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On the Vatican’s influence in American politics: the Murdoch connection



In no other major U.S. newspaper but Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal will you find, right there on the editorial page, a column that could have been written for L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of Vatican City and thus of the Roman Catholic Church.

A recent example was last Friday’s “review” of the new movie, Ben Hur. It was written by Charlotte Allen, a Christian writer for the conservative Weekly Standard (whose writers include such unrepentant neocons as Iraq War proponents Elliott Abrams and John Bolton). Allen’s other writings have included attacks on breastfeeding, transgendered people and (shocking, shocking) Hillary Clinton, whom Allen compares to Roswell UFO enthusiasts. (How’s that again?) Allen also is obsessed with quashing tales that Jesus had a wife, a theory that actually is enjoying a certain popularity lately (but why does Allen find it so upsetting?). Allen, in other words, earns her living as a Christian apologist, which makes her the perfect Murdoch doppelganger.

Almost all critics have savaged this latest Ben-Hur flick, but Allen’s contempt for it rests, not on any lack of cinematic virtue—she does not claim to be, and patently is not, a real film critic–but because it is not Christian enough to suit her tastes. The film’s producers, who also created The History Channel’s award-winning series “The Bible,” don’t hammer home any specifically theological aspects of Jesus’s ministry, preferring instead to focus on the literary-historical epic that Ben-Hur’s original author, Lew Wallace, told in his 1880 novel. In fact, in that book, Wallace preferred to dwell on the relationship between Ben-Hur and Jesus; there is very little religion per se. Ben-Hur is an adventure story of a transformative friendship between two men.

That’s not good enough for Allen, though, who wishes the movie were more theological. Well, that’s her right; let’s move along. Why is an overtly Christian column—and a conservative one, at that (there are, after all, other strains of Christianity than rightwing)—given prominence on the editorial page of the supposedly non-sectarian WSJ?

Because the Wall Street Journal is not non-sectarian.

At a normal newspaper, like the New York Times, or any other professionally objective paper, the editors would tread exceedingly lightly in habitually espousing one particular religion on the editorial page. But if you’re the Wall Street Journal, your first and foremost duty is to be the standard-bearer for your owner’s religion. And, while Rupert Murdoch has been cagey about revealing the specifics of his religious beliefs, There is no denying the identification of Murdoch’s media empire,” according to this Adventist blog, “with the rightwing political agenda of the Roman Catholic Church in America.”

America’s Founding Fathers were concerned with Vatican interference in our internal affairs.* To Enlightenment men and women, the Church had hoisted itself on its own petard, through such peculiarities as its murderous anti-semitism, the Inquisition, and the idiocy of condemning Galileo—for which the Church did not apologize for more than 350 years.

Such irrational intransigence would be no more than tiresome, if confined within its own house. But the Church never has been content to remain a stay-at-home religion. And when unreason spills over into the Body Politic, we have reason to be concerned. You need look no further than the U.S. Supreme Court, where—until Antonin Scalia’s death—six of the nine Justices were Murdoch’s fellow co-religionists: the Catholics John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and, until his demise last February, Scalia.

Kennedy is a swing vote; his reading of the law occasionally outweighs his faith. Sotomayor often votes against the wishes of her Church, being of the noble opinion that religion ought not interfere with an objective interpretation of American law. The others, alas, seldom or never contravened Catholic doctrine. In fact, some of them—Scalia in particular—were so hostile to homosexual rights, despite the obvious march of History in that direction, that they openly incorporated the Church’s labeling of homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered” into their written opinions, as witness, for example, Scalia’s description of homosexuality as “immoral and destructive” and, just to make sure nobody misunderstood, as when he compared same-sex love to “murder, polygamy and cruelty to animals.” (Perhaps some future Pope in the year 2400 will apologize to gay people for persecuting them.)

Can there be any doubt that the Wall Street Journal is the voice of official Catholic doctrine? Rupert Murdoch himself might even admit that it is; he might, however, justify it by claiming that Catholicism is the true religion, and that besides, he, as publisher, owes it to his savior to spread the word and be “a light for the Gentiles…to the end of the Earth.”

So let’s call a spade a spade. The Wall Street Journal is not a real newspaper; it is a voice of the Roman Catholic church, at least on its editorial pages. One might say the same thing about Murdoch’s Fox News television show, whose chief agitators—Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Bo Dietl, Neil Cavuto—all are Catholic, and espouse a virulent form of Catholic reactionary conservatism.

How Murdoch gets away without criticism for being the Vatican’s mouthpiece is a puzzlement. Can you imagine a Muslim-owned newspaper or T.V. news channel in America that routinely reflected the Wahhabist Islam of Sunni mullahs? Fox News and the Wall Street Journal would demand that it be investigated and shut down. What’s the difference here, friends? Let’s just agree to get religion out of journalism—and out of politics, too. If that means sidelining certain American mullahs and their followers, so be it.

And in case you’re wondering why this matters, here’s Thomas Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. … Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.

* The Vatican continues to try and influence U.S. politics. They, along with the Mormon Church, were one of the prime backers of California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, which eventually was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court due to a rare moment of lucidity from Justice Roberts. Meanwhile, Pope Francis, ironically, has turned out to be less homophobic than many of his American flock.

In Defense of Hillary: Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and those emails



A reader comments: If you want to have an impact on this election I suggest you work on a rigorous defense and explanation of Hillary’s shortcomings and mistakes rather than focusing on what should be painfully obvious about Trump being the most worthless candidate possibly ever.”

Fair enough. Let’s go.

