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By Monica Hesse

Barack and Michelle's first date, coming to a theater near you

Barack and Michelle's first date, coming to a theater near you
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in

All politicians are actors. They must be, to travel the country telling the same personal anecdotes with the same emotional inflections, all while convincing constituents of their spontaneity and sincerity. When the public wants to know what politicians are really like in private, they either wait for a tell-all by the staff, or they wait for a fictionalized version that feels like it illuminates the truth as well as the facts would.

The new movie "Southside With You," which opens Friday, is a feature film about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date in 1989. It's perhaps best described as a "Before Sunrise" for political wonks: the story spans a single day as the future first couple catch a movie, visit an art museum, and talk about their hopes and dreams while meandering through Chicago. On a more meta level, the movie is about the creation of the Obamas' private-life narrative - a shaping of how the public will understand them in the future and an acknowledgment of how it sees them now.

"Movies that come out after ours are probably going to be conventional biopics," writer/director Richard Tanne said in a recent interview when he and the film's two stars visited D.C. "They'll weave in policy and history. The special thing about being able to focus on this slice of life is that you can bring into it your individual perspective, and whatever your relationship with the Obamas is."

He began working on the script even before Obama had won the 2008 election, after watching how the couple interacted: "The way they'd look at each other, flirt with each other, how authentic and sexy their love seemed to be," he says. "It's rare in regular people, and even rarer in public figures."

The Obamas, in "Southside," are not yet The Obamas; they are idealistic 20-something attorneys Barry (played by Parker Sawyer) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter). Barry is charming but cocky: he's lured Michelle to an outing she doesn't realize is a date, even though he knows she avoids romances with co-workers. Michelle is driven and unimpressed, not wanting to get caught up in her colleague's hype, which was even then prodigious. She keeps his ego in check with an occasional raised eyebrow; he brings her to a neighborhood meeting at which he's speaking and shows off with a rousing oratory.

Does this feel like the Obamas? An early prototype of them. Whether you find movie-Barack inspirational or a tad smug will likely reflect how you view the man. The same goes for film-Michelle, who is considerably more severe than the real first lady - and who will come across, to different viewers, as either her future husband's brilliant rock, or as the woman who will one day tell the country to stop eating so many Ding Dongs.

Sawyer, who had been told for years how much he looked like the president, spent hours watching footage of Obama walking, to get the physical embodiment right. "It's sort of perched forward," he describes. "It's a little pigeon-toed, and there's a saunter to it. Denzel Washington has that walk. My father had that walk."

Sumpter, who was also a producer on the film, read Michelle Obama biographies and articles, and worked with a dialect coach on the first lady's subtle Southside accent. "We knew we wanted to embody the essence of who they are," she says.

Of course, the film is also trying to get at who they were, long before they were famous: to square what we know now with what we couldn't see then, as historians transition from talking about Obama's leadership to Obama's legacy.

Narrative accounts of presidents have a way of solidifying or articulating how the public feels about its leaders. "Primary Colors," the book and then the movie, depicted the pretend world of a Bill Clinton-esque presidential campaign. The candidate wasn't named Bill, but the drawling governor with voracious appetites - food, sex - provided a Kabuki-like version that seemed to distill the man to his essence and has followed him to this day.

(In a provocative recent example, the New York Times last month published a short story by the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which catalogued an imagined, fretful day in the life of Melania Trump. Did it remotely reflect the real person? It's not clear. But a fake version seemed like it could explain the emotions of an enigmatic figure.)

"Southside With You" is fortunate to have a lot of source material: Both of the Obamas have talked about their first date on multiple occasions as an important moment in their lives. They did, in fact, go to an exhibit at Chicago's Art Institute, as the movie depicts. And they did go see "Do the Right Thing," where they did run into an older white partner from the law firm where they both worked. They did share a kiss in front of a Baskin-Robbins (a plaque outside the real store commemorates this), and thanks to the leader of the free world once mentioning that his wife "tasted like chocolate," we even know what flavor they ordered.

It's a naturally cinematic evening, and given how many times the Obamas have been asked to share it, they're probably relieved that they did more than, say, split a pitcher of beer and shout awkwardly over loud bar music.

But the dialogue of the evening is, of course, all re-created. And so are a few scenes: Though Michelle did once accompany her new boyfriend to a community-organizing meeting, it wasn't on the first date. The film's most affecting scene is a reimagining: After seeing "Do the Right Thing" - Spike Lee's seminal exploration of race relations - Barack placates the white law partner by offering a comforting explanation for why a store was looted. The white partner leaves, and the Barry turns to a disbelieving Michelle. "I said that to make Avery feel better," he explains. "Mookie threw the trash can because he was (bleeping) angry."

Anyone who has watched Barack Obama try to glide between worlds - referencing his Midwestern relatives when speaking to predominantly white audiences, mentioning his Kenyan roots when talking to black ones - will sense that they're seeing something that feels true, even if it's not.

Here is a future president, young and in love, trying to figure out what mark he'll leave on the world. Here are we, approaching the end of his eight-year run, figuring it out, too.


Video: "Southside with You" is about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. What would the love stories of other presidents and first ladies look like on the big screen? (By Nicki DeMarco / The Washington Post)


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By Pamela Constable

Students, police recount harrowing scenes in Afghan university attack

Students, police recount harrowing scenes in Afghan university attack

KABUL - Mohammed Naser heard the bomb go off and ran to his second-floor classroom window, just in time to see the cinderblock garden wall blow apart. The lights went out and students rushed for the stairway, but someone said gunmen had entered the first floor.

"We were trapped. Girls were screaming in the next classroom. I could feel the fear," Naser, 21, a business student at the American University of Afghanistan, said Thursday morning, hours after militants bombed and stormed the campus Wednesday evening, leaving at least 12 people dead and 45 wounded.

The unknown attackers detonated a truck bomb at a school for the blind next door to the prestigious U.S.-run university while evening classes were in session. A small squad of gunmen rushed into the compound, battling police and other security forces until the pre-dawn hours. At least seven students died and hundreds were trapped for hours before the assailants were killed and the campus evacuated.

"They were trying to kick down our classroom door, so we pushed all the tables and chairs against it. Then students started jumping out the windows, and I did, too," Naser recounted from his bed at the Emergency Hospital in the Afghan capital.

At the same time that Naser and about 20 other students were huddled behind a pile of furniture in their economics class, a police special forces officer named Faraidoon Nizami, 25, was trying to fight his way up to their location.

