeated sets of distances swum at variable rates of speed and effort — she tends to swim fast, pulling the whole group along with her. The ability to coast is something she either does not want or does not have. Ledecky told me that sometimes she has bad days at practice, when she is just not feeling energetic, and shrugs them off. If she has two in a row, it frustrates her. Her aerobic fitness is a combination of her genetics — her “big engine,” as Meehan, the Stanford coach says — and the fact that she works so hard.

It’s not unusual for men and women swimmers to train together, but being in the pool with Ledecky is something that many men can’t handle. In April, Conor Dwyer, a 6-foot-5, 27-year-old American swimmer who won a gold medal in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay in London, gave a revealing interview posted online by USA Swimming. In it, he talked about male swimmers being “broken” by Ledecky when they practiced together at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“She is no easy task to beat in practice, even as a male,” he said. “I didn’t get broken by her, so I’m happy with that.” He added: “I saw her break a lot of guys in practice. ... What I mean is if we’re doing a 3K threshold” — 30 all-out 100 frees — “she’ll just start beating you every single hundred, and slowly but surely you get broken like you do in a long race, like a mile. Your morale goes down pretty quickly when you get broken by a female in practice. I saw a couple of guys have to get yanked out of workout because they got beat by her.”

When I asked Ledecky about this, she claimed not to have noticed. “I was probably just concentrating on doing my own work,” she said.

Ledecky’s training partners include Andrew Gemmell, the coach’s son, who is 25 and finished ninth in the 1,500 at the 2012 London Games, and Matthew Hirschberger, 17, who competed at this summer’s Olympic trials and is one of the nation’s top young middle-distance swimmers. (Neither qualified for the games in Rio.) “I’m not gonna lie, it can be annoying when she beats you,” Hirschberger told me. Even if the person getting the best of him is a reigning world-record holder in three events? “You’re just not used to getting beat by a girl,” he said.

When Gemmell swam for the college team at Georgia, he trained with both male and female Olympians. “Look, I understand, he’s a little younger,” he said, when I told him what Hirschberger had shared. “I’ve got a little more of a perspective. There have been a couple of times where I’ve come really close to asking my dad: Can I pop out of practice to watch? Because what’s going on next to me is just ridiculous. It’s unreal.”

Ledecky’s ability to crush men in practice does not necessarily mean she would defeat them in competition. There’s a difference between imposing her will, and perhaps superior conditioning, over the course of a two-hour practice and doing it in a shorter race in which men’s generally greater strength provides an advantage. Her best chance would probably be in the 1,500 freestyle, which women race at the FINA World Championships but not at the Olympics. (The men don’t swim the 800 in the Olympics, so there are the same number of events for male and female swimmers.) 

Ledecky’s best time in the event would put her among the dozen or so top American men and is 25 seconds faster than their qualifying time at the United States Olympic trials — but it is much too slow to earn a medal at the Games. On the other hand, because no other woman offers a real challenge to her, she is never pushed in that event. I asked Andrew Gemmell, who specializes in the 1,500 free, a hypothetical question: What if, in some dystopian swim universe, Ledecky was told that there would be no women’s events and that she would have to try to make the American team by competing with the men in the 1,500?

His father, who trains her, had told me that he did not think she could qualify, a feat that under current rules would require her to finish first or second at the trials. Andrew, who trains side by side with her, had a different answer. “It would be really difficult, but I would never bet against her,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows yet what she’s capable of.”

Ledecky is, in a sense, the last amateur of the Olympic Games. She is not the only Olympian who has opted against turning pro — in many sports, there is no appreciable money to be made — but she is the only one at her exalted level. In order to accept a swimming scholarship at Stanford, she chose to pass up millions of dollars in potential endorsement contracts.

For many years, Olympians had to remain amateurs, at least ostensibly. The “amateur ideal” may have been outdated from the start, and it hurt many athletes, going all the way back to Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his medals from the 1912 Games when it was later discovered that he had accepted money to play semipro baseball. (The medals were restored posthumously.) But professionalism has its own costs. At the Olympic trials in Omaha, it was hard to miss the pure joy with which Ledecky seemed to be swimming, especially compared with rivals who spoke of the immense pressure they were feeling. It helped, of course, that she was so far ahead of her competition and did not really have to worry about qualifying. But one reason for this might be that she has achieved an ideal that is so difficult for others to reach — truly racing for herself. “The more money that gets put into something, the more it gets messed up,” Bowman, Phelps’s coach, told me. “Nobody is demanding her time. She never misses a day. That’s how you maintain that level.”