Trump’s flip-flop on immigration is the talk of the town, but really, when you think about it, he’s back-pedaled on every issue that has driven his campaign. The only promise he made that he hasn’t retracted, or “softened” to use his own parlance, is “The Wall.” He still swears he’ll build it. But we haven’t heard much rhetoric lately about making Mexico pay for it—Pena Nieto has flat-out stated there’s “no way” that will happen—and I will make this prediction, right here and now: before Election Day, Trump will “soften” his position on “The Wall.” Maybe we’ll get a little fence.

There’s one other issue Trump hasn’t back-pedaled on, although it’s not so much an “issue” as a mood, an attack, a slur: the “Crooked Hillary” thing. Allegations of HRC’s untrustworthiness predate Trump’s candidacy: the Republican smear machine has been busy working on Hillary for decades, as I pointed out last Monday.

All that Trump has done has been to double-down on the charges, and make them more insulting. Regarding the untrustworthiness, let’s put aside the emails, Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation for the moment, for the untrustworthy image was used against her before those issues arose. Where does it come from? I would wage not a single Hillary hater can actually point to anything specific, beyond a “mood” they’re pinning on her. The “scandals” of the Clinton presidency—every one of them manufactured by the right–are long gone. No charge or allegation against Hillary has ever stuck; every investigation, whether juridical or legislative or journalistic, has ended up dry. All that remains behind is the taint of something unsavory. But this smell was first cooked up by the Republican attack machine, then spread endlessly by Fox “News” and trash-talk rightwing radio. Little wonder some credulous voters think, “Well, if so many people say she’s crooked, she must be. After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Well, no, that’s not true. Where there’s smoke, there’s a Republican smoke machine.

Benghazi. Every official body that’s looked into it has concluded the Secretary did nothing wrong. Obviously, Americans died that day. Americans stationed overseas die from terrorist attacks during every presidency, but only during Barack Obama’s has one of the major political parties so politicized a terrible event for such malign purposes. When 241 American servicemen were killed in the Beirut bombing of 1983, nobody blamed President Reagan. Democrats stood loyally by his side. When nearly 3,000 people were killed during the Sept. 11 attacks, nobody blamed President George W. Bush. Democrats once again stood loyally by his side. What was different about Benghazi? Nothing. Horrible things happen, and the best a government can do is to learn from them and try to do better in the future.

It used to be said that “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” It still does with Democrats, but Republicans have abandoned every pretense at patriotism with these ramped-up, baseless charges. You would think that every sensible American understands this, but then, Republicans abandoned common sense when they declared war on the Clintons (and the Obamas). Tragic as it was, Benghazi cannot be blamed on Hillary Clinton. We’re at war, folks, and unless you close all the embassies, their personnel are going to remain at some risk, especially in dangerous zones like North Africa. When–not “if”–that happens next, Democrats will rally behind whoever is President.

Then there are the emails. Hillary chose, for reasons of convenience, to have two email accounts, her own personal one and a State Department one, and she sometimes overlapped them, mixing business with personal communications. I’ve done the same thing: I have always had a personal account and a business one, and I bet a lot of you do, too. What’s wrong with that? Republicans say, “It showed bad judgment.” Really? Worse judgment than G.W. Bush and Dick Cheney launching the Iraq War? Worse judgment than Trump calling Mexicans rapists and criminals? Worse judgment than McCain’s choosing the imbecilic Sarah Palin? Worse judgment than W. Bush letting banks run amok with indefensible home loans? Worse judgment than Trump embracing white supremacy? Worse judgment than a Republican Party utterly unable to stand up to the National Rifle Association’s bullying? Come on.

Did Hillary inadvertently include classified information in her personal emails? Perhaps—at least, to some extent; there are different levels of “classified.” But not even the FBI could find any reason to criminally pursue her. Comey had to finger-wag her (for political reasons), but trust me, if he could have, he would have brought charges. He couldn’t—because the evidence just wasn’t there; and, Republicans notwithstanding, America remains at the moment a nation of laws. And yet, Republicans will not let go. They will ride this limping, panting horse until it collapses from underneath them. But the damage is done: some percentage of Americans have had their brains hacked by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and so will go to their graves insisting “Hillary gave national security secrets to the [fill-in-the-blank: Russians, commies, terrorists, Lesbians, Martians, ISIS]. She cannot be trusted.” Well, last word on the emails: She won’t do it again, and neither will any future Secretary of State, or Cabinet member for that matter, not in this day and age; for we have a brand new rule, the “Hillary Rule”: no secondary email accounts! By the way, Colin Powell, a Republican Secretary of State, also “used a personal email account.” But Democrats didn’t go after Powell because nobody cared, and nobody should care about Hillary’s emails, either.

And now we come to the Clinton Foundation. As I blogged the other day, the Foundation is the singularly most effective social- and environmental-activist group in the world.” How did it get there? By knowing and befriending the world’s most powerful people. Clinton’s modus was obvious from the beginning: as the most popular human being on Earth after he left the Presidency (some called him “President of the World”), Bill Clinton took advantage of those relationships to essentially wangle money from rich people, countries and institutions, in order to pay for medicine, research and relief efforts around the globe. Does anyone have a problem with that? Clinton tapped his daughter to help him. Got a problem with Chelsea? And Hillary helped. Did she use her position as Secretary of State in order to gain leverage with these wealthy donors? Probably she did. Did Hillary charm some Saudi prince or Russian oligarch at her and Bill’s Whitehaven Street home in D.C. to get them to pony up a quarter-million to help teach modern farming to poor people in Rwanda and Tanzania? Probably yes. Got a problem with that? Why? Did that Saudi prince or Russian oligarch benefit from their relationship with Hillary and Bill? Prove it, my friend. If you can’t, then shut up.

