My post on the filibuster brought to mind another outdated relic of a bygone era, the Electoral College. Originally created by the nation’s founders to protect against uninformed voters, the law requires that each state name Electoral College members who will cast votes in a presidential election. Each state has the same number of college members as it has representatives in the House.
It is, unfortunately, a clumsy system that distorts the will of the people as represented in the popular vote. Almost 10 percent of presidential elections under the Electoral College system have resulted in the investiture of a president not elected by the nationwide popular vote. During the 2016 presidential election, for example, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by over 2.8 million votes and won the Electoral College by 74 votes.
Most Americans oppose the Electoral College and would prefer that we elect our president and vice president by the popular vote. And the opposition is growing. A September 2020 Gallup poll found 61 percent of Americans were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, up 12 points from 2016.
So the time is ripe, with a new Democratic administration and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, to start the process of changing the Constitution with an amendment that will establish the popular vote rather than the Electoral College as the deciding factor in the election of the president and vice president.
Now’s the time. Let’s do it.
The time for abolishing the filibuster in the U.S. Senate is long past. It is a leftover procedural relic used by southern senators to uphold slavery and block civil rights legislation. “Filibuster” is defined as any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.
Even today, the filibuster continues to be used to stymie racial justice legislation. Last summer, Senator Rand Paul used a parliamentary delaying tactic to derail a federal anti-lynching law. It is unpardonable that the U.S. has no federal law against lynching. Before the most recent attempt foiled by Paul, the last previous try was in 1922 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Southern Democrats halted its passage in the Senate by a filibuster.
How can we as a nation allow racial prejudice to continue to sully our law-making process? I can only hope that with Biden and the Democrats now in power, we will move to strip away obfuscation of civil rights. It’s high time.
I’ve written here before about my attempts to escape my fate, to be a writer, by trying other vocations. The one I gave the most time and attention to was music.
I have a natural affinity for music, similar to my flare for languages—maybe it’s the same affinity. And my love for music showed up early in my childhood. I taught myself to play the piano and to read music when I was in grammar school using the pianos at school because my family was too poor to afford to buy one. At the beginning of my sophomore year at college (the University of California at Berkeley), I switched my major to music and three years later graduated with a BA in music. In my twenties and thirties, I composed reams of music, arranged music for a variety of instruments in the church folk groups I formed and ran, and composed and helped perform two masses for choir, folk group, and wind instruments. I learned to conduct choirs and led numerous performances. When I was in graduate school working toward my doctorate in Public Administration, I fulfilled the requirement in one course for a project by writing and recording with a group of musicians a musical illustration of government in action.
To this day, I still regularly play the piano, now a magnificent Steinway grand my daughter bought me some years ago—where she got the money is another story. And I listen to music during meals. I’m listening to and playing music less these days because so much of my time is taken up with words, that is, reading and writing, and I can’t have music playing while I’m working with words because to me music is never in the background—it is the focus of my attention when it’s playing.
So music remains one of the most important aspects of my life, although not the primary one. Reading and especially writing—on novels, short stories, articles, book reviews, and this blog—take up most of my time and energy. Music gets squeaked into leisure time, of which I have little.
But music is always there to comfort and heal me. It is still my salvation.
My recent post on my volunteer work in hospice sprang in part from the fact that the subject of death is so much on my mind these days. There are several reasons why.
First, the pandemic. Well before the end of February, more than 500,000 Americans will have died from covid-19. The press reports this horrifying figure with such nonchalance that I begin to see that the U.S. is accepting a half million deaths as perfectly okay. No big deal.
Second, my partner of many years died last March. That brought home to me the naked facticity of death in a way nothing else could have.
Third, I’ve now lived well past the average age of death for American males. I’m in excellent health, better than any contemporary I know. And while I’m determined to live to be a hundred, I have to accept that the likelihood of my death grows greater by the day.
We Americans shun any discussion of death as being in poor taste, just as we avoid menti0ing sex and the ways that the human body relieves itself. It’s as if not talking about these facts of daily life will make them go away.
Meanwhile, the prospect of death haunts me these days. I know it’s coming. I just don’t know when. I haven’t accepted the inevitability of my own death. I still struggle with the very idea.
It would behoove me to come to terms with death. I don’t know how to do it.
I remember the end of the war, though my memory is suspect. What I recall is being at camp—every summer, my parents sent me to what we called camp, a sort of impoverished resort for young boys that lasted two weeks—when word came that the war was over. The boys went wild in celebration. The problem is that the war didn’t end in the summer. Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Japanese in September. So I don’t know what we were celebrating.
And I remember the aftermath when consumer products slowly became available again. Life went back to being the way it had been before the war.
Only years later did I come to understand how fortunate we were as a family during the war. My father was too old to join the military, but two of my uncles on my mother’s side saw combat. One was so damaged that he never returned to normal. Only after Vietnam did I realize how fortunate the U.S. has been to have fought its wars not on its native soil but abroad.
I know now that the U.S. suffered from World War II but far less than our allies. The last war we fought on our own territory was the civil war. No American now alive knows the damage war inflicts on one’s homeland. With luck, we never will.
I am among the few people on this earth with memories of the second world war. Granted, I was a small child at the time, and my recollections lack the meaning that maturity would have given them. On the other hand, they have a kind of purity that only a child’s perception would have allowed.
