History Lesson
April 20, 2021

Former Vice President Walter Mondale (D), who died Monday, led a successful effort to reform the filibuster in 1975, when he was a U.S. senator from Minnesota. Before Mondale and James Pearson (R-Kan.) introduced a resolution to reform cloture, the parliamentary mechanism to end a filibuster, at the beginning of the 94th Congress, a two-thirds majority of senators present and voting were needed to break a filibuster; Mondale and Pearson pushed for three-fifths of all senators voting and present.

Senate Rule XXII, which governed cloture, "in its present form, has protected the right of debate at the expense of the right to decide," Mondale told his Senate colleagues. "Rule XXII has significantly impaired the ability of this body to function."

Sen. James Allen (D-Ala.) led the opposition to the measure, and after several rancorous weeks of debate, the Senate agreed to a compromise resolution in which three-fifth of the entire Senate, or 60 senators, had to agree to invoke cloture and thwart a filibuster. That rule still stands for legislative filibusters, though once again there is clamor for reform amid obstruction.

Earlier in his Senate career, Mondale supported a simple majority of 51 senators to quash a filibuster. And he and Pearson briefly set a precedent for a 51-vote cloture, James Wallner explained in 2019. But Mondale had changed his mind by then. "As I see it, it is an issue between the ability to paralyze, on the one hand, and the ability to require full ventilation of an issue, on the other," he said in 1971. "In my opinion, there are crucial issues which demand full consideration by the Senate."

By 2011, Mondale was ready for another round of cloture reform. In 1975, senators hoped lowering the threshold to 60 votes from 67 "would preserve debate and deliberation while avoiding paralysis, and for a while it did," he wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. "But it's now clear that our reform was insufficient for today's more partisan, increasingly gridlocked Senate." Mondale suggested lowering the threshold to 55 votes, or "requiring a filibustering senator to actually speak on the Senate floor for the duration of a filibuster."

"I still would like to keep some of the filibuster," Mondale said in 2013. "I think the Senate should be different from the House. I'm looking for that mysterious line between requiring debate and consultation on the one hand and paralysis on the other hand. ... What we clearly have today is paralysis." Peter Weber

July 11, 2020

Several presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, were criticized for pardoning political allies during their tenures in the Oval Office, The New York Times reports, but President Trump's critics think the commutation of Roger Stone's prison sentence stands out.

In 1992, Bush pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger after Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra affair, filed a new indictment against Weinberger that made public notes contradicting Bush's assertion he was not aware at the time of the arms-for-hostages aspect of the weapons deal. Clinton, meanwhile, stoked bipartisan furor when he pardoned financier Marc Rich in the final hours of his presidency in 2001. Rich fled the country to avoid charges of evading $48 million in taxes, but obtained his clemency after his ex-wife, Denise Rich, contributed money to Clinton's presidential library.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served as a high-ranking Justice Department official during George W. Bush's presidency, said those pardons are parallels to Stone's commutation, but Goldsmith believes Trump's larger pattern of bailing out his friends and allies puts him in his own league. Goldsmith determined that, out of Trump's 36 pardons or commutations, the act advanced Trump's political goals or benefited someone to whom he had a personal connection 31 times. "This has happened before in a way," Goldsmith said. "But there has been nothing like Trump from a systematic perspective."

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin is also troubled by that pattern, but even among those 36 cases, he thinks Stone's is the most concerning. As Toobin writes, even former President Richard Nixon, the modern era's commander-in-chief most synonymous with political corruption, understood granting clemency to someone who could potentially testify against him was "just too hot." Read more at The New York Times and The New Yorker. Tim O'Donnell

July 9, 2020

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the court's liberals — and delivered a powerful decision — in a case over whether Native Americans can be prosecuted by states.

The court ruled 5-4 Wednesday in favor of the Creek Nation against the state of Oklahoma, saying they and other Native Americans cannot be tried in a state court for "major crimes committed in Indian country." Gorsuch wrote the court's majority opinion, channeling the history of how the Creek Nation was forced along the Trail of Tears to their current tribal lands and declaring that land was set to be "secure forever." Kathryn Krawczyk

June 2, 2020

It's been a week since George Floyd's death in police custody sparked worldwide protests against systemic racism, specifically within law enforcement and against black men. But the legacy of racist policing stems back much, much further, The New York Times Magazine's Nikole Hannah-Jones explained to CBS News on Tuesday.

As Hannah-Jones, creator of the Times' 1619 project, noted, "modern policing," particularly in the south and parts of the northeast, "actually evolved out of the slave patrols." They "deputized white Americans to police enslaved communities, to ensure slaves were only in the places they were allowed, to put down slave insurrections," and gave them practically unlimited power to stop, question, and even "execute enslaved people," Hannah-Jones continued.

