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How America's hottest city can survive climate change

By Sarah Kaplan
How America's hottest city can survive climate change
A view of Phoenix from South Mountain Park on June 18, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Cassidy Araiza

PHOENIX - High noon in America's hottest city. The sun blazed in a cloudless sky, making the air shimmer above the softening asphalt. A thermometer registered more than 100 degrees in the shade. Not that there's much shade to speak of in the central Phoenix neighborhood of Edison-Eastlake, hemmed in by highways and covered in scorching concrete.

Martha Ortiz knew it was not safe to be out on this recent afternoon, but the 55-year-old had an urgent errand. Although she carried a parasol and a water bottle, her legs grew weak as she made the 10-minute journey. By the time she climbed the 14 steps back to her apartment, her vision was blurry and her head spun.

Welcome to summer in Phoenix, where a cocktail of climate change and rapid development has pushed temperatures into the danger zone. The threats are greatest in black, Latino and low-income communities, which are significantly hotter than wealthier, leafier parts of the city.

This month, Phoenix is a hot spot in many senses of the phrase. The coronavirus is raging out of control. Protesters have flooded the streets after police officers fatally shot a man in a parked car on Saturday. It's been more than a month since the daily maximum temperature dropped below 100 degrees.

And the city is working to fight the literal heat. The goal is for Phoenix to become the country's first heat-ready city - equipped to survive a rapidly warming world.

Each year, more Americans die from extreme heat than the combined numbers of those killed by storms, floods and wildfires. In few places is the problem more pronounced than in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and its suburbs. In 2019, the region saw 103 days of triple-digit temperatures and 197 fatalities from heat-related causes. It was highest number of heat-associated deaths on record for the county, and the fourth year in a row of record-setting heat deaths there. Those numbers are expected to increase as the climate changes.

But Phoenix may also serve as a role model for cities seeking ways to cool down. Ortiz and other community activists are helping residents develop heat action plans and fight for shade structures in their neighborhoods. Local scientists are working with the city's sustainability office to establish a framework for "heat ready" certification, which would evaluate a community's preparedness for extreme temperatures in the way the National Weather Service's "storm ready" program sets the standard for responding to bad weather. Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat who has an environmental science degree, wants Phoenix to be a model for the nation.

Heat is inevitable in the desert, Gallego said. But dangerous heat - "that's not something we have to accept passively."

"We understand that necessity breeds invention," said Gallego, who was elected in 2018. "And we hope . . . that we will produce the innovations that make it possible for people to adapt."

- - -

Phoenix's fight against heat is a war with many fronts, said David Hondula, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University and a leading researcher studying the intersection of heat and health.

One front is high up in the atmosphere, where accumulating greenhouse gases from human activities are causing global average temperatures to steadily rise. The average annual temperature in Maricopa County is 3.4 degrees higher than it was in 1895, according to a Washington Post analysis of records going back more than 100 years. That translates into summers that are hotter, longer and drier.

Drastically reducing heat-trapping emissions on a planet-wide scale is essential to averting catastrophic heat waves and other dangers from global warming, scientists say.

But there are also changes that can be made much closer to home, Hondula said. Phoenix's rapid development in recent decades has made it a victim of what researchers call the "heat island effect." All the trademarks of the urban environment - towering glass buildings, bustling industry, vast expanses of concrete and asphalt - absorb and amplify the heat of the sun.

"We talk about climate . . . as something mysterious and ambiguous that comes from the sky. But it is also something we are driving with the way we are paving our streets," Hondula said. "Urbanization is a critical part of the story."

Natural environments, he explained, are incredibly effective at getting rid of heat. That's because of the way trees and other vegetation release water into the surrounding air, a process called evapotranspiration. Turning water from a liquid to a gas uses heat energy, and it can result in air temperatures in a healthy tree grove being 10 degrees lower than in open terrain. Even scrubby desert plants are capable of cooling their environments, especially at night.

In paving over the desert, Phoenix's developers not only lost this cooling capacity but they made the problem worse. Tall buildings create canyons in which heat gets trapped close to the ground. Hard surfaces such as pavement absorb and hold on to heat even after the sun goes down, causing daytime high temperatures to linger into the night. Human activities, such as driving cars or running factories, also produce "waste heat" that compounds the problem.

In Edison-Eastlake, where Ortiz lives, the summertime average temperature is 105 degrees. Most residents are people of color, a legacy of discriminatory housing practices known as redlining. And the majority of people live in public housing built more than 50 years ago - concrete structures that trap heat, which can overwhelm aging air-conditioning systems.

At night, it's as much as 10 degrees hotter in Edison-Eastlake than in wealthier communities. Just over 5% of the neighborhood has trees, making it one of the most barren and sunbaked communities in Maricopa County.

The consequences for residents can be dire. The heat mortality rate in Edison-Eastlake is 20 times the county average.

And the threats aren't just physical. Research shows that extreme heat can create stress and exacerbate mental illness. One California study found that for every 10 degree Fahrenheit increase in mean temperature, residents' risk of being admitted to the emergency room for self-harm or suicide increased nearly 6%.

When Diana Bermudez moved to Phoenix in 2017 to become the director of special projects for the Nature Conservancy's Arizona office, heat was already a priority. Urban conservation program manager Maggie Messerschmidt had envisioned a project called Nature's Cooling Systems, which would harness the power of natural processes like evapotranspiration to cool the neighborhoods most in need.

For the project to work, Bermudez and Messerschmidt knew they needed the input of those who live with it.

Working with the grass-roots nonprofit Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, the Nature Conservancy identified three of the hottest neighborhoods in the county: Lindo Park-Roesley Park, Mesa Care and Edison-Eastlake. They held workshops in each community, inviting ASU experts such as Hondula to teach residents the science behind urban heat islands and ways to counter their effects.

Hondula was struck by the "sense of fatalism" around heat at the early meetings. Many Edison-Eastlake residents said they remembered when summers weren't quite so scorching, but they didn't think it was something they could change. One man told him, "You know it's hot. You know people are going to die. And you hope it's not you."

But it didn't take long for that mentality to shift. Bermudez recalled how excited residents were to learn about the "cooling solutions" and how quickly they identified the spots where interventions would be most effective. Often residents pointed out issues that organizers had initially overlooked - the need for shade at the school bus stop, the shortage of water fountains in the neighborhood.

"That kind of knowledge was really something we couldn't have come up with ourselves," Bermudez said.

In 2019, residents of each neighborhood developed a 20-page "heat action plan" for their community. Edison-Eastlake's plan calls for repaving the sidewalks with materials that stay cool by reflecting the sun, installing shade structures at bus stops and creating tree-covered "talking spaces" in a planned park.

According to Hondula, these interventions could in some spots lead to a 40-degree decrease in the mean radiant temperature - a measure of heat that takes into account the effects of sunlight and radiation from nearby surfaces. It is the difference between the baking sensation of standing in direct sunlight and the relief of moving into the shade of a tall oak.

Phoenix's housing department, which in 2018 was awarded a $30 million federal grant to redevelop Edison-Eastlake's aging public housing, has said the project will incorporate heat recommendations from residents.

But the action plan was just the beginning. After learning how pavement exacerbates heat, Ortiz spoke at a housing department meeting to oppose plans for a parking lot where a demolished building had been. The spot will instead feature mixed-income housing with a shaded seating area and a path to a community garden, the city said.

"It's perfect," Ortiz said.

A relentlessly positive mother of seven, Ortiz also serves as the unofficial heat guru for her apartment complex. On scorching days, she reminds friends to wear a hat and carry water. She checks in with elderly neighbors and keeps an eye on the kids playing in the courtyard.

This kind of solution is just as important as the technical ones, Hondula said. Research shows that social isolation is a strong risk factor for heat illness. During a 2003 heat wave in France that killed 15,000 people, those who had no social activities - choir practice with church groups, lunch with friends - were six times as likely to die.

That value of community is enshrined in the neighborhood's heat action plan, which recommends that the city develop a first-aid program that would certify residents as "qualified heat responders" so they can help their neighbors in need.

