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His collection of miniatures from around the world fills 16 rooms. And he's not done yet.

By Eddie Dean
His collection of miniatures from around the world fills 16 rooms. And he's not done yet.
Detail of a

It's Sunday in a typical village in Venezuela. The Mass in the cathedral is over and the market square is packed. There are fishmongers and queso fresco vendors and a newspaper hawker and kids playing hide-and-seek and other games, and, in the center of the commotion, a cow that's parked itself near the church door.

The figures are as small as Jorge Flores's eyeballs as he peers into the window of the barbershop, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput. He points out an inch-high man getting a shave next to another tiny customer reading a newspaper. Then his eyes dart back out to the crowd, where he points to a girl in a ring-around-the-rosie circle who's tumbling to the ground after losing her grip in the chain of hands.

"This is a very funny moment the artist put into the scene," says Flores with an impish smile. "That's what miniatures are all about - the details and the craftsmanship and the charm. This is art. It doesn't have to be a Raphael to deliver a message of joy and fun."

The elaborate and exuberant set of nearly 200 pieces, molded from clay and hand-painted in vibrant colors, was made by a woman in a craft shop in Caracas more than 50 years ago. It's one of thousands of such miniatures from around the world displayed in the Potomac, Md., home of Flores, 74, who has spent a half-century amassing his collection.

There are strutting roosters from Portugal; a pearl from China handwritten with poetry; Navajo Kachinas dancing in feathered ceremonial regalia; trolls from Norway; a marimba band from Mexico whittled from toothpicks; bronze gods and cornhusk dolls from Nepal; model ships from Vietnam; an ebony Noah's Ark from Malawi; a half-inch Don Quixote twisted from a single strand of wire; minuscule food dishes from Thailand; a spotted cow from Germany licking its side with a tongue out of a Tex Avery cartoon; a sandalwood figurine from India of a Rajasthani woman in a traditional dress, with hidden pocket-drawers that reveal famous royal maharajahs and epic battle scenes with warriors and elephants; and a street peddler from the Salvadoran town of Ilobasco (when you lift the lids of her pottery, there are also "live" armadillos for sale).

Flores's vast mini-world fills 16 rooms. It's a staggering display of visually arresting objects that can be an overwhelming experience when you take the host-guided tour. Just when you think you've seen - or maybe hallucinated - it all, Flores ushers you into yet another room with shelves of more small-scale wonders waiting their turn in the spotlight. By his own estimation, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 figures in roughly 4,000 sets.

Incredible as it may seem after viewing his stash, Flores is a discriminating, finicky connoisseur who rejects most of what he comes across in his never-ending quest. He has strict criteria for what makes the cut: The piece has to be handmade and meet his standards of creativity and workmanship. Most important, it has to bring a smile to his face.

Most of the sets come with a backstory about the artist and how Flores tracked the piece down in a far-flung part of the globe. Take one of his favorites, a set of carved wooden figures from Mozambique. It depicts a real-life event during a deadly flood in 2000 when a pregnant woman escaped the rising waters by climbing a tree, where she gave birth. The set features the dramatic scene when she and her baby girl, Rosita, are rescued by helicopter. "Every year on her birthday Rosita is in the newspapers with a new photo and story about her life," he told me. "They still remember her in Mozambique."

As with many of the countries represented in the collection, Mozambique is not just a place on a map for Flores. He worked on malaria vaccines with a clinic based there during his time as an infectious diseases expert with the National Institutes of Health.

In the last decade, his collection has more than doubled in size, and he has become a patron as well as a collector. He and his partner, Elizabeth, who accompanies him on search expeditions, have befriended many of the miniatures artists. One is the Jangid family of Jaipur, India, who come from a long line of traditional wood carvers. The exquisitely wrought figurine of the Rajasthani woman is one of many pieces he has commissioned from the family. For Flores, it's a way of not only adding to his stash but helping to financially support the practitioners of a dying art.

"They are poets," Flores says of the artists. "They enjoy the work they do. It brings out their soul and goes into every piece they make. They have a lot of originality and craftmanship, and they deserve to be known outside their villages."

It was a homely frog prince, tiny as a thumbnail, that first helped spark Flores's obsession. He bought the German-made, painted-wood piece for 70 cents at a shop in Cambridge, Mass., where he was a clinical-research fellow at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s. His collection soon expanded after trips to Mexico, a destination for folk-art miniatures including fleas in traditional dress performing a hat dance.

It wasn't long before the completist streak of his miniature mania took hold. "I think you have to have the passion for collecting that is kind of an unnatural gene defect," he told me. "Collectors collect because they're curious and they want to bring things together and look at them all together. Let's say that I had the New York Yankees in little figurines handmade by a rural artist, and if I didn't have Mickey Mantle, it wouldn't be complete, right? You have to have everyone from the team."

His collection now includes 120 countries, with miniatures hotbeds like India, Mexico, Vietnam, Germany, Indonesia and Japan well represented. Recently he has been able to fill gaps by acquiring hand-stitched figurines depicting a crochety old couple from Montenegro and a set of the earliest Christian churches from Armenia.

A friend and colleague, Dave Keuler, has seen the collection twice. "It's an absolutely jaw-dropping display of artisanal mastery with pieces that reflect so many traditional cultures," says Keuler, a clinical psychologist from Silver Spring. "It captures so much of what's great about what it means to be a human being - that creativity and stick-to-it-ness and passion and desire to memorialize cultures."

An avid antiques collector, Keuler thinks the pieces deserve a wider audience. "It feels like a national treasure," he says, "and I hope it finds a place where it can be enjoyed by people. I hope it doesn't end up in boxes." Indeed, with his recent retirement after 32 years at NIH, Flores says he now wants to find space to open a miniatures museum in Montgomery County.

Recently, Flores acquired several prized sets that were custom-made for him by a Peruvian couple in Lima. The painstaking work took two years from commission to completion, and Flores says it was worth the wait. One is a set of the National Children's Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The artisan mistakenly put two batons in the hands of Dudamel instead of one. When Flores saw the pair of batons, he was delighted. "I won't dare to ever change that," he says, noting that it will give him a teachable moment if school groups ever visit his future museum: He will test the children's knowledge of classical music by asking them what's different about this conductor - aside from being very small.

After 535 days away from school, can a West Baltimore teen make it to graduation?

