Christmas 2017

I am sad for the state of our country. We have lost our way. Our President is largely responsible. He constantly works to divide us as a people, to denigrate truths that don't suit him, and people who criticize him. He is inept and ineffective at governing but capable of bombast that some core piece of America finds tantalizing. How he won the majority of electoral votes will go down in history as an incredible and unfortunate series of circumstances that hopefully is impossible to replicate. To paraphrase political commentator Ezra Klein from Vox this morning, historians in future years will view the tapes and say "How could reasonable people have let this happen".

But stuck with Trump we are, quite possibly for four years. He has managed to drive a wedge between those of us who live on the coast and those in the heartland. Heartlanders feel that we coastal elitists have had our way too long. We have focused too much on transgender bathrooms and have not heard their pleas for greater respect for traditional American values. The gap is significant. This is not something likely to be solved by facilitated dialogue between groups of Americans selected to have all views represented.

I can see a way out of this, but it will take years. First, we must show ourselves better than our current President. He must be ousted through the democratic process. We owe it to ourselves.

Next, we must make statewide redistricting fair. Take it out of party politics and make it pragmatic and non-political. Much of our most corrosive politics comes from gerrymandered districts that only one party can win.

Finally, get the big money out of politics. The fact that the average Washington politician spends half of most days "dialing for dollars" is a travesty of our political system.

As I said, such changes will take years. Meanwhile, we must do what we can do to shore up the system, avoid nuclear war, and prevent an orgy of ill-considered tax cuts from screwing up a pretty good economy.

In Maine I am a part of a newly formed group called Maine Independents. We are organizing to elect centrist independent candidates to the Maine House and Senate. Maine is a state in which "unenrolled" comprise more than forty percent of the electorate. We have a good chance of being the swing vote in either or both houses come November 2018.

Nationally my wife Sally and I are supporting a group called No Labels that is proposing common-sense bi-partisan solutions to issues like health care and tax reform. I also believe that Ranked Choice Voting, passed in Maine in 2016 by referendum and being held up by our legislature, has great promise to defuse the worst partisanship.

Enough of politics - so far the world goes on. How about Ken Burn's epic treatment of the Vietnam War on PBS this fall. I am a Vietnam veteran and also chair the Maine Public Television and Radio network. I was impressed by the depth and multiple perspectives of this ten year effort. It is the best of what public television can do. I am also proud of the way Maine Public engaged our community with a series of public screenings and forums and the collection of countless stories from Maine veterans, including yours truly.

We lost many good and well-known people in 2017: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Fats Domino, Jimmy Piersall (my favorite Red Sox outfielder growing up), Jerry Lewis, and an unsung hero of the Cold War, Stanislav Petrov. Petrov was the Russian commander of an early warning base near Moscow that monitored US ICBM sites for potential launches. On September 26th, 1983 his command screen flashed red: incoming US missile, then a second, third, fourth, and fifth. Hands shaking, he called the superiors and reported a malfunction - and twelve minutes later, when the missiles would have hit, his assessment proved correct. The Russians held their fire and the world was saved. It wasn't until 1998 when the secret came out, that we knew how close we had come.

To calm my fears about our government I read lots of books this year - several quite good. 2017 was the 100th year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Even though Putin has barely acknowledged it, academics have had a field day. I recommend "Caught in the Revolution, Petrograd 1917" by Helen Rappaport. The account, from the perspective of the diplomats in Petrograd, documents the unlikely triumph of the Bolsheviks. In chaos the most ruthless, V.I. Lenin, triumphed.

But the Russians are now mostly a spent force. China is likely to dominate the 21st century. To understand why read "The Immobile Empire" by the French scholar Alain Peyrefitte. He writes of the ill-fated British trade mission to the Celestial Court of Emperor Qianlong in 1793. The book has many insights useful to understanding current Chinese President Xi Jinping's version of a celestial court to restore China to its rightful place in the world.

On the home front Michael Lewis produced another gem, "The Undoing Project" about the unlikely alliance of Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. You will never trust your intuition again. Also for us espionage buffs, several early works of that giant of cold war espionage Len Deighton were reissued. Read "Berlin Game", much tighter than the aging Le Carre's "A Legacy of Spies".

Friends, no one can know what 2018 will bring. Each of us must do something, however small, that builds civility back into our daily dialogue. In spite of all that divides us, let the Holidays help us to recognize how much we share.