The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff is that 1979 book by Tom Wolfe about the pilots who became the first Project Mercury astronauts – the “Mercury Seven” – brave men who faced incredible unknown danger with utter confidence. Not many can do that – but somehow they knew what to do in totally new circumstances. The 1983 film made that even more dramatic – and the term became how we talk about some magical mixture of toughness and intelligence and ingenuity and insight, applied on the spot, without hesitation. Who has the right stuff? That’s the test of everything now.

This is a test of instincts – the immediate reaction to the unexpected – and it’s a test for politicians too. Who has the right stuff when an unhinged lone bomber decides he wants to do that ISIS thing and set a few off here and there? What is the right stuff?

That’s hard to say, but at least this rather incompetent young “terrorist” was quickly caught and charged:

The man who the authorities say set off powerful bombs in Manhattan and on the Jersey Shore over the weekend planned the attacks for months, conducted a dry run just days before his assault and took inspiration from Osama bin Laden and other international terrorists, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court on Tuesday.

The man, Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, was charged with several crimes, including use of weapons of mass destruction and bombing a place of public use, and the criminal complaint against him outlines how close the attacks came to causing death and even more destruction…

The complaint offers evidence that Mr. Rahami was motivated by an extremist Islamic ideology that he recorded in a notebook he had with him when he was shot and wounded by the police in Linden, N.J., early on Monday and then taken into custody.

He may have been motivated by an extremist Islamic ideology, but the FBI and CIA and all the rest are having a hard time connecting him to any of the groups of the bad guys anywhere in the world. He was a fan-boy. He had once stabbed his own brother. His parents had called the cops on him more than once. His wife had left him. He wasn’t good at anything, even terrorism. He did relatively little damage. Lock him up. Make sure he takes his meds. Forget about him. Move on.

That’s one instinctive reaction, and here’s another:

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, called for Ahmad Rahami to be placed into indefinite military custody as an “enemy combatant” and interrogated for intelligence purposes, rather than held as a civilian criminal suspect.

As an enemy combatant, Mr. Rahami could be questioned without a lawyer or a Miranda warning that he had the right to remain silent, Mr. Graham argued.

“Holding Rahami as an enemy combatant to determine whether he has ties to terrorist groups, whether he was working for or funded by them, and whether there are co-conspirators, and then trying him in our civilian system for his terrorist acts is the best way to protect our country first, and then achieve justice,” Mr. Graham said in a statement.

Graham’s instinct is that the guy MUST have been working with others, and we should do that “enhanced interrogation” thing and make him spit it all out. That’s the right stuff, or not:

Mr. Graham and other Republicans made a similar call in 2013 after the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Such a step would face legal scrutiny. Like Mr. Tsarnaev, Mr. Rahami is an American citizen arrested on domestic soil. There is no publicly available evidence suggesting that he is part of Al Qaeda, the specific terrorist group with which the United States is engaged in armed conflict. (The authority to hold someone in wartime detention arises as part of an armed conflict.)

Graham, who was once a military lawyer, a member of the Judge Advocate General, should have realized that, and then he did:

He also acknowledged that if Mr. Rahami is prosecuted, it would have to be in a civilian court, not before a military commission, since the law governing the tribunals does not permit the system to be used against American citizens.

Oops. But he was trying to show his instincts, not his expertise, were in the right place, and Donald Trump was out there saying that Hillary didn’t have the Right Stuff, because her instincts were in the wrong place:

Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that Hillary Clinton is too busy denouncing his supporters as “deplorable” to level the same criticism at countries that harbor Islamic terrorists.

Speaking at High Point University in North Carolina, Trump accused Clinton of reserving her harshest criticism for political opponents, saying the former secretary of state “talks tougher about my supporters than she does about Islamic terrorists.”

“She calls the patriotic Americans who support our campaign, many of them cops and soldiers, deplorable and irredeemable,” he said before launching into a series of questions.

“Has she ever talked that way about radical Islam or about those who oppose and murder women and gays overseas?” he asked, answering himself: “Noooo.”

