A Supreme opportunity to overcome partisan rancor

During my senior year at Yale, I took a seminar called “Political Uses of History.” The topic of my final paper (accounting for most of the course grade[1]) was the history lessons used to defend/critique the nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (DC Appeals Court) Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Upon being nominated by President Ronald Reagan to fill the seat vacated by Associate Justice Lewis Powell on July 1, 1987, Senate Democrats immediately expressed dismay at Bork’s “originalist” legal perspective (the Constitution of the United States only means what the original framers of the document intended it to be at the time).

They were also disturbed by Bork’s role as Solicitor General of the United States on October 20, 1973.

On the night now known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” President Richard Nixon, alarmed by Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s request for secret White House recordings, demanded that Cox be fired–which only the Attorney General could do. When both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than comply, the next person in line was Bork, who promptly fired Cox.

Bork ultimately lost his nomination vote 58-42. Reagan then nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg, but he quickly withdrew his name after reports about prior marijuana use surfaced.

Oh, how times have changed.

Finally, Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and he was confirmed by the United States Senate (Senate) on February 3, 1988 by a 97-0 vote.

And after serving as the “swing” vote on SCOTUS for years, Justice Kennedy announced his retirement on June 27, 2018.

The tumultuous reaction to this news—laser-focused on the possibility that President Donald Trump will choose an ultra-conservative jurist who would be the decisive vote on issues like LGTBQ rights, abortion, guns and Obamacare—reminded me of my political uses of history paper.

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Just bear with me, then, while I review some recent history.

First, whether or not you approve of the filibuster (a final up-or-down vote can only occur if, say, 60% of legislators agree) as way to protect the rights of the minority party in a legislative body, it served to constrain judicial nominations by requiring a broad base of support.

Of course, it also meant that a determined minority could prevent any given nominee from a final up-or-down vote. After then-minority Senate Republicans kept doing just that to President Barack Obama’s nominees, the Senate voted 52-48 on November 21, 2013 to abolish the 60-vote threshold to end debate for all judicial nominations except for SCOTUS. In retaliation (and after Trump SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, fell five votes shy of the required 60), the now-majority-Republican Senate voted 52-48 on April 7, 2017 to end the 60-vote requirement to end debate on SCOTUS nominees.

Goose, meet gander.

Gorsuch was then quickly confirmed by a 54-45 vote, with three Democratic Senators—Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV)—voting yes. All three face reelection in 2018 in very Republican states: R+16.3, R+29.4 and R+35.5, respectively.

Why Gorsuch was nominated in the first place is the second bit of recent history to review.

On February 13, 2016, SCOTUS Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died. Soon after, President Obama nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to replace him. Within hours, though, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that because Obama was in the last year of his presidency (and thus some sort of irrelevant lame duck), the Senate would not even hold hearings on ANY Obama appointment until after the November 2016 elections. Charles Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee—where any hearings would be held—concurred, and the seat remained vacant until Gorsuch was confirmed.

merrick garland

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Democrats, hamstrung by their current 49-51 minority in the Senate, appear to be taking two fundamental—and somewhat contradictory—stances on the vacancy created by Justice Kennedy’s retirement.

Some invoke the “McConnell Rule,” insisting no vote be held on a new SCOTUS nominee until after the 2018 midterm elections, even though there is no guarantee Democrats will net the two seats they need for a majority.

Others focus on defeating any nominee outright, honing in on the damage to their (and, full disclosure, my) priorities a solid 5-4 conservative majority could do, particularly the distinct possibility it would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 SCOTUS decision that declared all state laws against abortion unconstitutional, effectively making abortion legal throughout the United States.

It should be noted that overturning Roe would not make abortion illegal everywhere in the United States. Rather, it would leave it to each individual state (and the District of Columbia) to decide whether abortion is legal within its borders. Still, many states have “trigger laws” that would immediately outlaw abortion to the extent legally possible the instant Roe is overturned.

