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The Secret Star of John Mulaney's <em>Kid Gorgeous</em>

Posted: 01 May 2018 04:00 AM PDT

"I love to play venues where if the guy who built the venue could see me on stage, he would be a little bit bummed about it," says John Mulaney as he walks into the hallowed spotlight of Radio City Music Hall for his new Netflix special Kid Gorgeous, out Tuesday. That's how Mulaney has always slyly presented himself—as a bit of a bland disappointment, like a Saltine cracker topped with American cheese, or a wide-eyed doormat experiencing life with a mix of confusion and exhaustion. The comedian is a typical, upper-middle-class white kid from Chicago who's happy to muddle through discussing the plot intricacies of Law & Order spinoffs, but figures he'll get yanked offstage any moment.

That attitude, of course, belies the fact that Mulaney is one of the biggest powerhouses in stand-up today, and Kid Gorgeous is another tremendous notch in his belt. It's a supremely confident hour that touches on many of his usual favorite topics—his conservative Catholic upbringing, his happy life raising an imperious French bulldog with his wife, and various other observational musings. Humming underneath it all is Mulaney's growing awareness that, as he's maturing, he's becoming a skewed version of the man he enjoys discussing most of all: his supreme square of a father.

Charles Mulaney is the best and most endlessly fascinating character in all of his son's specials (including New in Town and The Comeback Kid, both of which are available on Netflix). The younger Mulaney presents him as the embodiment of order, a rigid rule-follower who was baffled by his son's stranger tendencies as a youth. 2015's The Comeback Kid ended with Mulaney telling one of his best-ever stories, recalling his father's hatred of a young, freewheeling Bill Clinton (whom Charles Mulaney attended law school with).

In Kid Gorgeous, John Mulaney remembers his father trying to give him a sex talk and beginning it with, "Hello, I'm Chip Mulaney, I'm your father," before launching into an extended anecdote about the conductor Leonard Bernstein. His dad's near-Lynchian brand of surreal ordinariness is the core of what the comedian loves to mock about himself—the essential weirdness of being boring. As a younger man, John Mulaney was a heavy drinker and drug user, something he often discusses in his specials, and was a recovering alcoholic before he was 30. When he talks about that experience now, it clearly feels half a world away for him—and he's half a world closer to the life of his good Catholic dad.

"I can't listen to any new songs, cause every new song is about how 'tonight is the night' and how 'we only have tonight,'" Mulaney says of the world of pop culture leaving him behind. "That is such 19-year-old horseshit. I want to write songs for people in their 30s called, 'Tonight's No Good, How About Wednesday?'" Reflecting on how he and his wife have decided to never have kids, he admits that their outlook could shift. "Look, I don't know never! Fourteen years ago I smoked cocaine the night before my college graduation; now I'm afraid to get a flu shot! People change!"

People do change, and Mulaney has slowly shifted some of his targets over the years. His most absurd recent material came in the form of Oh, Hello, the Broadway double act he performed with Nick Kroll from 2016 to 2017 (and in which Mulaney plays the phlegmatic elderly New Yorker George St. Geegland). Kid Gorgeous, on the other hand, contains a particularly rare digression on current events, something the more observational Mulaney has usually avoided in the past. He gets into the subject by recalling a visit to a small town that had built a gazebo during the Civil War, a quaint discrepancy he couldn't forget.

"Building a gazebo during the Civil War would be like doing stand-up comedy now," Mulaney jokes. He acknowledges the Trump administration with a sort of faux-grumpiness, noting that the political turmoil of late has grown to such cataclysmic proportions that even someone as disinterested as he is has to talk about it. But this pivot in Kid Gorgeous is yet another sign of Mulaney's interests (unsurprisingly) evolving as he gets older, and he goes on to satirize the White House inimitably—no easy task for any comedian today (I won't spoil his take, but it's wonderfully unique).

With Kid Gorgeous, Mulaney is proving he can endure in a field that even the most successful and talented comics can struggle to stay afloat in. The more famous you get, the harder it should become to be observational, to dissect the simple foibles of life through repetition and attention to bizarre details. But Mulaney still excels at doing exactly that, perhaps because there's always the avatar of his straightforward dad to channel. "Ah, none of us really know our fathers," Mulaney jokes early on in the special. "My dad is so weird—I'd love to meet him someday." Judging by how acutely Mulaney looks in the mirror in Kid Gorgeous, it seems he already has.

Hillary Clinton's High Profile is Hurting the Democrats

Posted: 01 May 2018 03:00 AM PDT

Hillary Clinton was back in the news last week thanks to a Sunday speech at the PEN America World Voices Festival, which sounded custom-designed to give Donald Trump a nosebleed.

Pulling no punches, Clinton slapped Trump for his assault on such public goods as the arts, self-expression, knowledge, dissent, and basic reality. "We are living through an all-out war on truth, facts, and reason," she declared.

But the bulk of her hits were directed at Trump's war on the media, and the First Amendment more broadly. She lamented that "today, we have a president who seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy," and who "has referred to the media as an 'enemy of the people.'" Citing Trump's crusades against Jeff Bezos and CNN, she asked, "Given his track record, is it any surprise that, according to the latest round of revelations, he joked about throwing reporters in jail to make them 'talk'?" She even managed to work in a reference to Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid's Tale.

Considering Clinton's own complicated relationship with the media (actually, it's not that complicated—she hates us), it was heartwarming to hear her passionately defending the Fourth Estate. Admittedly, she couldn't resist taking some shots at coverage of the 2016 presidential race. She brought up "the Russian disinformation campaign" and how it "has been abetted to some degree by the way politics has been covered." She pointed to studies "showing how the mainstream political coverage was influenced by the right-wing-media ecosystem and other factors to depart from normal journalistic standards," and she name-checked the Harvard professor Thomas Patterson for calling "the false equivalency in the coverage 'corrosive'" and saying "the relentlessly negative news has had a 'leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.'" Even so, she couched her criticism in praise for some media outlets that have recognized their mistakes and taken the "brave step" of "publicly examining" their screwups and working henceforth to "avoid the errors that helped put Mr. Trump in the White House." Coming from Clinton, that's practically a mash note.

All told, her PEN performance was cool, crisp, and destined to make news—which it did. ("Can Hillary Clinton Break the Internet?," Vanity Fair asked of her "shrewd" new media strategy.) Which left me wondering, and not for the first time: Isn't there someone who can convince this accomplished, inspiring, barrier-breaking superwoman to stop whining about 2016?

Someone? Anyone?

Yes, what happened to Clinton was awful. She did not merely lose the presidency, she lost it to an opponent singularly unqualified to hold the office. Worse still, multiple external factors likely contributed to her loss, including Russian meddling and former FBI Director James Comey's October surprise and, yes, the media's absurd obsession with "Servergate."

But whatever the root causes, the result is what it is: She lost. And while her frustration, disappointment, and rage make perfect sense, Clinton needs to give the public kvetching and finger-pointing a rest—if not for the sake of her or her party, then for the nation as a whole.

What's so wrong with Clinton's letting off a little steam? For starters, she's bad at it—by which I mean she too often winds up making herself look bad. Whenever she talks about What Happened, her recent book recounting her experience as a presidential candidate, Clinton comes across as self-pitying and self-justifying, in large part because she cannot resist bringing up all the other folks and forces she considers at fault. This has reached the level of bad political joke. (In October, Newsweek compiled a handy list of "Every Excuse Hillary Clinton Has Given for Her 2016 Election Loss.")

Yes, now and again she'll make some comment about how, as the Democratic candidate, she takes "absolute personal responsibility" for everything that happened. But such vague, half-hearted blame-shouldering simply cannot compete with her detailed, heartfelt, perpetual blame-throwing.

Even more damaging are the occasions when, in her frenzy of finger-pointing, Clinton's disdain for everyday Americans seeps into view. Who can forget her trenchant bit of electoral analysis at a conference in Mumbai in March?

So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, Make America Great Again, was looking backwards. You know, you didn't like black people getting rights, you don't like women, you know, getting jobs, you don't want to, you know, see that Indian American succeeding more than you are, whatever your problem is, I'm going to solve it.

Oof. That's tone-deaf enough to make you miss her "basket of deplorables."

Is it natural—unavoidable even—for Hillary to feel this way? Of course. And if she wants to spend her evenings ranting to friends over a bottle of Beaujolais about life's unfairness and Trump's unfitness, more power to her. But when she takes her self-indulgence public, it causes real problems for the Democratic Party, which is scrambling to recover its mojo after the 2016 massacre she led it into.

When Clinton says something irretrievably offensive, or even mildly disruptive, her fellow Democrats are expected to comment. (Much as Republicans are forever being asked about Trump's outrages.) This can get really awkward really fast. "She continues to be an important voice, but we're focused on new battles now," Representative Daniel Kildee of Michigan told The Washington Post last May, soon after Clinton announced that she was joining the resistance. "I don't think it's productive to re-litigate that race."

More problematic, in the wake of her Mumbai debacle, Democratic lawmakers from all those racist, sexist, backward-looking Trump states were forced to choose between throwing Hillary under the bus or alienating their voters. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri aggressively sided with Missourians, deeming Clinton's remarks "fighting words." Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota was even harsher. Asked in a local radio interview when Clinton was going to "ride away into the sunset," she replied: "Not soon enough."

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio tried a more delicate tack, telling HuffPost, "I don't really care what she said," but noting that it was "not helpful." For his pains, Brown was dog-piled by Republicans, who gleefully portrayed him as "not caring" about Clinton's sneering at his voters. (I lost count of the number of Republican attack emails on this topic that landed in my inbox.)

The national GOP, in fact, ran digital ads against 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in states that Trump won. (The state parties, meanwhile, worked their own mischief.) This should surprise exactly no one because—and here is the broader concern—so long as Hillary keeps putting her 2016 drama in the spotlight, she will serve as an unparalleled rallying point for Republican voters.

You know how Donald Trump seems weirdly, almost pathologically, obsessed with Clinton, despite the election having occurred nearly a year and a half ago? He is not alone. The Republican base (as hosts at Fox News can attest) still hates Clinton with the heat of a thousand suns. Is that rational? No. Is it a super effective way for the GOP to fire up its base with high-stakes midterms approaching? To quote that great political sage Sarah Palin, you betcha!