“In many countries overseas, non-believers face the death penalty. Whether it is Hillary’s condemnation – I mean, where is it? Where is her condemnation of these people?” Trump asked rhetorically. “Where is her condemnation of these countries?”

She won’t condemn whole nations because of this one guy! She’d rather pick on folks who distrust Muslims and Hispanics and gays and are fed up with the Black Live Matter folks and Anderson Cooper. To hell with her!

He was claiming he has better instincts, as the day before it was this:

Donald Trump on Monday offered a confusing explanation for who exactly he was referring to when he said “we’re gonna have to start profiling” after this weekend’s attacks in New York and New Jersey.

His remarks on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” made clear that anybody who looks like they could be from the Middle East may be targeted. Host Bill O’Reilly asked the GOP nominee to expand on the renewed call for profiling he made earlier Monday on Fox in response to the bombings.

“Another thing that you said that was very controversial is that you want to profile. You want to profile Arab or Muslim men. How would that work?” O’Reilly asked.

That’s a good question, but the answer was all instinct:

“Well, we have no choice,” Trump replied. “Look, Israel does it and Israel does it very successfully.”

“When they see somebody that they would like to talk to, that they would like to look at, that they would maybe like to open up their satchel and take a look inside, they do it,” he continued. “And they don’t like to do it. I don’t like to do it. But we have to be – you know, you have a woman who is 87-years-old in a wheelchair from Sweden and we have to look at her if we’re going to look at somebody else. It’s ridiculous what’s going on.”

Trump repeated his claim that “political correctness” was preventing law enforcement from questioning individuals suspected of terrorist activity.

That wouldn’t do, even on Fox News:

O’Reilly asked how profiling would work in a Trump administration.

“It works,” Trump replied. “Where if we see somebody that we think there could be a problem, at airports and other places, you talk to them and you see what’s going on.”

“But I think they do that now,” O’Reilly replied.

“We don’t do that,” Trump insisted.

Yes, we do, as if it matters. This was a display of awesome test-pilot attitude, like in the Wolfe book – the Right Stuff even if he was wrong about everything – because attitude is everything:

The “bad part” about bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami being captured alive is that now he’ll be treated to “amazing” medical care and an “outstanding” lawyer, Donald Trump said Monday.

After praising the efforts of law enforcement, Trump bemoaned how this “evil thug who planted the bombs” in New York and New Jersey over the weekend is now receiving medical attention after being wounded in a shootout with police earlier in the day.

“But the bad part, now we will give him amazing hospitalization. He will be taken care of by some of the best doctors in the world,” the GOP nominee told the crowd at a rally in Estero, Florida. “He will be given a fully modern and updated hospital room. And he’ll probably even have room service knowing the way our country is.”

Trump added that “on top of all of that, he will be represented by an outstanding lawyer,” saying Rahami’s case would take years to work its way through the criminal justice system until his eventual punishment is diluted.

Of course the Sixth Amendment does ensure the right to a fair and speedy public trial and the right to a lawyer for all criminal defendants, but that doesn’t matter now:

“What a sad situation. We must have speedy but fair trials and we must deliver a just and very harsh punishment to these people,” Trump said, to big cheers from the crowd.

He was wishing for something else, and Slate’s Leon Neyfakh notes this:

During a phone interview with Fox & Friends on Monday, Donald Trump asserted that the law enforcement community is too “afraid to do anything” about terrorism because they don’t want to be accused of “profiling.” Trump stated that “our local police … know who a lot of these people are” but choose not to pursue them because “they don’t want to be accused of all sorts of things.”

Trump’s intended message – which he telegraphed by calling the police “amazing” – was that the culture of political correctness that has taken root in Obama’s America has made it impossible for cops to be as aggressive as they need to be.

Okay, if it weren’t for Obama, our cops, who actually know exactly who these guys are, would grab them off the street, take them out back, and shoot them in the head, and be done with it. Forget arrest for “probable cause” when you “just know” they’re terrorists. We’d all be safe again. Why not free the cops to take care of the problem? Obama doesn’t have the right stuff.

