Friday, January 24, 2020

“You Know You Can’t Trust This President to Do What’s Right for This Country. You Can Trust He Will Do What’s Right for Donald Trump.”

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) delivered eloquent closing arguments during Day 3 of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. As Esquire magazine’s Jack Holmes wrote:
Schiff's speech was brilliant because it didn't spend additional time on the established facts of the case, which no one seriously disputes, and got to the more essential issue: Donald Trump will never prioritize the interests of the United States—as he pledged to in his oath of office—over his personal interests. He is not capable of it. The evidence lies in his repeated calls for foreign countries to attack our democracy for his personal gain. The evidence lies in the bribe palaces he's running in hotels across the world, where some have started buying up huge blocs of rooms and not even bothering to stay in many of them. The Constitution is worth nothing to him because it does not benefit him personally. Neither is anything we might recognize as our national idea. Neither is the truth. He must be removed before his pathological self-interest can do any more damage than it already has.
No less impressed was The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who observes that “Representative Adam B. Schiff, the former federal prosecutor who has steered the House impeachment investigation into President Trump, secured his place as a liberal rock star—and villain to conservatives—with the fiery closing argument he delivered Thursday night, imploring senators to convict and remove Mr. Trump because ‘you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country.’ By Friday morning, the phrase #RightMatters—from the last line of Mr. Schiff’s speech—was trending as a hashtag on Twitter, which was lighting up with reaction from across the philosophical spectrum.”

Walter Dellinger, a former acting U.S. solicitor general and a professor emeritus of law at Duke University, declared on Twitter that Schiff was “not just good,” but that he gave “one of the most impressive performances by a lawyer I have ever seen.”

None of this, however, guarantees that Republicans in the Senate will ultimately find courage enough to put their country before their petty partisanship and vote to remove Trump from the White House. None of this can stop Trump from lying to his cult-like followers, whining to them about how he’s been the victim of a “witch hunt” and is completely innocent of using his public power for private gain. (Do even those Republican senators likely to acquit Trump in this impeachment trial really believe he’s done nothing wrong here? Probably not.) And none of the powerful arguments put forth by Schiff and his fellow Democratic impeachment managers for Trump’s inglorious removal from office can ensure that the majority of Americans will vote for the Democratic presidential nominee in November, to rid the nation of a narcissistic chief executive with aspirations to become a dictator.

But at least for this moment, amid the powerful cadences of Adam Schiff’s Thursday night address, Americans living free of the Trump cult can know that their low opinions of Trump’s behavior, intelligence, and character; their fears about what damage he might yet do to the nation’s moral standing, international reputation, and strength as a democratic republic; and their increasing anger at Trump’s efforts to position himself above the law have been given voice.

That’s no small matter.

READ MORE:Schiff Closes With a ‘Love Letter to Truth and Democracy,’” by Nancy LeTourneau (Washington Monthly).

Thursday, December 19, 2019

A Historic Condemnation

Yesterday added a sad but necessary event to America’s timeline: the impeachment of Donald John Trump. Sad, because the office of the U.S. president is traditionally due respect, but Trump’s corrupt and unconstitutional efforts to pressure a foreign country (Ukraine) to interfere in the 2020 presidential campaign for his personal gain, and then his going to extraordinary lengths to cover up that perfidy, brings shame upon the office. Necessary, because as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) put it, “We cannot rely on the next election as a remedy for presidential misconduct when the president threatens the very integrity of that election. He has shown us he will continue to put his selfish interests above the good of the country. We must act without delay.”

I didn’t vote for Republican Trump in 2016, and I never shall; I don’t believe he’s fit, either emotionally or intellectually, to fill the position he holds. What I have learned about him over the last few years—that he’s a bigot, a misogynist, a narcissist, and a serial sex abuser; that he cheats on his wives and demands loyalty from others, but will turn on anyone when the going gets tough; that he’s a braggart and a bully, a whiner and a con man; that he’s petty and paranoia, driven by grievance and a sucker for conspiracy theories; that he’s a habitual liar—none of those characteristics commends him as a leader or a role model, or even as a man.