There are just a handful of swimmers who have made life-changing money from the sport, but for those who do, most notably Phelps, it can be a lot. “She would have had the earnings potential that no one but Michael has had, if she wanted it,” Bowman said. I asked Matt Powell, a sports-industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market-research firm, about Ledecky’s commercial value. “She has a terrific personality — great kid, great smile, she’s excelling at a really high level,” he said. “The endorsement side could be worth millions to her, as much as $10 to $15 million per year.”

At different times, I heard Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, say that she was going to be a performer “in NBC’s billion-dollar reality show,” referring to the network’s telecasts from Rio. It was said with an edge. Her parents and coach well understand, of course, why she matters to NBC and the vast commercial enterprise of the Games. The network’s cameras gravitate to American winners, and she is the surest bet. Phelps, now 31, is back in the water after a brief retirement and then a suspension after a second arrest on D.U.I. charges, but he will be entered in fewer events than he raced in his prime — and he won’t be a solid favorite in any of them. 

The American swim team, both the men and the women, looks weaker than it has in past Olympiads, based on the times in Omaha; swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, who starred in past Summer Games, will most likely have to improve their times to compete for gold. Ledecky won three events in Omaha — the 200 freestyle, in which she is likely to be challenged by the Italian star Federica Pellegrini for gold, and the 400 and 800 frees, in which she looks untouchable. She could also win medals in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay and, if coaches place her in it, the 4-by-100 relay.

Her parents zealously protect her time and have rejected requests from the late-night shows — and even NBC Sports and USA Swimming — when they felt it would interfere with her preparation. They attend almost all her meets and will be in Rio, but they avoid attention. Her father often sits in corners of arenas where the TV cameras won’t find him. “You can sit there stoically while she’s swimming or jump up and down,” he says. “You look like an idiot one way or the other.” The family discussed whether she should turn pro, but it was never seriously considered, they say, nor did they really endeavor to attach a number to how much money she might be passing up.

To turn pro at a young age means separating from peers who have gone off to college and instead joining a training group of other professional swimmers, all of them most likely older. There is a risk that an already difficult sport will become a lonely one too. Ledecky is aware, as well, that several female swimmers who turned professional out of high school have experienced steep declines in their performance. “It didn’t really tempt me,” Ledecky says. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You’ll get this certain amount of money if you go pro.’ I don’t know what it would be, but it’s not something that bothers me.”

The decision that Ledecky made was one she could make. The youngest of two children, she has grown up in a fair degree of comfort. Her father is a lawyer, and her mother, Mary Gen, a former college swimmer, worked as a hospital administrator, and they now spend much of their time shuttling their daughter to and from practices. Her older brother graduated from Harvard in May. An uncle, Jonathan Ledecky, is a venture capitalist and co-majority owner of the New York Islanders. Ledecky is an excellent student, and whenever she puts swimming behind her, she should have a Stanford degree to add to what will, in all likelihood, be a display case full of Olympic gold medals.

But there is also the possibility that we are just at the beginning of her reign. Four years ago, Ledecky was the youngest swimmer, male or female, on the American team in London. She will be the youngest again in Rio. And four years from now, at the Summer Games in Tokyo, she will be just 23 and probably still in her prime.

She has said that after this summer, she will probably put more work into the shorter races, including the 100, which she did not qualify for at the trials in Omaha. She could start competing in the 400 individual medley, which combines all four competitive strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle); she ranks among the top Americans in the event even though it has been an afterthought for her. But to continue setting new world records in the distance events, she may need something that’s out of her control — real competitors.

No other woman has ever come within seven seconds of her top time in the 800 freestyle; in the 1,500, the gap is a ridiculous 13 seconds. At the Olympic trials, Leah Smith, an emerging middle-distance swimmer, came within two seconds of her in the 400. She said she was excited because, in her races against Ledecky, “I had never been able to see her feet before.”