"I saw one guy wearing a commando uniform, and I shot him," Nizami said Thursday. As he and his teammates started up the stairs, another militant threw a grenade down and injured one of them. Nizami said he threw a grenade back and saw the second attacker collapse, but he, too, was wounded.

Naser and Nizami ended up in the same cramped hospital ward Thursday, along with half a dozen other wounded students and police. Naser, who had landed on a cement patio when he jumped, broke his right arm and shattered his left hip, but crawled to a basement library and passed out. When he woke up, police special forces were carrying him to an ambulance.

"This was a political attack," he said. "They are trying to stop education in Afghanistan, and our university is the only one with international standards. It is a horrible pattern." Two foreign professors including one American were kidnapped by gunmen near the university Aug. 7 and have not been heard from since.

Nizami, who was nursing a leg wound, said his injured teammate later died in a hospital and their unit commander was shot dead in the all-night gun battle. But he said he was glad most of the students had been rescued and proud that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had stopped by his hospital bed early Thursday.

"I lost two of my friends, but the president came here and said he appreciated what we had done," said Nizami, who was a pharmacist before joining the police. "Education is so important for our country," he added. "If people are educated, there would be no more war."

Ghani issued a statement later Thursday calling the attack "a cowardly attempt to hinder progress and development in Afghanistan." He said terrorist groups seek to obstruct the development of "values that Afghans believe in" to bring growth and prosperity but that such attacks will only strengthen the nation's determination to "fight and eradicate terror."

No group has claimed responsibility for the campus assault, but its combination of a powerful bomb followed by a commando-style ground assault was typical of previous attacks on foreign and government facilities in Kabul by Taliban insurgents. The abduction of the two university teachers also has not been claimed.

Some of the surviving students and their families echoed Ghani's defiant message Thursday, saying they planned to continue their education despite the threats. It was not clear if and when the university would reopen, however. University officials have made no comments and have ordered students not to speak to the press.

Khuda Baksh, 61, a shopkeeper whose daughter Farzana received a mild head injury in the attack, said he would send her back to the university if it reopens. Speaking outside the Emergency Hospital, he said he had waited all night while she was trapped on the second floor of the classroom building before finally lowering herself to the ground with a curtain.

"I am a poor man, but I am proud that all my children have been educated," Baksh said. "My country needs educated people because there is so much illiteracy. I worry every day when my children leave home, but my daughter is a talented student and she wants to help her country."

In a flood of tweets and online messages that continued all night Wednesday and into Thursday, students, professors, friends and supporters expressed similar sentiments. Many blamed militant groups for seeking to sabotage education. Zabiullah Mudaber tweeted that the attackers were "afraid of our bright young generation." Arhum Butt tweeted: "To destroy education is the easiest way to rule. Hang in there #kabul."

Despite the bravado, however, the terrifying campus attack added yet another violent blow to prospects for higher education and professional ambition among young Afghans, especially in the capital where many flock to study and work. On July 23, terrorists detonated a suicide bomb during a peaceful demonstration by mostly young ethnic Hazaras, including many college students.

Tens of thousands of young Afghans have fled the country in the past two years, some joining the flow of illegal migrants to Europe. Unemployment is soaring, and the collapse of the Western-financed war economy has left many young professionals jobless.

The psychological effect of repeatedly targeting the country's most modern university, financed and run by Americans, is also bound to cast doubt on its future viability here, especially coming so soon after the kidnapping of the two foreign professors. In Wednesday's attack, another foreign lecturer, a woman from Uganda, was slightly injured, according to hospital officials.

One of the saddest scenes recounted by students Thursday was from one of the classrooms on the third floor of the same building where Naser and his classmates were trapped. Mohammed Daud, a junior majoring in economics, described trying to calm frightened female classmates as they all heard firing in the dark and then a gunman walking toward their room.

"We all kept quiet. He entered the room and fired a few rounds and left," recalled Daud, who was being treated at the Emergency Hospital for a broken shoulder. "Then I saw our lecturer with blood on his chest. He walked toward the window and threw himself down." Daud said he was afraid to follow but heard another gunman approaching and jumped. On the ground he saw his teacher, an Afghan, lying dead.

"His name was Ahmad Naqib Khpelwak, and he was one of the best teachers," Daud said. "He had two master's degrees and was planning to begin his doctorate." Other students tweeted a photograph of Khpelwak, a handsome and confident-looking young man with a yellow scarf around his neck.

"We have lost another asset of Afghanistan," one of them tweeted.


Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

By Chris Mooney

Dazzling blue lakes are forming in Antarctica - and they've got scientists worried

Dazzling blue lakes are forming in Antarctica - and they've got scientists worried

In a new study, scientists who study the largest ice mass on Earth - East Antarctica - have found that it is showing a surprising feature reminiscent of the fastest melting one: Greenland.

More specifically, the satellite-based study found that atop the coastal Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica's Dronning Maud Land, large numbers of "supraglacial" or meltwater lakes have been forming - nearly 8,000 of them in summer between the year 2000 and 2013. Moreover, in some cases, just as in Greenland, these lakes appear to have then been draining down into the floating parts of the glacier, potentially weakening it and making it more likely to fracture and break apart.

This is the first time that such a drainage phenomenon has been observed in East Antarctica, the researchers say - though it was previously spotted on the warmer Antarctic Peninsula and was likely part of what drove spectacular events there like the shattering of the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002.

When it comes to East Antarctica, however, "that's the part of the continent where people have for quite a long time assumed that it's relatively stable, there's not a huge amount of change, it's very, very cold, and so, it's only very recently that the first supraglacial lakes, on top of the ice, were identified," said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University in the U.K. and one of the study's authors.

The study was led by Emily Langley of Durham, who worked along with Jamieson and Chris Stokes from her university and Amber Leeson of Lancaster University. The work was recently published online by Geophysical Research Letters.

The research raises concern, for the following reason: Mounting evidence suggests one reason that Greenland has been melting so fast lately is precisely these kinds of lakes. In the summer as air temperatures warm, lakes form on top of the ice sheet, and on its finger-like glaciers that extend outwards into deep ocean fjords.

These lakes can then suddenly disappear all at once, or flow into rivers that drain into the ice below, lubricating the ice and helping to increase the lurch forward of glaciers. Sometimes, researchers have even been able to document fresh water flowing outward directly into the sea from the base of a glacier. That injection of cold fresh water into salty water can then create tornado-like underwater flow patterns at the submerged glacier front that cause further ice loss.

