Monday, January 14, 2019

Living in the middle of a spy novel

Here's the plot: a foreign power, a rival or enemy of the United States, finds a way to infiltrate a "mole" or spy into America's government. This is a long-term strategy, and its implementation consumes years of grooming and training the "plant" and prepping the political system and the public for the plant, so that he/she can win the public's trust while keeping his/her loyalty to the foreign power secret.

Sounds far-fetched but barely plausible. As the plot for a mystery/thriller novel, it could sell well. As a thriller movie, it could go gangbusters at the box office. The novel would be like John Le Carre's or Tom Clancy's best. As a movie, well, think of "The Manchurian Candidate."

That's the basic plot, but here's the scary part: The plot may be playing out in real time. The New York Times has revealed that the FBI began an investigation to determine whether President Donald Trump was actually working for the Russian government. Trump's inexplicable cozying up to foreign dictators, his praise of Vladimir Putin (a former KGB agent and current dictator of Russia) raised questions about Trump's loyalty to the United States. 

Adding to these odd behaviors, The Washington Post has reported that Trump went to extraordinary lengths to keep secret, even from his closest aides, the content of talks he engaged in during a meeting in Hamburg in 2017. First, he met with Putin with no advisers present. The only people in the room were translators, and Trump made sure that the translators' notes were destroyed. So no one — not top administration staff and advisers, not members of Congress and not the American people — knows what went on behind closed doors with Putin. It's not that the notes were classified and unavailable to those without clearance; the notes do not exist at all! We do know that Trump was just as effusive as ever in praising Putin after their secret conversation. Trump has not denied the report about the meeting notes.

These strange events come in the wake of a widely reported campaign by Russia to sow distrust among American voters and to help elect in 2016. Putin has fairly proudly admitted that he favored Trump in the 2016 campaign. Almost daily, Trump attacks the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is charged with investigating links between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

No one has proven that a duly elected president of the United States is a Russian agent, but suspicions are piling up. 


Sunday, January 13, 2019

 This first appeared in The Wilson Times Jan. 12, 2018.

           OK, I’m back. After writing a weekly column in this publication for nearly 30 years, it looks like I’m back in print following a 10-year hiatus. The old column aimed to be a personal conversation with readers on topics ranging from the newspaper’s editorial decisions to commentary on area politics and other news to personal observations of life in Wilson. This new incarnation will likely offer fewer insights on the news (because my field of contacts and my association with news and newsworthy people are far less). But the Wilson Times offered me this opportunity, and my 18-month-old retirement allows me the time to take on another task.
             Retirement is something my wife and I had looked forward to for years, seeing this new transition as one that would allow us to read, travel, visit relatives and old friends, be creative, and enjoy leisure to an extent that was impossible with the stress and the time demands of full-time jobs.
            Our attitude about retirement is far different from the attitude of many of my age group, who are not just not looking forward to retirement but are seriously opposed to the whole idea. “I’m not going to retire,” Fred Hight told me when the topic came up in a brief roadside conversation. He left no wiggle room in that decision. Other people approaching retirement age have expressed concern about what they would do with their free time. I’ve asked those who fear twiddling their thumbs for years on end, “Do you own a house?” They all said they did. “Then you have plenty to do,” I told them. “There’s always something that needs to be done on a house.”
            Other people retire without slowing down. In fact, many actually speed up in retirement. Ken Jones, who ran the Wilson Merck plant before retiring, says he’s busier now as a volunteer in a double-handful of organizations than he was in his career. Barton College, the Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity and others have recognized Ken for his untiring work for those organizations. He shows no sign of slowing down. Jack Saylor, who died recently at age 98, followed the same retirement plan. He stayed busy in numerous pursuits, including teaching exercise classes at the Wilson Y while in his 90s. People like these epitomize the old advice that “it’s better to wear out than to rust out.”
            My wife, who joined me in retirement four months ago, and I have taken a moderate stance on the topic. We set aside an hour or so every day to read, and we try to exercise often enough to stay healthy. We pay attention to advice columns recommending various ways to remain active, socially involved and cognitively sharp. Whenever we can, we follow the advice of the late Sam Ruth, who retired to Wilson decades ago. After a meeting we both attended years ago, he announced he was going home to take a nap. “It’s the best part of retirement,” he said.
              Dreams of a healthy, happy retirement depend upon the same factor that shaped our working lives: money. Save all the money you can, and then save some more. If you want to do things in retirement, you’ll need that money. Live frugally during your working years in order to splurge in retirement. When people ask me how my retirement is going, I tell them, “We haven’t run out of money … yet.” With luck and some good financial planning advice, our savings might last through our remaining years, but that is possible only because we drove cheap cars, never took lavish vacations, required our children to work their way through college, lived in modest homes (23 years at one humble address), and took advantage of the Wilson Daily Times’ 401(k) retirement savings plan (with a partial match by the company) during my 29 years of working there.
            One reason retirement is not eagerly anticipated by many of my peers is the disappearance of defined benefit pension plans. Defined contribution plans are not as reliable as old-style pension plans, which require greater investment from employers. Few employers outside of government and unionized corporations offer defined benefit pensions today. Social Security is a sort of mandated defined benefit plan. You and your employer contribute to Social Security for as long as you work, and your and your employer’s total contributions determine what your fixed SS benefit will be.
            This new gig as author of a raised-from-the-dead weekly column fits well in my retirement thinking. It gives me an opportunity to exercise my mind and stay involved, and it pays me a stipend sufficient to take my retiree wife out to dinner occasionally. It also provides a deadline, and “everyone needs a deadline,” my new boss reminded me. Yes, we do, especially those of us who spent 33 years with deadlines hanging over their heads.

