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Forced to leave Paradise: Life after one of America's deadliest wildfires

By Frances Stead Sellers
Forced to leave Paradise: Life after one of America's deadliest wildfires
During the California fire, Dan Breland fled the RV camp where he was living with his wife, Suzette Breland, their 16-year-old son and dog, Meatball. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

LAKE ALMANOR, Calif. - The people burned out of Paradise, California, began settling here during the winter, wending their way up into the snowy mountains to rent studio apartments, buy spacious houses or, in the case of Dan Breland, to find a place to park the battered RV he used to flee November's devastating fire.

"It will never be over for me," said Breland, 48, who relives his escape in nightly sweats. The side door he flung open to scoop up his wife when her car stalled is held together with duct tape. The air conditioning overheated and doesn't work.

"But we got out with our lives," the former truck driver said. "This is home now."

"Home" has meant finding their son a new school for 10th grade, signing up with a local clinic for health care and, like many others in Northern California's strained housing market, embarking on the arduous search for a place they can afford to live.

Breland and others like him are part of a population that is likely to grow as the climate changes, experts say: Americans uprooted from their communities by natural disasters and extreme weather events, then forced to reestablish themselves in new settings.

"Local communities and local authorities are on the front line," said Elizabeth Ferris, a professor at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration. "Displaced people have an immediate and ongoing impact on schools, health services and housing."

About 50,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills were displaced by the Camp Fire, when high winds ripped through desiccated woodland. In Paradise, where the firestorm reduced almost all of the housing to rubble, a little more than 10% of residents have returned. Thousands more have scattered across the country - some to neighboring Plumas County and others as far away as Florida and Hawaii.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a nongovernmental group that tallies people who have to flee their communities and resettle elsewhere in their countries, estimates that 1.2 million people in the United States were displaced by natural disasters in 2018. The data, which the IDMC began collecting more than a decade ago, shows elevated levels of displacement during the past three years.

Because the United States lacks a comprehensive system for tracking evacuees, not much is known about their welfare after they leave shelters, said Justin Ginnetti, head of data and analysis at IDMC. That has prevented the development of policies and interventions that ensure evacuees resettle in safe places and receive assistance to rebuild productive lives. It also limits understanding of how displaced people affect the communities in which they land.

IDMC has called for Congress to designate an agency to collect and share data about people displaced by natural disasters as many other countries have done, including the Philippines and Japan. Camp Fire evacuees have resettled in almost every state, according to a Washington Post analysis of various data sources, moving far beyond the designated disaster area that receives state and federal aid.

Major disasters all too often lead to long-term dislocation and homelessness, researchers say.

"You don't think about 'refugee' and 'USA' in the same sentence," said Cat Graham, chief operating officer of Humanity Road, a charity that monitors social media to track and help people after disasters. "But we're going to see more and more of it. And we need to make plans today for how we are going to assist with it."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency does record forwarding addresses for natural disaster victims who receive aid. But those records omit the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and many people who are well insured. It also omits some in unstable living situations, such as Breland, who said he could not provide FEMA with proof of residence in an apartment he used to rent.

In the Zip codes affected by the Camp Fire, the U.S. Postal Service lists more than 13,000 households as "moved, left no address." Confirming the whereabouts of former occupants of burned buildings has been an ongoing challenge for Butte County officials, where the assessor's office has been processing about 100 address changes each day, said county Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken.

Phone and tech companies, such as data analytics group Thasos, have become a rich source of post-disaster data, able to track in real time the evacuation of different socio-economic groups with cellphone location data, for example. Facebook uses its app location data to create immediate disaster maps identifying where survivors flee but does not provide long-term analyses because of concerns including accuracy and privacy.

"What we have is not a panacea; it's a piece of the truth," said Laura McGorman, who manages the company's Data for Good portfolio.

After losing their physical communities, some evacuees have built digital ones. On Facebook pages like Camp Fire Relocation, users suggest cities to relocate to, advise on appealing FEMA decisions, provide mental health tips, offer to adopt evacuee families and request help paying for basic needs, such as gas.

Accessing resources becomes more challenging the farther evacuees move from the disaster area, according to David Forsyth, who set up the Camp Fire Survivors Map Facebook group where evacuees have written in from 525 communities across the country - from Abbeville, Alabama, to Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Tiffany Jenkins posted an appeal in the group for people in Talent, Oregon, seeking help for her boyfriend who had found a job in the area: "would anyone be willing to just go to his work and maybe put some food in his truck so he can at least eat if he can't come home?" she wrote. "After the fire, it has been nothing but a struggle to get back on our feet."

- - -

The Camp Fire's effects have rippled outward from Paradise as evacuees have crossed county and state borders. More than 50 families have settled in the resort area of Lake Almanor, about a two-hour drive north of Paradise, drawn by the availability of cheaper housing or offers of shelter in empty vacation cabins.

Members of the community, which briefly set up shelters for survivors following the fire, opened their closets and their wallets, providing clothing, kitchenware and $25,000 that helped pay for groceries and gas for those living from unemployment check to unemployment check. The North Valley Community Foundation in Butte County, a group that has made donations to communities receiving survivors, gave $10,000.

Schools here have taken in new students. The area hospital, with its one-doctor emergency room, is sending some patients in need of skilled nursing to units as far away as San Francisco, about 250 miles from here.

The small, rural facility was not equipped to accommodate Ellice Jones, 46, an evacuee who had scheduled a hysterectomy in Paradise in December. After the fire destroyed part of that hospital, her doctor moved to Colorado. Unable to work because of debilitating pain, she tried for months to reschedule, settling on a hospital in Reno, Nevada, until her insurance denied coverage because it was out of state.

In mid-June, she finally received the procedure at another California hospital- more invasive and expensive than originally planned.

"It cost them more money because they waited too long," Jones said.

The greatest impact of the influx of displaced residents may be housing prices. Evacuees who leave a disaster zone often have insurance payouts or FEMA hotel vouchers or rental assistance, allowing them to move quickly into new real estate markets.

Christi and Heath Chase, who run a small year-round restaurant close to the lake called Cravings, said the rent on their three-bedroom house soared this year from $1,100 to $1,500 a month. Several weeks ago, they were asked to move out so that their landlord could sell the property.

"We're homeless," said the mother of two, taking a break on an early June day from waiting on customers, including a young couple from Paradise strategizing over lunch about purchasing a property here.

- - -

Even as they have settled into new homes, the Camp Fire evacuees describe the psychological challenges of their still nomadic lives, shuttling back to Paradise to sift through charred lots or traveling farther afield to deal with business or help displaced relatives. One couple now in Lake Almanor said that, out of 23 structures where relatives lived, 21 were destroyed, scattering their once-close knit family.

The evacuees arrived here knowing they had lost possessions. But it was only later that they realized what else they had lost, said Susan Bryner, a real estate agent who started a Facebook group to provide support and information to Lake Almanor's new residents: "Community, routines, book clubs, everything they did that made their lives make sense."