In the new study, Langley and her colleagues find large numbers of lakes forming atop Langhovde Glacier, both inland from, and outward from, the so-called "grounding line," which is where the marine glacier touches the seafloor far below the ice surface. Past the grounding line, the glacier's ice begins to float and forms an ice shelf, extending out across the surface of the ocean.

The occurrence of these lakes was strongly related to surface air temperatures - they formed when temperatures rose above zero Celsius, or, above freezing, and formed most frequently in the summer of 2012-2013, which saw 37 days with temperatures above the freezing point.

"What we find is that the appearance of these lakes, unsurprisingly, is correlated directly with the air temperature in the region, and so the maximum number of lakes, and the total area of the lakes, as well as the depth of the lakes, all of these things peak when the air temperatures peak," said Jamieson.

The study found in particular that atop the Langhovde ice shelf, lakes not only formed but appeared to sometimes drain downward, as rapidly as in five days in one case (which is considerably slower than the fastest drainage events in Greenland).

This raises the concern that these events could possibly be weakening the ice shelf by widening or exploiting fractures within it. But Jamieson said the study could not prove that, in part because it is much harder to observe the consequences of lake draining events in Antarctica than it is in Greenland.

When glaciers lose large parts of their ice shelves, they become less stable and flow faster towards the ocean, contributing to an increased rate of global sea level rise.

"The size of the lakes . . . are probably not big enough to do much at present, but if climate warming continues in the future, we can only expect the size and number of these lakes to increase. So that's what we're looking at," Jamieson said.

He added that the mid-sized Langhovde Glacier is not special when it comes to East Antarctic meltwater lakes - other parts of coastal Antarctica see them too. The reason the study focused on Langhovde is simply that there was a lot of satellite and temperature data available.

In Greenland, when meltwater from the ice sheet's surface flows out from beneath glaciers and enters the sea, it often takes with it sediment from the glacier bedrock, washing it out as well. This leads to the appearance of what are called "meltwater plumes" in the ocean near glaciers, areas of water with significantly different coloration due to high levels of sediment concentration.

So far, such plumes have not been observed around East Antarctica, Jamieson said.

Still, the lakes, and especially the apparent drainage events, raise a distinct worry about the future of Antarctica, which contains vastly more ice than Greenland and which, thus far, has not been losing nearly as much. "The parallels between these mechanisms, and those observed on Greenland/the Antarctic Peninsula, suggest that lakes may similarly affect rates and patterns of ice melt, ice flow and ice shelf disintegration in East Antarctica," the study concludes.

Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State who was not involved in the study, noted in an email comment that seeing some Antarctic surface melt is not too surprising. "Across many sensors and studies, there is summertime melting on the surface of Antarctica around the edges, and sometimes in some places extending farther inland than you might think," he said.

However, Alley continued, we should be very concerned about such melting increasing. Alley referred to a study from earlier this year, by Rob DeConto of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and David Pollard of Penn State, which found that surface melt is one factor that could greatly speed total Antarctic ice loss, by increasing the tendency for "hydrofracture" to occur, in which meltwater helps to break apart ice shelves.

"The lesson of DeConto and Pollard was that, based on current understanding, avoiding a major expansion of surface melting in Antarctica is taking out insurance against a very large and rapid sea-level rise," Alley said. "This new work is part of the body of science needed to help us learn just how much warming may be too much if we wish to avoid large and rapid sea-level rise."

For now, scientists plan to use the instruments available - mainly, at the moment, satellites - to further study the Antarctic lakes.

"It's not hitting the glacier really hard at the moment, this process, but of course, as things warm up, we'd expect it to start doing more damage, like we see in Greenland," said Jamieson.

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff

There were two flags raised at Iwo Jima. The Marines now say they misidentified men at both.

There were two flags raised at Iwo Jima. The Marines now say they misidentified men at both.

The Marine Corps said in a statement Wednesday that it misidentified two men long thought to have helped raise the first of two American flags atop Mount Suribachi during the bloody battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in 1945.

The revelations come a little more than two months since the Marines said they had mistaken one of the individuals who helped raised the second flag, a moment captured in the iconic and Pulitzer-winning photograph taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal.

The tale of the two flags and the men who raised them on Feb. 23, 1945, has been a part of Marine Corps lore. But the details of what happened that day have been under closer scrutiny since the publication in 2014 of an Omaha World-Herald article featuring research by two amateur historians showing that one person had been misidentified in Rosenthal's famous photograph.

In May, the Marine Corps announced it had begun looking into Rosenthal's photograph, following inquiries from documentary filmmakers. The following month, the service said a panel - led by a retired Marine general - had concluded that a Marine in the second flag-raising had been misidentified. Navy Pharmacist's Mate James Bradley was actually a Marine private from Detroit named Harold Schultz.

Bradley, a Navy Cross recipient and subject of his son's book-later-turned-movie "Flags of our Fathers," was instead in the lesser-known, first flag-raising.

At the conclusion of the investigation into the second flag-raising, the same panel, using some of the same photographic evidence and material from the initial inquiry, looked into the first flag-raising.

The panel's conclusion? Two Marines, Pfc. Louis C. Charlo and Pfc. James R. Michels, did not participate in the initial flag-raising, as had been previously documented. Charlo, however, participated in a four-man reconnaissance patrol that went up Suribachi, while Michels held perimeter security nearby as the first flag went up.

Charles P. Neimeyer, the director of the Marines' History Division, said in a phone interview that an independent researcher had first approached the Marine Corps in 2011 with evidence that Charlo and Michels were not in the initial flag raising and decided after the investigation into Rosenthal's photograph that it would be prudent to try to update the record regarding the first raising.

The men who raised the first flag, according to the Marines' statement Wednesday, were 1st Lt. Harold G. Schrier, PhM2c John H. Bradley, Sgt. Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sgt. Henry O. Hansen, Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg and Pvt. Philip L. Ward.

Unlike the second flag raising, there were no pictures taken of the first flag going up, yet to the Marines fighting below, the sight of that initial flag flying was far more significant. It was the first indication they had seized the island's most significant piece of terrain and that the bloody battle might one day come to an end. On the summit, the only camera nearby as the first flag went up belonged to Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery, a Marine combat photographer with Leatherneck Magazine. As the flag was hoisted skyward he was reloading his film after snapping a series of pictures moments before.