Basically, then, the Democrats have two unpalatable options: try to delay the nomination until after the November 2018 elections, or assume a vote is inevitable and work to defeat it. The rub is that either option would require at least one Republican to buck her/his own party. For example, assuming Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is too ill to vote (and does not retire to give Republican Governor Doug Ducey the chance to pick a replacement), if the Democrats are unified, a single Republican “No” vote means the nomination is defeated 50-49. This, while not impossible, will not be easy either.

I feel compelled to note that this entire conversation is taking place BEFORE any nominee has even been announced. That in itself is worrisome.

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Let me address these two stances in turn before concluding with my own thoughts.

No political act enraged me more in the last few years than the theft of a SCOTUS seat by Senate Republicans. Barack Obama was president of the United States until noon on January 20, 2017, and the Senators elected over the elections of 2010-2014 were the representatives duly chosen to provide “advice and consent” on the nomination under Article II, Section 2. The people, whose will McConnell invoked, had already spoken by voting in the relevant elections. President Obama was thus denied a fair hearing and vote on his judicial nominee—that is theft.

As disgusted as I remain by that, however, I have deep concerns about the tit-for-tat invocation of the McConnell rule. Two wrongs do not make a right: as we remind our daughters, meanness by one to the other is not a license to be mean back.

I sympathize with the arguments that Democrats should not be a doormat, that McConnell brought this on himself, that turnabout is fair play, that the system is already broken…

And it is that last point that most gives me pause. With good reason, Democrats and like-minded Independents and Republicans decry the corruption and norm violations they see from the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies. But that powerful critique is severely undercut if the Democrats themselves use the violation of a norm (regardless of “who started it”) for their own partisan gain. This would simply be the rescinding of the judicial nominee filibuster all over again.

There is also the unpleasant whiff of “ends justifying the means” about invoking the McConnell rule. I recently called out the modern Republican Party for doing just that. It also recalls one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s worst moments: his 1937 scheme to expand SCOTUS by as many as six Associate Justices (which he would then appoint) to make it less hostile to the laudable New Deal.

It is fashionable to dismiss taking the high ground as weakness and some sort of “asymmetrical warfare.” And perhaps in this single instance—a uniquely pivotal SCOTUS seat following the theft of a prior seat—that is the correct conclusion. But that is a very slippery slope: if Democrats and their allies resort to using the same ruthless tactics to “win” this battle, how are they any better than the Republicans? Does that mean tribalist victory is all that matters now?

The argument may be moot—and mostly public posturing (pointing out the rank hypocrisy of blocking one nomination in an election year but not another)—since it is not clear the Democrats could actually prevent hearings and a vote, short of grinding the Senate to a halt.

And a far better argument for delaying hearings and votes is that a president who is the subject of a criminal investigation should not be allowed to nominate a SCOTUS justice who would almost certainly vote on questions pertinent to that investigation (e.g., Can a president pardon her/himself or be indicted while in office?).

The second stance is at least well within traditional Senate rules and has a successful recent precedent.

It still gives me pause, however, because I worry liberals and like-minded centrists have become too reliant—almost complacent—on the SCOTUS (and the courts more generally) to do too much of the heavy lifting of policy-making for them. Republicans, smelling blood on this point, successfully put SCOTUS front and center in the 2016 election.

It does not help that SCOTUS Justices have become as entrenched in their ideologies (though not always) as both major political parties—Justice Kennedy was the swing vote because the other eight Justices were so reliably liberal or conservative in their rulings. Gone are the days when President Dwight Eisenhower (supposedly) called his appointment of California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice “the biggest damned fool mistake I ever made.” Seriously, what would even be the point of arguing cases before SCOTUS if the outcome was always predetermined?

The more fundamental problem, however, is that the Democrats let too many state legislative seats get away from them in too many states over the last 10 years. It is in those very states that the most important policy outcomes—on abortion, LGBTQ rights, Medicare expansion, gun control—actually get decided. And that is how it is supposed to be. I am far from an “originalist,” but Article I and Amendment X strongly imply policy is meant to be decided, umm, politically, in the legislative arena.