Trump’s mendacity is particularly pernicious. It drew special attention earlier this week, when The Washington Post counted the lies he’s told over the last three years, and came up with 7,688. One of those became Politifact’s 2019 Lie of the Year: his assertion that the still-anonymous whistle-blower who first drew public attention to Trump’s Ukraine scandal was “almost completely wrong.” A more honorable, more thoughtful, and more experienced president would not be due such denunciations.

READ MORE:‘We’ve Seen Enough’: More Than a Dozen Editorial Boards Call for Trump’s Impeachment,” by Hannah Knowles (The Washington Post); “More Than 700 Scholars Pen Letter Urging House to Impeach Trump,” by Felicia Sonmez (The Washington Post): “Impeachment Is a Permanent Stain on Trump’s Presidency,” by Lili Loofbourow (Slate); “Opinion: Impeached Trump Forever Branded a Constitutional Criminal,” by Adalia Woodbury (PoliticusUSA).

Monday, August 20, 2018

Robert Mueller’s Indictment Song

To start your week off on a regrettable but still hopeful note! From The Late Late Show with James Corden:

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Only One Party Is Committed to Democracy

Illustration for Washington Monthly by SmartBoy10.

From “Winning Is Not Enough,” editor-in-chief Paul Glastris’ article in the July/August 2018 issue of Washington Monthly:
There was a time when divided government didn’t have to mean bad government. That time has passed. If the Obama years showed anything, it is that, when in opposition, the modern Republican Party has no goal beyond blocking the Democratic agenda, whatever that may be, and will transgress hitherto undisputed democratic norms to do so. Operationally, the GOP’s governing objectives have devolved to two base goals: transferring wealth upward, and staying in power. Because the former goal is unpopular, achieving the latter increasingly requires the party to rely on anti-democratic means: voter ID laws and voter roll purges designed to suppress minority and youth turnout; hyper-partisan gerrymandering; filling the federal judiciary with ideological conservatives committed to weakening the power of unions and enhancing that of corporations; and so on. (That’s all on top of constitutional features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, that give the GOP representation that is out of proportion to its votes.)

The election of Donald Trump has pushed the Republican Party even further in this direction, to the point where it is now openly enabling corruption and autocracy. Republican leaders have tried to stymie the Russia investigation. They have supported Trump’s effort to get the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies. They have refused to investigate his brazen violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution (from, among other things, foreign governments spending lavishly at Trump hotels). They have barely raised a word of protest, much less taken meaningful action, when Trump undermines relationships with America’s democratic allies, does favors for authoritarian adversaries, and says nice things about white nationalists here and abroad. Republican lawmakers uncomfortable with their party’s drift are being forced either to fall in line or leave office, because base GOP voters, fed by right-wing media, demand nothing less. Under such circumstances, no good—and a lot of harm—can come from Democrats losing Congress in 2022 and sharing power with the Republicans.

The fact that America now has only one party committed to small-d democracy changes everything. It’s no longer acceptable for Democrats to look at politics as a way to win the next election so as to jam through a bunch of their preferred policies before the Republicans inevitably take back power. They must instead see the purpose of politics as building sustained power for Democrats, period—but, unlike the other side, they must do this in part by strengthening the democratic process, not by undermining it. If passing this or that liberal policy helps in that effort, fine, pass it. If not, don’t. The overriding aim has to be getting and holding power—not for its own sake, but to keep the flame of democratic self-government alive unless and until the Republican Party abandons its authoritarian ways or is replaced by a new, small-d democratic party. Indeed, such a transition, which many committed conservatives and lifelong Republicans are now desperate to see happen, is only likely to come about if the Republican Party is locked out of power for several cycles in a row.
You can read all of Glastris’ piece here.

Scudder’s Retirement Isn’t Working

Here’s a surprise for Lawrence Block fans: His beloved recovering alcoholic detective, Matthew Scudder, will be returning to the streets of Manhattan in A Time to Scatter Stones, a novella due out from Subterranean Press in January 2019.

This won’t be Scudder’s first resurrection in fiction. Remember, we thought he was gone after the Shamus Award-winning novel Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), only to see him return four years later in an equally powerful, sixth series installment, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. And now comes this note from Block’s blog: “Just between us, I never expected to write more about Matt Scudder after A Drop of the Hard Stuff [2011]. I surprised myself once, with a final short story (“One Last Night at Grogan’s”), which closed out The Night and the Music [2011], and in a way that certainly suggested there’d be no more. And, really, how could there be? Matt’s the same age I am [80], and just as he’s way too old to leap tall buildings in a single bound, so am I a little old myself to be hunched over a keyboard, trying to coax cogent thoughts out of what remains of my mind.”