(By the way, who the hell has Trump ever helped in his entire life? Since he won’t release his tax returns, we don’t know if he even gives 2 cents to charity. He’s a greedy old geezer who lives in mansions and skips out on his bills to the struggling vendors he hires.)

Speaking of benefit, what would have been Hillary’s motive in coaxing money from rich people for the Clinton Foundation, beyond the philanthropic element? Cui bono, the lawyers ask: Who benefits? The people of the world whom the Clinton Foundation helped. That’s who benefited. Got a problem with that?

But wait, Republicans say: Bill and Hillary benefited too. They are now very wealthy people. Well, yes, but how did they make their money? Not through the Clinton Foundation. Nobody is alleging the Saudis or anyone else paid the Clintons money. (Well, nobody except the likes of Breitbart, and they make this crap up.) Bill and Hillary made their money the same way Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush made their money when they left the White House: through writing books and giving speeches. If you want to pass a law or Constitutional amendment forbidding former Presidents (or First ladies, or Cabinet officers) from writing memoirs or giving speeches, feel free. But don’t hold it against Hillary (or Bill) that they did something that was (a) perfectly legal, (b) guided by precedent and (c) that you, yourself, no doubt would do, if you could. As a matter of fact, Forbes Magazine (hardly a defender of the Left) did a little digging on politicians giving paid speeches, and guess what? “An examination of the highest speaking fees ever paid puts Donald Trump on top with the staggering $1.5 million the Learning Annex paid him for each speech he delivered at the company’s real estate ‘wealth expos’ in 2006 and 2007.” How about that, Trumpsters? Are you up in arms about Donald’s conflicts of interest?

(And by the way, here are some of The Learning Annex’s major publications: “Intro to Pole Dancing,” “Make Contact with Lost Loved Ones” and “How to Marry the Rich.” There is no evidence—yet—that Melania read the latter book before she snared her current husband.)

Does some of what Hillary did look questionable? Sure. The Goldman Sachs lecture is wince-worthy. But, hey, Ronald Reagan made a ton of money as General Electric’s paid speaker and nobody held that against him when he was President and his administration was awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to G.E. As for former President George W. Bush (whose name no Republican dares mention), his standard speaking fee is in the low six figures, and to date he’s earned at least $15 million from speaking. So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so to speak.

Look, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of unsavory, quid-pro-quo things happening behind closed doors. We’ve seen enough movies and read enough political thrillers to be conditioned for that, and the Republican machine takes every opportunity to amplify it. They did it again in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, where their nastiest columnist, Kimberley Strassel, officially dubbed Hillary’s State Department “the U.S. Department of Clinton” and accused Hillary of running “a secret, ongoing” cabal she sought to hide from the public and Congress. This is bullshit red-meat rhetoric for the haters, but once again, Strassel can prove nothing, despite weeks and months of ongoing investigations that have resulted in squat. In a country, America, where we cherish a system of jurisprudence based on fairness, evidence and the law, we have a Republican Party that has abandoned fairness, evidence and the law, in order to pursue an agenda of vigilante vengeance: an immature agenda, like a little child who can’t eat all the candy she wants and will stamp her feet and scream until Mommy relents. This is why Trump is dropping in the polls: Clinton is up in every recent one, because the mendacity of Trump and the Republican attack machine is turning people off. The more that Republicans rant on about Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s email server, the more swing voters are starting to wonder: Hey, why aren’t they talking about my issues? Here’s the answer: Because they can’t. They have nothing to say.

So, dear reader, this is my “rigorous defense” of Hillary. I hope it’s good enough for you. If not, you’re unpersuadable.

As the Republican Party breaks up, what does it mean for America?



In no other space in America is the schizophrenia at the heart of the Republican Party on more garish display than in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. In that jarring asylum, columnists have been utterly flummoxed by the Trump phenomenon. It quickly became clear that Rupert Murdoch was not a Trump man, and so, one by one, the writers—Rove, Noonan, Henninger, Strassel, McGurn—fell into line. These were second-rate hangers-on who had made their reputations trashing Democrats and drooling lasciviously around the ankles of Murdoch pets like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But when Trump threw Murdoch off his game, his writers also lost their balance. You could feel it throughout the past year, especially in Rove’s column, the most nakedly manipulative of them all. He loathes Trump, no doubt because the Orange-Haired One has no use at all for the political organization Rove runs. In fact, Trump took that organization and pummeled it to shreds. Ole Karl is pissed.

Still, Rupert and his team now have their Republican Party nominee. It’s a thing of beauty to watch them “gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Like a snake caught in a snake stick, their contortions to escape confinement are pitiful. Twist though they might they can’t quite find themselves able to thoroughly dump Trump or to thoroughly embrace him. The tone of the WSJ editorial pages in fact is an exact reflection of whatever is happening in the news, and especially the polls. When Trump looks headed to certain defeat, the team turns sullen and smug. “We warned you this would happen” is the subtext. Then a poll comes out showing Trump making up lost ground in North Carolina or Arizona, or with blacks, or having gone 48 hours without a howler, and suddenly Rupert’s monkeys can be seen scrambling back to their position of “Maybe he’s not so bad after all” and “Anyone but Hillary!”