That’s fine, until you think about what Trump really said:

What he actually said is that police officers are aware of terrorists who are plotting attacks but are declining to pursue them because they’re scared…

On Friday, the Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union, endorsed Trump for president. What does the union’s executive director, Jim Pasco, think about Trump’s suggestion that his members are so cowed by liberal bed-wetters that they are allowing known terrorists to operate with impunity? Pasco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There will be no response. The Fraternal Order of Police likes Trump’s attitude. He has the right stuff. The rest is just detail.

Who has the right stuff? Josh Voorhees wonders about that:

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had polar opposite reactions to this weekend’s nonfatal bombings in New York and New Jersey. The Democratic nominee is urging everyone to remain calm and trust the procedures the U.S. government has in place to protect them. The Republican nominee has other ideas. “This,” he predicted Monday, “is only going to get worse.”

It’s easy to guess which of those two responses is going to get more attention from the press and the public.

But that might be good for Clinton:

In this campaign, it’s often been better to be the candidate who voters aren’t thinking about. Political scientists at the University of Virginia, for example, recently took a long look at a daily Gallup tracking poll that asks Americans whether they had heard or seen anything about Clinton and Trump in “the last day or two.” When they compared those results to national polling averages, they found a small inverse correlation between the candidate who more Americans had heard of recently and that same candidate’s standing in the polls. Or, as Larry Sabato and his UVA colleagues put it: “Generally, when the campaign has been more about Trump, he has suffered, and when it’s been more about Clinton, she has suffered.”

Again, the evidence is limited here, and in our two-party system, a story about one candidate is almost always also about the other, at least implicitly. But in a presidential election between the two most disliked candidates in modern history, the hypothesis that most press is bad press makes some sense.

But there are other considerations:

That is not to say that the post-bombing news cycles will necessarily be good news for Clinton. While Trump had been inching ever-closer to her in national polls recently – during a time when her “basket of deplorables” comments and her health were front-page news – the NY/NJ attacks happened as the media’s attention was already shifting to Trump’s rebranded birtherism, as well as comments he made over the weekend about what would happen if Clinton’s Secret Service detail disarmed. It’s possible she would have benefited more if those news cycles had run their course.

Still, given that they didn’t, Clinton’s decision to stand off to the side for now while Trump stands in the center yelling himself hoarse looks to be not only a responsible choice, but a smart one.

Josh Marshall put that more bluntly:

Clinton Message: Be vigilant, not afraid.

Trump Message: Be afraid, also give me credit.

Which is more appealing? Which shows the right stuff? Politico notes that many already think that Clinton has the right stuff:

In a Quinnipiac University poll last week, 49 percent of likely voters said Clinton would do a better job “keeping the country safe from terrorism,” while 47 percent said Trump would do a better job. And in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month, half of registered voters said they trust Clinton more to handle terrorism, more than the 41 percent who trust Trump – though that margin narrows to 48 percent for Clinton to 45 percent for Trump among likely voters.

In short, she doesn’t react on instinct and say wild things:

Clinton, multiple polls show, is viewed as having experience and as the better informed, more stable leader. In the Fox News poll, 61 percent of likely voters say the former secretary of state is “qualified to be president,” far more than the 45 percent who say Trump is qualified. Fifty-nine percent think Clinton “has the temperament to serve effectively as president,” compared to only 38 percent who say Trump is temperamentally fit.

But voters also see Trump as a decisive candidate who will tell it like it is and is more committed to attacking the Islamic State in the Middle East. In a slightly older CNN/ORC International poll, conducted over the first four days of this month, half of voters said the phrase “a strong and decisive leader” applied more to Trump than the 42 percent who said it applied to Clinton. (That poll, the only live-caller national poll Trump has led since the conventions, also found Trump ahead on the issue of terrorism, 51 percent to 45 percent.