Jamie Ramey, 36, has bought a house and started offering dance classes. She has fixed up a studio, installing mirrors and new flooring and opening its doors to local residents, including other survivors of the fire.

But she doesn't feel rooted.

"Nothing is permanent," Ramey said.

For some, the process of putting down new roots has made their losses more acute.

The photos of adult children that take pride of place in the entryway of Steve Newnom's new cabin are searing reminders of other treasures he could not rescue. A story he heard of one elderly woman's unanswered cries for help has come back to haunt him.

"I'm having more trouble coping now," said Newnom, 63. Bryner later connected him with locals who shared his interest in fishing, an activity that has helped him move on.

Others describe sudden outbursts of anger and say their memories play tricks with them. Asked where they used to live in Paradise, several found they could not remember their old addresses.

Those delayed reactions do not surprise Tony Hobson, director of behavioral health in Plumas County, where therapists and counselors have been working with evacuees. It was months after the fire that his colleagues in Butte County began to see an increase in psychiatric crises, he said.

"You're in shock at first. Then, when the smoke clears you are at a loss," said Hobson, who lived in Paradise and lost his own home in the fire.

"I cry a lot," said Jamie Gallaher, 56, who moved with her roommate, a handyman, into a cabin here belonging to one of his clients. She still feels unmoored, she said, without the two grown sons who shared their home in Paradise. She now spends weekends traveling hundreds of miles to see them.

"I wake up each day wanting to go home," Gallaher said. "But there is no home to go to."


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Video: Holly Ratliff is one of about 50,000 people who fled their homes when the Camp Fire swept through the Sierra Nevada foothills last November. Thousands have scattered across the country - some to communities in California like Lake Almanor and others as far away as Florida and Hawaii. Americans rarely think about internally displaced populations. But the single mother of three is part of a growing population of Americans, uprooted from their communities by natural disasters and forced to reestablish themselves in new settings. Ratliff fought to stay in the town she grew up in surrounded by her family- even if it meant that on some nights she did not know where she would sleep.(REF:leamingw0-v,REF:lia2-v/TWP)

Embed code: <iframe src="" width="480" height="290" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Black families once lived off their farmland. Their descendants are struggling to hold onto it.

By Korsha Wilson
Black families once lived off their farmland. Their descendants are struggling to hold onto it.
Aubrey Terry at his Belle Terry Farm in Halifax, Va. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

HALIFAX, Va. - In Halifax County, Virginia, about 200 miles from the District of Columbia, vibrant green hills bounce out of the earth, and muscular, dark brown cattle rest in meadows alongside farmhouses old and new. Creeks and rivers jut through the landscape like stretched yarn, mixing with soil under crisscrossing tree branches.

This is Virginia's agricultural belt, far from metropolitan Alexandria or Arlington in the northern part of the state. Agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, providing the economy with $70 billion annually and employing more than 300,000 people across 44,000 farms. Here, fertile soil yields crops of tobacco, corn, grapes and peanuts, and sustains livestock for small family farms as well as sprawling industrial ones.

Melinda Hyman and William Palmer III remember visiting their great-great-grandfather's small farm here when they were children. "He had orchards of pear and apple trees and some cattle," Palmer remembers. Emmanuel Freeman purchased the 1,000 acres of land after the Civil War, building a modest life out of the few liberties the country afforded black people at the time. Freeman married Elsie Barksdale, had 10 children and built a small, two-story house. Like many black families in Virginia at the time, the Freemans lived off their land and hoped to pass it down to their children and their children's children, a sanctuary of hope and belonging for generations to come.

But while Freeman could nurture the ecosystem on his acreage, he could not control the forces that governed the country during Reconstruction. According to Palmer and Hyman, while running an errand on Main Street in Halifax one day, one of Freeman's grandsons, Johnny, didn't move off the sidewalk for a white woman, drawing the ire of shop owners and the local authorities. Johnny ran to the safest place he could think of, his grandfather's land. A mob followed, and Freeman exchanged gunfire with local authorities before the family's house and possessions were set ablaze. Elsie and other family members relocated to a small cabin on the property and hid until morning.

It's a story that Hyman and Palmer keep in their minds as evidence of the challenges black farmers have long faced in their fight for land retention. "I feel like it's my fight now to stand my ground and keep this land," Hyman says, even though it is no longer actively used for farming. They and other descendants of Freeman and Barksdale have been fighting a decades-long legal battle to preserve their ownership, a fight that is all too familiar to many black farming families.

Land ownership in America, a precarious notion for both the colonists and the enslaved, took on new meaning during Reconstruction. With hope and the promise of 40 acres of Confederate land, abandoned rice fields stretching across islands from Charleston to Florida in an order written by Gen. William T. Sherman, black families settled in the South. But the promise never came to fruition, and former slave owners were given back their lands, forcing black families into sharecropping. Some were able to save enough money to purchase their own land but others ended up owing money to their former owners. By 1910, black farmers operated 212,972 farms in America, but, like Freeman, they found land ownership didn't negate being black in the Jim Crow South.

"There was a severe backlash to that land acquisition," says Leah Penniman, author of "Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land" and founder of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York. "There was burning of homes, lynchings. . . . People were literally driven off of the land."

Many of those farmers' descendants are now scrambling to prove and retain ownership, a complicated task thanks to a legal loophole that allows distant relatives and developers to obtain rights to lands that have been in families for generations.

According to the 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census, the number of black farmers has increased to 45,508, a fraction of the 3.2 million white farmers in the same report. Yet black farmers are losing land at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Since 2012, about 3% of black-owned farmland has been lost, compared to 0.3% of white-owned farmland.

The loss has been particularly severe in the South, where paperwork on black families is thin and wills infrequent due to generational distrust of the legal system. Jillian Hishaw, an agricultural lawyer and founder of Family Agriculture Resource Management Services, works with minority farmers in the Southeast to help protect their lands, connecting families with lawyers and helping them navigate real estate law, raise funds for legal fees and discover tax breaks. "Oftentimes, these cases are long and obtuse and require a lot of time," she says.

Unraveling complex agricultural law also uncovers harsh histories. "I've worked with clients where the deed for their land was in the family's slave holder's name," Hishaw says. She and the family had to contact the slave owner's descendants and ask them to sign the deed over to the black family that had lived there for generations. Making it even trickier to prove ownership is the fact that many black families' documents use nicknames instead of legal names - or sometimes no names at all.

Hyman found out firsthand how discrepancies in court documents can leave land owners vulnerable. In a wire shopping cart, she transports historical records, deeds and letters sent to county and state treasurers as well as Congress and the Obama administration. The cart also contains records of the property taxes she has paid, but those payments are missing from court documents. She says she learned that Freeman remarried after Elsie Barksdale died and had 10 more children with his new wife. He died in 1925 without a will. When his second wife died, ownership was transferred to the 20 children and then to the grandchildren. Calls to county and state officials to prove ownership have led nowhere, and in 2018, 30 acres of their original 99 were sold in a partition sale pursued by distant relatives. Hyman turned to the Internet for help and found an article about Hishaw. "As I looked into it, I realized that there were a lot more families this was happening to," she says.

