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The Hatch Act and James Comey’s shame



What is the Hatch Act? It is a 1939 law named after a lifelong Democrat, Carl Hatch, who was U.S. Senator from New Mexico for sixteen years before being elevated to the Federal bench by President Truman. Hatch, who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, was bothered by partisan political activity by Federal government employees, Democratic and Republican, in the election process. The Act named after him forbade such employees from engaging in such activities.

The Act’s key wording is contained in the U.S. Code Section 7323: “a [government] employee may not use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.” A sub-section of the Act (B II) specifically identifies employees of “the Federal Bureau of Investigation” as being subject to the Hatch Act.

The penalty for violating the Hatch Act is this: An employee or individual who violates…this title shall be removed from his position, and funds appropriated for the position from which removed thereafter may not be used to pay the employee or individual.”

We come now to the case of James Comey, the current FBI director, who this past week “sent Congress a brief, inscrutable, election-shaking letter about emails that may or may not be new or relevant to the previously concluded investigation in Hillary Clinton’s private email server.” Comey, who we must infer clearly understood the bombshell nature of his letter, which came little more than a week before the election, tried to defend himself by claiming he was obligated to inform the Congress as soon as he learned that new information pertaining to the emails had become available. The problem with this explanation, it now appears, is twofold: (1) Comey “knew nothing about the substance of the emails,” which suggests a distasteful rush to judgment (they could have been cookie recipes), and (2) the emails were neither sent to Hillary Clinton, nor were from her, but instead were found on the computer of Anthony Weiner (and I assume you all know who he is). So “breathtakingly rash and irresponsible” was this decision by Comey, says the New York Times, that even the conservative Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, sent Comey a letter stating, “Your disclosure is not fair to Congress, the American People, or Secretary Clinton.”

When is the last time you heard a senior Republican elected official complain that something wasn’t “fair” to Hillary Clinton? The answer is Never, which means that what Comey did is pretty egregious.

Who is James Comey? We know he is a Republican. He was appointed a Deputy Attorney-General by President George W. Bush. He temporarily left government, to make some serious money, by going to work as General Counsel for Lockheed Martin, but was subsequently (2010) appointed FBI director by President Obama. Why would a liberal Democratic President appoint a career Republican, and one with close ties to the military-industrial complex, to head up the FBI? The best answer seems to be that Obama—already the target of a declaration of war by the Republican Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell—realized he would never get the Senate to confirm a Democrat as FBI director. The move also reinforced the notion, which Obama was keen to advance, that Obama was a bipartisan President, anxious to work with a Republican Party that clearly was as hostile to him as any political party has ever been towards any sitting President.

It is obviously impossible to know what Comey’s true motive was in writing that notorious letter to Congress. His claim that he was simply keeping them informed about new information might be true; it might equally well, and more plausibly, be totally bogus. He might have done it deliberately to tilt the election to Trump (and Trump may well be elected because of Comey’s action). Short of a confession by Comey, which isn’t very likely, we’ll never know, which means that it cannot be determined if he actually violated the Hatch Act. It seems likely that he did. That his behavior  “influence[d]…[and]  interfer[ed] with or affect[ed] the result of an election” cannot seriously be denied, by even the most ardent Republican.

Which leaves us—where? Should Hillary Clinton be elected President, Comey’s days at the FBI are likely numbered: she will have the power to fire him, and should. Should Trump be elected, no doubt he will sing Comey’s praises, but Trump’s advisors will tell him he’ll have to let Comey go sooner or later (his actual term doesn’t end until 2020), because of the widespread perception that Comey enabled Trump. But it may turn out that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump will have to deal with Comey. Yesterday, the conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens, urged Comey “to do the right thing” and “resign” now. By sending that nefarious letter to Congress, Stephens writes, Comey “lost the trust of his political masters, his congressional overseers and the American public.” That’s coming from a Republican, mind you, not a Hillary supporter.

Well, whatever Comey does, he will eventually land back into the military-industrial complex, make many more millions of dollars, and try to avoid dining out at Washington’s toniest restaurants, where no doubt many of his former friends will no longer be pleased to run into him.