I know: both parties (despite bemoaning “activist judges”) try to seek policy victories in SCOTUS by arguing that this or that law or Executive order is unconstitutional—and that the “right to privacy” articulated so elegantly in Griswold v. Connecticut had a profound (mostly progressive) legislative impact.

My point is simply that if Democrats put as much work into winning back legislative seats (so far so good) as they will into blocking President Trump’s next SCOTUS nominee that will greatly reduce their reliance on favorable SCOTUS decisions. They could even overturn many of those anti-abortion laws at the state level (not all of them, of course).

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I have previously called for cross-partisan dialogue—patriotic bipartisanship. After President Trump was elected, I also began proposing a “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate that would wield an effective veto over legislation, forcing broad compromises by both parties. Such a group could consist of “red-state” Democrats like Donnelly, Heitkamp, Doug Jones (AL—R+28.4), Manchin, Claire McCaskill (MO—R+15.9) and Jon Tester (MT—R+18.6); Independent Angus King (ME—D+5.9); and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME—D+5.9), Lisa Murkowski (AK—R+19.2) and, perhaps, Cory Gardner (CO—D+2.2).

Were this bloc (or even the smaller bloc of Donnelly, Heitkamp, Jones, Manchin, Collins and Murkowski) to insist, unequivocally, that President Trump select

…a consensus nominee to replace Kennedy. “[Senator Heitkamp] told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions…”

…they would elevate the traditional “advice and consent” role of the Senate above partisan rancor and force both parties to compromise, in effect restoring the judicial nomination filibuster.

Now, this would infuriate the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump (and President Trump himself) solely for the opportunity to remake SCOTUS in their image (though they still “won” with Gorsuch). And it would disappoint the liberal activists who want every Senate Democrat to resist President Trump at every turn (though this is easily the least-worst nominee they will get in 2018). But those may the necessary costs of restoring civil order to our public discourse.

Plus, how poetically just would it be if that “non-ideological” jurist was…Merrick Garland!

Until next time…

[1] I received an A on both the paper and the seminar, with a special commendation by Professor Joseph Hamburger.

Bipartisanship as patriotism

I started quietly screaming here.

But my deep revulsion for what the United States government, my government, the government elegantly outlined in our founding documents, is doing along our southern border (not the northern border with majority-northern-European Canada, mind you) boiled over the other night in this (annotated) 1,000+-word reply to a similar cri de coeur on the Bone and Silver blog.

The US faces an epistemological crisis. Some 20-25% of the population–primarily rural white Protestant men with at most a high school diploma (culturally conservative, isolationist, economically populist)–has been conditioned by right-wing propaganda (Fox News, talk radio mostly) for 30+ years to believe that all of their problems are caused by a long list of “others”: blacks (dangerous criminals), Spanish-speaking immigrants (drug-lord rapists and murderers who want your jobs), Muslims (terrorists), LGBQT folks (out to destroy your families), the mass media (lying to you), liberals (wimpy snowflakes who hate you and your values and *your* country) and the globalist-coastal elites (sending *your* jobs and country overseas, or something).

[Eds. note: I have no idea how large this segment of the population is. Trump’s 2016 share of the voting-age population was 25.0%, according to data from here and here. While not all Trump voters fit this characterization, an identical 25% (on average) support Trump’s recent immigration actions. And about 24% of American adults solely get their news from Fox News. The overlap between these groups is probably quite large, though well below 100%. Still, even if the percentage is only half of my upper limit—12.5%–that is still 1 in 8 Americans over the age of 18.] 

The crisis is that these Americans literally live in a different reality, with different news sources and accepted truths. This self-contained echo chamber is the only way they can sustain their paranoid grievances. And what they most fear is not loss of economic status but loss of racial/cultural status. They see an encroaching diverse modernity in which they have little-to-no status, which existentially terrifies them.

And so they cultishly follow an autocrat who echoes and validates their worst fears:  Mexicans and Muslims and transgendered folks and black athletes and liberals and Democrats and the media and China and our allies (Canada? Really?) are out to get *them*.