Hishaw, who connected with Hyman more than a year ago, said the case resembled her own family's story. Hishaw's grandparents owned a farm in Oklahoma for which they paid a local attorney to make yearly tax payments, but she says the payments were never sent and the attorney pocketed the money. "We lost our farm in a tax lien sale because they said we hadn't paid taxes," she remembers. She wanted to make sure the same didn't happen to the Freeman family. "It was one of the worst stories that I'd heard."

In over 20 states, when landowners die without a will, their assets, including land, are given to their heirs (a spouse or children), Hishaw says. Over time, 10 heirs can become 100, and any one of them can force a "partition sale" of their acreage or the whole property, according to Virginia state law. "If one of those heirs sells to a developer, then that developer becomes a partial heir to the land," Hishaw adds. And a developer can force a sale by appealing to the court and saying, "We need to clean up this deed so I can use the land."

Lack of estate planning is not unique to black families, says Thomas Mitchell, professor of law at Texas A&M University and an expert on discrimination in real estate and estate planning law, but it is more prevalent. A study by the U.S. National Libraries of Medicine found that 24% of older black Americans have some form of estate planning, compared to 44% of older white Americans. The problem is especially acute for black farmers because access and opportunity have historically been so hard to come by.

"After the Civil War, black people had basically no access to attorneys that would represent them," Mitchell says. They also weren't given tools to understand real estate law or create wills. "They didn't have access to lawyers, business planning, education. . . . Estate planning is correlated with education levels."

- - -

"Welcome to Belle Terry Farm," Tashi Terry says as she swings a rusted metal gate open for her father, Aubrey Terry, to drive his pickup truck through. The cattle farmer has lived in Halifax since 1963, when he bought a 170-acre plot with his siblings. Belle Terry Farm raises cattle to be sold locally and grows greens and squash with plans to open a pumpkin patch this fall. The land is a postcard of sturdy walnut trees poking out of hills like needles in a pin cushion, swaths of Technicolor flowers and the Dan River, which swells and spills into a nearby meadow after heavy rain.

Terry and his siblings have homes on this property and had children who made the grounds and farming equipment their playgrounds. Halifax's population is a little over 1,300, and the area has seen a spike in interest from real estate developers. "It started a few years ago when I saw people canoeing through the river," Aubrey Terry says.

The eldest Terry brother died in 2015, and because he didn't have a will, his wife inherited his part of the estate. "She wanted to sell her portion of the property, and we don't, so she hired attorneys to work with," Terry says. In January, while tending to the cattle on the farm, he and his son saw a man on the property. "He said he was an auctioneer and he was here on behalf of the Bagwells," Terry remembers. After filing a trespassing charge, the Terry family learned that Halifax law firm Bagwell & Bagwell had contacted nieces and nephews living in Atlantic City who were listed as heirs to force a partition sale. Those nieces and nephews "have nothing to do with the farm at all," Tashi Terry says. "They've never even lived here."

Like many other rural areas, Halifax's once affordable acreage is considered prime real estate. That's also a familiar story for many black families who settled where they could, finding shelter and safety in the communities they built, only to be pushed out a generation or two later.

George Bagwell, owner of the firm pursuing partition sales in the Terry and Freeman cases, says he understands why some family members want such sales. "This is one of the most depressed areas in Virginia," he says. He grew up in the county in the 1960s, when the area was mostly tobacco farms, and remembers when the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 led businesses out of the county. Industry and opportunities fled to other parts of the state, and families followed.

While most lawyers in the area used to do partition sales, he says, now most don't because it's too hard. "It gets so that when you have four, five, six people, no one wants to keep the houses up or the barn, but they might still pay the taxes," he says. "There's a whole lot of black families in that position."

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill, included an amendment designed to help solve multiple claims of ownership and provide access to federal funds for farming. The amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., provides owners with a "farm number" to use when applying for funds. "With a farm number, heirs can access resources and support from federal programs run by USDA and other agencies, like FEMA," Jones says. He says he learned about heirs' land loss and how it impacts black communities after farming advocacy groups reached out to his team. He hopes farm numbers "will help address one facet of this issue" by giving heirs a way to prove ownership.

Mitchell is also working with lawmakers to introduce the Partition of Heirs Property Act, most recently passed by the New York legislature and introduced in 10 other state legislatures, including Virginia's. The act would require "tenants in-common," those living on the property, to come to an agreement about the sale of the property rather than one heir being able to force a partition sale with a developer. The goal is to help black families retain the asset of their families' land, Mitchell says. "Stripping people of their real estate is stripping them of their wealth," he says.

Penniman and groups such as the Southeastern African American Farmers' Organic Network and the Black Family Land Trust are also working to help black, Latino and indigenous farmers secure ownership of land and encourage new generations of farmers. "Ninety-eight percent of rural land belongs to white people, and that's so imbalanced," Penniman says. "Land is the scene of the crime, but she wasn't the criminal."

While there has been a substantial loss of land, Mitchell says, there is still room for cautious optimism about preserving what's left. "It's an incredible and remarkable history that African Americans acquired 16 million acres of land," he says. "I focus on what happened after that."

Who is the real Kamala Harris? Her sister, Maya, knows the answer

By Ben Terris
Who is the real Kamala Harris? Her sister, Maya, knows the answer
(L-r) Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and her sister Maya Harris. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

DES MOINES - It was the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and Kamala Harris was explaining to her sister, Maya, that campaigns are like prisons.

She'd been recounting how in the days before the Democratic debate in Miami life had actually slowed down to a manageable pace. Kamala, Maya and the rest of the team had spent three days prepping for that contest in a beach-facing hotel suite, where they closed the curtains to blot out the fun. But for all the hours of studying policy and practicing the zingers that would supercharge her candidacy, the trip allowed for a break in an otherwise all-encompassing schedule.

"I actually got sleep," Kamala said, sitting in a Hilton conference room, beside her sister, and smiling as she recalled walks on the beach with her husband and that one morning SoulCycle class she was able to take.

"That kind of stuff," Kamala said between sips of iced tea, "which was about bringing a little normal to the days, that was a treat for me."

"I mean, in some ways it was a treat," Maya said. "But not really."

"It's a treat that a prisoner gets when they ask for, 'A morsel of food please,' " Kamala said shoving her hands forward as if clutching a metal plate, her voice now trembling like an old British man locked in a Dickensian jail cell. "'And water! I just want wahtahhh....'Your standards really go out the f---ing window."

Kamala burst into laughter.

The Harris sisters don't look all that much alike. Kamala resembles their father, taller and angular; where Maya has the softer features of their late mother who clocked in at 5-foot-1. But the sisters share a contagious, body-shaking laugh so similar that strangers often guess they're related.

