Thursday, February 27, 2020

* Mrs. Hastings' Problems of Democracy

Mrs. Hastings and  11th Grade Impeachment


Paul Keane is a retired Vermont English teacher..



My 11th grade history teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Hastings,  was married to an FBI agent and she taught a popular course at my high school about democracy. Everybody knew her husband was a “G-man” but nobody mentioned it except in whispers.
Never talk about politics or religion my mother told me. So I won’t go off on the particulars of  the 2020 presidential impeachment which seem to have driven so many Americans to despair over the last few months. People of all persuasions claim that impeachment has proved one thing; Democracy doesn’t work.

Tell that to Mrs. Hastings, at Hamden (Connecticut)  High School in 1961/62 .  That was the year before the Cuban missile crisis and two years before President Kennedy’s assassination

Mrs. Hastings proudly taught a course called “Problems of Democracy”.  Students just called it P.O.D..

Notice it was called Problems of Democracy not Solutions of Democracy. And democracy had plenty of problems.

It is thanks to Mrs. H. that I understood every twist and turn of the fully televised Presidential Impeachment Hearings of 2020.

And it is thanks to her that I can give you my own verdict about democracy:  It is not failing. It is not declining.  It is exactly where it should be. It is doing exactly what the founders intended and what Mrs. H. made us understand they intended: checking and balancing all three branches of government, as if there was a scale with three weighing pans instead of two; the executive pan, the legislative pan and the judicial pan, all of which needed to be kept somewhat level.

We all knew that Mrs. Hastings had first-hand contact with democracy with a big “D.

But that  first-Hnd contct was a secret never to be mentioned in public for fear it would endanger her husband’s life . Mrs. H. was married to an FBI agent who would disappear from home for weeks, maybe months at a time on secret missions for the government. 

We all imagined him with men in trench-coats and fedora hats in dark alleys, but when the American Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cubans failed miserably in its attempt to overthrow that island’s revolutionary president Fidel Castro in 1961, trench-coats and fedora hats turned to boats and ocean soaked khaki pants in our imaginations. 

It was thrilling to think that my own history teacher’s husband had to disappear from his home for months at a time and nobody was allowed to mention it. 

So why do I say democracy in America in February 2020 is doing just fine when half the country thinks impeachment was a failure and the other half thinks it was a victory?

It’s because Mrs. Hastings taught us that impeachment is only half the process. The other half is a trial and a verdict, and we all know in 2020 just how unpredictably maddening verdicts can be: just recall the trial of  O.J. Simpson.

If you look it up in the dictionary you discover that the word unimpeachable means   “not able to be doubted, questioned or criticized:  entirely trustworthy.”

The House found behavior that was not entirely trustworthy, not unimpeachable. The Senate after hearing the House’s evidence disagreed.

And there it stands.

So why do I say democracy worked?  Because the entire country saw the trial: House  prosecutors vs. Executive defense attorneys. Because the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court heard every scintilla of evidence presented in the trial. Because  all 100 members of the Senate, were required to be in attendance, without their cell phones or any stimulating beverages other than water or milk (chocolate apparently allowed.)

In other words, the machinery of the U. S. Constitution turned its gears in exactly the manner the Constitution envisioned, with the exception of televised hearings, a possibility no signer of the Constitution could have imagined in 1787. 

One can argue about the justice of the outcome, but that is what America is all about: questioning authority.

But nobody can say any branch got to tip the scales..  And those scales were unique: Lady Justice had three weighing pans not the usual two: a legislative pan, an executive pan and a judicial pan.

Impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate , however raggedy both may have been, went through to the end. 

And the three weighing-pans of Democracy, and its problems as Mrs. H. taught me, continue their endless rebalancing act. But three pans can’t achieve a stable balance.

Mrs. Hastings taught us the Constitution provided a fourth weighing-pan: The Press.

Democracy thrives.

* Jeff St. Claire Tweet

Monday, October 21, 2019

Pace Yourself, Dear Bernie, Pace Yourself

To an Activist Dying Young


(With apologies to A. E. Housman)




Three times you won Vermonter races
Mayor, congress, senate;
Three times we cheered you
From our mountain spaces:


Now, the road all runners come,
The heart has slowed your paces; 
As white hair sprouts like antlers,
Aged armor of a racer.


Smart buck to pace your heartbeat
With antlers’ aging color.
For thirty million donor dollars
Cannot a grave uncover.


Eyes the shady night has shut
Will not see the record cut
And silence sounds much worse than jeers
When earth has stopped the ears.


So set your fleet foot
Not on the sill of shade,
But on the lecterned stage,
And round that silken antlered head
Let voters flock to gaze.


They’ll hear a breathing Bernie speak
Autumnal activist he,
Wise enough to fight a fight
He’ll stay alive to see.