Category Archives: Chance encounters

Defining the Presidency Down (what would Moynihan say?)

Yes, I realize this is likely to feel like déjà vu — this is about much the same point as this post yesterday.

But I was conversing via email with someone about that, and he shared this, so I’m going to share it with you.

Why return to the same topic? Because it’s an important one, making points that I think a lot of folks still haven’t absorbed.

Ever since Election Day — or maybe even since Trump captured the nomination — I’ve had this conversation over and over with some of you, and with others… Someone will say, “What are you so upset about? Why don’t you wait until Trump does something truly horrible, and react to that?” Which I answer with what seems to me excruciatingly obvious: He’s doing it already, every single day — with every crude lie he Tweets, with every embarrassing moment with a foreign leader, practically with every breath he takes. By being our president, he’s taking the greatest country on Earth and making it smaller, cruder, stupider, tackier — demeaning the treasure that our forebears bequeathed us.

It’s not something I can kick back and regard as normal. In fact, that would be inexcusable.

Anyway, like the one I cited yesterday, this piece captures that pretty well:

is probably too much to expect President Donald Trump to have read “Defining Deviancy Down,” the 1993 essay by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Much noted at the time, and remarkably prescient, Moynihan’s essay warned that Americans were seeing a decay in social behavior (for example, the rise in gun violence), and were becoming inured to it. To accept such deviant behavior as normal—to “normalize” it, to use a word lately in fashion—was bound to render America a less civilized society, Moynihan wrote.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan

He was, of course, correct: In the quarter century since, we have accustomed ourselves to the ongoing coarsening of our society, from small things like the vitriol of Americans writing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles, to big things like our increasingly ugly political debates.

Early on in the presidential primary season, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart cited Moynihan in declaring that candidate Trump’s embrace of “nativist, racist, misogynistic slop” was defining deviancy down in the presidential campaign—mainstreaming coarse rhetoric and prejudicial views. Today, with President Trump continuing to exhibit deeply unpresidential behavior in the White House, he isn’t just defining deviancy down for political campaigns; whether intentionally or not, he is defining the presidency itself down.

Moynihan would have turned 90 this month. Decades ago, I had the honor of serving as one of his top aides. He was in many ways Trump’s polar opposite—a self-made statesman, sociologist, political scientist and lifelong student of history, someone who had seemingly read every book in the Library of Congress. The man had a core set of principles. He insisted on factual accuracy, believed that “governing requires knowledge,” and, famously, often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” He required his staff to double- and triple-check factual assertions, and was known to include footnoted citations in his speeches and sometimes even his letters….

I like that this one cites Moynihan. I always liked that guy. Not that I ever met him or anything.

In fact, I only saw him once in person. (Warning! Brad’s about to reminisce again!) It was that time in 1998 that I mentioned recently, when I went to Washington to check on Strom Thurmond and see if he was still functioning, and also visited Mike McCurry at the White House. Anyway, as long as I was there, McCurry arranged for me to attend a ceremony in the East Room marking the 50th anniversary of NATO.

That afforded me an extra opportunity to observe Strom, as it happened. After everyone else was seated, President Clinton walked in with Strom beside him holding onto his arm. Bill walked the nation’s senior senator to his front-row seat and got him situated before heading up to the podium to speak. (We Southern boys are brought up to act that way with our elders, and I thought better of Bill for it.)

Anyway, after the event was over and most of the media folks were headed back to the West Wing, I stepped out of the door that opens into the covered portico on the northern side of the House. I stood at the top of the steps for a moment deciding whether to continue to the press room or go back in and chat with folks, and watched as cars picked up the dignitaries, there at my feet.

I nodded to Strom as he came out, and watched him negotiate the steps pretty well. But there was a guy in front of him having all sorts of trouble hobbling down to his car.

It was Moynihan. He was only 69. Strom was 95 at the time.

It’s a shame Moynihan didn’t take better care of himself. If he had lived to be 100 like Strom, he’d still have 10 years to go now, and we’d have the benefit of his perspective as the nation so dramatically defines its self-respect downward…

Once again, photographic proof that Mike Miller and I are two completely different people

Mike and me

That’s me on the left. Not my left, YOUR left…

Here we go again, y’all.

