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On the eve of an Oprah movie about Henrietta Lacks, an ugly feud consumes the family

By Steve Hendrix
On the eve of an Oprah movie about Henrietta Lacks, an ugly feud consumes the family
A battered copy of

BALTIMORE -The email from her sister said "Read Now!" so Veronica Spencer sat right down to open it.

Maybe it was about the soon-to-be released Oprah Winfrey/HBO movie about Spencer's great-grandmother Henrietta Lacks, the Baltimore cancer patient whose cells were collected by Johns Hopkins researchers without her knowledge. Or about Spencer's upcoming speech in Indiana, where she would talk to medical students about Henrietta's role in revolutionizing medicine.

Instead, she learned that her close-knit and increasingly famous family was at war with itself.

The March 2 email contained a link to a college newspaper story about her grandfather and uncle. Lawrence Lacks - Henrietta's oldest child - and his son, Ron Lacks, had long been unhappy with the family's portrayal in the best-selling book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and the way some of their relatives continue to profit from it by giving speeches around the country.

Now they were leveling a series of very public charges at the book's author and publisher, Winfrey, HBO executives,officials at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the National Institutes of Healthand other family members, accusing them variously of misrepresentation, exploitation and fraud.

The most explosive allegation was that some family members aren't family members at all. Her Pop-pop, whom Spencer worshiped from childhood, and her Uncle Ron, who used to give her pony rides on his back, were saying that Veronica and her sister were not really their kin and that they had the DNA tests to prove it.

Ron was quoted in the story saying: "They're not blood-related to Henrietta. ... They're not family."

Spencer, 30, read through tears. "It was like an uppercut to the stomach," she said. "I just fell to the floor."

Within minutes, the Lacks texts were flying: "Who's available for an emergency family meeting?"


How do long-standing family tensions get weaponized? At what should be the family's moment of triumph - the eve of a Hollywood portrayal of Henrietta - Lackses on both sides are trying to understand how their rift grew so ugly and public.

Last month, Lawrence and Ron Lacks - with the help of a Baltimore publicist willing to make incendiary charges - began a campaign to assert near-total control over the growing endeavors surrounding Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta died in 1951, but her tumor cells have been cultivated to this day. The "HeLa" cell line has been central to the development of vaccines, cloning, gene mapping and billions of dollars in medical breakthroughs.

The story had been largely unknown until Rebecca Skloot, a science writer, and Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah Lacks, spent more than a decade prying the tale from hospital archives. Skloot's 2010 book was a commercial and critical smash, selling more than 2.5 million copies. A page-turning lesson in ethics, race and family fealty, the book is now assigned reading at hundreds of colleges and medical schools. Oprah secured the movie rights within months and will star as Deborah Lacks when the film airs on HBO April 22.

A cottage family industry has grown up around Henrietta, with multiple Lacks descendants giving speeches and starting foundations of their own. Five served as paid consultants to the movie. Spencer and her cousin, David Lacks Jr., were selected by other family members to serve on an NIH working group that reviews requests from researchers to use the HeLa cells.

None of that has sat well with Lawrence, 82, and Ron, 58, who participated in the endeavors early on but said they are now excluded.

In scores of emails and news releases sent by their publicist, Karen Campbell, they demanded that the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, established and largely funded by Skloot, be transferred to their control; that HBO and Winfrey's Harpo Films donate $10 million each to a new foundation started in Lawrence's name, and that a speakers' agency stop booking other family members for appearances without Lawrence's approval. They urged NIH to let Lawrence decide which Lacks family members would serve on the HeLa advisory group and to suspend all research funding to Johns Hopkins. They asked Penguin Random House for an advance to write their own book.

The claims are largely based on Lawrence's role as Henrietta's oldest child and the only living executor of her estate. "He's the head of the family," said Ron, although he has his father's power of attorney.

NIH responded that it wasn't getting involved in a family dispute. The corporations said no to the donations and the book advance. And lawyers for Skloot pointed to ample case law saying Lawrence and Ron had no authority over others' speaking about Henrietta at public forums.

In an interview at Ron's Baltimore County home, Ron and Lawrence laughed a bit about the $10 million ask. "Kind of a stretch, huh?" Ron said. But both said the continued snubbing of Lawrence is heartbreaking.

"They don't even consult my dad," Ron said. "We want everybody to stop and regroup and let the head of the family decide how we're going to do things."

Lawrence nodded. "It used to be in this family," he said, "that people listened to their elders."


Lawrence Lacks is a gentle, genial octogenarian who drove Amtrak trains for 25 years. He still goes to the gym and mounted the front steps of his son's small brick house with a firm tread.

"Hey, Pop," Ron greeted him, a cellphone pressed to his ear. "C'mon in."

As Ron bustled between the kitchen and the small bedroom where he cares full-time for his bedridden mother, Bobbette Lacks, Lawrence sat on the couch, hands on knees, ready to talk about Henrietta, who died when he was 17.

"She was a loving, freehearted woman," he said, remembering the family members Henrietta had helped and her deathbed directions. "She told me to keep the family together. I try. I'm the oldest, but I don't have no say in anything."

The book, Lawrence said, fails to capture his mother's grace, as does her growing fame as a medical phenomenon. More and more, she seems not like a wife and mother of five but "just a cell," he said. Skloot also made the Lackses seem poor and uneducated, he said, although he also acknowledges he hasn't read the book.

Ron brought up one of the examples repeated in news releases: that Henrietta is portrayed as being unable to sign her name. Skloot, however, cited two separate pages depicting Henrietta signing and writing her name.

"She made us stereotypes," Ron maintained. "People think we're dirt poor."