However, not every day offers so clear perspective on what’s happening, and newspapers, after all, do have to publish every day. What’s a columnist to do when the horizon is murky? Bash the Clintons! That’s the route Rove took yesterday, with his demand to “Shut Down the Clinton Foundation Already.” Karl Rove knows as well as anyone that the Clinton Foundation has been a tremendous force for good. From climate change to Haiti relief, from tackling HIV/AIDS to combating deforestation in Asia, the Foundation is the singularly most effective social- and environmental-activist group in the world, a fact even Donald Trump—who has repeatedly called for a special investigation into the Foundation–himself recognized when he donated heavily—as much as $250,000—to it when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State (a fact that prompted one tweeter to wonder if Trump is not “calling for an investigation of himself”).

But then, the slur of Hillary Clinton’s “trustworthiness” has largely propagated in Karl Rove’s wheelhouse. It’s from P.R. chop shops like Kellyanne Conway’s that focus group-driven issues like that are edited; they then are adopted by propagandists like Rove to do the actual scribing (Goebbels operated much the same way), and then it’s a forward lateral to publishers like Murdoch, who supply them with page (or screen) space. Thus the modern version of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex: the rightwing alliance of a Ministry of Truth and a gigantic media chain, joined together in unholy matrimony for unholy purposes.

But it wouldn’t be enough simply to hurl smears at Hillary Clinton. These must be conjoined with pocket book issues, because after all, it’s the economy, stupid. So, also in yesterday’s WSJ is yet another accusation that “the fastest way to kill [economic] growth” will be to elect Hillary Clinton. Never mind that under her husband the U.S. enjoyed its longest surge of job (and stock market) growth ever, or that Barack Obama, against unbelievable odds (including an obstructionist Senate and a super-hostile House), not only successfully overcame the Bush-caused Great Recession, but has himself now presided over a long period of growth. By contrast, the last two Republican presidents, Bush pere and fils, both had failed or flat economies. Where these Republicans get the cojones to claim that Democrats are bad for business is a head-scratcher. But then, for the final exercise in pointless stupidity in yesterday’s WSJ, you need only glance at the lead editorial, which unwittingly again displays the GOP’s schizophrenia. On the one hand it fundamentally blames Hillary Clinton for the high price of EPiPen (the anti-allergic reaction drug whose price hike has caused national revulsion). On the other hand it castigates her for having the nerve to propose “price controls” on Big Pharma. Go figure.

This huge and growing chasm within the ranks of the Republican Party prompted me to bring down from my bookself “The Republican Party: 1854-1964,” an old book about the GOP’s founding and subsequent evolution. The Party itself came into being in 1854-1855 during a period of unprecedented political chaos in America, when numerous parties—Democrats, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, Whigs and countless smaller local groupings—were grappling to fill the void in governance created as issues concerning slavery and immigration were coming to the fore. Except for the Democrats, the other parties all were swept away into the dustbin of history, as the new Republican Party arose. Is the same thing happening today? The Democratic Party, for all its own stresses, remains strong; the Republican Party as we have known it—the party of Reagan, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, McCain, the Bushes—seems to be in a slo-mo process of disintegration. I myself wouldn’t mind seeing it disappear forever, but the forces of darkness with which it has long dabbled, and into which it now has descended, remain; promising (or threatening) an extended period of chaos much as America saw in 1855, when both sides were lining up for a fight. And we all know what happened five years later.

Something, in short, has to give. It will be either America itself, or the Republican Party. My prediction is that it will be the GOP that eventually comes to its senses and expels the extremists, both evangelicals and a nativist, increasingly violent alt-right. Both sides have done, and are doing, so much damage, not only to the Republican Party, but to America. Let these two cults go their merry way, perhaps forming a pansexual folie a deux on the right, or more likely retreating to their respective fringes, where they can fulminate all they want without disturbing domestic tranquility. What happens when the Republican Party expectorates its extremes? It becomes a normal party again. That is what I hope for. You should, too.

Two words for angry Trump voters: You’re wrong



This “anger” issue said to be driving the election fascinates me. People are said to be so angry that they’ll vote for the one person who seems angrier than they are: Trump.

I grant that Americans are angry. But over what? For sure, a lot of middle class voters lost their jobs and thus their fragile clutch at a decent lifestyle over the past eight or ten years. Why? The main reason usually given is “bad trade agreements” that have sent U.S. jobs overseas. Trump is making a big deal about this, with promises to get us out of these agreements and bring the jobs back to the rust belt.

Let’s get one thing straight. Obama is right when he points out that the world economy is now inter-connected. Stuff is made wherever labor is cheapest, and no U.S. President can alter that fact. Trump can promise anything he wants, but he’d have to lower wages on the manufacture of cars, clothing, appliances and everything else to historic levels in order to convince employers to bring the jobs back, and he’s not going to do that.

That, of course, doesn’t stop him from appealing to U.S. workers who feel stiffed by their government. “I’ll save you!” he tells them, and these disgruntled white men cheer and applaud. Somewhere, in the back of their minds, they must know he’s lying to them. They must recognize that he’s a con man, willing to tell them anything. If you sat down with them and reasoned with them, I guess they’d admit that, no, they don’t expect autos, or washing machines, or sneakers or shirts or air conditioners to be made in America anymore, given the realities of the international marketplace. But this is the problem: no one is sitting with them, reasoning. They exist in the echo chamber of the angry, white, resentful Fox News listener, their anxieties continually provoked into carefully-orchestrated hatred of Hillary Clinton.

What really has cost the middle class its jobs? Well, those jobs have been disappearing for thirty years, under Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses, so it’s fair to say it really is an inevitability. America has one chance for economic leadership in the future, and that’s an educated class that can create jobs in high tech and service industries that are superior to anything any other country can do. Silicon Valley is the supreme example of what we do best. So, ask yourself why Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton. It’s because they understand which side will make America great, and it’s not a reactionary, anti-science, bigoted and xenophobic Republican Party.