Last night, I stopped by the First Thursday event on Main Street, partly because I wanted to drop by Kyle Michel‘s law office and rummage through the discs he was prepared to part with. Kyle, the son-in-law of my old boss Tom McLean, is the Rob Fleming of Columbia, and much of the space in his office is taken up by his amazingly extensive record collection. Each First Thursday, he puts a couple of tables out on the sidewalk in front of his office, laden with boxes full of LPs he’s prepared to sell. (Last night, I came away with a mono LP of Trini Lopez’ greatest hits.)Trini-Lopez-Greatest-Hits---S-504697

Crossing the courtyard of the art museum on my way toward Main Street, I heard my name called, and it was Mike Miller, standing chatting with Tim Conroy — yes, he’s one of those Conroys, brother of Pat — and Phill Blair, co-owner of The Whig (and one of my elder son’s best friends).

Mike immediately reported that it had happened again. Just minutes before in a shop on Main Street, a woman had mistaken him for me. He did his best to persuade her that he was this whole other guy who had also worked at the newspaper, and she allowed as how yes, she recalls there was a Mike Miller who wrote about the music scene for the paper, but she had felt certain that the man in front of her was Brad Warthen.

This is ridiculous, people.

This happened to me — being mistaken for Mike, I mean — three times in one week back in 2012, in the wake of Mike’s run for city council. I have since posted photographic evidence that we are not the same person. That should have settled it, right?

Evidently, that photo wasn’t persuasive enough. So I asked Tim Conroy to take a picture of us together, right then and there, to put an end to the persistent rumors that Clark Kent — I mean, Mike Miller — and I are the same person. He obliged.

Please share this with your friends and neighbors, so we can clear up this misunderstanding. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Contacts: Rickenmann, mental health advocates, McMullen

As Doug Ross might testify, I make a point of breaking my fast most mornings in a place where I’m likely to run into newsmakers who tell me things I was not trying to find out, but needed to know anyway (to sorta, kinda paraphrase Dirk Gently).

At this time I will head off those of you who think this is an elitist pursuit by saying I also frequent Wal-Mart — but there, few people come up to me and tell me things I can publish.

Anyway, in keeping with my sporadic efforts to let you know about folks I interact with (part of the whole transparency thing, letting you know who might be trying to influence what you read on the editorial page, yadda-yadda), here’s this morning’s list of folks who dropped by my table:

  • Daniel Rickenmann, who seemed to be sort of working the room, eventually got to me. No substantial discussion. I asked him what he was hearing from constituents as he campaigned for April 1, he said he’d heard a lot (understandably) about the city’s problems keeping track of money, and suggested the creation of a citizens’ fiscal review panel. At least, I think that’s what he said. Does not being sure sound lax on my part? Well, I knew I would be sitting down formally with him next Tuesday for an endorsement interview, and that will be well documented, I promise.
  • A group of folks — one of them a surgeon I know from USC’s medical school, but I’m leaving his name out for now since he was not the instigator of the conversation (although he can remind me of the names of the other folks later) — approached me to say that the former Department of Mental Health property on Bull Street (you know, which was supposed to be redeveloped, but which hasn’t happened?) is still needed to provide mental health services, and to help train psychiatrists. I’ve heard this before, of course, but there seemed a new urgency in their concern. The doc mentioned the name of a good source, which I wrote on my copy of the WSJ.
  • Ed McMullen, late of the S.C. Policy Council, joined me as I headed for the elevator. We talked briefly about several things, ending with the Wireless Cloud, about which he promised to send me a line on a source. Don’t forget me on that, Ed.

Is this what it’s like writing a diary?

Contact report: Hugh Leatherman

One thing I need to do is catch up on some recent meetings I haven’t let y’all know about, before I get too far behind. I’ll mention this chance encounter from this morning now:

I ran into Sen. Hugh Leatherman this morning at breakfast and sat with him for awhile to kick over a number of topics — national and state politics, what’s happening in Florence, etc.