"Our history is important, and we owe it to our Marines and their families to ensure it is as accurate as possible. After we reviewed the second flag raising and found inconsistencies, we wanted to take another look at the first flag raising to make sure we had it correct," said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller in a statement.

In the waning months of World War II, with massive quad-engine B-29 Superfortresses regularly bombing mainland Japan, the United States decided that Iwo Jima - with its lone airstrip - was an ideal spot for damaged bombers to land on their long return flights back to the Northern Mariana Islands.

The operation to seize the island, known as Operation Detachment, would last just over a month and cost the lives of more than 5,000 Marines and almost the entirety of the roughly 21,000 Japanese soldiers defending the volcanic, porkchop-shaped scab of earth.

When the flags went up on Feb. 23, the Marines had been fighting for nearly four days. Japanese machine gun nests and snipers dug in across the base of Suribachi had raked the Americans as they drew closer to the 550-foot mound, but on the morning of Feb. 23, the initial reconnaissance patrol that ascended the hill encountered no resistance, according to Marine Corps documents.

As the recon patrol descended the mountain, a roughly 30 man patrol from Echo Company 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, led by 1st Lt. Harold G. Schrier, began its trek up Suribachi. Schrier had been given a small American flag from another lieutenant who had been told by 2nd Battalion's commander to make sure the patrol took the flag up the mountain, according to documents provided by the Marine Corps.

After a nearly two hour hike, Schrier's men reached the summit and established defensive positions while a small element looked for a place to put up the flag. Two Marines found a piece of Japanese drainage pipe, while five others affixed the flag.

At around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1945, the first American flag went up over Iwo Jima. Ships offshore sounded their horns. Marines looked at their watches and up from their foxholes.

Over the years, many of the eyewitnesses, Neimeyer said, remembered the first flag going up, while almost no one had an exact time for when the second flag was actually raised.

Shortly after Lowrey snapped his pictures and Schrier radioed that the summit was secure, the first flag was taken down and was sent back to the bottom of the mountain to 2nd battalion's commanding officer. The flag was to be turned into a war trophy and replaced on Suribachi with a more prominent one, so roughly two hours later, a resupply patrol snaked its way back to the top of the mountain, this time with a bigger flag and the photographer Rosenthal in tow.

By Michael E. Ruane

Frankenstein lives, 200 years later

Frankenstein lives, 200 years later
Victor Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature in an engraving by Theodor von Holstafter for the frontispiece of

"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils . . . the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open"

--Victor Frankenstein

On a similar night in the summer of 1816, a gloomy season darkened by the ash of a distant volcano, 18-year-old Mary Shelley lay in bed, closed her eyes, and envisioned a tale of a madman who builds a monster from human body parts.

"My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me," she recalled later.

Her reverie would become "Frankenstein," the Gothic horror story of man's botched attempt at creation. And this summer marks the 200th anniversary of the night the young English intellectual came up with the idea while on vacation with her lover in Switzerland.

"It's always been enormously popular," said Bernard Welt, former professor of arts and humanities at George Washington University's Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, who has taught courses on Frankenstein.

"It's one of the two or three most-ordered texts at American colleges and universities," and has never been out of print, he said.

Shelley wrote later that it was "a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house."

A year earlier, in April 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, erupted in a massive explosion that blasted ash into the atmosphere and resulted in a "volcanic winter."

Partly as a result, 1816 became the Year Without a Summer, with unusually cold temperatures in North America and cold and rain in a Europe still recovering from the Napoleonic Wars.

Crops failed, and there were summer frosts and starvation. "There's a lot of evidence that there were messianic cults and prophesies, and people thinking it was the end of the world," Welt said.

Amid the dismal weather, Shelley and her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, passed the time with poet George Gordon Byron and Byron's physician, John William Polidori, vying to make up ghost stories.

"I busied myself to think of a story," she wrote years later. "One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror - one to make the reader dread to look around."

But she thought in vain, she wrote.

Then one night in bed, after a discussion with her friends about the nature of life and the possibility of reanimating the dead, a story came to her.

"I saw - with shut eyes, but acute mental vision . . . the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together . . . the hideous phantasm of a man," she recalled.

It was a disturbing thought. But the next morning she told her friends she had her story, and wrote a quick draft.

"Mary Shelley has a kind of genius," Welt said. "She actually takes on the burning, philosophical questions of her time . . . She's asking questions about the nature of life, and giving life."

"She and her circle were very, very interested in everything going on in science at the time," he said. "She talks about the experiments in electricity and the notion that it could animate lifeless matter."

Mary Shelley wondered: "Perhaps a corpse could be re-animated . . . Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth."

She referred to "galvanism," the idea - named for the Italian biologist Luigi Galvani - that an electric current might resuscitate dead tissue.

A famous demonstration had occurred in 1803 when a current was applied to the body of a hanged criminal.

"On the first application . . . the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened," according to a prison bulletin that carried an account of the experiment.

"In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion," the account continued. "Bystanders thought that the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life."

Inspired, Mary Shelley would have her protagonist Victor Frankenstein say:

"Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave?

"I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.

"The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation."

The novel was published in 1818, and Shelley's idea has endured for two centuries as one of Western literature's great horror tales.

It also gave birth to films such as "Son of Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," and "House," "Curse," "Evil," "Ghost," and "Revenge of Frankenstein," to name a few.

In the introduction to an 1831 edition of the book, Shelley wrote that she had affection for her "hideous progeny."

"It was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart," she wrote.

Nine years earlier, in 1822, her husband had drowned when a boat he was in sank in a storm in Italy's Gulf of La Spezia. He was 29. She was 24.

Frankenstein's pages, she wrote, "speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation when I was not alone, and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more."

By Maura Judkis

The African-American museum's food focus will go beyond soul

The African-American museum's food focus will go beyond soul
A 1912 tinted black-and-white postcard of a banana and pineapple vendor is part of the new museum's collection. On the back of it is a handwritten note:

WASHINGTON - Of course, there will be soul food. But that's not the soul of the foodways exhibition at the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"We wanted to break up the idea that there's one type of food, and that African-Americans all eat that type of food," said curator Joanne Hyppolite. "African-Americans have been involved in perfecting a number of American cuisines. Because literally, they were always in everyone's kitchen. It's way more diverse than soul food."

One area of focus? Oysters.

