So, want to talk politics?

I am, as I have said elsewhere, bored to tears with the Hillary people saying ridiculous stupid things about Bernie, and Bernie people saying ridiculous stupid (and sexist!) things about Hillary.  I am tired of the back and forth on social media; I am tired of both sides claiming victory in the “most unfairly reviled” sweepstakes. Knock it off, Bernie bros and Hillary sisters. It’s not all about you.

It’s about Donald Trump. It’s about the madness overtaking the nation. It’s about the possibility of an extremely confident oaf becoming president. Indeed, it’s been about that since January; we just had to wait a little while to see which oaf it was.

It is clear to everyone that unity is required. Right? OK, not everyone, but  most sane people. Sane people see the prospect of Donald Trump and say, “where do I sign up to make sure that doesn’t happen?” I can help you with that, but first a few thoughts.

Hillary Clinton will win the nomination. But Bernie has managed, with his tireless rhetoric and his swelling popularity, to move both Hillary and the party leftwards. This is more than he could have hoped for when he started, and it suggests that he must stay in the race and continue to force concessions from the DNCC and the candidate herself.

But it is not, nor should it be, an excuse for attacking the presumptive Democratic candidate personally. Saying Hillary is “not qualified” — so bogus. By Bernie’s lofty standards, Obama is also not qualified. Making fun of her civil rights record is both damaging and wrong. And, while we criticize Trump for not distancing himself from white supremacists, we seem to be fine with Bernie saying not a peep about his woman-hating supporters. (In fact, Bernie finally did distance himself from his sleazy adherents, last Sunday, some months after the barrage began).

Bernie should be full of righteous fire, not full of himself.

Hillary has an even deeper problem: She doesn’t seem to get why people are rallying to Bernie. She doesn’t seem to understand his appeal, and the appeal of his ideas. According to news reports, she thinks his supporters are naive or childish or both. And, after her much-ballyhooed pivot to the general election after her New York primary victory, her aides said privately that her calculation was that Bernie supporters would flock to her because they can’t stand Donald Trump.

And that’s wrong on so many counts. First, some Bernie voters will indeed vote for Donald Trump. They just plain hate the system, and Trump is less  system-friendly than perpetual insider Hillary Clinton.  Second, the Bernie believers could very well just stay home. Not voting is better than voting for Hillary, the epitome of gradualism, the woman who shifted her opinions to suit current tastes.

The corruption of the political system is real. The amount of power that large corporations have in shaping American policies is obscene. The defense industries use bribery and intimidation to get their contracts — and they use more nefarious tactics to make sure their cost overruns are not prosecuted. Health care is a mess, because the insurance companies have blocked any kind of sensible single-payer solution. The employment situation has gotten steadily worse — even the jobs available are low-wage split-shift no-benefits service positions — unless you work in tech, in which case you may very well believe that the system is a meritocracy.

Hillary talks about this stuff, but then she retreats to Chappaqua or Martha’s Vineyard, where corporate chieftains unwind and schmooze. Maybe it’s only an optics thing; let’s say that’s true. But optics matter.

The disaffection in the country is real. It’s what’s energizing the Bernie campaign.  It’s why  Trump is attracting followers who are not crazed xenophobes. It’s why  Hillary’s many accomplishments, even her lifelong work with poor minority children,  are pooh-poohed. They look like stunts, like some social justice form of greenwashing. It’s not true, but there are reasons why it feels correct. It’s left-wing truthiness.

And, as the brilliant Amy Davidson argues in this piece, Hillary needs to talk about money. She needs to explain why she concluded that cozying up to big business was an effective election strategy. She needs to explain what she was thinking when she accepted those ginormous speaking fees. There must have been calculations — this is the Clinton zone, where calculations are an hourly affair. I do not doubt her good heart; I worry that she’s too far inside the system to understand the critiques.

And why is this necessary? Because Democrats win when voter turn-out is high. In 2014, only 36.4 per cent of eligible citizens voted. And what happened? Hello, government shutdown. In 2012, a presidential year, 57.5 per cent of eligible citizens voted, and hello four more years of Barack Obama.  We of the Democratic persuasion need to be active in voter registration, particularly in Arizona and Ohio and Florida and other swing states. I think my home state of California is pretty much Hillary country; probably I should put my efforts, and my money, elsewhere.

Of course you can do your part. Do this, for example. Or you could try this. Some states are making it harder, though. But unless you want foreign policy ignoramus and casual racist Donald Trump to be president, unless you want a thin-skinned megalomaniac devoted to his power and his name in gold everywhere to become the most powerful man in the world, then stop shouting and start doing something. Purity is all very well for insulin and skin cleansers, but politics is the art of the possible.

And don’t think it can’t get worse. It can; in most of the world it already is. It might even be possible to make American great again. Catchy slogan.

Remain calm


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Email experimentation by Michelle Mizera

Then, in a pawn shop in New Mexico…

A couple of weeks ago, I challenged myself to come up with a story I’ve never told before. I’ve written about 7.2 million published words (I know, right?), and probably a quarter of them were devoted to telling mostly true stories of my childhood, my family life, my adventures, and my encounters with animals large and small. So is it possible that I’ve told all my stories? Must I only mine the future?

First of all, there are many stories I’ve never told, and never will tell. Most of what went on in 1971, for instance — that’s never going to see the light of day. And that time with the Xerox machine and the disused sauna and a large stuffed muffin — forget it. Although, caution: Stuffed muffins are flammable.