Hal Tarleton was managing editor, editor and opinion editor at The Wilson Daily Times for 29 years. He then worked as the manager of Wilson offices for Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

2018 College football season ends

Monday night's national championship game marked the official end of the 2018 college football season. It's over, and, as with every other ending like this one, I am a bit saddened. I can't help it. I love college football. More than any other sport, collegiate or professional, college football is spectacular, filled with surprises, and exciting. It is surrounded by the perfection of an autumn day with glistening skies, beautiful cheerleaders, fanatical followers, student bodies that are caught up in the rapture of the perfect afternoon and the knowledge that you will never be this young or this excited again.

I'm not a season ticket holder. I seldom attend games at my alma mater, relying on the generosity of people who have an extra ticket or two. I watch the games on television, which, thanks to multiple cameras and the astounding detail of modern televisions, gives better views of the games than the most expensive game ticket. Television also allows you to see plays again and again. Astute fans might save time by waiting until there's a lot of cheering, and then looking at the replay showing what all the cheering is about. Smartphone Apps will replay videos of the big plays for the next 24 hours.

Monday's game testifies to the excitement and entertainment college football provides. One Clemson wide receiver caught two passe with just one hand. Twice, he managed to collect the well-thrown ball in one hand and pull it into his body while a defensive back slapped at the ball and his arms. Running backs tore through defensive lines populated by giants. At one point, the Clemson kicker "donked" the football off the goal post upright on a field goal attempt, providing the unexpected element most games have. This "donk" ended up not mattering in the long run, but a "double donk" by the NFL Chicago Bears field goal kicker Sunday afternoon eliminated the surging Bears from the NFL playoffs. You never know which play is going to bring a surprise or a spectacular play.

Football is a far more complicated and safer sport than it was when I played football in high school and diligently followed NFL games each Sunday in my twenties. It remains a violent sport, but better equipment and rule changes designed to protect the players have made it better, not worse.

Even with the changes, though, players know their bodies and especially their brains can be damaged beyond repair in today's game. The danger of dementia caused by repeated hits to the head by very large men has caused many young men and parents to decide football is just too hazardous.