Despite all of that, we can look forward to seeing more of Scudder in about six and a half months. Subterranean Press gives this plot synopsis of A Time to Scatter Stones:
Well past retirement age and feeling his years—but still staying sober one day at a time—Matthew Scudder learns that alcoholics aren’t the only ones who count the days since their last slip. Matt’s longtime partner, Elaine, tells him of a group of former sex workers who do something similar, helping each other stay out of the life. But when one young woman describes an abusive client who’s refusing to let her quit, Elaine encourages her to get help of a different sort. The sort only Scudder can deliver.
A Time to Scatter Stones offers not just a gripping crime story but also a richly drawn portrait of Block’s most famous character as he grapples with his own mortality while proving to the younger generation that he’s still got what it takes. For Scudder’s millions of fans around the world (including the many who met the character through Liam Neeson’s portrayal in the film version of A Walk Among the Tombstones), A Time to Scatter Stones is ... a valedictory appearance that will remind readers why Scudder is simply the best there is.
I don’t see a listing on Amazon for this novella. However, the Subterranean Web site allows you to “pre-order” a copy of A Time to Scatter Stones in either a $45 signed-and-numbered limited edition, or a regular $25 hardcover edition.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

For Half a Century, Wholly a Classic

This week marks 50 years since the debut of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the landmark science-fiction adventure written by motion-picture director Stanley Kubrick and noted SF author Arthur C. Clarke (whose 1951 short story “The Sentinel” helped inspire the movie). 2001 premiered on April 2, 1968, at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C., and then opened to wider U.S. distribution on April 3—half a century ago today.

One of the most beautiful and memorable aspects of that film was its musical score, employing a variety of classical works, among them Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” which served as the main title theme. (Click here to relive the big-screen drama of that opening number.) What people forget, especially half a century on, is that Kubrick had commissioned Hollywood composer Alex North (Spartacus, Cleopatra) to create an original soundtrack for his film. However, as Wikipedia notes, Kubrick decided during his post-production work on 2001 to toss that score “in favor of the now-familiar classical pieces he had earlier chosen as ‘guide pieces’ for the soundtrack.” Wikipedia adds that “North did not know of the abandonment of the score until after he saw the film’s premiere screening.” One can’t help wondering whether 2001: A Space Odyssey might be remembered rather differently had Kubrick stuck with North’s musical score, the beginning of which—including an alternative main title theme—can be heard here. More selections from North’s 2001 score can be sampled here.

READ MORE:2001: A Space Odyssey 50th Anniversary: 5
Highlights from Original Soundtrack
” (Billboard); “What 2001 Got Right,” by Michael Benson (The New York Times); “Fifty Years Later, the World Is Finally Catching Up with 2001: A Space Odyssey,” by Owen Gleiberman (Variety); “2001: A Space Odyssey: Book Celebrates 50th anniversary of Sci-fi Movie Masterpiece,” by Brian Truitt (USA Today); “50 Years Later, 2001: A Space Odyssey Is Still a Cinematic Landmark,” by John Powers (National Public Radio); “Cannes Interview: Christopher Nolan,” by Eric Hynes (Film Comment).

Monday, February 19, 2018

Rank Disapproval of Trump

This is Presidents Day here in the United States. What better occasion could there be to release a brand-new ranking of the best and worst chief executives in this nation’s history? The New York Times recently asked the 170 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section for their best assessments of all 44 men who have held America’s highest elected office. “Since our previous survey in 2014,” the paper observes, “some presidential legacies have soared (Barack Obama’s stock has climbed into the Top 10), while others have fallen (Andrew Jackson toppled to 15, out of the Top 10).” Meanwhile, “James Buchanan, who was at the helm as the United States careened into civil war, was dislodged from his position as our nation’s worst president by our current president, Trump.”