Sure enough, last week an Associated Press piece described how Republicans have vowed to make Clinton a key villain in their midterm narrative.

"We're going to make them own her," the Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka said.

It's hard to blame them. As the AP noted, internal GOP research has found Clinton second only to Nancy Pelosi in the hierarchy of disliked Democrats: "Just 36 percent of Americans viewed Clinton favorably in a December Gallup poll, an all-time low mark that bucked a trend in which unsuccessful presidential candidates typically gain in popularity over time."

Why should the Democratic party continue to "own" a broadly unpopular Clinton—who, to review, holds no public office of any kind? In part, because she won't allow them not to.

Clinton is well aware of the controversy her public musings stir. Her thoughtful response: Dismiss the critics as sexist. At a March appearance at Rutgers University, she was asked about recent calls for her to take a lower profile. "I was really struck by how people said that to me—you know, mostly people in the press, for whatever reason—like, 'Oh, you know, go away, go away,'" she said. "They never said that to any man who was not elected. I was kind of struck by that."

Clinton then ticked through a few points of comparison:

I'm really glad that, you know, Al Gore didn't stop talking about climate change. And I'm really glad John Kerry went to the Senate and became an excellent secretary of state. And I'm really glad John McCain kept speaking out and standing up and saying what he had to say. And for heaven's sakes, Mitt Romney is running for the Senate.

For heaven's sake is right.

In citing her male predecessors, Clinton seemed to miss a glaring difference: These guys did not build their post-presidential-campaign personas around relitigating their ill-fated races and seizing every opportunity to shift the blame.

A shell-shocked Romney came the closest, briefly attributing his failure to Barack Obama's having given "a lot of stuff," most notably health care, to minority voters. (And he got dinged for his grousing before moving on.) Kerry and McCain swiftly reimmersed themselves in the business of the Senate. And Gore? He is the worst person for Clinton to compare herself to. While his loss was to a less humiliating opponent than Clinton's, the experience itself was more excruciating. The nightmare didn't end for Gore on Election Night; it dragged on and on for weeks as the nation tore itself apart over hanging chads and butterfly ballots and, yes, the fairness of the Electoral College. But when things ultimately didn't break his way, Gore did not shift his energies to trashing the Supreme Court or the Florida secretary of state or the political media (which had unquestionably been rougher on him than on his opponent). He temporarily left the public stage and stayed mum on matters of big-P politics. When he reemerged, it wasn't to moan about what a travesty 2000 had been; it was to promote a cause long dear to him.

Gore, if anything, presents an alternative model for Clinton. If she wants her next act to be as a women's-rights champion or global ambassador for the Clinton Foundation or diplomat (post-Trump, of course) or even the next mayor of New York, she should go for it. She should stand up, speak out, and let her star shine.

But when it comes to the national political landscape, she has not yet reached the point where she can sound off in a way that doesn't reek of self-pity and bitterness and rationalization. Until that changes, she should recognize the yuge favor she is doing the GOP—and, by extension, Donald Trump.

With that in mind, she really does need to stop. Just. Stop.

Lobbying: The Job of Choice for Retired Members of Congress

Posted: 01 May 2018 03:00 AM PDT

There's a particular moment Representative Tom Rooney can see in his mind, when his fifth and final term in the House comes to an end and he leaves Washington, D.C., for the last time as a member of Congress. He'll drive south toward Georgia, crossing over into Florida north of Jacksonville.

He'll pass that familiar sign, the blue one that says "Welcome to the Sunshine State," when he reaches the border.

"I made it," he'll think to himself.

Every two years, retiring lawmakers like Rooney face a choice: Do they return home to their states and districts, or stay where the political action—and the money—is in Washington? The last several months have seen a rush to the Capitol exits like none other in more than a quarter-century: Rooney, a Republican, is one of three dozen members of the House and Senate who aren't running for reelection or another office this fall. About 20 others are taking a risk on campaigns for the Senate or state governorships, and relinquishing their seats in the process.

In all, more members of the House are forgoing reelection than in any year since 1992, when 65 representatives called it quits, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Republicans, it's an even bigger exodus—the most since before World War II. Some in this year's class of retirees are more junior members who've grown disenchanted with national politics. Rooney, 47, is one of them: "The D.C. rat race has run its course for me," he told me in a recent interview.

But if recent history is a guide, many of Rooney's fellow congressional retirees won't be leaving the Beltway at all. As candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike win over voters with jeremiads against Washington, pledging to bring their hometown values to a capital city overrun by lobbyists and special interests. But once their terms are up, a surprising number of these same politicians don't return home. They stick around town, joining law firms, think tanks, and lobbying shops. On any given day, ex-lawmakers stalk the corridors of the Capitol complex, kibitzing with their old colleagues as they prod them for votes.

Of the nearly four dozen lawmakers who left office after the 2016 election, one-fourth stayed in Washington, and one in six became lobbyists, according to an analysis by The Atlantic. The numbers were even higher for those who departed after the 2014 midterms: About half of those former members stuck around, and around one in four became lobbyists.

Lobbying remains the single most popular post-Congress career choice for retiring members. There's little to suggest that will drastically change among the 2018 class of retirees, even in an era when politicians in both parties have seized on pay-to-play scandals and stigmatized the profession as the epitome of the capital's culture of corruption—Nancy Pelosi led Democrats to the House majority in 2006 on a pledge to "drain the swamp" 10 years before Donald Trump purloined the phrase on his way to the presidency.

What Are Former Members of Congress Doing Now?

Credit: Lena Felton and Taylor Hosking

"It's kind of a scarlet letter that you wear around if you're a lobbyist," said former Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat who joined the D.C. firm McDermott, Will & Emery after retiring from the House in 2014. Ex-lawmakers can cash in on their policy expertise and friendships in the Capitol, earning two or three times their $174,000 base salary as a member of Congress.

Moran, for his part, wears the badge without shame: After 24 years as a congressman from Northern Virginia, becoming a lobbyist seemed like a logical move to Moran since he represented so many of them in D.C. "It was basically one of my industries," he told me.

In interviews, ex-lawmakers and soon-to-be retirees expressed attitudes toward lobbying and Washington life that were as polarized as their voting records in Congress (though the divide did not fall along party lines). One long-serving member-turned-lobbyist candidly admitted that he enjoyed the D.C. politics that Rooney derided as a "rat race," while another likened his chances of lobbying to hell freezing over. Others were in the middle, balancing their desire for a wealthy lifestyle with the constraints that affixing the "scarlet letter" of lobbying might put on their future political ambitions.

Members point out that lobbying allows them to use the experience and issue expertise they've built over many years in Congress to continue to advocate for causes they believe in. But while that might attract ex-lawmakers to lobbying, it's not what draws high-paying companies to them: They want the relationships. "Policy wonks and knowledgable people are out there," said former Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, a Republican lawmaker-turned-lobbyist who left in 2015 after 24 years in the House. "The question is, can you get a door opened, and are you going to work?"

The so-called revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street, the downtown D.C. home of many lobbying shops, has been spinning for decades. But it sped up dramatically during the 1990s and peaked early in the next decade, according to studies conducted by the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen and researchers at Georgia State and Exeter universities. In the 1970s, just a handful of retired lawmakers were lobbying. Between 1998 and 2004, however, 43 percent of the nearly 200 House members who left office became lobbyists, Public Citizen found; among departing senators, the percentage reached 50 percent. This increase coincided with the rise of corporate lobbying as a whole. As Lee Drutman wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, between the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st,  the industry grew "from a sparse reactive force into a ubiquitous and increasingly proactive one" totaling more than $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

The practice became particularly popular—and lucrative—for the most powerful congressional retirees. During points in the early and mid-2000s, the ranks of D.C. lobbyists included ex-House speakers (Democrat Tom Foley and Republican Newt Gingrich) and former Senate majority leaders from both parties (Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell, and Republicans Trent Lott and Bob Dole).

But the widely publicized Jack Abramoff scandal in 2005 led to a push for reform. The prominent lobbyist was convicted of bribing members of Congress and defrauding Native American tribes, and the investigation into his activities led to the conviction of former Representative Bob Ney of Ohio and cast a shadow over other lawmakers and their senior aides. New restrictions in the Honest Leadership and Government Reform Act, enacted two years later in response to the scandals, led to a decline in registrations. Congress extended a one-year "cooling off" period barring former members from lobbying their former colleagues to two years for senators, and it added new disclosure requirements for lobbyists and increased penalties for breaking them. When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he signed an executive order banning lobbyists who joined his administration from working on issues on which they lobbied and prohibiting ex-officials from lobbying the White House after they left (although he quickly made exceptions).

But while these restrictions may have served their purpose in some ways—by making lobbying somewhat less attractive and accessible to former members—they also spawned a new practice. Critics call it "shadow lobbying": An ex-lawmaker will join a big law or lobbying firm as a consultant and do everything short of formally registering as a lobbyist and calling up his or her former colleagues. Either they're still bound by the cooling-off period, or they're trying to avoid the stigma of being a lobbyist. "They organize the entire lobbying campaign, they identify who has to be contacted and what messages to say, and then they have someone else on the lobby team make the contact," said Craig Holman, the government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a D.C.-based, liberal group that advocates for consumer rights and government reform, among other issues. "So it's just a very porous policy," Holman added. Former Speakers Newt Gingrich and John Boehner have both joined lobbying firms over the years without registering as one.

Congressional gridlock after Republicans won the House majority in 2010 put a further damper on official lobbying; with hardly any legislation moving through the Capitol, corporations cut back on their spending for federal advocacy. Yet there have been signs of a rebound in recent years, which accelerated despite President Trump's early moves to slow down the revolving door. Like Obama, Trump in the first days of his presidency signed an executive order on lobbying, which required appointees to sign a pledge swearing they would not accept gifts from lobbyists. The pledge also stated that appointees would not lobby their former agency or on behalf of a foreign government for five years after leaving the administration.

But Trump has since populated his administration with lobbyists—at least 187 of his political appointees are former federal lobbyists, according to ProPublicaand ethics watchdogs said there has been little enforcement of his executive order. "It's become a field day for lobbyists," Holman said. "For Trump, it was really just campaign rhetoric. He isn't enforcing it." By reopening the government door to K Street, the president appears to be sending the signal that becoming a lobbyist is no longer a barrier to getting senior federal positions.

