Sorry, Leo McGarry, it’s ok to accept premise of the question

There is a quote I couldn’t get out of my head last night during the vice presidential debate.

No, it wasn’t from John McEnroe.

Instead, it was from my daughter’s absolute favorite, has-the-full-CD-set, has-seen-the-entire-series-10-times show The West Wing. In The Ticket (Season 7, Episode 1), longtime chief of staff Leo McGarry is now the vice presidential candidate to young would-be Bartlet successor Matthew Santos. McGarry is walking a rope line as reporters are shouting questions.

He ends up taking a question and butchering it, which goes against the advice given to him by his handler, Annabeth Schott: “If you don’t like what they’re asking you, don’t accept the premise of the question,” directed Schott, played by Kristen Chenoweth.

Of course, this isn’t some novel idea in politics. And we certainly saw it on display last night. But I’m here to at least shine a light on how the premises of tough questions (or heck, even easy questions) CAN be accepted without hurting a candidate.

Let’s start with Sen. Harris, who was asked about her primary campaign pledge to ban fracking juxtaposed against Vice President Biden’s statement that he would not ban fracking.

Instead of dodging her past statements in opposition, what if she had said this:

“Thanks for the question and it’s a good one. Yes, Joe and I have a different view on this. And guess what — there are other things about which Joe and I disagree. Is that the litmus test for running mates, that they have to agree with everything the person at the top of the ticket espouses? That’s not how friendships work. That’s not how marriages work. Well, this is a political marriage. My job is to support my spouse and he to support me. That includes times when we have a different view on something. Senator Kaine’s job was to support the policies of Sen. Clinton if she had been elected and mine is to support the policies of Vice President Biden. I think we have an electorate mature enough to handle a ticket that isn’t in some sort of imaginary state of constant agreement. In my real-life marriage, disagreement with my spouse has made our marriage stronger, not weaker. I’ve changed his mind on things and vice versa. And when we retain conflicting views, we learn to do so agreeably and respectfully, which is a quality I consider to be much more valuable than being sycophantic. Yes, I am personally for banning fracking. President Biden is not. That means the Biden-Harris administration will not ban fracking.”

How about Pence being asked about what a Roe v. Wade reversal would mean in his home state of Indiana. Here was Page’s question: “If Roe V. Wade was overturned what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?” Conspicuously, Pence did not answer, presumably because he doesn’t want to say he would make abortions illegal or doesn’t believe he should.

What if Pence had answered like this: “I have a strong pro-life view on abortion. I want to do everything I can to reduce the number of abortions in America. But I understand this is one of these 50-50 issues. If I was leading an Indiana discussion on what do in a post-Roe v. Wade world I would first seek to find where we could find the most common ground — later term abortions, parental consent and the like. Hopefully, everybody is in favor of reducing the number of abortions. That sounds like a good place to start. You know, this smart guy named Skip Foster has a great new blog — — and he recently wrote about a new study that shows “pro-life” and “pro-choice” don’t adequately describe the views of most Americans on this issue. I would want to lead a discussion of how we can see where there is the most agreement and make sure we also consider the laws of unintended consequences.”

Yeah, I know, maybe unrealistic for someone beholden to a pro-life base, but he clearly wasn’t prepared to say “Indiana should ban all abortions.” I would rather him at least try to fashion an answer to the question that is honest than simply move on to some other topic, which is what he did.

A big unanswered questions was directed to Sen. Kamala Harris about “packing” the Supreme Court by adding seats to offset recent and prospective appointments of conservative judges. Vice President Pence asked her during one of his responses although I’m sure it was also on the question list of moderator Susan Page.

Harris (and Biden in the first debate) didn’t even pretend to answer the question, which is clearly one of the most important of the campaign — adding seats to the Court would change 150 years of American tradition, which isn’t to say it’s a good or bad idea, only that it’s a BIG deal.

So, what’s wrong with this answer:

“Thanks, Susan and I’m going to be honest with you, Vice President Biden and I simply haven’t decided where we stand on this. We know it’s a big deal. We know it’s a huge shift in American policy and tradition. And we know the American people deserve an answer on this before the election, especially since so many people have already voted. I promise that by October X, we will hold a press conference and share our position on this matter, either way. Voters deserve to know where we stand on this important issue.”

Honestly, I don’t see how running out the clock on this question is tenable.