But what really crushed the middle class was the Great Recession that began in 2007-2008 and whose effects are still being felt. It cost this country millions of jobs. People were being fired or laid off by the hundreds of thousands each month at its height. Trillions of dollars were lost, in home values and in retirement savings. And what caused the Great Recession?

Republican insistence on getting rid of any form of oversight of banks. This “party of Lincoln” became, in the twentieth century, the party of plutocrats. They bought and paid for a Congress (and a President and a Supreme Court when they could get one) that would eliminate any restrictions on anything they wanted to do to get even richer, at the expense of the 99% of us who are getting by. This deregulation of banking allowed the banks to be criminally profligate in lending money to anyone to buy a house, and led also to making it impossible for such federal agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission to truly oversee the banks they are charged by law to ensure are healthy. Republicans got exactly what they wanted: a regulation-free zone in banking, and Americans got exactly what they deserved for electing Republicans: bankruptcies, upside-down mortgages, a drastic devaluation in their 401(K)s, and an economy that almost fell off the cliff, and thank goodness Obama did a splendid job in shepherding the country back from the Bush catastrophe he inherited–including a disastrous and unneeded war in Iraq.

It is so obvious that this call for “less government regulation” has been scripted by corporate shills at the behest of the greedy billionaires who now are lining up behind Donald Trump. Even something as fair as the estate tax is on Trump’s hit list. His children—those miserable sons who posed grinning with the exotic wild animals they slaughtered—evidently do not wish to share a penny of their inheritance with anybody else. “My father made his money,” they say “and he should be able to dispose of it as he wishes.”

Well, no. As Hillary once reminded us, it takes a village. Trump may (or may not) have made a lot of money: we won’t know until he released his tax returns, which will probably be never. But whether or not he’s as rich as he claims, fairness and common sense dictate that he, and all other rich people like him, have their taxes raised considerably, to benefit the nation that allowed them to amass fortunes. Fairness and common sense also dictate that we need a lot more—not less—regulation in this country. Unfettered capitalism, the laissez-faire of John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford and the Koch Brothers, is a disaster. Now, if we can only get those blue collar workers to understand that simple fact. Unfortunately, anger is an emotion that puts the blinders on reality. Those poor white guys would rather vote their hatred and fear for a guy who didn’t lift a finger for them in the first 70 years of their lives, but ripped them off (Trump University, get-rich-quick real estate scams) and didn’t even pay his bills to the small-businesses he exploited to redecorate Mar-a-Lago. Do they seriously expect Trump to fight for them now, if he’s elected? P.T. Barnum understood it. There’s a sucker born every minute. So why do I tell white male Trump voters (and, I might add, straight ones) they’re wrong? Because when you do something that’s stupidly against your own, and you’re family’s, self-interest, despite knowing better, then there’s something wrong with the way you’re thinking.

The Last Tasting: a happy one



(This is a real-time stream of consciousness report on a tasting I did yesterday, Tuesday. In all probability it was the last professional event I will ever do now that I’m retired.)

10 a.m. Arrived early in downtown Napa for the tasting. Sitting here by the river, on the Napa River Trail,


sorting my thoughts out on this, the final day of my professional life.

I thought I’d feel more reflective, more definitive, more–what? At least, feel something. Instead, there’s—not exactly nothing, but a lacuna. So I just sit and watch the river roll.

The morning fog is lifting, south to north,


and it’s fast getting warm, as Napa Valley awakens to another harvest day. I push my nose into a big rose;


wine critics, or should I say ex-wine critics, like to smell things. A young guy paddleboards down the river.


I imagine the feel of the breeze and the sun on his face, his torso working calm and alert, the sound of the shiny water shushing. How apropos that this, the last day of my career, should be in Napa Valley, where it all began, nearly forty years ago, when I made my first trip to wine country. We went to Freemark Abbey and Robert Mondavi. Now it’s come full circle. In all these years I have come to the valley hundreds of times, but never really felt like I “got” it. How do you “get” a place like Napa? Like the Napa River itself, the valley just keeps rolling along, always changing. Downtown Napa is a totally different place. Up-valley is a welter of cults. Yet the Vaca Mountains, stolid, austere, and just across the river, remind me of permanence: the complementarity of things. They are the same Vacas of forty years ago…forty thousand years ago.

There, I am feeling something! What is it? A certain wistfulness. Calm. Reflective. Respectful of my history, Napa’s history, being itself. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia. It hasn’t defined itself yet, to me. Then I realize that I always go into a sort of energy dip before hosting an event. It’s as if I were conserving myself before going onstage. It’s just my way. So I decide to wait until later to see how I feel.

The Jackson Family Wines event is at Celadon,


on the riverfront, in the Napa River Inn. It was set up by my (now former) colleague and a wonderful woman, Ann Wallace. We’re tasting 12 wines: two whites, Stonestreet 2014 Estate Sauvignon Blanc and Carneros Hills 2012 Chardenet, as greeting wines. Then ten Pinot Noirs over the sit-down lunch, in three flights:

Willamette Valley

Penner-Ash 2013 Willamette Valley; Grand Moraine 2013, Yamhill-Carlton; and Zena Crown 2013 “The Sum,” Eola-Amity Hills.