Rowdy Gaines, the longtime commentator on NBC’s swim telecasts and himself an Olympic gold medalist, told me that Ledecky is already the most dominant swimmer he has seen in his four decades in the sport, even more so than Phelps. “Michael had rivals, swimmers who could stay at least somewhat close to him,” he said. “In Katie’s best events, she has none. To be fair, they are longer races. But she’s swimming them by herself.”

Friday, July 29, 2016

Professional expertise + heart = a better world

“Everyone deserves to live in a home designed by an architect." — Jack Bloodgood, founder of BSB Design

SOME OF YOU, no doubt, read my post about the 25 Mandela Fellows that Drake University has been privileged to host for the last six weeks. For those who didn't, here's a quick overview.

Started by President Barack Obama, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is now in its third year. The program selects 1000 outstanding young professionals between the ages of 25 and 35 from Sub-Saharan Africa who have already established records of accomplishment in promoting innovation and positive change — and brings them to the US for further education and professional experience. 

Here's how selective it is: 40,000 applied for 1000 slots.

I hosted one of the Fellows, Landy Tafangy (who goes by Tafangy) from Madagascar for lunch at the Rotary Club of Des Moines, and I took Tafangy, Jeffrey Arhin from Ghana, Gloria Njiu from Tanzania and Selamawit Wondimu from Ethiopia to a street party to hear a Latino band.

Left to right: Tafangy, Jeffrey, me, Gloria and Selam

I've also been helping our Fellows make extra-curricular professional connections where I can. I linked Tafangy, who in addition to being a physician running a health clinic, is an air traffic controller — with Brian Mulcahy, also a member of my Rotary Club and CFO of the Des Moines Airport, who was able to get the necessary clearance to take Tafangy on a tour of the air traffic control tower. 

Bonga Diamini from Swaziland and Ndolenodji Hyacinthe (who goes by Hyacinthe) from Chad are both architectural company owners who want to bring low-cost, well-designed housing to their respective countries. Swaziland and Chad like many countries in Africa are experiencing extensive migration from rural to urban areas, creating an urgent need for housing. 

Too further their goal, I arranged a three-hour meeting for them with BSB (Bloodgood Sharp Buster) Design

Jack Bloodgood 
founded BSB in 1966 with the goal of 
expanding access to residential architecture design from the sole purview of the rich to a realistic expectation for most people. He famously said, “Everyone deserves to live in a home designed by an architect.” To that end, he integrated architectural design and production housing to create a pioneering business model. 

Doug Sharp joined the firm and substantiated the company philosophy that in addition to creating awarding-winning residential architecture, BSB must always remain a firm with a heart, by championing humanitarian endeavors worldwide. Doug Buster, a passionate design innovator and industry authority on multifamily design, became the second ‘B’ in BSB, broadening the company's capacity and province.

BSB's focus on democratizing residential architecture together with the company's articulated philanthropic beliefs:

— We believe in the potential of human spirit; personal space is important to well being

— We believe that everyone is deserving of an affordable, quality home that lasts
— We believe in producing social good in the largest measurable form possible

. . . made BSB Design the perfect connection for Hyacinthe and Bonga

But it gets better. 

While Doug Sharp was traveling in Africa years back, he saw what the living conditions in shack settlements were like for women, children and families, and in response he founded Abōd Shelters in 2002. With a motto of "one house, one family, one day," Abōd is dedicated to providing low-cost, easily-constructed housing wherever it's needed around the world. 

Left to right: Steve Moore, Michelle Rothfus, Hyacinthe, me, Bonga and 
Corey Schmidt at BSB Design corporate headquarters.

Steve Moore, Michelle RothfusCorey Schmidt and Mary Brown were generous with their time. As I drove Bonga and Hyacinthe back to their apartment building afterwards, they were almost bouncing with eagerness to translate all they learned into positive change for their respective countries.

The country of Chad where Hyacinthe is from

Swaziland is a small country on the eastern edge of South Africa.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Trump wants to make Russia great again

"I just find it deeply troubling that any American, let alone one running for president of the United States, would encourage Russian espionage. That's just, is unprecedented to me." — Mike McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia

YOU KNEW it couldn't last, right? . . . This silence on D. (make that D.D. for dumb and dangerous) Trump. The below analysis is from NBC News.

