IN UTAH, A REPUBLICAN WHO SETS THE BAR HIGH We're betting that you'll wish to borrow this guy to be your governor
SPENCER J. COX, governor of Utah. CREDIT: Utah governor's office
THIS IS FOR SURE: We don’t do enough to celebrate people who do the right thing. Like Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican who on March 22 vetoed a bill banning transgender students from school sports. The Republican-dominated Utah legislature is expected to override the veto, which is disappointing, but that’s not the point. What counts is how Cox explained his decision, in a five-page letter to legislative leaders, a document that is one of the most elegantly decent statements I've ever read by a politician. The letter is appended to the end of this posting, so you can make up your own mind. But I challenge you to find a false note. Also, when you get to the appropriate parts, try not to weep. Yesterday, I posted a different sort of essay: a typical blast decrying yet another instance of Republican depravity – bullying children – as modeled by Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott, of Texas. The bombastic screeds that I generally write are embarrassingly easy to do, since Republican transgressions are so over-the-top, so cruel and ultimately so dangerous to democracy, that they may seem hardly worth the effort. Still, I think it's important – especially for the majority of us who have zero power and influence – to at least speak out. It’s a cliché, and therefore true, that it’s disgraceful to stay silent. But it's also vital to honor the kind of examples of character and courage that Cox exhibited. Not because you and I agree with him on the issue, although that helps; and it's certainly not to be “balanced," something I’ve come to regard as a journalistic sin dressed up as virtue. Rather, it’s important to herald the positive when possible, because it’s the positive things people do that really count; it's the good things people do that moves the rest of us forward and breathes hope into our lives as individuals and as a country.
SPENCER J. COX, from what I’ve learned from my go-to research source, Wikipedia, is no novice. He climbed the political advancement ladder the old fashioned way, first as a Fairfield city council member, then as a Sanpete County commissioner, a state representative, the lieutenant governor and since 2021, Utah’s governor. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, he did his mission thing in Mexico. He did his humble guy thing by attending Washington and Lee University law school, instead of Harvard, to which he’d been accepted. And he did the family thing by marrying Abby Palmer, his high school sweetheart, and with her, is raising four children. On the other hand, at 46, Cox doesn’t seem to be a political powerhouse. For one thing, you and I have never heard of him. Secondly, when he ran for governor, he barely made it through the GOP primary, a four-way race in which he got just 36 percent of the vote. Given Utah’s deficit of Democrats, he racked up 63 percent in the general election.
THE VETO LETTER, addressed to the Senate president and the House speaker, is a masterpiece of clarity, candor, thoroughness, and most of all, kindness. When you finish it, you might want Cox to be your state's governor for a couple of years. He might be available, since his letter acknowledges the “political realities” that suggest it could have been prudent for him to have signed the transgender bill. Cox lays out the background with clarity you’d expect in a news story; he explains the legislative double-cross that led to his veto without venom or name-calling; and he spells out his reasons for the veto without boasting or apologizing. Cox explains that the bill had been crafted by legislators who consulted with a variety of interests in the thorny issue of whether students born as boys and transitioned to female identities might have physical advantages when competing on girls’ sports teams. The proposed solution was a commission that would review individual cases, prohibiting participation only in “rare” instances where an athlete might create unsafe playing conditions or unfair competition to “biological females.” Haggling produced changes, but the compromises were acceptable in Cox’s view. Then in moment of chicanery that Rhode Island legislative followers will find familiar, a new version appeared suddenly on the final day of the session, and hours before midnight, the legislature approved a total ban. I know we’re getting into the weeds here, but one of Cox’s compelling approaches is that he understands that the legislative process, and the difficulties with issues like those raised by transgender controversy, are complicated and nuanced, so that explaining the twists and turns is important to the public and takes time.