By Peter Jamison
After 535 days away from school, can a West Baltimore teen make it to graduation?
Like many students at Renaissance Academy, Corey Byrd struggled to keep up with his coursework while school buildings were closed. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Blackshire

BALTIMORE - At 8 a.m. on the last Monday in August, when he would normally have been asleep, Corey Byrd stepped aboard a city bus that creaked to a stop across the street from his grandmother's West Baltimore rowhouse. He sat near an old man squinting at his own reflection in his phone as he scraped a safety razor over his shaven head, and waited to be carried toward the place around which his life had once orbited, and which he had not seen for more than 17 months: His high school.

The southbound 85 bus closed its doors, and Corey watched as the familiar sights of Park Heights Avenue receded. The bus passed the dark bay windows of vacant rowhouses and the A-Z Food Market and Discount Liquor store - the corner he and his friends had occupied through many of the 535 afternoons that he had not been in a classroom. It took him in the opposite direction from the Checkers where he had learned to log into virtual courses on his phone without taking a break from ringing up Big Buford combo meals. After a transfer and a train ride, Corey approached a brick building where Rihanna blasted from the entrance.

"Mask over your face! Mask over your face! Welcome back," Kevin James, a school resource officer, shouted over the heads of the teens surging past him in crimson Renaissance Academy polo shirts. When Corey approached, James embraced him. Then the Baltimore City School Police officer stepped back to assess the young man who was no longer quite so young as the last time he had seen him: A skinny 18-year-old, with mid-length braids, artfully torn jeans and a black face mask with the words "No Excusez."

"You back?" James said. "How you doin'?"

"Good," Corey replied, sliding past the police officer and through the Renaissance Academy metal detector. "I only got two credits left."

"That's nothing," Jones called after him. "You got that."

But did he? Like many of his classmates at Renaissance, a school of about 270 near Baltimore's McCulloh Homes, Corey had found it hard to stay on track even before the pandemic. Over the many months that school buildings were closed during the worst disruption to public education in modern American history, his connection had only grown more tenuous.

More work now stood between him and his diploma than he realized; in fact, his chronic absences from his teachers' computer screens had put him on a list of students in danger of dropping out after their prolonged struggles with virtual learning.

Hundreds of thousands of students across the country were similarly at risk. A McKinsey & Company report released in July estimated that between 617,000 and 1.2 million teens nationwide were more likely to drop out because of coronavirus-related school closures. In Miami and Chicago, in New York City and Detroit, school officials had fanned out over the summer to reestablish contact with some of those kids. And they had done so in Baltimore, where spikes in absenteeism were particularly acute among students with disabilities and those living in poverty. Almost a third of Renaissance Academy's student body was on the same outreach list as Corey.

Parents in the suburbs had fretted over lost sports seasons or setbacks to AP coursework. But at Renaissance and other high schools serving large numbers of at-risk children, more fundamental things were at stake. A diploma meant a chance at a job that didn't involve standing on a corner or over a deep fryer; that didn't carry the threat of violent death, prison or poverty.

Renaissance Academy's staff fought to pull every student off the streets and across the graduation stage, but when students were sent home, the streets began to pull them back.

"I can remember days thinking, 'We're going to lose a whole generation,'" Renaissance Academy Principal Tammatha Woodhouse said. "I think we've lost a lot of kids already - across the city, across the country, across the state. I'm wondering what those numbers are. And how do you get them back?"

The answer depended on what lay ahead for students like Corey, who walked down the hallway - past Woodhouse as she greeted her returning students amid the roar of industrial fans brought in to offset a broken air-conditioning system - and into his first-period algebra class. Doreen Andrews, the instructor, knew Corey well: He had failed her class once before.

She remained one of his favorite teachers.

"Corey, what's your last name?"

"You know my last name," he said.

"I forgot it," she said.

"Byrd. B-Y-R-D."

"Get to be my age, and we'll talk about it," Andrews said.

"I remember your first name," she added, bending over a form on her desk. "I'll tell you that."

Corey smiled. "Because I was a nuisance."

For the first time in first period on the first day of school, Andrews laughed.

- - -

Inside her home on Park Heights Avenue, Robbie Byrd's living room was a shrine to the academic achievements of her grandchildren. At its center was a wrought-iron display shelf devoted to what was, so far, their crowning achievement: Tyree Byrd's high school diploma. She looked forward to the day when she would display a second diploma, this one bearing the name of Tyree's younger brother, Corey.

He already appeared in framed photographs across her house, holding his graduation certificate from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle School. She had taken in her grandson when he was 3, after it became clear that neither her son - Corey's father, absent for long stretches in prison on robbery and gun charges - nor his drug-addicted mother would provide him with something fit to be called a home.

But Ma, as Corey called her with quiet reverence, did. It was Ma who had carefully maintained their rented rowhouse as boards went up over the windows of other homes on the block, and Ma who collected and preserved Corey's Pop Warner football trophies. She had raised a child who taped up the Kobe Bryant poster that still hung on his bedroom wall and played basketball with friends at the nearby playground that the neighborhood had nicknamed Candystripe.

Now that child was on the verge of manhood, a delicate scrollwork of tattoos down his forearms, his imagination captured by YoungBoy Never Broke Again - a 21-year-old rapper who like Corey had been raised by his grandma, and whose latest album was topping the charts even as he sat in jail awaiting trial on gun charges.

Corey had never been in that kind of trouble. (One of his tattoos is his grandmother's name.) But Robbie knew from painful experience how easy it was for young men in West Baltimore to stray, and she no longer relished the idea of her grandson spending much time outside her walls.

"I don't try to be too hard on him," said Robbie, 62. "But once he's in the house, he's in the house, and I'm comfortable."

There was another place where Robbie felt comfortable sending Corey, and that was to school. She had accepted the responsibility of raising Corey and Tyree, as well as Corey's 10-year-old cousin, D'Andre, with her entire will fixed on a single goal: That they should graduate from high school and have a path away from West Baltimore's corners. That goal sustained her through the bad days, when fighting got Corey kicked out of a prestigious high school program run by Bard College, or when D'Andre's teachers complained about his obscene remarks.

"It's been a struggle to raise my boys. I do the best I can. I don't have time for me. But I just want them to get an education," she said. "I don't want them to fall through the cracks."