The plan also includes an ode to the community penned by Ortiz.

"Uniting our voices in one vision," it reads.

"Projecting our vision towards the future . . ."

"We are an example for the generations that follow

"What we see now, tomorrow will be different."

- - -

If Phoenix's present is already scorching, imagine what the future will bring.

By 2050, climate change will make the city's summers look more like those in Baghdad, according to a study published last year in the journal PLOS One. The city is projected to experience more than two dozen additional "dangerous" days when the heat index is above 105 degrees (these conditions are already felt for about four months of the year). Heat waves will lengthen, and summertime droughts will become far more severe.

"Heat is something you can't escape or relieve if you don't have the critical services" - such as air conditioning and water - "that we take for granted," said Susan Clark, the director of the Sustainable Urban Environments Initiative at New York's University at Buffalo. "And at some point we're going to reach thresholds that our physical systems, our infrastructure - they're just too stressed."

In a 2018 study in the journal Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure, Clark probed what might happen if Phoenix reached such a threshold.

Many of the city's essential systems share vulnerabilities, she said. Power plants depend on water for their cooling towers; during heat waves, the water can get too hot, disrupting power generation. Severe droughts make the city susceptible to wildfires, which might ignite power lines and cut off electricity. Power outages will shut off gas pumps and make streetlights go dark - a major problem for a car-centric city.

In the absolute worst-case scenario - what Clark calls a "Hurricane Katrina"-size heat disaster - a single disruption to one of these systems might trigger a cascade of deadly consequences. Deprived of water and air conditioning, how long could people survive?

Fear of such a confluence of crises has spawned countless headlines wondering whether Phoenix is doomed.

But the problem is hardly unique to Arizona. The same study that predicted that Phoenix in 2050 will feel like Baghdad found that Boston's climate will come to resemble that of Atlanta's and Seattle will be like Rome. Cities that have rarely experienced extreme heat will suddenly be slammed. Infrastructure built for cooler times will falter in such searing conditions.

Governments can try to counter rising temperatures by making systems stronger, "but the thresholds will keep being passed," Clark said. "The more realistic way to think about it is to create systems that are safe to fail."

This kind of thinking has spurred many of Phoenix's "heat ready" initiatives in recent years. A growing fraction of the city's power comes from solar, which does not depend on water in the way that coal-fired or nuclear power plants do. The local electric utilities are looking to install "microgrids" around the city that could supply power to essential services in case of a major outage.

To ward off shortages, the city recycles all wastewater, and developers in Arizona must guarantee a 100-year water supply for any planned community. Phoenix's emergency-operations plan includes a 13-page supplement dedicated to heat.

The city spends more than $5 million on tree planting and maintenance, and chief sustainability officer Mark Hartman aspires to extend the city's tree canopy to as much as a quarter of its area - the county average is 8.8%. In the meantime, he is working to develop a network of "cool corridors," so no resident is more than a five-minute walk from water and shade. And a multimillion-dollar "cool pavement" pilot program will coat about 36 miles of streets with materials that reflect, rather than absorb, heat.

With ASU scientists and the National Weather Service, Hartman is leading the city's efforts to develop its "heat ready" guidelines. In 2018, the city was awarded a $100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to refine the program, and Hartman had hoped to unveil the final framework this year so other cities could start to implement it.

But the coronavirus pandemic delayed that plan and complicated other efforts. Staff members at the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation taught residents to use Zoom so they could hold a "heat leadership" program. When most of the city's network of air-conditioned cooling centers were shuttered to comply with coronavirus social distancing measures, the cavernous Phoenix Convention Center was used instead.

"If there's been one message over this year, it's that you cannot anticipate everything that will happen and one crisis does not wait for the other one to finish," said Gallego, the mayor. "We are aware that we need to have a system that provides us with flexibility to deal with escalating crises."

A native of the Southwest who suffered from asthma as a child, Gallego is familiar with environmental risk. "When you're wheezing by the track, it gives you some time to reflect on what you can do about it," said Gallego, 38. While working on economic development and renewable-energy projects for a Phoenix electric utility, she settled on what she would do: promote green growth. She ran for city council, then mayor, on an environmental platform.

This January, less than 10 months after she was sworn in, Gallego led Phoenix to join C40, the group of municipalities working to fight climate change.

Her goal, she says, is to make Phoenix "the most sustainable desert city on the planet."

- - -

Even in the midst of the pandemic, change can happen - a few trees at a time.

On the same sweltering day that exhausted Ortiz, about a dozen men, women and children gathered at the edge of a formerly empty 19-acre lot in Lindo Park-Roesley Park, another Phoenix neighborhood enrolled in the Nature's Cooling Solutions project. Their mission: to plant a row of 11 mesquite and Palo Verde trees, 86 shrubs and 25 cacti and succulents.

Like Edison-Eastlake, Lindo-Roesley is a Phoenix "hot spot," home to mostly low-income residents and vast expanses of dusty pavement. But the Spaces of Opportunity cooperative garden is an oasis, one that residents are eager to support. Families lease 5-by-50-foot gardening plots for $5 a month, and every Saturday growers sell their goods at an on-site farmers market. A hand-painted sign on the lot facing Vineyard Road announces, "These are community trees. Please respect them and we will enjoy the fruit together."

Esther Villa, a native of temperate Guadalajara, Mexico, said the brutal summers are hard for her two daughters, who developed skin problems after moving to Phoenix 17 years ago. Her home's swamp cooler was insufficient to fight the oppressive heat; sometimes all she could do was put the kids in a bathtub full of cool water.

That's why she came out for the day's tree planting. Even with the sun blazing and sweat drenching her clothes, Villa was hopeful that the day's efforts would make her community safer for children in the years to come.

"Grandioso," she called the project. And then she got to work.

- - -

Jimmy Magahern in Phoenix contributed to this report. The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada, and Jessica Bueno and Jenny Quezada of the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation contributed with translations.

Rufus Wainwright is sober, battle-hardened and wrestling with the demons of middle age

By Tim Greiving
Rufus Wainwright is sober, battle-hardened and wrestling with the demons of middle age
Rufus Wainwright, seen here at his home in Los Angeles, has a new album called

Rufus Wainwright was 3 years old, playing in the shallow end of a pool at the Chateau Marmont. The famous West Hollywood hotel was "kind of a dump" in those days, and a quasi-home to troubadours like Leonard Cohen and Wainwright's parents, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. Wainwright's Irish nanny wasn't paying attention when he suddenly went underwater - "and was presumably saved by Betty Buckley," he said, laughing.

"Which is the story I stick by. It's amazing how certain childhood traumas really inflict themselves indelibly on your memory."

He told that story over lunch, pre-pandemic, in the same courtyard of the same hotel. A few days later, I got an email back from Buckley. "Yes, I saved Rufus from drowning when he was a little kid," the Tony-winning "Cats" singer wrote. She didn't know who he or his parents were at the time, and only recently heard about him telling this story onstage. "I was beyond thrilled to learn that I had actually saved Rufus Wainwright!" she wrote. "I'm a huge fan."

This is Wainwright in a bottle: dramatic, humorous and in proximity to musical legends. The singer-songwriter, who is just about to turn 47, is using his creeping middle age to reckon with his past and future on a new album, "Unfollow the Rules."

The title, also the name of a torch ballad on the record, was conceived by his young daughter, Viva - the granddaughter of Leonard Cohen by way of the late poet's daughter and Wainwright's childhood friend, Lorca Cohen. The song "perfectly illustrates the philosophy of this record, which is, 'Don't give me what I want, just give me what I'm needing,'" he said, quoting the lyrics.

"You're never going to get the answer to the questions. And these kind of magical dreams that you have are great and wonderful, but that's not really what's going to sustain you as a human. And I don't know how you're going to get to the next step, but you just have to get there."