NOW, TO THE IMPORTANT PART, and this might be a good time to get out the hanky. Cox makes no claim to be a know-it-all, a partisan or a visionary, only that he has been one of many participants trying to feel their way through a murky dilemma that has no obvious or absolute answers. “I must admit, I am not an expert on transgenderism,” he writes. “I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt, however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion.” (Memo to holier-than-thou liberals like me: this guy, Spencer, is a Republican, holding down the same sort of job as Ron and Greg, the bullies featured in yesterday's blog). “I also try to get proximate,” Cox says, “and I am learning so much from our transgender community. They are great kids who face enormous struggles.” Cox points to a couple of numbers that show the whole mess to be a farce, a word that Cox wouldn’t use: out of 75,000 students playing sports in Utah, four are transgender kids; just one of them plays in a girls’ sport. Two other numbers are also important, Cox says: 86 percent of transgender kids have thought about suicide; and 56 percent have tried it. “Four kids and only one of them playing girls’ sports. That’s what all of this is about,” Cox says. “Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. “Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. "I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. "But I want them to live.”
A NEW JOB FOR THE GOP: SCHOOLYARD BULLY In Florida and Texas, governors open a fresh, if shameful, front in the Republican culture wars.
RON DE SANTIS, Florida governor. CREDIT: State of Florida
GREG ABBOTT Texas governor. CREDIT: Gage Skidmore
IT’S HARD TO KEEP TRACK of all the ways that Republicans pursue their agenda of hatred, racism and sedition, so let’s focus on just one: their attacks on children. In the Age of Instant News, this may strike you as ancient history, but let’s review two examples: * Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on March 2 belittled a group of high school students for wearing Covid face masks at an indoor news conference. DeSantis walked up to them and said: “You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this Covid theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.” * In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has been on the warpath against transgender children and their families, issuing a directive Feb. 22 instructing a state child welfare agency, to open abuse investigations into parents who help their children with gender medical and psychological care. Nine such probes already had begun when a state district court judge on March 11 halted enforcement of the directive, according to the Texas Tribune news organization. The governor’s order had followed an opinion by the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, promoting the investigations. This is the kind of stuff you expect to find on playgrounds, where child bullies go after weaker kids physically and mentally. Grownups try to protect kids, but given the chaos endemic to schoolyards, they usually fail, and the scars can last a lifetime. DeSantis and Abbott, at least technically, are grownups, ages 43 and 64. And during The Before Times – before Donald Trump – we expected grownups to model and promote basic standards of everyday living: big kids don’t pick on little ones. And in the grownup world, governors were our states’ super-grownups, guardians of our most vulnerable citizens, the sick, the poor, the frail, the homeless and the children. DeSantis and Abbott, on the other hand, are graduates of Trump University’s advanced studies in legal and moral depravity, qualifying them for leading roles in the Republican culture wars as bullies-in-chief, beater-uppers, name-callers, intimidaters, who dispense ridicule, injury and death. “Death?” you say. “That’s the kind of stupid-speak that makes it hard to take liberals seriously, and maybe why Donald Trump has a higher approval rating today (44.8 %) than Joe Biden (43.1 %).” But bullies can kill as well as wound, and when you’re in the positions that DeSantis and Abbott hold, what you do has life-and-death consequences.
