Category Archives: Politics

Jonnie Williams: “This Was a Business Relationship”

Jonnie Williams (left), the prosecution's star witness, makes his appearance at the  federal courthouse.

Jonnie Williams (left), the prosecution’s star witness, makes his appearance at the federal courthouse.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s best soap opera in 20 years continued yesterday as Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., the star witness in the prosecution of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, took the witness stand. Williams added little new substance to the public record that wasn’t listed in the indictments but he did flesh out a few details.

Williams made clear that his motives in assisting the Virginia’s First Family were purely mercenary. When asked why he lent his jet aircraft to McDonnell and other Virginia politicians, he said, “If you have a Virginia company, you want to make sure you have access to these people, and the airplane … accomplishes that. … He’s a politician, I’m a businessman.”

Explaining why he lent his jet to fly the governor to California and back, Williams said: “I figured that would give me five to six hours with the governor … to explain to him that I needed his help.”

Then, when asked if he regarded the first couple as personal friends, he responded, “This was a business relationship.”

The question is this: Did the McDonnells view the relationship the same way? If they did — if they viewed the relationship as a means to extract money and gifts in exchange for official favors — the feds have a strong case. If Bob and Maureen viewed the relationship differently, then it will be difficult to persuade a jury that they were engaged in a conspiracy to enrich themselves by misusing the authority of the governor’s office.

Defense attorneys made the prosecution’s case much more difficult to prove yesterday by claiming that the marriage was in tatters, there was a breakdown in communication between husband and wife, and that Maureen McDonnell, starved for attention, had a “crush” on Williams. A very clear implication is that Bob and Maureen had very different takes on the Williams relationship.

Only on one occasion, in October 2010, did Williams extract a “favor” from the governor directly, and that incident occurred before Williams began showering the family with personal gifts. When they were flying from California to Richmond in his jet, Williams told the governor about his anatabine vitamin supplement and asked for his help in getting Virginia’s medical schools to test it. McDonnell arranged a meeting with Bill Hazel, the Virginia secretary of health, but Hazel was unenthusiastic and the governor did not follow up or apply any other pressure. Governors routinely make introductions for campaign contributors, so the prosecution can’t make much of this event.

From there on out, Williams appears to have channeled his efforts through Maureen. Indeed, she was the one who initiated the requests for gifts — most notably the New York shopping expedition, the real estate loans and the wedding reception for daughter Caitlin. So, how was Bob responding to all of this? Apparently, he plans to tell the world his version of events at some point in the trial. Meanwhile, we have hints that he disapproved of some of the gifts, even while acquiescing to other largesse.

In December 2009, Williams offered to buy Maureen an Oscar de la Renta dress for an event in New York. Then he got a call from the governor’s office thanking him but turning down the offer. That call could not have occurred without the governor’s knowledge. It may have been initiated at his direction. One can surmise that, early in the relationship with Williams, McDonnell wanted to avoid the kind of entanglements that later ensnared him.

McDonnell also intervened when Williams bought son Bobby McDonnell a new set of golf clubs. As Bobby testified, “My father’s reaction was that I should give them back.” The gift, the father said, was excessive. (That’s after racking up thousands of dollars of expenses playing golf on Williams’ tab, so take McDonnell’s reservation with a grain of salt.) Interestingly, McDonnell lost that argument. Bobby said he had a friendship with Williams that was separate from his parents’ friendship; he viewed Williams as a mentor. Maureen sided with him. Bobby never returned the clubs.

The governor apparently also disapproved of Williams’ $15,000 gift to daughter Cailin to cover the cost of her wedding reception. Cailin had met Williams only briefly one time, shortly before in the Governor’s Mansion. Maureen had begged Williams for the money but she portrayed the situation very differently to Cailin, explaining, “Mr. Williams was so impressed with [her].” Dad apparently did not learn of Williams’ gift until federal investigators began asking questions about it. “He was very upset that she had taken that check,” Cailin testified.

The picture I’m getting is a man who lost control of his household. Bob McDonnell knew what was right and what was wrong but was unable to lay down the law. Working workaholic hours as governor, he was only intermittently engaged in family affairs and was incompletely informed. If Cailin’s statement is true that he didn’t learn of the $15,000 wedding reception gift until months later, it’s extraordinary that he was so disconnected from his own family finances. Meanwhile, Williams was engaging in routine communication with his wife — 1,200 phone calls and text messages — lending his jet to ferry around his children and playing golf with his sons. The governor told Bobby to return the golf clubs but couldn’t enforce his own edict.