For critics of lobbying and D.C.'s revolving door, it's not the advocacy alone that's problematic—it's the understanding that the lobbyists with the most influence are those who write the biggest campaign checks. Nothing underscored that concern more than comments made this week to a ballroom full of lobbyists by Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director and former Republican congressman from South Carolina. "We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," Mulvaney said at an American Bankers Association conference in Washington. "If you're a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."

The lure of lobbying can be stronger for members tossed out by their constituents than for those who leave Congress voluntarily. They have less time to figure out what to do next, and they're often not ready to leave—physically or mentally. Many long-serving lawmakers have made their homes in D.C., bringing their families and living in the same house or apartment for decades. Once they lose, it's all over very quickly, forcing them to pack up their congressional offices during the post-election lame-duck session in November and decide whether to go for good when their term formally ends in early January. "They have to go back in a month and get thrown out of a building," said former Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat who moved back to Seattle after he left the House following the 2016 election.

McDermott, then 79, announced his retirement a full year before the end of his term and spent the next few months fielding offers before deciding what he wanted to do: teach and travel. "The first question they asked me when I announced my retirement: Are you going to become a lobbyist?" he recalled, before answering the question with a loud cackle. "I said, 'I don't think the ice in hell is ever going to freeze over quick enough to carry me.'"

McDermott had lived in the same house in D.C's Eastern Market neighborhood for all 28 years he served in Congress. But when he returned to the West Coast, he downsized to a 965-square-foot apartment in Seattle where he can see Mount Rainier from his breakfast table. He donated 1,500 books to the Library of Congress on his way out of town. "People offered me stuff, offered me this and that," McDermott told me. "A six-figure salary would be nice, but with it comes a certain kind of pressure that you had in Congress. I wanted the freedom."

Jack Kingston, on the other hand, was one of those members who didn't want to leave. The 11-term Republican congressman from Georgia narrowly lost a Senate primary runoff to David Perdue in July 2014. Having given up his House seat to run for the Senate, Kingston joined the lobbying giant Squire Patton Boggs and signed on with CNN as a contributor after campaigning for Trump as a surrogate. "One of the things about politics is that it's an itch that you have to keep scratching," he said. "Most people want to keep a finger in the pie of policy or the politics."

Safely out of office, Kingston was able to admit something few officeholders in this drain-the-swamp era would acknowledge. "I did like D.C. politics," he confessed, "and I knew that I could stay involved with national politics easier being in Washington than I could do it from Atlanta or Savannah."

Kingston had more time to plan than members who lose unexpectedly in November elections. Still, he said, it's awkward for lawmakers to hunt for private-sectors jobs as a hedge against losing. (Senate rules bar current members from negotiating for a future lobbying position until their successor is chosen, although House rules are not as specific.) "If you know you're going to leave, you're ready to leave—you're out of the closet," Kingston said. "Whereas if you're an incumbent member running for reelection and you're job-hunting, you've got to hold it close to your vest like a super secret nuclear code. Because you don't want people to know you're job-hunting, because if they think you're getting out, why should they donate to you?"

Some members hire headhunters to help them find a job. Others barely have to lift a finger before the offers start flooding in. Former Representative Reid Ribble of Wisconsin recalled that he tweeted the news of his retirement on a Sunday in early 2016. By the end of the coming week, the three-term Republican estimated he had seven to 10 job offers, mostly from lobbying firms or trade associations wanting him to lobby. He turned them down.

"Some of the jobs that were offered would have required me to live in D.C., so I just hat-in-hand rejected those," Ribble told me. "I didn't really enjoy my time there. I didn't enjoy living there personally."

Ribble, 62, had owned a roofing company before coming to Congress and had planned to retire with his wife to Tennessee, near where his grandchildren live. But he ended up taking a job as president of the National Roofing Contractors Association, the trade group for which he had volunteered long before he entered politics. The organization employs lobbyists, and Ribble attends their yearly D.C. fly-ins, but he told me he doesn't lobby himself. His main focus is on creating a first-ever national certification program for roofers. "I have no interest in registering as a lobbyist," he said.

Not that Ribble has a problem with the profession—like other retired lawmakers I interviewed, he said the public often has a misunderstanding of what lobbyists do and who they represent. "Virtually every American has a lobbyist," he said. "If you're employed in this country, that industry is represented in Washington, D.C."

The many varied interests with lobbyists advocating on their behalf include both labor unions and the business owners that employ their members; environmental groups; state and local governments; advocacy groups on the political left, right, and center; and arts organizations like the ones Moran represents. In an ironic twist, they also include the government-reform groups that lobby for reining in the influence of lobbyists. "I'm part of the revolving door as well," said Aaron Scherb, a former Hill staffer who as legislative director for the watchdog group Common Cause is now a registered lobbyist.

But Scherb said Ribble's statement that "virtually every American" has a lobbyist is misleadingit assumes that business groups are advocating on behalf of their workers rather than their bottom line. "There are certainly plenty of trade associations who work against their employees' best interests in many cases," Scherb said, citing opposition to minimum-wage increases or mandatory health insurance as examples. "It's somewhat of a contradiction."

It can be tricky to figure out how many members of Congress stay in D.C. after retirement, because many of them keep one foot in the capital and one in their home states, just as they did as lawmakers. Some get hired by companies that have offices both in D.C. and near their old districts, or take jobs with big firms that allow them to work remotely.

Boehner is a good example of this. In March 2016, the former speaker tweeted a photo of himself mowing his lawn in Ohio, the picture of a man happily retired and far removed from the stress of congressional life. But Boehner also signed on with the D.C-based Squire Patton Boggs, and while the firm has an office in Cincinnati, he's spotted frequently at his old haunts around the capital. More recently, Boehner joined the board of advisers of the New York-based marijuana-producer Acreage Holdings, where he's expected to advocate—if not formally lobby—for the drug's legalization.

For its analysis of congressional retirees from 2014 and 2016, The Atlantic combined data on D.C.'s revolving door published by the Center for Responsive Politics on OpenSecrets.org with information gleaned from other internet sources and phone calls to ex-lawmakers and companies. Overall, members who lost their elections were more likely to stay in Washington than those who retired voluntarily, and most who stayed behind became lobbyists. But the percentage of retirees who stayed in D.C. after the 2016 elections was significantly lower than those who stuck around after 2014.

About 60 percent of the lawmakers who quit in 2016 were Republicans. They included a number from the Tea Party wave of 2010 who, like Ribble, had not previously held elected office and quickly grew disheartened by Congress and the GOP's inability to deliver on its small-government promises. Others who got out early may have thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and bring either more congressional gridlock or Democratic majorities to Washington.

It's too early to say whether the large retiree class of 2018 will look to escape the capital or cash in by sticking around. An even higher percentage of those leaving this year are Republicans, and they include several House committee chairmen who would be in high demand as lobbyists. Rooney, who's part of the rank-and file, knows more about what he doesn't want to do next than what he does want to do.

"I absolutely do not want to walk the halls of Congress and try to get meetings with my former colleagues. I have no interest in that," Rooney said. He added that he has had nothing more than a few informal conversations with law firms back in Florida, where he had worked as a criminal lawyer before getting into politics.

Rooney is fortunate, however. As a grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, he is worth millions and wealthy even for a congressman. Lawmakers are reluctant to talk about it while they're in office, but many privately complain about their congressional salaries, which haven't gone up in nearly a decade. The pay starts at $174,000 and goes up for committee chairmen and members of leadership. While that surely sounds comfy compared with the median U.S. income of under $60,000 a year, it doesn't go far, members say, after they shell out money for housing both in their districts and D.C. (if they don't sleep in their offices) and put their kids through college.

The private sector—and particularly lobbying—simply pays a lot more. With the extra cash that came from becoming a lobbyist, "I was finally able to buy my own house and my own automobile," Moran told me. "So it was a substantial change from my prior lifestyle."

Moran said he gave up the potential for an even higher salary by joining a firm that allowed him to pick and choose the issues on which he would lobby his former colleagues. He declined, for example, to push policies he used to oppose while in office. Moran pointed out that, in addition to representing defense contractors and the tech industry, he lobbies for a collective of 19 local arts organizations in D.C.—including the Kennedy Center and the Shakespeare Theater—that pays the firm $10,000 a month to advocate on their behalf. "I don't have the conflicts of conscience that I was afraid I might," Moran told me.

The money more than anything might be why some members are so eager to get out of Congress that they leave before their terms are up. Boehner resigned his seat once he quit as speaker, and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor left office a few months after he lost his June 2014 primary in a surprise upset. Former Representative Pat Tiberi of Ohio, a senior GOP member of the Ways and Means Committee, left the House in January to become president of the Ohio Business Roundtable.

One often unspoken benefit of leaving Congress early is that an ex-lawmaker can get a head start running the clock on the one-year lobbying ban. Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a Republican, announced his retirement last fall but earlier this month said he would resign "in the coming weeks" rather than serve out his term. When I asked him if he had a job lined up, Dent said he hadn't finalized anything and was a bit cagey about his immediate plans. He wouldn't rule out an eventual career in lobbying. "I learned a long time ago never to say what you're never going to do," Dent told me.

As if to sharpen the point, he called me back a little while later to make another observation about the unexpected turns an ex-congressman's career can take. "If you had told me a few years ago that John Boehner would be on the board of a marijuana company," Dent quipped, "I would have said you're on dope!"

Lena Felton and Taylor Hosking contributed reporting.

<em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: The Simmering Question

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 03:10 PM PDT

What We're Following

Deal or No Deal: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Iran was cheating on the international agreement to limit its nuclear activities, yet the PowerPoint presentation he delivered at a news conference on Monday contained no smoking-gun evidence for that accusation. Krishnadev Calamur unpacks what Netanyahu did and didn't say. President Trump has threatened to withdraw from the agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, unless Iran makes significant new concessions by May 12. However, the U.S. may already be violating the terms of the deal.