Yet, even this home - more stable than those of many of Corey's classmates - was no substitute for the public school buildings that closed in the spring of 2020.

Corey had gamely accepted one of the 44,000 laptop computers distributed by the city, and Robbie dutifully roused him from bed on school days. But for Corey, whose repartee and readiness to chase distractions by turns charmed and exasperated his teachers, learning over a screen was an especially bad fit.

Some days he would sign in, leaving his camera and mic off, then roll back over in bed. Some days, especially after he had worked a closing shift at Checkers and arrived home after midnight, exhausted and covered in a film of kitchen grease, he wouldn't even do that.

"See, with school, you stuck in there. You don't have a choice," Corey explained. "It's easy enough when you sit down and do it. But the work kept piling up."

It was the almost universal sentiment of Corey's classmates at Renaissance Academy. For some of them, virtual learning amounted almost to a physical impossibility.

Zykiah Armstead, a Renaissance Academy student whose name was on the same outreach list as Corey's, found it hard to establish a remote education routine as her family moved repeatedly between relatives' houses during the pandemic. She now shared a home with 10 people, including her two children, born in 2020 and 2021.

"I gotta be face-to-face," said Zykiah, 18. Yet, she had fallen so far behind during the pandemic that she might not graduate from Renaissance until she was 21, leaving her unmotivated to return.

On the third day of school, when Zykiah slept in after staying up late with her babies, Corey and his friend Charles Johnson, 19, sat on a bench outside Renaissance Academy watching rain clouds move over the city. The day was hot and humid, and per school district policy, Renaissance had released its students early because of its glitchy air conditioners.

"I got a interview coming up Friday," Charles said.

"Where?"

"Home Depot."

Corey had given up his job at Checkers, with its $11-an-hour paycheck, because his grandmother thought it was burning him out. His focus now was supposed to be school. He and Charles talked about their shared desire to become long-haul truckers, roaming far beyond the slice of West Baltimore where they had spent their lives. Corey wanted to travel the world, but even a state like Indiana sounded exotic.

He and Charles knew companies often favored candidates with high school diplomas for those jobs. And they knew they wanted no part of an industry that thrived around them: West Baltimore's drug trade, where entry-level positions required no qualifications but were both dangerous and - despite what glamorized versions of street life portrayed - not especially lucrative.

"Making $50 a day standing on the corner," Charles said. "And then you get shot."

The young men sat side by side, staring at the ground.

"I like Renaissance," Corey said after a moment. "Teachers here cool, for real."

- - -

In his eulogy for Freddie Gray - the young Black man whose death from injuries he suffered in police custody in 2015 set off days of rioting in West Baltimore - Pastor Jamal Bryant invoked the desperation of growing up in the city's poorest neighborhoods, "confined to a box" built by inequity and racism. When Bryant said Gray "had to feel at age 25 like the walls were closing in on him," he was describing a future that could await some of the teens who walked the halls of Renaissance Academy.

Woodhouse, then principal of another high school, remembered the students who escorted her to her car the day the riots began. And she remembered her realization as smoke rose over West Baltimore that she was involved in "spiritual warfare" for those kids, who she believed deserved something better.

That was why the principal had been eager to reopen Renaissance Academy. The threat of covid-19 was evident to her - and to her students' families, who lived in some of the most virus-ravaged neighborhoods of Baltimore. But it was not the only threat that stalked those neighborhoods.

In a city with one of the nation's highest murder rates, gun violence was just the most obvious way a young life could be derailed. Drug addiction, teen pregnancy and incarceration were a few others. Every one of Woodhouse's students was considered economically disadvantaged by the state of Maryland, and almost all of them were Black. Even before the pandemic, fewer than half graduated, and the odds against them grew worse every day they were away from campus.

"I just could not fathom them continuing to be out of school," Woodhouse said.

Now, as students were welcomed back into the building, there were new obstacles. Most conspicuous among them was the highly contagious delta variant, which had plunged the country's least-vaccinated regions into their darkest days of the pandemic. Baltimore's 60-percent citywide inoculation rate concealed pockets of vaccine resistance, and Renaissance Academy sat in a part of the city where fewer than 4 in 10 people had been immunized. Students largely complied with the district's indoor mask mandate, but in the first weeks of school, many needed reminders from Nuriyah Byrd.

Byrd, a temporary worker on the school's support staff who is not related to Corey, varied the tenor of her enforcement efforts in the central hallway.

"Mask over your nose."

"Can you pull that up over your nose, sweetie?"

"Your face is beautiful. I just would prefer if it was underneath a mask."

Corey had been scared away from the vaccines by misinformation on social media. And although his grandmother was vaccinated, he worried about taking the coronavirus home to her, making him more zealous in his precautions than most of his classmates. When Lee Kearney, his English teacher, allowed students to play songs from a "clean rap" YouTube channel while they worked on writing assignments, Corey addressed the class with an admonition.

"Y'all gotta use hand sanitizer, though, before you touch the computer," he said, stepping up to Kearney's laptop and selecting a less-than-clean YoungBoy video. "You feel me?"

Other challenges predated the pandemic. In 2015, Renaissance made headlines when a 17-year-old was stabbed to death in a biology class. Far more common in the first weeks of the new school year were the petty disruptions that could slow academic tasks to a crawl: the girl bloodied in a fight with her cousin in a technology class, or the boy kicked out of algebra for yelling at Andrews that she was tripping when she demanded his attention to a lesson on graphing elevation against time.

Corey sat at the back of math class during that episode, silently rolling a green rubber ball back and forth on his desk. He was rarely the most obvious troublemaker in a room but was easily distracted - cutting class, leaving school in the middle of the day, bantering with anyone who wandered into his line of sight. He made an inordinate number of trips to the bathroom and spent a good part of those trips meandering in the halls, peeking into other classes.

"I will put you on a time limit, Mr. Byrd," health teacher George Garrison said as he wrote Corey a hall pass one day.

"What? Ain't nobody else got a time limit."

"And I'm going to tell you why," Garrison continued. "Because, as your name implies, you like to fly."

"Oh, you got jokes now?"

When Corey returned, more or less within his time limit, Garrison was frowning at his computer. The first weeks of school had been plagued by confusion over schedules and enrollment. Garrison now believed Corey might not actually be in his class.

"Corey, I'm going to petition to get you back," he said.

