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An accident dislodges a Confederate statue and forces a town to grapple with its history

By David Montgomery
An accident dislodges a Confederate statue and forces a town to grapple with its history
DEMOPOLIS, AL - JUNE 14: The marble statue of a Rebel soldier was unceremoniously toppled from the granite pedestal where he had presided since 1910, on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Demopolis, AL. About 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 16, 2016, an on-duty patrol car with the Demopolis, Ala., Police Department proceeded north on North Main Avenue to the intersection of West Capitol Street, where it crashed into the city's Confederate memorial. The impact of the Dodge Charger broke the statue off at the shins. Undamaged was the inscription on the base:

About 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday last July, an on-duty patrol car with the Demopolis, Alabama, Police Department proceeded along North Main Avenue toward West Capitol Street. It was a clear night, and nothing much was going on. There hadn't been an arrest for two days, and that had been for misdemeanor theft from a supermarket. The squad car rolled past the bank and the power company on the left, the town square on the right. Up ahead, in the center of the intersection, loomed a monument: a marble statue of a soldier, not quite life-size, elevated about a dozen feet on a granite pedestal. He was gazing south, toward the oncoming patrol car. The butt of his upturned rifle rested at his boots; a blanket roll was draped over his left shoulder. Negotiating the intersection required a slight swerve around the monument - but the police officer crashed straight into it. The impact of the Dodge Charger broke off the soldier at the shins and put him on his back amid the shrubs and flowers around the monument. His cropped boots remained on the pedestal. Undamaged was the inscription on the base: "Our Confederate Dead."

A sign at the outskirts of Demopolis announces "City of the People," a translation of the town's name from the ancient Greek. The population numbers 7,020 - 50 percent black, 47 percent white - which is enough to make it the largest city in Marengo County. This is the western part of Alabama's Black Belt, so named for its rich soil but also intimately associated with the enslaved people who worked the cotton fields, then stayed on as free tenant farmers, and whose descendants drove the struggle for civil rights. Symbols of liberation and lost causes are everywhere, telling rival stories, like the Greek Revival plantation houses, with their white columns and pediments out front, and their former slave cabins calling quietly from the back.

Following the crash, the lieutenant on duty woke up Chief Tommie Reese, who responded to the scene. The chief, in turn, rousted Mayor Mike Grayson, who threw on a pair of shorts and hurried the few blocks from his house. Grayson, 65, who is white, was silently praying the act wasn't intentional. According to family lore, his grandmother, as treasurer for the Marengo Rifles Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, wrote the check to pay for the monument. "The last thing I wanted to happen was Demopolis to become a battleground between the Sons [of Confederate Veterans] and the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Black Lives movement," he said later. "We had worked too hard for too many years."

Reese, 52, who is black, wanted to get the facts out as soon as possible, before conspiracy theories could propagate. The car and statue were removed quickly. As a consequence, few pictures circulated on social media, an Orwellian turn that unintentionally fueled speculation. After working the scene, Reese took a short nap. When he awoke by 9 or 10 a.m., "it was already spiraling out of control" on the Internet, he said, spurred in part by people chiming in from other parts of the country. A leading theory was that the officer was black and had been paid to take out the statue. A small, peaceful, racially diverse crowd of gawkers gathered to contemplate the pedestal that now uplifted simply a pair of Confederate ankles.

The news spread "immediately, by word of mouth," said Annye Braxton, 84, who had participated in voting rights drives and rallies in the mid-1960s at Demopolis's Morning Star Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. An African American pastor at another church told me, "There was jubilation on the African American side of town."

The white side of town was conflicted. There was a faction that saw an opportunity to tell a new story about Demopolis, and another that wanted to dig in to defend an older version. The night the statue was knocked down, Dana McCants, 68, had been preoccupied with news coverage of attempts to remove Confederate symbols in other parts of the country. That prospect offended him and his twin brother, David, who had come within two votes of winning a council seat last election. Then, incredibly, Demopolis lost its soldier in a single stroke. "Hitting that statue would be hard to do; you would have to work at getting to the statue," David said later. Dana insisted, "He hit the statue on purpose. Ain't no way to tell what they paid him."

Confounding the battle lines was one inconvenient fact that everyone, black and white, could agree on: Until that Saturday morning a year ago, the soldier had stood guard almost entirely without controversy. Nobody protested him, nobody celebrated him. It was only after he was gone that he mattered.

Within days Reese announced the findings of an internal investigation, based on drug and alcohol tests, security camera footage and GPS data: The officer fell asleep at the wheel. He hit the statue at about 25 to 30 miles per hour. The car was totaled; the driver was lucky to be unhurt. To protect the officer's safety, Reese refused to release his name - or his race.

Now Demopolis faced a dilemma. Could such an act of God, chance or negligence be allowed to stand? As cities around the country wrestled with whether to take down their Confederate monuments, Demopolis had to decide whether to put its soldier back up.

- - -

The Southern Poverty Law Center counts more than 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public property, mainly across the South. The push to remove or rethink them gained momentum two years ago, when Dylann Roof, who killed nine parishioners in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., proved to have a fondness for Confederate iconography.

But the stone and bronze soldiers do not go gently. This past spring in New Orleans, statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis were taken down amid dueling rallies, vigils and several arrests. Earlier this month in Charlottesville, 30 Ku Klux Klan members rallied to protest the City Council's vote to remove a statue of Lee from a city park. For now, the Charlottesville council's decision has been enjoined by a court order. Efforts to remove Confederate statues in Alexandria and Leesburg have stalled as well. Richmond's mayor recently called for new signage or statues to expose the "false narrative" of that city's Confederate statues that "lionize the architects and defenders of slavery." Monuments in Baltimore and Rockville have come under scrutiny, and debates are playing out in communities in Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and elsewhere.

Demopolis's statue was erected in 1910, during a wave of post-Reconstruction Confederate memorialization that produced most of the monuments in contention today. Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy led the effort. It was a time when Southern whites were reasserting their supremacy following a burst of African American empowerment after the Civil War. With their location in prominent public spaces, the monuments stood as reminders of who still ruled the South. Some of the statues were mass-produced. The Demopolis piece - a generic soldier, meant as a tribute to all Confederate dead - was sculpted in a pose seen in statues from Statesboro, Ga., to Star City, Ark., to Durant, Okla.

Sixty Confederate veterans and thousands of people attended the dedication in October 1910. The statue was draped in the colors of the Confederate flag. The crowd sang "Dixie." "An excellent barbecued dinner was served by the good people of Demopolis, who always seem glad of an occasion to honor and entertain those old heroes of the Confederacy," a newspaper reported. "This monument ... will stand as a reminder to every old soldier who passes that way that his comrades of the dark days are still remembered."

- - -

Hours after the soldier fell, Mayor Grayson posted an invitation on Facebook for residents to turn out for a mass prayer vigil in the name of unity at the broken monument. He was quickly talked out of that idea by other city leaders, who thought such a gathering would only inflame the issue. He then called for a committee of civic and business leaders - six white and six black - to study the matter. The move effectively allowed Demopolis to slip into its summer local political campaign season without the statue playing a central role on Election Day in late August.

Grayson lost reelection to John Laney, the former manager of the local cement plant. Through the fall, supporters of the statue assumed it would be fixed as a matter of course, while opponents figured the committee was working toward an alternative. But the committee never got around to formally recommending anything to the City Council. By December, nothing had been done, except removing the ankles from the pedestal.

A January council meeting was when the community's conversation about the statue began in earnest. More than 40 people attended, filling Rooster Hall - so named for the great rooster auction of 1919 that helped pay for a vital bridge. The council members and mayor sat around an oval wooden table. African American men represent two districts that are predominantly black. White men represent two districts that are predominantly white. A white man represents an evenly split swing district. Mayor Laney, who is white, has the sixth vote.

One by one, people approached to within a few feet of the table to argue for and against the Confederate soldier. Chief Reese had posted extra officers, but they weren't needed. As strong as the convictions were on both sides, they were expressed in a tone of mutual respect, according to Stewart Gwin, a co-owner of the West Alabama Watchmannews website, who wrote a detailed account of the meeting.

"I understand that in the eyes of some people, really all of us, that that was an unsavory time and there were some horrible things done," said a man who wanted the statue restored. "However, if you erase history, what are the chances of the next generation remembering?"