Finally, there is one scenario where I think at least delaying an answer to a question would have been appropriate. Think about how powerful it would have been if Pence had opened up the debate this way: “Thanks Susan and thanks to the debate commission. I’m going to answer your question, but first I want to say this. It has taken us far too long to have a woman of color on this stage. Senator Harris, your accomplishments have been breathtaking and the history of this moment should not be lost on any of us. We have a long way to go in this country and on this planet when it comes to providing opportunity for all, but you are living proof that we also have much of which to be proud. I just want to congratulate you on this ground-breaking accomplishment and salute you for success.”

Eat your heart out, John McEnroe!

Pro life? Pro choice? How about “pro nuance?”

There was a tremendous piece in the weekend Wall Street Journal entitled “What Americans Really Think About Abortion”

It captured so much of what I hope to talk about in this blog.

The gist of the research that was the foundation for the article was this: “Pro life” and “pro choice” are far too simple terms to describe what most Americans see as a complex issue.

Now, if you think I’m about to start an abortion debate, you don’t know me very well.

The point is, however, that we tend to oversimplify EVERYTHING when politics is involved.

If Trump/Biden is for it, I must be against it. If Trump/Biden is against it, I must be for it.

The same is true for issues. Going to war; taxes; regulations; COVID strategies. These are complicated things. Oversimplifying these issues does not do our form of government justice.

If you are a member of one party and can’t name a single policy from the other party with which you can’t agree, I would submit that’s a problem.

Further, if you can’t find any wiggle room in any of the major issues of the day — like the ones I listed above — then that’s a problem, too.

I hope you will read this piece I linked. Not to change your mind on abortion, but to cause some introspection on how we frame and label the issues of the day.

The case against “cases”

Years ago in the news business, a measure of success in the digital world was page views. We all wanted them and measured success based on how many we got.

The page view obsession eventually wore out as we realized this: It was kind of a phony measurement, mainly because we could drive that number with sensational or even salacious content that would appeal to non-local audiences. That in turn, brought traffic to advertisers that didn’t really do the businesses any good.

For example, if in Tallahassee we ran across the story of a three-headed alligator that was eating family pet kittens, that would draw readers from across the globe. But if I’m a local bank or furniture store buying ads on the web site, what good do those eyeballs do for my business?

So we moved on to other more relevant metrics, which wasn’t to say we ignored page views. Local page views are great! But we also wanted to see how long readers stayed on site and how often they returned and stuff like that. That is, we wanted the most relevant info we could find.

I’m suggesting today that COVID “cases” are the page views of the pandemic.

Again, that’s not to say they are irrelevant, but they are not the most useful metric to measure the impact of this deadly, dreaded virus.

This is an important issue to consider as schools start back up and with the backdrop of our local university settings.

Here are the reasons I don’t think cases are the best measure of the impact of the virus:

  1. Not all cases are created equal
  2. Contracting the virus isn’t the worst case — being hospitalized or dying from it is
  3. Cases are tied to testing which we know is imperfect, inconsistently administered and evolving.

Let’s start with “not all cases are created equal.”

According to the Florida Dept. of Health, the state has had just under 50,000 children (ages 17 and under) diagnosed with COVID-19, through Aug. 26. Florida, also as of the 26th, had about 659,000 total cases. That’s 7.6 percent of cases. But under 18-year-olds make up almost 20 percent of the population, according to the U.S. census, so clearly COVID is weighted away from young people in terms of number of cases (at least the ones that have been tested).

But what about severity?

Let’s compare young people to the oldest segments of our population.

And let’s go national so we don’t get any demographic wonkiness Florida might add to the mix.

In the U.S., those 17 and under have made up 8.1 percent of the cases, while those 75 and over have made up almost the exact same amount — 7.9 percent. That’s according to the CDC.

But when it comes to the share of fatalities, a total of 85 Americans in the under 17 age bracket have died — out of the 150,000-plus total — that’s six hundreths of one percent of the total fatalities. For those over 75, almost 79,000 have died, which is 58 percent of the fatalities.

(And let’s just stop right there and say that some of the “they were going to die soon anyway” rationalizations for all those elderly deaths are disgusting. Even if an elderly life is cut short by three months, it’s a tragedy. I’m not diminishing elderly deaths AT ALL. Rather, I am showing how the threat to the elderly compares and how measuring cases can distort the view of how the pandemic is affecting any given community).

Let’s put those numbers another way.

If you divide the number of fatalities into the number of cases for those 75 and older, you get a fatality every 4.3 cases, or a 23 percent fatality rate for cases. For those under 17, it’s a fatality every 4,100 cases or a .02 percent fatality rate.

Here’s the number I’ve been trying to get to. By dividing 4.3 into 4,1000, I get it:

It takes 953 cases in someone under 17 to equal just ONE case in someone 75 or older, when it comes to the risk of fatality.