Catching, shucking and selling oysters was a way for African-Americans to make a living. "It's an industry they've been involved in from sea to table," Hyppolite said. Curators collected artifacts that were used by African-American oystermen and vendors, including an oyster basket, culling hammer and shucking bucket, as well as menus from Thomas Downing's Oyster House, a famous New York restaurant that attracted prominent white patrons. Many of the artifacts were purchased at a local antique store.

Street vendors, from the early 20th century to Baltimore's present-day Arabbers, are another area of concentration. The museum has amassed a series of old postcards depicting African-American fruit sellers, and an audiovisual component in the exhibition will include field recordings of their unique cries, which have been preserved by the Library of Congress.

That doesn't mean soul food will be absent from the exhibition. One item on display of particular significance is a pot from the longtime Washington, D.C., soul food restaurant Florida Avenue Grill.

"They would be extremely proud," said Lacey C. Wilson Jr., whose parents founded the Florida Avenue Grill in 1944. The younger Wilson, now 80, took over the restaurant from 1970 to 2005, when he sold it to Imar Hutchins. He said the fact that the museum acquired a collard greens pot was especially meaningful: "It was a staple there for 60 years."

Collards also speak to the evolution of soul food, Hyppolite said. After all, "now they have a vegan version."

The foodways exhibition is part of the Cultural Expressions Gallery, which will also include artifacts relating to fashion, crafts, dance and language. Within the foodways portion of the exhibition, there will be three areas of focus, divided regionally: The North will encompass the oyster industry; the agricultural South will focus on collard greens; and the Creole South will examine the cuisine of New Orleans and diaspora Caribbean communities, with an emphasis on red beans and rice.

Those three topic areas align with the stations in the museum's restaurant, North Star Cafe, named for the beacon in the sky that escaped slaves followed to freedom. But in the cafe, there will be one more area of focus: The West. That means there will be barbecue in the restaurant, but not in the museum - a decision that may raise the hackles of some barbecue traditionalists.

"We had it slated, and then we just ran out of space," Hyppolite said.

Throughout all of the topic areas, the museum will tell the stories of famous African-Americans such as Hercules, George Washington's enslaved cook, and New Orleans chef Leah Chase, whose jacket and cookbook will be on exhibit. Curators are also beginning to amass a collection of early cookbooks and other culinary literature, such as "The Negro Motorist Green-Book," which functioned as an early Michelin guide for African-American travelers, telling them which restaurants and hotels were safe to visit during segregation.

There are food-related objects elsewhere in the museum, too. An exhibition on segregation includes stools from the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in, which will be displayed in a re-creation of the lunch counter where the demonstration took place. Also in that exhibition are displays of the stereotypical images of African-Americans - like the "mammy" caricature - that were often depicted on food packaging and advertisements, as well as throughout pop culture.

"In some instances they were (depicted) to endorse the quality of the food," said guest curator Spencer Crew. In others, "they used stereotypical imagery to get people to chuckle."

The museum's collection of food artifacts is small: Only 74 items out of the 37,000 total. But it is growing: Now that the opening exhibitions are finalized, Hyppolite says curators can move on to what they call "Day 2" collecting, or sourcing a broader selection of objects for future exhibitions. Hyppolite's goal is to acquire an object or cooking implement from every famous African American chef, whether it's a handwritten recipe, a pot, a hat or a menu.

Still, there are difficulties in collecting culinary artifacts for a museum.

"Food smells, and food things attract pests. So we have to think very strategically when we're collecting cooking implements," Hyppolite said. "We don't want pests in our collection because then they go to other parts of the collection and damage those areas."

That was something they had to consider when acquiring the Florida Avenue Grill pot. It had to be cleaned, but not too much.

"That used pot has a lot of life," said Michèle Gates Moresi, curator of collections. "The grime and the grease is part of the story."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

By dana milbank

Is Jill Stein the Ralph Nader of 2016?

Is Jill Stein the Ralph Nader of 2016?

WASHINGTON -- Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, favors alternative energy -- and she leads by example. On Tuesday, she burned one of her own supporters.

Stein, making an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, took her campaign on an unexpected detour when she accused the famed leftist Noam Chomsky of being cowardly. The 87-year-old icon of the left, though a backer of Stein’s, has said that the only “rational choice” for swing-state voters is to support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

“How do you get past that hurdle?” Sam Husseini from VotePact, a group that supports third parties, asked Stein from the audience.

The candidate, in reply, accused Chomsky of embracing “this politics of fear that tells you have to vote against what you’re afraid of rather than for what you truly believe. So, Noam Chomsky has supported me in my home state, you know, when he felt safe to do so. I think it’s fair to say my agenda is far closer to his than Hillary Clinton. But he subscribes to the politics of fear.”

If opposing Trump is subscribing to the politics of fear, then put me down for a lifetime subscription.

In ordinary times, a voice such as Stein’s contributes to the national debate. But these are not ordinary times. Trump’s narrow path to the presidency requires Stein to do well in November, and polls indicate Trump does better with her in the race. But, 16 years after Ralph Nader helped swing the presidency to George W. Bush from Al Gore, liberals (including Bernie Sanders supporters) who otherwise agree with Stein are more inclined to recognize that she makes more likely the singular threat of a President Trump.

That’s why, even in this year of change, she’s polling about 3 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. And that, in turn, is why only about half of the 20 seats were full when I arrived in the Press Club’s Bloomberg Room (even the Green Party nominee can’t escape those billionaires) a few minutes before her news conference.

There is much to like about Stein, 66. She arrived by cab and took all questions -- in marked contrast to Clinton, who has gone more than 260 days without a news conference. Stein spoke with a passion for policy, remarking unbidden on the plight of the “Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota” and speaking with a physician’s authority about “air pollution and its various sequelae.”

“We have a climate emergency,” said Stein, “an absolutely devastating sea-level rise that would essentially wipe out coastal population centers, including the likes of Manhattan, and Florida” in 50 years. She called this “a Hail Mary moment,” and one in which “we’re really looking our mortality in the face.”

Stein offered a refreshing break from the 2016 debate, which ricochets from Clinton’s emails to Trump’s outrages and staff shake-ups but rarely settles on substance. “Our future is imperiled,” she said. “There are more important things for us to be talking about.”

But a moment later, there Stein was saying Clinton “put at risk” national security and the names of CIA agents. Stein said Clinton’s character is “not compatible with someone that you want to trust as the leader of the country.” She continued to talk this way about Clinton with reporters in the hallway after the session, which naturally led to headlines not about climate change but along the lines of this from David Weigel’s article in The Washington Post: “Jill Stein: Clinton emails reveal security risks, ‘special deals’ for donors.”