While McDonnell may have had reservations about some of the gifts, it appears that he slid down a slippery slope. Eventually, he did accept a $20,000 wire transfer to help bail out MoBo Realty, his underwater Virginia Beach real estate investment. So far, that seems to be the most damning piece of evidence against him. It will be interesting to see what kind of defense he mounts against that. So far, I have seen no sign of it.

One last observation: It’s one thing for a man like Williams to cozy up to the governor by befriending him personally or even he and his wife befriending the McDonnells as couples. It’s another thing to do so by cozying up to his wife (1,200 phone calls and text messages) and mentoring his son. Williams invested not just money but time in those relationships. Were his motives as purely mercenary as he now says? Was he really in it just for the business? Talk about cold and calculating! It says a lot about his character, too.

Misery in High Places

Maureen McDonnell flanked by daughters Rachel (left) and Cailin.  Old view of Maureen: wicked witch of the Governor's Mansion. New view: miserable spouse looking for attention. Photo credit: Associated Press.

Maureen McDonnell flanked by daughters Rachel (left) and Cailin. Old view of Maureen: wicked witch of the Governor’s Mansion. New view: tragic figure. Photo credit: Associated Press.

In his post on the McDonnell trial, Peter Galuszka asked a profound question (something I don’t normally give him credit for!). Does living in the fishbowl of the Governor’s Mansion, with all the attendant pressure, put incalculable strain on a governor’s domestic life? “What should ‘public service’ be and how much should it take from one’s private life,” Peter wondered. “More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?”

I had that question in the back of my mind this morning as I combed through the media reports of yesterday’s events. All newspaper accounts led with the revelation that the marriage between Bob and Maureen McDonnell had essentially broken down, and that Maureen had a “crush” on Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the then-CEO of Star Scientific who sought favors from the McDonnells to help his business. Maureen and Jonnie exchanged 1,200 phone calls and text messages. As William Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lead defense attorney, said: “Unlike the other man in her life, Jonnie Williams paid attention to Maureen McDonnell.”

That picture received confirmation from testimony recounted by the Virginian-Pilot. Prosecutors called Cailin McDonnell Young to the stand to recount circumstances surrounding Williams’ offer to cover the $15,000 expense associated with her wedding reception. On cross-examination she revealed the following:

Young said that, during Bob McDonnell’s tenure as governor and his previous service as attorney general, “I hardly ever saw my father.”

“Anytime I wanted to see my dad, I had to go through a scheduler,” she said.

A daughter needs a scheduler to see her dad? That’s brutal. But that’s what family life is like with a man who works 14- to 16-hour days. Life couldn’t have been much better for Maureen McDonnell. For a long time, I regarded her as the heavy in this whole affair. But now I have a keener appreciation of the domestic dynamics. She spent much of her time feeling isolated, frustrated and anxious. She often lost her temper with her husband and staff. For the first time, I feel a modicum of sympathy for her. She was a lonely, stressed-out and unhappy woman.

None of this excuses her actions, much less McDonnell’s alleged failure to exercise full disclosure. But it does provide context. I return to Peter’s question regarding what kind of financial pressure does being governor put on a First Family of modest means? I would expand the question to include, what kind of strain does the time demands of public office put on a family?


One Very Sad Day In Court

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

One literally could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.

William Burck, lawyer for  Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s Former First Lady who has been indicted no 14 corruption charges along with her former governor husband was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.

“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said. Ms. McDonnell was angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.

As John L. Brownlee, McDonnell’s lawyer, said, McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”

In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade.) Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”

“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.

At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the Governor will read the email when he goes on the jury stand during the trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”

One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.

It could be that a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy may work to get both of them off. After all, she wasn’t a public official and could do what she wanted as far as gifts. The prosecution’s opening statement drew a rather detailed and concise outline of just what and when the McDonnells solicited Williams’ largesse, right down to the “thank you” emails when money arrived in the bank to Maureen’s cell phone snap shot of Bob wearing slick, wraparound sunglasses while driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Giving the McDonnell’s the benefit of the doubt, I have to say I’ve heard this kind of story before among long-married couples suffering through middle age as their children are ready to fly away. Their stories may not be dramatic but I’ve got to admit that Bob McDonnell never seemed to exhibit such grabby behavior before.