"So we have a long history of devaluing black lives, of allowing white police to kill black Americans," even for minor crimes, Hannah-Jones said. And while "we want to always say that slavery was a long time ago ... what we see today is a direct lineage from that idea that black lives are worth less than white lives," she finished. Watch Hannah-Jones' whole explanation below. Kathryn Krawczyk

May 7, 2020

The COVID-19 "plague," as President Trump likes to call it, is caused by a new coronavirus. But viral pandemics and deadly plagues aren't new. And neither is initially pretending the disease won't affect your region, or prematurely declaring victory.

"A century ago, the Spanish flu epidemic's second wave was far deadlier than its first, in part because authorities allowed mass gatherings from Philadelphia to San Francisco," The Associated Press reports in an article about the "growing dread" health experts feel about "an all-but-certain second wave of deaths and infections that could force governments to clamp back down." In the U.S., the first wave hasn't yet crested.

"Almost every epidemic you can think of, the first reaction of any government is to say, 'No, no, it's not here. We haven't got it,'" British historian and pandemic researcher Richard Evans tells NPR. "Or 'it's only mild' or 'it's not going to have a big effect.'" In nearly every case, the government was dead wrong, Evans said. NPR looked at the example he laid out in his 1987 book about the 1892 cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany, which killed about 10,000 of the port city's 800,000 residents. NPR summarized some key points:

The German city-state was run by merchant families who put trade and economy above residents' welfare. ... Hamburg's leaders claimed cholera was spread by an invisible vapor no government could hope to prevent. But in August 1892, the excrement of a Russian migrant ill with cholera ended up in the Elbe River, which the city drew on for its municipal water. ...

Hamburg's government waited six days after discovering that people were dying from cholera to tell anyone. By then, thousands were ill. ... A year after the cholera outbreak, Hamburg's fed-up citizenry voted their incompetent businessmen leaders out of office. They replaced the merchants with leaders who belonged to the Social Democrats, a working-class party that prioritized science and health over profit. [NPR]

Merchants were also blamed in the Great Plague of Marseille, the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Western Europe

Luckily, science has come a long way in the past 130 years. Politics? Maybe not. Peter Weber

February 10, 2020

While addressing the nation's governors at the White House on Monday, President Trump took a shot at the European Union and NATO.

NATO, he said, was "going down like a rocket ship" before he came in and saved the day by convincing other member states to contribute more money. But he seemed generally pleased with the direction things are going. That's not the case for the EU, which Trump claimed is treating the United States "very badly."

Trump even argued one of the "primary reasons" the EU was formed was so its member states could pick on the U.S, which is a claim that doesn't really have much going for it historically. The EU is the final stage of a progression of a continent-wide economic community that was first implemented in the aftermath of World War II. Seeking to avoid a third conflict on such a scale, European leaders at the time sought to create a cooperative system in which countries could trade with little hindrance. Eventually, that morphed into the current EU, which has expanded beyond just economic unity.

The supranational organization obviously hasn't always seen eye to eye with the U.S. on all matters, but it's a reach to say those disagreements were the reason it was formed in the first place. Tim O'Donnell

February 6, 2020

The Roman senator Marcus Brutus literally stabbed his friend Julius Caesar in the back. You could look at this as a great betrayal, as Lou Dobbs did on Fox Business show Wednesday night when he savaged Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for voting to convict President Trump of abuse of power in Trump's impeachment trial. "Romney is going to be associated with Judas, Brutus, Benedict Arnold forever, when he is not even a footnote in a footnote otherwise, because of his betrayal," Dobbs said.

But Brutus, according to Shakespeare and contemporaneous accounts, was motivated to take part in Caesar's assassination because Caesar's increasingly monarchical and authoritarian behavior threatened to destroy the Roman Republic. The phrase he is purported to have said while stabbing Caesar, "Sic semper tyrannis!" — or "Thus, always, to tyrants!" — is now Virginia's official motto. On the other hand, Dante places both Brutus and Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of hell, so it's complicated.

In any case, Caesar died and Trump was acquitted with all but one Republican voting against conviction and every Democrats voting in favor. And despite Brutus' desperate bid to save the republic, it soon fell to a Roman Empire led by Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, renamed Augustus. Brutus, like Judas, killed himself in despair. Romney, according to former adviser Stuart Stevens, "will sleep very well tonight." Peter Weber

January 15, 2020

President Trump may need a history tutor.

A Very Stable Genius, a new book by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig based on hundreds of interviews, alleges Trump seemed to know next to nothing about the events of Dec. 7, 1941 when he visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for a private tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial alongside his former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.

"Hey, John, what's this all about?" Trump reportedly asked Kelly. "What's this a tour of?"

The authors wrote, per an excerpt in the Post, that Trump did seem to understand Pearl Harbor was significant, but was light on the details. He reportedly appeared to think he was visiting the site of a historic battle, which isn't necessarily an inaccurate description — the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise Japanese military strike against a U.S. naval base that prompted Washington's entry into World War II.

Either way, it's generally considered one of the more significant singular events in U.S. history, so it's probably worthwhile for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to become familiar. Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

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