DE SANTIS CREDIT: Gage Skimore
LET’S TAKE DE SANTIS first since, on the surface, his episode seems less noxious. According to the Associated Press and other news reports, the governor was speaking at a press conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa about cyber-security education. High school students were among the attendees, and before it began, the governor spotted some of them, and admonished them for wearing masks, urging the teenagers to remove them. Kevin Brown, a 14-year-old freshman, told the AP that “I was a little bit surprised at his tone” and felt pressured to take his mask off. But he chose to keep his on, because many others in the crowd weren't wearing masks, and he was wary of Covid. Kevin had good reason for that. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had loosened masking rules, the agency still recommended that masks be worn at indoor events held in areas of high Covid-19 risk; the university was in that high risk category. Kevin Brown Sr., the student’s dad, said in a TV interview that DeSantis should “stop bullying kids.” He said of his son: “I tell him it’s his choice, so he made that choice, and the governor has no right to tell no kid or no one who they can or can’t wear a mask.” The second part of Kevin Sr’s comments sort of align with DeSantis’ approach to Covid, the governor having banned mask mandates in schools, saying that parents should control their children’s health care. But let’s visit a bit more with the governor’s Mean Boys' performance. Kevin Jr. is a kid, in his first year in high school, a freshman, 14 years old. Ron is the most powerful official in Florida, a Navy veteran of Iraq, with a chestful of honors, including the Bronze Star, a one-time assistant U.S. attorney, later a Congressman, 43 years old. Big ones picking on the little ones used to be wrong. But all-grown-up DeSantis did bullying two ways. He mocked the kids in public, chiding them for “Covid theater,” and labeling their mask-wearing as “ridiculous.” Secondly, as an adult, and powerful official, he tried to browbeat them into removing masks: “I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything.” It’s a fact that lots of kids don’t get Covid, and when they do, they don’t get very sick. Nevertheless, children have died during the pandemic, according to the CDC – 1,341 so far.
ABBOTT CREDIT: State of Texas
NOW, TO TEXAS, where Gov. Greg Abbott, among other things, is teaching us a thing or two about compassion. Lesson one: just because you’ve spent half your life in a wheelchair doesn’t keep you from being mean, especially to some of the most vulnerable people among us. Abbott’s used a wheelchair since he was 26, when a tree fell on him while he was jogging, damaging his spine. He sued and won a settlement that’s helped pay for his care. I don’t know much about Abbott, but I appreciate his grit and being unafraid to show up in a wheelchair. It’s also possible that his personal experience has informed his approach to others facing extra hurdles. But from here in faraway Rhode Island, his official activities seem to go in the other direction; for example, he appears to have little interest in extending healthcare. Before he was governor, Abbott spent 12 years as the Texas attorney general and challenged the Obama administration by filing 31 suites, some trying to derail “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act. At a gathering of Republicans, he described his job: “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.” He was elected governor in 2014 with 59 percent of the vote. He’s still interested in healthcare: most of us have heard about Texas’ pioneering approach to abortion. The state has outlawed abortion to the degree that women may not know they’re pregnant before legal time limits have expired. Texas has empowered citizen vigilantes to sue people facilitating abortions, entitling them to awards of at least $10,000 if they win. Here, however, we’re focused on a smaller segment of the Texas population, children who were born with characteristics of one gender, but whose bodies and brains tell them they belong in the opposite gender. I’ve never talked with anyone who’s gone through this, but from what I’ve read and heard, it’s no picnic. The children have to come to terms with powerful forces telling them that their biological identities at birth are wrong; and their parents likewise have to hear what the children are telling them, and then, in the best cases, support them and get them the counseling and medical care they need. Every life is different, but it’s not a stretch to assume these families have had more than their fair share of trauma, both on the home front and in dealing with a society that can be hostile to the whole idea. Which is where Governor Abbott comes in. Taking bullying to a whole new level, Abbott has tried to focus the power of state government to a full-force attack on these fragile families, issuing a directive to the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide what the Texas Tribune calls “gender-affirming care” to their children. When the child welfare agency held a public meeting on the issue, more than 80 people spoke, but most transsexual children and their families stayed away, frightened of being exposed to persecution, while speakers and advocates read their anonymous statements, including one from an 8-year-old. A mother who did speak said that her child had attempted suicide before she “affirmed” the child’s gender identity, the Texas Tribute reported. The news service said a CDC report found that 40 percent of transgender young people attempt suicide. Some Texas families considered moving to other states; children were frightened of being removed from their parents’ care; kids were scared that their treatments would be interrupted; some feared being alone at home when their parents were at work. So, now there's an injunction in place. But for how long? Who knows whether a high court will reverse that? Whatever the outcome, the bully has done his work. Abbott's picked on one of the most fragile, most vulnerable groups of children in his state and turned their lives into train wreck.