He also resents all the money being made in Henrietta's name, from the multibillion-dollar medical research industry to Skloot's royalties to the speaker fees his cousins collect.

"They're getting $5,000 a speech, and my mother is in there needing care?" Ron asked. "What's fair about that?"

Jeri Lacks Whye, one of Henrietta's granddaughters, said she found the book accurate and positive overall. She is at the center of a shifting list of seven or eight Lackses who have appeared at more than 100 colleges and medical schools since 2011. But when Ron used his one outing to air complaints about the book, he wasn't invited to join them again.

"We're trying to create something positive around my grandmother's legacy," Whye said.

Ron and Lawrence contend the others have "sold out" to Skloot, HBO and Oprah, signing agreements that restrict what they can say. Lawrence said he turned down HBO's offer of a $16,000 consultant fee and, later, the chance to see the film at a private screening because he was asked "to sign my rights away. I wouldn't be allowed to talk about my mother anymore."

An HBO representative said the consulting contract was an industry standard and that the screening nondisclosure form applied only to discussing the movie's content before its official release, not speaking publicly about Henrietta Lacks.

Len Amato, president of HBO Films, said those involved in the production tried to include Lawrence throughout the process. He remembered a pleasant meeting with him at a lunch Oprah threw for the family at Baltimore's Four Seasons last summer, the last time the extended clan was all together. But the tone of the relationship shifted, he and others said, with Karen Campbell's work publicizing Lawrence and Ron's grievances.

"To be honest with you, we have no idea how much [she] is representing their point of view," Amato said. "Since that representative came into the picture, we've been barraged by an incredible amount of email that I don't think is helpful in getting anything productive done."

Skloot said she, too, has been inundated with communications from Campbell. And the charges and demands in the emails and news releases have grown more serious.

A March 20 news release accused Skloot of not sharing her book profits through the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which Skloot started with a portion of her first royalty check.

But several members of the Lacks family said they have gotten direct benefits from the foundation, including college tuition, cataract surgery and other medical procedures. Ron acknowledged he had dental work paid for by the foundation, which in each of the past five years had donations below $50,000, the threshold for public disclosure.

Individual donations and the 56 grants of up to $10,000 each made to Lacks family members are confidential, Skloot said. She noted that she negotiated a significant HBO contribution this year as part of the movie deal. And she maintained she has been "extremely devoted to fulfilling my promise to Deborah that I would help the Lacks family after the book was published . . . and it's infuriating and hurtful that someone is suggesting otherwise."

The March 20 news release also described Spencer and her sister, Victoria Baptiste, as "imposters" and said they were "posing as Lacks family members to make money."

Appalled, Spencer said she and other family members began questioning Campbell's role - and her financial motive - in driving a wedge through their family.

"Is my grandfather really saying all of these things?" Veronica wondered. "This entity came into our life claiming to speak for the entire Lacks family."

Asked to respond, Campbell issued a statement accusing The Washington Post of "writing a sensationalized story focusing on the backgrounds and personal lives of volunteers discouraging them from helping the Lacks family."

Ron said he met Campbell through a lawyer he contacted to help with their claims, including a possible lawsuit against Johns Hopkins. Campbell had an agreement with the lawyer for a percentage of any money they gained, he said, but the lawyer no longer represents them, and Campbell has continued to work at no charge.

Ron and his father said they are pleased with her efforts.

"She's the first one to get us any attention," he said. He looked over at his father with a smile. "We need somebody to push. My dad, he ain't got no fight in him."

But asked specifically about the decision to release the DNA testing, which was done five years ago during a different dispute and was a closely held family secret, they hesitated. Lawrence said he didn't like the idea of the clan's "dirty laundry being out there."

Ron shook his head. "What other choice did we have?" he asked. "We asked them to stop doing these speeches, and they didn't."

The fallout isn't finished. While the DNA testing showed that Lawrence is not Spencer's grandfather, a second test suggested that another Lacks man might be, something family gossip had hinted at for years.

A geneticist who reviewed both test results this week at the family's request said additional testing would be needed to establish whether Spencer and her sister are Lacks descendants.

"It's really close either way," said Gonçalo Abecasis, chair of the biostatistics department at the University of Michigan. "We'd need a little more data."

But no one needs more data to recognize the damage that's been done. "I let all this stuff get out of hand," Ron acknowledged this week. "I just hope my family can get back together."

His father had already reached the same conclusion. "Those girls are family," Lawrence said. "I love them as much as I love all my grandchildren."

His goal, he said, had been to unite the family, not divide it.

'What's fair about that?'

'The head of the family'

U.S., Japan test Xi with Taiwan outreach ahead of Trump summit

By Ting Shi
U.S., Japan test Xi with Taiwan outreach ahead of Trump summit
Pedestrians and shoppers wait at food stalls and stores in Taipei, Taiwan, on July 16, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Billy H.C. Kwok.

The U.S. and Japan are taking steps toward upgrading ties with Taiwan, risking a run-in with China as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping prepare for a first meeting in Florida next week.

The two allies have made a series of moves signaling more-direct relations with the diplomatically isolated island even after Trump reaffirmed the U.S.'s long-standing policy recognizing that both sides are part of "One China." In the last week alone, Taiwan has seen its U.S. envoy share a Washington stage with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and hosted a vice minister from Japan, its highest-level official visit in almost half a century.

Such exchanges could weigh on talks if the Mar-a-Lago summit goes ahead between Xi and Trump, who jolted ties in December by taking an unprecedented phone call from Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen and openly questioned the One-China policy. China considers its sovereignty over Taiwan a "core interest" and is anxious for reassurances that Trump won't alter U.S. policy, sell the island more arms or establish direct military ties.