"We are the City of the People, and that's all people, not just one people," said a woman against the restoration.

Patricia Godwin, president of Selma Chapter 53 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, came to defend the statue since the UDC chapter in Demopolis that had paid for it disbanded in the 1970s. "That monument was put here as a gift in the spirit that after [Confederate soldiers] were gone, that monument would remain," she said, later adding: "Be proud of your history."

But whose history would hold sway? Laney touched on a truth about Demopolis that wasn't often admitted aloud. "We've got a city of 7,800, but it's essentially two cities of 3,900 because the demographics is such that we don't work together," he said. "We need to do things to change that."

At the end of the evening, the council decided it was not yet the time to decide. The members voted unanimously to reconvene the committee and direct it to mull the matter for a few more months.

- - -

Most white residents still live on the west side of town, where in some sections hundred-year-old homes are wrapped with porches and hung with gables. Dwellings are more modest on the east side, including public housing in the form of brick ranch houses whose stoops have brick columns and pediments that jarringly echo the facade of Gaineswood, the nearby plantation manor museum.

Demopolis was founded 200 years ago by fugitive French comrades of the exiled Napoleon, and it was named for a democratic ideal. Residents take pride in the fact that, during school desegregation in the middle of the 20th century, Demopolis distinguished itself from many of its Black Belt neighbors. Black children and white children were funneled into the same schools, and the habit took. True, an all-white private academy cropped up, but it didn't last, unlike in other towns where private schools still drain the public schools of white children. Today, Demopolis High School's student body is roughly as balanced as the population of the town.

Progress in Demopolis has been complicated, though: As recently as 2003, students at the high school attended separate proms. Black students would go to the sanctioned school prom; white students would be invited to a private spring formal. Yet current students can't imagine such a practice. Instead, together they dance the night away - at Gaineswood plantation, where the big house looks exquisitely Old South in prom pictures.

The same spirit that integrated the schools carried into other aspects of civic life. "I don't know what it is about this town, but at the end of the day, we try to make it happen, make it work," said Charles Jones Jr., 53, an African American council member who is a high school industrial maintenance teacher and a scion of a prominent local construction business started by his grandfather. "Yeah, there's still some socioeconomic oppression going on, but at the end of the day, in this town we try to get along. ... We've seen the all-white town, we've seen the all-black town, and we don't like either of those. We like our 50-50 mix."

Not only is the police chief African American, so are his two predecessors, and the force is racially balanced. The fire chief and the building inspector are black. The first elected African American district attorney in Alabama history, in 1992, was a lawyer in Demopolis.

And yet, when Jones was pondering a run for mayor in the last election, he hesitated, even though he had already printed some campaign literature. Demopolis has never had a black mayor. "I sensed that the town wasn't really ready," he said. "Are they going to be ready in four years? We'll see."

- - -

Phillip and Debby Spence invited me over for a pork chop dinner to talk about the statue. Debby said she had prayed first on whether they should speak to an out-of-town reporter. Phillip was wearing a T-shirt printed with "Save Our Soldier," the rally cry of a small group called the Friends of the Old Soldier. The shirt quoted Proverbs 22:28: "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."

The Spences, who are white, made a point of telling me that just that afternoon their nephew and some African American teammates on the high school football team had been over to swim in the backyard pool, as they do often. After dinner, Phillip Spence, 63, an Air Force veteran, sifted through archives of century-old council meeting minutes and old photos of the monument. "Taking down the monument, to me, is equivalent to going into a cemetery and kicking over a headstone," he said.

"A lot of the descendants of these men are still in this town, and I talk to them," Debby Spence, 59, said. "They are hurt."

The Spences can trace 11 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, hailing from counties adjacent to Marengo. "John Holly Spence joined when he was 13 years old and was killed in action when he was 15," Phillip Spence said. "He owned no slaves. They were poor farmers. And the way they looked at the war was, they were defending their homeland." The monument, he continued, "is not anything that glorifies slavery. It's just to remember people who died. You always want to remember your ancestors."

The Spences' reverence for the statue was not uncommon, especially among an older generation of whites in town. Still, in the aftermath of the statue's fall, to hear white people wax eloquent about the old soldier was a stunning revelation for their black neighbors. "I realized what it represented to them, and then I realized what it represented to me," said Annye Braxton, the former civil rights activist. We spoke as she was getting her hair done by Reginald Gracie at Reggie's Salon & Boutique, a short walk from the soldier's pedestal. "Bigotry. If we are the City of the People, it represents an exclusion of my people. And if we are the City of the People, I think we should be included in the monument. Put Dr. King up there. Put President Obama up there, along with your Confederate soldier."

Braxton told me that the statue had been a sideshow compared to the negative connotations she associated with the park adjacent to the monument - a village green with a little wooden carousel and a fountain. A stone marker identifies the green by the name some called it until at least 1975: Confederate Park. Now it is known as the Public Square. Until the mid-1960s, black children could not play on the merry-go-round, Braxton said, and black adults rarely ventured there unless they were taking care of white children.

As Gracie, 50, teased out Braxton's locks, he said that because the statue had always been there, "when I see it, I don't see it. It wasn't like it was an issue. Then an accident occurs and you start to hear all this stuff about somebody wanted to destroy their 'history.' It changes the conversation, because then you find out the spirit that flows through that monument is still flowing through these people today. All these years you say this should be a model city as far as race relations are concerned, but you want to erect the one thing that keeps us divided?"

A couple of blocks from the salon, the pioneering former district attorney Barrown Lankster has his law office, one of the few buildings owned by African Americans downtown. "When I walk out of my office, I have had to look up at the statue, and it's not a pretty sight to me," said Lankster, 67. "It was part of the landscape of the city of Demopolis, and I expected it to be there when I was dead and gone. I was delighted when it was knocked down because I know the roots from which it stems."

As the true feelings of African Americans about the statue began to emerge, white residents, too, found themselves surprised. "It's been a little eye-opening," said Kirk Brooker, 42, operations director of the Marengo County Historical Society. "I find out from African American friends that they always saw that as a symbol of hate. ... I grew up three blocks from that statue, and it never represented that to me. To be perfectly honest, I drive by that every day, and I never thought about it." He favored making the monument more inclusive without the soldier.

"I guess [antipathy to the statue] was there before and I just didn't realize it," said John Cox Webb, 74, a lumber broker. "And then, of course, in the white community there's a group, but they're in the minority, that are intolerant. Maybe I just had a Pollyanna attitude. I certainly hope it's not a bigger percentage or element that's intolerant on either side, because we need to get along. ... The monument is historical - good, bad or indifferent. It's there and should be there, as a remembrance that 'my people were oppressed' or that it's honoring dead soldiers."

Some white residents could not understand why, if the statue was such an outrage, black residents had been relatively silent about it. "I grew up 300 yards from the statue, and when I was a child I used to play on it," said David McCants, the former council candidate. "There never was a problem until somebody ran over it. If you had hard feelings on it, why didn't you bring it up before somebody ran over it?"

One answer is that white residents were learning that "there are some things that we suppressed," said Jones, the black council member. Those suppressed feelings were, in essence, black people's contribution to the shared projection of Demopolis as a town where the races got along.

I found younger people, with exceptions, less invested in the fight. In the upstairs bar of the Red Barn restaurant one Friday night, there were two birthday parties, one a group of black friends, one a group of white friends. "I know my grandparents are super upset," said Taylor Fleming, 25, a white electrician at the cement plant, shooting 8 ball. "I'm like, eh, it is what it is. As long as something goes up there."

Over at the birthday party with black friends, Anthony Smith, 25, a photographer, said: "Younger black people didn't know what it was. I didn't know it was a Confederate soldier. I didn't know anything about it. ... When they said it's about Confederate history, wait a minute. If it stands for that, what are you trying to say?"