SO, HERE’S TO YOU, Greg Abbott. You’ve made Republican hearts beat faster while beating up transgender children. And here’s to you, Ron DeSantis, badgering teenagers, who were trying to protect themselves and others from a terrible disease. You are role models for a Republican Party gone bonkers. You’ve charted a whole new frontier for bullies, expanding the hunting fields from the schoolyards to entire states; and you’ve proved that bullying is too important to be left to children, but now has become a job for grownups. Who’s to say this is folly? Texas and Florida are huge success stories, if you judge them by the number of people who want to live there. Even before Abbott and DeSantis started picking on children, Texas saw its population grow by 310,000 residents between July of 2020 and 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; Florida came in second, adding 211,000. Whether these figures indicate approval of issues involving justice, fairness and compassion, there’s little reason to think those growth patterns will change, or that kind of affirmation will be limited to Texas and Florida. Bully, bully.
ESCAPE FROM UKRAINE: A few suitcases, a cat in a basket and a worried dog
WHERE TO NEXT? A Ukrainian family, with their cat and and dog, in Poland’s Przemysl train station. CREDIT: Daniel Cole, Associated Press
THERE ARE THOUSANDS of photos documenting the destruction of Ukraine. City neighborhoods turned to rubble. Apartment buildings ablaze. Agony on faces. Twisted skeletons of trucks and tanks. For me, the picture that defines the atrocity of Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is tame. It's the one at the top of the blog. Taken by an Associated Press photographer, it shows a dog and a cat that a family brought with them as they fled to Poland, where they’re now in a train station. The cat is nestled in a small laundry basket, swaddled in a blanket, only its head sticking out, eyes wide open, maybe frowning and looking a little scared. The dog – maybe an Irish setter – sits to the side of the basket, its majestic head looking at the cat, as if still on duty as protector-in-chief. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the dog looks worried; wondering, perhaps whether he was ever up to driving out the Red army. At this point, you would be right in suggesting I’m committing several offenses, the most serious being trivializing the horror of the attack on Ukraine by one of the world’s largest, cruelest nuclear powers. There’s also an anthropomorphic transgression, suggesting that animals think and act like we do. And Count Three, exploiting a cute cat and a lovely dog to get your attention, the cheapest of journalism’s tricks. Guilty of all three. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty about the whole Ukraine catastrophe. It is impossible to go through my daily routine – and maybe it’s the same for you – without guilt. Here we are. There they are. Anything here is trivial compared to everything there. An example: in the half-century that our family has lived in the same Rhode Island house, we’ve had a wet-basement problem. When it rains hard, water comes in. This year, we’re fighting back. Invisible holes in one wall have been plugged, and a big sump pump installed (some neighbors have four such pumps). The problem is not completely fixed. These are complex problems. Worst case, we’ll be on the hook for some really big bucks. Whereas, millions of Ukrainians don’t have basements. That’s because they don’t have houses. More than two-million Ukrainians – like the family with the dog and the cat – have left their homes and their country. And they’re the lucky ones. Millions of others are still there, waiting for Vladimir Putin to pulverize their apartments and houses, their stores, hospitals, factories with his bombs and rockets and tanks and cannons. For others, it’s already happened. Hundreds, maybe thousands, are dead or waiting to become dead.