Two things stand out in my mind:

  1. We talked about endowed chairs. Sen. Leatherman is high on the program, but isn’t convinced that the cap has to be raised. Mind you, he’s certainly not persuaded by any of the governor’s objections, which seem to him off-base. The governor chops at trees, but has never bought into the forest (although he IS into preservation of wilderness, so maybe that’s a bad metaphor). But the Senate Finance Chairman sees a way to make sure future chairs are funded without lifting the cap. He briefly explained it, but I confess I didn’t fully understand it, and didn’t want to detain him all morning trying to. It’s a good topic for further inquiry.
  2. I was reminded at various points in the conversation, as I am so often in speaking with the General Assembly’s Republican leadership, about how frustrated they are trying to deal with the governor day-to-day. Conversations such as this one flesh out the substance of such stories as this one in The Post and Courier today, about the governor’s efforts to stack the Legislature in his image. To serious, responsible lawmakers, having one Mark Sanford is enough of a burden; they don’t need any clones. Note this quote from the Charleston story: "If someone ran against Senator Leatherman, I’d probably support them." Who said that? Mark Sanford. So we’re not just talking paranoia here.

The terror of having to let our kids out of our sight

Editorial Page Editor
No man could have missed her. Dressed, if you want to call it that, in a hot little “nurse” costume — snug white dress covering not a bit of her long legs, pert little cap pinned atop blonde head, high-heeled white boots — she caught my eye from a block away.
    “Somebody’s got her Halloween costume on,” I started saying to my wife with the least-interested tone I could muster. But something was wrong. The girl was teetering in a way that went beyond the impracticality of her boots. She barely made it across Main Street to the northwest corner of Main and Blossom, where a temporary tunnel guides pedestrians past high-rise construction.
    As she disappeared into the tunnel, my wife said, “Pull over.” My first chance to do so was beyond the construction, almost to Assembly. My wife hopped out and headed back, in full Mom-to-the-rescue mode.
    She found the girl with her dress hiked up to her waist, panties fully exposed, looking for a place to relieve herself.
    “No!” my wife ordered, reaching out her hand. “Honey, you just can’t do this. You cannot walk down the street staggering in a little nurse uniform in Columbia, South Carolina. I’m going to take you home.”
    The girl obediently dropped her skirt, took my wife’s hand and cried, “Oh, thank you, thank you for helping me!”
    Seconds later, I glanced in the rearview mirror to see my wife marching that statuesque woman-child by the hand toward the car as though she were a preschooler who had wandered away from the group. I reached back to clear space for her on the back seat. She got in, my wife got in, and I pulled back into the traffic on Blossom, moving toward the river.
    I asked the “nurse” whether she had been headed to one of the nearby sorority houses. No, she slurred, her dorm was beyond the Greek Village. I pondered that in confusion. My wife got her to tell us the name of her dorm — which was three or four blocks back, at the heart of the campus, 180 degrees from the direction in which she had been staggering. I did a U-turn at my first opportunity.
    “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying, alternating between that and “Thank you, thank you so much!” She was extremely grateful. She had been one lost little girl, and she knew it. She was a freshman, just weeks away from home.
    “All my friends are older, though,” she offered as an explanation of her condition. She said something vague about guys making assumptions, which seemed to be her way of accounting for being alone.
    My wife, determined to have the girl learn something from this experience, pointed out that young girls have disappeared from the streets of Columbia. “Oh, I know! I’m so sorry,” she repeated, adding plaintively:
    “I’m trying to be a responsible freshman!” She was so earnest that we didn’t laugh, not until later, after we had deposited her back at her dorm and could feel like maybe, for tonight at least, the child was safe.
    But it was only a feeling. She wasn’t safe, in the way a parent would define it. Just before we let her out, she was on her cell phone trying to tell a friend how to come to her dorm — the place she couldn’t find herself. Despite having just been so lost and frightened, despite being so grateful for her deliverance, somewhere in her besotted mind floated the idea that the night was young.
    Once they leave home, we never can tell ourselves that they are safe, can we?
    That same night, six of the “nurse’s” fellow USC students, and another from Clemson, would die in a beach house fire in North Carolina.
    That may seem a wrenching transition, from seriocomic little episode that ended well (we hope) to a tragedy that has consumed our community for a week and touched hearts across the nation, but to a father, the two things have an awful lot in common. They both evoke the constant, gnawing fear that comes when your children are no longer in your sight, no longer under your protection.
    That “nurse” was exactly the age of the youngest of my five children, who is off on her own and far away. Just over a month ago, our daughter’s boyfriend — her only close friend in the entire state of Pennsylvania — was killed in a car wreck. He was a passenger in a car with three other boys. It was broad daylight, and they were moving safely and legally down a quiet, Shandon-like residential street when another car ran a stop sign and hit them broadside. David was thrown from the vehicle.
    When the third of my five kids was 3 or 4 years old, he had a maddening habit of slipping away on little adventures. But after mere moments of sheer terror, we’d find him and scoop him into our arms, and the universe would resume its proper shape.
    It’s so easy when they’re little. It’s when they get tall, when they take on a deceptive semblance of being men and women — like the “woman” I thought I saw in the nurse costume — that it gets really tough. It’s when they have every excuse to be out of your sight, and everybody tells you that you have to let them go, that the real terror begins.
    My mother used to have a quotation cut out and taped to her kitchen cabinet, to the effect that having a child was “forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
    That is exactly true, and of course it is impossible to go on living like that. But we do. I don’t know how. God somehow suspends the physical laws governing the universe to make it possible for us to get up, put one foot in front of the other, walk on ice thinner than an eggshell, and keep doing it as though we actually believe what we’re doing is within the realm of possibility.
    And most of the time, it works. It worked that night, for two parents somewhere in the Upstate. That little “nurse” was going to be picked up by somebody, because she was never getting home on her own. Why did she take my wife’s hand? Is it because she recognized her as a Mom? I hope so. On behalf of her real parents, out there walking on their own thin ice, I sincerely hope so.