Dinner Conversation: In a controversial performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday, the comedian Michelle Wolf mocked a wide range of White House and media figures, including Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The White House Communications Director described the jokes about Sanders as "shameful,"despite Trump and his surrogates' having made many similar comments, David Frum writes. After a long history of complex tensions between presidents and the press, the dinner may have outgrown its purpose.

The Two Koreas: Last week's historic meeting between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in follows a period during which Kim has evaded all diplomatic efforts. His sudden pivot toward greater engagement could indicate that he's attempting to manipulate the world. Meanwhile, South Koreans are attempting to spread Christian messages across the northern border through an illicit radio station. And a new documentary follows a South Korean violinist's attempt to stage a peace concert at the demilitarized zone.

Rosa Inocencio Smith


The photographer Shah Marai was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 30 by the second of two suicide bombings. The second bombing targeted journalists covering the first attack. In his 20-year career with Agence France-Presse, he took more than 18,000 photos, including this 2016 image of an Afghan amputee learning to use her prosthetic leg. See more of Marai's work.

Who We're Talking To

John Donoghue, a theoretical physicist, explains the meaning of the multiverse and makes the case for studying it.

Ronan Farrow, the author of War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, discusses the danger of conducting foreign policy with a limited State Department staff.

Patrick Frey, one of several writers critical of Donald Trump, whose contracts were terminated at the conservative website RedState on Friday, reacts: "It seems like the message of the firings is very clear: … We won't tolerate strong criticism of this president."

Evening Read

Lucas Mann on what descriptions of Trump as a "reality-TV president" miss:

At its core, what makes reality TV compelling is the tension between opportunism and risk, the simmering question of what somebody will be willing to offer in the way of personal pain or embarrassment for the chance to gain something new—more money, more screen time, a prize. NBC's The Apprentice franchise utilized this formula to incredible success …

But the emotional crescendo of each episode, which involved offering up intimacy and vulnerability to hook the viewer, was provided by everyone on the show but Trump … And though Trump's senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, claims that his boss "revolutionized" the genre, the president was really just plugged into one of the most common archetypes of its early boom: the judge.

Keep reading, as Mann explains what that archetype reveals about Trump and his connection to the reality-TV genre.

What Do You Know … About Education?

While teaching the same curriculum year after year can make it easy to get comfortable with the status quo, some American educators are working hard to try something new. A new research center at Columbia University will explore how failure can help lead students toward future success—a concept that's left out of current test-score-focused metrics for achievement. And preschools across the country are reimagining what the earliest years of education could look like by taking kids out of the classroom to explore the world outside.

Can you remember the other key facts from this week's education coverage? Test your knowledge below:

1. Last week, journalists uncovered that Drew ___________, the supposed founder of a frequently cited student-loan information website, is not a real person, but a pseudonym.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

2. Colleges and universities are bound by ____________ law to compete with one another in ways the government deems fair.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

3. A recent report on Texas's criminal-justice system found that the state offers ____________ different job-certification programs for men, compared with two for women.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

Isabel Fattal

Answers: cloud / antitrust / 21

Look Back

In our March 1978 issue, Tracy Kidder reported on the experiences of America's Vietnam War veterans:

I remember flying home from Vietnam on the so-called "freedom bird." It was a Flying Tiger Lines commercial jet … The boy in the seat beside me slept with a grin on his face. We flew so far, first to Japan and then to Travis Air Force Base, and life seemed to be proceeding so normally at home, that I thought the war had vanished. But last winter, when I traveled around to find some of the men who had gone as boys to Vietnam, the war did not seem to have ended after all. In fact, it seemed obvious that no war ends until all the people who have participated in it have died or lost their memories.

Read more, share this story, and find more articles from our archives.

Reader Response

For our May issue's Big Question, we asked: What item would you put in a time capsule to help people of the next century understand our current moment? Michael Martin Mills of Philadelphia suggests:

Ten full tax returns, each representative of a decile of income in the United States.

Sara Walker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is on the same page:

I would put in hospital bills for typical ER visits, along with paycheck stubs for the people who incurred the bills. I'd like the future to know how much health care costs as a percentage of our income in 2018. I hope that in 100 years, bankruptcies from health care will be a forgotten relic.

For our next Big Question, we want to know: What book or article would you make required reading for everyone on Earth? Email your answer to bigquestion@theatlantic.com, and you may see your response in our July/August issue.


Cheery radicalism, outsize outcry, secret archives, vanishing cabinet.

Time of Your Life

Happy birthday to Joyce's mom, Katherine (a year younger than pop-up toasters); to Ryan's father (a year younger than The Cat in the Hat); to Jonathan (twice the age of the iTunes Store); to Richard's love (the same age as the first handheld mobile call); and to Cheri (twice the age of The Oprah Winfrey Show).

From yesterday, happy birthday to Carla's niece Lucy (a year younger than Wikipedia); to Anastasia (twice the age of Twitter); to Nicolette's father (a year younger than the Miss America pageant); to Marian's son (a year younger than VCRs); to Kathy's husband, Edgar (twice the age of Game Boys); to Reuben (a year younger than Pokémon); and from Rebekah to Angelo (a year younger than Shark Week).

Do you or a loved one have a birthday coming up? Sign up for a birthday shout-out, and explore the Timeline feature for yourself.

Meet The Atlantic Daily's team, and contact us.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.

<i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: Four-Star Review

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:57 PM PDT

Today in 5 Lines

  • NBC News reports that comments from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have "eroded morale in the West Wing in recent months," leading some officials to believe he'll leave by July. In response, Kelly called the report "total BS."

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel obtained documents proving that Iran had lied about not pursuing nuclear weapons when it signed the nuclear agreement. The Israeli leader is a longtime skeptic of the nuclear deal and views Iran as an existential threat.

  • Adult-film star Stormy Daniels sued President Trump for defamation after he tweeted that a sketch of a man who allegedly threatened her in 2011 was "a total con job."

  • ABC News reports that the Trump campaign spent nearly $228,000 to cover legal expenses for Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen.

  • At least 25 people, including nine journalists, were killed in a pair of bombings in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Today on The Atlantic

  • They Can Dish It Out, But They Can't Take It: David Frum explains why the outrage from the Trump administration over the White House Correspondents' Dinner is pretty ironic.

  • A Big Waste of Time: The media has blown the controversy involving MSNBC host Joy Reid out of proportion, argues Conor Friedersdorf. Here's why.

  • What If Bobby Kennedy Had Become President?: A new Netflix documentary unpacks the Beatlemania-esque fervor inspired by the former U.S. senator during his 1968 campaign. (Sophie Gilbert)

  • The Difference Between Trump and Kim K: Since taking office, Donald Trump has repeatedly been referred to as a "reality-TV president," writes Lucas Mann. That's the wrong comparison to be making.


Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America sleep near the San Ysidro checkpoint after a small group of fellow migrants entered the United States border and customs facility, where they are expected to apply for asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico. Edgard Garrido / Reuters

What We're Reading

Left vs. Left: The Democratic primary in Ohio will be a proxy test to see which brand of liberal can best appeal to the party's base. (Matt Flegenheimer, The New York Times)

'Who the Hell Is This Person?': A doctor with ties to President Trump's Mar-a-Lago club reportedly participated in several conversations about multi-billion dollar government projects. (Arthur Allen, Politico)

The Caravan, Explained: A caravan of 300 Central Americans seeking asylum has finally arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. But to stay in the United States, they'll have to overcome a number of obstacles. (Dara Lind, Vox)

Low Blows: Michelle Wolf was widely criticized for telling "mean" jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday. Many of those same critics have no problem with President Trump's meanness, argues Katherine Timpf. (National Review)


Back From the Brink?: For 36 years, Detroit had been under oversight from state and federal officials that delayed city spending. Now that it's regained control of its finances, here's how the city is reviving. (Monica Davey, The New York Times)

-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)

What Netanyahu Did and Didn't Say About Iran's Nuclear Program

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:37 PM PDT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech Monday he billed as showing "something that the world has never seen." He vowed to provide evidence of Iran's duplicity over its nuclear program, and especially its obligations to the nuclear agreement Tehran signed in 2015 with the world's powers. But much of the speech concerned details of Iran's covert nuclear program from the years 1999 to 2003, and it provided no smoking-gun evidence that those programs were continuing in violation of the deal—something that would have given the Trump administration the justification it might be looking for to withdraw from it.

Here's what the speech, which was made mostly in English (ostensibly for a Western audience), did say about Iran's nuclear program.

"Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program."

Iranian officials have consistently denied pursuing nuclear weapons, even when evidence of their nuclear-weapons activities were cited by international inspectors. Iran's lack of credibility on the issue is part of what, after years of negotiations, persuaded the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. Germany, and the European Union to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic in 2015. One key component is to make Iran subject to strict international verification that it is complying; otherwise it could be subject to renewed sanctions.

"Even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear know-how for future use."

Netanyahu's presentation revealed information that he said Iran had locked away in a secret vault in Tehran. Israel obtained this information, he said, only a few weeks ago. The Israeli leader said the fact that Iran had "intensified its efforts to hide its secret files" after the JCPOA was signed showed that it still intended to pursue nuclear weapons at a future date. This, he said, underscored the danger of "sunset provisions" in the nuclear deal, which lift some restrictions on Iran after a certain time period has elapsed; Iran retains the knowledge to try for a bomb later.

"Iran lied … in 2015 when it didn't come clean to the IAEA as required by the nuclear deal."

Netanyahu said that the JCPOA required Iran to fully disclose its nuclear activities, though this is not in the text of the deal. Netanyahu asserted that the Islamic Republic had violated the agreement through its pointed denials that it even had a weapons program, and this was the most concrete evidence he gave of a violation. Most of his presentation dealt with weapons programs that both U.S. intelligence and international inspectors knew about previously and assessed to now be dormant. But Netanyahu said that some of the same individuals who worked on Iran's nuclear-weapons program went on, after the weapons programs formally shut down, to work in dual-use projects disguised as civilian nuclear work, that may be going on to this day. (International monitors say Iran is complying with the agreement.)

"The nuclear deal is based on lies. It is based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception. … 100,000 files right here prove that they lied."