Northern California

Champ de Reves 2013, Anderson Valley; Copain 2013 Kiser en Haut, Anderson Valley; Wild Ridge 2013 Sonoma Coast (Annapolis); and Hartford Court 2012 “Sevens Bench” Carneros

Central Coast

Carmel Road 2013 Panorama Vineyard, Arroyo Seco; Siduri 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands; Byron 2013 Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley.

That is a high-class tasting! My guests are eight buyers from top restaurants, mainly Napa Valley. This is the kind of intimate, casual tasting I like. As soon as the event starts my feelings become buoyant. There it is, the old energy! It was just waiting for when I needed it. The small plates come, are passed around: good food. The conversation becomes animated as folks relax and get properly lubricated. This is a smart bunch of people; they know their wine. I do my thing. Some tastings are happy; not all. This is a happy tasting.

The hours pass pleasantly.

2 p.m. Before you know it, it’s over. Nothing left but the empty and half-empty bottles.


It’s a metaphor: the way things look when they’re over. And I’m thinking, “I have had such fun. This has been such a pleasant time. The wines were showing beautifully, the pacing was great, everybody was really happy. I quit this job??? I must be out of my mind!”

And yet, quit it I did: no looking back. I still don’t quite know how I feel about this. But why do I need to know how I feel? Why this obsession with labeling and categorizing and defining everything? Let it be. Float. You can’t control it anyway. I look back over my last 28 years in wine writing and, Wow, what a ride it’s been. My Facebook page, where I made the retirement announcement on Monday, has 212 comments and counting, all wishing me well and saying the nicest things about this career I’ve had. I take intense pleasure in that, in knowing (because all those people said so) that I gave something to people they liked, and will be remembered.

So goodbye Napa Valley! Goodbye Sonoma Mendocino Monterey Santa Cruz Mountains San Luis Obispo Santa Barbara Willamette Valley and all the other places. Goodbye to old friends, some dead, never to be forgotten, most thankfully still living. Goodbye to deadlines (won’t miss them). Goodbye past, hello future. Somebody at the tasting asked me what I’m going to do now and I said, “I don’t know.” That’s okay, too.


Why Republicans suck



Although I was raised in a Democratic household, I always considered myself a middle-of-the-roader. I hardly paid any attention to Presidential elections until 1984, when I voted for Jesse Jackson in the California primary, and for Mondale in the general election. But in 1988, I voted for the Republican, George H.W. Bush. Dukakis seemed hapless, and I admired Bush’s strong resume and character.

I was also an early Bill Clinton supporter. I still have a letter from him to me dated 1988, years before most Americans had even heard of him. I’d seen him interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN and was so impressed, I wrote the then-Arkansas governor—my first and only fan letter—to tell him I admired his articulate intelligence. He responded politely. Four years later, of course, Clinton went on to win the first of his two terms as President. I liked him (still do), and also Hillary, whose gumption and values commanded my respect (and still do).

So it was that, when the Republican Party went after the Clintons with ill-concealed hostility, I began to see the GOP, not as an authentic political party—the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and, yes, George H.W. Bush—but as a damaging degradation of political discourse, and thus of this country’s values. It gradually became clear to me that Republicans had allowed themselves to fall into two horrible traps. First, they appealed to the worst, most prejudiced instincts of white American voters, a cynical move actually begun under Nixon with his “Southern strategy” that was clearly an attempt to drive a wedge between the races; and secondly, Republicans made strange bedfellows with what was, and is, a group I fear more than any other domestic cabal: evangelical Christians. That unholy marriage was orchestrated by Reagan and his consiglieres, including Lee Atwater, Karl Rove’s malign mentor; I doubt that Reagan himself (much less Nancy) was comfortable with Bible-thumpers, although he had to pretend to be. (I might say the same about Trump, whose cozying up to religious extremists—witness his embarrassing performance at Liberty University and his declarations that the Bible is his favorite book—prove that he will say anything, no matter how absurd, in order to win over credulous voters.)

Together, the Republican Party and these two groups—evangelicals and resentful, white working-class voters—decided to go after the Clintons, not on policy (Clinton was a centrist, hardly the socialist they painted him and Hillary out to be), but simply because he was a Democrat. By the 1990s Republicans had entirely given up on any idea of compromise. Instead, they resorted to what was essentially an attempted coup de main, using lies, smears, dog whistles and innuendo, in order to stir up the latent resentments and anger that their pollsters (who now include Kellyanne Conway, doing the same thing for Trump) told them would resonate. The litany of falsehoods Republicans hurled at the Clintons was endless, and every one of them lies: Whitewater, Vince Foster’s “murder”, Travelgate, trashing the Oval Office. The Republican penultimate attack on the Clintons extended to the political violence of Impeachment, driven by religiously conservative hounders (including Ken Starr, who last week had to resign his university post due to personal scandal) and a House of Representatives that had been taken over by radical Christian elements. The attempt at Impeachment was roundly rejected by the American people, and was stopped by a more sensible and politically responsible Senate. Clinton was not convicted. But the Republican Party had let it be known that, if they could not win power legitimately, they would subvert it illegitimately through propaganda (via Fox “News,” which arose at this time. Fox’s wunderkind, Roger Ailes—himself just fired due to a sexual scandal–was a student of Rove’s).