Running into Rabbi Marc

Last Shabbat, when I posted this, I completely forgot to mention that I ran into our old friend RabbiWilson_marc Marc Wilson, frequent contributor to The State‘s op-ed page.

It was after the lengthy service, when we celebrated my niece’s naming with food and drink in what, for
lack of knowledge of another term, I will call the synagogue‘s fellowship hall.

I kept thinking I knew that guy with the young-looking face behind the gray beard, so I went up and introduced myself. He had been thinking he knew me, too, but had been just as unsuccessful placing me. He said I looked like someone named Fred Tokars, and I wasn’t sure how to take that, although I think he meant it in a nice way.

Anyway, we had a fine time catching up, one pundit to another. Later, he e-mailed me as follows:

Whada kick to finally get to meet the celebrity behind the
haute-academia glasses.
Actually, more than Fred Tokars, you look like a rabbinical friend,
David Geffen, but to the best I know, he now lives in Jerusalem.
Re. your blog:  Jews get it right . . . sometimes.  Remember, we
were the ones who supported Napoleon and turned west, instead of east, where all
the oil is.
Hope all continues to be well with you and yours, and that happy
occasions keep bringing us together.  The invitation to a weekend in Greenville
is sincere.  Regards to our mutual friends, et al.
All my best,

I thought David Geffen produced records, or movies, or something. Anyway, if you’d like to read Rabbi Wilson’s latest, his blog is at Marc Musing on Blogspot. He also writes for the Atlanta Jewish Times, and  the Judische Allgemeine in Germany. (Herb should enjoy reading that site.)

Anyway, the whole episode is yet another illustration of what a small town South Carolina is.

Having an Obama mañana

Today I seem to be having an Obama mañana.

First, I run into Max, who tells me that on Saturday the campaign is going to try to knock on 50,000 doors in South Carolina. Every county is organized, hundreds of volunteers are ready in-state, and hundreds more are expected to come from elsewhere to help. Should be quite an impressive feat if they pull it off — and if any campaign can, it’s Obama’s.