Netanyahu has long been a critic of the deal—and of Iran. He believes that the regime in Tehran cannot be trusted, and his presentation was intended to persuade his allies in the international community in general, and in Washington in particular, of this argument. As Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is a staunch critic of the JCPOA, said on Twitter: "Simple takeaway from Netanyahu presentation: Iran regime conducted nuclear weaponization activities, lied to the IAEA and to the world & hid 100,000+ documents, videos, photos with the instructions to restart a nuke weapons program at a time of its choosing."  

What Netanyahu did not say about the JCPOA is perhaps as important as what he said about Iran's actions.

He did not say the nuclear deal was not working.

Even some of the JCPOA's critics concede that it is, in the short term at least, achieving its stated goal: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Opponents of the agreement generally say it doesn't restrict Iran's other malign activities, pointing for instance to its ballistic-missile program and its support for proxies in Syria and Yemen. But the nuclear agreement's architects say it was never meant to address those issues. Netanyahu called the deal "terrible" but he made no claim about its efficacy.

He did not explicitly say Iran was working on a bomb.

Although Netanyahu said Iran had lied about possessing a nuclear-weapons program, and had hidden its plans for one in the hopes of picking it up at a later date, he did not say the Islamic Republic wasn't living up to its international commitments. In that, he reflected the consensus of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which must regularly certify Iran's compliance with the agreement, as well as the other countries that signed the deal—including the U.S.

He did not explicitly urge the U.S. to withdraw.

This was perhaps the most striking aspect of the Israeli leader's presentation. He railed against Iran and its nuclear activities, and called the JCPOA a "terrible deal" that "should never have been concluded," but stopped short of urging withdrawal, he simply saying he hoped Trump would "do the right thing." It may be that the Israeli leader didn't want to be seen as putting public pressure on Trump, who must decide by May 12 whether or not the U.S. will remain party to the agreement. A flurry of visits between U.S. and Israeli officials over the past week indicated that the two countries are at least discussing their actions on Iran. Netanyahu said Israel had shared the information made public Monday with the U.S.—and was willing to share it with others, as well. In Washington, Trump said:  "We'll see what happens. I'm not telling you what I'm doing, but a lot of people think they know, and on or before [May 12] we'll make a decision."

The Opportunity Costs of Covering Joy Reid

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:44 AM PDT

Roughly two weeks ago, a Twitter user with fewer than 1,700 followers began publishing screen grabs of anti-gay posts from a defunct blog once written by Joy Reid, who hosts a weekend morning show on a cable-news network. Like the vast majority of Americans, I'd never watched the show AM Joy on MSNBC—I do not typically enjoy cable-news channels, or for that matter, the morning.

But despite having zero interest in what the host wrote years ago; or whether she was hacked, as she claimed, or lying, or deluding herself; or whether her show would stay on or be suspended or get canceled, I couldn't escape the story.

I tried, reader.

No matter how it turned out, I could see no greater purpose that it would serve, no insight it would clarify, no ill it would vanquish, no good it would advance. So I ignored two staff articles and two wire stories in The New York Times, at least 8 items in The Washington Post, multiple CNN stories, at least 5 Fox News items, a Tucker Carlson segment, two USA Today stories, two items in New York, three at The Daily Beast, multiple items at Breitbart, a Rush Limbaugh segment, an article here in The Atlantic, coverage in numerous other outlets, and several futilities1 of social-media debates.

Then, 12 days in, national news stories were still being published! Defeated, I decided to probe the why of it all. Was any larger purpose served by all the coverage? If not, is there an identifiable way in which the press should change its approach?

On reading the coverage, I gleaned insights from a few stories. I grant that few were indefensible. And I understand how structural features of the news ecosystem fueled the story. For example, coverage by one news outlet spawns coverage by others that don't want to get beat; once any outlet covers a story, it is more likely to publish more stories, in part to update its audience on new information; and while commentators have a responsibility to direct people to what is important, part of the job is also conceding that one often cannot control what's in the news, or what folks seize upon and cause to trend on social-media sites—but that even too-popular stories can offer opportunities to make tangential points of importance that readers will be unusually primed to ponder.


So it isn't that I find fault with all the journalists who published on Joy Reid.

What's more, I share many of the underlying concerns that sparked some of the coverage. I oppose homophobic stereotypes. I agree people should not claim hackers are responsible for their words and that public dishonesty is a transgression in journalism. I think there is a role for journalists to hold members of their own profession accountable. And I agree with those who insist that if a conservative were in Reid's place, there would be furious calls on the left for her termination. (I am a consistent critic of such calls regardless of which tribe is involved.)

But even grasping many of the factors that fueled coverage and sympathizing with folks who reacted to some of them does not change my overall assessment.

Coverage decisions are judgment calls.

And in my judgment, the scarce time, attention, and resources spent on this matter far exceeded anything that could be plausibly justified as serving the public interest. Neither gays nor lesbians nor the trans community is better off for the exercise of resurfacing of old, forgotten blog posts that even their author now disavows. Probing the dubious hacking story got the public closer to the truth—but a relatively useless truth that is neither pertinent to any of Reid's actual journalism nor civically useful to the public nor likely to advance the overall cause of greater journalistic honesty or accuracy in any future way that I can see.  

Most damning of all are the opportunity costs.

A cable morning-show host's old blog posts, and her explanations of those posts, no matter how dubious, were just not among the most consequential or important LGBT stories, or media stories, or ideological-bias stories of the last fortnight, let alone the most important national or business or general-interest stories.

In the United States, "gay panic" is still being successfully used as a defense against homicide; legislation concerning so-called gay-conversion therapies is being debated in multiple states, with plausible arguments for and against imposing legal restrictions; anti-gay hate crimes are still happening; and countless families are trying to figure out how to support and educate kids who think they might be trans. Internationally, dozens of countries still violently repress homosexuality.

In media, local newspapers are shrinking and dying across the United States, an unprecedented experiment that threatens to drastically reduce civic information and dramatically increase corruption in local, regional, and state governments. Hugely influential commentators are operating on YouTube and through podcasts, reaching many more people than Joy Reid while remaining largely invisible to many mainstream media professionals, though not to their audiences.

The media ought to contain multitudes, so despite all the stories that I regard as much more important than this controversy, I would not fault an individual journalist for writing about it if they believed that they had particular value to add, or a unique interest in it, or if they judged it as unusually important.

What I object to is the matter rising to the status of a major story in multiple national outlets for days on end, despite its relative lack of bearing on anything beyond itself, in a nation with hundreds of stories that would've better served the public interest in its place. In my estimation, that outcome wasn't mostly the result of judgments that differed from mine. It was due mostly to sometimes perverse features of the news ecosystem and to the following biases:

  • Social media is rooted in callout culture and biased toward the implicit proposition that social justice is best advanced through such callouts (despite an utter dearth of evidence for that proposition). And mainstream journalism is biased toward whatever controversy is being aired on Twitter, as if it reflects what is controversial or relevant to America, when it often represents a tiny, privileged, unrepresentative slice of the country, but one where journalists spend time, and where publications can be effectively pressured. The ability of Twitter to exert outsized influence on journalistic institutions—to incentivize stories crafted to please or to avoid displeasing its denizens—threatens the ability of publications to resonate and thrive in a larger culture with different norms and expectations.
  • Relative to the general population, folks who work in nonbroadcast journalism systematically inflate the importance of cable news and its personalities, needlessly and perversely boosting their prominence in civic life, despite the inferiorities of their medium. In this way, what Reid did or did not say in long-since-deleted blog posts made more news than anything, say, Joe Rogan or Maribel Wadsworth has said or done all year.
  • News has a bias toward what is new—a hugely important story will be published and drop out of the headlines in a day or two, so long as nothing new emerges, even as a story that everyone agrees to be relatively unimportant keeps resurfacing, time and again, when there is new information to add, even if it only advances the story in the most incremental way.

Once a story breaks, especially a story involving any kind of celebrity, no matter how minor, the press and social media alike can seize on it and follow it to its conclusion, for days or even weeks, without ever reassessing whether momentum is leading everyone astray, and displacing matters of much greater importance. As penance for my part in exacerbating the phenomenon about which I am complaining, I have just donated 125 nets to the Against Malaria Foundation.

  1. A futility is the collective noun for a Twitter or Facebook debate.

Netanyahu's Bizarre PowerPoint Presentation on Iran

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 03:06 PM PDT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel had uncovered documents showing that Iranian officials had lied when they said the country had never pursued nuclear weapons, adding that the Islamic Republic had a detailed plan to develop nuclear weapons—and had hidden the relevant documents away in an archive in Tehran.

"I'm here to tell you one thing: Iran lied. Big time," Netanyahu said in a presentation that included details from what he said were the Iranian documents.

He said Iran had moved its atomic archives to a secret location in Tehran's Shorabad district, and that Israel had obtained half a ton of material from inside these vaults a few weeks ago, including 55,000 pages, and 55,000 files on 183 CDs.

"We've shared this material with the United States, and the United States can vouch for its authenticity," he said, continuing that Israel was willing to share the material with other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's compliance with the nuclear agreement.

He said documents pertaining to Iran's nuclear program, Project Amad, were secretly being stored by Tehran until a later time when it could develop nuclear weapons. The goal of that program, he said, was to design, produce, and test five nuclear warheads with a yield of 10 kilotons. The IAEA has known about Project Amad well before the signing of the nuclear agreement in the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015, and published material on it in 2011.

Israeli media reported that Meir Ben-Shabbat, the country's national-security adviser, spoke with his counterparts from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany on Israel's new intelligence. The three countries, along with Russia, China, the U.S., and the European Union, were party to the nuclear agreement with Iran.

What Netanyahu was hoping to achieve with his presentation is not clear. His skepticism about Iran's intentions and its commitment to the nuclear agreement is well known. Those hoping for a smoking gun of Iran's cheating on the deal, in which it agreed to curb its nuclear program, were likely to be disappointed. The fact that Iran was at one point pursuing nuclear weapons will likely be a surprise to no one—and indeed was a rationale for concluding the nuclear agreement in the first place. Many of the slides Netanyahu showed pertained to the period from 1999 to 2003, during which the U.S. also cited evidence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program, and after which a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said the program had been shut down. His main evidence that Iran had cheated on the nuclear deal was that it had not fully disclosed the details of its past nuclear programs to the IAEA, as required by the nuclear deal—though the agreement did not tie that requirement to either implementation of the deal or sanctions relief.

