GELFAND’S WORLD--This story is like an old Carnac the Magnificent riddle. Your first three answers: The twenty-third anniversary of a major earthquake, the twentieth anniversary of a murderous weekend, and the upcoming transition of power. (Photo above: Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent.)
Unfortunately, the answer to these clues isn't a belly laugh, but an uneasy hmmm.
On January 17, 1994, the Northridge quake began at 4:31 AM, give or take ten seconds. It reminded us of the power of the natural world, but also taught us that our governmental institutions could be resilient. A broken freeway and a broken Los Angeles Coliseum were repaired in remarkably short order. Electricity and water service were restored.
Three years later to the day, on January 17, 1997 at 8:30 PM, Laurence Austin was murdered by gunfire in the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue. That same weekend, Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered alongside the 405 freeway. A third murder occurred when a school girl was killed by a stray gun shot as she rode in a school bus.
It is of note that all three murders were solved by the police and the guilty were sent to prison.
The commonality among the murders and the earthquake damage is straightforward. We rely on our governmental institutions. We don't have a lot of choice. Whether it be protection from murderers or preservation of water services, we have to hope that we can count on the people in charge. They have to be vigilant. They must also be sober of thought and careful in their considerations.
January 20th, 2017 -- We have a right to be concerned. Will Donald Trump show himself as a savvy businessman who can turn his real world experience into an economically successful America, or is he the American version of the elderly George III, destined to be driven by his own passions and talking to the air?
At the moment we have little to go on as to whether it will be the one or the other. The 3 AM Tweet storms are not reassuring in this regard.
An aside: Charles Rembar was the attorney who defended the book Fanny Hill in an obscenity case that went to the Supreme Court. He, more than any other person, was responsible for freeing Americans from the censorship of the postal authorities and local police departments. Rembar made Americans free to read. I think it would be hard to accuse Rembar of authoritarianism.
Yet in his landmark book The Law of the Land, Rembar points out, I believe wisely, that the first responsibility of the sovereign is to keep the peace. This includes protection from thieves and murderers as well as foreign invaders. In our modern day, it also involves quick but effective response, as mayor Richard Riordan found when he had to react to that Northridge quake we spoke about above.
Within the next few months, there will be flare-ups in the middle east, tensions in the far east, and issues to be resolved among Europeans. It's easy to make these predictions because they are what we have been having for the past several decades. American leadership is expected in these realms.
So this is the major question. Are we going into 2017 in effect without a leader? Here's one hint -- yelling insults and hurling Tweets is not usually the stuff of real leadership. The president, more than any other human, should be capable of resisting his own inner demons in order to act in the national interest. Is Trump capable?
Twenty-three Januaries, some more jarring than others, but each bringing its own reminder that we live in a complicated system that requires vigilance.
The presidency is more than anything else a responsibility. In the nuclear age, it goes beyond being a responsibility to the American people alone. It has become a responsibility to the entire world. Every minute of every day, the president is on duty and the president must live up to the requirements.
In his year-long campaign, Donald Trump looked, acted, and sounded like somebody who is not ready to accept this level of responsibility. He has mostly been accused of being petty and vindictive. These are weaknesses to be sure, but the flaw that is more critical is his intellectual laziness. It comes out in his every pronouncement. So far he comes across as a guy who doesn't have much interest in learning things. His refusal to participate in security briefings is just one example. It's a dangerously irresponsible lack.
Another concern is Trump's appointments, for example that of former governor Rick Perry as the new Secretary of Energy. His testimony to a Senate committee was unintentionally hilarious. Trump's appointees are eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush appointments such as his nominee to head FEMA. Can anyone remember the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? The power to appoint is another serious responsibility.
We are soon to see whether the act is the real Donald Trump or whether there might possibly be a real person underneath the bluster. I (along with others) fear that the act is really all there is to the man. Perhaps, once he takes his seat in the Oval Office, he will be inspired by the magnitude of the challenge and work to become a real president, which means, first of all, working to become a person with reason and self-control. It will be interesting to see what the experience of the office will do to the man.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])