That may have been an outlier:

Clinton’s slight edge on terrorism and national security in most polls reverses what was a traditional Republican advantage. For decades, voters have seen the GOP and its presidential nominees as stronger on defense.

She can let him go wild. His party no longer has the right stuff. Hers does, and Paul Waldman notes that President Obama had said this about what happened:

At moments like this, I think it’s important to remember what terrorists and violent extremists are trying to do. They are trying to hurt innocent people, but they also want to inspire fear in all of us and disrupt the way we live to undermine our values. And so even as we have to be vigilant and aggressive, both in preventing senseless acts of violence, but also making sure that we find those who carry out such acts and bring them to justice, we all have a role to play as citizens in making sure that we don’t succumb to that fear. And there’s no better example of that than the people in New York and New Jersey.

When I was speaking to Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, and Mayor de Blasio, one point that they all made is, folks around here, they don’t get scared. They’re tough, they’re resilient, they go about their business every single day. That kind of toughness and resoluteness, and the recognition that neither individuals nor organizations like ISIL can ultimately undermine our way of life, that’s the kind of strength that makes me so proud to be an American, and that’s the kind of strength that is going to be absolutely critical not just in the days to come but in the years to come. By showing those who want to do us harm that they will never beat us, by showing the entire world that as Americans we do not and never will give in to fear, that’s going to be the most important ingredient in us defeating those who would carry out terrorist acts against us. 

Waldman notes the real difference here: 

The Democrats locate things like strength and resolve in the American public, and describe them as critical to our success. Trump seldom talks about how ordinary people can or should react to terrorism, other than to say that people are afraid and they should be, because more attacks are coming.

Whenever Trump talks about strength, it’s about his own. Only he, through his intellectual brilliance and steely spine, can defeat terrorism on our behalf; the citizenry’s job is to cower for a while, then emerge to gaze in wonder at the paradise Trump has created.

But it’s not just attitude:

In practical terms, there are stark differences between what the candidates would do about terrorism. Clinton’s plan is essentially to continue what we’re doing now. The best argument in its favor is that not only is ISIS steadily losing, but even with a few dramatic attacks in recent years, we’ve had extraordinary success in keeping Americans safe here at home. Since September 11, Americans have literally been more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a jihadi terrorist.

Trump, on the other hand, wants to encourage the use of racial profiling at all levels of law enforcement, ban Muslims from entering the United States, and “knock the hell of them” in the Middle East.

And that loops back to that book about those first astronauts and the right stuff in the military:

Perhaps the best we can hope for out of him is that when he gathers the Joint Chiefs together and says, “All right, fellas, here’s my new order: Knock the hell out of ISIS,” they’ll look awkwardly at one another until someone says, “Yes sir, we’ll get right on that,” then they’ll continue what they’re already doing.

They’ll shrug. Some guys don’t have the right stuff. They just fake it.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Right Stuff

  1. Rick says:

    The author of “The Right Stuff” is Tom Wolfe, with whom, many years ago, I shared an elevator in New York City.

    He could not have been mistaken for anyone else in the car, much less on the planet, wearing a painfully-bright white three-piece suit, and, while my mind’s eye may be wrong about this, I somehow remember him carrying a foppy-looking cane. He looked like a cartoon version of a Southern Planter, but apparently didn’t mind the attention this gave him, since everyone on the ride laughed good-naturedly about it, which he took with a gently smiling grace that only someone who hears this all the time could affect. I remember wondering why he kept up the act; still, I envied him his life. It looked like fun.

    I made myself read the book in the early 1980’s, just after CNN named me overall producer of its upcoming coverage of the second mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia. I thought it would help me understand the people who risked their lives to do this sort of thing.

    I especially recall the phrase, “Spam in a Can”, which was Chuck Yeager’s description of what would become of any of his fellow test pilots who decided to sign up as Mercury astronauts. He complained that a so-called “astronaut” would not in any way be “piloting” the spaceship — he would not be in control if and when, God forbid, anything went awry — which, at some point, was bound to happen.