This Rufus Wainwright is sober and battle-hardened after getting roughed up by the classical community for daring to compose two full-scale operas. Now, he's singing about the marathon of marriage (to husband Jörn Weisbrodt), being the father of a 9-year-old and the fraught relationship with his own father. "When I look at my situation of bringing up a kid on my own, it just all becomes very heightened, and a little bit dangerous," he said, "just in terms of depression and stuff."

His parents divorced the same year of that near-drowning, and recently Rufus and Loudon have been working hard at reconciling after years of estrangement, both "aware of this necessity to be in each other's lives in a profound way," Rufus said.

"We aren't close," Loudon admitted in an email, "but we're working on it. It's not easy. ... I was an occasional father at best and there was also a great deal of acrimony between Kate and me. It lasted for decades. My father and I weren't close either, but we wanted to be."

"There's a lot of information that I need from him," Rufus said, "just about being this age, being in music, being a dad."

It's weird to hear this youthful gay icon - the Canadian American wunderkind who broke onto the scene in 1998 as the musical love child of Harry Nilsson and Franz Schubert, introducing an elegant style that a family friend dubbed "popera"; whose haunting cover of Cohen's "Hallelujah" transcended its initial home on the "Shrek" soundtrack; who Elton John called "the best songwriter on the planet" - bemoaning his old age.

But Wainwright has lived a lot of life in those 47 years: surviving a rape at 14, drug addiction in the early years of his success, losing his mother to cancer in 2010. He wrestled with those demons on past albums, but somehow, he said, the regular midlife demons are more formidable.

"Pretty much all the emotions that I refer to - hatred, early morning madness, alone time, trouble in paradise," he said, referencing song titles on the new album, "those are all things that I'm going through in my life. Having these very evident adversaries - drugs and death - made it more of a simple kind of situation, where you have to survive, and you have to mourn, all this stuff.

"Things like marriage, fatherhood, aging, yourself - those are far more daunting figures that really kind of rock your world a lot more, in a strange way. Because they aren't as cut and dry."

That said, "Unfollow the Rules," out July 10, is not a sad album. Partly influenced by the 1960s Laurel Canyon scene - Wainwright lives right down the road, and often hangs out with friends in Mama Cass Elliot's old house - it's full of up-tempo singalongs, cheeky humor and even a pulsating electronica banger.

For the new record, Wainwright borrowed Mitchell Froom, the longtime producer for Randy Newman - another incisive singer-songwriter with a penchant for lush, movie score orchestration with whom Wainwright has often been compared.

Wainwright sent a batch of demos to Froom a few years ago, having banked a bevy of new songs since his last studio album in 2012. (In fact, the song "Unfollow the Rules" first appeared in the 2018 drama "Here and Now," sung by Sarah Jessica Parker, who asked Wainwright if he had any unreleased tracks.) Froom identified his role as bringing clarity and simplicity to the unconventional structure of Wainwright's songs, and really highlighting his mature, rafter-filling voice.

"You have some of the more elaborately written songs, 'Romantical Man,' or things that might have five or six sections in it, but you want a band to play it," Froom said. "You have to identify the peaks and valleys, and not look at it in a traditional pop way, where it's just beating all the way through. It has to be looked at more in a theatrical way, or a longer-form way, and then trying to maximize that for emotional impact."

At the start of his career, Wainwright smuggled his love of opera into poppy songs. Then came more elaborate, ornate nods, like the avant-symphonic "Agnus Dei" from his fourth album, "Want Two." All the while, he still tried to make songs that would rock or dance. "You can hear I'm trying to relate to the kids," he joked. "But it always kind of becomes a Rufus world."

In 2010 he released an album that included Shakespeare sonnets sung over solo piano, and then he actually went for it in 2015 with "Prima Donna," a troubled production that was co-commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York but ended up in Manchester, England. The opera, which featured a French libretto, was met coldly by the classical guard - "The overloaded orchestral textures, containing everything from Wagner to Weill, churn away below, oblivious to what the vocal lines imply," wrote the Guardian - and some of Wainwright's pop fans threw in the towel.

"There is a section of my fan base that has been very, very patient," he said, but "the ones who were like, 'Oh, he's lost the plot, he's become totally dull and classical and weird and I don't get it ... those ones I just don't really care about at all."

In the new song "Romantical Man," Wainwright sings: "The classical critics can't stand a melody / I only ask, what brought you to the opera firstly?" That experience was one of the great tribulations of his life, he said, but he wouldn't trade it "for a billion dollars."

"At the time, I was completely horrified, and wounded. Thankfully, due to those slings and arrows, I really had to figure out what the hell I was doing, you know, and why I was there, and did I really love this, or was this like a vanity thing? And just kind of soldier on. It definitely toughened me up."

Martha Wainwright, who sings on the new album, said her brother "believes that he could be a pop star, and he believes that he should be in classical music. ... With that belief, though, comes disappointment sometimes, but it also propels him further, much further than he maybe even realizes. ... He's made no artistic sacrifices, as far as I can tell."

And Wainwright's singing voice, according to many in his circle, is the best it's ever been. After hearing him in January at an intimate concert at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., Dale Franzen, the Tony-winning producer of "Hadestown," told me: "There are singers you go to hear and you don't care what they sing. I would go hear him sing anything. They say that for classical singers, the 40s and 50s are the best. There's kind of a mastery to everything."

Franzen compared him to the great interpreters of all time, singers like Maria Callas and Judy Garland. Wainwright said he began taking his voice - breath control, stamina, phrasing delivery - much more seriously after he recorded the Grammy-nominated live album "Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall" in 2007, a tribute to his idol.

"There's a quality in his voice, like Judy's, that just touches the heart, doesn't it?" said his friend Renée Zellweger, who won an Academy Award earlier this year for playing Garland in the film "Judy" and duetted with Wainwright on the soundtrack album. "It's one thing to sing a song beautifully, and it's another to make the listener feel the intent of the music. And he does that so brilliantly."

The show at McCabe's was one of three during which Wainwright performed mostly covers, which he recorded for another upcoming project, this time for Audible. "Road Trip Elegies: Montreal to New York " is an audio journey through his past, combining a selection of music that has inspired him and an actual road trip he took with his therapist in October.

Wainwright thought that their hours of recorded conversation would go into familiar wounds like his parents' divorce, but they ended up drifting down unexpected avenues - like thinking about his grandparents "and this generational saga that has been very exposed over the years."

His paternal grandfather, Loudon Wainwright Jr., was a columnist for Life magazine. In his 2018 Netflix theater show, "Surviving Twin," Wainwright III performs some of those columns, and ties one of them to his relationship with Rufus.

"On the basis of the way things are with my children," Rufus's father said, reading the words of his grandfather, "I doubt that the length of the acquaintance necessarily makes it easier for loved ones to know you better - or for you to know them. The past keeps getting in the way. But change is possible, and I'd like to begin work on some sort of updated realigned model for our connection, something that reflects not so much what we all were, or think we were, but what we have become."

A $20 cheeseburger takes a tumultuous journey from cow to customer during a pandemic

By Jessica Contrera
A $20 cheeseburger takes a tumultuous journey from cow to customer during a pandemic
The Burger Américain at Le Diplomate in Washington. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON - The burger met Maximiliano Solano in the middle of its journey. Solano plucked it from a chilled drawer and plunked it onto a griddle. He breathed in its greasy smoke through his now-mandated mask. He sprinkled it with salt using a gloved hand. He had made dozens of burgers already on a Friday evening and had hundreds more to go. This part of the burger's story hadn't changed. Fat bubbled. Edges crisped. It was going to be delicious.

But for months, the burger had been traveling through a complex supply chain crippled by the novel coronavirus. Now it was about to end up in a takeout box.

Before the pandemic, the most popular French bistro in the nation's capital didn't offer to-go orders. Le Diplomate was the kind of place where reservations were bragging rights, special occasions were nightly occurrences and a double-patty cheeseburger was a $20 menu item, the Burger Américain. Since April, the restaurant has gone through more than 3,500 pounds of beef to meet the demand for the burger, sometimes selling 450 of them in a day - the equivalent of almost a burger a minute. When the mayor declared in late May that Le Diplomate and other restaurants could serve diners again, first at tables six feet apart outside and then, in June, at a reduced capacity inside, the to-go burger orders kept coming.