Stein complained about the 15 percent polling threshold keeping her and Libertarian Gary Johnson out of the presidential debates. But can she expect more than her 3 percent when she talks of boycotting Israel, spreads unwarranted fears about vaccines and WiFi, and has a running mate -- Ajamu Baraka -- who called President Obama an Uncle Tom?

Most disturbing is the Green Party nominee’s creation of a phony equivalence between Clinton, a flawed and unloved but conventional candidate, and Trump, who is running a campaign of bigotry, xenophobia and intimations of violence.

“Donald Trump says terrifying things. Hillary Clinton actually has an extremely troubling record,” Stein said Tuesday, calling the Democrats the “party of fracking,” the “party of expanding wars” and the “party of immigrant deportations.”

This is the sort of stuff I heard driving between campaign stops with Nader in 2000. It wasn’t entirely true then. Now, with Trump on the ballot, any attempt to draw parallels between the two parties is preposterous.

Noam Chomsky knows that. It appears voters do, too.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

By robert j. samuelson

The comeback of middle-wage jobs

The comeback of middle-wage jobs

WASHINGTON -- One of the economy’s bright spots is the job market -- and it may be even brighter than it seems. Not only are there more jobs (1.3 million so far in 2016), but they may be better-paying, according to a new analysis by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Fed economists report that middle-wage workers -- earning roughly $30,000 to $60,000 -- represent the fastest growing segment of the labor market. By contrast, earlier in the recovery, low-wage and high-wage jobs dominated employment increases.

The labor market was supposedly becoming economically “polarized,” just as society was becoming politically polarized. Now, the new analysis suggests that the labor-market polarization “may have peaked, and middle-wage jobs could be ready for a renaissance,” as my Washington Post colleague Ylan Q. Mui wrote in a nice blog post on the New York Fed study.

Assuming that the trend lasts through Election Day, it’s probably a plus for Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t eliminate jobs as an issue, but it blunts discontent. Here’s what the New York Fed study reported.

Although middle-wage occupations represent about half of all jobs -- teachers, factory workers, truck drivers, construction workers -- they accounted for only 22 percent of new jobs between 2010 and 2013. Lower-wage occupations -- earning $30,000 or less as fast-food workers, sales clerks, janitors -- accounted for 40 percent of new jobs, well above their 30 percent share of existing employment. And high-paying occupations -- with median wages of $60,000 or more, earned by doctors, lawyers, managers and engineers -- represented 38 percent of new jobs, despite being only 20 percent of existing jobs.

Between 2013 and 2015, this pattern reversed, say the New York Fed economists. In these years, middle-wage jobs accounted for 43 percent of expanded employment, lower-wage occupations for 30 percent, and high-wage occupations for 28 percent.

Just what caused the shift is unclear. Economist Harry Holzer of Georgetown University attributes much of the change to the business cycle. “In the early years, there was a lot of uncertainty. Business leaders didn’t know whether the recovery would continue. Many resisted assuming the added costs of more expensive employees,” he says. (Presumably, the highest-paid workers had skills more in demand.) Construction also recovered slowly, he said, frustrating middle-wage job growth in that sector.

With the recovery now in its eighth year, confidence and hiring have strengthened, he said. Between 2013 and 2015, blue-collar jobs rose sharply. Employment increased 400,000 in construction, 300,000 in manufacturing, 500,000 in transportation (mainly truck drivers) and 250,000 in installation and repair (of, say, air conditioning systems).

It’s unclear whether these gains are temporary or whether they signal a decisive turn in job creation. If permanent, said The New York Times, “it may soon be time to retire a familiar criticism of the long but lackluster economic rebound ... [that it has promoted] the hollowing out of the American middle class.”

What’s happening, Holzer said, is that middle-wage jobs have become split. There’s what he calls “the old middle” of factory workers, construction workers and the rest. These jobs are declining over time. But there’s also a “new middle” of jobs -- health care technicians, high-tech maintenance workers, paralegals, and store managers -- that’s growing rapidly. These jobs require more formal education than “old middle” jobs. The question, Holzer said, is whether the country can remake its education system to provide the skills that the economy now demands.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group

By ruth marcus

Obliging a donor is not necessarily criminal

Obliging a donor is not necessarily criminal

WASHINGTON -- On the subject of the Clinton Foundation and newly disclosed State Department emails, let us first dispense with Donald Trump’s unhinged calls for a special prosecutor to investigate what he terms a corrupt “pay for play” arrangement.

“The amounts involved, the favors done and the significant numbers of times it was done require an expedited investigation by a special prosecutor immediately, immediately, immediately,” Trump proclaimed.

Actually, the facts so far don’t come close to special prosecutor territory. The “favors done” -- the supposed quo for the Clinton Foundation quid -- appear pretty meager. Doug Band, the Bill Clinton aide and then-foundation official, asked Hillary Clinton’s State Department aides for occasional help on behalf of folks who had written checks to the foundation or associated entities: a meeting with a crown prince here (”good friend of ours,” Band noted), a favor for a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman there (”key guy ... to us,” Band observed).

But for the most part, the Band missives produced ... nothing. The crown prince of Bahrain got his meeting, but there’s every reason to think that would have happened anyway.

For his part, foundation donor -- oh, and by the way, international celebrity -- Bono struck out when he asked for help figuring out who to contact at NASA to stream his band’s concerts to the International Space Station. So did a sports entertainment executive whose charity gave millions to the foundation and who wanted visa assistance for a British soccer player with a criminal history.

“Makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask,” Clinton aide Huma Abedin responded to Band’s request -- expediting an interview at the embassy in London -- on the soccer player. “Then don’t,” Band replied, and that seems to have been the end of the matter. Where’s the crime, exactly?

But there are other, more pertinent and reasonable questions, to ask here: Why, oh why, since the Clintons know their activities will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny -- since, as Clinton partisans claim, with some justification, she is pilloried for conduct for which others receive a pass -- do they continue to operate in a manner that opens them to attack by their enemies?

Specifically, why -- given that the notion of another run for the presidency wasn’t exactly off the table -- did Clinton (and the staff that was supposed to be looking after her interests) not erect an impenetrable wall between foundation and State?

After all, it’s not as if the prospect of questions about self-dealing did not occur at the time. The December 2008 agreement between the foundation and the Obama administration cites the need to “ensure that the activities of the foundation, however beneficial, do not create conflicts or the appearance of conflict.”