FIRE IN an apartment building in Mariupol,. CREDIT: Evgeniy Maloletka, Associated Press
BACK HERE, we’re tracking this on TV, in the newspapers, on the radio, thanks to a free press which Putin has mostly destroyed in Russia and hopes to similarly accomplish in Ukraine, one of many tasks on his grotesque to-do list. Ukrainians aren’t worried about skyrocketing prices at the pump. Or the growing cost of food. Or greedy rent hikes. The higher cost of everything is a frightening and real threat for millions of Americans, for whom a flat tire may begin their trip into homelessness, such is the nature of our treacherous and capricious economy. Even so, all that pales next to what’s going on in Ukraine. The absolute worst thing that can happen to a country and to its citizens is underway Ukraine. No wildfire, no flood, no act of God can compare to the catastrophe brought by the whim of a nasty little man nobody seems able to stand up to. It’s hard to watch, so a lot of the time, I just don’t. I force myself to listen to the top of the NPR newscast in the morning, and scan the papers, some online, some on old-fashioned newsprint. And that’s it for the rest of the day. I’m done with the news until a brief update at supper and bedtime. The rest is music, maybe a podcast, sometimes a book, which you can bet is not about Ukraine. Still, I can’t get Ukraine out of my head. I’ll look out a window, and our street is quiet. The pavement’s intact. No craters from bombs or rockets or bazookas or cannons or tanks. The apartments across the street aren’t ablaze with flames shooting out every window. There’s no smoke on the horizon. The refrigerator is packed with food. If you turn on our kitchen faucet, water comes out; turn it another way, steaming hot water comes out. A couple of days ago, our little city of Newport held its iconic St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time since Covid called it off, twice. Being mid-March, it rained cats-and-dogs, but I bravely walked past four houses to the parade’s finish line at the end of our street, just to catch the flavor of things. The spectators seemed cheerful in their brightly colored raincoats and umbrellas, maybe because, like me, they lived close by and soon enough would be cozy and warm.
A VERY WET militia man crosses the finish line in Newport's annual St. Patrick's Day parade March 12.
ONE OF THE MARCHERS was a lone, half-drenched guy dressed in a historical Colonial uniform, except for his L.L. Bean-like boots, soldiering on, a musket slung over his shoulder. To me, he suggested the level of military support our country is giving Ukraine. Which is unfair, since we’re doing a whole lot, while simultaneously trying to avoid a nuclear holocaust and the end of the world. Still, that’s what I’m thinking as one very wet, pretend soldier, with his musket, plods past the finish line, alone in the center of a very wet road. The Ukrainians aren’t doing parades this year, except for the miles and miles of trucks and tanks and other machinery Putin’s zombie army uses to kill people, waiting to get to the capital to begin doing their best and worst. Maybe, by the time you read this far, they’ve moved in. I’ve read that the Russians already took over the city of Melitopol and reportedly put a bag over the mayor’s head as they hauled him away before installing a "new" one. Her first words: "Our main task now is to adapt all the mechanisms to the new reality so that we can begin to live in a new way as soon as possible.”
THE UKRAINIANS aren’t wondering what’s on streaming TV tonight. Or whether a rogue March snowstorm this afternoon will slow commuters on Route 95; or whether to have vegetables plus a salad for supper tonight, or just one or the other. Or whether they should top off their car’s gas tank before the price goes up. Again. Just three weeks ago, Ukrainians were like us, more or less. The Russian war machine was on its side of the border. Men and women, their kids, parents, friends, uncles, sisters were living regular lives. Families had homes, maybe some with basements. A pregnant woman could go to a hospital to have her baby without both of them dying a few days after someone took their picture. Workers had jobs, put food on their tables, and when they turned on their kitchen faucets, water came out. Three weeks ago, a Ukrainian family might get the kids a dog and a cat, and not give that a second thought. Now, they are in Poland’s Przemysl train station, waiting for what’s next. At their feet are just a few things from their former lives, a few suitcases, along with a surprised cat and a worried dog. Nothing will ever be the same.