Solano pressed the patty with the back of his spatula and watched it ooze. This particular burger was on its way to an engineer who'd just finished another day of working from home - an option Solano and his nearly 200 laid-off co-workers never had. Instead, the 26-year-old took a pay cut and a demotion from sous chef to line cook just to be one of the few dozen employees able to return to Le Diplomate's kitchen.

On the burger's journey from a Kansas farm to the engineer's dinner plate, every person had a story like Solano's. A rancher with five children who lost thousands every week. A factory worker who brought the virus home to her son. A courier who calculated the true cost of every delivery not in profit, but in the risk it required her to take.

To follow the burger is to glimpse the lasting toll of this pandemic: on the beef supply chain, on the restaurant industry, on the people who were struggling before this catastrophe began, kept going to work throughout it and are still waiting to see what their lives will become when it ends.

Solano tucked the spatula under the patty. It spiraled into the air, one moment closer to a destiny that was set in motion two years ago.

- - -

Before the burger was a burger, or a slab of beef, or an animal that mooed, there was a frozen plastic straw of sperm on a sprawling pasture near Eureka, Kan. Matt Perrier thawed it in a water bath for 45 seconds and examined the cow that would become a mother.

His great-grandfather bred cattle starting in 1904, then his grandfather and his father took over the ranch, and in the spring of 2018, Perrier was carrying on the family business. Science had transformed the breeding process, but the result was just the same: the arrival nine months later of a Black Angus calf, weighing as much as an 8-year-old child.

The calf grew fast, but not fast enough to become one of the bulls (a father, in cattle-speak) that Perrier, 46, sells to other ranchers who are breeding their own herds. Instead, the calf would become a steer, and then, dinner. And though the supply chain leading to Le Diplomate is really more of a supply web, with each burger composed of multiple cuts of meat from multiple parts of the country, one thread leads back to the place where Perrier's steers often ended up: Tiffany Cattle Co.

About 60,000 cattle come to the Tiffany ranch every year to "finish," to eat and drink and grow for four to six months until they are ready for their grisly end. This particular hoofed purgatory is for what co-owner Shawn Tiffany calls "white tablecloth" cattle - beef that ends up with pricey stickers on grocery store shelves, or on plates at expensive restaurants such as Le Diplomate.

The steer arrived in the fall of 2019, riding on a truck with about 60 of his 700-pound-and-growing brethren. The ranch, built on a World War II-era base for Army Air Corps bombers, was a destination for top-dollar cattle from across the country.

Tiffany, 42, knew going into this business that high-end beef prices didn't translate into high-end profits for ranchers like him and his brother Shane. This life was long hours, small margins, squeezing in time with his five kids when he wasn't with the cattle. But Tiffany never expected what happened in April.

The only doors out of cattle purgatory are the ones to the slaughterhouses, the big, powerful meatpacking facilities referred to as "harvesters" by those in the business. With 26 major plants across the country that process steers, just one going dark can have a significant impact on the supply chain. In April and May, 16 of them shut down, some for a few days, some for a week or more, according to industry analyst Cassandra Fish. Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was spreading through the people-packed assembly lines, prompting President Donald Trump to declare the plants essential businesses and order them to remain open.

When they came back online, the production lines ran more slowly than usual.

Tiffany couldn't get the plants to buy cattle they'd contracted to purchase. For those they did take, every pound of cattle was priced about 25 cents lower than in the year before. Multiply that by the weight the steer grew to be - 1,400 pounds - and suddenly, Tiffany and the ranchers whose cattle he raised were out thousands of dollars every week.

"These ranchers, their livelihood is in jeopardy," Tiffany said. "I spent every day trying to assuage their own fears."

The longer his cattle kept growing past their "due date," the more they cost to feed. The fatter they got, the less valuable their meat became. Tiffany's wife tried to gently point out to him just how stressed he was.

By the last week of April, the beef-packing industry reached a once unthinkable low: 318,000 steers and heifers slaughtered, down 42% from the year before.

But the steer from Tiffany Cattle Co. had already left the ranch. He was sent up a ramp, onto a truck and 220 miles west to Dodge City, a Kansas town of 27,000 with two major meatpacking plants: Cargill and National Beef, the slaughterhouse where the steer met his end.

He arrived at a plant that had been transformed with steel partitions installed between work stations, temperature checks at the door, scattered break times and paid leave for sick employees. But in a town where a largely Hispanic population lives in close quarters at home and labors in close quarters at work, the virus's spread was relentless. The Dodge City plant had one of the state's largest outbreaks, with 550 cases by June, according to National Beef.

By the time the steer began making its way through what employees call the "kill floor," Marisela Garman, 45, had already gotten sick.

She'd been taking the coronavirus seriously since the moment she heard about it. Before immigrating to the United States in 2018, she was a nurse at a hospital near Guadalajara, Mexico. Back then, she was rushing to leave her husband after years of psychological abuse. Only when she and her son arrived in Kansas and moved into her aunt's trailer did she realize that her nursing license was useless in the state.

She started working as a babysitter and pet sitter, then she found out how much it would cost her to hire a divorce lawyer. National Beef paid nearly $16 an hour.

She worked on the kill floor, then moved to fabrication, where she learned about meat hooks and grinders and packaging, and how to stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder with her co-workers and move her hands as fast as the conveyor belt demanded. Her fingers always hurt, but on a Tuesday in April, she knew something was wrong when it was her head that started to ache.

National Beef sent Garman home for two weeks, with pay, as soon as she tested positive. But the virus went home with her. Her aunt got sick first. Then her 14-year-old son stopped being able to smell.

"It's my fault," Garman told him, lying in the room they shared. "My fault."

She told him where she had hidden all of the cash she'd been able to save. "If I die," she said on the worst day, "your grandma must call my friend, and she is going to take care of you."

Garman was still aching and exhausted on May 6, the day before she was supposed to return to work. She asked for more time. She said she was told that she could take the days off, but that she would not get paid.

She stayed home on May 7, but felt as guilty as she felt sick. To persuade workers to come in, National Beef had increased its hourly rate by $2 and, Garman said, was offering $500 bonuses to anyone who worked six days in a week. The next day, she reported for duty at 5:30 a.m.

- - -

By then, the steer had arrived in fabrication, where it was sliced down to 30- and 40-pound slabs of beef. That beef was loaded into temperature-controlled tractor-trailers that fanned out across the Midwest, where statehouses had become the scenes of protests demanding governors reopen businesses. One trailer's destination was a New Jersey warehouse just across the Hudson River from New York City, an epicenter of the virus.

The warehouse belonged to Pat LaFrieda, whose name is spoken with reverence by foodies and restaurateurs. They love the lore of his origin story, a butcher's son who went to Wall Street, quit and came home to grow his family's business into one of the best-known meat purveyors in the country. They love his burgers, which are the result of top-secret recipes individually concocted for each restaurant he serves, so no two establishments' burgers taste the same.

So high was the demand for LaFrieda meat that the 49-year-old and his 73-year-old father, Pat Sr., were about to open a $20 million facility - right when all the restaurants they served started shutting down. Chefs who'd ordered thousands of pounds of beef suddenly could not pay for any of it.

Restaurants that tried to stay open for carryout faced beef prices that were at new highs. Although meatpackers were paying less for cattle, they were charging more for the beef shipped to grocery stores and butchers. LaFrieda, in turn, was charging more, too. And trying to increase his ability to ship meat directly to homes. And trying to get his employees to wear N95 respirator masks. And trying to persuade his father to stay home.

"I have never worked as hard to lose as much," LaFrieda said.

He spent his days on the phone with chefs and restaurant owners across the country, feeling like their financial adviser, their sanitation expert and their therapist. He didn't know how many of them would still be his customers when all of this was over.