Still, Netanyahu's announcement could have dramatic consequences not only for the future of the nuclear deal, which is known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but also in stoking the already high tensions between Israel and Iran. Netanyahu made his comments hours after an unnamed military force conducted a strike on Iranian targets in Syria. Suspicion immediately fell on Israel, which has carried out dozens of similar strikes, and which neither confirms nor denies its activities inside Syria.

As to the Obama-era nuclear agreement itself, Donald Trump has called it "the worst deal in history." His advisers, as well as his European allies, have hoped to persuade him to remain in the JCPOA, arguing that it is achieving what it is intended to do—prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But French President Emmanuel Macron told French media last week, after his visit to Washington, D.C., that he believed Trump "will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons." Trump has until May 12 to decide. Netanyahu's speech could help give him a rationale to withdraw—or, should he want to save the deal, give him wiggle room to reimpose nuclear sanctions without fully withdrawing.  

European leaders have lobbied to preserve the JCPOA. They maintain that the agreement did not set out to curtail the Islamic Republic's nonnuclear actions in the region—its ballistic-missile tests, involvement in the Syrian civil war and in Iraqi politics, role in the conflict in Yemen, and continued support for Shia proxies. These are all factors that opponents of the deal cite while pointing to the JCPOA's weaknesses, and ones that Netanyahu did not cite in his speech.

But the biggest complaints cover the pact's "sunset" provisions, which Netanyahu also alluded to, and under which certain restrictions on Iran's nuclear program expire in eight, 10, and 15 years. The deal's opponents say these provisions allow the Islamic Republic to freely resume a nuclear-weapons program after those periods end, and that the deal merely delays the time it would take for Iran to have nuclear weapons. On Monday, Netanyahu argued that Iran's intent in preserving its atomic archive was to resume the program eventually. But the agreement's supporters call the sunset-clause criticism a willful misreading of the JCPOA. They say that the deal places other permanent restrictions on Iran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu is a long-standing critic of the pact, though Israeli national-security experts have previously said that the JCPOA is accomplishing its goals. (Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, said over the weekend that the JCPOA had "positive elements in it.") The Israeli leader says he views Iran as an existential threat. The rhetoric of the Islamic Republic's clerical leadership, as well as Tehran's financial and military support for Hezbollah, which fought Israel for decades in Lebanon, and Hamas, the Palestinian militant organization that governs the Gaza Strip, shows the basis for Netanyahu's fears. Iran's growing influence in Syria, where it supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, is an added factor, as it gives Iran's proxies a land border with Israel.

And the Israeli–Iranian confrontation goes beyond diplomacy. Fearful that Iran is seeking a permanent military presence inside Syria, Israel has struck several times inside the country—most recently, apparently, Sunday night, after which at least 22 people were reported to have been killed. There has been no claim of responsibility for that strike, though that was not the case earlier this month when Israel struck a military base inside Syria, the T4 base, where Iran is known to operate, reportedly killing 14 people. Israel says Iran uses the base to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. Israel also struck the base in February after an Iranian drone launched from the base entered Israeli territory. Tehran has so far done little to retaliate.

The latest attack inside Syria, and Netanyahu's speech, came after multiple high-level contacts between the U.S. and Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is still in the Middle East, met with Israeli officials on Sunday and said the U.S. was "deeply concerned about Iran's dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region and Iran's ambition to dominate the Middle East remains." Netanyahu also spoke Sunday with Trump to discuss "the Iranian regime's destabilizing activities," the White House said. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Washington, hours after Mattis told lawmakers that the prospect of a conflict between Iran and Israel was "very likely." Additionally, General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military interests across the Middle East, visited Israel last week and met with his senior Israeli counterparts.

"All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli–American operation to limit Iran's military activities in Syria—simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia's green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington," Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, wrote. Haaretz's Noa Landau reported that Netanyahu had informed Trump and Pompeo about the information he unveiled Monday.

In any case, Trump has a decision about the nuclear deal coming up. America's major allies in Europe and Israel have made their preferences clear, from opposite sides of the debate. The agreement's fate now rests with Trump. "I'm sure he'll do the right thing," Netanyahu said of the U.S. president.  "The right thing for the United States. The right thing for Israel. And the right thing for the peace of the world."

Women in Prison Take Home Economics, While Men Take Carpentry

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:39 PM PDT

The Government Accountability Office did not mince words in the top line of a 1980 report to Congress on inequitable treatment of women in prison: "Women in correctional institutions are not provided comparable services, educational programs, or facilities as men prisoners."

Incarcerated women had been filing lawsuits—and they had been winning. Their conditions, they argued, violated their constitutional rights: Indifference to medical needs was cruel and unusual punishment, courts found. In some instances courts found that male guards' contact with women constituted an extreme invasion of privacy. And at a more fundamental level, courts said that failing to provide parity in vocational programming was a Fourteenth-Amendment violation. Those victories forced the government to take notice. That unfair treatment, the GAO said, required action.

Today, nearly four decades after that GAO report, the disparity in educational offerings between women and men is still immense. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), an advocacy group, released a report last week on the treatment of women in Texas's criminal-justice system showing how the needs of incarcerated women continue to go unmet. One of its findings: The state offers 21 job-certification programs for men, and just two for women. The programs are as different in kind as they are in number. Men are offered programs such as construction carpentry, electrical technology, and advanced industrial design. Meanwhile, women are offered office administration and culinary arts.

Prison programs that reinforce gender roles have been around as long as women have been a part of the prison population, Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University, told me. "In the earliest prisons," she says, "women washed, sewed, cooked, and cleaned—more often than not for the male staff, and also for male inmates."

The number of women in state prisons has ballooned since the late '70s, but it is still small compared to the amount of incarcerated men. The fact that there are fewer women than men does contribute to the difference in programming available, according to Smith. After all, it makes financial sense to offer the bulk of programs to those who makes up the majority of the prison population. However, by not offering similar educational programs at women's facilities—particularly those that provide skills that are useful to potential employers—women's prospects once they are released from prison are hampered. So advocates argue that prisons should come up with another approach, perhaps, at the very least, allowing women to take vocational courses at the men's prisons.

But critics have argued—in court, and elsewhere—that it would be dangerous to have women go to men's facilities to participate in vocational coursework. As a former warden of one of the men's prisons in the District of Columbia, Vincent Gibbons, put it to the court in the early '90s when incarcerated women in D.C. filed a class-action lawsuit against the district, it would be "an absolute nightmare" for women to be escorted to the men's prison for educational programs. His main objection was, he said, the security concerns that come with the mixing of men and women. However, when remarking upon his staff's reaction to the presence of women at the facility for vocational training, Gibbons said, according to court records, everyone was "very impressed with how few problems there have been."

Still, the inequity in men's and women's educational offerings in prison has persisted—and not only in Texas. In Louisiana, men are offered certificate programs such as collision repair and carpentry, while the women's prison offers marketing management and upholstery, among others. And in Mississippi, men are offered 13 programs, while women are offered five, including one exclusively for them called "family dynamics." According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections' website: "The focus is similar to a Home Economics class, but the curriculum is broader."

The differences in educational programs in prisons is not only bad for women, Smith told me, but it is also bad for men. For example, many men would benefit from parenting programs, but they rarely have access. A report last year found that just 15 percent of men took parenting classes while incarcerated.

It was clear to the GAO nearly 40 years ago that prison reform needed to work towards eliminating inequities between men and women's facilities, including in educational offerings. And government-funded research has shown that prison education has a significant impact on whether or not someone will return to prison. But there has been little targeted action to fix the problems, and, as the TCJC report shows, that means not much has changed.

Theresa May's Incredible Vanishing Government

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:29 AM PDT

It's looking to be another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for Theresa May. The British prime minister has lost another cabinet member after Home Secretary Amber Rudd, under pressure over a mounting immigration scandal, tendered her resignation late Sunday night. It's the fifth resignation to rock May's 10-month-old cabinet and, far from putting an end to the government's latest political crisis, it marks a significant intensification.

Rudd's departure capped weeks of debate over immigration policies May has described as aimed at creating a "hostile environment" for newcomers. In practice, this has meant imposing policies that require people to continually prove their right to live in the U.K.from renting a home or opening a bank account to accessing health insurance—and effectively tasking landlords, employers, and doctors with immigration control. Most recently it was revealed that the Home Office, led by Rudd, had threatened thousands of lawful immigrants known as the "Windrush generation" with deportation. (Named for one of the boats that carried Caribbean migrants to the U.K., at the government's invitation, to address a post-World War II labor shortage, those belonging to the Windrush generation are legally in the country though many lack the documentation to prove it.) The scandal led to further revelations the government had set targets to deport migrants, with the "aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10 percent over the next few years." As The Guardian revealed on Sunday, both Rudd and May were aware of these targets.

Rudd didn't resign over her office's handling of the Windrush generation, nor did she resign because of the government's deportation aims. Rather, she resigned because she had "inadvertently misled" lawmakers about the deportation targets—first by claiming they didn't exist, and then by saying she wasn't aware of their existence. Both apparently proved to be falsethough Rudd claimed she did not see or approve targets for removal, a private letter she wrote to May about the targets in January 2017 refers to such targets directly.

As was the case with previous cabinet resignations, it wasn't the scandal itself that proved to be the sackable offense—it was lying about it. Priti Patel, the former international-development secretary, resigned in November after making false claims that the U.K.'s Foreign Office was aware of her undisclosed visits with Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a family holiday (they weren't). A month later, former first secretary of state Damien Green resigned because of  "inaccurate and misleading"statements he made about the presence of pornography on his office computer. The remaining ministers to have left May's cabinet include former Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who resigned in November over allegations of sexual harassment, and former Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who resigned in January for health reasons.

The circumstances of Rudd's departure, as well as May's confirmation Monday that she was also aware of the deportation targets, leave little doubt that the "hostile environment" strategy is here to stay, with or without Rudd at the Home Office. "There has not been anything at the moment to suggest that the government thinks that its policy is the wrong policy and that it wants to change it radically," Simon Usherwood, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Surrey, told me, adding that this is "very much about Westminster politics rather than about changing the policy view of the government or the country at this stage."