So, when you see that Florida added X thousand cases in a day — what was the median age of those cases?

One reason Leon County’s fatality rate has been so low is that the median age of a case is 29. Compare that to Charlotte County (lots of retirees) where the median age of a case is 54. Charlotte County has had 110 deaths out of about 2,600 cases. Leon: 33 deaths out of about 6,200 cases.

Here’s the other thing I don’t think we fully recognize and grasp as a society.

Lots and lots of people die every year and more of them are young than we would ever want to imagine.

Here is a chart of U.S. annual deaths for 2020 (actually, starts Feb. 1, which is I guess when COVID data starting flowing, but you get the idea) from COVID and all other causes from the CDC.

I guess I’ve never really thought about the fact that millions of people die every year in America.

What’s really surprising is the 15,000 or so people ages 14 and under who have died this year of all causes. As you can see, COVID victims make up just .3 percent of all deaths in that age range. Even in those over 85, COVID has made up less than 10 percent of all fatalities. (Yes, I know there are disputes about the data and how things are coded — I hear from both sides that the numbers are fudged higher or lower to help one side of the other. Frankly, I don’t think either side is smart enough to pull off that kind of a conspiracy).

So, what’s my point?

First of all, looking at cases is one of the worst metrics to use when analyzing the impact of the virus.

Hospitalizations are a clear signal of a severe case and, of course, death is the ultimate price to pay for contracting COVID.

One telling fact here is from the University of Alabama, which has garnered national headlines recently for COVID outbreaks. More than 1,000 University of Alabama students have COVID-19.

Of those, do you know how many have been hospitalized? Zero. Now, given the delay from the onset of symptoms to hospitalization, that number may or may not start moving.

As an aside, here is a question: Why in the world would you want to send infected college students home, where they interact with all sorts of more vulnerable people while traveling and then while back in their home communities? In a dorm, they are just passing around COVID to a group of people with just a tiny risk of having a severe impact from the disease (I had somebody in health care tell me recently that FSU’s campus will be the safest place in the world by November because it will have achieved its own little “herd immunity”).

This is also why five Notre Dame professors penned a public letter urging the administration to keep on-campus learning, which the university ultimately did.

Second, when looking at the big picture, the risk for young people when it comes to COVID remains very, very small.

Here are the 10 leading causes of death for young people, from a New England Journal of Medicine study in 2018.

Even if COVID death numbers for this age group (19 and under) more than doubles the rest of this year to almost 200, COVID-19 wouldn’t even make the top 10 causes of death for young people (chronic lower respiratory disease took 274 lives in 2018).

On the other hand (a clause you will read a lot on this site), there is still much we don’t know about how the virus affects people, including the possibility of myocarditis (weakness of heart muscle) and possible neurological impacts.

My third point — if you think this is an attempt to oversimplify the issue of attending school or the like, I refer you back to earlier blog postings.

This is still incredibly complicated.

There is still the issue of young people infecting older more vulnerable people. There are still tough questions about how students interact with teachers, school staff and others on campus. And even within the young people cohort are individuals who are at higher risk than their peers, because of underlying health conditions or other factors.

No, this isn’t simple. But that cuts both ways. Merely pointing at case numbers and declaring that being in school is unsafe is also oversimplifying the situation.

And on the other end of the spectrum — what are we doing to protect those elderly Americans who are at such a scarily vulnerable place with COVID?

Finally, you’ll notice there is no politics in here — there are plenty of places you can go to have that conversation. I’m just interested in data and what conclusions and inferences can be drawn from that data. And by the way, lest you think I’m a complete idiot, I’ve had this piece and those like it reviewed by a journalist, two health care professionals as well as the toughest judges of all — family members — pre-posting.

Feel free to chime in with your views, of course. But if you are going to take this down a political path, you are unlikely to get engagement from me on that — I’ll probably only give you a page view.

Monuments to nuance

So, one hallmark of the post-Floyd era is a movement to tear down certain historical monuments and statues, or at least to push to have them removed.

Generally speaking, I think it’s a healthy thing to reevaluate how history is written and interpreted. In addition to the traditional, moral Golden Rule is a more capitalist version of that axiom: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” The same is true of history.

A typical result is that history is romanticized in the direction of those who authored it.

We know that has led to a glossing over of the horrific plights of all sorts of groups of people, from Native Americans to African Americans and more.

Of course, history has also been known to be quite forgiving — the adulterous behavior of a business or political leader is often forgiven, orover time, in the face of larger accomplishments or contributions to society. Some sins seem to stick more than others, but history tends to airbrush blemishes and highlight the “good side” of historical figures.