'Deeply Troubling': Ex-Ambassador, Intel Officials Blast Trump Russia Comments

By Josh Meyer, Robert Windrem and Phil Helsel
July 27, 2016

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's comments that Russia should "find the 30,000 emails that are missing" from Hillary Clinton's email account, provoked outrage from national security experts across the spectrum on Wednesday.

Some of the strongest condemnation came from the former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA under George W. Bush.

Trump dropped his latest bomb early Wednesday following widespread speculation that Russia was behind the hack of Democratic National Committee emails.

The candidate said at a press conference in Florida: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens."

Following Trump's comments, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan offered tepid damnation, focusing on the foreign threat rather than his party's figurehead:

"Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug," Ryan said. "Putin should stay out of this election."

Meanwhile, retired U.S. Air Force general Michael Hayden, director of the NSA and CIA under president George W. Bush, criticized Trump's comments in an interview with Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake.

"If he is talking about the State Department e-mails on her server, he is inviting a foreign intelligence service to steal sensitive American government information," Hayden said. "If he is talking about the allegedly private e-mails that she destroyed, he is inviting a foreign intelligence service to violate the privacy of an individual protected by the Fourth Amendment to the American Constitution."

"Perhaps he doesn't know what he's talking about. Just a theory," Hayden said.

Other prominent Republicans brushed off Trump's explosive comments as misunderstood.

Supporters Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were among them. Gingrich called the comments "a joke," while Giuliani said, "I'm sure what he means is that they should be released to the FBI. I'm sure that's what he means."

Trump later said on Twitter that if Russia or any other country has any of Clinton's emails, they should turn them over to the FBI.

Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said in a statement released while Trump was speaking that warned of "consequences" if Russia was found to be interfering with the election.

"The FBI will get to the bottom of who is behind the hacking. If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections," the statement said. "If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences."

A Pence aide said the statement was drafted before Trump's speech Wednesday. The aide said Pence takes the same position as Trump, that if Russia has any of the missing emails they should release them.

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, who served under President Barack Obama, said he was taken aback by Trump's comments.

"I just find it deeply troubling that any American, let alone one running for president of the United States, would encourage Russian espionage. That's just, is unprecedented to me," McFaul told NBC News.

The U.S. relationship with Russia is a tense one. Obama imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russian military aircraft and naval vessels have been accused of conducting dangerous stunts near the Baltic Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Trump last week suggested the U.S. would not necessarily defend new NATO members in the Baltics in the event of Russian attack if he were elected to the White House. The comments to the New York Times set off alarm bells in Europe.

Retired U.S. admiral and former supreme commander of NATO James Stavridis on Wednesday called Trump's comments "dangerous at every level — as international cyber policy, as domestic political tactic, and as an approach to the conduct of foreign affairs."

Putin has praised Trump before. The Russian leader on Friday called Trump "bright" and said he appreciates his openness to engage Russia, according to The Associated Press.

And in an appearance on MSNBC back in December, Trump said, "When people call you brilliant, it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia."

Trump has also called Putin's praise "a great honor."

At Wednesday's press conference, Trump took a different tone, saying Putin has over the past year has said "some really bad things" and that Putin "mentioned the n-word one time." Trump made those comments in arguing that Putin does not respect Obama, and promising that he would be better respected by Putin if elected president.

Andrew S. Weiss, former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff and a policy assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, called Trump's comments "a seismic development."

"There is a persistent pattern of very flamboyant comments about Russia and Mr. Putin in particular dating back the beginning of the [Trump] campaign," he said. "Today's comments about email hacking and the Clinton server fit squarely into that pattern, and fly in the face of years of Republican orthodoxy and mainstream thinking about Russia."

"I'm surprised that an issue that is now being looking at extremely closely by law enforcement and national security officials is being played for laughs given the stakes and the very real question of whether Russian government agencies are trying to influence the course of a U.S. presidential election," Weiss said. "That's a seismic development any way you approach it."

Presidential historian and NBC News analyst Michael Beschloss said Trump's comments were out of line with tradition in American presidential elections.

"The tradition has usually been that American presidential candidates have told other countries to stay out of our elections," said Beschloss, author of numerous books on presidential crises. "And traditionally Americans resent it when another country has tried to get involved."

While the circumstances and order of magnitude in this case may be extraordinary, there have been examples, some cited in Beschloss' books, of Russians or their Soviet predecessors offering help to preferred presidential candidates.