Only now, Maya kept a straight face. Getting exercise and sleep aren't a treat, she said, but a necessity. Maya has always got Kamala's best interest at heart, whether it's ignoring the former prosecutor's joke comparing a campaign to incarceration, making sure she's fully up to speed on policy, or getting enough rest - and not just because she's Kamala's little sister, but because she's Kamala's campaign chairwoman.

It's a job she's uniquely qualified for: She was a senior adviser for Hillary Clinton in 2016, knows her sister better than anyone else (at campaign events she takes mental notes and drapes her arm around Kamala afterward to whisper advice), and is something of a yin to Kamala's yang.

Where Kamala, California's former attorney general, came up through politics as a law enforcement official - a job that has become controversial among liberal Democrats - Maya has been at the forefront of criminal justice restructuring: as a leader at the American Civil Liberties Union, as a vice president at the Ford Foundation, helping edit her friend Michelle Alexander's seminal book about mass incarceration, "The New Jim Crow."

Maya is, in other words, exactly the type of person who might criticize Kamala's campaign from the sidelines. It's your classic good-cop/not-a-cop routine.

"If people knew who Kamala was, and really what she believes and really where her heart is," Maya said,"I think it would be hard not to reach the conclusion that this is the person who would be the most passionate advocate for the things we've been fighting for for a long time."

Over the course of Kamala's political career, she's been many things: tough on crime, progressive, pragmatic, hard to fit into an ideological box. Sometimes during this campaign it can seem as if she's trying to please all the people all the time, and sometimes it's like she just can't please anyone.

Questions of who she is, what sits at her core, and why exactly she wants to be president have become central to her campaign and chances of winning. Few, if anyone, have had these concerns about Maya, and Maya doesn't have these concerns about Kamala. Her trick then, in her own words, is this:

"How do you bridge the gap between what you know about someone, and what people think about someone?"

- - -

On a recent swing through South Carolina, Kamala spoke to an audience of overheated, mostly black voters who had packed into a gymnasium in Columbia to feel her out.

"I was raised that you don't talk about yourself," Kamala said. "But I've also realized that in order to form the relationships, it's important to let people know about my people."

It's the kind of thing a faux-humble person might say when running for president: Now, I hate to make this whole thing about me. But even the book she wrote to launch her campaign revealed little about her inner terrain.

Her inability to get personal had been so much of a problem in the early months of her campaign that at one point, with her poll numbers treading water, she felt the need to apologize.

"I've been trying to get her to tell more stories," Maya whispered offstage now, as Kamala did just that.

Their father, Donald, was a Stanford economics professor from Jamaica, and their mother, Shyamala, was a scientist from India, but before that they were a couple of civil rights activists attending the University of California at Berkeley.

"We joke that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent all their time marching and shouting about a thing called justice," Kamala said, getting laughs from the crowd with a story about going missing from her stroller at a protest.

Shyamala and Donald split when the sisters were young, after which it was mostly just "Shyamala and the girls," and sometimes, when Shyamala had to travel for work, it was just the girls. (Shyamala died in 2009, and Donald has what friends of the family call a "strained" relationship with his daughters.)

When feasible, Kamala and Maya would tag along to their mother's conferences, getting the run of the place in hotels around the world. Other times, Shyamala would travel without them, leaving the girls under the care of neighbors they considered family.

But no matter who was looking after them, Kamala was looking after her sister, and that often meant using her fists in the schoolyard.

"Kamala was very feisty, and always fighting," her friend since childhood, Peter Monroe, said in a phone interview. "She was always either going to be putting people in prison or going to prison."

Kamala remembers the skirmishes: "It was the '70s! People fought on the schoolyard. This was before timeouts!" But she also remembers the fun: playing Miss Mary Mack on the yellow bus with the "Red Rooster" decal that took her 30 minutes out to Thousand Oaks Elementary, leaving her diverse, middle-class neighborhood to help integrate a school that a decade earlier was only 2.5 percent black.

It's obvious now that Maya was right to push Kamala to share more of her personal history. Less than a month after speaking in South Carolina, Kamala's campaign has surged in the polls, all because she took the debate stage in Miami, and had gone after former Vice President Joe Biden by telling her story. Months earlier, Kamala and Maya had been "surprised" to learn about Biden's past opposition to busing initiatives to integrate schools in the 1970s. To them, it felt personal. Onstage, Kamala told the story of one child who benefited. "That little girl was me," she said.

- - -

Some stories, however, are too complicated for a stump speech.

When the girls were 12 and 9, Shyamala accepted a job at McGill University, moved the family out to Montreal, and enrolled Kamala and Maya in a neighborhood school where everyone spoke French except for them. They remember the Mayflower truck coming to bring all their belongings across the continent, they remember arriving at their apartment and hiding from the cold in the closet, and they remember how their relationship further solidified in a place where no one else spoke their language.

"We leaned on each other," Kamala said. "We forged a bond that is unbreakable. When I think about it, all of the joyous moments in our lives, all of the challenging moments, all of the moments of transition, we have always been together."

Almost always, anyway.

Kamala graduated from high school and went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. She immersed herself in the campus political scene, running for student government, protesting apartheid outside of the South African Embassy with fellow students. Big things were happening in the world, and Kamala wanted to be a part of it.

With Kamala at Howard, Maya moved back to the Bay Area. Her mother technically moved back, too, but still had work in Montreal, which meant at times Maya lived alone among their community of honorary aunts, uncles and cousins.

"If the alarm went off at the house, she'd call me," said Monroe, who lived nearby. "Her mother instructed me to keep the boys from chasing after Maya."

Maya's transition was easy enough. She was pretty (best-looking, according to her graduating yearbook), getting stellar grades and popular. And so no one seemed to notice anything was up as she made her way through senior year wearing bigger and chunkier sweatshirts (it was, after all, the '80s).

"Nobody knew she was pregnant until she was about eight or nine months," recalled Judy Robinson, a close friend whose mother used to take care of the Harris sisters when Shyamala was away. Maya graduated from high school with honors, 17 years old, in her second trimester, and keeping a secret that even her closest friends didn't know about.

"I remember Shyamala saying she cried for about four days," Robinson said. "She cried for the fact that she was not there, that Maya went through this on her own without her."

Maya does not talk about this part of her life. Not the pregnancy. Not who the father was (other than to say he was never really in the picture). Not who she kept the secret from or for how long.

She will talk about what came next: the birth of her daughter, Meena; her mother helping babysit while she finished college on time; the handsome law school friend and future husband, Tony West, who would help look after Meena at Stanford; the fact that her daughter and sister always had a "special relationship."

"For me," she said when asked to talk about what it was like to be pregnant at 17, "it's always about pushing forward, never really looking back."

In that way, she's a lot like Kamala.

When asked about how Kamala found out and what her reaction was, both sisters declined to comment.

- - -

"Given all my lefty friends, it still amazes me that this ACLU lawyer ended up with a sister - and a husband - who both became prosecutors," Maya said, speaking at her sister's inauguration as San Francisco's district attorney in 2004.