"I ain't gonna lie to you, bro, that's dead."

"I want you to walk across that stage. I want to see you do that dance."

"I ain't gonna dance," Corey said. "But I'm gonna walk."

- - -

Woodhouse marched into the waiting room of her office and fixed the tall young man standing there with a pitiless stare.

"You've got to have a mask on," she said.

"My mask dirty," the student offered.

"You should have washed it."

She handed him a brand-new face covering like her own: Gray, with a Renaissance Academy logo screened in red across the front. A nearby school resource officer approached Woodhouse after the student left.

"Can I have one of those?"

"I gave him the last one," the principal wearily replied.

It was the end of the fourth week of school, and - the latest refusenik notwithstanding - Woodhouse was pleased with the level of coronavirus-related compliance from her students. The calls to pull masks over noses echoed less frequently down the halls, and there was some evidence to suggest the mandate was having its intended effect.

A month had now passed, and no returning students had tested positive for the virus. The situation at Renaissance mirrored an encouraging picture across Baltimore's public school system, where just several hundred cases had been identified so far among nearly 88,000 students and staffers.

There was other good news. Average attendance was now hovering north of 60 percent, up from roughly 50 percent the first week of school and slightly higher than the school's pre-pandemic rates. But not everyone was succeeding.

Zykiah, the young woman on the school's list of at-risk students, had appeared for only four full days of the 19 that Renaissance had been in session. And she had just sent Woodhouse a text message saying she might withdraw.

Corey had been in school 15-and-a-half of those days. But this Thursday - the last day before a long weekend for students - was not one of them.

It worried Woodhouse, who understood how much Corey's grandmother was rooting for him, and who remembered him showing up for class almost every day before the pandemic. It worried Kearney, Corey's English teacher, who knew that the jocular teen he had met for the first time four weeks ago wasn't learning much about "The Crucible" amid his repeated absences.

And it worried Douglas Flowers, the school's social and emotional learning specialist. But it did not surprise him.

Flowers, a muscular 58-year-old whose focus on Renaissance students' behavioral problems put his job description somewhere between therapist and bouncer, hoped that many of his teens could get themselves back on track. But he had less hope for some than for others.

The age limit for Maryland public high school students is 21, and the pandemic hiatus had placed many at risk of aging out of the system. But Flowers knew that less-formal deadlines also weighed on his students, whose lives were shaped not just by routines inside the school but routines outside it.

Sitting in the Wholeness Room - a sanctuary of pear-green seat cushions and teal beanbag chairs where misbehaving kids were brought to vent and simmer down - he pointed through a window over the red-brick topography of West Baltimore.

"If you don't graduate, that's your best bet," he said. "The streets don't love you. And not everyone is street material."

On those streets, a thunderstorm had given way to a glorious fall afternoon, and the corners were bustling with young men who were not at work and not at school. They were outside the CJ Tobacco and Grocery on West North Avenue, the Harlem Mini Mart on Pennsylvania.

And they were outside the A-Z Food Market and Discount Liquor on Park Heights Avenue, where Corey Byrd stood, a half-smoked cigarillo pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

Hearing rain on his roof in the morning, he had chosen to sleep in, and by the time he woke up, he figured there wasn't much point in heading to school. Instead, Corey emerged late from Ma's house, joining a world that he knew well and that wordlessly accepted his presence.

Now, in the late September sunlight, Corey laughed, his arm around a young woman. He greeted an uncle entering the A-Z. He lit the Newport of an older man sitting on the stoop of one of the vacants. Asked how he was, he would reply: "Coolin', bro."

He didn't talk about what it felt like to be an 18-year-old sitting in a ninth-grade math class, or about the father who was briefly home for Thanksgiving last year before being sent back to prison. And though his eyes sometimes flickered outward, he didn't talk about the invisible walls of his city, threatening to close in.

How 'Mass' treads the delicate line of asking a school shooting victim's parents to grieve with the shooter's

By Sonia Rao
How 'Mass' treads the delicate line of asking a school shooting victim's parents to grieve with the shooter's
Filmmaker Fran Kranz, center, poses for a portrait in early October alongside actors Jason Isaacs and Ann Dowd. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary

Fran Kranz was driving in Los Angeles three years ago when, suddenly overwhelmed, he pulled over. The actor had been listening to a news broadcast about the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and needed a moment to collect himself as he processed the anguish of a parent interviewed on the radio.

Maybe it was that Kranz had recently become a father himself, he wonders aloud in an interview with The Washington Post, or he just experienced a human reaction to hearing someone grapple with the trauma of senseless violence. Numbness can at times feel like a natural response to such news in a country where school shooting drills have become part of curriculums. That trauma has shaped our national psyche. Kranz grew up with it; he was a teenager at the time of the Columbine shooting in Colorado.

But after Parkland, he couldn't stop thinking about what the parents of school shooting victims endure, how they are left to wonder what it could possibly mean for their children to have died in this manner. He began to research their stories and, while doing so, also came across accounts from the families of people who have committed similar crimes. He began to see those parents as victims, too.

"There was an opportunity to give equal value to each of their stories," Kranz says. So he took it.

"Mass," Kranz's directorial debut, can be difficult to distill. The film is at its core a contemplation of restorative justice, set six years after a school shooting and centered on a meeting between the parents of a victim (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) and those of the perpetrator who then killed himself that same day (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd). The tension makes for a heavy but captivating watch, the actors navigating in real time a conversation that goes from strained to charged, then back again.

Kranz's storytelling approach required a delicate hand. What does it mean to assign equal weight to stories of grief that exist in opposition to one another? How do you mourn someone responsible for the destruction of human life? How much responsibility should a parent take on for the actions of their child? "Mass" doesn't provide any firm answers, but it allows its characters to demand them.

"There's a way we live with grief and try to keep the past in a way that helps us survive, but that might not necessarily be the most healthy thing. It might truly be eating away at us," Kranz says. His film dives headfirst into "how we live with grief and take care of the ones we've lost," as well as how we overcome "the fear of sharing it with the people you feel might not deserve to be a part of it."

Dowd knew she wanted to sign onto "Mass" immediately after reading the script but worried whether she would be able to live with the level of heartbreak her character, Linda, experiences. She wondered whether she could capture the journey of a mother who truly believed she and her husband did all they could to care for their son, Hayden, who had increasingly externalized his violent thoughts. But the couple could never have fathomed that he would act upon them by committing such a devastating crime.

