Email #338: Congratulations on your retirement, Congressman

I began writing you daily letters almost a year ago. Although I have several more letters drafted on a range of issues that you will continue to influence until you leave office in December 2018, I will forego sending them. Since you have announced that you are retiring, I am retiring my personal letter campaign. Despite our differences, please accept my sincere wishes for a happy retirement.

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Email #323: “the most important liberty”?

A year ago today, October 26, 2016, the Staunton New Leader asked you: “do you believe it will be an honest and fair election or is the system rigged?”

You said it’s an “ongoing thing to make sure that our election process is viewed as being fair, because voting is probably the most important liberty that we have, because it helps us to protect all of our other freedoms and as a result of that, you’ve got to make sure that it is used in a way that people trust.”

I strongly agree.

When I went to your Open Door meeting last week, Debbie Garret said she would pass on my request that a member of your staff attend the showing of the documentary “GerryRIGGED” at the W&L Commons. Debbie said she was going out of town, so she couldn’t attend herself. About thirty people showed up, but I don’t believe any were from your office. Which is a shame, since the issue is at the heart of what you called our most important liberty.

The Supreme Court is likely to strike down Wisconsin’s partisan districts when it rules on gerrymandering early next year. Sadly, this won’t help elections on November 7th. And even if the Court did rule in time, it wouldn’t help Virginia.

According to the likely new standard for weighing the fairness of district maps, our “efficiency gap” should be 5%. That would reflect the fact that Democrats pack their votes into single districts when they segregate themselves in urban areas like Richmond and Alexandria. But our gap is a whopping 16%. That’s because the voting districts are designed to waste Democratic votes and maximize Republican votes through intentionally crooked divisions.

But even though our efficiency gap is much worse than Wisconsin’s, the Court’s decision still won’t apply here. Our districts disproportionately keep a Republican majority in the state assembly, but they weren’t pushed through by Republicans alone. For reasons that defy both democracy and partisan politics, Democrats voted for our unfair districts too.

If state Democrats had instead voted against our unfair maps, then those maps would meet the definition of a one-party monopoly that defines Wisconsin. Instead Virginia’s maps protect incumbents of both parties. They also keep the Republicans in a near super-majority of 66 seats, well above the slight majority they would have without crooked districts.

So Virginia’s only hope is itself. Fortunately, candidates on both sides of the aisle oppose gerrymandering. Republican Jill Vogel has sponsored multiple bills as a sate senator in attempt to end the practice, and the Republican-led Senate has enough votes to end it right now.

The problem is the House of Delegates where year after year Republicans block bills from ever reaching the floor. According to most projections, House Republicans are likely to lose seats in November, dropping their majority down to 60. That’s a good thing for both parties, because it brings them both closer to voting on a bipartisan anti-gerrymandering bill.

Although my current delegate Ben Cline voted for our gerrymandered map, he is now expressing a willingness to revisit the issue and find a way to support a bill to end gerrymandering by either party. I’ve had a series of productive meetings with Ben, and I believe he is sincere about reform. He says he would like the process to be less political and more transparent. His opponent, independent John Winfrey, is adamantly opposed to gerrymandering and will vote for any bill that ends the unfairness. When John first met with me before deciding to run, I advised him to make gerrymandering his top issue, and he has been an outspoken advocate.

You live in Roanoke, so I’m not sure if your current delegate is Democrat Sam Rasoul or Republican Chris Head. Due to gerrymandering, I expect Head’s challenger, Democrat Djuna Osborne, has little chance of winning. And due to Rasoul’s Democratically packed district, he doesn’t even have a challenger.

Despite all that divides Democrats and Republicans, this is one issue that can bring us together. The Virginia Conservative, a political blog by a member of your congressional district, said back in 2011:

“Although it may be nothing more than a idealistic dream, I really hope that the General Assembly will create non-gerrymandered compact districts based upon regional similarities and concerns.  When you consider political parties, race, or protecting incumbent candidates, you really undermine the whole idea of free and fair elections in the first place.”

Do you disagree? Did you defend Virginia’s gerrymandered districts to the Supreme Court because you sincerely believe districts should be drawn to protect incumbents and inflate the Republican majority? Do you oppose fair districts because they would not help you achieve your personal political agenda?

You said it is important that “our election process is viewed as being fair.” You said we must “make sure that it is used in a way that people trust.” But your ongoing support of Virginia’s gerrymandering contradicts those principles. Has your position changed at all in this past year, or do you still stand by those hypocritical statements you made a year ago today?

 

Email #317: “a different approach”?