Maya had worked on that campaign, and been at her sister's side on election night. In her speech, Maya joked about the possibility of awkward Thanksgiving dinners with "the ACLU lawyer on one end of the table and the district attorney at the other."

There was some truth to the joke.

"Kamala would make her argument very persuasively and forcefully and turn to me and say, 'Brother-in-law, you were a prosecutor, you agree with what I say,'" West said. "And no less forcefully, Maya would say, 'Honey, you know I'm right, right?' "

In Maya's line of work, prosecutors were often seen as the opposition. They were gatekeepers of an unjust system that locked up people of color in disproportionate numbers, lawyers who often cared more about their conviction rate than actual justice.

But, just as Maya had encouraged the ACLU to adopt more political strategies when she'd arrived in 2003 - bringing in pollsters and arguing that making progress on issues such as gay rights, voting enfranchisement for felons and juvenile justice restructuring required a campaign mentality - she argued that it was better to have people with her values inside the system.

In many ways during her time as district attorney and later as attorney general, Kamala proved Maya's point. She declined to seek the death penalty against a gang member who had killed a police officer, she worked on re-entry programs for ex-offenders and she fought to loosen a draconian "three-strikes" law.

But before Kamala had even announced her candidacy, she was hip-checked from the left, in the form of a damning op-ed in the New York Times by Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, with the headline: "Kamala Harris Was Not a 'Progressive Prosecutor.' "

For all the ways Kamala worked to shake up the system, she did plenty to uphold the status quo. Bazelon said in an interview that Kamala was "misrepresenting her record" by "latching on to a trendy label" when she had actually supported high cash bail costs that made it difficult for poor people to stay out of jail before trial, opposed a death row inmate's request for advanced DNA testing to prove his innocence (she later told the New York Times she regretted that decision), laughed at a political opponent's support for the legalization of marijuana, promised voters during her attorney general campaign that she would enforce capital punishment, and followed through, appealing a judge's ruling that deemed the death penalty unconstitutional.

The challenge, Kamala said, is that people don't always know the "spirit with which" many of her actions were taken.

"People don't know me," Kamala said.

But even some of the people who do see her actions within a political context, as a way to move up within a system.

"It's a ladder and I think she had this perspective of what's my next step up the ladder," said Aubrey Labrie, a longtime family friend. "I think that's what's ultimately driving her."

For the sisters to have an inside and outside game, Kamala needed a seat at the table. And even though Kamala wasn't exactly a hard-liner, she was running for office in a different context back then.

In an ad she ran during her attorney general run, one that has mostly disappeared from the internet, Kamala brags that she "started prosecuting parents who let their children skip school."

Now, the calculus is different. Democrats are coming around to positions on criminal justice restructuring that Maya has held for decades. Today, Maya can help the campaign by giving voice to the policies she knows so well, and act as a conduit to the activist base of the party that might otherwise be hard for Kamala to reach. But what about then? What did Maya think about, say, Kamala's truancy initiatives at the time?

"If I had to speak for Maya," Kamala said, answering the question while Maya sat beside her. "It was well known, among people who knew me, that I never had any intention of criminalizing parents."

Maya nodded along.

"In talking with you about issues, I never questioned your motives," Maya said, turning to Kamala to speak broadly about her tenure. "I know what your values are. We may have to agree to disagree about the way to go about it."

- - -

Finding people to trust in politics - a field full of mercenaries with their own interests at heart - can be a tough thing to do. It's no wonder so many people turn to family members: John Kennedy had Bobby, Joe Biden's sister once ran his campaigns, and Ivanka Trump remains one of the president's most visible advisers.

But Kamala's campaign is even more of a family affair than others. Some of Kamala's former staffers say this is because she can have trust issues, that unless you're in the inner circle, connecting with the boss is next to impossible. Kamala has certainly been under more of a microscope than your average politician: There just aren't that many women or people of color who become district attorney, let alone attorney general.

"In campaigns there will be those people who are part of your safe group," Kamala said, wrapping up her interview in Des Moines. "The group of people you could call at midnight, could laugh at the thing you're not supposed to laugh about, cry, scream, curse and not be judged."

And Maya does not judge her sister. In Maya's mind, there have always been "prosecutors," and then her "sister the prosecutor": The first being a group she viewed skeptically, the latter being the one she trusted. She thinks it made her a better advocate to know a little bit about the other side's thinking, and believes she can help Kamala become a better politician by opening doors to the more progressive wings of the party. She can be, in the words of Zerlina Maxwell, who worked with Maya on the Clinton campaign, a "co-sign" on her sister's candidacy.

"To have Maya in that small circle where I can have many conversations with very few words and with someone who completely understands my perspective because she's lived it," Kamala said. "It can be very validating."

Before a town hall in Greenville, South Carolina, Kamala and her sister met with a small clutch of local officials, activists and supporters for some meeting and greeting in a backroom adorned with American flags. Many of the people had never met Kamala before, but had talked to Maya more than once on the phone.

"I say, 'I would love actual feedback,' and they're candid," Maya said, after posing for a selfie. "It can be easier to tell me than to tell her. And I can tell Kamala. Like it or not, I've been doing that forever."

Maya quit her job as an MSNBC analyst to volunteer for her sister. ("She's invaluable," Kamala said. "There's no amount of money I can pay her, so I pay her no amount of money.") Maya's husband, West, now the general counsel for Uber, has helped Kamala prep for a possible contest with Trump. (In one mock debate, West played the role of the president, and even came up with a Trumpian nickname for his sister-in-law that he won't repeat publicly.) And Kamala's husband, Doug Emhoff, is a regular presence on the trail, serving as her biggest fan (I see a president up there," he said, beaming after a speech in California), and enforcer from the sidelines ("F--- you, do better, don't be so lame," he grumbled about Biden, in the midst of his wife's feud about busing with the former VP).

Kamala met Emhoff, a lawyer with two children from a previous marriage, on a blind date in 2013 and married him a year later at the Santa Barbara courthouse. Emhoff wore a flower garland around his neck to honor Kamala's Indian heritage; at the end, they smashed a glass per Emhoff's Jewish tradition. It was ritual of compromise in pursuit of unity; an exchange of promises that would be tested sometime in the weeks and months and years to come. All eyes were on Kamala, but Maya was there, too, making sure everything happened the way it was supposed to.

She officiated the ceremony. She even helped write the vows.

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

America's military muscle in the Persian Gulf

By david ignatius
America's military muscle in the Persian Gulf



(For Ignatius clients only)

2ND WRITETHRU: Undoing 1st writethru. "Officer of the deck" is the correct term. We apologize for any confusion. 1ST WRITETHRU: 4th to last graf, 2nd sentence: "officer on the" sted "officer of the"


ABOARD THE USS BOXER IN THE PERSIAN GULF -- Capt. Ronald Dowdell was on the starboard side of the bridge, looking toward Iran, as his vessel passed through the Strait of Hormuz on July 18. He'd been monitored by Iranian helicopters and speedboats, but now a drone was closing fast.