They are so deep in this twisted (yet infinitely self-justified) worldview that they no longer see these “others” as human beings, at some primitive level. *They* are animals who will “infest” (in 45’s words) THEIR country and destroy THEIR way of life. 

Yeah, you say, but they are outnumbered at least 3-1, so why is this happening?

This 20-25% of the population has an outsized influence on the Republican Party (which has cynically nurtured their paranoia for political gain since Nixon was first elected president in 1968), particularly which Republicans get nominated—and especially since the election of an urbane black man as president in 2008. That was a bridge too far for them, and for the Republican Party, who (to prevent losing nominations to further-right-wing candidates) vowed absolute opposition to him. They are also geographically dispersed across enough districts to elect enough like-minded Republicans to effectively control a majority of state houses and the United States House of Representatives. And, in a 17-person field, they coalesced around Trump early enough to allow him to win the nomination, sweeping aside an establishment that could not (or would not) coalesce around a more “mainstream” alternative (not that their choices were all that impressive). Once the Democrats nominated the equally-flawed Hillary Clinton, after Democrats had controlled the White House for 8 years…well, he still only won by 77,000 votes in three states (while losing the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points—the Electoral College’s Republican advantage at work again).

The thing is, 45’s policy advisors–including the all-but-Nazi Stephen Miller–truly think that they beat Clinton not because she was a bad candidate at the wrong time, but because they mistakenly believe that most of the country is as right-wing nationalist/racist as they are. Here, they are flat wrong, but for arcane structural reasons, it may still take a tidal wave of Democratic votes to wrest back the House this November (the Senate will be tougher, but I am optimistic). 

And as with any tribalist cult, they make up in passion and cunning what they lack in numbers, including voting at higher rates, while using every trick to maximize their electoral advantage (less through gerrymandering than through suppression). They do this because they legitimately see the “not-them” as Manichean enemies who must be stopped at all costs. For them, ends justify cruel, immoral and, yes, anti-democratic means: when push comes to shove, safety/security generally trumps (pun intended) liberal democracy. 

The thing is, though, even if Democrats win back the House (likely) and the Senate (30% chance?) and a bunch of state houses…actually, many good things will happen (if only by preventing more bad things from happening). But the crisis will still exist. This squeaky-wheel minority will, if anything, feel more aggrieved and more isolated and more desperate to fight inexorable change. And Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and the National Enquirer and Breitbart will continue to echo and amplify their increasingly-distorted reality, not only because it serves their own interests (and bottom-lines) to do so–they also genuinely fear the consequences of suddenly backing off decades of crazy-stroking. 

So how do we fix this? How do we get a sprawling, impossibly-diverse nation of nearly 400 million people back on the same “we are all in this together” page (begging the question whether, besides WWII, we ever were)? How do we get these reality-denying folks to accept the reality of climate change, the trade-offs between secure borders and nurturing compassion, the tragic consequences of an overly-gun-permissive society (the unique Constitutional protection afforded guns has morphed into Constitutional protection of THEIR way of life—restricting the former is a direct assault on the latter), the value of expertise, the benefits of a multi-cultural/multi-ethnic society (a wider talent pool, if nothing else), and so forth?

I have absolutely no idea.

But as I see one California couple raise nearly $15 million almost overnight on Facebook to provide legal services for these newly-detained immigrants and their lost children, as I see more and more Republicans abandoning/staring down their party (thank you, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker), as I see the mainstream media absolutely refusing to back down from their Constitutionally-protected duty to investigate and report and expose, as I see Robert Mueller—a lifelong Republicandiligently pursuing his own investigations, as I watch previously apathetic citizens taking to the streets in protest…I have hope that the “sensible” (if not always ideologically-unified) 75+% will regain the “values” upper-hand and restore everything I have always loved about my country. 

The aggrieved minority may never accept what we understand as reality, because it is too existentially painful. But they are still my fellow Americans, and I must share our nation with them, just as they have to share it with folks like me. All I can do is continue to call out their nonsense in the clearest possible terms in the perhaps-naive hope that enough of them will eventually snap out of it.