Here are the 10 presidents winning top honors, in order:

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
4. Theodore Roosevelt
5. Thomas Jefferson
6. Harry Truman
7. Dwight Eisenhower
8. Barack Obama
9. Ronald Reagan
10. Lyndon B. Johnson

At the other end of the list, these are the lowest-ranked 10:

35. Zachary Taylor
36. Herbert Hoover
37. John Tyler
38. Millard Fillmore
39. Warren G. Harding
40. Andrew Johnson
41. Franklin Pierce
42. William Henry Harrison
43. James Buchanan
44. Donald Trump

In his report on this Times survey, The Maddow Blog’s Steve Benen notes that low opinions of Trump’s performance in office are shared across the board by APSA members, regardless of their political leanings. “When the scholars are broken down by party affiliation,” Benen explains, “Trump ranks #44 among Democratic scholars, #43 among independents, and #40 among Republican scholars. In other words, according to scholars of every stripe, our current president is off to a truly abysmal start and is well on his way to historical ignominy.”

Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll of U.S. voters finds that Trump’s approval rating has fallen yet again. Only 37 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of him, compared with 59 percent who harbor negative opinions of that mendacious former real-estate mogul.

READ MORE:Donald Trump Is America’s Worst, 2nd Worst, or 5th Worst President,” by Kevin Drum (Mother Jones).

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Chronicle of a Scandal Foretold

If you want to rise precipitously from nowhere as an author of thriller fiction, one way to do that is to become an eerily accurate prognosticator of future events. At least that’s one lesson to take from the story of David Pepper, a longtime Democratic Party official in Cincinnati, Ohio, whose 2016 first novel, The People’s House (St. Helena Press), proved quite prescient in its portrayal of covert Russian attempts to undermine America’s voting processes. As the online news journal Politico observes in a new piece,
... The People’s House, a quick, lively thriller full of labyrinthine scandal and homey Rust Belt touches—reads like a user’s guide to the last two years in U.S. politics.

And Pepper wrote the book before any of it actually happened.

The People’s House centers around a Russian scheme to flip an election and put Republicans in power by depressing votes in the Midwest. Pipeline politics play an unexpectedly outsize role. Sexual harassment and systematic coverups in Congress abound. But it’s no unimaginative rehash. Pepper released the book in the summer of 2016, just as the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was heating up—and before Russia’s real-life campaign to influence the election had been revealed. In fact, the heart of the story had been written for three years when [the] Russian government sent hackers to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee and sent their trolls to influence the election on social media. The Putin-like oligarch Pepper portrays as pulling the strings of U.S. politics had been fleshed out for two.

Using a self-publishing service, Pepper didn’t expect much of a reception, and he didn’t get one at first, beyond his amused friends and colleagues. But when a
Wall Street Journal reviewer [Tom Nolan] that November surprised him by calling The People’s House “a sleeper candidate for political thriller of the year,” that started to change.
Equally interesting, Politico says, is that Pepper appears to be on the verge of astonishing readers and reviewers once more with The Wingman (St. Helena Press), his sophomore novel starring a veteran Midwestern reporter named Jack Sharpe:
Now, one year into Trump’s tenure, his second offering in the otherwise dull world of political thrillers—which comes out on Monday—is an equally complex tale of kompromat influencing a presidential election, even more sexual misconduct, and an Erik Prince-like military contractor with close ties to the administration, this time told through the lens of a rollicking Democratic presidential primary. He wrote it before the now-infamous Steele dossier became public knowledge (and before, Pepper says, he learned about it)—and months before revelations about the Blackwater founder’s close ties to the Trump team and its Russian entanglements.

If the first parallels were eerie, these ones were, Pepper admits, maybe even spooky.

So this time, it’s not only the citizens of Twitter, but also Pepper’s friends who are looking at him with a raised eyebrow an an unbelieving grin.
Read more about these books and their author by clicking here.

Friday, January 05, 2018

The Increasing Unfitness of Donald Trump

From The New Yorker, by David Remnick:
“A new book by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, amplifies, in lurid anecdote and quotation, what we have been learning elsewhere every day for the past year: Trump believed that he would lose the election, but would multiply his fame, his fortune, and his standing in American life. To near-universal shock, however, he won. And the consequences followed. Trump has no comprehension of policy and cares about it less. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention. There are no lingering illusions about the President’s capacities: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump ‘a fucking moron’ and spared us a denial. Wolff’s book, which leans heavily on interviews with Steve Bannon, makes it plain that pretty much everyone in the President’s circle agrees that he is, in terms of character and intellect, fantastically limited. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage ‘Lord of the Flies’ sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous. ...