- - -

After all these years, and all the city's progress, Demopolis's black community was still unsure of its status in town, its influence. When it became clear the statue was cherished by some white residents, many assumed white Demopolis would never permit the city to lose its Confederate soldier. "I got some feedback from some constituents that said, 'It looks like you guys are fighting a losing battle,' " said Jones, who was appointed to be the nonvoting convener of the statue committee. " 'We're not going to blame you if you let 'em put it back up.' "

Jones thought a face-saving, peacemaking way out might be to punt to the insurance company. The statue was insured for $106,000, with a $5,000 deductible. If the fine print of the policy covered repairing the original statue and nothing else, then that was that. "I was going to make the insurance company the bad guy," Jones told me. But the insurance company said it would pay for anything Demopolis wanted to do, within budget.

Another issue was whether the statue was reparable at all. One expert said that reattaching the statue would create a maintenance challenge forever after, according to Jones. The city's official position was that the soldier was not reparable. Yet anything less than the original soldier would seem to undercut historical arguments for the statue. Proponents countered that even a new soldier on the big old pedestal would, by volume of stone, be more than 50 percent historical.

Finally, the committee voted by secret ballot on what to recommend to the council. The council took it up in late April. A crowd of about 40 attended the meeting, and the atmosphere in Rooster Hall was church-like. Opponents and defenders of the statue had gotten to know each other over the months. They had grown to at least understand each other's views, if not agree with them. Now a quiet tension settled over the gathering.

Laney announced the recommendation from the committee that the council would have to vote on: Under the proposal, Demopolis would carry on without its Confederate statue - but with a twist. The soldier would be replaced by an obelisk inscribed to the memory of the dead in all wars. By implication, that would include all races as well. The soldier would be placed in the Marengo County History and Archives Museum. However, in a slightly dissonant salute to the monument's original purpose, the granite pedestal supporting the obelisk would remain the same. It would still say "Our Confederate Dead," and "Erected by the Marengo Rifles Chapter - United Daughters of the Confederacy - 1910."

The roll call proceeded briskly. The two white council members from white districts voted against the proposal. The two black council members from black districts voted for the proposal. Harris Nelson, the white swing district representative, also voted for the change. Mayor Laney abstained. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Confederate statue was consigned to history.

Barrown Lankster, the former district attorney, felt "overjoyed," but he didn't show it. "No one celebrated, and no one was in tears," Phillip Spence recalled. "It was almost like being in shock." He rose slowly to his feet to address the council: "Tonight, y'all broke my heart."

- - -

A month after the council reached its decision, a man named Joseph McGill arrived in Demopolis. McGill, 55 years old and African American, is a preservationist and plantation museum docent from the Charleston area. He's on a singular mission to sleep a night in every extant slave quarters in the country. Since he started the Slave Dwelling Project seven years ago, he has slept in 97. He found them in 19 states, including northern ones, and Washington, D.C. His purpose is to draw attention to the structures so they may be saved and to reveal the stories they have to tell. "It's that historical trauma that we've been ignoring for so long, kicking the can down the road, thinking somebody else is going to handle it," he told me after he pulled into town. "And burdening our future generations more and more."

Mary Jones-Fitts, director of the Marengo County History and Archives Museum, had invited McGill to make presentations at the museum coinciding with the opening of "Changing America," a traveling exhibit tracking progress from the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) to the March on Washington (1963). She also helped McGill find a slave cabin to sleep in. Jones-Fitts, who traces some of her ancestors to people enslaved on a plantation about 16 miles outside Demopolis, said her own mission is to fill in gaps in what she considers the undertold story of African Americans in Marengo County. The first time we spoke she declared: "History is a pencil without an eraser."

McGill arrived at the museum on a Wednesday evening, puckishly wearing a Clemson baseball cap in the heart of University of Alabama territory. Three dozen people nibbled cheese and crackers at a reception before his talk. White attendees slightly outnumbered black members of the audience. Mayor Laney took a seat. McGill's visit when Confederate statues were in the news locally and nationally was coincidental, and he didn't address the Demopolis statue specifically. But he did challenge both sides of the national statue debate by arguing for the historical value of slave cabins and Confederate monuments. And he raised questions: Why should black history and white history be compartmentalized? Isn't that a source of some of today's problems? More to the point, he asked: Why should sins receive the forgiveness of forgetting? "Those folks who support Confederate monuments, they find an ally" in me, he told the museum audience. "Because I say, leave them right there. But if you leave them, you're going to have to reinterpret them."

How many slaves were owned by Confederates represented in statues? he asked. Does their DNA turn up in black descendants, possible evidence of nonconsensual relationships? What was their role during the postwar rise of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan and white suppression of black aspirations?

Moreover, he said, simply taking down a statue, or not putting one back up, conveniently obscures a more collective national guilt. "I want people to know that these Confederate generals, or whatever their rank may have been, they were just defending what was passed down to them," McGill told me later. "And you've got to think about who passed it down to them. Eventually you're going to get to all those 12 slaveholding presidents" - he was including those who owned slaves while not in office - "and their roles in all this. What are we going to do then? Are we going to take the Washington Monument out of Washington, the Jefferson Memorial out of Washington?"

"This was a system that we as a nation allowed to exist," he continued. "And to hold those military officers and folks whose monuments were taken down responsible, to put the weight on their shoulders, that's wrong. We've got to accept that we were a nation of people who condoned enslaving others and not lay the burden at the feet of these Confederate officers."

I spent that night with McGill and a group in a slave cabin behind Magnolia Grove manor, a house museum about 25 miles outside Demopolis. McGill was wearing a T-shirt that said: "I tried to keep quiet but my ancestors wouldn't let me." We were four whites (including me) and seven blacks, mostly strangers to one another. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the wooden floor and crawled inside as the night grew chilly. The walls were hung with copies of census lists from just before the Civil War. Slave owners were named, while their slaves were merely numbered. "I just wanted to be here and think of them and not deny they were here," said Tonya Scott Williams, from Montgomery, Alabama.

By lamplight, we talked for hours. When the subject of Confederate memorials came up, there were no simple answers. Confederates "were defending something that our Founding Fathers set up," McGill said, picking up his theme from earlier. "They set up this country to function on chattel slavery."

"Years ago, I wanted all those names to come down," Williams said. "There's something about living your entire life feeling as if you're under attack. You're driving down these streets named for people who enslaved your ancestors. You're going to the schools that are named after people who enslaved your ancestors." And yet, she continued, "I remember something that Mr. McGill said on one of the videos he's posted that really got me thinking about leaving them there, and then putting them in context, really telling the story. You read some of these plaques, and you've got all this fluff about what it represented, and I just resented that. Let's just tell the whole story. ... That's a part of the healing."

Later, McGill posted an account of his visit. He noticed something I hadn't, and it chagrined me: In the slave cabin, when we rolled out our sleeping bags, we formed segregated sections.

- - -

In a way, Demopolis had been like the police officer who crashed into the monument. It had been slumbering, black residents and white residents sharing an illusion that their feelings about race and the past had been resolved. The collision with the statue woke everyone up. It became clear that the town's respectful equilibrium - as in so many other places in America, North and South - depended, in part, on folks not inquiring too deeply about others' attitudes on race.

As for the Confederate soldier, I found him lying faceup on a pallet in the city barn, clutching the top few inches of his rifle, the rest of which was shattered. The bottoms of his boots were set beside him. His gaze looked serene. Now it was directed not south, but upward at cases of hand sanitizer.

For unexpected reasons, he's still in limbo. In May, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, signed a bill forbidding the altering of any public monument older than 39 years, which could reopen the debate for Demopolis. One afternoon, shortly before the governor acted, I spotted Lankster rushing to City Hall to deliver a letter arguing that the measure could not be applied retroactively to the Confederate statue. Defenders of the statue maintain that the new law indeed prevents installation of the obelisk. The council had little choice last month but to seek an opinion on the new law's impact from the state attorney general, which is pending.

Outside the Demopolis Inn, a block from the pedestal, I found David McCants, the former council candidate, and his twin brother, Dana, talking excitedly about possible intervention from the state capital. Dana McCants said he had been trying to get through to the governor directly. "She got a black secretary," he said. "How we going to get the statue put up? They ain't going to pass the word on. ... We're losing the f---ing country. Somebody better stand up."

"Watch your language," John Cox Webb, the lumber broker, who was standing nearby, said sharply. "There's a lady inside."

The McCants' views, in my experience, were an exception. Contrary to city leaders' worst fears, there had been none of the confrontations seen in other cities. No torches, marches, white robes, arrests. The only demonstration I could verify was a man who showed up periodically to wave a Confederate flag by the pedestal, and he was from out of town.