Otherwise…we may simply have to wait as their numbers shrink even further, as the demographers insist will happen. 

Do not give up on this country…we ARE better than this.

Upon further reflection, though, I do have one practical suggestion, however, though it may not appeal to everyone: active bipartisanship.

It is telling in this regard that my second-ever post presented my bipartisan bona fides. My goal was to insulate myself against criticism (yet to materialize) that my liberal Democratic views biased my political and cultural data analyses. My meticulous sourcing also serves that purpose—allowing critical readers to fact-check my assertions and draw their own conclusion. In this, my academic roots clearly show: transparency in methods, data and sources.

But I think that post also stemmed from my hope that sufficient elected Republicans would stand up to the newly-elected President, thwarting his most anti-democratic impulses.

Shockingly few Republican elected officials, however, have done so. Yes, Republican Senators Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Arizona) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted NOT to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Republican Senators Bob Corker (Tennessee) and Jeff Flake (Arizona), both of whom chose not to seek reelection in 2018, have at time publicly expressed deep reservations about President Trump.

But those moments have been few and far between. The reality is that Republicans, for all their protestations, have mostly voted for whatever President Trump has wanted. According to the FiveThirtyEight vote tracker, the median Republican United States Senator (51 currently serving) has voted with the President’s position a median 93.2% of the time, with 41 (80.4%) voting with his position at least 90% of the time; the “least” loyal Republican Senators were Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Collins, who still supported the President on at least 75% of votes. The obeisance was slightly higher for Republican members of the United States House of Representatives (US House; 235 currently serving who have cast at least one vote[1]): median support was 96.2%, with 193 (82.1%) voting with the President at least 90% of the time; the two least-loyal Republican House members have only voted with the President half of the time—Walter Jones (NC-3; 52.2%) and Justin Amash (MI-3; 53.0%). Curiously, the most vulnerable Republican House members, the 22 who represent congressional districts Clinton won in 2016, backed the President a median 97.0% of the time.

Instead, the few “profiles in courage” have come from state houses. Thirty-three states currently have Republican governors, with 16 having Democratic governors; Alaska Governor Bill Walker is an Independent.

Ohio Governor John Kasich famously challenged Trump from the (relative) left during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses; he remains a vocal thorn in the President’s side. Three other Republican governors: Baker, Larry Hogan (Maryland), Phil Scott (Vermont)—remain enormously popular (68% approve/18% disapprove, on average) in states that are 24.1 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole (using this calculation). Besides being genuinely likable, they remain popular by working—often in direct opposition to “their” President—closely with their states’ majority Democratic legislatures, carving out socially moderate-to-liberal and fiscally conservative positions.

Although I have lived in Massachusetts for most of the last 30 years, I never really followed Baker’s ascent, though I knew he was the chief Republican “up-and-comer” after his successful stint directing Harvard Pilgrim Health Care starting in 1999. In 2010, he was the Republican nominee against incumbent Democratic Governor Deval Patrick; Baker lost 48.4 to 42.0%.

charlie baker

A few months later, I was sitting in a Boston restaurant having lunch with my then-supervisor, when she nudged my arm. “Isn’t that himself?” she asked. I turned around to see Baker walk right near out table.That was when I realized how TALL he is (6’6”).

On August 25 of the previous year, Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy had died, after serving in the US Senate for almost 47 years. A special election to fill the seat through January 2013 was held on January 19, 2010. Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley and little-known Republican State Senator Scott Brown easily won their primaries, and the prevailing wisdom was that Coakley would easily prevail against Brown. Instead, Brown upset Coakley 51.9 to 47.1%. (I drove through central Massachusetts with both daughters the weekend before the election, seeing no Coakley signs but quite a few Brown signs; uh-oh, I thought).

Four years later, with Patrick term-limited, Coakley was now the Democratic nominee for governor, seemingly a stronger candidate after her upset defeat. Baker was again the Republican gubernatorial nominee. And this time he won, 48.4 to 46.5%.