While Trump hasn't said anything provocative about Taiwan since taking office, tensions between the island and China are running high because Tsai's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party swept the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang from power last year. Tsai, who has angered Beijing by refusing to endorse the One-China framework, has sought to bolster the island's military and reduce its trade dependence on China.

The Taiwanese president told a banquet hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei last week that she wanted an "upgraded strategic relationship between our two countries," including deeper security cooperation and defense-industry ties.

The U.S. and Japan -- security allies with their own concerns about China's growing might -- have shown a willingness to oblige. The island's de facto U.S. ambassador Stanley Kao was among the representatives from a 68-member anti-Islamic State coalition invited to the State Department on March 22. Kao posed for a group photo with Tillerson. China was not represented.

On Monday, China's foreign ministry said it lodged a "serious" protest with Japan after Vice Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama attended a cultural exchange meeting in Taiwan on March 25. On Jan. 1, Japan also changed the name of its mission in Taipei to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, which could be seen as implying state-to-state relations.

China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Japan's recent "provocative actions" regarding Taiwan have already caused "grave disturbances" to ties. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Akama's visit represented "non-governmental, practical ties" and wasn't a break with practice since establishing relations with China in 1972.

Japan's move was probably "coordinated with Washington," said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor, whose new book, "Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun," explores China-Japan ties. She said Kao's attendance at the Islamic State summit represented a "real, if tiny, step up in U.S.-Taiwan relations."

Asked last week about Taiwan's participation in the Islamic State summit, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. appreciated contributions from coalition members "big or small." Robert Lighthizer, Trump's pick for trade representative, told senators overseeing his confirmation last week that he intended to "develop a trade-and-investment policy that promotes a stronger bilateral relationship with Taiwan."

Arthur Ding, director of National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations in Taipei, said Tsai's approach to the U.S. was "cautious and gradual" and that ties would improve regardless of any deals between Trump and Xi. "Given the ongoing trend of warming relations between Taiwan and the U.S., I think the possibility is rather low for the Xi-Trump summit to negatively affect it," Ding said.

Taiwanese foreign ministry spokeswoman Eleanor Wang said in a text message Tuesday that the island had a "solid friendship" with the U.S. and expected to be in close contact with Washington before and after any Xi summit. Wang called the visit Japanese vice minister's visit a "meaningful" step toward enhancing communications.

The National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Barack Obama in December gave Trump another way to upgrade Taiwan ties, since it would allow exchanges between senior military officials including the "assistant secretary of defense or above." Trump could also deploy uniformed Marines at the yet-to-be completed American Institute in Taiwan complex, where plain-clothes troops have been stationed since 2005.

An arms sale to Taiwan could also test relations with China, which delayed a visit by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates for almost a year after the U.S. announced a $6.4 billion deal in 2010. The Washington Free Beacon reported this month that the Trump administration was preparing to provide more and better defensive arms to the island.

Getting Trump to reaffirm past policies on Taiwan would be a priority for Xi in any summit, Huang Jing, a professor of U.S.-China relations at the National University of Singapore, told Bloomberg Television on Monday.

"Xi Jinping is taking a high risk to meet Donald Trump," Huang said. "If there is anything substantial to be achieved, the No. 1 is Xi Jinping would like Donald Trump to repeat from his own mouth to the public the One-China policy, and say what Tillerson said in China that the bilateral relationship should be based on cooperation, not confrontation."


Bloomberg's Isabel Reynolds Adela Lin and Russell Ward contributed.

It was my dream to meet Chuck Berry - then I got to perform with him for 30 years

By Daryl Davis
It was my dream to meet Chuck Berry - then I got to perform with him for 30 years
(L-r) Piano player Daryl Davis with Chuck Berry in 1975. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Daryl Davis

My dream was to meet Chuck Berry.

It was April 1973, and he and Jerry Lee Lewis were playing at University of Maryland's Cole Field House. I was a 15-year-old student at Rockville's Wootton High School and dreamed of being a musician. My parents bought me a ticket for the evening concert, but I got there around noon in hopes I might see Berry rehearsing with the backup band. I had done my research and found out that Chuck always traveled alone and his contract called for the promoter to supply a backing band.

I walked into the venue hoping to not be questioned; stagehands were bringing in lights and speakers. I stayed out of everyone's way and eventually made my way over near the stage where the backup band was hanging out. Having never played with, or even met Chuck before, they were nervous. Their thinking was that he would be there to rehearse and to do a sound check about 2 p.m. I was excited and anxious. Excited to meet my hero but nervous I would be kicked out for not belonging backstage.

The rehearsal hour had come, and there was no sign of Chuck. Another hour passed. The band was on pins and needles. They went onstage for their sound check and ran through a few of Chuck's songs.

Jerry Lee Lewis came in shortly after 7 p.m., but there was still no sign of the Chuck. The backup band seemed to be in a state somewhere between disappointed that he may have canceled and a nervous wreck that if he did show up, there was now no time to rehearse. They played a great set of their own material to kick off the concert.

The guy who I figured out was the promoter was nervous because his star headliner had not shown. There were no cellphones back then to reach anyone who might be away from a landline. I remained optimistic because in my intelligence gathering on Chuck, I had come to find out that he was in the habit of showing up about 10 minutes before his scheduled appearance time. I wasn't nervous about his not showing; I was nervous about what I would say to my idol.

Jerry Lee hit the stage on schedule and was playing a great set. The crowd was going crazy. Little did they know that the headliner wasn't even in the building. The promoter and the backup band knew it all too well.

Just before Jerry Lee finished his set, the backstage door opened, and in walked the King of Rock 'n' Roll. He had nothing with him and he was completely alone. He breezed right past me. I had no chance to say a word to him. He asked one of the stagehands a question, who pointed him down a corridor to a door. Chuck followed the direction and entered the door. He emerged a few minutes later and passed me again, heading back outside via the backstage door.