He spent his nights in a 36-degree room turning slabs of beef into steaks and burgers beside his employees. He wore a paintball mask to show them how seriously he was taking the precautions. He gave speeches about being on one of the overlooked and underappreciated front lines of this pandemic: the people ensuring that Americans had food to eat.

"A virus cannot destroy civilization, but panic can," he liked to say.

On May 21, there was another order from Le Diplomate for Burger Américain patties. Cuts of hanger and flatiron steaks, short ribs and - secret recipes never tell - were ground down to noodle-shaped pieces, mixed and ground again before being poured into a hamburger-making machine.

By 5 a.m., hundreds of four-ounce patties were loaded into boxes and onto another refrigerated truck, this one headed to Washington.

At 9:50 a.m. on May 22, the burger arrived. Executive Chef Greg Lloyd, 40, watched the truck pull in, the boxes come out and the stacks of meat pile high in the walk-in refrigerators. This was one of few parts of his routine still intact.

Lloyd used to describe the kitchen as an orchestra and the customers as an audience. He got to play conductor every night. He believed that every little choice, from the dimness of the lighting to the garnish on a steak, could make a diner feel, at least for a moment, that all was right in the world.

But now the food was in plastic. Most of the customers were on their couches. The few staff members he could bring back were standing two yards apart from one another, their banter in Spanish muffled by masks.

They'd all spent five weeks out of work. Starr restaurants, a Philadelphia-based group that owns 42 restaurants across the country, completely closed Le Diplomate at the beginning of the pandemic. Lloyd, who'd cooked lobster risotto for the Bidens and steak frites for Bill Murray, was stuck at home, making meatloaf. He applied for unemployment benefits. The company still paid employees' health insurance through April, and Lloyd had his wife's income from her government job to lean on.

Restaurateur Stephen Starr, the group's namesake, was criticized online for shuttering so quickly and not following in the footsteps of chefs who set up community kitchens and donated to food banks. Paper covered Le Diplomate's windows, a visual reminder to the bustling neighborhood that all was wrong in the world.

The paper came down on April 20. Lloyd, who'd also agreed to a pay cut, placed an order for burgers. He wound up needing three times the amount of his usual order. The burgers, he realized, were as comforting to his customers as the meatloaf was to him. Warm, juicy, reminiscent of the before times.

The patties cost the restaurant almost double what they used to. The price of beef still hadn't come down in mid-May, and though $7 per pound seemed outrageous, Le Diplomate wouldn't be Le Diplomate without the Burger Américain on the menu. Eventually, the restaurant group would decide it had no choice but to temporarily switch to a different supplier of Black Angus patties.

But first, the burger that had made its way from the Midwest was flipping through the air and landing on the griddle. Line cook Maximiliano Solano watched it sizzle, then layered a slice of American cheese on top.

Solano began working in restaurants at 16, two years after he'd emigrated from Mexico. He started as a dishwasher. Becoming a sous chef at one of the city's most beloved restaurants and bringing home a salary of $1,700 every other week sometimes made him feel felt like he was living someone else's life. This spring, with a 7-month-old baby at home, he decided to buy a Toyota Highlander, an SUV he thought a family man should have.

Le Diplomate closed the next week. His wife lost her restaurant job at the same time. So did his sister, his brother-in-law, his cousins and so many of his friends. His family already lived so close to the margins, there was little he could cut back on. He canceled his cable and his Amazon Prime account. He refused to miss a car payment.

"I was the only one responsible for the rent, for the bills, everything," he said.

He felt lucky to get the call in April to return to work, to take a pay cut and make $16 an hour to cook $20 burgers. Somehow the griddle felt so much hotter with the mask and gloves, which he knew he would be keeping on for a very long time. The return of customers meant that more of his co-workers would get their jobs back. But he just couldn't shake the feeling that if things went badly, they'd all be out of work once again.

Solano popped two patties off the griddle and nestled them onto a brioche bun. Pickles and red onions topped the cheese. The sauce went into a plastic container. The fries went on the side, and then came the lid and a brown paper bag.

The burger, along with a chicken club sandwich, a half-chicken, a french onion soup and trout amandine was now a part of order 20212.

- - -

The bag was picked up by Gabriel Guevara, whose job was to hustle the orders to the delivery drivers and customers waiting outside.

As a food runner, Guevara, 33, used to make $25 an hour once the staff divvied up the tips. When he finished his shift at 11 p.m., he'd drive straight to his second job, cleaning restaurants until 3 or 4 a.m.

He slept until it was time to take his 7-year-old son to school. His wife began another day of caring for their daughter who has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder. At 4 years old, she can't speak or feed herself or walk without struggling. While Guevara is working, her life is a series of medicines and doctor appointments and trying, all the time, to communicate in her own way, often through tears.

She was Guevara's first thought when his boss at Le Diplomate called to ask whether he would come back. He said yes right away. He'd only be making $10 an hour, plus a cut of the tips that came in from customers who picked up their own meals. He wouldn't be able start sending money to his family in El Salvador again, but his family here would find a way to get by.

"I thanked God for everything," Guevara said. "I paid the rent, and we have food in the house, and my daughter needs her medicine."

By then, both of his wife's parents were hospitalized in the District of Columbia with the virus. Only his mother-in-law would survive.

She moved into their D.C. apartment. Guevara and his wife gave up their bedroom so she could have her own bathroom. She was still contagious. She'd just lost her husband, but they couldn't hug her. They had to keep their daughter from getting the virus. And Guevara had to be able to go to work.

Outside the delivery window, a woman in a "basketball mom" T-shirt arrived asking for order 20212. Guevara picked up the bag with the burger inside and passed it through a makeshift takeout window.

"Thank you," Tiffany Poindexter said before turning to get back to her rental car as fast as possible. Every week of the pandemic, she has picked up a car from the Avis in Bowie, Md., to drive to D.C., turn on her Caviar or Doordash app and wait for someone to decide they would like their meal brought to their door.

She is an accountant for a nonprofit research firm. She started working as a delivery courier in February, when she realized just how expensive travel basketball for her 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter was going to be this year.

Then basketball practices stopped, and her employer told her to work from home, and suddenly she could see the financial potential in all that new time. One of her customers left two cloth masks in a plastic bag on the doorstep. Poindexter, 48, put them on and kept driving.

The accounting of this work went like this: For each delivery she completed, she received a base rate of around $3 to $5. Sometimes Caviar offered bonuses to motivate drivers to work during busy times, like $12 for every three deliveries completed. Most tips were $4 or $5. Sometimes she would be shocked to see a $20 tip. More often, she'd be unsurprised to see no tip at all.

She drove, passing million-dollar condos and shops still shuttered by the pandemic.

If she works five hours after her accounting job, and nine or 10 hours on the weekends, she can make about $600 in five days. She subtracts about $100 for the rental car.

But then there are the other costs: losing time with her children, who were at home warming up leftovers as she drove into D.C. She hoped ditching her clothes at the door and showering was enough, that if she was carrying the virus, it wouldn't spread to them.

She had to stop spending time with her parents, who have heart conditions. When she stopped at their house just for a few minutes, her mother sprayed her down with Lysol.

Just before 7 p.m., she turned down a leafy street and parked in front of a rowhouse where a group of 30-somethings were on the porch. She stepped out of her car, carrying the bag with $160 worth of food inside.

Two years after a cow became pregnant in Kansas, the burger had reached its final destination.

The roommates turned away from their laptops, where they were in the middle of a video happy hour.

"Be safe," Poindexter told them through her mask. She hurried back to her rental car, on her way to pick up another delivery from another restaurant.

- - -

The roommates went inside, where a candlelit table was set with blue china and wineglasses beside a game of Scrabble they'd been playing on and off since the pandemic began. Marcus Bagnell, 34, transferred the burger from its plastic container to his plate.

He'd been to Le Diplomate before but never ordered the burger. On this Friday night, his roommates suggested they order French food and watch "Casablanca." Bagnell dressed in a striped shirt, leaning into the theme.