I did not vote for Baker in 2014 (just as I did not vote for Republican gubernatorial nominee William Weld in 1990 when he was, in many ways, more liberal than Democratic nominee Jon Silber—I now regret that vote). However, watching the debates between Coakley and Baker, I was struck by how much I LIKED Baker. Where Coakley was robotic and stiff, Baker was warm and engaging. His Harvard-educated brilliance shown through, but with an appealing everyman demeanor: he was clearly enjoying himself.

Because I think Coakley, with her flaws, would still have been a good governor, I do not regret my vote. But neither was I particularly upset that Baker won.

And since then, I have only grown to respect Baker more. He is more fiscally conservative than I would prefer, but his consistent willingness to call out Trump when necessary, well, trumps those positions.

I was wavering on voting for him this November (regardless of who the Democratic nominee is) until he forcefully “revoked his decision to send National Guard helicopters and personnel to the Southwestern border,” citing the inhumane treatment of children by the Trump Administration.

That did it: Nell and I will be voting to reelect Baker this fall, even as we joyfully vote for Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and our member of Congress, Joseph P. Kennedy III, also a Democrat.

Here is also why I will be voting for Baker in four+ months.

If I am calling on select Republicans to defy their President and work in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats, it would be massively hypocritical for me not to support a more-than-reasonable Republican who has done exactly that. Every time I cheer a former Republican speaking out against the President on MSNBC, I need to be able to match that gesture with one of my own.

Simply put, I cannot ask someone to do something—be actively bipartisan—without being willing to do the same thing myself.

Moreover, the only way to break down the tribalist partisanship that causes us to see persons with the wrong “label” as a mortal enemy is to elevate bipartisanship into an act of patriotism.

The stakes of the Cold War were so monumental that partisanship was supposed to stop at the water’s edge: there was to be no squabbling over matters of life and death. While that was not always true, particularly as the Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party and Democrats took President Ronald Reagan to task for his aggressively anti-Soviet Union posturing, that credo still serves as an excellent model for reimagining bipartisanship as patriotism.

Would I still vote for Baker if he were not heavily favored to win, meaning Nell’s and my votes will in no way be decisive? I do not know, to be honest. But were he not so effective AND anti-Trump, he would not be so popular, so the question kind of answers itself.

It is exceptionally difficult for lifelong partisans like me—this will only be the second time I vote Republican—even to consider opposing point of view (though it can be done), let alone voting for a candidate of the opposite party. But I firmly believe these actions are the best—maybe the only—ways to begin to solve our current epistemological crisis.

Until next time…

[1] 240 overall

Questions asked…and answered

Periodically, a fellow blogger will pose and answer random questions in the context of a “blog award nomination.” The most recent person to do so decided, with commendable egalitarianism, to threw open the question-answering door to any and all entrants, so I decided to consolidate a series of questions (and my own idiosyncratic answers) into a single post.

You are very welcome.

Questions and answers are in no particular order.

Let the games begin!

Do you have any pets?

We have a four-year-old golden retriever named Ruby, who has epic patience:

IMG_3048 (2)

If you were a reality-TV show star, what would be the premise?

My life presented as a film noir.

What is the book you are currently reading?

By my count, I am currently in the middle of 14 books. Some ceased to interest me, some are bedside reading, some are research-related, and the rest are for fun. The book I will most likely finish first is Alan Rode’s biography of Charles McGraw.

Last month, I read and enjoyed Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics and Chris Matthews’ Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.

Share something we don’t know about you.

Not sure I can top that time I dressed as Oscar Wilde, but…

In four consecutive summers (1978-81), I was a day camp camper, an overnight camp camper, an overnight camp worker, and a day camp worker.

That, dear readers, is efficiency.

Michael Jordan or Lebron James? Wilt Chamberlain, because he went to high school with my mother and aunt.

OK, OK…Michael Jordan.

What is your favorite reality show?

The way I prefer to define “reality show:” the entire prime time (7pm – midnight) weeknight MSNBC lineup of Hardball with Chris Matthews, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and The Eleventh Hour.