Still, the outcome - while it dilutes the monument's connection to the Civil War, and though it earned the support of Demopolis's black leaders - makes no attempt to tell a larger story about the town's history, one that would include slavery. There was only so far Demopolis was prepared to go.

- - -

At 35, Harris Nelson, the swing district council member, is part of a new generation. To him, it wasn't a close question whether to restore the statue of the soldier. "I knew immediately I didn't want to put it back up," he said. Lankster said not bringing back the soldier marked a turning point, where some white people in power were willing to defy "many of the folks they meet with and eat with" and abandon the statue.

Phillip Spence, though disheartened by the result, felt the town had gone about the process correctly. "That's the way all this democratic stuff should be," he said. "To agree to disagree agreeably." He is assembling a scrapbook as a record of the drama that he intends to donate to the city. "This was a historical moment in the city of Demopolis," he said. "When somebody looks back on it, I want them to be able to find it."

Before I left the Black Belt, I found the officer who toppled the soldier and set Demopolis on its path of self-examination. He's no longer employed in town. He is African American. He said the accident happened the way Chief Reese reported: He fell asleep. "I hate that it happened," he said. "Regardless of what I say, nothing is going to change. I'd rather move on."

And so would Demopolis. But I try to imagine what will happen if the state's new monument law nullifies the town's decision: Erecting the obelisk would be forbidden. Since the soldier is beyond repair, Demopolis could be left with just the granite base standing in the intersection of North Main and West Capitol - an empty pedestal to "Our Confederate Dead." Visitors might have no choice but to ask the kinds of questions that Joseph McGill would like all of us to spend more time contemplating: Why is this memorial here? Whom does it speak for? Then the stories would come out - about what transpired in 1865 and 1910. And also what did and didn't happen this past year.

- - -

The Washington Post's researchers Eddy Palanzo and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

A 10-year-old's overdose death reveals Miami neighborhood's intense struggle with opioids

By Kevin Sullivan
A 10-year-old's overdose death reveals Miami neighborhood's intense struggle with opioids
People walk through Miami's Overtown neighborhood on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post.

MIAMI, Florida - When 10-year-old Alton Banks left the community swimming pool on the last day of his life, he walked past the elementary school where he had just finished fifth grade.

He passed a cheery banner that defined a beaten-down inner-city neighborhood trying to will itself into up-and-comingness: "Experience Overtown. Eat, Live, Work, Play."

He walked past a fancy new apartment building under construction, then a long row of ragged homes and chickens clucking freely on sidewalks littered with crushed tallboy beer cans in brown paper bags.

He arrived home on that hot afternoon, June 23, and climbed the concrete steps to his second-floor apartment across from the homeless people crowded under a highway overpass.

He started vomiting. His mother called an ambulance. And that evening he was dead, killed by a combination of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

And no one yet has the slightest clue how the opioid crisis that has battered the nation with such ferocity ended up in a happy, skinny little boy a month shy of his 11th birthday.

"We really don't understand how this could possibly have happened," said Patricia Ares-Romero, chief medical officer at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle made the preliminary toxicology results public this week as a plea for help. She raised the possibility that Alton came into contact with the drug at the pool or on the walk home in a neighborhood notorious for being Miami's busiest illicit opioid marketplace, noting that authorities have no evidence to suggest Alton came into contact with the drugs at home.

Fernandez noted that just a few tiny grains of fentanyl are enough to cause fatal overdoses, and it can be absorbed through the skin or breathed in. Ares-Romero said that it was also conceivable that heroin could have been absorbed into Alton's bloodstream if he had come into contact with a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, an increasingly common mixture on Miami's streets.

"It's the nightmare that every parent fears," Fernandez said.

A grief counselor at Alton's home Wednesday said his mother was not feeling up to speaking.

The opioid crisis - and the increasing prevalence of fentanyl, a painkiller 100 times more powerful than morphine - has ravaged the United States with a cruel lethality not seen since the AIDS epidemic of a generation ago.

Best known as a scourge of white, working-class America from the Midwest to New England, the nation's big cities, too, have been increasingly brutalized. Miami-Dade County had about 100 opioid overdose deaths a year from 2005 to 2015, but that spiked to 229 last year, according to a recent report by a county task force.

Fentanyl - or one of its even more powerful "analogues," or chemically similar variants - was detected in 376 overdoses in Miami-Dade County from 2014 to 2016, the task force report said.

Ares-Romero, who was a member of the task force, said overdose patients tell her that dealers are touting fentanyl's lethality as a selling point.

"The dealers will tell people, 'This stuff will kill you!' And that's attractive to them because they want to 'chase that dragon,' and get that high," she said.

The epicenter of Miami's opioid and fentanyl ravages is Overtown, the storied African American neighborhood where Alton lived. Just north of the city's bustling downtown, the neighborhood was disrupted decades ago by the construction of two intersecting, elevated superhighways that isolated the community and contributed to an economic decline.

It also has been hard hit by crime and drugs. There are signs of rebirth and renovation amid the crumbling buildings, and walls are decorated with sumptuous murals. But the neighborhood still feels broken.

"If I had money, baby, I wouldn't be here," said Jessie Davis, 56, who lives in the four-unit apartment building next to Alton's home. She's been there for 21 years, and she has nine children and seven grandchildren - some of whom spend their summer days swimming at the Gibson Park pool where Alton spent his last day.

Davis said drug dealers are common in Overtown, but she said the place still feels safe enough to let her children walk the streets during the daytime. "You really can't shield them from everything," she said.

Her youngest daughter, Kenlisha Hubert, 18, said, "It's a tough neighborhood, but I'm used to it." She said she once saw a woman overdose in her back yard, banging her head repeatedly against a piece of furniture until an ambulance arrived.

Jeffrey Mitchell, 57, who lives in the neighborhood and was riding his bike past Alton's house on Wednesday, said many of the Overtown drug dealers hire preteens to sell for them because they can't be tried as adults if caught.

"The dope boys got little kids selling drugs for them when they should be in school, getting an education," he said. "Ten or 11 years old selling drugs. That's just as wrong as all outdoors."

Ares-Romero, the doctor, said most of the overdose victims who arrive by ambulance from Overtown actually live somewhere else. She said people come from as far as West Palm Beach, 70 miles to the north, to find a quick fix on Overtown's struggling street corners.

"Every day - multiple times, sometimes seven or eight a day," said Capt. Douglas Reno of the Miami Fire Department Station 2, when asked how often his firefighter paramedics respond to overdoses.

The station, which dispatched the ambulance that took Alton to the hospital, sits in the heart of Overtown and handles calls that span the neighborhood's socio-economic range: from homeless huddled on mattresses beneath I-395 to fancy new high-rise apartment buildings.

Just around the corner from the Gibson Park swimming pool, a large oak tree in a vacant lot is marked with a spray-painted white cross, the spot where Kyle Dodds, 24, overdosed and died last September.

His mother, Cindy Dodds, 60, from Key Biscayne, said he collapsed after snorting a mixture of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil, a super-powerful opioid.

"There's not a day down in that neighborhood where there's not something bad going on," Dodds said of Overtown, where she has become active in the community.

Dodds was also a vocal advocate for a new Florida law, which takes effect in October, that allows prosecutors to bring murder charges against anyone who sells fentanyl that results in an overdose death.

She said her son's descent into drug abuse started when he was prescribed oxycodone for a football injury when he was 15.

Ares-Romero noted that Florida long had a reputation for being a "pill mill" where people from out of state came to load up on prescription painkillers. When the state cracked down on that, many turned to heroin and other illegal street drugs, eventually resulting in the current crisis.

Dodds has advocated to restore a historic hotel close to where Kyle died and refashion it into a welcome center and nonprofit hub. Most of all, she wants to create a memorial garden for Kyle.

She said she wants it to be "full of beautiful wildflowers, but not high enough that people can die in them."


Joel Achenbach, Emma Ockerman and Wesley Lowery in Washington contributed to this report.

Trump's wall: The inside story of how the president crafts immigration policy

By Ashley Parker, et al.
Trump's wall: The inside story of how the president crafts immigration policy
President Donald Trump at the White House. The president has been heavily engaged in discussion of immigration policy. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - The border wall looms large for President Donald Trump.