Another story you won’t be hearing

So I found one:

The year was 1979. I was the editor of New West magazine, based in Beverly Hills. New West was owned by Rupert Murdoch, but he didn’t care about it. He’d bought it by accident when he acquired New York magazine.

Later he confessed to me that he’d once bought an airline by mistake.

Anyway, Rupert left me alone. I could do what I wanted, as long as it wasn’t obscene or libelous — unless “obscene or libelous” caused a notable circulation spike. I had fabulous editors; I had great writers; I had a few ideas. In 1979, the magazine was nominated for four National Magazine Awards. That was a very big deal back then; it was sort of like winning an Oscar.

And I won one. The story was “Hell on the Wheels” by Moira Johnston, about defects in Firestone tires. Within three months of publication, Moira was testifying before Congress, her shredded tire by her side. The editor of the piece was my beloved executive editor Rosalie Muller Wright. But, hey, I was there too, waving my hands in an encouraging manner. And my name was on the citation.

The winners were announced at a gala lunchtime event at the Plaza Hotel. The industry was there. I shook hands with many masthead names and a few demigods. “David Halberstam, why yes, of course I know who you are…”.  Sadly, I did not get to go on stage to accept the award. Joe Armstrong, the New York-based publisher, decided to take the credit. Not that I’m bitter. My one and only chance to…oh hell. It was really Rosalie’s award anyway.

But then Joe handed me the Ellie.

David Remnick fondles his many Ellies

The Ellie is the Alexander Calder-designed stabile (as opposed to a mobile) that is given to each winner. Calder didn’t call it anything; someone else thought it resembled an elephant and named it. It was a heavy bit of hardware, and it had pointy ends. My first thought, as I was standing there hefting it in the swirl of people in the huge loud room, was that it would be a perfect instrument for murder. I may have been looking at Joe Armstrong at the time.

An hour later, after we’d made a call to the home office and shared the love, me and Ellie hopped into a cab and rode downtown. Ellie rested on my lap; I kept stroking her curves.  I got out at 80 University Place and rode the struggling elevator up the fifth floor. I carried the award through the newsroom, and people applauded, just like in the movies.

I was at the Village Voice,  which was the place in New York where I felt most at home. I sat near M. Mark and Karen Durbin, two of my favorite women, and I loosened my tie and told the story three or four times. I was in the part of journalism I loved, the big ugly room with the congenial pals and the droll remarks and the casual insults. Word-drunk people deep in their addiction.

I hauled the Ellie around all night. It sat on a coffee table and a regular table and a bureau and, eventually, on the floor. I loved my Ellie.

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New York, center of everything

I had to give it up the next day. Publisher Swift Lockhart needed to show it to advertisers as he sought a little prestige business. (I know it seems like I had three publishers, but, you know, long story. Long boring story). I saw it again in his office. I posed for pictures with it.

Then it disappeared.

I figured Swift stole it. I think he thought we didn’t deserve it. He didn’t care for us much, although he was as smiley and glad-handy as a guy can be. He was from Mad Men-era Madison Avenue, where geniality in the face of pretty much anything was the norm. He had secret demons, I was sure.

I learned later that he thought I’d stolen it. I wish.

Twenty-two years later, I was killing time in Santa Fe and I entered a small pawn shop on a side street near the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. I was mostly looking for deep shade, and the shop was dark and cool. In the back room, I found a leather-bound trunk about the size of a dishwasher. More from curiosity then for any real reason, I asked the proprietor…you’re not believing this, are you? It would be a great story, but it never happened. Life is filled with disappointments.

I never did see Ellie again. The magazine got bought, the staff scattered, I moved to San Francisco and got another job. But it was a great afternoon.

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I just couldn’t be happier


This is another story, but it’s more in the way of a cautionary tale.  The years was 2015. I was meeting my friend Mary in San Francisco. We were going to have dinner at Dobbs Ferry and then see the Pop-Up Magazine, as conceived by the energetic people at California Sunday Magazine, which is the closest thing to New West since New West.

There was traffic. There is always traffic from the East Bay to the city, and I had allowed for it, but not enough time. I shoulda taken BART, but I didn’t, which is too bad because it’s going to fall apart within a decade. Have you noticed that public transportation systems all over the country are breaking at more or less that same time? The DC Metro is going to have to close for nine months or more, and BART is basically the same system.  Was I saying something?

So the traffic was bad, and NPR was boring, and I began fretting about Mary, sitting in that restaurant nursing a white wine and fending off strangers. I did not want to text her, because I am a slow texter and I did not want take my eyes off the road. Ah, but Siri! She’s always giving, giving, giving. “Text Mary,” I said,  and summed my current plight.

Finally I got to the restaurant. “Did you get my text?” I asked her. “I got your text,” she said. She showed me her phone. I have preserved the text in all its glory.

“Yes well I’m in San Francisco anyway I think the best thing for out party right now if you have 247 Republican Kevin.”

Would you not worry about a friend who sent you that text? Would you not be concerned about cognitive impairment? Indeed. So here’s the lesson: Never text with Siri when the radio’s on.


One more brief thing. I’ve seen a lot of theater this winter, and the hands- down winner is “The Heir Apparent” at the Aurora Theater. Farce is so hard to do well; it requires a deep commitment to silliness.  When that happens, though, the results can be hysterical. The actors are all splendid (I mention in particular Katie Rubin), and the script by David Ives is wonderfully anarchic.  Closes May 22; tickets available.


Photography (except for the Ellies) by Tracy Johnston

Explanations for the simple-minded by Michelle Mizera