Let’s get Hillary: a modern witch hunt from Republicans



I spent part of yesterday watching yet another Republican-led House of Representatives investigation into “Hillary Clinton’s emails,” and believe me, you know that old saying about “more boring than watching paint dry”?

Yup, that’s how nothing this circus was.

Repubs know they’re digging a dry well, just as the holes they dug on Benghazi and everything else anti-Hillary have been dry. There’s no there there, because nearly everybody understands exactly what it was that Hillary did, which was simply to do what most of us do: she had two different email accounts, one for State Department business and more for her personal stuff, and she occasionally sent or received emails on one account that more properly should have been sent or received via the other.

Ooohh, terrible! A crime against humanity, rendering Hillary Rodham Clinton clearly unfit to be President.

Well, that’s ridiculous. This entire ordeal has been stressful and embarrassing to her; the tension it’s put her under probably contributed to her current mild bout of pneumonia. But a reason not to vote for her? Only in the minds of people who wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstance, and would vote for the Republican candidate if his name were Elmer Fudd instead of Donald Trump.

So desperate are these Republicans to find anything against Hillary that at yesterday’s hearing one of them, Jason Chaffetz, from Utah, chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, handed a subpoena to the FBI’s assistant director during the hearing, demanding the full [Clinton email] file with no redactions of personal identifiable information.”

This was a virtually unprecedented act—two, actually: to subpoena a sworn witness in the middle of a Congressional investigation, and demanding moreover every email, on any topic whatsoever—her health, private conversations with her husband, to her daughter, to foreign leaders, to President Obama, whatever.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jason Chaffetz who was not content with the fact that the F.B.I. already found nothing lawfully wrong with what Clinton did“she did not lie or break the law,” FBI director Comey testified. So the top investigative body of the United States of America stated conclusively that Hillary Clinton is innocent of the charges to which Republicans have subjected her, but Chaffetz and his Republican cronies will not rest until they find something, anything to use against her. “The FBI has concluded their portion,” Chaffetz conceded, but “the FBI…has not looked at other things that she did potentially…”.

“That she did potentially…” Think about this statement. Imagine you’ve been indicted and tried for some major criminal offense. After a lengthy hearing, the F.B.I—the frigging Federal Bureau of Investigation—finds you innocent of every charge your prosecutor could dream up. Just when you think you’re a free woman, you hear the damned prosecutor stand up and demand to the Judge that this hearing is not over. Why not? Because you have done something wrong “potentially.”

In an alternate universe, perhaps. But wait, there’s more. Let’s say that, in your trial, it was shown clearly and conclusively that you did nothing wrong—you broke no existing law. But what if what you did should have been against the law, at least in the eyes of your prosecutor? Then that prosecutor continues to hound the Court, to demand that you, the alleged perp, be found guilty anyway, even though you’re innocent of all charges, because…well, because your prosecutor doesn’t like you.

Sound Orwellian? It is—unless your name is Jason Chaffetz. Even though Hillary broke no law, “the law probably needs to be updated or they’re not properly applying the law, and that’s why we need to explore this,” he told Fox News (where else?), and continued to insist, like a delirious mental patient, “She broke the law.”

Okay, so according to the FBI she broke no laws. Chaffetz is unable to cite any law on the books that she did break. But, in his fevered mind, he wants reality changed so that she did break a law. This is how biased, how intemperate and, quite frankly, how insane this Republican party has gotten due to its hatred of Hillary Clinton. She broke no law…Repubs wish she had broken a law so they could nail her…and because they run the Congress, they will never, ever let her off the hook, but will continue to harass her, forever if need be, because…well, because they can.

This is the definition of a witch hunt. And this Chaffetz–the Utah Mormon who has been been called “a grandstanding charlatan,” who led the attack against Planned Parenthood, who oversees the Secret Service through his committee chairmanship yet never revealed that he had applied to the Service and been rejected until this was outed and he was forced to, explaining, “I haven’t looked at that in more than a decade. It’s not something that’s entered my mind…seriously, this was like 10 minutes, 12 years ago,” as if that were an adequate explanation for not telling the truth about something so important—this Chaffetz, who boasts on his website of his “core conservative principles of accountability,” is the perfect witch hunter to lead it.