Aboard Air Force One last week, talking with reporters en route to Paris, he ruminated about the wall of his dreams - 700 to 900 miles long, with transparent sections so that border agents aren't hit on the head by "large stacks of drugs" tossed over from the Mexican side, and outfitted with solar panels.

And no, Trump insisted, he was "not joking."

"There is a very good chance we can do a solar wall," he said, "which would actually look good."

The president began promoting the idea, aides explained, after a business acquaintance pitched it in one of the many conversations he has with friends - yet another example of how Trump often outsources his policy process, including an eagerness to entertain creative, even pie-in-the-sky notions.

Trump is often dismissed by critics as a chief executive uninterested in the policy process, unwilling to delve into minutiae and impatient with the pace of governing. He has been largely absent from arm-twisting on Capitol Hill, remote in interacting with many of his Cabinet secretaries and remiss in the public salesmanship of big-ticket policy items - most recently on the GOP health-care plan that collapsed this week in the Senate.

But on immigration - a challenge that has vexed presidents since Ronald Reagan and a theme that has occupied Trump for decades - the 45th president has been heavily engaged in the administration's roiling debate. Officials credit him for being relentless in framing illegal immigration as a threat to public safety and to the economic security of American workers, and for turning a border wall into a populist rallying cry.

This portrait of Trump as a policymaker at the six-month mark of his presidency - culled from interviews with two dozen top administration officials, key lawmakers and other senior Republicans - shows a president driven by gut feelings, happy to mostly skim the surface but occasionally engrossed in details.

"The president's own opinion and his natural instincts on all of these issues is what will most likely be the default winner of the day, all the time," said Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff. "So the guiding light is always his vast experiences and his years of thought on these subjects."

Advisers said the president has strong, instinctual opinions that are nonetheless loosely held on the details. Trump is proudly nonideological, but retains some key beliefs - especially on immigration, trade and national security. He defends his views vigorously, yet solicits alternative perspectives and can be persuaded to change his position.

"The president likes consulting a wide variety of people and viewpoints," said Robert Porter, assistant to the president for policy coordination and the White House staff secretary. "He appreciates the back and forth. Sometimes it's on paper with memos that he'll read and ask for more information, and sometimes it's in meetings, either formal structured meetings or more informal discussions."

Trump is torn over how to address the status of the younger immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents, colloquially known as "Dreamers," who were protected by President Barack Obama's administration. Debate about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy aimed at this group has been among the most robust - and inconclusive - in Trump's White House.

By contrast, Trump is far more certain about the wall. The structure could change in design or function - he vowed to build a much longer and higher wall during the campaign - but his security argument for it has remained constant.

"He campaigned on restoring the rule of law," said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., an immigration hard-liner who was an early supporter of Trump's campaign. "He never wavered, never backed off. He's still doing what he said he was going to do."

Yet for Trump, like his predecessors, the reality is that reforming the immigration system is unlikely to be achieved in a far-reaching bill. Any broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws would need the legislative buy-in of both parties, and there is widespread resistance to building a wall that many consider an ineffective boondoggle.

The White House still intends to fight hard for border wall funding in upcoming budget negotiations with Congress. Still, Trump appears resigned to trying to remake the immigration system through a combination of executive power and rhetoric.

"What I'd like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan," he said last week, "but our country and political forces are not ready yet."

- - -

"A nation without borders is not a nation," Trump said five days after he took office in late January.

He was speaking at the Department of Homeland Security at a signing ceremony for two executive orders aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. His troubled travel ban grabbed the headlines, but the two orders Trump signed that day represent his administration's immigration blueprint so far - one beefing up border security and the other increasing interior enforcement with more agents and restrictions.

Leading the charge on immigration is Stephen Bannon, who ran the conservative Breitbart news website and now serves as Trump's chief strategist, and Stephen Miller, Trump's senior policy adviser who made his name as a young Capitol Hill aide championing hard-right immigration policies. "The two Stephens," as colleagues sometimes refer to them, work with Julia Hahn, who had covered immigration for Breitbart and was hired in the West Wing by Bannon.

Like a businessman checking the status of a project, Trump demands regular updates, calling DHS Secretary John Kelly multiple times a week to check in, often with little or no notice.

More recently, Trump has focused his public remarks on the threat of a specific gang, MS-13, a Salvadoran cartel that has been active in the United States since the 1980s. Trump, who is from New York City, has been briefed about a rise in homicides on Long Island attributed to MS-13.

Aides said the tough rhetoric, along with stepping up immigration arrests, has paid dividends. The number of immigrants caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally fell to a 17-year low in March, with fewer than 17,000 apprehended that month compared with nearly 60,000 in December, according to DHS.

"What we've simply said is, if you are an illegal alien in the United States, you should be concerned about being in the United States illegally," Kelly said in an interview. "We know by polling that the Central Americans in particular are unsure of what's happening. Consequently, they are less inclined to spend what amounts to be their life savings to come up to the United States."

Trump's bluster has had other consequences. After he threatened to impose a border tax on Mexican goods to pay for the wall, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto abruptly canceled a ceremonial visit to the White House. The administration's ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim nations has been the persistent subject of both outrage and court challenges. And some immigrants who have served in the U.S. military under a promise of citizenship from the Pentagon have begun to flee the country for fear that they could be deported to dangerous homelands.

But Trump's advisers view his immigration stance as savvy politics, reaffirmed by recent internal polling of 10 battleground states.

"Immigration policy affects every aspect of life - incomes, schools, hospitals, community resources," Miller said. "Prioritizing the needs of American workers over powerful special interests is not merely a core issue for Republicans, but also independents and massive numbers of Democrats."

- - -

Trump - a known germaphobe - is not a natural hugger. But every time he meets "angel moms," whose children have been killed by illegal immigrants, they expect to receive an embrace from the president.

They have become the emotional touchstone of his immigration crusade.

Michelle Wilson-Root of Iowa had arrived at her Washington hotel three weeks ago to lobby against illegal immigration when her cellphone rang. On the line was Hahn, who had written for Breitbart about Wilson-Root's daughter, Sarah, 19, who was killed last year in a car crash caused by an illegal immigrant.

Now working for Bannon, Hahn invited Wilson-Root to the White House to join a roundtable with Trump about a pair of immigration bills. One measure would cut off some federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities, while the other - "Kate's Law," named after a San Francisco woman allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant - would impose stricter penalties on criminals who have repeatedly entered the country unlawfully.

In the Cabinet Room, Trump greeted Wilson-Root and her friend Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a head-on vehicle collision with an intoxicated undocumented immigrant, with a round of hugs.

"Every time I met with him - I'm a hugger - it's always been hugs," Wilson-Root said.

The next day, the House approved both bills. They face a difficult path in the Senate, where the Republican majority is narrower, but the families said they are convinced that Trump will not forget them.

"He remembers each one of us every time he sees us, knows our stories, knows our children's names," Mendoza said. "He's our advocate."

Trump began his White House bid by labeling immigrants from Mexico as "criminals" and "rapists" - a stark departure from predecessors careful to characterize most undocumented immigrants as hard-working strivers. While Obama showcased Dreamers at State of the Union addresses, Trump invited angel families to sit in first lady Melania Trump's box during his address to Congress in February.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said the national conversation had long centered on how to help immigrants. President Trump, she said, "changed it to, 'What's fair to the American worker who's competing with the illegal immigrant for the job? What's fair to the local economy? What's fair to our local resources - law enforcement, the school system, housing? What's fair to a sovereign nation that needs physical borders that are respected?' "

- - - -

If the campaign rally chants came easy to Trump and his supporters, the next few months will prove more daunting as he attempts to implement an immigration agenda in the wake of the health-care fiasco and other legislative failures.

Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., have been working with the White House to introduce a bill by the end of the summer that would cut the current annual level of 1 million green cards by half in 10 years, largely by limiting visas for extended families of legal U.S. residents.

Cotton, who along with Perdue has met twice on immigration with Trump, said the legislation is popular in key states where Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2018.

"Donald Trump recognizes that it's possible to be both pro-immigrant and to believe that immigration levels are too high and skewed against educated, high-skilled, English-speaking immigrants," Cotton said.