A moment later, he returned, but this time with his guitar case in hand. I realized I had witnessed Chuck doing something I had read about as being common practice. He showed up and got paid in advance before even thinking about unpacking his guitar. This is the stuff you don't learn in Music Business 101. It comes from the Chuck Berry School of Business.

He walked over toward the stage where the band and I were standing. The bandleader introduced himself with an extended hand saying something to the effect of, "Hi, Mr. Berry, I'm Bruce Springsteen and we are your band this evening. We thought you were going to be here this afternoon for a rehearsal."

Chuck shook everyone's hand and said, "Rehearsal? No," scoffing at the notion. The guy who said his name was Bruce told Chuck that they had run over some of his songs that afternoon and asked if he knew offhand which ones he might play this evening. Chuck was pulling his guitar out of his case and replied, "I think I'll play some Chuck Berry." With that he walked up onstage asked for a note from the piano player and quickly tuned his guitar. Then without warning, he launched into the most famous rock guitar intro in the world. The Bruce guy and his band were right there with him and it was one of the greatest shows I'd ever seen. I was sold on what I was going to do for a career.


By 1981, I had graduated from Howard University with a music degree in jazz. I had also been keeping up a one-way correspondence with Chuck for many years. I got his address and would regularly send him updates on my musical education, how I was learning to play like the great boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Perkins and Chuck's original pianist, Johnnie Johnson. When Chuck played at Baltimore's Pier Six Pavilion that year, I called the show's promoter and successfully convinced him that I knew more about Chuck Berry's music than anyone in the area and he should hire me to put together the backing band.

When the date of the concert arrived we were ready. Chuck showed up, and I asked him if there was anything in particular he wanted me to do on the piano behind his guitar playing. He responded, "You said you played like Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson. Do that." So, he was reading my letters!

Chuck was very happy with my playing that night, so much so that whenever he came through the D.C. area over the next few years I got the call to come play with him. Soon my region expanded and I was Chuck's go-to player up and down the East Coast and sometimes the Midwest. Soon, Chuck was calling me on the phone himself to ask if I could do dates with him. We would often go out to dinner before or after the show. He loved barbecue and Chinese food.

I came to know all of Chuck's quirks. He would almost always rent a car and drive himself from the airport to the gig, hotel or wherever he wanted to go. People would send limos for him and he would refuse them, choosing instead to follow the limo in his rental car.

Among our most memorable gigs together was Bill Clinton's inaugural in 1993. Chuck was one of President Clinton's favorite musicians and Chuck took me along as his musical director. The D.C. Convention Center was packed with celebrities that night, and they all came over to our table to pay their respects to Chuck: Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and many more.

Sometimes, Chuck just liked to talk. We would do this in his hotel room, restaurant table, dressing room or riding in the car. Unlike many musicians who can only converse about music, Chuck could and would speak on a variety of subjects and share stories he lived through. He told me stories of racism that endured throughout his career. He spoke about touring with people such as Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, who would refuse to eat at places that would not serve Berry. In cases where there wasn't a place that would serve him, Buddy and his band members or Carl would go in and bring the food out for Chuck. It was like oral tradition history for me. I will always remember each and every story he told me. This one always makes me smile.

In 1994, Chuck was booked to play Patriot Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits and Lesley Gore were the opening acts. I stopped by Chuck's hotel and took his guitar over the arena to the sound check. During both Peter's and Lesley's sound checks, a gentleman was standing at the downstage right corner doing sign language to the lyrics as each of these two artists ran through some songs.

After I did Chuck's sound check, the signer approached me and told me he was hired to sign for any deaf and hearing-impaired who might be in the audience that evening. He then asked if Chuck would mind him doing that during his performance. I told him I would find out for him when Chuck arrived.

A little while later Chuck and I were walking down the corridor to his dressing room. The signer caught up with us about halfway down the hall and explained to Chuck what his purpose was and asked permission to do his job. Chuck said, "Yeah baby, no problem, do your thing." Then Chuck looked at the guy and said, "You're a signer?" The man acknowledged his vocation, and Chuck began snickering. I didn't see what was so funny and the guy was just scratching his head because he didn't know either. Chuck continued laughing to himself and elbowed me in the ribs pretty hard as if to say, "Don't you get it?"

Well, I didn't get it, and Chuck turned and continued walking to his dressing room. I shrugged my shoulders at the signer to let him know I was as clueless as he was as to what was so amusing for Chuck. "What the hell was so funny?" I asked.

"That guy says he's a signer," answered Chuck. I confirmed to him that the guy was indeed a signer and I had seen him do his signing during Peter and Lesley's sound checks. Chuck said he didn't doubt it. So I asked again what was so funny. Chuck replied, "I was just thinking, 'How's he going to sign to 'My Ding-a-Ling'?' "


In 1976, I was a senior in high school. For the school newspaper's last issue of the year, seniors were asked about their future plans. When asked, I said I was going to play piano for Chuck Berry. The interviewers burst out laughing. When the paper came out, all the seniors were listed alphabetically and next to their names were their future plans. Next to my name it said one word: "Undecided."

Chuck Berry was the reason I became a musician. I met him as a teenager and worked with him on and off for about 32 years. Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson taught me how to play, and Chuck taught me how to make a good living and make a name for myself. I applied it, and now, 37 years after I started playing professionally, I am still making a living as a musician on my own name, thanks to Chuck Berry. He gave me a career and enabled me to make a living. There was no rock 'n' roll before him and now it's forever a part of American culture. I will always keep his music alive and I won't be alone in doing that.