Putting reverse spin on Trump’s deportation flip-flop

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It is a staple of American politics for candidates to be vague about certain of their positions. Republicans and Democrats alike have thrown up obscuring smokescreens around issues that make them uncomfortable since the founding of the Republic.

For example, in late 19th century post-Reconstruction America, one of the burning issues was Civil Service reform. For decades Presidents had rewarded their supporters by giving them, and their friends, plush political appointments to high office—for example, as local Postmasters. This ensured party loyalty, but it smacked of corruption, offending good-government types who wanted such appointments to be based on merit. A long succession of Republican Presidents, starting with Grant and going right up to McKinley, avoided making decisions. The Republican Party liked the patronage system; Democrats wanted reform, and it was popular with the people, but Dems were never strong enough to push it through. So every time the issue of Civil Service reform came up, Republicans dodged it with talk that sounded meaningful, but was actually devoid of substance.

Democrats could play the same game. One of the most famous examples of the 20th century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s artful dodging of the issue of becoming involved in World War II. He personally thought the U.S. should fight on the side of our allies, Britain and France, against the menace Hitler and Mussolini clearly posed. But so ardent was isolationist feeling in this country that F.D.R. had to be vague about his future intentions. For example, in a Boston speech, in 1940, he said something that was misleading, at best: “To you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

He knew it was not a true statement, knew that war for American boys was inevitable. The word “foreign” was his hedge. If America were attacked—and Roosevelt was sure it eventually would be—then any ensuing war would not be “foreign” but defensive. And that’s exactly how things played out after the December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

So we should never be surprised when a politician hedges or backtracks or “flip-flops,” to use the current jargon. However, there are minor hedges and major hedges, and a politician who backtracks on the major promise of his political rise, the one that secured him the presidential nomination, is one whose honesty and intellectual ability ought to be subject to the closest scrutiny.

Which brings us to today’s topic, which is, of course, Donald Trump’s bizarre meandering around the topic of deporting undocumented immigrants. His fundamental promise, on announcing for office, was that he would deport the estimated 11 million Mexicans living here more or less illegally. Nearly a year ago, for instance, he told Americans he would build “a deportation force” the same way he built “an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars.”

Most thinking people understood from the beginning that Trump was lying. Nobody expected him to create some kind of uniformed Internal Security Deportation Squad, which would knock on doors in the middle of the night, seize parents from their screaming children, pack them up into black vans and dump them at gunpoint on the Mexican border. Nobody, that is, except his credulous and largely uneducated supporters, who piled all their resentments in life on the backs of farm workers, hotel maids, gardeners and kitchen line cooks.

Trump ran toward the extreme in the primaries and now is making a mad dash back towards the center, in order to win the general by appealing to less-crazy voters. Still, he can now be seen jettisoning his central campaign promise: as yesterday’s Washington Post reports, “Trump won’t say definitively whether he backs mass deportation.”

Well, naturally he won’t say it “definitively” because he knows he can’t mass-deport people. He knows it will never happen, just as he has known from the beginning. Truth, such as it is, has never mattered to the Trump campaign.

WashPo’s reporter described Trump’s problem accurately: On the one hand, [Trump supporters] say no amnesty, no legalization, and everyone out. On the other, they don’t have the nerve to say they are going to kick out grandmothers and little children, college students and hard-working adults who have been here most of their lives.” The end result is a chaotic mishmash of meaninglessness.

It would be one thing for Trump to equivocate on less emotional issues, such as how he would renegotiate trade deals. The devil is in the details on things like that: he could get away with obfuscation. But for him to back away from the central guarantee he made to his supporters is really unprecedented in modern Presidential elections. It is as if Obama, running on a promise of expanding healthcare for all Americans, were suddenly, on the eve of the election, to announce that maybe that’s not such a good idea after all.