With the coming of Barack Obama, Republicans have doubled down on their radical obstructionism, becoming truly a cult of uncompromising lunacy, hatred, violence, stubbornness and intellectual dishonesty. How strange and ironic to see so-called “moderate” Republicans now turning against Trump, when in reality, he is simply a distillation of everything these Republicans have been preaching for decades. Trump spouts stupidity and bigotry, but those emotional ideas were forged by conservatives, tea party supporters and evangelicals long before his political rise. The blatant falseness of the attacks on Obama—he is a secret Muslim, he is a Kenyan not an American, he pals around with terrorists, he is the worst President ever, he created ISIS, he wants to take your guns away, he hates white people, he is a liar, he hates America, he hates Israel–a litany of horrors dredged from the foulest sewers of the Drudge report, Breitbart and Hannity—this is the test of blood purity the Republican Party now demands of its members. If these moderates, the Susan Collinses, Kelly Ayottes, Barbara Bushes, Mitt Romneys, Colin Powells and those 50 national security experts, really mean it when they say Trump is entirely unfit to be President, they should quit the Republican Party, at least until it returns to its senses. Trump represents its nasty, ugly, congealed essence—an essence they abetted all of their political careers, even as their party increasingly went off the rails. Trump is their nominee, the Republican nominee, whether they like it or not. If they had any honor, any moral fiber or personal dignity–if they were, to use a Yiddish phrase of my childhood, mensches–they would quit the party and condemn it for the horror show it has become.

As a gay man, I have additional reasons to loathe Republicans, and you should, too, if you love American freedom and liberty. This Republican Party has tried for decades to besmirch gay Americans, to deny us our rights, to dehumanize us, to stigmatize us, to stir up hatred against us, to convince their followers that we are dangerous. (Another Hitler comparison: he said the same things about Jews.) Republicans fought every step of the way against gay marriage and opening the military to LGBT people, even against letting gay people adopt children, despite the obvious fairness of those ends. Even now that the Supreme Court has approved gay marriage, they continue their homophobia in a hopeless revanchist action to try and upend the Supreme Court, a revolt led by bigoted Governors and religiously fanatical local judges. Let there be no mistake: this smearing of millions of gay Americans has been spearheaded by evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics (and don’t get me started on the irony of churches run by pedophiles who bash gay people). Even those Republicans who might be repelled by homophobia choose to keep their mouths shut, rather than risk censure by radical mullahs who they know are out of their minds, but whose support, or at least abstention from criticism, is politically necessary.

I have nothing against Christianity, which is one of the world’s great religions. But I am angered by the intrusion of Christian radicals into our nation’s governance and lawmaking. The Republican Party has become little more than an extension of a politicized Christian party in America (and a militant rightwing Christian party at that), something that should concern every one of us who cherishes the Constitution. This rightwing Christian movement has ties—murky, but repeatedly proven: think David Duke—to a white supremacist movement that even the FBI considers a clear and present danger. Many of the leaders of this Christian movement are delusional, perhaps even psychotic, by any definition of those terms: Pat Robertson believing he prayed away a hurricane, or Jerry Falwell claiming that God sent the Loma Prieta earthquake to San Francisco to punish it for its gayness (as if the same God were not punishing Bible Belt Christians every time a church is destroyed by a tornado; perhaps Louisiana’s floods prove that God hates that red state). Many of these Christians, especially uneducated evangelicals, believe the world is less than 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon, and that Adam, Eve and babies Cain and Abel frolicked with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. These are not religious beliefs we should respect, much less debate; they are the rantings of lunatics—moreover, of people who revel in their ignorance. This is your Trump base. And yet this fever-swamp theocracy is a majority owner of the modern Republican Party, whose leaders must pay it obeisance even while they privately ridicule it.

The war against women—many Republicans want to deny them even birth control, much less abortion rights, and they also wish to criminally prosecute doctors who perform abortions—the xenophobia of Trump and his ridiculous wall, which will never be built, and whose justifications are odious—the ongoing homophobia—the ramping up of Islamophobia, whipped to a frenzy by Trump amongst disgruntled white men who find hating “the other” easier than critical thinking and believe that Syrians are stealing their jobs—the Republican insistence on tax cuts, at any price, including for the wealthiest Americans, which has allowed the current income gap, the worst in our country’s history, to become a threat to national security, and which, moreover, has caused the nation’s infrastructure to crumble—the animosity towards evidence of man-made climate change, and towards science in general—the constant hammering of “government” as “the problem” (except when disaster strikes a red state and Republican Governors are the first to demand free money from Washington)—the sexist, racist personal attacks against Michelle Obama, as noble a First Lady as any in our country’s history—the mendacious insinuations against Hillary (she killed innocent people in Benghazi, her health is poor [Trump’s hitman on that one is the repellent Giuliani, and what is he lusting for—Homeland Security?], she is an enabler of Bill’s philandering, she murdered Vince Foster, she is a compulsive liar and a secret Lesbian, as if there would be anything wrong with that)—any of these would be sufficient to loathe the Republican Party for sheer coarseness and baseness. Every time I hear a Republican go on and on about “family values” I wince. Hello former Sen. Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, former House Speaker Denny “Coach” Hastert and untold Republican pols and preachers caught in dirty bookstores, men’s rooms, and adulterous scandals, committers of pedophilia and victims of coverup blackmail.

As I said, I voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I agree with traditional Republican beliefs, which actually are not Republican at all, but American: I uphold law and societal order. I value our cops and soldiers and dislike the unjust criticism sometimes leveled against them from the far left. I firmly believe people should work to support themselves and their families rather than relying on a welfare state. If you make a baby, take care of it! I disagree with Occupy types who smash and loot; they’re not the freedom fighters they purport to be, but mindless vandals and looters.