Eventually, Dowd says, she accepted "the honor, if you will, of entering the life of someone who not only has the grief of losing her son, but also has the profound guilt of her son killing others. 'As a mother, what did I miss? How did I miss it? I loved my boy, and I know I have no right to do so at this point,' would seem to be the worry that she has. Can you even imagine being that person?"

The premise of "Mass," which Kranz wrote after also researching South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, asks the four parents to envision life from each other's perspectives. Aside from the bookending scenes, the bulk of the film takes place in the empty meeting room of an Episcopal church, where the couples sit across from one another. They've each brought family photos with them and ask about the other couple's surviving children. Their initial interactions feel desperate and forced, as though the brief niceties will dictate how their relationship exists from that point forward.

Of course, the mood evolves. Each character arrives with expectations that unravel as the story goes on, each actor responding to their co-stars with a certain level of improvisation. The victim's mother, Gail (Plimpton), enters the room with seething resentment cloaking her desire to finally forgive. Her husband, Jay (Isaacs), attempts a more methodical approach that counters his wife's surfacing emotions.

But even Jay eventually strays from his original demeanor. When the shooter's father, Richard (Birney), suggests that he understands the fear and agony the victims experienced as Hayden threatened their lives, Jay raises his voice into a defiant yell: "You don't know," he directs at Richard. "I know."

"It felt like an honest sentiment for a father to express," Kranz says. "I wouldn't want to share my child with someone that I hated. My child's memory. And that's the difficulty of the journey Jason's character is on. I don't think he realizes how imprisoning it is, and how held back he is by his anger."

Isaacs describes the emotional rhythm of the film as "beautifully calibrated, like a great symphony."

"Mass" is political by virtue of its subject matter. But it avoids delving into any discussions of legislation beyond a moment in which Jay touches on the moral obligation he feels to speak publicly about what happened to his son, Evan, and another in which Gail says she wishes something had changed after the shooting so Evan's death could carry that added layer of meaning. Kranz's screenplay is more concerned with accountability as it relates to the characters blaming themselves, and one another.

To an extent, Isaacs adds, the exact incident that occurred in the film six years ago is irrelevant.

"It could be a car accident. It could be a political vote. It could be refusing to wear a mask and infecting someone in the family," he says. "It's about people who are divided. Four people walk into a room. We all have a pretty fixed idea of what's gone wrong and who's to blame. ... They have a plan for what's going to happen. And then, like in the best dramatic human encounters, it falls apart."

At times, "Mass" is as interested in exploring marriage as it does parenting; though they never explicitly say it, Linda and Richard's behavior suggests they are no longer together. The film considers how trauma drives people apart, all while moving toward the goal post of it binding the four parents together. A philosophical component that does relate to politics, per Isaacs, is how they're "trying to find a way to free themselves from the crippling, paralyzing trenches they've dug for themselves."

We all operate from these trenches, to some degree - perhaps especially on a societal level. The film takes place in a polarized nation that Isaacs describes as having served for four years as the "epicenter of blame." Political and cultural divisions date back further. Somewhere along the line, according to Kranz, we "normalized hating people." He hopes to help bridge the gaps.

"I worry about a country divided between us and them," he says. "I worry about the country and the world my daughter is going to grow up into. If we can't find a way to repair these relationships, I worry about our future. So I think there's nothing more extraordinary and urgent and heroic than what these characters do that day. ... They're desperately trying to work through that to heal and survive."

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

Colin Powell, the reluctant warrior

By david ignatius
Colin Powell, the reluctant warrior

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

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By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- Of all the descriptions of Colin Powell's extraordinary life of service, one that deserves special attention is "reluctant warrior," the phrase sometimes used to describe his wariness of using military power to achieve uncertain political ends.

This cautiousness was part of the Powell paradox. He was a big, commanding man who filled every room he entered. He had the easy self-confidence that made him a natural, graceful leader. But he was also skeptical and, at times, cynical. He knew how hard it was to rise in the world, and how easy to fall. That made him careful about risking people's lives in battle.

Powell had seen how badly wars can go wrong during his two tours of duty as an Army officer in Vietnam. He knew the face of combat, personally and viscerally, in a way that few national security officials of his generation did. He never wanted to spend lives cheaply on a gambler's hope of success.

His caution came to be known as the "Powell Doctrine." A shorthand explanation was that America should fight only "short, winnable wars." But Powell was voicing something much deeper: The military was not an instrument to achieve fuzzy political goals abroad. The United States had overwhelming force, but this should be reserved chiefly for "wars of necessity," in which the national interest was threatened, rather than "wars of choice."

Powell was one of the people who helped rebuild the military after Vietnam. The armed forces had been traumatized during that conflict by racial divisions, drug use, public criticism and a loss of self-confidence. When Powell became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, he was a symbol of a newly unified and determined force -- the powerhouse that would obliterate Saddam Hussein's forces two years later.

Powell initially was wary about risking the military's newfound strength and stability by attacking Iraq in 1991. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Powell supported President George H.W. Bush's military buildup in the Persian Gulf, which eventually totaled hundreds of thousands of troops. But according to Bob Woodward's account in "The Commanders," Powell urged Bush to consider using this force to strangle Hussein into capitulation, rather than launching an attack with unforeseen consequences.

As it turned out, the 1991 Gulf War validated the Powell Doctrine. The United States used overwhelming force to achieve the limited objective of forcing Iraq to quit Kuwait. Then the assault stopped, rather than going on to Baghdad to topple Saddam. The war was also a demonstration of the lethality of America's new precision-guided munitions. Pentagon footage of missiles targeting bridges and individual tanks was studied by military planners in Russia, China and other major powers -- who realized that U.S. advances had made their arsenals obsolete.

Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. He relished America's victory in the Cold War, but he didn't assume that our power would go unchallenged forever. The best thing about possessing unrivaled military strength was that it lessened the need to use it.

Powell brought this nuanced view to what proved the hardest challenge of his career -- America's invasion of Iraq in 2003. As secretary of state for President George W. Bush, Powell was instinctively wary. Woodward, in his book "Plan of Attack," describes an August 2002 meeting at the White House where Powell all but pleaded with Bush not to attack.