Trump’s image managers, such as the P.R. spin artist Kellyanne Conway, will try to avoid having to answer hard questions, but I figure a relentless Press will force her to address her candidate’s inconsistencies. “How can he back-pedal on deportation?” reporters will ask her. Here’s how she’ll answer: First, she’ll tell them they’ll have to ask the candidate himself, since she doesn’t write policy (LOL). When they insist, she’ll explain that, actually, the retreat on deportation is a sign of Trump’s growing political sophistication. “His position on this issue, as on many issues, is constantly evolving,” she’ll aver, adding, for good measure, “just as you’d want him to. We want our candidates for public office to continue to learn as situations change, don’t we?” And then she’ll stick it to Hillary Clinton. “Unlike Secretary Clinton, whose secret emails about Benghazi show that some people never change their basic dishonesty and untrustworthiness.”

And that’s the way to take an embarrassing situation, turn it around with reverse spin, and hope American voters are dumb enough to buy it.

Dr. Donald’s Trumpsparilla: Selling quack nostrums to gullible Americans



Back in the 1840s, sarsaparilla, a beverage made from the root of a plant (and the ancestor of the drink we call “root beer”), was enormously popular in America as a “patent medicine.” In an era before prescription drugs and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, such “nostrums” were bought by millions of people to heal their physical problems: rashes, thin blood, impotence, venereal disease, epilepsy, and what-have-you. Some nostrums, such as Dr. Sibly’s Solar Tincture, were even said to “restore life in the event of sudden death.”

One of the most popular brands was Dr. S.P. Townsend’s Sarsaparilla.

sasparillaProduced in Albany, N.Y., it was advertised as “invigorat[ing] the whole system permanently. Those who have lost their muscular energy…can be entirely restored by this pleasant remedy.”

By the time of the Civil War, such extravagant and unprovable claims were already the butt of jokes among educated people. In 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson had assumed the presidency, and was in the process of the epic power struggles with Congress that would result in his Impeachment. So-called Radicals, in the Republican Party and among the dying Abolitionists, were demanding immediate suffrage for Negroes freed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Others, including more moderate Republicans and Democrats, particularly from the South, urged a slower, more cautious approach.

One of those go-slowers was the Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull (who had caucused with various political parties before settling down with the Democrats). In debate on the floor of the Senate on the suffrage question, Trumbull debunked the radical notion that giving former Slaves the right to vote “would feed the hungry or clothe the naked colored people of the South. Since the days of Townsend’s Sarsaparilla,” he added, he had “not heard of such an universal remedy for human woes as…proposed to make out of the right of suffrage.”

Today, in Donald Trump, we have the latest incarnation of the nostrum sales pitch, a reborn Dr. S.P. Townsend huckstering his patent medicine to gullible buyers. He promises things in the most grandiose terms: every problem, every issue, will be solved with his election in “amazing,” “fantastic,” unbelievable,” “huge” and “incredible” ways, including, of course, the money-back guarantee to “make American great again.” “The king of the superlative,” the conservative National Review calls him.

Among Trump’s grandiosities: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” “I will build a great wall,” “I would use the greatest minds.” As for his enemies, Trump resorts to negative superlatives: Hillary Clinton was “the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States” while Barack Obama is “the worst president in history.”

The era of ridiculous claims for patent medicines ebbed at the end of the nineteenth century, and by the early 1900s, exposés by reform-minded, muckraking journalists led the Congress to pass, and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to sign, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. For the first time in U.S. law, “misbranding” was defined: Section 8 of the law defined misbranding as claims “which shall be false or misleading in any particular…as to deceive or mislead the purchaser…”.

The good news is that it is now illegal in America to lie and make fake health claims about foods, drugs or beverages. This surely represents progress and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to the bad old days of “restoring life in the event of sudden death.” The bad news is that it’s still permissible for politicians such as Trump to lie. We can never make a law against political fraudsters, of course, but what is conceivable is that our nation could develop public morés—an old word referring to the moral sanction a majority of people place upon obvious grifters and swindlers. If America held to a notion of censuring hustlers, Trump would be roundly booed off every stage. He certainly would not be taken seriously by cowed television anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Chuck Todd.

Alas, America has no such standards of truth. A Donald Trump is permitted to get away with making blatantly false and misleading promises, with little if any challenge from the mainstream media; the days of crusading muckrakers, sad to say, are gone.

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.


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