Susan Svrluga wrote in the Washington Post earlier this month about my employer and your alma mater, Washington and Lee University, its neighbor, the Virginia Military Institute, and the ways the two schools are responding to the increasing association of Confederate icons with white supremacists. She noted at W&L:

“Scholars are confronting the most troubling aspects of the university’s history, faculty members are openly debating the legacy of slavery, and a commission has been charged with making recommendations to the president by the end of the year.”

Will Dudley, W&L’s new president, says:

“I haven’t put any constraints on what the commission can think about, talk about, or recommend… People are all very eager to take action, and to know what action is going to be taken. I think the most important action is to spend some time learning and thinking.”

This contrasts “a different approach” being taken at VMI. Their Board issued a statement a month after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville saying they will continue “to honor all those who are part of the history of the Institute. We choose not to honor their weaknesses, but to recognize their strengths.” According to one senior student: “The cadets here, we’re all in agreement that these statues are part of the history, part of what we strive to be as great leaders.”

Svrluga also describes the campus:

“On VMI’s imposing campus, with its towering Gothic Revival buildings, a monumental statue of Stonewall Jackson stands before barracks facing the parade grounds. Some of the cannons he used when he taught here are lined up, their wheels painted bright red.”

You should be familiar with those red cannons. The homepage of your website photoshops your portrait over them. Does this mean you agree with the VMI Board “not to honor” the “weaknesses” of Confederate leaders? Do you disagree with your alma mater’s approach of first spending “time learning and thinking”?

Svrluga also quotes a 1968 W&L graduate who objected to a statement about Charlottesville released by members of the W&L English department, myself included. Though he and I have differences, we also had a very respectful and productive email correspondence in which we both listened and responded sincerely to each other’s concerns. This is the sort of thoughtful, civil conversation you’ve claimed to value and yet have shown no willingness to actually engage in. You seem to prefer “a different approach.”

When you hosted candidate Ed Gillespie at your annual annual barbeque at the Augusta Expo last month, he said: “My opponent is in favor of taking down the statues and I do not believe that is the right approach. I think we should keep them up and we should put them in historical context so that we can educate them about them.”

That sounds reasonable, and I expect W&L’s commission will recommend the same for the statue of Lee in our Lee Chapel. But the statue of Jackson on the VMI campus has received no such “historical context,” and so students who view it daily are receiving no education but the implicitly enobling attitude communicated by the statue itself. Is this the approach you endorse? Will you remain blindly grinning before Jackson’s red cannons too?

Email #309: “reality television show”?

“Reality TV is known for its humiliation tactics and its aggressive showmanship and also the idea that either you’re in or you’re out, with momentum building to the final decision on who stays and who goes,” University of Minnesota communications professor and reality TV expert Laurie Ouellette told the New York Times this week. “Absolutely, I see those techniques playing out [in the Trump White House].”

After his healthcare bill failed to pass and the cost of his jet travel triggered a scandal, Health Secretary Tom Price is out, while Secretary of State Tillerson is still teetering after he reportedly called the President a “fucking moron” and the President then challenged him to an IQ test on Twitter.

But even though Ouellette’s comparison seems apt, it isn’t new. Michael Moore wrote last year:

“Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.”

Moore later wrote that reality TV was the primary reason Donald Trump ran for President:

“Trump was unhappy with his deal as host and star of his hit NBC show, “The Apprentice” (and “The Celebrity Apprentice”)… He had floated the idea before of possibly running for president in the hopes that the attention from that would make his negotiating position stronger… he soon forgot his mission to get a good deal for a TV show… He was the star of EVERY TV SHOW — and, soon, winning nearly every primary!”

CNN’s Dean Obeidallah expressed a similar opinion in July:

“President Donald Trump has finally done it. He has turned his administration into a B-level reality show… And while it may be fun to watch, it’s a travesty for our nation. We deserve a president who is thoughtful, informed and focused on working for all Americans. Instead we have Trump, who seems preoccupied with creating a televised spectacle… it’s increasingly apparent that Trump is following his “Apprentice” playbook in the White House.”

The New York Post continued the comparison:

“In the latest episode of “Survivor: White House,” the West Wing descended into chaos Thursday, as President Trump and his top aides turned on one another like vicious reality-show divas — with no one sure who would be the next to get a knife in their back.”

Perez Hilton, a former contestant on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, commented too:

“Trump is treating his presidency like The Apprentice. He telegraphed this… I would totally survive in the Trump White House because I’m smarter than Donald. Much smarter than him!”

Actual Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars celebrity Omarosa Manigault has been a White House aide since the President included her in his transition team in December, but her resignation was announced in September. And that is of course after so many top White House staff members have been forced out: Flynn, Dubke, Priebus, Spicer, Bannon, Gorka, Scaramucci.