This raises another tough question. What should “public service” be and how much should it take from one’s private life. More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?

McDonnell slogged through relatively low-paying jobs like the General Assembly, Attorney General and Governor. He had five kids and a wife who seemed very freaked out by being First Lady – a role she apparently never wanted. She came from a Northern Virginia civil service family that didn’t exactly have a grand disposable income.

Consider two other Virginia governors –former and current. Mark Warner, now U.S. Senator, is rich from his telecommunications investments made years ago. At one point he was said to be worth a couple hundred million dollars. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, another former businessman, is likewise wealthy but probably not as rich as Warner.

Should these people be in office because they are rich? Should public service be available only to those with great portfolios? What would Thomas Jefferson say?

Diet Denier

Perhaps you could call Nina Teicholz a “diet denier.” The journalist and author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Health Diet,” is part of the growing backlash against a half century-long orthodoxy that aimed to limit fat and cholesterol in the American diet. That orthodoxy, which ruled the medical establishment and the federal health apparatus, unwittingly engineered a society-wide shift to the sugar-heavy diet now deemed responsible for the surge in obesity and heart disease that afflicts the country.

In her book, Teicholz delved into the history of how fats, trans-fats and cholesterol came to be demonized and how public policy strove to drive fats out of the American diet. The movement began in the 1950s with a famous study by Ancel Keys, which postulated a link between cholesterol and heart health. The American Heart Association jumped on the bandwagon in 1961, the United States Department of Agriculture issued new dietary guidelines in 1978, and momentum built from there. Food companies rolled out low-fat, low-cholesterol food products, typically substituting sugar and salt for fat. Pharmaceutical companies introduced anti-cholesterol drugs. Schools and media brainwashed generations of Americans to change their behavior.

How could things have gone so wrong? As Teicholz explains in her TED talk above:

The same group of people were on all the expert panels. They all reviewed each others’ papers. These groups controlled all of the funding, so if you didn’t get on this cholesterol bandwagon, you couldn’t get funding, you couldn’t do research, you couldn’t be a scientist. Over the course of 25 years, this diet-heart hypothesis became ingrained in the institutions. There became an institutional bias. There was a bias in the media. And everybody lined up behind this hypothesis. You couldn’t be a scientist if you didn’t get on board.

Thankfully, a new generation of scientists questioned the orthodoxy. Now researchers are focusing on the excess consumption of sugar as the main culprit responsible for our dietary woes.

Fortunately, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Our scientific, media and government officials would never enforce another orthodoxy on the grounds that “97 percent of all scientists” in a given field agree that “the science is settled.”  We’d never rig the peer-review process to suppress unpopular scientific viewpoints. We’d never channel billions of dollars of federal funding into supporting one particular point of view of a massively complex phenomenon while de-funding dissenters. We’d never demonize skeptics as “anti-science,” tools of evil, self-interested corporations and moral analogues of holocaust deniers. We’re far too enlightened in the United States to ever let that happen.

Or are we?


Virginia’s Trial of the Decade

Maureen Williams and Jonnie Williams. Photo credit: Daily Progress

Maureen Williams and Jonnie Williams. Photo credit: Daily Progress

by James A. Bacon

Jury selection for the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen begins today. The 43-page federal indictment against the former First Family piles up a mass of detail to present a devastating portrait. Particularly damaging are revelations that the McDonnells intervened behind the scenes to help their friend and patron Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, in his efforts to establish research relationships with the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinion seems universal, even among those inclined to defend McDonnell, that the First Family’s behavior recounted in the indictments are beyond the pale — not only insufferably “tacky,” as a lawyer friend of mine put it, but downright shameful. However, before we convict the former governor of corruption, let us pause a moment and catch our breath. The indictment represents a cherry picking of the facts most damaging to the McDonnells. Let us also remember that the McDonnells will seek to establish a different narrative. At this point, we don’t know what that narrative will be. But whatever it is, I will hazard a guess that it will reveal a lot of information that has yet to surface about the relationship between the McDonnells on the one hand and Jonnie Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, and his wife Celeste on the other.

The indictment consists of a recitation of facts shorn of context. The feds charge that the events described amount to “a scheme to use Robert McDonnell’s official position as the Governor of Virginia to enrich the defendants and their family members.” They list a series of events and communications in chronological order, creating the strong impression that favors Williams performed for the McDonnells were directly related to favors the McDonnells performed for Williams. That may be an accurate impression. But it also might be a deceptive one. The way in which the information is presented precludes the possibility that anyone was acting out of personal friendship.