Big-time football (like that played by Clemson and Alabama and other elite schools) is sometimes seen as an extension of the universities the teams represent, to the consternation of critics who say the millions of dollars paid annually to coaches and the multi-millions colleges invest in football scholarships, practice facilities and stadiums could be better invested in academic pursuits.

Health concerns or academic critics could one day put an end to college football's dominance, but until then, I will watch with amazement what top college athletes are able to do and how much excitement a football game can generate, even if you're not there in person. My television will get far less use until the next fall when the blue skies, cool breezes, cheering fans and anticipation announce the return of college football.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Donald Trump, the Great Negotiator

The federal government is in the midst of another partial government shutdown, but this one could be longer lasting than previous shutdowns. Each of these shutdowns is evidence of a failing, inept, incompetent government. It doesn't seem to matter whether Democrats are in charge or Republicans are in charge, whether there is divided government or one-party rule in Washington. From Capitol Hill to sixteen blocks away at the White House, the government can't get the simplest, most important things done, such as passing a comprehensive budget on time.

What might make this shutdown different is the man in the Oval Office. President Trump fancies himself a shrewd businessman and "stable genius." Democrats have a lesser assessment of the president's skills and character.

Trump has said he welcomes a government shutdown (just as he welcomes trade wars). He markets himself as a great negotiator and frequently touts his great breakthroughs in negotiations with foreign leaders, but those breakthroughs have a habit of breaking down once Trump has finished tweeting.

Trump has demanded that Congress approve a budget that includes $5 billion for the wall along the southern border that he promised in his 2016 campaign, leading chants of "Build that Wall!" But Democrats, who offered five times as much for his wall if Trump would only agree to changes in immigration rules and a chance at full citizenship for immigrants who came here as children. Trump, the great negotiator, turned that deal down.

The president's behavior in this and in past talks contradicts his claims of skill as a negotiator. He has failed to deliver in most negotiations, despite his bragging.

Trump's problem likely is rooted in his background. He grew up as the anointed son of a real estate mogul, who started at (or near) the top. He could run the family business according to his own whims. He didn't have to ask advice. He didn't have to answer to anyone. He was the boss, the king, the emperor, the ruler of all he surveyed.

When he negotiated, he could look out only for his own interests. There were no co-equal parties to the negotiations, only subordinates, "losers" in his vocabulary. If he wanted to refuse payments to a subcontractor, he could get away with it. He could offer them low offer or nothing else. It was his way or the highway. If worse came to worst, he could declare bankruptcy and leave the creditors to plead for pennies on the dollar in bankruptcy court.

Trump would like to negotiate the way he did as a private businessman, but he can't. Congress is equally as powerful as the executive branch, and the judicial branch is equal to the other two branches. Trump cannot bully Congress the way he bullied subcontractors. He cannot expend money on his centerpiece border wall without an appropriation from Congress. He will have to learn to negotiate in good faith and to compromise if he wants more end this shutdown.

Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Day is an arbitrary date

On the cusp of a new year, gray clouds hover overhead, and a cold breeze chills my aging bones. The January 1 date for turning the calendar's page is an arbitrary choice. No celestial or terrestrial event marks the date. Many businesses use a different calendar to divide their years (July 1 to June 30 is a popular choice).

On this night, people will celebrate the dawn of the new year, as if something had changed. But 2018 melts into 2019 imperceptibly. The death of one year and the birth of another brings fireworks, resolutions, and hope, but Jan. 1 is seldom noticeably different from the day before.

It is natural to wish for a better year as the old year ends. Many people will make resolutions to do better, do more, be better, be more helpful, be more generous and caring. But the resolve of Dec. 31 slowly dissolves into the hustle and bustle of 2019. Few resolutions and few hopes for the new year are followed or fulfilled. The year may change, but we remain the same.

A few years ago, as I toasted the new year quietly at home with my wife, she said, "I hope next year, no one we love will get sick or die." It was a deeply felt desire. In the previous consecutive several years, we had faced the deaths of parents, siblings and good friends. It was difficult to be hopeful about a new year that did not include our departed loved ones. She expressed that hope about the new year twice before a year finally came when we didn't travel to a funeral.