But I didn’t start to take the “reality show” criticism seriously until I heard it from Republican Senator Corker last week. When asked if the country is in jeopardy, Corker answered:

“Sometimes I feel like he’s on a reality show of some kind… it’s like it’s an act to him and sure that bothers me… it very much feels to me like he thinks as president he’s on a reality television show… I don’t think he understands that the messages that he sends out, especially when you take into account they’re being received in other languages around the world, what that does… I don’t think he appreciates that when the president of the United States speaks, and says the things that he does, the impact that it has around the world, especially in the region that he’s addressing… it’s concerning to me. A lot of people think that there’s some good cop, bad cop act underway, but that’s just not true… it’s like he’s doing “The Apprentice” or something. He’s just putting on an act. And it’s worrisome.”

Since Moore is a professional pundit who makes his living expressing progressive political commentary, his criticism of then candidate Donald Trump is not especially convincing. Although Obeidallah based his later opinion on President Trump’s actions as President, his commentary is still a professional op-ed designed to draw readers to the slightly left-leaning CNN.

Senator Corker, however, is in neither the entertainment nor the news industry. He, like you, is a member of the President’s own party, and, like you, he is a conservative who consistently votes against abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, the ACA, and sanctuary cities. Since, unlike Moore and Obeidallah, his politics align with the President’s agenda, he has reason to ignore the President’s flaws in order to promote that shared agenda.

So when a conservative Republican says President Trump behaves as if he is performing on a reality TV show, that criticism is difficult to ignore. As a fellow conservative Republican, do you agree with Senator Corker’s assessment? Or do you still wish to ignore the President’s flaws? If so, you must also be discounting the larger danger that Corker identifies:

“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him… One of the reasons that I’ve supported Mattis and Tillerson and Kelly last week is, again, as long as there’s people like that around him who are able to talk him down, you know, when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision is made. I think we’ll be fine.”

Do you think we’ll be fine too? Is there a point at which the President’s behavior would force you to set aside your political goals in order to help contain him?

If the President does think of himself as a star of a television show, what part do you think he’s casting you? Level-headed uncle? Obsequious butler? Comic minion? And how do you think this first season is going to end? Will the show be renewed or is the country tired of “shaking things up” yet? The President’s 39% approval rating doesn’t bode well for next year’s mid-terms either. How many of your fellow Republican Representatives do you think will be voted off?

And did you ever imagine American politics could devolve to this?

Email #292: “presidential visitors”?

The Freedom of Information Act requires public disclosure of government documents. Although ethically bound, the White House is legally exempt. Government ethics watch groups had to sue the Obama administration before it agreed to make White House visitor logs publicly available online—something the Trump administration has since halted. Now the same watch groups are suing the Trump administration.

In July, Federal District Court Judge Failla ruled that the administration had until this month to release the records of presidential visitors at Mar-a-Lago because those records fall under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service, which is a subdivision of Homeland Security not the White House. But instead of complying, the Justice Department announced earlier this month that the majority of the Secret Service records “contain, reflect, or otherwise relate to the president’s schedules,” which are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. They released only the names of the delegation of the Japanese prime minister whose February visit to the President’s Florida resort was already well known.

The lawsuit sought the names of previously undisclosed visitors in order to investigate potential conflicts of interest. The Mar-a-Lago membership list includes nearly 500 individuals whose real estate, Wall Street, and energy corporations are directly affected by the President’s policies. The list includes mining billionaire William Koch and trader billionaire Thomas Peterffy who the New York Times reports spent over $8 million on anti-socialism political ads in 2012.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington argues that the American people should know who is influencing the President. Do you disagree? They are holding the Trump administration to the same standards that they held the Obama administration. Are you? The Justice Department “believes that presidential schedule information is not subject to FOIA.” Do you agree?

Regardless of the scope of the FOIA, why shouldn’t the administration turn over both its Mar-a-Lago and its White House visitor logs? Fighting to keep this information hidden deepens ethical concerns. And since oversight of the Justice Department is your responsibility, those concerns now extend to you. You said before the President took office that people “elected to represent the American people should be held to the highest standards.” What standards are you holding our highest representative?

 

Email #288: “condemn such detestable views”?

Earlier this month a close friend of mine was driving in Lexington when a woman in the next lane yelled at him from her car:

“Move back! Go home!”

My friend (he asked me not to use his name) was born in India, but he is a U.S. citizen and has lived here for twenty-five years. Home for him is Rockbridge county. Both of his daughters were born in the U.S., and his oldest is attending an Ivy League college. Politically, he’s a Libertarian-leaning Democrat. When he lived in India, he was arrested and beaten while in police custody, so he understands a hell of a lot more about government corruption than anyone else I know. You met him yourself during a twelve-person constituent meeting in Staunton about three months ago. I believe he was the only dark-skinned person in the room.