Dowdell ordered his crew to disable the drone because it "looked like a potential threat," he said in an interview on that same bridge Tuesday. The danger signs were the drone's proximity to the Boxer, its closure rate and the profile detected by the ship's sensors. The Boxer also targeted a second Iranian drone, but Dowdell's crew couldn't confirm that it was destroyed.

This incident, the closest the U.S. has come to a strike on Iran since the confrontation in the Persian Gulf heightened in early May, is often described as a "shootdown." But nobody aboard the ship describes any shooting. Some crew members say they weren't even aware of the incident when it happened.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who as Centcom commander is Dowdell's boss, wouldn't discuss any detail of the Navy and Marine systems aboard the ship that were used. "We brought the Iranian drone down. That really is about all I can say," he said in an interview aboard the Boxer Tuesday. McKenzie is concluding a 10-day trip through the region. (Another reporter and I are accompanying him.)

The downing of the drone without firing a normal kinetic weapon is one more sign of the measured response the U.S. has adopted through the confrontation with Iran. When Tehran downed an American surveillance drone last month, the U.S. didn't retaliate by firing missiles on Iranian targets, as many had expected. But it reportedly did launch an invisible cyberattack on some of the Iranian military systems that might have been targeted in a retaliatory strike.

It was a steamy summer morning as we arrived on the Boxer with McKenzie and his team aboard V-22 Osprey helicopters from Kuwait. The 90-degree water temperature here is almost as hot as the air. The Kuwait coastline is visible to the northwest, and Iran is perhaps 50 miles northeast. There are about 1,000 sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship, which basically is a baby aircraft carrier. Many members of the Marine Expeditionary Unit the ship supports have landed in Kuwait for training.

Our visit here shows some of the military muscle that the U.S. has moved into the Gulf to deter Iran. But it also shows the restrained way in which those forces have been used so far. Crew members say the ship isn't on any special alert status that's different from what it normally adopts in international waters. Sailors are lifting weights in a big gym below deck. It's "Taco Tuesday" in the officers' wardroom. A sign on a bulkhead wall warns sailors against wasting water with long showers: "This Isn't Hollywood!"

McKenzie comes on the ship's loudspeaker to address the crew. He thanks them for their "professionalism" and says "you did exactly the right thing" in downing the menacing drone. But this isn't a speech about fighting Iran. He warns the crew to "expect the same thing when you're going out" of the Gulf.

During the passage through what the Navy calls the "knuckle" of the Strait and surrounding waters, the crew maintained its normal rotations, and the members illustrate how the Navy is integrating women into command positions. The officer of the deck at the time of the incident, on the bridge with the captain, was Lt. Taylor Burleson, a woman in her 20s. An hour after the drone was disabled, she was replaced by Lt. Jasmin Valencia, 23, who has been in the Navy two years. "By the time I got on watch, the excitement was over," she says.

As we're about to leave the Boxer, McKenzie tries to explain the low-key strategy the military has adopted in this potentially explosive showdown in the Gulf, where Iran often seems eager to provoke an American response.

"We want to be the calm, steady part of the equation," he says in an interview. "We don't want to be the irresponsible actor. We don't seek conflict with Iran, we don't seek to exchange fire with Iran. What we want them to do is modify their behavior and become responsible."

How will this end? Here's how McKenzie answers: "We have the assets in place right now to make them think twice about further irresponsible actions in this theater. Only time will tell if that message settles."

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Hope Hicks explains everything

By alexandra petri
Hope Hicks explains everything



(For Petri clients only)


(BEG ITAL)A New York judge last week unsealed some documents regarding President Trump, Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels, revealing evidence of conversations that left House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., with some ... questions about Hope Hicks's closed-door testimony. So many questions that he sent her a letter demanding clarification. She has yet to respond, but I assume that any response would be along these lines(END ITAL).

Dear Congressman Nadler,

I am writing back to clarify my previous testimony, in response to your questions. Oh my god, where to begin? I can see how it might have appeared that I was not being totally candid about my involvement or knowledge about the so-called hush so-called money so-called payments to Ms. Stormy "So-Called" Daniels.

When I said I did not discuss those payments with Mr. Cohen and/or the president, I was being totally candid. What would speaking with "and/or the president" even look like? Part of the president and part of Mr. Cohen, fused into some sort of cronenberg-beast?

When I said I did not discuss negative stories about the president, including about Ms. Daniels, prior to their release, what I meant was that I did not consider any of those stories to be anything but positive. Even the part where he hated sharks I thought was compelling.

When I said "I was never present for a conversation" -- I mean, look, would you define any time Donald Trump talks to anyone as a conversation?

When I was asked directly if I had any contact with Keith Davidson during the campaign -- I am still 98 percent sure that I did not had any contact with Keith Davidson during the campaign, because I have no idea who Keith Davidson is. It's super awkward! I feel like Keith Davidson has introduced himself to me six times now. Often I'll meet a new person who looks at me like he expects me to recognize him, and nine times out of 10, that person is Keith Davidson. Or I'll get off the phone after a lengthy conversation with a mysteriously familiar-sounding voice, and someone will say, "Did you know that was Keith Davidson?" And no, I won't!

When the counsel for the committee asked if I had knowledge of whether the president knew that Mr. Cohen had made payments to Stormy Daniels during the campaign, I said, "I don't have any direct knowledge." Did my eyes and ears convey information to my mind about whether Mr. Cohen had made payments to Stormy Daniels during the campaign? Yes! Did I have direct knowledge? Well, can I trust the information piped into my brain from these so-called eyes and ears when we know full well that sometimes we see a spider crawling toward us and it turns out to be a leaf, or that we look at Keith Davidson and see nothing at all? I don't think so.

I see that a lot of my statements appear to be inconsistent with the evidence unsealed last week. But, you have to remember that sometimes news is fake.

About the calls, text messages and emails -- look. I am on a lot of text chains. When I texted, "Keep praying! It's working!" in response to news that there were only six stories about the payoff, that was meant for another text chain, on which some friends and I were attempting to conduct a long-distance exorcism for another mutual friend whose bachelorette got kind of out of control.

The records seem to indicate that we spoke often about the payments, but did we really converse? Or did we just make sounds with our mouths, maybe not even the kind of sound that was mutually intelligible? To me, conversation implies communicating to another human being anything that I was thinking, but I have yet to understand what anyone involved in this was or is thinking, and, like, is that even knowable?

Yes, it looks as though Michael Cohen was talking to me and to Keith Davidson at the same time on two phones, but once Keith Davidson got on the call, I really checked out.

And when I said, "I wasn't aware of anything -- I wasn't aware of a hush payment agreement," I meant "aware" in the deepest, truest sense. Webster defines "aware" as "having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge" or, archaically, "watchful, wary." I was not wary of any hush payment agreement, nor did I show realization or perception of it, in the sense of really understanding something that was going on outside of myself. I am not confident I have ever done that.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The 1930s were a dark period for immigration policies. There's one way today's could be worse.