We all hope for a new year that was better than the last one or less painful than the last one. But pain inevitably comes, and as we grow older the pain of lost family and friends grows more frequent. Still, we wish for others and for ourselves a happy new year, a year without death and despair, a year with happiness and fulfillment, with comfort and achievement.

This is the day, an otherwise ordinary winter day, when we resolve and wish for what will come.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Who benefits in withdrawal from Syria?

If you're wondering why President Trump would abruptly and without consultation with administration advisors or international allies pull 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, I'm glad to have your company.

Syria has been a disaster for years, and many U.S. decisions only made matters worse. President Obama threatened the Syrian government against use of chemical weapons but then did nothing when the Assad regime murdered its only citizens with poison gas. Obama allowed Russia to take the lead in Syria and take advantage of the lack of a clear strategy for the U.S. coalition fighting ISIS and other groups.

Trump's rationale (if you can call an irrational person's thoughts a rationale) is that ISIS has been defeated, so our troops should come home. As military and diplomatic officials have pointed out with great alarm, it's not that simple. ISIS has been pushed back by U.S. allies as well as the Russians and Syrians, but it hasn't disappeared and can swiftly regain enough footing to carry out devastating terrorist attacks.

Who benefits from Trump's rash decision? Syrian dictator Assad, sure, but also Vladimir Putin's Russia. By salvaging Assad, Putin has gained great leverage in the area and a foothold on the Mediterranean. Trump's sudden decision to withdraw troops directly benefits Putin in both the short and long term. It's a decision that could more logically come from the manipulative, conniving Putin than from anyone who cared about U.S. strategy and prestige. Abandoning besieged allies, as Trump is doing in Syria, will cast all U.S. promises into doubt with terrible long-term consequences.

There has been no reporting that I've seen linking Trump's announcement to Russian suggestions or messaging, but if I were Robert Mueller, I would ask for White House visitation, phone and email logs just to make sure the seed of this strategy wasn't suggested by the Kremlin.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas comes again this year

Can it be that Christmas is less than a week away? It has come quietly this year, without so much of the hurrying, the planning, the buying, the addressing of cards, the baking, the worrying, the wondering if we've done all that we should be doing.

Like other things, Christmas grows quieter, more nostalgic, more home-centered as we grow older. My wife and I have done the Christmas thing (or things) for more than 45 years. We've transitioned from the two of us to the five of us to the addition of grandchildren, around whom Christmas has been focused the past dozen years.

Christmases have come in three distinct phases: (1) Childhood Christmas, when excitement over new toys, bountiful candy and an air of cheerfulness permeated our reality; (2) Christmas with children, when our joy in seeing the happiness on our children's faces exceeded all of the excitement we had known as children; and (3) Christmas with grandchildren, when we see ourselves in our grown children's faces as they experience the sheer joy of making their own children ecstatically happy.

Now, we seem to be facing another phase, when we face Christmas as aging grandparents with grandchildren grown too big for excitement and too independent to cuddle with old folks. At our age, the excitement and joy of Christmas have been tempered by the sadness of losing relatives and friends who had been integral to our Christmas happiness. We have lost parents, siblings, cousins and dear friends, whose memory haunts our Christmas revelry. We even count the years in actuarial tables to see how many Christmases we might reasonably expect to have remaining.

This Christmas will be a quieter holiday at our house. We decided not to revive our once-annual tradition of a Christmas open house. Although we are retired and should have been able to plan the party, send the invitations and do the preparations needed to get dozens of people into our home with cheerful greetings of "Merry Christmas," but we couldn't seem to get it done, and now it's too late.

Still, we intend to make Christmas a festive time, as well as a sacred time. We will attend Christmas Eve services, and we will eat a special meal, even if it is only for the two of us. We will celebrate another Christmas, and it will be one, like all the preceding ones, like no other.

Merry Christmas.