"You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes and aspirations and problems. . . . It's going to suck the oxygen out of everything," Powell warned. The invasion of Iraq was precisely the sort of war he had been warning against.

Bush went forward with invasion planning, but as a concession to Powell, he agreed to seek U.N. support. That was how Powell came to be center stage in February 2003, presenting the American case to the United Nations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- an argument that turned out later to have based on flawed intelligence. Powell felt that his credibility had been tarnished, perhaps permanently, and he resigned as secretary of state in January 2005. The Iraq War went even worse than he had feared. It was a painful ending to a sterling career of public service.

Celebrating Powell, we should remember the "reluctant warrior." We should prize his commander's understanding that war truly should be a last resort, a matter of necessity rather than choice.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Manchin's work requirement for child benefits would throw grandparent-led families under the bus

By catherine rampell
Manchin's work requirement for child benefits would throw grandparent-led families under the bus

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

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By Catherine Rampell

"Why should my granddaughter be punished because of my disability?"

That's the question West Virginia resident Melissa Boyles would ask Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and any other politicians advocating work requirements for Democrats' child benefit program -- conditions that would throw Boyles's granddaughter under the bus.

Boyles, 62, is among an unsung generation of Americans caring for their grandchildren. These households have swelled over the past decade, as public health crises such as the opioid epidemic claimed the lives of many parents of young kids, and rendered other parents unable to provide stable homes.

As of 2019, roughly 6.2 million children lived with grandparents; within that population, 1.1 million had no parents present in the household. The numbers have likely grown since covid-19 struck.

Grandparents are often neither physically nor financially prepared to raise another child. Some are still working, but most grandparents responsible for their grandchildren are no longer in the labor force. They're often retired, disabled or both.

Such is the case of Boyles, who lives with her husband, Michael, in Clarksburg, W.Va.

Both spouses had worked, but now Melissa, a former house cleaner and hospice worker, has a herniated disk and some psychological issues exacerbated by the sudden death of her son in 2005; Michael, who worked at the union local, has had multiple strokes and has reduced lung function due to complications from bypass surgery.

Even with their disability benefits, money has been tight for a while. But when her then-14-year-old granddaughter, Nevaeh, asked to live with them last year, Melissa didn't hesitate.

"She needed better care and wasn't getting it," Boyles said.

Nevaeh, like many children, landed with her grandparents after a series of traumas: first the loss of her father, when she was a baby; then her mother, when Nevaeh was a teen; then unsafe conditions living with another relative, including inconsistent access to food.

Boyles wasn't sure how she'd manage another mouth to feed. Especially since paying off her mortgage -- which she thought had been financially responsible -- rendered her ineligible for food stamps, thanks to the program's asset limits. Boyles began receiving a monthly caretaker's stipend of about $400 from the state, but it wasn't enough to cover her additional expenses.

"She needs clothes. She needs things for school. She needs shoes for her feet. She needs food in her belly," Boyles told me.

Then, this year, a godsend: Lawmakers temporarily expanded the existing child tax credit into a more generous benefit, which would be disbursed monthly. They also made the benefit available to those suffering the most from poverty, including those who make too little money to file a tax return. Nevaeh's family became eligible for $250 per month, no strings attached. (Children under 6 receive $300 per month.)

Boyles has devoted some of that $250 to food (maybe even an occasional steak, for special occasions) and a new bed. Mostly, the cash goes toward the odds and ends of American childhood: tickets to a high school football game, so Nevaeh can finally attend with her friends. Or last weekend, a homecoming dress, purchased for $70 at a consignment shop.

Other grandparents (and parents) I've interviewed over recent months describe similar, kid-specific budgeting. Sandra Westrand, a retired 72-year-old in Spokane, Wash., devoted most of one month's benefit to 9-year-old Izaak's Cub Scout dues and uniform; this month's installment is earmarked for a new winter coat.

The December payment will go toward his Christmas present: a bike.

December will be everyone's last monthly payment, though, with the balance of the child benefit to be disbursed next year at tax-filing time. After that, the expanded benefit expires.

Congress can, and should, extend it. The program has already lifted millions of children out of poverty; if extended, its long-term effect is estimated to slash child poverty by nearly half. This is a worthwhile investment, helping children grow up to be healthier, higher-earning adults.

But Manchin has indicated that he'll vote for extending the program only if, among other things, beneficiaries prove they are working.

This might sound reasonable. Especially in West Virginia, where both receipt of government benefits and skepticism about benefits are high. Even Boyles says she suspects many people are "sitting on their butts." When pressed, she says she's not sure how the state could easily distinguish between hardworking-but-unlucky families like hers and the slackers who want "handouts."

Some states have experimented with adding work requirements to other benefits, with carve-outs for circumstances such as advanced age or disability. The results have been abysmal. Impenetrable red tape ended up purging eligible Arkansans off Medicaid, for example, without increasing employment. Sorting the "deserving" from the supposedly "undeserving" is complex for both the government and beneficiaries.

Households headed by disabled grandparents aren't the only ones that stand to be hurt by work requirements. Lots of parents and other caretakers churn in and out of employment, often due to circumstances beyond their control. Documenting those circumstances is challenging.

A desire for work requirements may be well-intentioned. But it is likely to condemn Nevaeh, Izaak and many other children to poverty. None of them deserve it.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

Paternity leave is only for the weak!

By alexandra petri
Paternity leave is only for the weak!

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

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By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON -- I LIVE TRAPPED IN A MASCULINE PRISON OF MY OWN CREATION, AND I AM GLAD PEOPLE HAVE BEEN COMPLAINING THAT THE SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION TOOK PATERNITY LEAVE. NO ONE SHOULD TAKE PATERNITY LEAVE, EVER. PATERNITY LEAVE IS FOR THE WEAK, PEOPLE NOT STRONG ENOUGH TO TYPE EVERY SENTENCE IN ALL CAPS BY HOLDING DOWN THE SHIFT KEY AS I AM.

What new parents OUGHT to do instead is what was done FOR GENERATIONS before everyone became WEAK and POLITICALLY CORRECT: They ought to expose the child to the elements on a mountaintop and go about their lives.