Daryl Davis is a Maryland-based musician who has performed with everyone from Chuck Berry to B.B. King and toured across the world.

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

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair

By kathleen parker
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair

WASHINGTON -- Though Republicans profess to despise Big Government, especially the federal kind, it seems that what they really don’t like is Democracy -- and indeed prefer a monarchy.

(BEG ITAL)Yes, yes(END ITAL), the czarina sighed, signaling her weariness with the palace historian’s inevitable scold. (BEG ITAL)I know America is a Republic and not a pure democracy, but let’s not quibble over distinctions that make no difference. They’ve elected a king whether they realize it or not! (END ITAL)

The czarina has a point, I do. While true that the U.S. Constitution protects minorities from the majority, there’s more than one way to build a kingdom and hustle the little people. To wit, The Don and his Damsel in the pale blue dress.

Or is it distress, actually?

It’s been ages since New York City’s paparazzi have been able to capture the queen -- her lapis-lazuli eyes and arrogant cheekbones but vague recollections from snapshots past. These days, Melania Knauss Trump keeps mostly her own company, touring the cells of her vast, black-tower prison, tending the king’s son and remembering colder days in Slovenia when she knitted her own sweaters.

Who knows what Melania really thinks? Perhaps only her parents, who reportedly spend much of their time between Trump properties in New York and Palm Beach -- her father’s years as a member of the Communist Party all but erased from a resume that features the creating of the First Lady of the United States of America.

Her persistent absence notwithstanding, Melania is nothing if not dutiful -- “obedient” is how her first modeling mentor described her long ago. She does what’s required of her station, as royals tend to do. But clearly this doesn’t include living in the pedestrian little cottage quaintly known to the ever-reverential peasantry as The White House. Her Highness was scheduled to depart her Fifth Avenue fortress for Washington Wednesday to attend the International Women of Courage Awards, about which she may know something. It took courage for a teenaged Melania to leave her home and country for Milan’s runways and then, upon reaching the fairy-tale Land of Opportunity, to surrender her resplendent beauty to the king of gaude-ville, our very own, homegrown American Midas, for whom there can never be too much gold.

Oh, nothing. It’s just that Donald Trump’s selection as voice of the Everyman seems, if one were unkind, deliciously absurd and suggests what we might call the “subservient imperative,” companion, perhaps, to Robert Ardrey’s “territorial imperative.”

In the same way that Ardrey traced the human drive (born of animal instinct) to claim and protect some degree of physical space as his own, then why not, too, the need to follow someone of greater physical status (obviously not hands) but pertaining to wealth, possessions, territories, fecund females and nation-resorts bearing one’s name? To the extent that one creature designated himself a leader, usually by steamrolling all other contenders, why not an equal inclination by others to be dominated?

Monarchical tendencies abound in the person of The Don, and the willing hordes find his splashy displays of ego and overabundance not just tolerable but, apparently, admirable. Desire for drama and pageantry -- the commission paid to peasants for their complicity in the master-servant duet -- is on full display, whether The Don is entertaining world leaders at his Mar-a-Lago palace or working deals over golf at one of his eponymous resorts.

Meanwhile, the king installs his family in the people’s palace, rationing offices for commerce, diplomacy and foreign policy. Blood runs thick in royal clans. Daughter Ivanka, the ravishing offspring of Wife No. 1, is the only one Trump seems to really trust. He keeps her and husband, Jared Kushner (the favored son?), close, while sending the eldest Trump boys away to scout fresh greens to conquer.

Never mind that the little people are paying millions for the protection of all these Trumplings as they cross continents or sidewalks. The king’s Secret Service begged an extra $27 million for next year -- to protect Trump Tower and keep Melania’s tresses from public reach, and another $33 million for various travel expenses for Trump and others.

(BEG ITAL)How dare you criticize the king(END ITAL), shout the minions at the jesters. (BEG ITAL)He’s going to bail us out, get us jobs and cut our taxes!(END ITAL)

Of course, he is. Right after he repeals the Affordable Care Act, builds a wall and bans all those barbarians at the gate. And don’t forget, when the king parades buck naked down Worth Avenue, be sure to note the finery and the richness of his raiment.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump is now the CEO of a very public company

By david ignatius
Trump is now the CEO of a very public company

WASHINGTON -- As the White House reboots for “Trump 2.0” after a largely unsuccessful first two months, one lesson should be obvious: The radical, polarizing politics of the campaign trail don’t work well in governing the country.

America isn’t Russia or the Philippines. Our system has speed bumps, carefully constructed by our Founders. Presidents don’t rule simply by executive order. They must shape policies that are comprehensible to the public and can be enacted into law.

In Trump’s first two months, he too often behaved as an insurgent and disrupter, rather than a chief executive. He paid a severe price, seeing the collapse of his health care legislation and, in a Gallup tracking poll this week, receiving the lowest approval ratings for any modern president so early in his term.

There are some signs that Trump’s inner circle gets it. On foreign policy, plans are being assembled carefully as part of a broad national-security strategy. Before making big announcements on North Korea, China, Russia and the Middle East, officials want to see how the pieces fit. Trade policy, now under the supervision of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, looks less crazily destructive than it initially did. Similar coordination is badly needed on tax policy.

The biggest danger to Trump 2.0 is the president’s own impulsive, embattled style -- which shows most clearly in his handling of the FBI and congressional investigations of Russia’s covert action to influence the U.S. election. The best course for Trump (and our system) is for the White House to cooperate with the inquiry, let it run its course -- and meanwhile, concentrate on doing the public’s business.

Weirdly, Trump continues to do the opposite. He’s still arguing the discredited, bogus issue of Barack Obama’s supposed wiretaps on Trump Tower. And he’s coyly dealing with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to foster this distraction.