The strategic thinking among administration members is that they can gain a political advantage on immigration once they begin talking about proposals publicly. The release of the Cotton-Perdue legislation, they hope, will mark the beginning of a public immigration pitch.

Meanwhile, Obama's DACA policy, which has granted work permits to more than 750,000 Dreamers, offers its own emotional narrative and has led to one of the most fraught debates in the White House. The program is extremely popular among Latino and Asian groups, and ending it would produce fierce blowback.

The fight over how to handle DACA largely pits Miller, who vociferously opposes the program, against most other White House advisers, who, to varying degrees, take a less dogmatic approach. Some administration officials have privately griped that they wish Miller could be forbidden from briefing the president on the issue.

Many in the administration consider DACA a workforce issue, and one possible plan being championed is to wind down the program - and stop issuing new work permits - while also making clear that Dreamers would not be a deportation priority.

As with many issues, the most compelling argument for Trump is reminding him that a tough immigration stance was his core pledge to his base, several advisers said. Bannon has printed out the president's statements from campaign rallies and shown them to him as a reminder.

Others in the White House - including Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both senior advisers - have helped connect business executives and technology titans who support robust immigration with Trump to make the economic case in support of Dreamers.

"It's a decision that's very, very hard to make," Trump told reporters on Air Force One.

- - -

Trump in many respects faces the same challenge his predecessors did: How to balance security with pragmatism. It's impossible, experts said, to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants as Trump repeatedly promised during the campaign. His administration this week also nodded to the reality of employment trends when it authorized an additional 15,000 temporary work visas for lower-skilled immigrants over the next few months. Trump has employed such immigrants at his golf courses and other properties, drawing criticism.

And that is why some White House aides said the border wall is so important - it could be the symbolic victory that allows him more flexibility to forge a compromise on Dreamers and other immigration issues.

Trump sees a border fortress as the physical manifestation of his identity as a builder and dealmaker - a president able to construct the nation's security almost by hand, and to somehow persuade Mexico to pay for it.

The president has been questioning aides about the lack of progress: When will Congress approve the funding? Where are the schematics? Will it be made of concrete or steel? Which firm will build it?

Kelly said he is taking seriously the president's interest in an environmentally friendly solar wall, which White House aides think could make the project more difficult for Democrats to oppose.

"Certainly, if someone thinks they can hang solar panels on there and reduce the carbon emissions and sell energy both to Mexico and the United States and it benefits everybody, sounds like a good idea to me," Kelly said.

Trump is so fixated on a physical wall that in May, White House press secretary Sean Spicer showed off photos of tall steel rods along the border, calling it a "bollard wall." Many scoffed that it looked more like a fence, and the president himself, one adviser said, had little patience for the design.

"He's like, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I didn't say 'bollard wall,' " recalled the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid conversation. "I said, 'The wall. Build a wall. People think wall, they think bricks and cinder blocks.' "

The president, the policymaker, the real estate magnate, understood one thing in his gut: He had promised a wall, and now he needed to build one.

- - -

The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow in Mexico City contributed to this report, which is part of a series looking at President Trump's first six months in office.

- - -

The Washington Post's Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and David Nakamura look at what President Trump has done over the past six months to fulfill his pledge to build a border wall. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)


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Why Obamacare won and Trump lost

By e.j. dionne jr.
Why Obamacare won and Trump lost

WASHINGTON -- The collapse of the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a monumental political defeat wrought by a party and a president that never took health care policy or the need to bring coverage to millions of Americans seriously. But their bungling also demonstrates that the intense attention to Obamacare over the last six months has fundamentally altered our nation’s health care debate.

Supporters of the 2010 law cannot rest easy as long as the current Congress remains in office and as long as Donald Trump occupies the White House. Congress can undermine the act through sharp Medicaid cuts in the budget process and other measures. And Trump, placing his own self-esteem and political standing over the health and security of millions of Americans, has threatened to wreck the system.

“We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us,” Trump said after it became obvious that the Senate could not pass a bill. But if Obamacare does implode, it will not be under its own weight but because Trump and his team take specific administrative and legal steps to prevent it from working.

“I’m not going to own it,” Trump insisted. But he will. And if Trump does go down the path of policy nihilism, it will be the task of journalists to show that it is the president doing everything in his power to choke off this lifeline for the sick and the needy.

As long as “repeal Obamacare” was simply a slogan, what the law actually did was largely obscured behind attitudes toward the former president. But the Affordable Care Act’s core provisions were always broadly popular, particularly its protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions and the big increase in the number of insured it achieved. The prospect of losing these benefits moved many of the previously indifferent to resist its repeal. And the name doesn’t matter so much with Obama out of office.

To the surprise of some on both sides, the debate brought home the popularity of Medicaid, which for the first time received the sort of broad public defense usually reserved for Medicare and Social Security. The big cuts Republicans proposed to the program paradoxically highlighted how it assisted many different parts of the population.

This creates an opening for a new push to expand Medicaid under the ACA in the 19 states that have resisted it, which would add 4 million to 5 million to the ranks of the insured.

Republicans also found, as they did during the budget battles of the 1990s, that when they tie their big tax cuts for the wealthy to substantial reductions in benefits for a much broader group of Americans, a large majority will turn on them and their tax proposals. For critics of the GOP’s tax-cutting obsession, said Jacob Leibenluft of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, this episode underscores “the importance of making clear the trade-offs of Republican fiscal policy.” To win on tax cuts, the GOP has to disguise their effects -- or pump up the deficit.

One Democratic senator told me early on that Republicans would be hurt by their lack of accumulated expertise on health care, since they largely avoided sweating the details in the original Obamacare debate after deciding early to oppose it. This showed. They had seven years after the law was passed and could not come up with a more palatable blueprint.

The popular mobilization against repeal mattered, too. With Republican senators discovering opposition to their party’s ideas in surprising places, pro-ACA activists drove two wedges into the Republican coalition.

One was between ideologues and pragmatic conservatives (Republican governors as well as senators) who worried about the impact of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s designs on their states.

The other divide was within Trump’s own constituency, a large share of which truly believed his pledge to make the system better. They were horrified to learn that they could be much worse off under the GOP proposal. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 50 percent of Americans preferred Obamacare and only 24 percent picked the Republican bill. Trump’s approval ratings are dismal, but the GOP plan’s were even worse. Defectors in the Trump base may have been the silent killers of this flawed scheme.

And that is why a scorched-earth approach from the president would be both cruel and self-defeating. Americans now broadly support the basic principles of Obamacare. Republicans, including Trump, would do well to accommodate themselves to this reality.

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

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Air Force has dug into the equivalent of trench warfare

By george f. will
Air Force has dug into the equivalent of trench warfare

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- It is said that America’s armed forces have been stressed by 16 years of constant warfare, the longest such in the nation’s history. For the Air Force, however, the high tempo of combat operations began 26 years ago, with enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq after Desert Storm. With an acute pilot shortage, particularly in the fighter pilot community, and with a shortfall approaching 4,000 among maintenance and staffing personnel, the service is, as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson says, “too small for what the nation expects of it.”

At the Air University here at Maxwell Air Force Base, officers are studying what expectations are reasonable. Technological sophistication -- America’s and that of near-peer adversaries (Russia and China) -- is changing capabilities. This, and the political and military primitivism of some adversaries (e.g., the Islamic State), are reshaping the environment in which airpower operates, and the purposes of this power. The traditional U.S. approach to warfare -- dominance achieved by mass of force produced by the nation’s industrial might -- is of limited relevance.

Gen. Steven L. Kwast, president of the Air University, recalls that Gen. George Marshall, who in 1939 became Army chief of staff, asked a two-star general in the horse cavalry how he planned to adapt to the challenges of tanks and planes. The two-star, who replied that the horses should be carried to the front in trailers so they would arrive rested, was retired in 1942.

Kwast notes that in 1940 the Navy was preparing to devote most of its budget to building the sort of battleships that had been “kings of the sea” since President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world. After Pearl Harbor the Navy turned toward aircraft carriers and away from big battleships. Twenty years earlier, Gen. Billy Mitchell had used an airplane to sink a battleship, but changing the trajectory of military thinking, and hence procurement, often requires changing a service’s viscous culture.