We tell time ‘round here by MSNBC. Generally speaking, the girls are in bed, or close to it, by the end of “Chris Matthews.” If I then do not yell “Tonight on All In!” we fear Mr. Hayes will not know how to open his show. Final snuggles (and lights out) are supposed to happen between “Thing 1/Thing 2” and the start of “Rachel.” Nell and Ruby generally go to bed around “first commercial, Lawrence.”

However, if you insist on the more conventional definition: Food Network Star.

What’s the most important thing in your room right now?

Our four most recent holiday cards, each featuring our daughters’ smiling faces, propped up just to my right as I type this.

Well, those…and my fedora, of course.

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Does the sight of blood make you feel ill?

Yes.

And yet…in early June 1991, my mother was opening a jar of cocktail sauce. Somehow the glass shattered in her hand and severely gashed her thumb. My friend and I had just walked out of the apartment when my mother, sounding shaky, called to us from the balcony.

The way she was pressing the towel to her hand, she clearly needed to get to an emergency room.

The problem was that she was wearing nothing but a short blue kimono and underwear–no bra or pants. Despite the hemorrhaging, she insisted on getting dressed—including wearing a bra.

Guess who had to help her put on that bra?

Did I mention my mother was a very buxom woman?

By that point, I had forgotten all about the blood.

What is your worst habit?

You mean, besides my inability to tell a story in a direct, concise and linear fashion without footnotes, irrelevant tangents and a dozen false starts?

I will say…biting my cuticles.

Are you named after anyone?

My Hebrew name is Moshe ben David Laib (“Moses,” son of “Lion David”). I was given the name because my father was David Laib ben Moshe (David Louis, son of Morris), and his father was Moshe ben David Laib (Morris, son of David Louis), whose father was…you get the idea.

My secular name came down to Matthew or Michael, neither of which is a family name, but my mother liked both.

Matthew was chosen, though I have no idea why my middle name is Darin.

When was the last time you cried?

I tend to get weepy at stories involving fathers and sons, or when I witness acts of simple kindness and generosity.

Last night, there was such an act at the end of Season 4, Episode 5 of the outstanding Investigation Discovery series A Crime to Remember. My cheeks may have become a bit damp.

If you were another person, would you be a friend of yourself?

 If I were another person, than the “yourself” referenced in the question would not exist, so I cannot logically answer this question.

But do I like myself?

Yes.

Do you use sarcasm a lot?

Noooo, not at all.

I am a Jewish-raised-atheist northeastern urban intellectual. What do you think, he asked with a wry smile.

What’s the first thing you notice about people?

Overall demeanor, as in “let a smile be your umbrella.”

What is your eye color?

Brown

Scary movie or happy endings?

There is more overlap in the two styles than the question implies, but given the forced choice, I would say happy endings.

Except that many films noir have no such happy endings (The Last Seduction comes to mind), so, you know…

Favorite smells?

Off the top of my head: bacon frying, coffee brewing, freshly-baked bread, lavender, pine needles, Laphroaig.

What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home?

By distance, that would be in July 2000 when I saw the US-Mexico border, just south of San Diego—a distance, on average, of 3,022 miles south and east of where I then lived.

Do you have any special talents?

Besides doing arithmetic in my head…I have a knack for sequencing tracks on mixes not by “title” or “theme” but by “musical flow.” Forget genre or artist, I want the chords, mood and tempo of the end of one track to flow seamlessly into the start of the next track.

Where were you born?

The long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital in Philadelphia, PA.

What are your hobbies?

Other than crafting essays for this site, writing a book, all things film noir, following the Phillies and playing with Excel spreadsheets…

I used to have a pitching ritual. I would carry a bat (wooden—aluminum is for cans and recycling) and a bag of baseballs onto a baseball diamond. After tossing a few balls at the plate to loosen my arm, I would engage in the following warmup (using a ratty old red turtleneck as my strike zone): 10 four-seam fastballs from the windup, 10 from the stretch, then repeat the pattern with sinkers, sliders, curveballs (well, only five from each starting position) and circle change-ups. I might toss a few forkballs, as well, though I could never get the feel of them (or the knuckleball, for that matter).