In one case, during the 1960 presidential campaign, a Soviet diplomat approached a member of John F. Kennedy's inner circle and asked if there anything they could do or say that would help Kennedy defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The response, according to the historical accounts was, do not meddle, the fear being if the Russian help became known, it would be devastating. The communications ended.

Two presidential terms later, the Soviets declined an offer to convene a U.S.-U.S.S.R. summit late in the 1968 campaign that might have helped vice president Hubert Humphrey in his campaign against Nixon.

The agenda would have included the Vietnam War, the most divisive issue in a particularly divisive campaign. After Nixon, then seen as more of pragmatist, was elected, a Soviet diplomat reminded Nixon that if they had agreed to the summit, it would have hurt him.

McFaul, the former ambassador, said there is no doubt Putin's government wants Trump to win the White House.

"Oh they love this, of course they love this, they think this is going to be great," McFaul said. "There's no question that President Putin and his government have made very clear that they would prefer to deal with Donald Trump as opposed to Secretary Clinton, because he supports their policies."

"When I was in the government dealing with top Russian officials, they respect strength, they respect people that push back and defend American national interest," McFaul said. "When you say 'I think Russia should do espionage against us' — that's not a statement of strength." 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Stax Music

“A certain administration which I won't call by name took the arts out of the schools, and that left the brothers out on the street with nothing, so they went to the turntables and started rhyming. Then they had a way to express themselves, and that's the birth of hip-hop.” — Isaac Hayes

I SUSPECT you may be getting a little tired of having me rail on about D. Trump day after day, so how 'bout we take a break from it for a moment.

Cast your mind back to the beginning of May when Paul and I were in Memphis

NOTE: We are not in Memphis now. We're talking about the past here. I say this because the last post I wrote about Memphis, which was also a bit after the fact, inspired several responses wishing us safe travels. I've just been too busy complaining about the Trumppus at hand to keep you current with my actual life.

Previously, I told you about tromping (as opposed to Trumping) around Shelby Farms Park, the biggest city park in the whole of the United States, that we had the world's best barbecue at One and Only BBQ, strolled Beale Street at night and watched the ducks march at The Peabody Hotel the following morning.

That was our first day and a half.

After laughing hysterically at the ducks — which I did — Paul and I spent the afternoon touring Stax Museum of American Soul Music. There are several other music museums in Memphis including Sun Studio, Rock N Soul Museum, Blues Hall of Fame, Memphis Music Hall of Fame and . . . Graceland. (You would have had to pay me many hundreds of dollars to tour Graceland. I wasn't an Elvis fan then, and I haven't become one since.)

After researching our choices, Paul recommended Stax. Our verdict is that it's definitely worth the price of admission; there's way more to see than we had time for! We'll have to go back and start in the middle. 

There's history of and memorabilia from many soul music greats including the Royal Spades, the Mad-Lads, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, William Bell, Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, the Astors and Wilson Pickett.

Isaac Hayes and his alter-ego, Shaft

Below is a video Paul took at Stax of Isaac Hayes' custom, gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado. It was purchased as part of Isaac's renegotiated deal with Stax in 1972 for $26,000 ($149,600 in 2016 dollars), and equipped with unique amenities such as a refrigerated mini-bar, a television, 24-carat gold exterior trim and white faux fur carpeting on the floorboards.

Paul used to enjoy eating at a catfish parlor in Austin, TX when he lived there, so for dinner on this second day, I picked out A & J's Catfish Station as a treat for him. I don't remember what fishy thing I had — Paul of course had catfish — but boy howdy do I remember the coleslaw!! Best coleslaw ever! So here's my advice: go to A & J's and get a pint of coleslaw, drive to One and Only and order the barbecued turkey, twice-baked-potato salad and baked beans and settle in for the meal of a lifetime.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Don't drink bleach

“Hillary, like anyone else has flaws, and there are issues I disagree with her on. But in my opinion she is smart, tough, experienced and will make a good President.” — Bill Arthur, Deputy National Field Director and past Northwest and Alaska Regional Director of the Sierra Club, and a trusted friend and role model since graduate school days

IF YOU'VE read Hey Look Something Shiny much at all, you know that Paul and I were Bernie Sanders supporters. I was a fan before he announced his candidacy. (See: Senator Sanders Preaches to the Choir, September 23, 2014.) 