One way to understand what happened here is to ask whether the favors that Band and others requested from the Clinton State Department would have been sought -- and, to the extent they were, would have been granted -- even if the Clinton Foundation had never come into existence.

In the Clintons’ world, as in that of many politicians, the lines blur to the point of invisibility: between donor and friend, between present role and past (or future) utility. Did Hillary Clinton have “time to spare” for Maureen White based on her $75,000 check to the foundation -- or because White was a State Department adviser on humanitarian issues, or because she was a major Democratic fundraiser and Clinton’s 2008 finance co-chair?

Did SlimFast founder S. Daniel Abraham get an immediate 15 minutes with Clinton because he’d donated millions to the foundation -- or because Abraham has a long-standing involvement with the Middle East, or because he is one of the Democrats’ biggest donors and a former Hillary Clinton bundler? Abraham has given $2 million this election to a super-PAC supporting Clinton.

The imperative to accommodate donors like these existed separate from their usefulness to the foundation. The natural instinct of the smart politician -- an instinct and activity not unique to Clinton -- is to accommodate donors to the extent permissible.

Yet she was the secretary of state, not an elected official. Her husband’s simultaneous role at the foundation presented an inherently dangerous situation that called for extreme caution. She knew she was, or could become, a political target.

And she has, once again, given her enemies the ammunition they are only too delighted to use against her.

Ruth Marcus’ email address is

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

By e.j. dionne jr.

In search of humble prophets

In search of humble prophets

WASHINGTON -- Over the last several decades, those who view religion with respect regularly come back to the same question: What has happened to the religious intellectuals, the thinkers taken seriously by nonbelievers as well as believers?

In this increasingly secular time, a natural follow-up question ratifies the point of the original query: Who cares? Why should the thinking of those inspired by faith even matter to those who don’t share it?

Well, historically, secular and religious intellectuals often engaged in helpful dialogue, and Alan Jacobs, a Baylor University scholar, suggests that religious intellectuals are the missing solvent in our fractious culture wars: They are uniquely well-placed to mediate between secular liberals and conservative believers whom progressives often see as “forces of reaction.”

The religious intellectuals, Jacobs writes in the current issue of Harper’s, are “people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order.”

The usual mourning over the “lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators,” Jacobs notes, is “familiarly known as the ‘Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?’ problem,” after the great 20th-century theologian -- and one of my own heroes. He graced the cover of Time magazine in 1948, a real marker then of more than modest fame.

Jacobs’ effort is thoughtful and well worth engaging. But I am not sure we have a shortage of Christian intellectuals (although I may be biased because some of my best friends might be counted as part of this group). Rather, we live in a world where (1) religion has been subsumed by politics; (2) many liberals have accepted the view that religion now lives almost entirely on the right end of politics; (3) the popular media tend to focus on the most extreme and outlandish examples of religion rather than the more thoughtful kind; which means that (4) the quieter forms of religious expression -- left, right and center -- rarely win notice on the covers of magazines or anywhere else.

Put another way: Even Reinhold Niebuhr could not be Reinhold Niebuhr in 2016.

The politicization of religion is obvious, and it tells us something that when we routinely talk about “religious issues,” we are not talking about what people think about the nature of God or how to contemplate the Exodus or the Resurrection. We go straight to hot-button issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

As the wise sociologist Alan Wolfe has noted: “At earlier periods in American history, people have argued over which Bible should be read in schools and how it should be interpreted. Those were debates that put theology first. The people who fight today’s culture war, by contrast, put politics first.”

The result: Religion is talked about a lot, but mostly superficially. “The absence of sustained, public scrutiny of religious ideas in our time,” the Berkeley historian David Hollinger has written, “has created a vacuum filled with easy God talk.”

Moreover, public discussion of religion often ignores the rich and visionary tradition of African-American Christianity except in times of crisis (most recently, the massacre at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston) or controversy (the attention paid to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign).

Occasionally, Pope Francis’ passionate pleas on behalf of social justice penetrate the public consciousness. But more typically, the relative lack of attention to non-stereotypical versions of Christianity reinforces the tendency of more secular people to treat religion as consistently promoting either extremism or, in milder forms, garden-variety conservative politics.

If you are looking for an antidote to this impasse, I’d suggest Cathleen Kaveny’s inspiring book published earlier this year, “Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square.” Kaveny, a professor at Boston College and, yes, a Christian intellectual, suggests that religion’s most powerful public role involves “prophetic indictment” of our shortcomings. Martin Luther King Jr. is one model of this, Abraham Lincoln another.

She insists that the most powerful prophets are tempered by “a lively sense of humility.” They understand both the limits of their knowledge and their own moral shortcomings. They also have “social humility regarding the status of other peoples, including one’s enemies, in God’s affections.” In other words, they don’t consign their foes to hell.

Humble prophets are hard to find, especially in this election year, but they have a special vocation: to remind the skeptical that religion, which can indeed be divisive, is also a moral prod and an intellectual spark.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

By dana milbank

Sean Hannity, Trump’s ‘spin doctor’

Sean Hannity, Trump’s ‘spin doctor’

“I’m a journalist who interviews people who I disagree with all the time.”

-- Sean Hannity, 2008

“I never claimed to be a journalist.”

-- Sean Hannity, 2016

WASHINGTON -- Not since lawmakers diagnosed Terri Schiavo’s condition from the Senate floor has there been such medical quackery in the political realm.

Last week, Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald reported that a letter attesting to Donald Trump’s magnificent health (he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”) was not from an internist but from a gastroenterologist. This belly doctor boasted that “Mr. Trump has had a recent complete medical examination that showed only positive results.” Like for giardia?

That followed a segment on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News Channel in which the host elicited speculation about Hillary Clinton’s neurological health from ... a urologist. The urinary-tract specialist, part of a “Fox News Medical A-Team,” speculated for Hannity that a photo of the Democratic presidential nominee being assisted by her Secret Service detail while climbing stairs could indicate dehydration, arthritis, back pain or a fall. (The original photo caption said she merely stumbled and was caught by her agents.)

I’m not a doctor, but my brother is a urologist, and I went to night school for bartending. By current standards, therefore, I am qualified to diagnose Hannity as having professional dissociative identity disorder: He can’t decide whether he’s a journalist or a Trump operative.