This was how much of the pandemic had been for him. Board games, video calls, ordering from restaurants fancier than he would usually frequent. Back in March, he was spending hours on coronavirus message boards and taking his temperature every day. But his laser engineering job transitioned easily to work from home. His employer paid for him to order two monitors, a headset and a keyboard. He didn't get sick, and neither did anyone in his family. He didn't know anyone who had lost their jobs.

His roommate poured glasses of red wine. Someone shut off the video call, setting the laptop beside a sourdough loaf rising on the counter.

In Kansas, Shawn Tiffany was preparing dinner with his children on his ranch, where the cattle were still backed up for weeks. Marisela Garman was getting ready for her sixth shift of the week at the meatpacking plant. In the kitchen of Le Diplomate, Maximiliano Solano was dropping more beef patties onto the griddle, with two hours to go in his shift.

Bagnell picked up the burger with both hands. He took a bite.

"It's pretty good," he said. A few minutes later, the burger was gone.

- - -

The Washington Post's Samantha Schmidt and Tom Sietsema contributed to this report.


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

We can't wait for schools to reopen safely!

By alexandra petri
We can't wait for schools to reopen safely!


Advance for release Thursday, July 9, 2020, and thereafter

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Alexandra Petri

Wonderful news this week for those children who have long envied essential workers and sacrificial-economy grandparents their plaudits and wished that they, too, could be on the front lines of this coronavirus thing: Now they will have the opportunity!

Everyone knows how important it is that we have a plan to reopen schools safely. That is why the Trump administration has devised a plan: to reopen schools. They sure hope your governor has plans for the safety part! In the meantime, your kids and their teachers get to be heroes and pioneers, instead of just reading about them in musty textbooks!

Of course, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention technically does have some suggestions and guidelines for how to reopen safely. To do so would not be impossible, the agency recognized, but it would require a lot of effort, expense and preparation. This was until the president had the brilliant idea: What if we simply decided it didn't?

"We don't want the guidance from CDC to be a reason schools don't open," as Vice President Pence said at Wednesday's press conference.

The CDC's director, Robert Redfield, said, "I want to make it very clear that what is not the intent of CDC's guidelines is to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed."

"They must fully open. And they must be fully operational," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. "And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders."

Look, does the CDC know better what benchmarks a school should pass to reopen safely than your school's five or six beleaguered administrators without degrees in public health do? Please do not answer this question, as it was rhetorical.

Is there any scientific support for this approach? So far, we don't really have data showing that children are major carriers of the virus. Is this the same as, "There is data showing that children are NOT major carriers of the virus"? No, but - the fact that so many people can't tell the difference just shows why being back at school is so crucial!

So will there be testing? Of course there will be! It's a school! Probably there will also be essays and pop quizzes!

And is the CDC going to change its guidelines now that the president is upset that they are too detailed? Again, these guidelines are not binding! You can just do whatever. If you think it is too onerous to do what the CDC suggests is necessary in order to be safe, then simply do not do it! Also, yes.

The bottom line is: SCHOOLS MUST OPEN! Not only is it good for the economy, and not only will it be good for students to get to socialize and see counselors and have nutrition - all this, is, of course, true! which is why the American Pediatric Association urged us to set physically reopening schools as our goal! - but these brave pupils' presence will also be a great incentive for your local government to get this virus under control, something the president and his team are very disappointed municipalities have not already managed to do on their own. We all agree that the best part of a plane ride is when you get off the plane at your destination, which is why we are now taking steps to push everyone out the door of that plane in the hopes that they will turn out to be at their destination and not 29,000 feet in the air surrounded by water vapor and highly intrepid geese.

But don't look at this as a situation where the Trump administration is doing nothing to mitigate the alarming uptick of cases besides insist that, maybe, with less testing, it would go away, and now they would like to send your kids back into it. This is a situation where children are being offered what they want most: the opportunity to be heroes! Before, people complained that school was boring. Where was the drama? Where was the excitement? This is the boost the whole "school" concept needed. Send kids to learn pre-algebra and also play Russian roulette with the lives of their elderly relatives and teachers? Now I'm interested!

And best yet, in keeping with our commitment to choice in education, if your child is too wealthy to be willing to be a hero just yet, you can hire a substitute to attend class and do all the testing in their place. Rumor has it that the president was doing this even before the virus! But he has always been ahead of the unflattened curve.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

The contraception war that just won't end

By e.j. dionne jr.
The contraception war that just won't end


Advance for release Thursday, July 9, 2020, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)


(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Given that more than two-thirds of Americans believe, in principle at least, that private health insurance plans should cover contraception, it's strange that we can't seem to settle the matter. You would think a functioning democracy could work this issue out in a reasonable way that respected the rights of women as well as the rights of those with religious objections to contraception.

Instead, the question of whether health plans issued under the Affordable Care Act should cover birth control has been the subject of an ongoing, maximalist culture war. The Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday will make things worse.

The ruling concerned a Trump administration regulation that allows even publicly traded corporations - not just family-owned companies - to deny their female employees this coverage if they have religious objections.

Since most employers seem likely to continue to cover contraception, the decision's immediate impact may be limited to an estimated 70,000 to 126,000 women, which is little comfort to those who will be affected. And giving large businesses expansive rights to invoke religion to deny employees a particular benefit creates serious dangers. The Trump rule falls far short of balancing legitimately competing interests.

The vote was technically 7-2, but actually, and importantly, it was 5-2-2. Writing for herself and Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Justice Elena Kagan agreed with the five conservative justices in sending the case back to the lower courts. But she raised serious and proper questions about whether the administration's rules reflect the "reasoned judgment" that the law demands and added: "Other aspects of the departments' handiwork may also prove arbitrary and capricious."

The rule's "overbreadth causes serious harm," Kagan wrote. She questioned extending the religious exemption to "even publicly traded corporations" and allowing closely held companies and not-for-profits to block contraception coverage not only on religious grounds but also for more nebulous "moral" reasons.

And in dissent Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, asked exactly the right question: "May the Government jettison an arrangement that promotes women workers' well-being while accommodating employers' religious tenets and, instead, defer entirely to employers' religious beliefs, although that course harms women who do not share those beliefs?"

That is the nub of an issue that has been vexing since the Barack Obama administration issued its initial ACA rules in 2012, providing an extremely limited exemption on contraception. It covered only narrowly defined "religious employers." It exempted churches, for example, but not religious universities or social-service agencies and hospitals.

The administration back then was wrong not to recognize it had a broader obligation to accommodate religious concerns. After an uproar, Obama recognized the error and gave a broader group of religious institutions a chance to opt out of providing the contraception coverage and placed the coverage requirement on private insurers.

This move was a reasonable compromise, and it was welcomed at the time by many religious providers of social services. But it was not enough for more conservative religious groups. They argued that even the act of asking for the exemption made them complicit in a policy they found objectionable. Since then, religious conservatives have pressed for ever-broader exemptions, culminating in the Trump administration's rules and Wednesday's court decision.

There's good reason to wonder whether history might have turned out differently if the Obama administration had been more accommodating to religious groups at the outset. But once Obama did signal a willingness to compromise, many religious groups resisted working with the administration to avoid a showdown. Conservatives in large numbers seemed more interested in a confrontation with liberalism than in creating a sustainable consensus for religious liberty in a pluralist society.

We desperately need to stop this cycle of seeking zero-sum victories. During the oral argument on the case, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Breyer both expressed frustration over the inability of the dueling parties to find a way to respect the rights of religious not-for-profits and the right of women to contraception coverage in their health care plans.

Obama, after initially failing, at least tried to find this common ground. But the Trump Administration is allergic to the words "common ground." It thrives on orchestrating as many cultural conflicts as it can across as many fronts as possible.

As Kagan suggested, it falls first to the lower courts to examine Trump's overreach in writing these expansive rules. But ultimately, it will be for the voters to decide whether we want leadership that seeks reasonable and durable settlements of divisive cultural questions. Doing so will help us move on to such pressing concerns as getting everyone health coverage in the first place.