“In the meantime, there is little doubt about who Donald Trump is, the harm he has done already, and the greater harm he threatens. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land. This is not merely an orthodoxy of the opposition; his panicked courtiers have been leaking word of it from his first weeks in office. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States.”

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Big Bertha: The Housekeeping Mayor

(Above) Bertha Landes shakes hands with dentist-turned-mayor “Doc” Brown, whom she defeated in 1926.

(Editor’s note: Thanks to yesterday’s election in Seattle, the largest city in Washington state will soon have a woman—a lesbian, no less—installed in its mayor’s chair. Although there are still ballots yet to be counted, The Seattle Times reported last night that 59-year-old Democrat and former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan leads with 61 percent of the vote, on her way to becoming the burg’s 56th mayor. If her margin of victory holds against challenger Cary Moon, an activist with little political experience, Durkan will be the second woman ever to lead Seattle, her only predecessor being Bertha Knight Landes, who was chosen as America’s first big-city woman mayor 91 years ago, in 1926. Those are big shoes for Durkan fill, as I explain in the following excerpt from my 2003 book, Eccentric Seattle: Pillars and Pariahs Who Made the City Not Such a Boring Place After All [Washington State University Press]. Let’s hope she’s up to the task.)

When they remark at all upon the political career of Bertha Knight Landes, modern historians generally concentrate their attention around her call for strengthened law enforcement in Prohibition-era Seattle, her efforts to improve city planning and management of the municipal power company, and her demand that professional standards replace cronyism in hiring civic administrators. Those annalists observe how “peaceful” and “quiet” Landes’ two-year mayoral stint was when compared with those of her more colorful but often less ethical predecessors. And they go on at some length about her conviction that a city should be run under the same standards of efficiency, decency, and morality that would pertain in a home.

But Landes wasn’t yet recognized for most of these things in the early 1920s. Back then, she was known more widely as the woman who’d tweaked Seattle’s patriarchal establishment in a bloodless and brief coup that won her not only the powers of the mayor, but those of the police chief, as well.

The story is rather comical. It seems that in the summer of 1924, Landes was serving her first term on the city council and had recently been elected to its presidency. Edwin J. “Doc” Brown, a flamboyant former “painless” dentist and Seattle’s latest “tolerance mayor,” had decided to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City. During his absence, council president Landes automatically became acting chief exec. (The deputy mayor’s office didn’t yet exist.) Newspapers played up Landes’ precedent-setting temporary assignment, but nobody really expected her to do much while Brown was off whooping it up at Madison Square Garden.

However, on June 23, 1924, Landes summoned Police Chief William B. Severyns into her office. She handed him a letter explaining how disturbed she was by repeated violations of local bootlegging and gambling laws and by the youthful chief’s recent intimation to the press that probably 100 men on his force were too corrupt to perform their jobs properly. If that’s true, her letter read, “then it must follow as a logical conclusion that one hundred men should be removed.” Landes wanted Severyns to act within 24 hours. When he balked, complaining that Landes was merely trying to score political points at his expense, the acting mayor dismissed him in favor of Joseph Mason, his top lieutenant. Mason also refused to carry out her order, so Landes canned him, as well. Then, exercising an obscure provision of the city charter, she declared Seattle in a state of emergency and appointed herself as its new top cop.

A palsy of shock passed briefly over the town as people realized that, for the first time in its history, the positions of mayor, police chief, and city council president all belonged to the same person—and that person was a woman! But Landes didn’t break pace. She dispatched bluecoats to close the town’s most reprehensible speakeasies and gambling joints. Other violators shut down voluntarily to avoid Her Honor’s righteous wrath. A special detail was assigned to investigate beat officers and boot out any who’d benefited from graft or bribes.

Incensed Brown supporters and threatened vice operators blizzarded the mayor in Manhattan with telegrams, begging him to immediately begin his three-day train journey home. Meanwhile, Doc’s staff supposedly plotted an early end to Landes’ reformist reign. With Brown still a day out from Puget Sound, his secretary had a pair of the mayor’s suitcases dropped off at one of his favorite breakfast haunts, and then instructed Brown’s chauffeur to retrieve them before picking Landes up for work. Bertha naturally inquired about the luggage, but the equally duped driver could say only, “It appears that the mayor is back in town.” This impression was reinforced by what Landes found in Brown’s office: another suitcase lying open with a pair of the mayor’s shoes inside; some current-edition New York newspapers; and a lighted cigar reclining beside Brown’s prized autographed photo of perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Convinced that Doc Brown had indeed returned, Landes cooled her plans to shake up more city agencies.