By catherine rampell
The 1930s were a dark period for immigration policies. There's one way today's could be worse.



(For Rampell clients only)


Eighty years ago last month, the S.S. St. Louis entered American waters.

The liner carried more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, hoping to find a haven across the Atlantic. Passengers had purchased landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban government, and most planned to wait in Cuba while their U.S. visa applications were processed. But the Cuban government was roiled by political infighting and fearmongering that Jewish refugees might be communists. Officials turned nearly all of the passengers away.

The St. Louis sailed to Florida, coming so close to U.S. shores that passengers could see the lights of Miami, as one survivor noted in an oral history kept by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask for refuge but never heard back.

America -- where similar nativist and anti-Semitic rhetoric had infected the public -- also turned the refugees away. The State Department directed desperate refugees to "await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States."

The ship returned to Europe, where a handful of countries had agreed to take in the passengers. But many ultimately fell into German hands, and a quarter of the ship's original manifest died during the Holocaust.

It's hard not to think about such shameful episodes of U.S. history amid our current treatment of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Our rejection of innocents seeking refuge from persecution, based on excuses that they might become an economic burden or national security threat. Our disingenuous claims that people need only to follow the rules and get in line.

Last week, while Americans continued our endless debate about whether President Trump's bigoted rhetoric put immigrants in danger, his actions should have left no doubt. Among a litany of other anti-immigrant measures, the administration announced that it was gutting the U.S. asylum system, effective immediately, by rejecting any new arrivals who had not first sought asylum in another country they passed through on their way.

This change violates both domestic and international law -- including an international pact set up partly to prevent another St. Louis -- and is being challenged in court. If allowed to stand, it will force thousands risking all to reach the U.S. border to return to dangerous conditions in their home countries or in Mexico.

Also last week, Politico reported that the administration is considering zeroing out refugee admissions from around the world next year. That includes Iraqi interpreters who put their lives on the line assisting U.S. forces, and whose visas we have already been appallingly slow to process. For this reason, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly opposed refugee cuts last year, fearing the consequences for national security.

There are other echoes, too, between our treatment of refugees today and in the 1930s, including presidential use of backdoor administrative actions to circumvent legislative debate. Back then, for instance, consular officials who were "under quota" -- who kept admissions below strict (racist) national-origin quotas set by Congress -- got letters of commendation under both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt, according to American University history professor Alan Kraut.

There is, however, at least one key way that today's immigration policies differ from those in the dark period of the 1930s -- and, in fact, are arguably worse.

The immigration system in place then was structured not around compassion, or other abstract concepts such as morality or equity, but on a determination of which peoples were believed to be most economically and culturally advantageous to the United States. Our moral obligations to the world through asylum and refugee policy were only legally formalized in the postwar years, after the Holocaust (and the U.S. immigration system's complicity in it) had "shocked the conscience" of many Americans.

"We were in a sense making up for the mistakes we had made in the run-up to World War II," says Morris Vogel, a historian and president emeritus of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

In other words: Today, we know exactly what we're doing when we turn refugees away. Today, we know what happens when the "doors [are] closed" to a persecuted people, as White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, put it in her own oral history. Today, we know the drive such people have to succeed in the United States despite their persecution.

U.S. policy toward displaced or persecuted peoples has never exactly been generous. But adjusted for the lessons that history now affords us, rarely has it been so deliberately stingy.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump becomes king of the cave

By dana milbank
Trump becomes king of the cave



(For Milbank clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Back in the 1980s, Donald Trump published his seminal business treatise, "The Art of the Deal." Should he write a sequel about his presidency, he might accurately title it "The Art of the Cave."

In recent weeks, President Trump's record has been a cornucopia of climbdowns. Not since the Paleolithic Period, perhaps, has a man had quite so much day-to-day caving experience.

The White House had demanded $150 billion in cuts as part of current budget talks. But on Monday evening, Trump agreed to a deal that raised spending by $320 billion. The Washington Post's Damian Paletta and Erica Werner labeled it a "significant retreat" for Trump, who got some accounting changes "that probably wouldn't constrain any future spending."

A few weeks ago, Trump declared that he was "moving forward" with efforts to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census questionnaire despite a contrary Supreme Court ruling. But he then announced with fanfare that he would not, in fact, move forward. Was he backing down? "No, no," he said. "Not only didn't I back down, I backed up."

Thanks for that clarification, sir.

In May, Trump announced that he would "shortly" impose 25% tariffs on $325 billion of imported Chinese goods. But in late June, Trump announced he would not actually be imposing the tariffs "at least for the time being," and he set no deadline.

Last month, Trump publicly vowed that "millions" would be deported following raids on immigrants living in the United States illegally. He postponed and rescheduled the raids, but the appointed day came and went with scant evidence that the threatened sweep had occurred.

You might think that after caving so much, Trump would be tired of caving. But you would be wrong.

After pronouncing that there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea" and assuring that Kim Jong Un is "denuking the whole place," the Trump administration is reportedly prepared to let North Korea keep nuclear weapons.

After being "cocked and loaded" for an attack on Iran following the downing of a U.S. drone, the president called off his own attack after he "thought about it for a second."

Not that caving is such a bad thing. When it comes to, say, defying the Supreme Court, we're better off that Trump reconsidered. After the president threatened to slap tariffs on all goods imported from Mexico, he sensibly retreated (claiming he had made a "secret deal" with the country). When his administration's policy separated child migrants from parents, Trump thankfully signed an order to reverse the practice. And after saying for weeks that he would keep the federal government closed if he didn't get funds for a border wall, he wised up and said he was "very proud" to reopen the government in January without wall funding.

Some see political calculation in the caves. MSNBC's Ari Melber calls it a pattern of "tweet, hype but then fold" designed to stoke Trump's base by making it appear that extreme policies (such as mass deportation) are being implemented, even though Trump has no such plans.

Possibly. But, as with all attempts to assign strategy to Trump's actions, this might give him too much credit. Trump gives no indication that he thinks at all before speaking or tweeting, and he resists even cursory preparation. During a meeting last week with 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, the Yazidi woman told him the Islamic State had killed her family. Replied Trump: "Where are they now?"

Rather, Trump's constant caving as president may come from misapplying the principles he outlined in "The Art of the Deal." There, he argued for playing it "very loose," and he attested that "you can create leverage" in negotiations by using "imagination" -- that is, fabricating and bluffing. He boasted about creating the (false) impression that one of his casinos "was practically finished" when work had only just started.

But bluffs and fabrications don't work as well for him as president, because his opponent, whether it's Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the Chinese government, knows which cards Trump holds.

So Trump caves -- and dissembles. The mass deportation raids really happened, he said. "You just didn't know about it." The all-important citizenship question isn't so important because "we're already finding out who the citizens are." The failure to get border-wall funding doesn't matter because it "is being built as we speak."

The true Art of the Cave, then, is making it look as though you didn't cave at all.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Republican leaders are shilling for a bigot

By michael gerson
Republican leaders are shilling for a bigot


(Advance for Tuesday, July 23, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, July 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- American politics is now caught in an odd and dangerous form of escalation.