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

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Multi-tasking and Media Don't Mix

By ruben navarrette jr.
Multi-tasking and Media Don't Mix


Advance for release Wednesday, July 8, 2020, and thereafter

(For Navarrette clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)


(c) 2020, The Washington Post

SAN DIEGO -- If my kids want to be successful and stay out of trouble, I'm ready with my best advice: Do your job. And don't try to do someone else's.

A lot of people can't seem to stay in their own lane. Border vigilantes try to play cop, while cops try to play immigration agent. Teachers lecture parents on how to raise children, while many parents homeschool their kids because they think they can be teachers.

And, of course, just about every football fan thinks he could do a better job of coaching his favorite team than the guy who has that gig.

But when you're a journalist -- or even someone who plays one on TV -- it is dangerous to meddle in another sandbox.

It is not breaking news that these are troubled times for the media. The public doesn't trust us, and our credibility is in shambles. But many of our wounds are self-inflicted.

For instance, we sometimes blur the lines as to who is doing which job. We get paid to cover the powerful and hold them accountable. To do that, we have to visit their world. But it is (BEG ITAL)their(END ITAL) world, and we have to remember that. We're expected to be curious and stick our noses in other people's business, but we can't be careless and stick our fingers into everything.

According to a recent article in The Daily Beast, CNN's Van Jones may have forgotten that rule. Maybe he was never taught it in the first place. A graduate of Yale Law School, and former special adviser on green jobs with President Barack Obama's Council on Environmental Quality, Jones isn't really a journalist.

Shh. Don't tell CNN that. The network has spent the last few years elevating Jones into a role of greater prominence as a kind of pseudo-journalist who had his own talk show and news specials. That added to the confusion.

The camera likes Jones. But charisma is no substitute for credentials. And, to the best of my knowledge, Jones was never trained as a journalist. There are ethical boundaries in this line of work, and it's possible no one at CNN ever took the time to explain them to Jones.

Allow me: When you're a journalist - or in this case, drawing a paycheck as a contributor to a cable network that is supposed to practice journalism -- your job is to educate, enlighten and sometimes eviscerate those who make public policy. It is (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) your job to climb into the arena and help make public policy. That's the last thing you should do. It courts disaster.

Let's pretend we're making a cake. Reporters find out the ingredients. Analysts are the taste testers. Commentators might suggest their own recipe. Anchors can announce when the cake is ready. But, at no point is anyone supposed to go into the kitchen and start baking.

According to the Daily Beast article, the trouble began when Jones became chummy with White House adviser and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner. The two were supposedly introduced by Sam Feist, CNN's Washington Bureau Chief. The next thing you know, Jones is - according to a number of sources at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who communicated with The Daily Beast - adding his two cents to both President Donald Trump's executive order on police reform and the Senate bill, the so-called "Justice Act," drafted by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

A Scott spokesperson told The Daily Beast that "Van's input was certainly a part of the process as we constructed the bill."

In a series of tweets, Jones denied taking part in the process and called the Daily Beast article "false" and "sensationalist."

In 2018, Jones was open about working with both the Trump administration and members of Congress to help push through the criminal justice and prison reform bill known as "The First Step Act." He even attended the bill signing ceremony at the White House.

All this needs to be shared with the public whenever Jones proffers an opinion on work product that he helped create. According to the Daily Beast article, that didn't happen with regard to the executive order. During recent appearances on CNN, Jones offered his assessment of the administration's latest stab at police reform without revealing that he may have influenced it. Jones claims that he hasn't been in the White House for the last few months, and that he hasn't been part of any discussions on police reform.

This much we know: Back in the kitchen, baking the cake is someone else's job. And when those of us in the news business forget that, and get our hands dirty, we create an ownership stake in the final product that makes it impossible for us to offer a fair assessment of how good it really is. Then no one knows what they're eating.


Navarrette's email address is His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2020, The Washington Post Writers Group

Midnight in the Garden of American Heroes

By alexandra petri
Midnight in the Garden of American Heroes


Advance for release Wednesday, July 8, 2020, and thereafter

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Alexandra Petri

(BEG ITAL)"The National Garden should be located on a site of natural beauty that enables visitors to enjoy nature, walk among the statues, and be inspired to learn about great figures of America's history. The site should be proximate to at least one major population center, and the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community."

- Executive Order on Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes(END ITAL)

. . . and furthermore the National Garden must be opened to public access before July 4, 2026, for no reason, and certainly not to propitiate any sinister forces that need to be propitiated. There is nothing cursed about the National Garden of American Heroes. Do not be concerned! The below warnings are just to ensure that you have a nice time. We do not anticipate any incidents from the National Garden of American Heroes.

(BEG BOLD)Warnings To Visitors!(END BOLD)

Be sure to enter the National Garden before dusk. Bring a penny from no earlier than 2006, a copy of the Constitution, sturdy shoes and headphones. Come alone.

The entrance to the National Garden of American Heroes is behind the Dolley Madison statue. If Dolley Madison is a painting and not a statue, do not attempt to enter the garden.

The thing that looks like an abstract or modernist rendering of Benjamin Franklin is NOT a statue. The president's proclamation was careful to specify that all statues in the National Garden would be "lifelike or realistic representations." Do not look at it. Keep walking.

The low rumbling that comes from the base of Amelia Earhart is normal. (This is #12 on your audio guide.) Only if the low rumbling is accompanied by a faint tapping sound, as if someone is trying to find a way out of a hollow, metal container, should you begin to make your way out of the garden - not hastily, but not haltingly, either, and always keeping Amelia to your left.

If Clara Barton's jaw unhinges and she begins to speak, plug your ears any way you can. Do not make your way toward Clara Barton, no matter what she says to you.

There is a stone that marks the northwest corner of the National Garden. Familiarize yourself with the location of this stone. Some nights, the stone looks like Daniel Boone, and another garden will appear to extend indefinitely beyond him. Do not walk into that garden, even if it seems to contain Betsy Ross and you have always wanted to see Betsy Ross. You have not always wanted to see Betsy Ross. There is nothing there for you.

It is normal if when you leave the garden, you don't remember the face of the Warrior Against International Socialism. You will see it only once again, at the moment before your death.

THERE IS ONLY ONE JOHN ADAMS STATUE! If you see the Other John Adams, TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION. Walk as quickly as you can to the sculpture of Antonin Scalia and touch its robe, unless the statue is holding up its hand. If so, turn and make your way to Audie Murphy. Be sure, before you visit the garden, to familiarize yourself with how Audie Murphy should and should not look. (BEG ITAL)Only walk toward Audie Murphy.(END ITAL) If you can't remember Audie Murphy's face, take the penny from your pocket and look at the head. The head will be Audie Murphy. If there is no head, take the Bill of Rights from your pocket and read it aloud, slowly, however long it is, and whether or not it contains rights that you do not remember. If you come to the Mars resolution, you have gone too far.

Some nights Alexander Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda. It's fine.

This should go without saying, but Orville and Wilbur Wright should not be holding James Madison three feet aloft with their metal faces distorted into expressions of triumph, but if they are, do not be alarmed. The statue of Booker T. Washington will be along shortly to sort things out.

If you hear the whistle of a lonesome train, run as quickly as you can to the feet of Harriet Beecher Stowe. If you get there before the whistle blows a second time, Stowe will show you America as it ought to be, but if you get there by the third whistle, you will only see America as it is, and the vision will break you.

If the statue of Columbus is there, walk rapidly to the exit of the National Garden of American Heroes. The statue of Columbus is (BEG ITAL)allowed(END ITAL) to be there, but it is not (BEG ITAL)supposed(END ITAL) to be there.

If you stand too close to Henry Clay, when you try to step away from him, you will be unable to move. There is nothing to do then but to accept your fate. In the morning, the National Garden of American Heroes will contain an unidentified Pioneer. The contents of your pockets will be in a neat pile next to it. All records of your human existence will have vanished - save the hint of a smirk on Henry Clay's lips.