I would then pitch a simulated game—or at least a few innings—alternating pitching and hitting (as in, throwing the ball up and whacking at it…so many ground balls to short)

I was no superstar (though I have a decent sinker), but it was a hell of a workout.

Now, it is mostly backyard Wiffle ball games with the girls, which are excellent.

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I went through a phase centering in 7th grade when I wanted to be an archaeologist.

But if you had told me then I would spend nearly 20 years as a health-related data analyst before beginning to write a book inspired by my love of film noir, I would have given you the blankest-of-all-possible blank look.

Who was your first best friend?

To protect privacy, let’s go with the boy in this tragic story.

How tall are you?

5’9¾”, but I freely admit to “just under 6 feet.”

How many countries have you visited?

United States and Canada, so far.

What was your favorite/worst subject in high school?

I generally loved them all…but let’s go with math (sorry, Mr. Leitham’s U.S. History and Mrs. Pertschuk’s AP English class), given my exceptional leadership of the Math Team senior year.

Excluding gym (except for gymnastics, at which I was surprisingly good), my freshman year biology was my least favorite class (though I did get to give a cool presentation on forensic evidence—blood stains, fingerprints, Bertillon measurements, etc.).

What is/are your favorite…

 …drink(s)?

Non-alcoholic: lemon Polar Seltzer, hot black coffee, water, fresh-squeezed orange juice, POM Wonderful blueberry-pomegranate, chocolate strawberry banana frappe (my creation) from Cabot’s (seriously, if you are ever in the Boston area, do yourself a favor and visit this family-run ice cream parlor and restaurant), and those Lifeway kefir mixtures I drink every night.

Alcoholic: Barring a really good single malt Scotch whiskey (with a drop or two of water to bring out the aroma and taste), I will happily drink a Johnnie Walker Black, light on the rocks, with a side of club soda; a rye and ginger ale or Coke; red wine, especially in the burgundy or pinot noir families; an ice-cold lager or pilsner; a rye Manhattan; or a No Sleep ‘til Brookline. Bourbon will do, in a pinch.

…animal?

Dogs, with horses a distant second.

…perfume?

 Do soap, shampoo, mouthwash and/or antiperspirant count?

What sports do you play/have you played?

As much as I detested summer camp, I discovered a knack for archery. I was pretty good at gymnastics in high school.

Otherwise, there are those one-on-one games of baseball I have played with various friends over the years. One buddy and I actually started inventing unusual teams, ever since a day in November 1995 where he decided he was going to field a team of famous English bishops—who did not run the bases so much as move in a stately manner about them.

The best team I ever created was a “pre-punk/punk/new wave/alternative” All-Star team I devised in June 2000. The only time I ever faced off with my buddy “as” this team, David Bowie doubled home Ralf Hutter and Brian Eno in the first inning for the games only runs (we played a full nine innings that day).

Who are some of your favorite YouTubers?

When I crash late at night (not a creature stirring and all that), I flip on the big screen TV and open YouTube (our television is an internet-connected computer, apparently). The sites (channels?) I most frequently visit (strictly off the top of my head) are WatchMojo, WhatCulture, CineFix, Wow Lynch Wow, the VlogLady and TopTenz.

The single most wicked awesome thing I have seen on YouTube is Orkestra Obsolete’s jaw-dropping cover of New Order’s Blue Monday:

How many girlfriends/boyfriends have you had?

Based upon a three-month minimum, I count nine, including my current wife Nell, with two relationships lasting, on and off, more than 20 years combined.

Favorite memory from childhood?

Spending the summers of 1974 and 1975 at the long-gone Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ.

How would you describe your fashion sense?

The avert-your-eyes love child of L.L. Bean and Brooks Brothers.

Or maybe simply

bowties-are-cool-dr-who

What phone do you have?

An iPhone 5, I think. I would love to have one of these, though…

Wall crank phone

And with that, I throw open the floor to other souls willing to answer this panoply of arcane queries.

Until next time…