Kwast wonders: What are the horses and battleships of our age? Some say: Aircraft carriers, because they are too vulnerable to long-range weapons and too expensive for the budget constraints of America’s entitlement state. Also, some say, remotely piloted aircraft, aka drones, flown from, say, Nevada are many times cheaper than most manned aircraft, and are capable of loitering over a contested area to conduct “find, fix, finish” missions for up to 48 hours without refueling.

When military airpower was born a century ago, just before World War I, the hope was that it would save casualties by preventing what that war quickly became, a slog of attrition. But in World War II, airpower was used to attack civilians in order to destroy morale and damage the enemy’s capacity to wage industrial-era war. Now, says Kwast, war is shaped by the digital networked age, where power does not flow in industrial-age channels. U.S. forces can spend millions to kill one high-value target in Syria, where the enemy, for a few hundred dollars, can recruit 10 men who flow up from entry-level positions.

Only the United States has the capacity to be, as retired Adm. Gary Roughead and Kori Schake say in a Brookings Institution study, “guarantors of the global commons -- the seaways and airways, and now the cyber conduits.” Nuclear weapons are still essentially a 70-year-old technology delivered by a 60-year-old technology, ballistic missiles. Before long there will be space-based sensors and directed energy (DE) weapons -- war at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second. It is preferable to shoot down an enemy’s cruise missiles, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars, with space-, ground- and sea-based DE weapons rather than with defensive missile interceptors costing up to $20 million apiece.

The Air University’s military intellectuals are impressive enough to be forgiven for using “architect” as a verb: Hitler was defeated using great violence, but it would be better to architect responses to threats by projecting power in ways that are less expensive and much more efficient than even today’s precision-guided weapons -- never mind World War II gravity bombs, 80 percent of which fell at least 1,000 feet from their targets.

Viewed from the not-too-distant future, Kwast says, today’s Air Force, although it is a century distant from the Flanders trenches, might seem to have dug into the equivalent of trench warfare by operating below the altitude of 70,000 feet. Such thoughts are considered here at a university where “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are serious matters.

George Will’s email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

What will Callista Gingrich do as ambassador to the Vatican?

By dana milbank
What will Callista Gingrich do as ambassador to the Vatican?

WASHINGTON -- Let us consider the qualifications of President Trump’s nominee to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Holy See: one Callista Gingrich of Virginia.

She is a former clerk on the House Agriculture Committee.

She is the author of children’s books about an elephant named Ellis.

She sings in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

She plays French horn in City of Fairfax Band.

And, she testified Tuesday, she has “looked at some of” Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change.

But really, Gingrich was receiving a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of one qualification: She is married to Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a major backer of President Trump.

And now, for his support of Trump, he is getting the ultimate patronage: the chance to live in Rome on the taxpayer’s dime while his wife, the president of Gingrich Productions, enjoys a plum posting. Newt, who converted to Catholicism several years ago, set his wife up nicely for the job by co-hosting two videos with her about Pope John Paul II, produced with a Gingrich political ally.

But if it is good news for the Gingriches, it is an(other) insult to Francis from Trump, who has sparred with the pope over immigration and climate change. Newt carried on a six-year extramarital affair with Callista in the 1990s when she, 23 years his junior, was a House staffer and he, as speaker, led the impeachment of Bill Clinton over his extramarital affair with an intern. National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters called it “astonishing that a party that celebrates family values at every turn has a president who is on his third wife and who has bragged about his extramarital affairs and who is appointing an ambassador to the Vatican who had a six-year affair with her future husband while he was still married to his second wife.”

The nomination of Callista is also Trump’s beatification of Newt, who has done as much as anyone to coarsen American politics -- and to pave the way for Trump -- with his name-calling, demonizing and brinkmanship.

All presidents reward supporters with patronage. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson will be our man in London. On Gingrich’s panel Tuesday was George Glass, a big Trump donor, tapped to be ambassador to Portugal though he doesn’t speak Portuguese.

But the choice of Callista Gingrich is another category of cronyism for an administration populated by friends and relations rather than appointees of merit. This has fueled the Russia scandal, stalled the agenda in Congress and made the administration seem singularly incompetent -- yet Republicans in Congress have been unwilling to say that this is unacceptable.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced Gingrich on Tuesday by noting that she was valedictorian of her high school class.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who succeeded Newt in the House before moving to the Senate, declared that “one of her great, great persuasive talents is to not only convince Newt to marry her, but convert him to Catholicism.”

Gingrich, an uncomfortable smile fixed on her face, provided, in lieu of actual answers to questions, strung-together snippets of cliches.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked about refugee policy, on which Francis and Trump disagree. Gingrich responded with a bromide about “a deep commitment in this country to work to forward peace and stability.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked how she would work with the Vatican to counter extremism. Gingrich responded with a word salad about looking “forward to working on those issues of our shared policy opportunities.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., asked about the pope’s climate change encyclical. She responded with boilerplate about how “President Trump wants to maintain that we have clean air and clean water.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked if she had even read the encyclical.

“I have looked at some of it,” the witness replied.

“Are there pieces of it that particularly resonate for you?”

“Well,” Gingrich replied generically, “I think we’re all called to be stewards of the land.”

Staffers on both sides of the committee were now grinning at the pained responses.

Johnson, attempting to rehabilitate the witness, urged her to talk about her “study” of John Paul II and what she learned about U.S. and Vatican leadership. Gingrich retreated again to platitude: “It’s so important that we reach out to places like the Holy See to forward good in this world,” she said.

That was enough for Johnson, who pronounced her “perfectly suited for this position.”

Perfectly situated, at least.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Deficits forever?

By robert j. samuelson
Deficits forever?

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, who are now deliberating the government’s 2018 budget, pledge to eliminate deficits within a decade. Well, good luck with that. It must be obvious that chronic deficits reflect a basic political impasse that can be broken only if majorities in Congress do things they’ve refused to do: trim Social Security benefits; raise taxes significantly; control health spending. There is a giant mismatch between what Americans want from government and what they’ll pay for with taxes.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should consult new figures from the Congressional Budget Office. They show how entrenched deficits have become. The table below, based on the CBO figures, compares three different budget plans for the decade from 2018 to 2027: (1) CBO’s “baseline” budget, a projection of what current policies would produce; (2) the Trump administration’s budget (there’s much overlap with the House budget); and (3) Trump’s budget as modified by the CBO to reflect what it considers more realistic assumptions.

For each budget, the table includes the following: the rise in publicly held federal debt over the 10 years (the debt is the total of annual deficits); the debt in 2027 as a share of our economy (in 2016, debt was 77 percent of gross domestic product); and the deficit in 2027 as a share of GDP.


CBO Baseline Trump Trump/CBO modified

Added Debt $10.1 trillion $3.2 tril. $6.8 tril.

Debt/GDP 2027 91 percent 60 pct. 80 pct.

Deficit/GDP 2027 5.2 percent 0 2.6 pct.

The table’s clearest message is that even the most optimistic budget -- Trump’s -- involves heavy borrowing over the next decade, roughly $3 trillion on top of the outstanding $14 trillion debt at the end of 2016. Still, on paper, Trump’s plan seems the most appealing. By 2027, it balances the budget, and the debt grows more slowly than the economy (GDP).

There’s the rub. To the CBO -- and many observers -- Trump’s budget is fanciful. A big difference involves economic assumptions. The White House expects GDP to grow about 3 percent annually over the decade, much higher than the 1.9 percent that CBO and many private economists expect. The difference over a decade is worth about $3 trillion, mostly tax revenues. Faster economic growth generates higher revenues, because the tax base -- wages, salaries, profits -- is larger.

Any viable budget plan faces a harder problem. As baby boomers retire, Social Security and Medicare spending increases, intensifying pressures to raise the deficit, cut other spending or increase taxes. Especially vulnerable are so-called “discretionary” programs -- military spending and domestic activities such as the FBI, the EPA and Centers for Disease Control. In the last 50 years, these discretionary programs have averaged 8.6 percent of GDP. They’re already down to 6.3 percent of GDP, and the White House expects them to drop to 4.1 percent of GDP.