The site is near only one major population center for a reason.

That is not the Marquis de Lafayette.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

FICO will now score consumers' readiness for a financial crisis. Here's how it works.

By michelle singletary
FICO will now score consumers' readiness for a financial crisis. Here's how it works.


Advance for release Wednesday, July 8, 2020, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)


(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - You've been a good credit card customer, faithfully paying off your bill every month. And you're careful to use very little of your available credit.

But then your lender sends a letter informing you that your credit limit has been significantly reduced.

This happened recently to a reader in Pelham, New Hampshire. Her credit card company was cutting her credit limit almost in half to $7,700. The reason: "We saw that you spend far below your available credit limit," the issuer wrote to the cardholder.

Many consumers are getting similar notices as lenders seek to reduce their credit portfolio risk as a result of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. And it's not without reason.

After going through their savings, many people suffering a job loss or reduced income turn to their credit cards to make ends meet. At some point, keeping up even with minimum monthly payments proves too much, and they end up falling behind. This can even happen to people who have previously paid their bills in full, resulting in losses for lenders.

So, during economic downturns, credit issuers often cut credit limits or even cancel cards with little or no warning. This can be true even for consumers with excellent credit scores. Under the FICO credit scoring model, scores range from 300 to 850. The higher your score, the better. Subprime borrowers, whose credit scores range roughly from 580 to the low 600s, are considered to be at a higher risk of defaulting on their debts.

In October 2008, during the Great Recession, a Federal Reserve loan survey on bank lending practices found that 20% of lenders cut credit lines for customers with prime credit scores, and 60% reduced credit lines for subprime cardholders.

"Banks are once again very nervous about the state of the economy and the job market and they're pulling back on their risk exposure," said Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at

FICO, the company behind the most-used credit score, recently launched a new product to help lenders figure out which consumers are likely to be financially resilient during an economic crisis. FICO's "Resilience Index" allows financial institutions to continue lending to consumers who might otherwise be cut off from credit or be offered higher-priced loans.

The index has been 10 years in the making, according to Jim Wehmann, executive vice president of FICO Scores.

"We now can predict which consumers are best positioned to withstand a downturn and which ones are not so well positioned," Wehmann said in an interview. "The FICO resilience index can allow lenders to keep credit flowing to even low FICO scorers and below-average FICO scorers who we can identify for the very first time that they are resilient."

The resilience index score ranges from 1 to 99. In contrast to FICO's credit scoring model, a low score on this index is better. Consumers with scores in the 1 to 44 range are viewed as the most prepared to weather an economic shift, Wehmann said.

Consumers with a higher resilience index tend to have longer credit histories, fewer active accounts, and less frequent credit inquiries. High-scoring consumers also have lower revolving credit card balances.

Credit scoring models examine your credit utilization for each active account and, separately, your usage of all of your credit cards together. Thirty percent of your credit score is made up of your credit utilization, meaning what percentage of your available credit is being used. One study by FICO found that cardholders with scores above 795 use, on average, 7% of their credit limit.

Although this product is intended for use by lenders, insight into how it works can help consumers improve their credit scores, Rossman said.

For example, let's say two consumers each have a FICO score of 680. That's a good-but-not-excellent score. Rather than treat both of these consumers the same, the resilience index would dig a little deeper into their credit profiles looking for certain patterns, such as credit utilization.

So, one consumer may have a high credit utilization of 70%. But the second consumer only uses about 10% of his or her available credit limit, resulting in a much lower resilience index score. Somebody who's maxing out a card is less likely to be resilient in a downturn.

This new tool could be most useful for people on the verge of being denied credit or having their credit limit reduced, Rossman said.

"It's not a replacement for the traditional credit score," he said. "It's something that's going to be used really as more of a tiebreaker. When the economy takes a turn for the worse, when unemployment goes up, the knee jerk reaction from lenders is just to clamp down on credit. Instead of that kind of slash and burn approach, they can be more surgical so they can actually separate people out a little bit better."


Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

The vice-presidential guessing game

By kathleen parker
The vice-presidential guessing game


Advance for release Wednesday, July 8, 2020, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

WRITETHRU: In 2nd graf, 2nd sentence, adds "with" before McCain; and in 8th graf, fixes Klobuchar's title to "chief prosecutor in Minneapolis" (sted attorney general of Minnesota)


(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- The mystery of Joe Biden's running mate takes me back to 2008, when the political world breathlessly awaited John McCain's surprise pick.

Back then, the whispered word was that Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman was McCain's top choice. But the powers that used-to-be wanted a relatively unknown dynamo from Alaska -- then-Gov. Sarah Palin. After a chat with McCain in Sedona, Arizona, where all manner of magic is said to occur, the roguish, pro-life mom of five, got a wink and the nod -- and changed the course of our political landscape.

With three clicks of her red, shiny shoes, the wonder from Wasilla helped usher the Grand Old Party into a regressive era of ignorance, intransigence and an ideological muddle of racism, sexism and nationalistic xenophobia that ultimately produced a Confederate-flag defending, authoritarian-worshipping, Queens-bred reality-TV star named Donald Trump.

Now, Biden, struggling to make an impression in an election season distorted by the awful gravity of COVID-19, has turned to the VP-mystery game. At least daily, I receive an email from the campaign inviting me to participate in the guessing game -- or to become one of the first-to-know Her Name. This reality-show drama, of course, encourages speculation among the media and feeds the rumor that Americans like this sort of thing.

Do we? Just pick her, already. It's July! McCain waited until just minutes before the Republican Convention in late August that year. And, it must be said, Palin delivered with a remarkable speech crafted by the masterful Matthew Scully.

Biden has promised to pick a woman, and pressure is mounting for him to pick an African American woman. This is in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also because of his obvious debt to the black women voters of South Carolina, who, upon the endorsement of the state's elder statesman, Rep. James Clyburn, are credited with handing him the Democratic nomination.

Biden suffers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing a running mate. Most of the African American women reported to be in contention have been prominent long enough for their names to be familiar nationally. Many already hold public offices or came very close, as in the case of Stacey Abrams, almost-governor of Georgia, who insists she would have won if not for voter suppression.

The commentariat, of course, has a gift for finding flaws in any potential candidate. In the case of previous Biden foe Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), it's a too-tough resume, while she was California attorney general, on issues important to black voters. Similarly, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) missed the opportunity while she was chief prosecutor in Minneapolis to tackle issues of police abuse that might have prevented George Floyd's death; she has withdrawn her name from the list. Florida Rep. Val Demings, an African American and former Orlando police chief, is relatively inexperienced. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren may suffer the unfortunate capacity to remind Biden of his inferior grasp of complicated issues.

But two other names, one of them as-yet-unmentioned, stand out - former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and, wait for it, former Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Both women are whip smart, highly trained and experienced in world affairs. Both know Biden well and are highly qualified to assist him on both international and domestic fronts.

Neither has experience running for high office, but there are more important things. Should the worst come to pass, either woman could skip orientation and start fully equipped to lead. Indeed, Jarrett, a lawyer, businesswoman and Stanford graduate, was basically a shadow president for eight years next to Obama.

Though Rice also served as Obama's national security adviser, she's unfairly freighted with political baggage that Jarrett, working behind the scenes, has escaped. Recall 2012 when Rice, stepping in for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reported on five Sunday news shows that attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi were a "spontaneous" reaction to a viral, anti-Muslim video. When subsequent investigations proved otherwise, Rice was unfairly accused of "lying." I defended Rice at the time and stand by that column.

Jarrett, meantime, was "in the room," as she has put it, on nearly every crucial issue during the Obama administration. Having spent time with her socially and in the White House, I can attest to her graciousness, intelligence and absolute discretion. She's no one's fool and holds her cards close. While serving the president, she also pursued her own projects, speaking often on the country's toxic politics, the need for compromise and issues of the day.

During a recent Axios interview, asked to comment on Biden's vice-presidential choices, Jarrett said, "I trust him completely to pick the right person."

Here's looking at you, Valerie.

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

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