The Sunday resignation was just the start of a busy week for May. Not only are there expected to be crucial discussions on the U.K.'s post-Brexit customs plans and a vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords, but this week also features Thursday's local elections in London, in which May's ruling Conservative Party is projected to suffer substantial losses. Add to that Rudd's exit, which will keep stoking the debate about the government's immigration policies and how Sajid Javid, who was confirmed Monday to be Rudd's successor, might influence them.

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Javid was vocal about the U.K.'s treatment of the Windrush generation, noting that "My parents came to this country from Pakistan, just like the Windrush generation. … That could be my mum ... it could be my dad ... it could be my uncle ... it could be me." Still, it seems unlikely that Javid will pursue any radical changes to the U.K.'s existing immigration policies. He has a track record of supporting of May's "hostile environment" policies and in a 2014 interview with the Sunday Telegraph appeared to sympathize with vocal Brexiteer Nigel Farage's fervent opposition to immigration, noting that "many people throughout Britain are concerned about excessive immigration. And they should be." When asked Monday whether he would put an end to the "hostile environment" policies, Javid said he would continue what he characterized as his predecessor's aim of seeking an immigration policy that is "fair" and "treats people with respect."

Still, Javid's appointment marks a major shift in other ways.  Not only will he be the first ethnic minority to serve as Home Secretary, but he will also shake up the political balance of May's cabinet: Though Javid, like his predecessor, voted to remain in the European Union, he is also a self-dubbed Euroskeptic and opposes the U.K. remaining in the EU's customs union.  

Javid has been lauded by many as a good choice to succeed Rudd, but there is one job where he can't quite replace his predecessor: defending May. Rudd was able to absorb much of the criticism over the U.K.'s immigration policies, but it was May who championed them during her tenure as home secretary. With Rudd no longer in the picture, the prime minister is left exposed—and critics have already begun pointing in her direction. "It's now becoming [May's] policy—she set it up as home secretary, and she can't lay it at anyone else's feet," Usherwood said. "If there are problems and injustices and cover ups, she really doesn't have anyone else that she can ask to resign. It's going to come to her."

The Atlantic Adds Lauren N. Williams and Taylor Lorenz to Growing Masthead

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 08:21 AM PDT

Washington, D.C. (April 30, 2018)—The Atlantic is growing its New York bureau with two new editorial hires: Lauren N. Williams joins as a senior editor on the Culture desk and Taylor Lorenz is joining the Technology team as a staff writer. The Atlantic's editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg and TheAtlantic.com editor Adrienne LaFrance announced the news today. Williams will start in June, after completing a Nieman Fellowship, and Lorenz will begin reporting for The Atlantic next month.

Williams comes to The Atlantic from Essence, where she has been features editor since 2014, and was a news editor before that. Most recently, Williams commissioned a report on the stark rates of maternal mortality for black women in America. She has spent a career in magazine journalism, with editorial roles at More and Marie Claire, in addition to stints at Redbook and Harper's Bazaar. Williams will work with Culture Editor Jane Kim to shape new and ambitious ways for The Atlantic to grow its coverage of culture and entertainment, including Hollywood, books, and music.

In her new role as a staff writer, Lorenz will focus on the intersection of technology and culture. She most recently covered this beat for The Daily Beast, where she focused on social platforms, the mysterious world of online influencers, YouTube, and teen trends. Before that, she was as a senior editor at The Hill. Lorenz already has an Atlantic byline: in January she reported on the experiences of the parents of teen social-media stars.

It was also announced today that senior associate editor Julie Beck will transition her editing and reporting to the Family and Education sections. Beck has been with The Atlantic since 2013 as a writer and editor on the Science, Tech, and Health team. Beck will continue to cover a wide range of  health and psychology topics with a special focus on how these issues affect families. The Atlantic launched a Family section last month.

Today's news follows a number of new hires since The Atlantic announced plans for a large-scale expansion earlier this year. In recent weeks, Hannah Giorgis was hired as a staff writer on the Culture team; Adam Harris joined as a staff writer covering education; longtime political journalist Christi Parsons began leading The Atlantic's newly formed Talent Lab, an ambitious newsroom recruitment and staff development initiative; and Katherine Wells became executive producer of The Atlantic's growing portfolio of original podcasts.


Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican's Secret Archives

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:26 AM PDT

The Vatican Secret Archives is one of the grandest historical collections in the world. It's also one of the most useless.

The grandeur is obvious. Located within the Vatican's walls, next door to the Apostolic Library and just north of the Sistine Chapel, the VSA houses 53 linear miles of shelving dating back more than 12 centuries. It includes gems like the papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther and the pleas for help that Mary Queen of Scots sent to Pope Sixtus V before her execution. In size and scope, the collection is almost peerless.

That said, the VSA isn't much use to modern scholars, because it's so inaccessible. Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters' worth of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.

But a new project could change all that. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time. If successful, the technology could also open up untold numbers of other documents at historical archives around the world.

OCR has been used to scan books and other printed documents for years, but it's not well suited for the material in the Secret Archives. Traditional OCR breaks words down into a series of letter-images by looking for the spaces between letters. It then compares each letter-image to the bank of letters in its memory. After deciding which letter best matches the image, the software translates the letter into computer code (ASCII) and thereby makes the text searchable.

This process, however, really only works on typeset text. It's lousy for anything written by hand—like the vast majority of old Vatican documents. Here's an example from the early 1200s, written in what's called Caroline minuscule script, which looks like a mix of calligraphy and cursive:

In Codice Ratio

The main problem in this example is the lack of space between letters (so-called dirty segmentation). OCR can't tell where one letter stops and another starts, and therefore doesn't know how many letters there are. The result is a computational deadlock, sometimes referred to as Sayre's paradox: OCR software needs to segment a word into individual letters before it can recognize them, but in handwritten texts with connected letters, the software needs to recognize the letters in order to segment them. It's a catch-22.

Some computer scientists have tried to get around this problem by developing OCR to recognize whole words instead of letters. This works fine technologically—computers don't "care" whether they're parsing words or letters. But getting these systems up and running is a bear, because they require gargantuan memory banks. Rather than a few dozen alphabet letters, these systems have to recognize images of thousands upon thousands of common words. Which means you need a whole platoon of scholars with expertise in medieval Latin to go through old documents and capture images of each word. In fact, you need several images of each, to account for quirks in handwriting or bad lighting and other variables. It's a daunting task.

In Codice Ratio sidesteps these problems through a new approach to handwritten OCR. The four main scientists behind the project—Paolo Merialdo, Donatella Firmani, and Elena Nieddu at Roma Tre University, and Marco Maiorino at the VSA—skirt Sayre's paradox with an innovation called jigsaw segmentation. This process, as the team recently outlined in a paper, breaks words down not into letters but something closer to individual pen strokes. The OCR does this by dividing each word into a series of vertical and horizontal bands and looking for local minimums—the thinner portions, where there's less ink (or really, fewer pixels). The software then carves the letters at these joints. The end result is a series of jigsaw pieces:

In Codice Ratio

By themselves, the jigsaw pieces aren't tremendously useful. But the software can chunk them together in various ways to make possible letters. It just needs to know which groups of chunks represent real letters and which are bogus.

To teach the software this, the researchers turned to an unusual source of help: high schoolers. The team recruited students at 24 schools in Italy to build the projects' memory banks. The students logged onto a website, where they found a screen with three sections:

In Codice Ratio

The green bar along the top contains nice, clean examples of letters from a medieval Latin text—in this case, the letter g. The red bar in the middle contains spurious examples of g, what the Codice scientists call "false friends." The grid at the bottom is the meat of the program. Each of the images there is composed of a few jigsaw pieces that the OCR software chunked together—its guess at a plausible letter. The students then judged the OCR's efforts, telling it which guesses were good and which were bad. They did so by comparing each image to the platonically perfect green letters and clicking a checkbox when they saw a match.

Image by image, click by click, the students taught the software what each of the 22 characters in the medieval Latin alphabet (ai, lu, plus some alternative forms of s and d) looks like.

The setup did require some expert input: Scholars had to pick out the perfect examples in green, as well as the false friends in red. But once they did this, there was no more need for them. The students didn't even need to be able to read Latin. All they had to do is match visual patterns. At first, "the idea of involving high-school students was considered foolish," says Merialdo, who dreamed up In Codice Ratio. "But now the machine is learning thanks to their efforts. I like that a small and simple contribution by many people can indeed contribute to the solution of a complex problem."

Eventually, of course, the students stepped aside as well. Once they'd voted yes on enough examples, the software started chunking jigsaw pieces together independently and judging for itself what letters were there. The software itself became an expert—it became artificially intelligent.

At least, sort of. It turned out that chunking jigsaw pieces into plausible letters wasn't enough. The computer still needed additional tools to untangle the knots of handwritten text. Imagine you're reading a letter, and you come across this line:

Sam Kean

Is it "clear" to them or "dear" to them? Hard to say, since the strokes that make up "d" and "cl" are virtually the same. OCR software faces the same problem, especially with a highly stylized script like Caroline minuscule. Try deciphering this word:

In Codice Ratio

After running through different jigsaw combinations, the OCR threw up its hands. Guesses included aimo, amio, aniio, aiino, and even the Old MacDonald's Farm–ish aiiiio. The word is anno, Latin for "year," and the software nailed the a and o. But those four parallel columns in the middle flummoxed it.

To get around this problem, the In Codice Ratio team had to teach their software some common sense—practical intelligence. They found a corpus of 1.5 million already-digitized Latin words, and examined them in two- and three-letter combinations. From this, they determined which combinations of letters are common, and which never occur. The OCR software could then use those statistics to assign probabilities to different strings of letters. As a result, the software learned that nn is far more likely than iiii.

With this refinement in place, the OCR was finally ready to read some texts on its own. The team decided to feed it some documents from the Vatican Registers, a more than 18,000-page subset of the Secret Archives consisting of letters to European kings, rulings on legal matters, and other correspondence.

The initial results were mixed. In texts transcribed so far, a full one-third of the words contained one or more typos, places where the OCR guessed the wrong letter. If yov were tryinj to read those lnies in a bock, that would gct very aiiiioying. (The most common typos involved m/n/i confusion and another commonly confused pair: the letter f and an archaic, elongated form of s.) Still, the software got 96 percent of all handwritten letters correct. And even "imperfect transcriptions can provide enough information and context about the manuscript at hand" to be useful, says Merialdo.

