It was the week when new Chief of Staff John Kelly brought discipline, order and calm to the White House ... that is, until the president offhandedly threatened to nuke North Korea.
- Closer to midnight. Strictly from a writer’s perspective, kudos to Donald Trump for his nicely alliterative "fire and fury” warning to North Korea, one that echoes folks like Harry Truman (“rain of ruin”), James Taylor (“fire and rain”) and Robert Frost ("Fire and Ice"). Trump's bellicose remarks were reportedly unscripted, giving heartburn to many experienced foreign policy hands. Still, Trump’s blunt language may finally get China to sit up and start paying attention to the mess in its own backyard.
- Civil war. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a public spat over Congress’ failure to get rid of Obamacare. McConnell said the president had “excessive expectations” over what Congress could accomplish. Trump shot back via Twitter, “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?” Trump’s making the same argument as Democrats: It’s easy to carp from the sidelines but it’s far harder to govern. Of course, it’s one thing for the opposition party to point this out. But for the titular head of the GOP to mock his own party’s competence? Some arguments are best held behind closed doors.
- Never-ending story. The FBI stepped up its probe of the administration’s Russia ties. We learned this week that agents in late July raided the home of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Meanwhile, an increasing number of polls found not only that the president’s popularity was dropping, but that his so-called “base” — white people without a college education — was also growing disillusioned. What's a president to do? More than a few have seen crises abroad as a way to both distract from troubles at home and boost their popularity. North Korea may be just the latest example of “Wag the Dog.
- Like-mindedness. Google fired an employee who wrote an email that challenged company policies on diversity because Google encourages diversity as long as everyone uniformly agrees.
- Time wastin’. A new government report found that productivity growth continued to be slow — just 0.9 percent in the second quarter. Tepid growth has been the pattern for more than 10 years and it’s left economists puzzled. The rise of computers, automation and the Internet should, in theory, have caused productivity to surge. That certainly was true when, for example, word processors replaced typewriters in the '80s and '90s. But few of the technological wonders popularized over the last decade help us do our jobs better. Quite the opposite, in fact. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — what would we be doing if we didn’t have these and more at our fingertips? Oh, yeah. Sitting at our desks actually doing our jobs.
- Get ready for the stampede. Massachusetts will soon have an open congressional seat; Rep. Niki Tsongas said this week that she doesn’t intend to run for re-election. Politicians consider a job in Congress the plummest of the plums — next step, president! — and the coming months will see a mad scramble of wannabes eyeing their opportunity to climb the ladder. Better still, you don’t even have to live in the district to run. It’ll be a statewide free-for-all.
- Land of the boors. The haven of harassment known as Fox News became embroiled in yet another sexual harassment scandal. This time, it was Eric Bolling, co-host of “Fox News Specialists,” who was suspended for sending to various women what his lawyer called “inappropriate communications” — which is to say (shades of Anthony Weiner), penis pix. Seriously, what gives at Fox? Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Shine, Charles Payne. One is an exception. Two is a pattern. But five? Maybe it’s time to shut down the whole network and start all over again.
- Why you don’t know your neighbors. Cambridge passed an ordinance with modest restrictions on short-term rentals through Airbnb and similar websites. Hosts will have to live in (or close to) the buildings they are renting out. And they’ll need to get a license and get inspected every five years. You’d have thought the industry would be up in arms about this but — like Uber and Lyft when it came to ride-sharing — agreeing to a little bit of regulation is better than being subjected to a lot. And the regulations themselves become an implicit acknowledgment that short-term rentals are permissible. The sharing economy proceeds apace!
- Newspeak from the Thinkpol. And finally, the feds are mandating government employees use new language when it comes to describing environmental issues. “Climate change” is now to be “weather extremes.” Instead of “reduce greenhouse gases,” staff should say “build soil organic matter.” And “climate change adaption” has been banned in favor of “resilience to weather extremes.” The only thing George Orwell got wrong in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was the year.
This column was first published by Cognoscenti on August 11, 2017.