Mayor Brown soon set about undoing Landes’ accomplishments. But not before the national press could applaud her audacious 10-day rule. “Men in the past have been wont to talk patronizingly of ‘women’s instinct’ as opposed to ‘man's reason,’” editorialized the Los Angeles Times. “Seattle seems to prove that an instinct for getting things done is far more useful in the world than an intellect that only talks about them.”

Not all local media were pleased, however. As the Seattle Argus groused, Landes “proved conclusively that woman’s sphere is in the home or at any rate that hers is not at the head of the city government.”

Two years more, and the Argus would be eating those words.

* * *

As the first woman mayor of a major American city, Bertha Landes helped pave the way for all women in politics. Yet she was hardly your classic feminist. “In fact,” explained one of her longtime friends, “she was decidedly opposed to the women’s suffrage movement when it was launched, believing that a woman’s place was in her home, with her children.”

Landes’ own upbringing had been very traditional. She was born Bertha Ethel Knight at Ware, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1868. Her family’s pious American roots wound all the way back to the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony. The youngest among nine children, she watched at least two of her siblings find their way into circles of fame. Her brother Austin entered the navy and eventually became commander in chief of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. Sister Jessie married David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist and president of Indiana University, who later headed Stanford University. As a woman in the 19th century, it seemed unlikely that Bertha could attain renown except through marriage. Still, she was too filled with intelligence and dynamism to wait quietly until some ambitious gent swooned before her perennial smile, alert dark eyes, and olive skin.

In 1888 Bertha went to live with the Jordans in Bloomington, Indiana, and enrolled at her brother-in-law’s university. After only three years, she’d earned a degree in history. She had also developed an abiding interest in politics. This was during the rise of Progressivism, a movement largely among middle-class, educated, and urban Americans who believed in trust busting, public welfare reforms, and a graduated income tax—all intended to restrain the corrupting power of the nation’s wealthy minority. President Theodore Roosevelt was Progressivism’s poster child, and he incorporated the movement’s liberal precepts (at least temporarily) into the Republican agenda. David Starr Jordan was a great fan of Roosevelt’s and helped inculcate Bertha with progressive ideals. As a result, she thereafter labeled herself a Republican, though even before her mayoral election the GOP was already turning more conservative, away from egalitarian activism.

One other thing her college experience provided Bertha was an introduction to geology student Henry Landes. Despite conventional wisdom of their era, which libeled highly educated women as “unfit” for matrimony, he appreciated her strength and individuality. The pair were wed in January 1894 and the next year moved to Seattle, a town that by then had already survived fire and fiscal disaster and seemed stubbornly on its way to success. Henry joined the faculty at the University of Washington, recently moved from downtown to a single building (Denny Hall) on the north shore of Union Bay. Bertha slipped comfortably into motherhood. She bore three children, the two oldest of whom died early, and then adopted a 9-year-old girl. The family built a two-story University District home, at the corner of Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue (a site now occupied by a hotel), where they fended away cows loping up from the Green Lake farmlands and engaged impoverished students in debate over copious helpings of Bertha’s Boston baked beans. (She later joked that her beans won her a good thousand votes from appreciative UW alumni in the city.)

(Left) Henry Landes

Careerwise, Henry rode a fast track, being named dean of the new College of Science and very nearly the UW’s president. His wife had family duties to think about, but as their children grew, Bertha indulged other interests. “[S]he had to keep busy,” her adopted daughter, Viola, told an interviewer in 1965. “She wasn’t aggressive, but if she wasn’t engaged in planning something or other, she was bored to tears.” The future mayor volunteered for work at the University Congregational Church and the Red Cross, and she seemed ubiquitous in women’s clubs.