Like all artificial intelligence, the software will improve over time, as it digests more text. Even more exciting, the general strategy of In Codice Ratio—jigsaw segmentation, plus crowdsourced training of the software—could easily be adapted to read texts in other languages. This could potentially do for handwritten documents what Google Books did for printed matter: open up letters, journals, diaries, and other papers to researchers around the world, making it far easier to both read these documents and search for relevant material.

That said, relying on artificial intelligence does have limitations, says Rega Wood, a historian of philosophy and paleographer (expert on ancient handwriting) at Indiana University. It "will be problematic for manuscripts that are not professionally written but copied by nonprofessionals," she says, since the handwriting and letter shapes will vary far more in those documents, making it harder to teach the OCR. In addition, in cases where there's only a small sample size of material to work with, "it is not only more accurate, but just as quick to make transcriptions without such technology."

Pace Dan Brown, the "secret" in the Vatican Secret Archives' name doesn't refer to anything clandestine or conspiratorial. It merely means that the archives are the personal property of the pope; "private archives" would probably be a better translation of the original name, Archivum Secretum. Still, until recently, the VSA might as well have been secret to most of the world—locked away and largely inaccessible. "It is amazing for us to bring these manuscripts back to life," Merialdo says, "and make their comprehension available to everybody."

What If Robert F. Kennedy Had Become President?

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 08:00 AM PDT

The most surprising thing about Bobby Kennedy for President, a new four-part documentary that debuted Friday on Netflix, is how every frame of archival footage of Robert Kennedy seems to feature a hundred people trying to touch him. As he tours different neighborhoods in New York, a sea of hands reaches out to make contact. During one drive through a campaign stop, a newscast reports, "he was touched, trapped, and at one point torn from his car." A woman being interviewed about Kennedy in Kentucky says, "I'd just love to lay my hand on him." There's something about his presence that seems to justify, even demand, connection.

It's an odd, Beatlemania-esque phenomenon to be sparked by someone who in interviews is more awkward, stilted, and even nasal than you might imagine. But that strangeness is unpacked by the filmmaker Dawn Porter in Bobby Kennedy for President, which sells itself as a docuseries about Kennedy's 1968 campaign but is really about his significance within politics. Kennedy, through Porter's interviews and wealth of archival footage, comes across as both mesmerizing and clunky. He's ferociously ambitious but deeply empathetic. He's the runt of his dazzling family, but also someone predestined for greatness: In a voiceover from the very first scene a broadcaster states that "no American in this century has ever been so likely to be president as Robert Francis Kennedy." The question you're constantly mulling while watching is how different America might be if his supposed destiny had been allowed to play out.

Bobby Kennedy for President, over its four-hour running time, uses its subject as a kind of microcosm for American politics itself. The first episode deals with John F. Kennedy's presidency, which it uses to consider the tension between getting ahead and doing the right thing. Bobby, his brother's campaign manager during JFK's presidential run, had cut his teeth working with Senator Joseph McCarthy, a family friend, but quit when he grew disillusioned with the senator's ruthless investigations of suspected communists. In the early days of the Kennedy administration, both brothers were slow to embrace the burgeoning civil-rights movement; Robert Kennedy, then attorney general, was publicly critical of the Freedom Riders. But he changed his mind when he "saw people suffering," U.S. Rep. John Lewis argues in the series.

The second episode considers Kennedy's campaign for U.S. Senate in 1964, while he was still reeling from the assassination of his brother. It was at this point, Porter suggests, that he started to engage more passionately with issues where he felt he could make a difference. Porter interviews former Kennedy aides and activists in his orbit, who recall his trips to rural communities assailed by poverty. Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, describes initially thinking that Kennedy was only making these visits to get some positive press coverage. But she was startled by his focus. "Robert Kennedy was not who I thought he would be," Edelman says. "He was listening, and he was learning."

What's apparent throughout the film is how many of the problems Kennedy spoke up about during the 1960s continue to divide America today. In 1968, the year of Kennedy's presidential run and assassination, the country seemed riven by violence. January saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and subsequent protests raging at home. At the end of that month, the journalist Pete Hamill wrote a letter to Kennedy imploring him to run for president, which Hamill reads from in the series. "I don't think we can afford five summers of blood," Hamill had written. "If you won, the country might be saved." In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Porter includes archival footage of Kennedy breaking the news to a largely black crowd in Indiana, and quoting Aeschylus. What the country needs most now, he tells them, isn't more division and hatred, but "love and wisdom and compassion toward one another."

Just a few months later, Kennedy himself was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Porter, who has an extraordinary amount of footage to work with, restages the event via photographs of a dying Kennedy lying in the arms of a busboy, Juan Romero. She interviews Romero, as well as Paul Schrade, one of Kennedy's staff members who was also shot that day. Schrade's efforts to uncover information that he says was withheld about Kennedy's death occupy much of the final episode, which considers Sirhan Sirhan, the Jordanian national who shot Kennedy, and interviews Sirhan's brother. It's here that the documentary's running time feels prolonged. There are certainly parallels to be drawn between current extremist movements in the U.S. and the wave of assassinations of political figures in the '60s, but Kennedy himself is such a charismatic presence throughout that the series loses momentum after his death. The question of who might have killed him—and why—is obviously a compelling one. Still, Porter's presentation of his life is more surprising, and somehow more riveting.

The best moments in the film are the handful of scenes that offer some impression of Kennedy as a person rather than as a figurehead, or a scion. In one, he puts his young daughter on the phone with the deputy attorney general during a call about desegregation in Alabama. In another, he defends the reputation of his family dog, Freckles, whose name has been unexpectedly besmirched by one of Kennedy's rivals. On his first day in the Senate in 1965, Kennedy spies his brother Ted and grins broadly, practically skipping over to say hello.

The most indelible minute of Bobby Kennedy for President, though, doesn't feature Kennedy at all. Instead it's when Lewis, the civil-rights icon who once served as a campaign aide for Kennedy, breaks down while describing the pain of losing his friend. "I think I cried all the way from … L.A. to Atlanta," Lewis says, pausing to regain control. "I kept saying to myself, what is happening in America? To lose Martin Luther King, and two months later … it was too much." If Kennedy remains at something of a distance in the film, his influence on others is impossible to ignore. The final line in the series is Kennedy quoting Tennyson. "Come my friends," he intones. "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."

Michelle Wolf Does Unto the White House as It Has Done Unto Others

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 08:19 PM PDT

"Women attacking conservative women for their looks and their jobs It's shameful. #WHCA." Those angry words were tweeted by White House Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp at 11:15 p.m. on the night of the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner.

It was wise to begin her tweet with the caution that the shame was attached to women attacking conservative women. In any other case, she might have been asked about this:  "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she's a woman, and I'm not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?" Those words were spoken by then-candidate Donald Trump about then-rival Carly Fiorina, just one of his countless streams of attacks on the looks of women, conservative and otherwise. Trump also retweeted a photograph mocking the appearance of Heidi Cruz, the wife of then-candidate Ted Cruz.

One of the defining features of the Trump White House is that its staff members demand for themselves decencies and courtesies that they habitually deny to others. Can't we disagree without being disagreeable? they wonder—and then tweet that the former director of the FBI is a "slime ball" and that Hillary Clinton should be jailed.

President Trump calls the press "enemies of the people." His wife, then the future first lady, shrugged off murderous anti-Semitic abuse of a Jewish journalist as "provoked" by the journalist's reporting on Melania Trump's Slovenian origins. Trump regularly shares on Twitter images of fantasy violence against the press.

White House staffers frequently speak glaring untruths. Just a few weeks ago—March 27, 2018—White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told journalists from the White House rostrum that a question about citizenship status has "been included in every census since 1965, with the exception of 2010 when it was removed." She repeated the same claim later in the same briefing. In fact, the question has last been asked in 1950.

And then the members of the Trump White House lament that journalists don't respect them.

This two-facedness baffles elite journalists, Washington's preeminent enforcers of decencies and courtesies. After the dinner, the Pulitzer Prize winner Maggie Haberman tweeted a message of solidarity with Sanders, who was a butt of the jokes of Michelle Wolf, the comedian who hosted the dinner. "That ‪@PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive." That was nice of Haberman, reputedly a very nice person. But only eight days earlier, the press secretary's boss—the president—had tweeted abuse at Haberman at least as harsh as anything Wolf said about Sanders. "The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don't speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will 'flip' … " Surely Trump's own behavior toward free media and standards of truth might color how journalists and those who care about journalism react to Trump and his enablers?

Journalists live by codes: They protect sources; they respect the distinction between conversations on and off the record; they avoid unnecessary reporting on personal lives. By and large, these codes serve important ends, both practical and ethical. But what happens when bad people leverage the codes of others for selfish ends of their own? When White House staffers defame the acting FBI director for his wife's state-level political activities—and then erupt in rage when asked about the political activities of their own spouse? The basis of a working ethical system is mutual good faith, but the creed of the Trump White House is bad faith all around.

Donald Trump has mocked Gold Star parents, reporters with disabilities, women who don't meet his standards of attractiveness. Only Sunday, he published this preposterous lie and false self-congratulation.

The people who enable this travesty to continue—can they complain when they are spoken of in hurtful ways?

Back in the 1980s, a rabbi published a book making sense of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Bad things, though, also happen to bad people. What then? The first family specializes in mocking the misfortunes of others. How should they be treated when they suffer misfortunes themselves?

It's a natural and powerful temptation to do unto them as they have done unto others. They have abused, reviled, and humiliated others: So let them be abused, be reviled, be humiliated. Yet if you go that way, you do not repudiate Trump. You become Trump. I'll reprise instead this advice from a book I wrote:

As Donald Trump is cruel, vengeful, egoistic, ignorant, lazy, avaricious, and treacherous, so we must be kind, forgiving, responsible, informed, hardworking, generous, and patriotic. As Trump's enablers are careless, cynical, shortsighted, morally obtuse, and rancorous, so Trump's opponents must be thoughtful, idealistic, wise, morally sensitive, and conciliatory. 'They go low, we go high,' as a wise woman said.