The administration counts this decline as a spending reduction, but the level is so low that future Congresses, regardless of party, may balk at enacting such deep cuts. Already, there’s resistance to some of the cuts proposed by the administration for its 2018 budget, including a 32 percent decline in spending for international relations and a 37 percent drop in community and regional economic development.

The bottom line: The federal budget remains badly out of whack, even though we are near or at “full employment” (June unemployment rate: 4.4 percent). We cannot afford tax cuts; we need tax increases. Nor can we afford to exempt Social Security -- nearly a quarter of all federal spending -- from any cuts.

In an era of an aging population and slower economic growth, there is no consensus on how big the government should become or how its spending should be financed. The continuing large deficits are not a policy so much as evidence of drift and indecision. They are likely to persist until some sort of debt crisis -- by no means inevitable -- forces action or America’s political leaders decide to engage the unpopular question of paying for popular government.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

Repeal and regroup

By kathleen parker
Repeal and regroup

WASHINGTON -- It wasn’t quite a wicked-witch-is-dead Munchkin happy dance, but the white noise of foregone conclusions drowned out Republicans’ relatively muted regret over their failure to repeal and replace Obamacare.

It was never gonna happen. Not no how.

Partly this is because the GOP version of reform would have first done harm to our most vulnerable citizens -- the elderly, the disabled and the poor. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins cited drastic Medicaid cuts as her reason for withholding support of the so-called “Better Health Reconciliation Act.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also said he wouldn’t support the bill, because it didn’t go far enough in repealing Obamacare.

When two more GOP senators -- Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas -- defected Monday night, the deal was undone. Lee said the bill failed to repeal all of the Obamacare taxes. He also said the bill didn’t go far enough in lowering premiums for middle-class families or in loosening costly regulations.

Thus, the weeks-long tornado of hot tempers and chill winds culminated Tuesday morning when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell realized he didn’t have enough votes.

Health care is such a mind-numbing boondoggle that one must take frequent breaks from thinking about it. Therefore, let us pause for a moment to applaud the relatively unknown L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Neither the passage of time nor the contempt usually bred by familiarity seems to dim the popularity or the seemingly eternal applications of his masterwork. In my experience as a columnist, I’ve found few issues, characters or moments -- whether writing about Bill Clinton’s steamy White House encounters or McConnell’s bland ruminations on regret -- that don’t benefit from Baum’s contextual frameworks.

There. Now to yawn-inspiring health care reform in all its failed foregone-ness.

During almost a decade of writing sporadically about health care in its various iterations, I’ve interviewed dozens of people from a mix of related fields -- medical, business, legislative and political. Not once have I found a single person who thought the GOP could pull off a repeal and replace. Why?

Firstly, because the vast majority of Americans are fundamentally opposed to allowing others to suffer. And secondly, sort of, the ACA affects one-sixth of the U.S. economy. How does one untangle a knot of 20 million strings? Why not just repeal and replace California and call it a day? It would be easier.

The fact is, Obamacare was never perfect nor should anyone have expected it to be. Today, we have a health care system in pitiful disrepair, as insurance companies opt out of exchanges, premiums continue to climb, and healthy, young people forgo insurance premiums that would have subsidized coverage for unhealthy, older Americans and the less fortunate.

Therein lies the crux of the least solvable problem inherent in such a gargantuan, multifaceted overhaul: It denies, emphatically, the nature part of being human, which is in constant tension with government-mandated insurance coverage. The central question is: How do you make it both cost-effective as well as fair?

Many Americans simply don’t see the fairness in a system that requires them to pay high premiums for others’ poor health, some of which is, let’s face it, earned. Not deserved, but sometimes resulting from poor lifestyle choices. Why, indeed, should a single, childless 30-year-old male who runs three miles a day, eats rationally, doesn’t drink, smoke or take drugs, be saddled with insurance premiums to cover pregnancy, abortion, alcoholism, addiction, or an abundance of health consequences resulting from obesity and inertia?

For that matter, why should women have to subsidize men’s sexual dysfunction curatives when, by the way, men don’t have to pony up for women’s corresponding, post-menopausal, medically appropriate intercessions. Here you see one of the finer-print dilemmas. We’d rather force nuns to concede tacit approval of abortion than insist that insurance subsidies be tied to healthy behaviors.

I’m sorry if this sounds heartless; the brain calls it reality. No wonder Obamacare was so difficult to craft and a replacement equally so. There are simply too many moving parts to make the sucker float -- and too many reasons to not sink it.

Since McConnell’s repeal-only idea seemed doomed Tuesday afternoon after GOP Sens. Collins, Shelley Moore Capito and Lisa Murkowski said they oppose immediate repeal, perhaps, finally, Republicans and Democrats can snap on their wizard hats and cobble something workable together. After all, it’s the only thing they haven’t tried yet.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Is quiet persuasion more effective than shouting?

By david ignatius
Is quiet persuasion more effective than shouting?

WASHINGTON -- The Chinese government, subtle masters of propaganda, seem to have discovered a Sun Tzu formula for taming dissent on the internet: The best strategy may not be to confront critics directly, but to lull or distract them with a tide of good news.

This intriguing argument is suggested by a recent article in the American Political Science Review titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument.” With complex data, it supports a simple thesis about life in the internet age: Arguing the facts often doesn’t work; frequently, confrontation just makes people resist harder.

The study analyzes China, but its implications are relevant for America in the age of Donald Trump. As I noted in a column last August, Trump’s supporters sometimes seem impervious to fact-based argument. Trump’s base has mostly stayed loyal since his inauguration, despite his lack of legislative achievements and his impulsive, arguably unethical, actions. Why is this so? Read on.

The Chinese case examines the same conundrum explored by Christopher Graves, an Ogilvy public-relations executive turned behavioral scientist. He summed up the limitations of factual argument in an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, “When Saying Something Nice Is the Only Way to Change Someone’s Mind.” That’s a lesson Trump critics haven’t learned. Trump makes inflammatory statements, opponents howl in outrage, and his core supporters applaud. The impasse continues.

Let’s get back to China. That country presents an internet puzzle that was examined by Gary King of Harvard, Jennifer Pan of Stanford, and Margaret Roberts of the University of California, San Diego (their work was highlighted for me by Eileen Donahoe of Stanford). The paradox is that China probably has the most prolific social-media activity in the world, but its authoritarian government also fears opposition. So how does Beijing maintain control?

The three American researchers wanted to test the widely held theory that the Chinese government mobilizes an army of more than a million internet commentators to combat criticism of the regime. This supposed cadre of thought police is often described as “Fifty Cent,” because analysts thought they were paid a small amount for every post that endorsed the party line and rebutted foreign critics.

To test how the system actually worked, the researchers studied a cache of 43,757 Fifty Cent posts that was hacked in 2014 from the internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong District in Jiangxi Province in southeast China. Nearly all were from people who worked at government agencies (and there was no evidence they were paid anything, let alone 50 cents a post). Their missives spiked sharply on anniversaries of protests or other days when there might be public dissent, making clear they were well-organized.

The surprise was that the posts weren’t argumentative. Instead, they were bland party pablum. About 80 percent of the posts were “cheerleading” about government activities, 14 percent were non-argumentative praise or suggestions, and almost none were outright attacks. Other internet samples yielded similar findings.

The Chinese precept, concluded the American researchers, was “do not engage on controversial issues.” Only when there was a danger of collective action would the government intervene directly. It was as if the party propagandists were adapting the famous admonition of Sun Tzu, the revered sixth century, B.C. strategist: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

The researchers offered a concluding thought that’s relevant in this era when information operations have become a domain of covert action (as demonstrated by the Russian government’s hacking of the 2016 election) as well as domestic control: “Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up.”

What happens when we ignore this precept and attack our political adversaries head on? The 2016 election and its aftermath may be an object lesson. Evidence of wrongdoing may seem overwhelming if it confirms your pre-existing beliefs, but not if it challenges those core biases. Graves cited this “backfire effect,” as explained in a 2011 essay by journalist David McRaney: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

The lesson of this social-science research? If a political narrative is repeated often enough, backed by a chorus of cheerleaders, it’s very hard to rebut directly. Quiet persuasion may be more effective than shouting; the gradual accretion of facts may have more impact than a barrage. To quote Sun Tzu again: “The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.”

David Ignatius’ email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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