Today, clubwork seems a quaint avocation. But for middle-class ladies of Bertha Landes’ time, it offered unique chances to discuss community and world issues, as well as a friendly forum in which they could amass the self-confidence necessary to secure more influential roles in male-dominated society. It was through her leadership of several clubs that Landes first attracted the favorable notice of local business and government archons. In 1921, after she’d organized a major three-day exhibit of the latest home-related products, Mayor Hugh Caldwell gave her his personal stamp of approval by tapping her as the only woman member of an ad hoc commission charged with suggesting remedies for the city’s intractable unemployment problems.

* * *

More important than what this commission accomplished (very little) was that it broadened Bertha Landes’ name familiarity. By 1922, women’s organizations—and even a few men who’d come to respect her management abilities—urged her to try for a city council seat, along with another woman, boardinghouse operator Kathryn Miracle.

The odds weighed heavily against Bertha. Washington women had earned the right to vote in 1910 (a full decade before enfranchisement was extended nationwide), but many of them continued to eschew the polls. Although a female school teacher had been elected to the Kirkland City Council in 1911, Seattle’s Republican plutocracy believed that women in public office would be unacceptably bad for business. Candidate Landes had to present herself in such a way as to not threaten men (who might be offended by political ambition and anti-vice zealotry in a woman) or offend more traditional women (who saw their place in the home, not on the stump). Yet she also had to prove she was decisive and knowledgeable enough to fully represent the moral and welfare concerns of Seattle’s distaff element (40 percent of the population). The contradictions involved made many of her speeches sound like apologies for running. But thanks to the passionate assistance of clubwomen in her campaign, when votes were tallied in May 1922, Bertha Landes had won a landslide victory and pulled Kathryn Miracle onto the council aboard her coattails.

At just over five feet tall, Bertha Landes was not physically intimidating. Nor was she a fiery orator. Police Chief Severyns once joked that “Compared with Mrs. Landes, ‘Silent’ Cal Coolidge is a circus spieler.” However, she possessed what the New York World described as “calm tenacity.” Marshalling this alongside her probity and felicitous demeanor, the new councilwoman was unexpectedly able to get things done. In her four years on the council, she could take principal credit for establishing a city planning commission, supporting public utilities, and stiffening regulations on allegedly salacious dance halls.

Downtown Seattle in the mid-1920s

If anything blocked more systemic change, Landes believed, it was Mayor Brown. He preferred a laissez-faire approach to governance, especially when it came to taming prostitution, drinking, and Seattle’s other vivid vices. While Landes “realizes that a seaport cannot be run like a Sunday school,” as one pro-labor newspaper phrased it, she and Brown often butted heads over matters of “civic decency.” On most occasions he prevailed; but she notched up her triumphs, too, including her legendary 1924 reform spree as acting mayor.

Landes finally pulled out her heavy guns against Doc Brown when she proposed eliminating the office of mayor altogether. As other metropolises had done, she pushed to substitute a professional city manager in Seattle, someone beholden to the council who would run the town like a big business. It was a bold proposition, too bold for many voters. But Bertha refused to abandon it—even if it meant she would have to run for mayor herself in 1926 and defeat Brown in order to blunt his opposition to the plan.

“I filed for Mayor much against my own personal inclinations,” Landes would insist repeatedly. She didn’t, though, do so without careful calculation. By her figuring, she could win Doc Brown’s seat and at the same time convince voters to sign off on the city manager plan. Although this would mean she’d never actually assume the mayor’s mantle, as president of the city council she’d still have gained the power necessary to overhaul municipal government. Furthermore, Landes told the newspapers (most of which eventually endorsed her candidacy) that if the city manager proposal lost but she unseated Brown, she would run the mayor’s office “as nearly like a city manager as the laws will permit.”

It was a hard-fought campaign. Doc’s backers spread rumors that, as mayor, “bluenose Bertha” would curtail Seattleites’ personal liberties. Bertha struck back with allegations that under Brown, “general police and criminal conditions here are intolerable.” This seemed to be confirmed by the phenomenal success of local rumrunner Roy Olmstead, whose trial for violating the Prohibition Act was concurrent with the Landes-Brown race. Bertha didn’t have to run as the women’s candidate for mayor, the way she had for the council. Instead, she cast herself as an anti-politician, someone free from the ties of finance and favor that held Mayor Brown in check.