Feelin' the Bern no doubt contributes to the little happy dance I'm doing now that I know Debbie Wasserman Schultz will be resigning as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. It seemed obvious that the vast majority of the Democratic establishment, both national and local, were pushing hard for Hillary, so this revelation of bias by the DNC hardly comes as a surprise. 

I'm sure Wasserman Schultz will be rewarded in some form or another by the Clinton camp for falling on her sword, but still it's good she's stepping down. It may help assuage some residual anger of those who believed both she and the National Committee had its finger on the scale, and it gives at least the appearance of consequences. 

(NOTE: Little did I know how quickly DWS would be rescued! I hadn't even finished writing this post when I heard Paul groan. "What, what?!" I asked urgently. "Hillary has given Wasserman Schultz a prominent role within her campaign.")

Yet Paul and I will vote for her and campaign for her because she's at least a million times better than Mr. Trump.

There's this joke that's been going around. Paul first told it to me, and then I heard it from Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. It goes like this: Voting for Donald Trump because you're not crazy about Hillary Clinton would be like going into a restaurant and ordering a Coke, and when you find out they only serve Pepsi, you say, "Okay, just pour me a large glass of bleach."

You're also probably aware from previous posts, that I'm a fan of Gail Collins who writes for The New York Times. Here's her column about Hillary Clinton. I trust Gail's opinion, although Hillary, please stop shooting yourself in the foot.

Behind Hillary’s Mask

How is it possible that we still don’t really know the most famous woman in America?

By Gail Collins

July 23, 2016

RIGHT after the Sept. 11 attacks, I ran into Hillary Clinton outside an armory in Manhattan that served as a sort of clearing house for tragedy, where people brought pictures of the missing and checked for information. She talked for a long time, very freely, about Washington politicians who had always hated New York but were turning out to be helpful in the crisis.

The conversation was memorable not for the information but for her manner. For all her intensity about the city, Clinton was more relaxed than I’d ever seen her while chatting with a member of the press. She was operating in a new space — for the moment, no one really cared that she was a senator who’d gotten elected from a state she’d never lived in, the survivor of the best-known political sex scandal in American history, the former first lady who ran for office while her husband was still president. The country had temporarily lost interest in celebrities, and she seemed to find her relative insignificance liberating.

When Clinton is nominated for president later this week in Philadelphia, we’ll be talking about her as the first woman to get a crack at running the country. But she’d also be one of the most famous people ever to get the honor. In America, she’s been part of the backdrop of our lives for nearly a quarter of a century. We’re watching a very familiar face making a brand-new mark on history.

In 2000, when she first ran for the Senate, the fact that New York had never sent a woman to the Senate was an afterthought, given all the other stuff there was to consider. “It was the first time I’d been a candidate and the first time I’d lived in New York,” she recalled in a phone interview. The very idea of that race was incredible — maybe outrageous. And it didn’t begin well. She had trouble with the carpetbagging issue. At one point, Clinton attempted to woo the locals by claiming that although she’d been brought up as a Chicago Cubs fan, she had always rooted for the Yankees because people need a team in each league. This was contradictory to every law of Midwestern fandom, which holds that no matter what else you do, hating the New York Yankees is a central principle of life.

Then she turned everything around. Went on an endless “listening tour” of such anti-glamorous, earnest wonkiness that reporters who trailed after her from town to town began to develop nervous tics and drinking issues. But it was the perfect strategy. By the end, she had worn down her aura of outsiderdom. And she seemed to be enjoying herself. While all politicians at her level have stupendously sturdy egos, Clinton does appear to get a certain relief being in venues where the focus is on somebody else.

That year on the trail, Clinton wore the very same thing almost every day, a black pantsuit with a bright blouse. It seemed like a stroke of genius — proof that female candidates could eliminate the endless clothing commentary by simply doing what guys do and wearing interchangeable outfits. Later, of course, she’d go back to her romance with jewel tones, and by 2008, reporters would sometimes post the color of the day at the back of the press plane. I asked her once why she’d given up the original outfit plan and she said she just got bored.