I mention this because after the stranger yelled at him, he drove to our local Republican headquarters and told them that the incident was their responsibility. Xenophobic racism is now a defining trait of the GOP brand.  You know full well that racist driver voted for you last November.

I had assumed the incident was isolated, but then I learned that Republican audience members at the Labor Day parade in Buena Vista yelled “Move back! Go home!” at Delegate Sam Rasoul too. Rasoul is the only Muslim member of the Virginia House of Delegates. His parents are Palestinian immigrants, but he was born in the U.S., the only home he has ever known. I was told that none of the GOP candidates present—Ben Cline, Ed Gillespie, Jill Holtzman Vogel, and John Adams—said anything to their supporters who booed and jeered Rasoul with their racist taunts.

You said after Charlottesville: “The racist and anti-Semitic views embraced by white supremacists have no place in our nation and do not reflect core American values of equality and religious freedom. We are all created in the image of God, and I strongly condemn such detestable views against fellow human beings.”

But what about the racist views embraced by members of your Republican base here in the 6th district? While I hope very few of your supporters would label themselves white supremacists and even fewer would commit violence in support of white supremacy, many of those at the Buena Vista parade openly and proudly violated your stated values of equality and religious freedom.

When my friend spoke to you in person, he said you explained that you have to sometimes support extreme rightwing positions in order to ensure your reelection and so be able to accomplish what you called “the good I want to do.” But what about that bad you do in that process? What about the harm of allowing your voters’ extreme prejudices to go unchallenged? Worse, you and the President fuel those prejudices through your always one-sided rhetoric that paints immigrants as inhuman threats. You are politically profiting from the detestable views you claim to condemn.

 

Email #283: “the Ministry of Truth”?

When you attempted to change the Office of Congressional Ethics in early January, the New York Times wrote:

“The claim by Mr. Ryan and Mr. Goodlatte (who, hilariously, leads the House Judiciary Committee) that gutting the office would improve “due process” for accused lawmakers is a marvel of Orwellian newspeak. So is Mr. Goodlatte’s insistence that dismantling the O.C.E. “builds upon and strengthens” it.”

The editors of the Roanoke Times and Staunton New Leader also titled letters I wrote about you in January: “Goodlatte is Orwellian” and “Goodlatte excels at doublespeak.” I wrote:

“Goodlatte talks like a character from a George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth: “With Republicans holding the White House and the majorities in both chambers of Congress, I am hopeful that we will now have an avenue to move bipartisan legislation that has been stalled over the past eight years.” If that legislation is “bipartisan” why only now is there an avenue to pass it? Goodlatte also told me he wanted us to unite and work together, but using a tactic that is overwhelmingly partisan is the opposite.”

So I was amused when you evoked “the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984” in a letter last month. I assume you know that sales of the novel spiked in January after White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts.” Four days later, the novel was Amazon’s top-seller. A Penguin spokesperson told CNN: “We put through a 75,000 copy reprint this week.” A theater professor at my school and your alma mater, Washington and Lee University, had gotten the rights to produce the play, but as a result of the Trump-triggered popularity surge, she lost the adaptation when it moved to Broadway. W&L is producing an alternate version instead. Will you be attending it?

While I appreciate how tempting it must have been for you or one of your staff writers to direct an Orwellian allusion toward someone other than you or another member of the Republican party, I don’t think it’s a good idea to draw further attention to the novel. As the party currently controlling all three branches of the federal government, the GOP will inevitably attract the brunt of the comparisons. You have also inadvertently lengthened the already long list of browser results when users type “GOP” and “Orwell” into a search engine.

When reading your press releases and newsletter columns over the past nine months, I have been reminded of two terms from 1984, “Doublethink” and “Blackwhite.” According to Orwell, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” And Blackwhite is “a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands it. But it means also the ability to BELIEVE that black is white, and more, to KNOW that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

These two concepts have been useful for analyzing your various positions, especially when you ignore shortcomings of the current administration after having so doggedly criticized similar faults of the previous administration. Also some of your longest held principles–reducing federal spending for instance–seem to vanish when President Trump proposes expanded spending initiatives or budgets that rely on implausibly positive economic projections. Party discipline appears to be your guiding priority, regardless of contradictions.

It would of course be hyperbolic to call your House Judiciary Committee “the Ministry of Truth.” But it would only be hyperbolic–because you have provided the basis for the exaggeration. Assuming you earn a sentence or two in our grandchildren’s American history books, do you think those future authors will be tempted to encapsulate your role with the same hyperbole?