Then I read this on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. It’s getting to where I’m as likely to run into the names of local folks I know in national publications as in The State. The theme of the story is that all politics is local — and in this case, "local" means Greenwood, S.C. Such local characters as Rep. Anne Parks and Obama spokesman Kevin Griffis are characters in the tale. Anyway, the piece is a good read if you can call it up. And if you can’t here’s an excerpt:

GREENWOOD, S.C. — When Barack Obama wants to get a campaign crowd really fired up, he tells the story of a whistle-stop a few months back in this out-of-the-way town.
    He was having a down day; the weather and his mood were both foul. And he had driven to Greenwood — "an hour and a half from anywhere" — to keep a promise to a state legislator. Just a handful of well-wishers were there to greet him.
    Suddenly, the Illinois senator heard a voice sing out from the back of the room: "Fired up! Ready to go!" It came from a tiny woman in a big-brimmed church hat. She repeated the chant. Before long, everybody joined in, and Mr. Obama himself was again feeling the spirit.
    "Here’s a lesson for you," he said while telling the Greenwood story at a rally in Carroll, Iowa, this month. "If you’re fired up and ready to go, we can change the world."
    But beyond Mr. Obama’s soapbox rhetoric about Greenwood is a more complicated story, of small-town politics, snubs and jealousies — and a reminder that even presidential campaigns can be very personal and very local. Mr. Obama’s appearance in Greenwood may have left him fired up, but it also left bruised feelings among local Democrats and left his campaign with a damage-control job that continues to this day…

Finally, I overhear somebody at another table at breakfast talking about Obama, and I find myself wondering if the guy is taking over South Carolina. But it’s just someone mentioning the candidate’s appearance at a couple of churches here in the Columbia Sunday, and I had already read about that.

Cameron Runyan, city council candidate

This morning I ran into a young man planning to run — actually, I guess he’s already running — for one of the two at-large seats on Columbia City Council in next April’s election.

Cameron A. Runyan is seeking the seat currently held by Daniel Rickenmann. Come to think of it, he sort of looks like Daniel Rickenmann — or is it just that really young white guys look alike to me? (And I’m not the one who chopped the left side of his face off. The image was like that when I grabbed it off his Web site.)

Anyway, he was having breakfast with Samuel Tenenbaum, and all I did was stop and shake hands on my way past the table.

That’s all I have to say about that. Presumably you can learn more at the Web site. And I’m sure you’ll read more here about Mr. Runyan and others between now and April.

Financial disclosure: Joe Wilson gives me two bits


y conscience dictates that I disclose that U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson gave me some money today — to be specific, 4,000 Dong in crisp, new 2,000-Dong notes.

Now, we’ll all pause for a moment while Beavis and Butthead exhaust the adolescent possibilities of that term. All done, fellas? We’ll move on.

Anyway, I ran into Joe downtown this morning with his sidekick Butch Wallace, and the congressman was handing out these souvenirs from his recent trip to Vietnam. He gave me one for me, and one for my Dad, who he knows is a Navy veteran. In his own distinctive rapid, enthusiastic, delivery, he also told me the following as we rode down an elevator together:

  • This was not vote-buying.
  • Each bill was worth about 12 cents — which is pretty much dead-on.
  • Vietnam is the most dynamic emerging capitalist economy in the world.
  • Shopkeepers were particularly glad to take his dollars, which is hardly surprising. Hard currency is hard currency. (It was ever thus. When I called my Dad to tell him I had something for him, he noted that in his 1967-68 tour at a PBR base south of Saigon, he doesn’t recall ever having occasion to use actual Vietnamese money.)
  • On Good Friday, the cathedral he saw was not only full, but the service was piped out to a large crowd outside — a familiar pattern in countries that until recently suppressed religion. (Maybe Western Europe should send the Vietnamese some of those magnificent churches that they don’t use any more.)
  • He really, really loves being a congressman. But we knew that about Joe, right?