The thing I remember most about those trips from Oneonta to Cooperstown to Horseheads — besides the tedium — was the intense reaction she got from middle-aged women, who yelled and waved and begged for autographs. They were the ones who remembered what it was like when the newspapers had separate “help wanted” columns for men and women, who needed a male co-signer when they got their first car loans. I suspected that a lot of them, like me, still had credit cards in their husbands’ names because that was just the way things worked when they first began to charge stuff at Macy’s or use American Express.

And there was something else. Hillary Clinton represented the possibility of a second act. The country was full of women who had come of age with the women’s revolution, who had tried to have it all, raising children while having good — but maybe not spectacular — careers. Now there was the about-to-retire first lady, in her new persona, suggesting they might be able to start a whole new episode in life. Driving around through upstate New York, Clinton was in the home territory of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had broken the old rules about staying home, rearing the kids and then retiring to a rocking chair.

Stanton in particular argued that instead of the end, middle age could be a jumping-off point for adventure. You could do all the things you weren’t able to do when the children were young — you could travel, make speeches, start newspapers, lead rallies. You could do things no women had done before in the public arena, because you looked mature and trustworthy and people could see you had paid your dues. The prospect was so exciting, women began writing paeans to menopause as a time for “superexaltation.”

O.K., none of that specifically came up during the listening tours. But I swear it was there in the background.

When the campaign was over, Clinton was in fact elected the first woman senator from New York, although she says she was “too busy learning about dairy compacts and watersheds” to think much about the feminist-history angle. Even when she ran for president in 2008, she didn’t usually make it a specific campaign theme. But gender was on her mind. She frequently told audiences that her mother had been born before women had the right to vote. And when her chances of winning got increasingly slim, she’d complain, in private, that some Obama people seemed to think she was going to automatically get out of the way and defer to what the guys wanted. “I’m not going to tell my daughter, ‘Oh, I quit, because I’m the girl and they’re all being mean to me,’ ” she said at one point.

Over the last eight years, Clinton has grown more comfortable stressing the idea of becoming the first woman to serve as president. She thinks it really came into focus after she lost in 2008 and made that speech about putting 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.

“This time I decided I’d be more explicit,” she said, and “make it part of the campaign.”

Because this is a story about Hillary Clinton you know this upbeat resolution is going to be followed by a problem. Young women are not universally crazy about the first-woman thing. Some just see her as an imperfect candidate. For others, it’s because the whole gender thing seems like yesterday’s news. “There aren’t as many overt questions about ‘Can a woman do it? Is it something the country is ready for?’ ” Clinton acknowledged.

That’s probably true, and if it is, she deserves a lot of the credit. You can argue the pros and cons of Hillary Clinton’s character, or her potential to change the nation, or her position on trade policy. But you can never take away the fact that she was the one who made the idea of a woman becoming president so normal that many young women are bored by it.

Clinton comes out of a very specific zone of American high school culture in the middle of the 20th century — the girls behind the homecoming float-building committee. (She tells a story in her autobiography about being told as a teenager that she was “really stupid” to think she could be senior class president, losing the election and then agreeing to run the committee that did all the behind-the-scenes work.) She drew a terrible straw in 2008, when she had to run against a guy who was not only a making-history candidate himself, but also clearly a member of the prom king sector. Now she’s pitted against the rich kid who throws wild parties when his parents are out of town.

The Republican convention last week made it clear how vicious this campaign is going to be — the only real platform appeared to be the desirability of locking Hillary Clinton up, and she was blamed for everything from ISIS to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. Donald Trump painted a picture of a wrecked, emasculated America in a dystopian world created by Obama-Clinton malfeasance. We don’t know yet whether Clinton can counter forcefully with a sunnier vision. What we do know is that she won’t be cowed.

Whatever her defects, she is a candidate with a very long and event-filled history of toughing things out, who finds solace in stupendously hard work and in doing her homework. She’s one of the best-known people on the planet, but she can happily spend a day listening to complaints about watershed pollution or flying halfway around the world to sit through a conference on sustainable development.

When she was still secretary of state, I asked Clinton about another presidential campaign and she waved the idea aside. Her future plans, she said, involved sleeping and exercising and traveling for fun. “It sounds so ordinary, but I haven’t done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired,” she said.

She may never find out.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Trump, the racist

“I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.” — Donald Trump

DUH, Nicholas. I know you're trying to not jump to conclusions and be all evidential and all, but come on. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck and flies like a duck, it's probably . . . a DUCK! 