In Monday’s New York Times, the prime-time TV news host admitted to media columnist Jim Rutenberg that he has been privately advising Trump. Hannity, who, according to CNN, paid for a private jet last month to fly Newt Gingrich to meet with Trump, told Rutenberg that his unabashed promotion of Trump isn’t a problem because he “never claimed to be a journalist.” Except that he had. And he plays a journalist on television for an hour each weeknight.

The affliction is common, apparently. Stephen Bannon, the head of Breitbart News, has become the chief executive of Trump’s campaign. Fox News founder Roger Ailes, just ousted, is advising the campaign, too.

The overt campaigning for Trump by the likes of Hannity, Ailes and Bannon does no favors for conservatism. And Hannity’s collusion with the candidate and his peddling of conspiracy theories in support of Trump undermine the many serious journalists at Fox News.

But the network has been here before. Remember Glenn Beck? “I tell you all the time: I’m not a journalist,” the self-proclaimed “rodeo clown” liked to tell his Fox News audience.

Instead of journalism, Beck gave viewers paranoia -- helping to create the fear and loathing in the electorate that gave rise to Trump. Before Fox finally showed him the door in 2011, Beck urged viewers to hoard food in their homes, spun endless conspiracy theories, and played with anti-Semitic stereotypes and violent imagery.

Now Trump has run with Beck’s apocalyptic themes -- alarming even Beck, who has become a fierce critic of Trump. When Beck said recently that the Trump campaign’s then-chairman, Paul Manafort, had been illegally soliciting foreign money, Hannity’s Fox News colleague Bill O’Reilly, another Trump booster, cautioned Beck that he could “end up in jail” for disparaging Manafort.

“That’s my point,” Beck replied, adding: “Donald Trump has people chanting, ‘Put them in jail, put them in jail,’ about the press. When is someone’s opinion on a public figure something that is jail-worthy and not First Amendment protected?”

Such a question might have troubled Hannity during those occasions when he fancied himself a journalist over the years. Instead, he has gone full Grassy Knoll, in a manner reminiscent of Beck. In recent days, he has floated the theories that Clinton’s Secret Service agents carried a syringe to administer anti-seizure medicine to her (the “syringe” turned out to be a flashlight) and that a video showing what Hannity claimed were “violent, out-of-control movements” of Clinton’s head was evidence of a seizure (she had been joking with reporters).

While we’re doing conspiracy theories, here’s another: Could the highly unpopular Trump have won the GOP nomination if he hadn’t had so much help from Fox News -- and, in particular, from Hannity?

A tally in April by the liberal ThinkProgress blog found that Trump appeared on Hannity’s show 41 times in the first 10 months of his campaign. Hannity talked up Trump’s poll numbers, defended Trump against accusations and asked him questions such as “Is it time for all American politicians to get rid of political correctness?”

Now that Hannity acknowledges advising Trump, he needs only a title to make his role official. Maybe he could be Trump’s personal physician?

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

By catherine rampell

Millennials aren’t buying homes. Good for them.

Millennials aren’t buying homes. Good for them.

Millennial homeownership rates are way, way down. And believe it or not, that’s probably a good thing.

Across all age groups, the U.S. homeownership rate — at 62.9 percent — has now fallen to its lowest level in more than five decades. Among younger Americans only, things look especially paltry.

Homeownership rates among Americans under age 35 are barely more than half the national number, at just 34.1 percent. This too is a record low and about a fifth below its peak from the go-go years of the mid-2000s.

Young people, it seems, are finding themselves falling further and further away from the American dream of homeownership. As you’ve surely heard by now, not only are they not buying their own houses, but they’re also increasingly not even (BEG ITAL)renting(END ITAL) their own places. Instead, they’re returning to — or perhaps, never leaving — the nest.

Today about a third of 18-to-34-year-olds live with their parents. And for the first time since at least 1880, a greater share of this age group is bunking with Mom and Dad than living in any other arrangement (such as dwelling alone or with a romantic partner).

Things have gotten so dire that young adults have now replaced the elderly as the age group most likely to live in multigenerational households, according to the Pew Research Center.

Many colorful theories abound for millennials’ abandonment of homeownership. There are, for example, lots of think pieces about millennials’ purported love of the sharing economy and associated communitarian disavowal of all kinds of ownership — whether that be of houses, cars, or even clothes.

But this explanation is wrong, at least when it comes to housing.

Recent survey data show that young people very much still aspire to buy a home, and expect to do so one day. Among people ages 25 to 34 who rent, 93 percent say they are likely to buy a home someday, according to Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey. That compares with just 81 percent of renters overall. The Demand Institute has found similar results.

So why are young people delaying getting that deed?

One, they’re putting off getting married, which many still see as a prerequisite to homeownership. (Though a large chunk of millennials, I should note, instead view homeownership as a prerequisite to marriage.)

Two — and this is part of the reason they’re delaying marriage, too — is that they’re poor.

Relative to earlier generations, today’s cohort of young people is making less money, given their levels of education; more indebted with student loans; more likely to be underemployed; struggling harder to sock away savings; and facing shallower income-growth trajectories.

In short: Millennials want to buy houses, but they simply can’t afford to.

And unlike during the mid-2000s, there’s no credit bubble to paper over their pathetic earnings so they can buy that humble bungalow or huge McMansion.

The reasons behind this homeownership slide are certainly nothing to celebrate. But the slide itself might be.

We as a society tend to overvalue homeownership, at least from a financial perspective. Were it not for the psychic and sentimental benefits of homeownership, it’s otherwise hard to imagine financial advisers counseling their clients to dump all their savings into a single, giant, highly illiquid asset.

Especially one that, on average, shows such meager returns.

Over the past century, home prices have risen an average of about 0.6 percent per year, according to data from economist and Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller. Investing in an index fund has, on average, far higher returns than owning, even after you take into account the costs of renting and the tax subsidies for buying.

For millennials, a mass lifestyle shift away from owning and toward either renting or crashing with relatives could be especially advantageous. That’s because buying a house not only locks up your savings; it also locks you, the owner, into a specific geographic location.

For workers who are just figuring out their careers — and who, given the unlucky timing of their graduations, are more likely to have started out in low-paying positions — this seems especially wrongheaded. We want young workers to be mobile and to have as few frictions for job-hopping as possible. Changing jobs is, after all, the main way young people get raises and derail themselves from a poorly paying job track.

In other realms — such as health insurance — policymakers have been actively trying to reduce this so-called job lock. Millennials’ relative rootlessness, even if involuntary, may have the same effect, by making it easier for young workers to seize better job opportunities if and when they finally do arise.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

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