The emergence of the “cancel culture” has been a shift in that philosophy. There are some who now believe anyone who ever owned slaves or endorsed their ownership should not be recognized with the historical affirmation of a statue or the like (the same is true of post-Civil War segregationists).

This has led to some seemingly confounding situations, such as a statue of Union war hero and eventual President of the United State Ulysses S. Grant’s being pulled down by protesters in San Francisco.

Grant is a fascinating American figure.

He was the son of a fervent abolitionist, Jesse Root Grant. While Ulysses Grant did not inherit his father’s rabid opposition to slavery, he was hardly comfortable with the institution. He married into a Missouri family of slaveowners in the 1850s and acquired a slave in 1858 from his father-in-law. But Grant couldn’t do it. He couldn’t force the man to work and within a year, he formally granted him his freedom.

You know Grant’s legacy as a general — he ended a long line of Union generals who could not get the better of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, eventually securing Lee’s surrender.

But you may not know the hallmarks of Grant’s presidency – he prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, appointed African Americans and Jewish Americans to important federal offices and even created the nation’s first national park — Yellowstone.

Which brings me to my thesis: We should judge our fellow women and men on the totality of their contributions to history.

For me, that means a clear delineation between Civil War Confederate leaders and Union leaders, such as Grant, as well as Founders of the United States.

Let’s take Jefferson Davis. The Confederate President served in a variety of capacities in the U.S. government pre-Civil War (Secretary of War; U.S. Senator, etc.), but none of his contributions were anywhere near as substantial, historically, as his presidency of the insurrection.

And let’s call it what it is, even here in the Deep South — secessionists are, by definition, seditious, disloyal and treasonous. To honor Davis is to honor a failed effort to end the union. Perhaps ending a government’s rule could still be justified, if the cause were honorable, such as the American Revolution, but the cause was not honorable — it was at least in part to preserve slavery as an institution.

That is a monument which should be moved from a place designed for public adoration and admiration, to a venue where history is viewed warts and all, such as a museum or cemetery.

Compared to Grant — well, there is no comparison to me. During an era when slaveholding was widespread, Grant owned a single slave for only a year and couldn’t stomach it. He then spent much of the rest of his life advocating for American blacks, including winning the war that ultimately secured African Americans their permanent freedom, then passing government reforms that increased their legitimacy.

Grant is an analog, in my eyes, to American Founders, such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the like. All four owned slaves, around 100 years before the Civil War was fought.

But to view their actions a quarter millenium ago through present-day lenses is a dangerous way to analyze history. Actually, I just defined something called “presentism.”

The nation’s oldest historical society — the American Historical Association — says of “presentism” that it “encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior.”

I’m not going to list the contributions of Washington and Co. to the country they founded, but needless to say they are prodigious and worthy of continued celebration.

University of Richmond historian Julian Hayter said it well recently on 60 Minutes:

“I would say the difference, the critical difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee, and men like Lee, is that while Washington and Jefferson were com– complicated individuals– and by our standards– thought about ideas in– in an entirely anachronistic way– they also baked in the Constitution the components that allowed people to dismantle– the slave system. They built as much as they destroyed. I cannot say the same thing for the Confederacy.”

I guess this is the problem I have with the “cancel culture” in general — it tends to treat all “crimes” as “social justice felonies” regardless of context such as the era of the offense, or the degrees of wrongdoing. Context still matters, even as we wrestle as a nation with institutional — and blatant — racism.

On the other hand, I understand that some will hold the view that any association with slavery is a “cancelable” offense. I think that is misapplied “presentism,” but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a completely unreasonable view — just one with which I strongly disagree.

Anyway, the “fanatical middle” here is that some monuments should not longer be heralded as homages to heroes, while others should. In other words … NUANCE!

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to follow me!

Oh, this letter is amazing

I wish I had written this letter.

I wish I was important enough to have been asked to sign it.

But given that neither of those things happened, my wish is that you read it and my hope is that it resonates.

Please take note of the list of signatories — it is an impressive collection of folks.

This letter advocated for everything I hope this blog becomes — a safe haven for those tired of the ideologically obsessed and those practicing “gotcha” politics.

A place where you’ll never read about how somebody “destroyed” someone else or their position.

A place where agreeing disagreeably isn’t just a slogan but a way of life.

A place where compromise is valued, where people change their mind, where the complex is embraced.

Welcome to the fanatical middle, my friends. Let’s do some good … together.