The cycle begins with President Trump engaging in some form of divisive prejudice, either out of calculation or compulsion. (A group of elected, progressive women of color, say, should "go back" to their hellhole countries of origin.) There is a public outcry, including from some morally offended members of the media. Elected Republicans then blame the media for ideological bias and not focusing on "real" issues. Then Trump, either out of political calculation or personal compulsion, doubles down on bigotry. ("I don't believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country.") Another outcry ensues ...

What is the damage? Well, if you believe that constructive leadership can elevate, it follows that irresponsible leadership can debase. Particularly in a democracy, political rhetoric has high stakes. A politician can side with the angels or unleash the beast.

Trump's reelection strategy is clearly beast liberation. And this has implications for his political followers, who must abandon morality or rationality or both.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., is a case in point. Based on considerable political skills, Cheney has risen rapidly to the third highest leadership position in the House Republican caucus. It is her great misfortune, however, to become a GOP leader during the Trump era.

Being in the leadership of a caucus brings complications even in normal political times. It generally requires public fidelity to the party's official line. And this can involve a venial type of political deception: feigning enthusiasm for policies and arguments a leader would not normally embrace. It is a requirement of being part of the team.

But Cheney's recent performance on CBS' "Face the Nation" illustrates how difficult that membership in Trump's team has become. Under close questioning, she admitted that the chants of "send her back" at a Trump political rally were "absolutely wrong" and "should not have happened." But since the chant is a variant of Trump's own words, she could not admit (BEG ITAL)why(END ITAL) this was wrong without indicting the original author. She was left to insist that Trump's words were ideologically rather than racially motivated -- a case of bad manners rather than evidence of a corrupted heart. But Trump did not tell the congresswomen to go to hell; he told them to "go home" to a foreign country (though three members of the group were born in the U.S). Then Trump added they are not "capable" of loving America. These elements are what turns an ideological attack into a nativist and racist attack by any reasonable standard.

Having abandoned both logic and principle, Cheney fell back to a last redoubt of denial. "We are focused on policy," she said, "and we will continue to do that no matter what the mainstream media attempts to do." But when has the president shown the slightest interest in policy? And why, exactly, would the political world be focused on racist tweets if Trump had not repeatedly tweeted them?

These justifications are no longer the typical, venial deceptions required by party loyalty. In this case, loyalty requires mortal lies that effectively excuse racial prejudice. In this case, Republican leaders are shilling for a bigot.

Trump sorts other politicians into two categories: enemies or servants. And he defines service as a willingness to defend his most offensive actions and attributes -- with enthusiasm and on television. One by one, Republican leaders have faced a choice between keeping the president's favor and maintaining their own integrity. Only a few -- a very few -- have chosen the better and harder path.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan's reputation, for example, was deeply damaged by his service under Trump. Ryan -- whatever his intentions -- sent a message that the wealth of the country is a "real" issue, while the character of the country is a sideshow. But what brand of conservatism would elevate wealth above rectitude, decency and concern for the common good? Ryan's accommodation of Trump's worst instincts eventually became a form of ideological surrender -- replacing the gospel of equal opportunity with an angry creed of white identity.

In the Trump era, Republican leaders generally suffer from a kind of moral stunting. By defending the malicious impulses of a petty and prejudiced mind, they lose their credibility and their dignity. They become inured to things that should shock and offend them. And they forget something foundational: There is no definition of honorable public service that includes dishonoring the deepest values of the nation.

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Historical reenactors wish America had picked a nicer bit of history to repeat

By alexandra petri
Historical reenactors wish America had picked a nicer bit of history to repeat



(For Petri clients only)


Across America, historical reenactors gazed baffled at footage of the latest Trump rally on their vintage television sets, stunned by what appears to be a sudden decision to reenact history on a pretty grand scale.

"Don't get me wrong," commented Dingle Gruble, pausing a moment from her butter churning. "I love it any time people get together and decide to repeat history. That is why I spend my weekends in this uncomfortable bodice and stiff bonnet, tramping around a historic farm and rooting out cabbages with a wooden trowel. There is so much about the past that is exciting and fun. Do you want to make a doll out of a corncob?"

Her colleague, Morton Sault, tipped his tricorn hat as he leaned his blunderbuss up against the side of the house. "I guess -- I would -- just personally, for myself, have picked something like this to reenact! Something that revolved more around barn dances or fiddle playing. I would not have leaped straight to some of the more disturbing events of the 20th century! All the creepy rallies, xenophobic and racist shouting ... "

"I do appreciate the authenticity they're bringing to this," Gruble added. "The chants, the faces, the signs. The finger pointing and hand wringing and non-disavowals from people who should be speaking up. The level of detail -- people being shocked, but then not shocked, and then sort of ... overwhelmed, but inured, but in a kind of denial -- all very realistic, all quite compelling. But I just wish they'd asked us about what periods of the past we found fun and rewarding to occupy. Because I sure would not have said any of the ones they appear to be going for! It seems like they're drawing elements from several, but none of them are good!"

"Exactly!" said a man dressed as Comely Young William Howard Taft who refused to give his name. "I know that one of the fun things about really digging into the past is that there are no small parts! Everyone, in their own way, gets to be involved -- whether you are simply buying a wooden hoop for your child's amusement, or keeping an authentic tavern, or one of three guys dressed as Patrick Henry. Similarly, I understand that this current reenactment has lots of little parts, even for people who don't think they're playing any part at all -- like people who are changing the channel or people who are pretending not to notice, not just people shouting hateful rally things. It's really immersive, with lots of opportunities to participate."

"But what do they see in it?" Dingle asked. "Is it the aesthetic? Because that gets old fast, let me tell you."

"Yes!" Taft shouted. "There's so much better history to pick! How about the part of history where Edison was really bothering Nikola Tesla? We could all gather around a glowing doughnut-shaped thing! We could reenact the part of history where they increased voting rights! Or when they impeached Andrew Johnson! That could be cool to attempt!"

"One upside to this," added Lydia Bingley, breezing in dressed in an enormous hoop skirt, "is that -- you know, one worry is people don't want to maybe get into Civil War reenacting because we know who won there, and, well, who wants to be on the losing side?"

"But we haven't had that problem lately!" Sault added. "If anything, we have had the opposite problem."

"They don't even bother with the period gear!" Bingley said. "I guess they've put so much work into really perfecting the attitudes? But for me, half the fun is the period gear."

"And that afterward, you get to stop and have some root beer."


For a moment, there was silence.

"And, look, the best part of reenacting a great historical triumph over injustice is seeing someone do the right thing in the face of the motionless bystanders and shouting mobs, so it is, again, great that so many folks want to be bystanders or shouting mobs. We just need more sign-ups on both sides of that equation."

Reenactors also said they were confused by the decision to bring back measles.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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Serious therapy and serious fun to give readers a break from breaking news.