The Trump-Nunes allegation seems to have morphed into a contention that Trump associates were picked up incidentally in lawful foreign-intelligence intercepts of others, but that their names weren’t properly masked (or “minimized,” in the jargon) in subsequent intelligence reports that were then disseminated and leaked.

This may satisfy Trump’s desire for a counterpunch. But does any reasonable person really believe that this technical legal issue is more important than whether Trump associates cooperated in a Russian covert action against the U.S., which is what FBI Director James Comey has said the bureau is investigating?

A better approach for dealing with the inquiry was shown this week by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and perhaps now his most important adviser. Kushner’s Russia problem was that he met after the election not just with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak but with a Russian banker named Sergey Gorkov, who was prepared to act as an intermediary to President Vladimir Putin. Did Kushner blame leaks, or Nazi-like behavior in the intelligence agencies? No, he agreed to testify to Senate investigators about the meetings.

The message is that Kushner thinks he did nothing wrong and has nothing to hide. One assumes he will tell the Senate that he wanted to explore opening a discreet channel to Putin, similar to those he established with numerous other global leaders during the transition. But after the nomination of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a genuine friend of Putin, Kushner apparently concluded Trump didn’t need any such back channel. We’ll see if that’s the whole story, but cooperating with the Senate investigation is the right start.

Kushner is apprenticing for the role of Trump’s Henry Kissinger. He’s the secret emissary, the evaluator of talent, the whisperer of confidential advice. He’s the only person in this White House Trump can’t fire, really. All these qualities strike me as beneficial, so long as Kushner uses them to make Trump a better president who learns how to compromise and govern.

Trump’s problem is that he’s used to operating a family business, where people like his daughter and son-in-law and a few hired guns are the only operatives he needs and trusts. He doesn’t seem to understand that he runs a public company now. His stockholders are the American people. He has disclosure requirements. He has fiduciary responsibilities.

If this were a business-school case study, a smart Wharton student would say that the chief executive needs a strong board of directors that can use his best talents but keep him from damaging the enterprise or the public that owns it.

Running a public company in this prudent way is not a choice for the CEO, it’s an obligation. Any machinations to avoid possible legal problems are cause for dismissal. Sorry, but that’s the deal.

David Ignatius’ email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

A Latina congressional candidate whose passion for her community comes through loud and clear

By ruben navarrette jr.
A Latina congressional candidate whose passion for her community comes through loud and clear

SAN DIEGO -- A friend from college once sent me a letter that broke my heart. She and I were part of a posse of Ivy League Latinos who -- while visiting one another at Harvard, Yale, Columbia -- would huddle over Long Island iced teas and lay out our blueprints to change the world.

“I still believe the world needs to change,” she wrote. “I just no longer think I’m the one who’s going to change it.”

Some people might call it that moment when we all grow up, when idealism gives way to realism. Others will label it that dark moment when we give up on our dreams, when our sense of possibility reaches its limit.

Thankfully, one of our mutual friends -- another Ivy League Latina -- hasn’t reached her limit. She’s still trying to change the world.

The Democrat is running for Congress in a special election to represent California’s 34th district, which includes Los Angeles. And she’s doing a good job.

I’m not surprised. Those of us who have known Maria Cabildo since she was at Columbia could have told you that the 49-year-old single mom, who has two teenagers at home, doesn’t do anything in half-measures.

And in a crowded field of nearly two dozen candidates vying to replace Rep. Xavier Becerra, who was recently appointed California’s attorney general, political observers put Cabildo in the top tier.

The election is April 4. If no candidate gets enough votes to win, there will be a runoff in June.

I recently caught up with my old friend as she hustled between campaign events, where she has built a reputation for being accessible to voters.

Determined to not allow a paralyzed vocal cord prevent her from speaking out for those who feel as if they have no voice in politics, she talks in a forceful whisper. Like Franklin Roosevelt’s polio or John Kennedy’s Addison’s disease, the disability serves as a reminder that Cabildo knows what it’s like to have to overcome obstacles. On the stump, she relies on a portable sound amplifier that she has nicknamed “La Poderosa” (The Powerful One).

“As a natural outsider, I’m not beholden to anyone,” she said. “The only thing I’m beholden to is my community, and that’s all that matters.”

Ah yes, the community. She’s talking about the Boyle Heights neighborhood in East Los Angeles with which she’s had a lifelong love affair. After Columbia, she could have lived comfortably on the East Coast. But Cabildo came home, and immediately set out to improve the lives of others.

I asked her that one question to which every candidate for elective office should have a response, the simple query that Hillary Clinton was never able to answer: Why are you running? Cabildo’s answer: There is still work to be done, and a call to serve.

Cabildo was an advocate for affordable housing before most Californians realized there was a crisis. She was a community organizer before that phrase became a national punch line.

At 29, she founded the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, a nonprofit community-development organization.

Cabildo’s skills, effectiveness and hard work have not gone unnoticed. She recently beat out the establishment’s preferred candidate to snag a coveted endorsement from the Los Angeles Times. Noting her “irrefutable” commitment to the residents of the district and her ability to “bridge the gap between the old guard and new idealists,” the paper’s editorial credited Cabildo with knowing how to operate “both inside and outside government.”

She describes herself with more precision.

“I’m a builder, a leader and a fighter,” Cabildo said. “I’ve built housing. I take risks, even if it makes people uncomfortable. I don’t just simply go along with the crowd. And I’ve been fighting for the community for years.”

At her speeches, she hands out blank index cards where she asks people to scribble down their marching orders. While some of her opponents lecture residents about what they need, she asks two questions: “What do you want me to build for you?” and “What kind of movement do you want me to lead?”