Missing from the indictment is any evidence describing the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell and Mr. and Mrs. Williams, which would be highly relevant in interpreting the events described by prosecutors. Celeste Williams barely figures in the picture at all. Reading only the indictment and the news reports based upon it creates the impression that Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams were extraordinarily close — almost creepily so. What kind of man takes his friend’s wife shopping in New York? As outside observers, we have to consider the possibility that Maureen McDonnell and Celeste Williams were close, too, that Mrs. Williams was a participant in the shopping expeditions and conceivably that she cajoled her husband into helping the McDonnells financially out of friendship. If that were the case — and I have no idea if it is or not — it would complicate the prosecution’s narrative immeasurably.

From the published record, we have only a few clues by which to piece together a portrait of the two families’ friendship.

“We had a very positive relationship for three or four years,” a somber McDonnell told The Associated Press last August.

McDonnell, who carefully couched his relationship with Williams in the past tense during the AP interview, said the enterprising venture capitalist had been his kind of guy: a self-made man from working-class stock who, like the governor, got his start in the health care services and supplies field. Both are in their late 50s. They discovered they had even both honeymooned in the same spot, Bar Harbor, Maine.

“I admire people who are entrepreneurial, who are finding ways to create opportunities in Virginia and that’s one of the reasons that when I first met him back in ’09 (or) ’10 that we established a friendship,” McDonnell said. “We both had big families. He had four kids, I had five.

“We had interesting early discussions about the field of health care and about our families,” he said.

The two men met in March 2009 when McDonnell was running for governor and Williams, a major bankroller of a previous Republican candidate, Jerry Kilgore, loaned him his airplane. When McDonnell was elected November 3, according to the indictment, “they had no personal relationship and were merely professional acquaintances at that time.” Continue reading

The McDonnell Trial Gets Underway

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

This morning marks the start of the long-awaited corruption trial for Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, the first ever involving the governor of a state that fancies itself above petty corruption.

McDonnell, a Republican, faces 14 felony counts in federal court including wire fraud and lying on a federal loan application. This morning’s session at U.D. District Court before Judge James Spencer will involve jury selection. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

It promises to be a cross between a soap opera and a reality show with overtones of a Greek tragedy. Involved are strong personalities, a classic triangle (the governor, his wife and Jonnie Williams, a businessman who is the feds star witness) and lots of big, big Virginia names. The lawyers’ list reads like the wine list at a five-star restaurant.

There will be lots of politics and lots of venality, such as why Ms. McDonnell insisted on Williams supplying luxury trinkets and money, whether the First Family, regarded as a fine example of Virginia public service, was living far beyond their means and why the state’s squeaky-clean image is a myth.

A few more takeaways:

  • This is a federal case, not a state one. There is no way the case could ever have gone anywhere in state court – the laws are nonexistent. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a federal case and, traditionally, federal courts are used to go after local politicians and business people. Remember that it was the feds who nailed Al Capone in federal court, not Chicago or Illinois state courts. Just arguing that state law doesn’t go that far is irrelevant.
  • It’s going to get very ugly. Much of the melodrama takes place in the governors’ Capitol Hill house ruled by Ms. McDonnell and from which the case originally stemmed. It had to do with an executive chef who was accused of theft and was tried. He blew the whistle on the relationship between McDonnells, the gifts and Williams. Now, we find that the defense may subpoena the housekeeper for previous Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both now U.S. Senators. It could be an episode of “Housewives of the Executive Mansion.” Stay tuned.
  • There’s no getting around the politics. I have to admit that it seemed very curious last year that the McDonnell case seemed to spring up from nowhere in the governor’s last year in office (he can’t succeed himself). It happened during a bitter gubernatorial race between hard-right Republican Kenneth Cuccinelli and Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe. There were media leaks galore last summer which made for great, gossipy reading but one did wonder about the propriety of it all.
  • Suppose the McDonnells are acquitted? If so, what was all the Sound and Fury about? Blogger Paul Goldman, former head of the state Democratic Party, believes an acquittal could bring calls for the resignation of U.S. Atty. Gen Eric Holder. Sounds extreme.

All in all, the trial represents a transitional phase for Virginia. Its old ways, conceited and quaint they may have been, have faded. Welcome to the 21st Century, y’all!