This has the advantage that if a shepherd comes along and takes pity on the baby and decides to rear it as his own, you will be spared the prohibitive cost of child care, education and putting food into the baby. It is unclear why this shepherd would wish to spare a moment from his assigned labor to lavish affection on a strange baby (there is no meaning to be found in life besides work), but this frees you up to do important things such as THINK ABOUT FISHING and HUG A GUN and WORK and WONDER IF YOU'LL EVER KNOW LOVE.

The ONLY potential downside to this masculine arrangement of abandoning your baby is that years later you may be accidentally killed by a handsome stranger who then marries your wife and afterward turns out to be the baby, but this is more of a problem for the baby than it is for you, who will be dead but will have as consolation the thought that you never took any paternity leave.

If this is too much of a drawback, simply leave on a whaling vessel for the next three years. This has the advantage of having the word "leave" in it, so if people are not paying close attention when you tell them about your life (they seldom are), they will nod along and then be very surprised later! This has the additional upsides of making certain the baby does not come to view itself as your dependent and also of not entrammeling your spouse with (probably unwanted) assistance.

In fact, never afford your partner even a moment of rest or respite; if people stay awake for three solid days sometimes they start to hallucinate, and you wouldn't want to deny your partner this. Macbeth never slept and was, I think, fine.

It is bad if you bond with the baby. It is proper for a baby to view its parents with a thrilling compound of unrecognition and distrust; this will help the baby to write novels later and give it something to discuss with its therapist. (This, again, assumes it survives, an outcome you shouldn't be married to.) All you ought to do at this stage is put your newborn on the ground next to an unopened can of beans and a drawer containing all the tools it might possibly require. If the baby figures out how to thrive, great! If not, well, this happened to the Founders often.

So do not allow yourself to be made a fool of by the Big Baby industrial complex, which insists that your child is crying because it is too hot or cold or hungry or uncomfortable, not because it is WEAK and trying to weasel out of learning self-reliance. Never be swayed by the people who were attended to and loved as children -- you turned out fine, after all.

This is why parental leave is such a mistake. It leaves the infant with the erroneous notion that anyone in the world is anything other than indifferent to its well-being, that people other than you might care about what happens to you. And that's not how the world works. Maybe in Europe, but certainly not here.

If America wanted you to do anything different, you'd think there would be any kind of guaranteed family leave, but this country is just too strong for anything like that.

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Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

How Colin Powell shouldered the special pride and burden of many Black 'firsts'

By eugene robinson
How Colin Powell shouldered the special pride and burden of many Black 'firsts'

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

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By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON -- There is a special pride, but also a special burden, in being "the first Black [fill in the blank]." Colin L. Powell shouldered that responsibility while giving the impression that the weight was as light as a feather.

Powell, who died Monday from complications of covid-19, long knew how his obituaries would someday describe him: "the first African American secretary of state" and "the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" and the "first African American national security adviser to the president."

In his 1995 memoir, "My American Journey," Powell wrote: "My career should serve as a model to fellow blacks, in or out of the military, in demonstrating the possibilities of American life. Equally important, I hoped then and now that my rise might cause prejudiced whites to question their prejudices, and help purge the poison of racism from their systems, so that the next qualified African-American who came along would be judged by merit alone."

That was the easy part. Powell went on: "I am also aware that, over the years, my career may have given some bigots a safe black to hide behind. 'What, me prejudiced? I served with/over/under Colin Powell!'"

Indeed, Powell's rise to the apex of American power has been cited by many politicians over the years as a sign of the nation's supposed colorblindness -- as alleged proof that we have managed to leave racism behind. But Powell was acutely race-conscious, aware that he was always being scrutinized and judged in ways that a White man would not have to endure.

After the world learned of Powell's passing, I asked another survivor of the "first Black" experience -- Eric Holder, the first African American attorney general -- to describe how it felt.

"You feel a dual pressure," he told me. "The obvious -- to prove wrong those who think, for whatever reason, that Black folks can't do the job. The more subtle -- you don't want to disappoint those people whose hopes and sense of pride are with you. The pressure is not always front of mind -- as it must have been for Jackie Robinson -- but it is part of the task calculus. Colin handled it as well as anyone could have. A primary reason: Regardless of the level of his societal acceptance, he never lost his sense of himself as a Black man."

Thinking of his role in the civil rights struggle, Powell identified less with activists who marched in the streets than with those who played more of an inside game -- less with a firebrand organization like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee than with the smooth, polished, boardroom-friendly National Urban League.

"I have swallowed hard under racial provocations, determined to succeed by surpassing," Powell wrote in "My American Journey." "Had I been more militant, would I have been branded a troublemaker rather than a promotable black? One can never be sure. But I agree with Whitney Young," he wrote, referring to the longtime leader of the National Urban League.

Powell's public persona was not so much as someone who had defeated racism as transcended it. He was named to his groundbreaking "first" posts by Republican presidents, and in 1995 proclaimed himself a Republican -- breaking with the overwhelming majority of Black Americans, who were and are Democrats. His presence allowed the GOP to portray itself as diverse and welcoming. But he was comfortable with the party's views -- back when it was the party of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Richard B. Cheney and John McCain.

That political choice reflected Powell's firm belief in old-school integration as the only way forward for African Americans. He said often that the nation was better, and African Americans would make more progress, when both the Democratic and Republican parties were strong. "The black agenda has been given over to the Congressional Black Caucus," he wrote disapprovingly in his memoir. "The concerns of African-Americans stand in danger again of riding in the back of the bus."

To me, this philosophy has long been better in theory than in practice -- given that so many GOP policies, such as voter suppression, are overtly hostile to the interests of people of color. But to his credit, Powell knew his priorities: He supported Barack Obama over McCain in 2008, seeing the historic opportunity to elect our first Black president. And he was appalled and repulsed by the rise of Donald Trump, finally announcing after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol that he no longer considered himself a Republican.

The true test of any "first Black" achiever is how he or she handles making a consequential error. Powell's was his United Nations speech in 2003 that gave gravitas and credibility to the false notion that Saddam Hussein had an active program to produce weapons of mass destruction. That set the stage for the disastrous war in Iraq.

Powell regretted that speech but refused to let it define him. He moved on. The first rule of being the "first Black" anything: Look to the future, not the past.