    I also remember Wolfe’s contention about the drawls we’ve heard on those cockpit microphones for decades, from jetliner captains, many but not all of them former military pilots, when they come on to talk to the passengers and crew — always equally calm and collected whether instructing everyone to prepare for an emergency landing, or merely to point out that Mt. Rushmore is out there on the left side of the plane. That calm demeanor of pilots everywhere, Wolfe claimed, originated with Yeager himself as he famously faced life-and-death problems to become the first human to break the sound barrier miles above the earth:

    Two nights before the scheduled date for the flight, Yeager broke two ribs when he fell from a horse. He was worried that the injury would remove him from the mission …

    Yeager told only his wife, as well as friend and fellow project pilot Jack Ridley, about the accident. On the day of the flight, Yeager was in such pain that he could not seal the X-1’s hatch by himself. Ridley rigged up a device, using the end of a broom handle as an extra lever, to allow Yeager to seal the hatch.

    And that’s the real “Right Stuff” — not the bluster of a self-involved newby who tries to scare a problem to death by growling at it, but instead just knowing about how things work and just thinking about a problem, then quietly doing what needs to be done to solve it.

    I imagine Donald Trump thinks he has it, but he doesn’t. He’s way too obsessed with “political correctness” to allow him to understand what is a real problem, and too busy calling his opponent names to notice that so many of his own followers are racists.

    Yes, racists. Answer these simple questions about Trump supporters, posed by Justin Gest:

    Is it racist to associate immigration with the greater globalization of commerce that has altered the economic prospects of outmoded people?

    Is it racist to be frustrated that members of ethnic minorities are rendered new advantages unavailable to white people, such as affirmative action policies and ethnicity-specific advocacy?

    Is it racist to believe that white working-class people are underrepresented in political leadership or vilified in popular media?

    If you answered “Yes!” to all of these questions, give yourself a perfect score!

    You’d think that having so many “Deplorables” backing you would be something that worries you more than that people accused of crimes in this country are being treated fairly. Trump’s more upset with how good our country is, than he is concerned with solving the real problems it faces. And yes, of course his audience cheers when he complains about terrorists getting fair treatment, because he seems to attract the sort of vigilante lynch mob we used to have in our Wild West days, before the law arrived out there to tame it.

    Trump praises “dictators” and “strongmen” whenever he notices them do very un-American things to their victims, and yet he complains when he sees American leaders not acting like dictators. He favors “profiling”? Isn’t profiling what that terrorist did last week in Minnesota — ask his victims if they’re Muslim, and then stabbing them if they’re not?

    The so-called “Radical Islamic Terrorists” he talks about want us to act like them — and not coincidentally, so does Donald Trump!

    Why do he and his gang of clueless Deplorables fall into the terrorists’ trap?

    Because their idea of having the Right Stuff for the job requires not analyzing things too closely, and not getting the big picture. Because Trump celebrates fear and venerates it and encourages it in others. And because Trump has a bad attitude that, in his case, comes from living a mostly-successful life of always trying to get away with something, and he makes others believe that having a bad attitude about people is okay, and neither he nor them seem to be smart enough to realize it.

    I’m beginning to think Radical Conservatism is a personality disorder, and lately, as so often happens (think McCarthyism), is inherently un-American.

    Americanism is not kicking someone’s ass, just to watch ‘em squirm and because it demonstrates to your fellow conservatives how tough you are. What Americanism is is ignoring terrorists and not allowing yourself to become like them, but instead showing them the strength that comes from being good — not just “good at what you do”, but the kind of goodness that impresses God, assuming the guy exists.

    In short, Donald Trump has the Wrong Stuff. He’s not very bright and he’s nasty and weak, and if he ever becomes president, he will make America the same way.

    And so, yes, don’t be afraid to call him what he is:

    Donald Trump is a “Radical Conservative Terrorist”, and the reason he is more dangerous to America than ISIS is that he, unlike the terrorists from way over there, has an actual chance of taking over our country, and rendering its founding principles into just so many dusty old unreadable documents that nobody cares about anymore!


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