I remember the declaration of the war. I played on the floor of my grandmother’s apartment in Mullens, West Virginia, while the adults sat in silence listening to the radio. All I recall is what seemed like an endless list being read by the radio announcer of one entity declaring war on another.
I remember the cars during the war. We couldn’t import foreign cars, and American auto factories had all been converted to the manufacture of weapons and wartime military hardware. The production of new cars all but ceased by 1940. My mother drove a 1939 Chrysler Imperial coupe, my father a 1938 Chevrolet sedan. Used-car sales were the only car sales. Cars captivated my young imagination, and I could identify brand and year of manufacture of nearly all the cars I saw on the road. Those models with headlights embedded in the fender rather than attached on rods especially intrigued me.
I remember the rationing. All kinds of things were of limited availability because of the war effort. I specifically remember gasoline, meat, butter, sugar, and coffee. Consumers were given ration stamps which specified how much of any rationed item they could buy. I remember my parents finagling to find ways to drive where they wanted and eat what they wanted.
During my Vietnam years, I had two multiyear accompanied tours there—my wife and my children were with me in country. Since there was no denying that I was in Vietnam, my connection with NSA was concealed. The covers I used at various times were as a State Department diplomat, a free-lance civilian employee of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), and a CIA agent.
The point of the deception was to prevent the enemy, the North Vietnamese, from knowing that we were intercepting and exploiting their radio communications. As far as I know, it worked. We never uncovered any evidence that the enemy knew what we were doing.
And the American public never suspected that I was a civilian working undercover as military in Vietnam. So often after 1968 when I’d be returning with the troops, we’d be met at the San Francisco airport by mobs who called us “butchers” and “baby killers” and spat on us. The American public humiliated me alongside my military buddies.
Since my retirement in the early 1990s (I retired as early as possible to write full time), I have been faced with the opposite dilemma: how to become well-known. As a novelist and public speaker, my success depends in part on people knowing who I am. And it’s working. My recent blog post on the three media interviews just published pointed to the evidence that I am being noticed.
Moving from pretending to not exist to being a public figure ain’t easy. But I’m getting better at it.
My recent blog post on combat led one reader to ask what was classified about my work. The answer: everything, including my connection to locations where I did my spying.
I can now talk about my time in Vietnam because my presence there and the fact that I was monitoring North Vietnamese radio communications has been declassified. What remains secret are the techniques I used and why they worked. My assignments in other parts of the world after the fall of Vietnam in 1975 remain classified, and I can’t speak of them. Suffice it to say that on those missions even my name was classified—at times I operated with a complete false identity.
During my years in Vietnam—1962 to 1975—any connection between me and Vietnam was hidden. The fact that my employer, the National Security Agency (NSA), had any connection with Vietnam was secret. At the time, NSA worked hard to remain invisible. Its success in deriving information from a country’s radio communications depended on the targets’ ignorance that they were being targeted.
So, for most of those years, when I was in the states, any association I had with Vietnam was classified, as was my knowledge of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. No one, including my family, was allowed to know that (a) I worked for NSA, and (b) I had spent any time in Vietnam. They could know one or the other but not both.
Readers regularly ask me why I refer to Vietnamese Communist forces during the Vietnam war as North Vietnamese and not Vet Cong or VC. To answer that question, I resurrected a blog post from a couple of years ago. Here it is with some updating:
First of all, “Viet Cong” is short for the Vietnamese Việt Nam Cộng-sản which simply means Vietnamese Communist. The communists themselves never used the term. Americans used Viet Cong or VC to mean the communists native to South Vietnam, independent of the north, as opposed to the North Vietnamese who infiltrated South Vietnam. The Americans who used the term bought into the fiction North Vietnam had created that an independent movement developed in South Vietnam that rebelled against the South Vietnamese government. That movement, according to the fiction, was named the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam), shortened to National Liberation Front or NLF. The front was never a real organization. It was a cover for North Vietnamese operations in South Vietnam.
Second, the entire effort to defeat the South Vietnamese government and the American forces was a North Vietnamese endeavor. Every aspect of it was controlled by Hanoi. There was no independent rebellion in the south. So the American distinction between “North Vietnamese Army” (NVA) and “Viet Cong” (VC) assumed a reality that never actually existed. The North Vietnamese army, called the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) by the north, included three categories of forces: regulars, regional forces, and guerrillas. The latter two were what we Americans called Viet Cong, but troops in these categories were neither independent of the north nor native to south Vietnam. All three types of PAVN soldiers included northern, central, and southern natives.
Therefore, the most accurate term for the forces fighting the South Vietnamese and the Americans is the North Vietnamese. That’s who they were, and that’s what I call them.
Following the posting of my blog on Trump and Russia some days ago, readers rushed to answer the question I posed: Given Trump’s verbal attacks on all other countries, especially allies, why has he had nothing to say about Russia?
I averred that Russia, or maybe Vladimir Putin personally, held some power over Trump. Thanks to readers, I now know that Russian interests rescued Trump financially multiple times during the 1980s and 1990s by laundering large amounts of Russian cash through Trump’s real estate holdings. I don’t know if those practices continued in the years that followed, including those when Trump was in the White House, but I have no evidence they stopped.
So I have a partial answer to my question. Trump has had an ongoing relationship with Russian financial providers. He had good reason to avoid criticism of Russia lest his Russian supporters turn on him.
I expect that over time more information about Russia’s hold on Trump will become public. But at least we have a start.