But believe me, this modern Republican Party has nothing in common with its great conservative traditions. Keep in mind that Barack Obama sincerely sought bipartisanship when he took office. It was Republicans, and particularly Mitch McConnell, who declared their intention to make Obama “a one-term President” and then proceeded to stall, obstruct, filibuster and block nearly every proposal the President made, even as Fox “News” and the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Trump, the leading Birther, spread the most outrageous lies about him. Look: the Republican Party has become an insane asylum of irrationality; a cabal of greedy plutocrats like the Koch Brothers and the Trumps; a melting pot of every petty resentment, fact-free and without solutions to America’s problems; a tool of the uber-rich and, ironically, of economically suffering, uneducated white men who apparently don’t understand that cutting the estate tax on billionaires will benefit them not a whit; an anti-science ideology of medieval superstition; a theocracy, an American Taliban, a crypto-fascist-preacher mafia that shamelessly bilks its credulous adherents with Orwellian disinformation, the same way Trump’s “University” and his late-night “get rich quick” T.V. infomercials bilked imbeciles. Should these Republican gangsters ever achieve real power, I have no doubt America would descend into domestic intranquillity.

But I do not believe Americans will elevate these Republicans to power. This country has at most 30% of diehard Republicans who would vote for anyone who happened to become their party’s nominee. That, thankfully, is not enough to elect a President. More sensible, patriotic, intelligent, thoughtful, caring and educated voters will prevail. I myself will happily and proudly vote for a woman I’ve admired for twenty-five years, Hillary Clinton, a decent person and a good Democrat. The Democratic Party of my parents—of Wilson and FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—is a political movement that upholds the highest ideals and aspirations of humankind: justice, equality, opportunity, fairness, reason, compassion and progress. I am a Democrat because I share those ideals. And because Republicans suck.

I just retired!



Last Friday, I told Rick Tigner, the CEO of Jackson Family Wines and a man for whom I have the utmost admiration, that I was quitting the job I’d held since March, 2014.

Why? Because I turned 70 years old in June, and I’m feeling my age.

I always had believed I would be retired by seventy, provided my finances were in order. I inherited no money from my parents, and I never had a proper pension, because I’d worked for nearly 30 years as a freelancer for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, neither of whom paid very well. What I did have in the way of a nest egg, though, was a very nice private investment through my family that gave me every expectation of a comfortable old age.

Alas, that private investment turned out to be run by Bernie Madoff. On Dec. 10, 2008, I—along with thousands of others—got the bad news: My life savings were gone. Along with the money went hopes of an early retirement.

However, there was some good news: In 2005, the feeder fund I was invested in unexpectedly stopped accepting new deposits. Thus, for the next four years—until the date of the Madoff arrest, and for the eight years since–I was, through force majeure, able to invest my money elsewhere. And when, in 2014, Jackson Family Wines offered me the new job—at considerably more money than I’d ever made at Wine Enthusiast—I was able to tuck away much of that, too, with the result that, by last week, my banker and I determined that I did have enough money to comfortably retire. Granted, I will never have a high-spending lifestyle. But then, I never had one before, and you can’t miss what you never had!

Turning seventy, in case you haven’t had the experience, is psychologically impactful. When I turned 40, 50, 60, it didn’t change how I felt about myself. My health was wonderful: I’ve always been in the top one percent of my age cohort when it comes to fitness. But seventy? You can’t make believe any more that you’re not old. Seventy may be “the new forty,” but it’s still threescore and ten, which Psalms tells us are “the days of our years.” The aches and pains accumulate; one fatigues more easily. More to the point, one becomes happy with (or at least reconciled to) what one is, and stress, which is inevitable in any job, is no longer welcome. The result was that, after an enormous amount of reflection, and plenty of back-and-forth in my own mind (Should I do it? Shouldn’t I?), I decided to “do it.”

This decision obviously has major consequences for me. For one, it means I’m on a fixed income. For another, it means that my career in wine is over. Period. Done, finis, #ByeBye. I no longer have any reason to be interested in wine, aside from drinking it, although it’s likely to be years before I fully disengage from thinking and reading about it; old habits die hard. But I have already begun that process in full deliberation. The symbolic act of interment, which I have yet to take, will be to eliminate all the Google alerts for “wine,” “wine industry,” “wine critic” and so forth that have filled my in-box for so many years. I haven’t done that yet…but I shortly shall.

And this blog?

Well, I still have a lot of readers. Whenever I traveled the country for Jackson Family Wines, people—complete strangers—came up to me and told me they read me every day. That is enormously gratifying; the only people who probably can relate to it are my fellow bloggers. It hasn’t always been easy to come up with topics five days a week, but then I think of all those folks across America (and in other countries) who begin their day with a little Steve, and I don’t want to disappoint them…to disappoint you.

So I will continue this blog. But there will be changes. Big ones. Going forward, I’ll write about anything that interests me. It won’t necessarily be about wine. I will frequently write about politics, which is an intense interest of mine, and I will certainly do my best to demolish the Republican Party, which deserves it. I’m sure I’ll lose readers, maybe a lot of them. But I may also gain some new ones. Be that as it may.

So, to those of you who are going to bid me a fond “farewell” because you want a strictly wine-oriented blog, I say, Adieu to you, too. Thank you for reading all these years. But you might check me out from time to time. The writing will be better than ever.

One final remark: I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to the Jackson family “kids” (as I call them) for the friendship, support and, yes, love they have given me. Julia…Chris…Ari…Hailey…Max…Katie…Shaun. You are wonderful, kind, special people with extraordinary hearts. I’m so very glad I had the privilege to get to know you; our tastings (and we still have one more left!) have been a highlight of my career. Your parents raised you right.

GUSSYPlus I get to spend more time with my pups!

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