Don’t be fooled by the soft voice. When it comes to fighting for what she believes in, and taking care of the community she adores, Maria Cabildo’s passion comes through loud and clear.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

Yes, pro athletes often make poor money decisions early in their careers. But didn’t you, too?

By michelle singletary
Yes, pro athletes often make poor money decisions early in their careers. But didn’t you, too?

WASHINGTON -- As I watch the young men hustle on the basketball court during March Madness, and make what seem like impossible three-point shots, part of me is thinking, “Ka-ching!”

And just as quickly, I wonder how many of those young men, a few of whom eventually make it to the NBA, will leave the league broke after having earned millions.

In 2009, Sports Illustrated examined the finances of former NFL and NBA players in a report that still stands as one of the most in-depth looks at athletes and their money.

The magazine found that, after just two years of retirement, 78 percent of former NFL players were stressed financially or had gone bankrupt. Sixty percent of former NBA players were broke within five years.

I ran an online search for stories about athletes and their finances, and here are some of the headlines that came up:

-- “Pro Athletes and Their Bad Money Habits”

-- “10 Pro Athletes Who’ve Hit Financial Rock Bottom”

-- “How Pro Athletes Lose Everything”

Then there’s ESPN’s documentary “Broke,” which is often cited as evidence that athletes are financially reckless.

“Sucked into bad investments, stalked by freeloaders, saddled with medical problems, and naturally prone to showing off, many pro athletes get shocked by harsh economic realities after years of living the high life,” the film’s summary read upon its release. “Director Billy Corben paints a complex picture of the many forces that drain athletes’ bank accounts, placing some of the blame on the culture at large while still holding these giants accountable for their own hubris.”

We think we know the story. A pro athlete makes a lot of money. He spends wildly on cars, homes, booze, vacations, watches, women, family and his entourage. We shake our heads at the conspicuous consumption and bad business deals. We judge the athletes harshly for their haughty lifestyle.

You may think, “If I had that kind of money ... “

But here’s where the judgment lacks context.

If you came into the millions like some pro athletes do in their late teens or early 20s, would you really do things differently than you did -- or are currently doing -- with your thousands?

Probably not, insists Maverick Carter, childhood friend and now business partner of basketball superstar LeBron James. In 2015, the two launched Uninterrupted, a digital multimedia network focusing on sports. Its new interview series “Kneading Dough,” in partnership with JPMorgan Chase, aims to change the dialogue around the money misadventures of athletes.

The debut episode, which you can view at, features Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green. Carter hosts.

A second-round draft pick, Green says he made $850,000 in his first year in the NBA. He didn’t hire a financial manager, as many players do. Instead, he wanted to learn how to manage money on his own. Although he concedes that he earns more than the average American household, he has dreams of becoming mega-wealthy.

“Every day, every decision I make, [I ask:] How is this helping me to be a billionaire?” Green says.

When Carter asks him about a purchase or decision he made that he later realized was stupid, Green doesn’t have to think long.

“A $21,000 night at the [night] club,” he says. “I had a blast for sure, but I could have had a blast for $4,000.” (I wanted to shout as I was watching the episode: “Or $40!”)

And what did he learn?

Green tells Carter he was “hot” because, even considering the millions he makes now, it was wasteful.

“That is $21,000 I can never get back.”

Most of the athletes we are judging make the vast majority of their income in their early 20s, Carter points out when I interview him. They are just out of high school or college and have had little to no time to develop good money-management skills.

“Any normal person, no matter how many the zeroes, will establish a certain lifestyle,” Carter said.

For its part in the venture, Chase says it sees highlighting athletes and their money-management successes and struggles as a different way to reach people and encourage them to save and invest.

“Financial fitness and literacy can feel so condescending,” said Kristin Lemkau, chief marketing officer for Chase. “We wanted to do something that was more than a bank wagging their finger at people telling them to save.”

I look forward to peeking into the financial lives of the next athletes profiled because, as Carter and Chase envision the series, it will show what my grandmother always told me: It’s not how much money you make that matters. It’s how you make do with what you have.

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

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

How Trump can get his groove back

By michael gerson
How Trump can get his groove back

WASHINGTON -- The central promise of the Trump administration -- the repeal and replacement of Obamacare -- has failed. The central premise of the Trump administration -- that Donald Trump is a brilliant negotiator -- has been discredited. In the process of losing a legislative battle, Trump has lost the theory of his presidency.

It was a profoundly personal rejection. Trump’s ignorance of policy details alienated legislators. His ill-timed threats backfired. His bonhomie fell flat.

The lessons, however, run deeper. Like other politicians before him, Trump ran for office arguing, in essence: Just give my party control of the elected branches of the federal government and massive change will quickly follow. Many Americans believed in this promise of winner-take-all government.

The American system of government -- with its constipated Senate rules and its complicated House coalitions -- is designed to frustrate such plans. But the closeness of recent national elections has encouraged partisan dreams of political dominance. Republicans had control of the House, Senate and presidency in the 108th Congress. Democrats had the same in the 111th Congress. Now Republicans have it all in the 115th Congress.

Total control is intoxicating. The winners feel like they have a mandate, even a mission. But the losers know, if they maintain partisan discipline and prevent achievements of the other side, they have a realistic chance of winning it all back. This leads to a cycle of hubris and obstructionism.

How can this cycle be broken? There is only one way. Someone must do genuine outreach, involving the credible promise of compromise, (BEG ITAL)from a position of strength(END ITAL). It is the winners who must act first, taking the risk of offering a hand that may be slapped away. Then it is the political losers who have the responsibility to reward good faith.