But pardon me, I should not defame a perfectly innocent duck — it's a TRUMP.

From Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times.

Donald Trump and his father Fred in 1973.

Is Donald Trump a Racist?

By Nicholas Kristof 
July 23, 2016

HAS the party of Lincoln just nominated a racist to be president? We shouldn’t toss around such accusations lightly, so I’ve looked back over more than 40 years of Donald Trump’s career to see what the record says.

One early red flag arose in 1973, when President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department — not exactly the radicals of the day — sued Trump and his father, Fred Trump, for systematically discriminating against blacks in housing rentals.

I’ve waded through 1,021 pages of documents from that legal battle, and they are devastating. Donald Trump was then president of the family real estate firm, and the government amassed overwhelming evidence that the company had a policy of discriminating against blacks, including those serving in the military.

To prove the discrimination, blacks were repeatedly dispatched as testers to Trump apartment buildings to inquire about vacancies, and white testers were sent soon after. Repeatedly, the black person was told that nothing was available, while the white tester was shown apartments for immediate rental.

A former building superintendent working for the Trumps explained that he was told to code any application by a black person with the letter C, for colored, apparently so the office would know to reject it. A Trump rental agent said the Trumps wanted to rent only to “Jews and executives,” and discouraged renting to blacks.

Donald Trump furiously fought the civil rights suit in the courts and the media, but the Trumps eventually settled on terms that were widely regarded as a victory for the government. Three years later, the government sued the Trumps again, for continuing to discriminate.

In fairness, those suits date from long ago, and the discriminatory policies were probably put in place not by Donald Trump but by his father. Fred Trump appears to have been arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1927; Woody Guthrie, who lived in a Trump property in the 1950s, lambasted Fred Trump in recently discovered papers for stirring racial hatred.

Yet even if Donald Trump inherited his firm’s discriminatory policies, he allied himself decisively in the 1970s housing battle against the civil rights movement.

Another revealing moment came in 1989, when New York City was convulsed by the “Central Park jogger” case, a rape and beating of a young white woman. Five black and Latino teenagers were arrested.

Trump stepped in, denounced Mayor Ed Koch’s call for peace and bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The five teenagers spent years in prison before being exonerated. In retrospect, they suffered a modern version of a lynching, and Trump played a part in whipping up the crowds.

As Trump moved into casinos, discrimination followed. In the 1980s, according to a former Trump casino worker, Kip Brown, who was quoted by The New Yorker: “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor. … They put us all in the back.”

In 1991, a book by John O’Donnell, who had been president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, quoted Trump as criticizing a black accountant and saying: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.” O’Donnell wrote that for months afterward, Trump pressed him to fire the black accountant, until the man resigned of his own accord.

Trump eventually denied making those comments. But in 1997 in a Playboy interview, he conceded “the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true.”

The recent record may be more familiar: Trump’s suggestions that President Obama was born in Kenya; his insinuations that Obama was admitted to Ivy League schools only because of affirmative action; his denunciations of Mexican immigrants as, “in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists”; his calls for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States; his dismissal of an American-born judge of Mexican ancestry as a Mexican who cannot fairly hear his case; his reluctance to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan in a television interview; his retweet of a graphic suggesting that 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks (the actual figure is about 15 percent); and so on.

Trump has also retweeted messages from white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers, including two from an account called @WhiteGenocideTM with a photo of the American Nazi Party’s founder.

Trump repeatedly and vehemently denies any racism, and he has deleted some offensive tweets. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi racist website that has endorsed Trump, sees that as going “full-wink-wink-wink.”

My view is that “racist” can be a loaded word, a conversation stopper more than a clarifier, and that we should be careful not to use it simply as an epithet. Moreover, Muslims and Latinos can be of any race, so some of those statements technically reflect not so much racism as bigotry. It’s also true that with any single statement, it is possible that Trump misspoke or was misconstrued.

And yet.

Here we have a man who for more than four decades has been repeatedly associated with racial discrimination or bigoted comments about minorities, some of them made on television for all to see. While any one episode may be ambiguous, what emerges over more than four decades is a narrative arc, a consistent pattern — and I don’t see what else to call it but racism.