The city manager idea earned a resounding “no” from voters. But 57-year-old Landes triumphed, if by fewer than 6,000 votes. And one of her first official acts was to fire William Severyns—the police chief Brown had reinstated after Bertha’s 10-day coup.

* * *

“Big Bertha,” as Seattle’s criminal contingent came to call her—with equal measures of derision and respect—began her days at 9 a.m., when a chauffeur picked her up at the Wilsonian Apartments on University Avenue (where she and Henry Landes had moved to enjoy their maturity), and they usually continued into a nighttime schedule of speechmaking. She proved to be a chief exec with an uncommonly strong social conscience and popular ideals. “Play the game fairly,” she once declared. “Meet life honestly—never whine and play the coward, but take life as it comes. ... Don’t be a shirker but do be a worker. Above all, so conduct yourself that you can look your own soul in the face. You cannot be true to yourself without being true to everyone else.”

Almost from the hour of her inauguration, there was speculation that she might be the woman man enough to become governor of Washington or even take control of the White House. Male observers periodically remarked how her mind worked more like a man’s than like a woman’s. “Was that a compliment, or was it not?” Landes once mused. “I never did decide one way or the other.”

Bertha pursued her goals with a diligence and effectiveness that was often referred to as “civic housekeeping.” She worked to keep down Lake Washington pollution and to put up a new public hospital. She made wide-ranging improvements in City Light, expanded the parks system, installed qualified pros at the helm of Seattle’s public works departments, saved the street railway system from immediate financial collapse, and was way ahead of the curve in advocating a merger of city and King County governments. She settled petty disputes between local law-enforcement agencies in order to win their unified support in curbing bootlegging and reducing traffic accidents. (By 1930, Seattle had one car for every four residents and more than its share of roadway mishaps.) Aside from the ruckuses she caused by trying to lower the wages of older city workers and enlist “stool pigeons” to augment police protections, her administration was remarkably without scandal.

As the late newspaper columnist Emmett Watson put it in his book Once Upon a Time in Seattle, Landes “had no agenda beyond being the best mayor Seattle ever had.”

(Right) Frank Edwards

Yet only two years after she entered city hall, Seattle voters booted her out in favor of Frank Edwards, a poseur Progressive and the shady proprietor of several second-rate movie houses. “Old boy” politics was partly to blame. Edwards had twice as much money as Bertha in his campaign war chest, much of it collected from businesses that feared Bertha’s civic-minded intrusions into their affairs. Rather than debate Landes in public, he ran a steadily negative media campaign, during which he convinced Seattleites—against all the facts—that their city had suffered under Landes. Edwards even used Bertha’s storied legislative acumen and snowdrift of newspaper endorsements against her, painting her as too mired in “the system” to recognize its failures. And he wasn’t above shaming Seattle for obeisance to “petticoat politics.” “Elect Frank Edwards,” read his pointedly sexist campaign slogan, “the Man You’ll Be Proud to Call Mayor.” (After Landes lost, the Portland Oregonian ridiculed Seattle for wanting to be a “he-man’s town” and suggested that, at Edwards’ inauguration, a pair of masculine breeches might fittingly be flown from the city hall flagpole.)

But Bertha had to bear some credit for her defeat. She’d offended civil service employees by encouraging her departments to lay off workers based on their efficiency, rather than just seniority. She had failed in six years of elected service to reach out sufficiently to the working class, and still left the impression of being a well-to-do bluenose. As Sandra Haarsager stated in a recent biography, Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle: Big City Mayor, Her Honor may also have erred by currying favor with business rather than continuing to capitalize on her identity as “the woman’s candidate.” At age 59, her career as an elected official was over. Landes relocated to the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she died in 1943—12 years after voters recalled Frank Edwards from office for refusing to enforce anti-vice laws.

Ironically, Bertha’s success as a manager may ultimately have doomed her as a lawmaker. For a city accustomed to at least half-venal mayors, men such as Hiram Gill and Doc Brown, she may simply have charted too even and sane a course. As The Nation noted after her 1928 defeat, “in American cities today good-housekeeping is not good politics, shameful as it is to admit it.”

READ MORE:7 Facts About Bertha Knight Landes, First Female Mayor of a Major American City,” by Jocelyn Sears (Mental Floss); “Seattle’s Female Mayors Have More in Common Than You’d Think,”
by Knute Berger (Crosscut).