Tim Kaine Versus the Mole People

mole peopleThe Silver Line extending the Washington Metro to Tysons is scheduled to open Saturday, and people are getting excited about the impending event. Mass transit supporters are hailing the momentous achievement, which provides the impetus to transform Virginia’s largest business district into a more balanced, livable and walkable community. Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

But others are lamenting the plundering of Dulles Toll Road commuters to pay for much of the project, especially the soon-to-start second phase to Washington Dulles International Airport and beyond. Critics have ample grounds for their bitterness. The Silver Line constitutes a massive wealth-redistribution scheme. Riders and property owners enjoying windfalls in property values will pay for only a fraction of the cost of building and operating the system.

Some day, someone will write a book about the Silver Line project and the extraordinary political maneuvering it took to make it happen. When he (or she) does, they’ll find a treasure trove of source material in the Library of Virginia. The state library is archiving 1.3 million emails generated by Governor Tim Kaine and members of his administration. The Kaine Email Project is making those emails searchable and accessible online.

Out of the Box, the Library of Virginia blog, is highlighting correspondence regarding selected topics, including the furor over whether to build the Silver Line under ground or above ground where it ran through Tysons. The controversy was covered heavily by the press but the Kaine Email Project gives a closer look at Kaine’s decision-making process. In a quick and superficial perusal, I didn’t find any great surprises here — Kaine was a pretty straightforward guy — but the emails do show whom he communicated with as he worked his way through the controversy.

This email dated Dec. 12, 2006, and addressed to Chief of Staff Bill Leighty, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, Communications Director Delacey Skinner and Counselor to the Governor Larry Roberts, provides some color.

Yesterday in our leadership meeting, we talked about the rumor that the [Federal Transit Administration] would send me a letter saying “the choice not to pursue the tunnel was yours alone and we had nothing to do with it.” Last night, Lin Holton gave me a letter circulating in Northern Virginia. The Tysons Tunnel group asked William Coleman — former Secretary of Transportation under Nixon and Ford — to write a letter that seems to suggest that the tunnel or no tunnel decision was not the FTA’s but the Governor’s. This may be the rumored letter — or it may give a hint of what a forthcoming FTA letter would say. I will give the letter to Delacey — she can provide copies to you.

At some point, we will be asked for some statement on the whole thing. Just to have a statement ready if and when we need it — for a press response or for a letter to the Mole People or someone else — I thought I would put into my own words a quick narrative of the process up to this point, trying to be diplomatic and not heedlessly hack anyone off (i.e., Congress people, Fairfax, FTA, etc.)

It’s fascinating to see Kaine grappling with rumors, responding to the circulation of letters by advocacy groups and referring to “Mole People.” Is that what he called the tunnel zealots? Pretty funny.



a-bomb peace signBy Peter Galuszka

Remember the federal deficit that lurked behind the corner? Where did it go?

Al Kamen of The Washington Post asks that question in a column today. He writes:

“Not long ago, the federal deficit was projected to destroy the country, our country’s future and just about everything else. The politicians and the news media regularly fretted about what to do. Budget battles shut down the entire government for a couple of weeks.”

He continues: “So, what happened? The simple answer, of course, is that the deficit is way down and, for now, is no longer a big problem.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that the deficit for f/y 2014 is $492 billion or 2.8 percent of GDP. That puts us back in the early years of the George W. Bush administration.

Hmm. Kinda of makes you wonder where all this out-of-control spending is coming from that the Tea Party types talk about so much.

It is off the media radar screen. The Post has a graphic showing that the words or mention of the “national debt,” federal debt” or “federal deficit,” reached a high around the first half of 2010. The conservative Washington Times the most at 18; The Post with 13; and the New York Times with 10. Now it’s around three.

This isn’t to say that federal spending doesn’t merit watching. But where is Jim Bacon when you need him?

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there –  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.

Is the End of America’s Culture Wars in Sight?


Michael Lind

by James A. Bacon

Have the Culture Wars peaked? Is the national debate over God, Gays and Guns on the downward slide? Michael Lind, a conservative thinker and cofounder of The New America Foundation, thinks the end is foreseeable. Just as the Civil War didn’t end after Gettysburg — the Confederate states still had a lot of fight left in them — the controversy over abortion, gay rights and gun rights will generate headlines for years to come. But there isn’t much doubt who will win the war.