SPECTATORS at the St. Patrick's parade in Newport on a wet March 12
IT’S BEEN a month today since Phoebe died. What’s the point? It's hardly the first death for Judy, my wife, and I. Our parents are long gone. This past year, my older and only sister died. A bunch of friends – some of them personal heroes at the newspaper where I worked for 35 years – also died. And people in our cohort are reaching the outer frontier – Judy and I turn 80 this year – so some in our group may go any time. Why am I writing about a dead dog? Well, we loved her. Everybody did. She was smart, patient and drop-dead gorgeous. Most of all, she was sweet, something she telegraphed instantly. Phoebe was the inspiration for this blog. I described all of this after she died – perhaps in too much detail, considering that most of people get minimal, if any, obituaries. But if you’re curious, click here. The other reason is that I’ve been trying to work through how life will be without Phoebe. It’s certainly simpler. I was Phoebe’s principal caretaker, although Judy was the critical thinker when important things needed to be done, like “Why don’t we just call the vet?” Or, “Maybe she’d would like her own blanket.” For 10 years, Phoebe organized our lives, mine particularly. Phoebe decided when I got up in the morning (early), and how long I stayed up late at night (late). We had breakfast together; I made hers first. The daily schedule was based on her First, Second and Third Walks (weekends were no different). After the First Walk, I groomed her thick, luxurious white coat with a fine-toothed “Furminator” comb. When Judy and I ventured from the house, how long we were gone depended on Phoebe; and when we returned, the first order of business was to take her to the backyard. She got her final dose of pills late in the evening, just before I brushed her teeth (Yes, she was that sweet, allowing me to do that).
I’M NOT SURE WHY I didn’t cry when our vet ended her life on Feb. 3, after the cancers that had invaded multiple organs overwhelmed her increasingly gaunt body. I know I felt relieved that her struggle to keep living was over. I can, and sometimes I do, sleep later in the morning. I have lots more time. I once figured that Phoebe required a minimum two hours a day of walking, feeding, brushing, medicating. I didn’t mind that. Quite the opposite, since I’m am inherently selfish, with Phoebe, I was useful. Our house is cleaner. No tumbleweeds of white fur in the hallways, on the stairs. You’d be worried that friends might drop in before you had time for an emergency run of the vacuum cleaner. And when you did vacuum, our rugs actually changed color, having been coated by an invisible sheet of fur. In her later years, Phoebe needed special food, special drugs, multiple trips to the vet, all of which successfully kept her on the go. On some months, we spent thousands of dollars. Now, just like there’s more time, there’s more money.
EVERY DAY, the ache gets worse. I still take long walks – doctors’ orders – and this too, is simpler. Phoebe was not easy to walk with; she constantly stopped at this leaf, that branch, a blade of grass, sniffing, sniffing. And if the scent was really compelling, you couldn't get her to budge, as if her legs were encased in cured concrete. My walks now are more efficient, just not magical. I look for her on the sun porch, but Phoebe isn’t on “her” couch. On clear nights, I used to stand in the backyard with Phoebe, looking up at the stars; I still could, but why? Phoebe used to lie under the dining room table where I have my computer, and I still look down there. At noontime, nobody barks at the mail carrier. I still get glimpses of Phoebe. We have one of those digital picture frames in the living room, and among the hundreds of photos that perpetually rotate in and out of view are pictures of Phoebe. There’s one of Phoebe next to the towering wind turbine we visited last November in Portsmouth. Phoebe as a model last September, showing off our brand new Civic in a mock new-car ad, with the Newport Bridge and the East Passage as a backdrop. Phoebe and a rainbow at Murphy Field. Phoebe against a roiling sea off Ocean Drive. Phoebe demonstrating the scale of the giant yellow chair in Newport that was used as an outdoor stage. God knows, we had some good times. Phoebe was annoyed on nights when Judy would go to bed before I did, because the dog liked to nestle between the two of us. So, with one of us downstairs and the other upstairs, Phoebe split the difference, climbing part way up the stairs, lying on the landing, where more stairs led to the top. When I went up for the night, Phoebe would be curled up on the landing, and, together, we’d go the rest of the way. When I go up the stairs now, I look for Phoebe, curled up on the landing. She’s not there.
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.