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Eugene Robinson is on Twitter: @Eugene_Robinson

Of all the conservative bans on teaching about racism, the one in Texas is the worst

By michael gerson
Of all the conservative bans on teaching about racism, the one in Texas is the worst

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

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By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- America's cresting conflict over how to deal with racism in the teaching of history makes sense as a matter of ideology, but not as a matter of pedagogy.

As a matter of ideology, conservative parents' fear that their children are being indoctrinated by progressive textbooks and teachers is an endemic feature of education in America. What is different this time around is the speed and vigor of Republicans at the state level in turning their hyperventilation into legislation. Over the summer, at least 12 states restricted how teachers can discuss race or racism in the classroom.

The state of Texas -- confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy -- did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any "concept" that causes an individual to "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual's race or sex."

The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children -- really the White parents of White children -- have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their "discomfort." Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.

A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.

The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period's participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries.

Consider the case of David Walker's "Appeal, to the Coloured Citizens of the World," written in the late 1820s. Walker, a Black anti-slavery activist, argued that American slavery was far worse than the servitude the Egyptians imposed on the children of Israel. By depicting America as a place of exile and cruelty, Walker was completely subverting the Puritan self-conception of America as the "promised land."

Walker argued that the list of grievances against the British contained in the Declaration of Independence was trivial compared with the "catalogue of cruelties" committed by White Americans against Black people. And he drew the logical conclusion that, if violent rebellion was justified against England, it was also justified against slaveholders and their enablers. "See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?"

Walker was clear about who had imposed slavery on his people. "The whites," he said, "have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority." He argued that slavery had structural roots in an economy based on stolen labor. "The greatest riches in all America," he wrote, "have arisen from our blood and tears." And he diagnosed, not only the abject failure of America, but of American Christianity. "Can any thing be a greater mockery of religion than the way in which it is conducted by the Americans?"

Walker thought that Whites' repentance might be possible, and that America could exist as a multiracial democracy. But still he warned: "The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth."

This makes for bracing reading, even at a historical distance. And it demonstrates that history is not an easily tamed discipline. Walker's voice in the classroom may trigger some parents in Texas. Who the hell cares. Walker made a Christian critique of an oppressive country headed toward self-destruction. And he was correct in just about every detail.

Because Walker's perspective was justified does not make it comprehensive. Frederick Douglass looked at the same crimes, expressed the same anger, but eventually took the position that slavery could be ended through activism and political engagement. For all the U.S. Constitution's flaws, Douglass saw it as a "glorious liberty document" that could be employed on behalf of abolition. Still other Black leaders of the era felt the American experiment beyond redemption and recommended a return to Africa.

Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them. This is something Texas (and just about everywhere else) could use more of.

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Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

Our system is biased against reform. Get used to it, Democrats.

By e.j. dionne jr.
Our system is biased against reform. Get used to it, Democrats.

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, and thereafter

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Democrats are a maddening bunch, especially to their supporters.

A party that should be celebrating its efforts to expand health coverage, help families with children, build roads and fight climate change is instead engaged in a messy and increasingly angry confrontation over how much it can and should accomplish.

Much of the blame for the public chaos is falling onto Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinIII (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) because they have insisted on cutting the spending level for President Biden's program from $3.5 trillion over a decade to as little as $1.5 trillion.

If Democrats compromise at, say, $2 trillion or $2.5 trillion, a lot of good programs will still have to be cut or thrown over the side. They're popular not just among liberals but also with moderate voters and many of Donald Trump's supporters.

For the life of me, I can't see how it helps middle-of-the-road Democrats in swing districts to do less to help beleaguered households with child-care and elder-care costs, or less to expand health coverage and to beef up Medicare benefits, or less to contain the obvious and dangerous warming of our planet.

Nor is it good for any Democrat to have these priorities set off against each other in a legislative cage match. Those whose programs are lost or gutted will feel very bruised.

Finally, shouldn't Democrats be eager to bypass Senate filibuster rules as quickly as possible to stop the GOP-led attacks being leveled against democratic elections in states across our nation? Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he'd try to move forward this week on a sensible, far-from-radical bill that pushes back against the vote suppressors and election subverters.

Manchin himself helped craft it, so he wouldn't want it to die in a filibuster -- would he?

But it's important to acknowledge another reality that goes beyond Manchin, Sinema and the Democratic Party as a whole: Severe structural problems in our politics and institutions are making it far harder to solve problems -- and to have productive debates over how to do so.

We can begin with a Republican Party that, except on physical infrastructure, has largely taken itself out of the business of dealing with social challenges. Ross Douthat, the constructively conservative columnist for the New York Times, recently invoked a dream of how Democrats and Republicans might have had a creative conversation on family policy.

But even as he laid out the arguments and trade-offs, Douthat conceded that Republicans "most interested in family policy" -- Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), for example -- have "the strongest incentives" not to work with Democrats, namely their "desire to be president someday."

The GOP's evasion of responsibility and growing radicalism mean that debates that once took place between the parties are now forced to happen inside the Democratic Party. Manchin and Sinema are stand-ins for the moderate conservatives of yore.

In September, Manchin offered a provocative challenge to progressives fighting for a larger program. "Elect more liberals," he instructed them. It's a goal I embrace wholeheartedly, except that the Senate is structurally biased against liberals and Democrats.

As Laura Bronner and Nathaniel Rakich pointed out at FiveThirtyEight: "Republican senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999 -- yet, from 2003 to 2007 and again from 2015 to 2021, Republicans had a majority of members of the Senate itself. That means that, for 10 years, Republican senators were passing bills -- and not passing others -- on behalf of a minority of Americans."

Oh, yes, and confirming right-wing Supreme Court justices.

I sat down last week with the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, co-authors of the justly celebrated 2018 book, "How Democracies Die." Both speak with deep worry about the anti-majoritarian nature of the American system with a Senate and electoral college that vastly underrepresent urban and suburban voters as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

This gets in the way of governing, they argue, creating forms of instability that could threaten democracy itself. It also weakens the influence of more moderate voices within conservatism and the Republican Party.

All of which means that Democrats are effectively running what would be a coalition government in countries with multiparty systems -- but without the disciplines that formal coalition agreements typically impose in advance on an alliance's various components. Democrats are making their deals on the fly, and it shows.

None of this gets Democrats off the hook. As the late Donald H. Rumsfeld might advise them, you have to work with the system you have, not the system you wish you had. It is no excuse for making a mess of what should be a moment of achievement.

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E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

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