Look at the views of the Millennial Generation and you can see which way popular sentiment is heading. Millennials are far less likely than their elders to say religion plays an important role in their lives, and they are more likely to define themselves as social liberals. They are less likely to own guns and more likely to support gun control. They are the only demographic cohort in which a majority — 70% — support gay marriage.

As liberal Millennials replace conservatives from the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation, will political power swing decisively to the Democratic Party? Not necessarily, writes Lind in “The Coming Realignment,” an essay in The Breakthrough. But there will be a massive shift in the fissures dividing the nation. How that will play out in terms of partisan politics is difficult to predict but rest assured that the Republican Party, a coalition of disparate and often fractious groups, will reinvent itself.

Lind analyzes contemporary U.S. politics along two great dividing lines: economics (free markets, regulation, inequality of wealth) and culture (guns, God and gays). Democrats represent the economic and cultural liberals; Republicans represent the economic and cultural conservatives. But there are many economic liberals/social conservatives (often called populists) and economic conservatives/social liberals (often labeled Libertarians) who don’t fall easily in either camp. As the social conservatives are slowly eased out of the picture, Lind argues, political coalitions will reorganize around two new poles: Liberaltarians and Populiberals.

Liberaltarian, a term already in use, describes “a broad camp including neoliberal Democrats skeptical of government in the economic sphere along with libertarian Republicans and independents who recognize the need for more government than libertarian ideologues believe to be legitimate.”

Populiberal, Lind’s coinage, describes “social liberals who share the liberal social values of liberaltarians, but who tend to be more egalitarian and to favor a greater role for the government in matters like social insurance, business-labor relations, and redistribution of income.”

Lind then boldly suggests that these two new coalitions will align themselves geographically between “Densitarian” and “Posturbia.” By Densitaria, he refers to the higher-density urban precincts, both downtowns and suburban villages, where higher-income Americans increasingly prefer to reside along with the service class that caters to their needs. Posturbia is comprised of lower-density suburbs and rural areas where the working and middle classes live. Residents of Densitaria and Posturbia will tend to disagree about the nature of the social safety net (should it be tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable, or should it structured more like universal social insurance?), the tax structure (soak the rich?) and the nanny state (using government power to combat obesity).

Though fascinating, Lind’s argument is not entirely convincing. He is entirely correct that the national sentiment is becoming more liberal on some Culture War issues, most notably gay rights. But I don’t believe the needle has moved much on abortion. And, as medical science advances, I think we will see entirely new ethical dilemmas arise. It won’t be long before genetic engineering allows people to create “designer kids” or before the use of manufactured limbs, hearts and organs on the one hand and the rise of robots imbued with Artificial Intelligence raises questions of what it means to be human. It is not hard to predict a growing revulsion against what some deem to be progress. Some of that revulsion may be religion-based, but much of it could be secular.

One additional point: Millennials are culturally liberal now. But will they stay liberal when they get married, settle down and have kids? Look what happened to the Baby Boomers. Who would have thought in 1968 that a majority of the generation would wind up voting Republican in 2012?

Still, I think Lind is right about some things. The shift toward equal rights for gays is likely to be permanent and, within a decade, no longer will be controversial. I also think Lind is right that the last remnants of racial prejudice are dying out with the passing of the older generations. As young “people of color” see race as less and less of a factor affecting their lives, they will be less attached to the Democratic Party and more open to appeals by Republicans.

In my spare time, I am working on a novel set in 2075. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what the United States will look like in 60 years. I’ve concluded that the world is so complex and the interactions of technology, economics, politics and culture so impossible to predict that the future is unknowable. With that caveat, I postulate the break-up of the Republican Party into two entities — the Enterprise Party (which is economically conservative and culturally liberal) and the Faith Nation (which is first and foremost culturally conservative). In my scenario, the Enterprise Party hives off some people who call themselves Democrats today, and the Democratic Party shifts so far to the populist-redistributionist left that it rebrands itself as the Social Democratic Party. (In my novel, the Social Democrats predominate. I guess you could call it a dystopia!)

Such idle speculation aside, America has seen dramatic political realignments before, and it will see them again. Lind makes a provocative case and he identifies key dynamics that will influence the outcome. Popular dissatisfaction with Americans political institutions is so intense today that it’s hard to believe that the current two-party duopoly can long continue in its current form. Lind’s essay is as good a place as any to start thinking about what comes next.