Obamacare -- passed in a partisan quick march and viewed by some Republicans as the focus of evil in the modern world -- may not be the most promising ground for agreement. The same may be true for tax reform, which involves a thousand well-funded special interests. But genuine negotiation might be possible on an infrastructure bill. The same might be true on legislation designed to increase the skills -- and deal with the dislocation -- of 38 percent of American workers whose jobs are threatened by automation. And at least one culture-war issue belongs on the list: religious liberty.

Many religious conservatives imagined they would, at this point, be in a defensive crouch. The Obama administration had required the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide insurance coverage for sterilizations and the emergency contraceptive Plan B. Religious conservatives expected the Hillary Clinton administration to require the distribution of condoms at Mass (I exaggerate, but only a little).

Instead, unexpectedly, religious conservatives find themselves in a position of relative strength, as one of the main contributors to Trump’s victory. It is possible they will squander their standing on repeal of the Johnson Amendment that restricts political endorsements from the pulpit -- a change that few have demanded and none really need. Instead, they could use their influence to encourage genuine pluralism, with benefits that are shared and nonsectarian.

What would the elements of a legislative compromise look like? It would need to allow institutions motivated by a religious mission -- including religious schools and charities -- to maintain their identity. Religious liberty involves, not just the freedom of individual belief but the freedom to create institutions that reflect a shared belief.

But any realistic agreement would also need to include broad anti-discrimination protections in employment and services -- including for gay people -- outside of the strong carve-out for religious nonprofits. Religious conservatives would need to accept sexual orientation as a protected group in economic interactions.

This is consistent with what Jonathan Rauch calls “the obvious compromise: protections for gay people plus exemptions for religious objectors.” In practice, this would allow religious people to organize colleges, hospitals and charities according to their beliefs. But the cake baker would need to bake for everyone. The florist would need to sell to everyone.

The strongest advocates on both sides of this issue will find any compromise abhorrent. But it could be powerful for religious conservatives to attempt outreach from a position of political strength, And Donald Trump, oddly, may be the leader to get this kind of deal. He broke ground among Republicans in recognizing LGBT rights in his convention speech. But he is also close to religious conservative leaders.

And just about now, Trump needs a way to reconstitute the meaning of his presidency.

Michael Gerson’s email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

We have a president without a plan

By dana milbank
We have a president without a plan

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions showed up unannounced in the White House briefing room to attempt something President Trump very much needed after Friday’s health care debacle: a change of subject.

Sessions, accompanied by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, revived one of the reliable applause lines from the campaign, a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” harboring illegal immigrants. “DUIs, assaults, burglaries, drug crimes, gang rapes, crimes against children and murders,” the attorney general recited. “Countless Americans would be alive today and countless loved ones would not be grieving today if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended.”

But for all the sturm und drang, Sessions didn’t have much to announce.

“Sounds like you’re applying the standards and the policy that the Obama administration put forward,” CBS News’ Major Garrett observed when Sessions finished his statement. “Are you taking any additional steps?”

“Well, that’s a good question,” Sessions replied. And the answer, apparently, is “no.” Sessions said there could be additional requirements “in the future” beyond those the Obama administration had. But not just yet.

Such policy anticlimaxes are becoming routine in Trump world. Tough rhetoric, big promises -- and no substance. Trump looks more and more like a man without a plan.

He promised he would have a health care plan that would be cheaper and better than Obamacare and would cover just as many. But when it came time to deliver, he had nothing. He left the policy to House Speaker Paul Ryan, and the resulting proposal would have meant 24 million fewer people with health coverage. The bill collapsed in spectacular fashion under opposition from Democrats, moderate Republicans and conservatives -- and Trump is blaming everybody but himself.

During the campaign, he said he had a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State. Now, it turns out, he has no plan. He has asked the Pentagon to create one. “We will figure something out,” he said last week.

Vowing to keep Americans safe at home, he originally promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” before tempering that campaign promise to the restricting of travelers from certain countries. But since administration lawyers tried to put that vague notion into an actual policy, his attempts at imposing a “travel ban” have been repeatedly shot down in court.

Next up after the health care failure is Trump’s promise to enact “historic” tax reform. But now that it’s time to present a policy, the promise looks more histrionic than historic. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he wants to have legislation in August, but Spicer on Monday was backpedaling.

“I know that Secretary Mnuchin has talked about August as a target date, and I think it depends,” Spicer said in response to a question from Alexis Simendinger from RealClearPolitics. He added that “this is going to be dependent on whether, how, the degree to which we can come to consensus on a lot of big issues.” And he concluded, “So, you know, we’re not -- we’re not there yet.”

During the campaign, Trump boldly vowed that he would eliminate the U.S. debt, now about $20 trillion, during his term. He then said he would cut the debt in half. But when CNBC’s Eamon Javers asked whether Trump would allow tax reform to add to the deficit (and therefore the debt), Spicer said it was “really early” to be raising such questions. “You’re asking really early in the process to make that kind of analysis before we have a policy set forth,” he protested.

How presumptuous to expect Trump, after campaigning on historic tax reform, actually to have a proposal!

The emerging evidence that Trump doesn’t have a plan for much of anything isn’t entirely bad. No plan is better than a bad plan. In theory, at least, this means Trump could change course.

And Spicer, expanding on remarks Trump made after the health care bill collapsed Friday, said the president was ready to work with Democrats. “There may be other opportunities to work with people across the aisle,” he said, later adding that “if Democrats want to join in, then that’s great and we’ll do that.”

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl noted that such behavior would “require a serious change of course for the president.”

“To some degree, sure,” Spicer readily replied.

But Trump has never demonstrated an ability to change, and even if he could, some of his top advisers would resist him, many Republicans in Congress would revolt, and Trump’s supporters would be furious.

Having actual policies may just not be part of this president’s plan.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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