Fighting Boredom

“Boredom is rage spread thin.” ~ Paul Tillich

“I like boring things.” ~ Andy Warhol

“All man’s troubles come from not knowing how to sit still in one room.” ~ Blaise Pascal

But who can sit still in one room? Who can follow each minute of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump as it plays out in the Senate, hour after hour, day after day? All one hundred senators have to sit still in one room and listen to all this, but no one else has to. That’s boring. But that isn’t so. Parents and teachers know this. When the kid whines that this or that is really boring, say no, you’re bored. It’s not the object. It’s the observer. The kid will get it, eventually. The kid will stop saying that this or that is boring. He or she is bored. That’s all. Nothing is inherently boring. Things just are what they are.

But still, there’s the impeachment trial of Donald Trump as it plays out in the Senate. That’s boring. No, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait finds this fascinating:

The first day of President Trump’s impeachment trial centered on the rules of evidence – Democrats want to admit documents and testimony the administration has blocked, and Republicans want to, well, block them. So far, Mitch McConnell is winning. He held his entire caucus together in a series of votes to block any new evidence from being admitted before the trial begins.

But the victory is Pyrrhic. Given that a vote to remove is almost inconceivable – Trump could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and all that – the trial is fundamentally an exercise in shaping public opinion about Donald Trump and his abuses of power. By voting to withhold evidence, Republicans are placing themselves in the unpopular position of abetting a cover-up.

Kevin Drum says that’s all wrong:

Mitch McConnell obviously has one overriding goal here: to keep the trial short and the public bored enough not to watch it. Refusing to allow new evidence is part of that: it ensures that nobody bothers turning on their TV in hopes that something new and exciting will happen. It won’t. Since Democrats have little choice except to repeat stuff everyone knows already, what’s the point of watching?

As long as the trial is short and dull, McConnell wins. Very few people even know who John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney are, let alone whether they avoided having to testify.

There’s something to that. There’s refusing to allow new evidence, making everything said old and stale. And then there’s Adam Schiff, the congressman from right here in Hollywood (and on out to Burbank on the other side of this hill out back) who is a meticulous former prosecutor but also the representative of a district that includes three major Hollywood studios. “Casablanca” was filmed in his (this) congressional district. He knows what to do. He owned the second day of this thing. No one was going to be bored. The New York Times’ Michael Shear reports on that:

The House Democratic impeachment managers began formal arguments in the Senate trial on Wednesday, presenting a meticulous and scathing case for convicting President Trump and removing him from office on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the lead House prosecutor, took the lectern in the chamber as senators sat silently preparing to weigh Mr. Trump’s fate. Speaking in an even, measured manner, he accused the president of a corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine for help “to cheat” in the 2020 presidential election.

He became a storyteller for a day:

Invoking the nation’s founders and their fears that a self-interested leader might subvert democracy for his own personal gain, Mr. Schiff argued that the president’s conduct was precisely what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they devised the remedy of impeachment – one he said was “as powerful as the evil it was meant to combat.”

“If not remedied by his conviction in the Senate, and removal from office, President Trump’s abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress will permanently alter the balance of power among the branches of government,” Mr. Schiff said in his opening remarks. “The president has shown that he believes that he’s above the law and scornful of constraint.”

There you have it. Trump was trying to cheat. This was evil. The president was sneering at everyone, and at the Constitution – this was and is pure scorn – and Schiff and his team was going to try and stop this nonsense:

In a series of speeches, Mr. Schiff and the six other impeachment managers asserted that the president pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden, while withholding as leverage nearly $400 million in security aid for Kyiv and a White House meeting for its president. When he was caught, they said, Mr. Trump ordered a cover-up, blocking witnesses and denying Congress the evidence that could corroborate his scheme.

“President Trump withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to a strategic partner at war with Russia to secure foreign help with his re-election,” Mr. Schiff declared. “In other words, to cheat.”

And that got a rise out of the other party:

Mr. Trump – impatient for his legal team to have a chance to mount a vigorous defense of his behavior – was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, hurling insults at the impeachment managers and telling reporters he would like to personally attend the Senate trial in order to “sit right in the front row and stare into their corrupt faces.”

At a news conference in Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending the World Economic Forum, Mr. Trump said that John R. Bolton, the former White House national security adviser, could not be allowed to testify because he “knows my thoughts on certain people and other governments, war and peace and different things – that’s a national security problem.”

Most of that was name-calling and nonsense, as usual and as Schiff expected, but of course, some people were still bored:

On the first day of oral arguments, Mr. Schiff opened with a plea for patience, telling senators that “we have some very long days yet to come.” But senators already seemed restless; many passed notes to each other, and as the hours wore on, a handful of seats were frequently empty as lawmakers from both parties slipped out of the chamber for brief respites from the weighty – and often very tedious – arguments.

A protester in the Senate gallery briefly interrupted arguments from Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, shouting “Schumer is the devil” and yelling that Democrats support abortion before being dragged out by Capitol Hill police officers.

That may have been a welcome break from the tedium:

For now, the president’s legal team must sit silently in the chamber as the president’s House accusers have exclusive access to the microphone. Under the rules of the trial adopted on Tuesday, the House managers have 24 hours over three days to present their case, leaving White House lawyers to take in their searingly argued case about Mr. Trump’s actions, with no opportunity for immediate rebuttal.

The president vented his spleen about the process on Twitter, firing off so many posts that he set a record for any single day in his presidency.

As of 11:30 p.m., Mr. Trump had posted or reposted 142 messages on Twitter, surpassing the previous record of 123 set in December. Most were retweets of messages from allies and supporters assailing Mr. Schiff and others prosecuting the case.

He was sneering at top speed, thumbs tapping out short nasty insults on his iPhone screen at a furious rate, while this was happening:

Even as the House managers began laying out their case, newly released emails revealed additional evidence of friction between the Defense Department and the White House over a freeze sought by the president on military assistance to Ukraine. The emails, released just before midnight on Tuesday as a result of a Freedom of Information lawsuit, underscored the confusion and surprise among lawmakers, including some prominent Republicans, who learned that the military assistance to Ukraine had been held up.

Arguing for the prosecution, Mr. Schiff delved deeply into the details of the Ukraine pressure campaign, citing specific dates and meetings. But he also sought to pull back the lens, telling senators that they must act to remove Mr. Trump or “we will write the history of our decline with our own hand.”

Yes, Michelle Cottle notes that this was high drama:

Mr. Schiff began with a brief history lesson featuring a quote from Alexander Hamilton about the sort of “unprincipled,” “desperate,” “despotic,” self-serving leader that America’s founders feared when providing for impeachment. This president, he contended, is their worst nightmares made flesh. Stressing that no man is above the law, Mr. Schiff referred to Mr. Trump more than once as “a president who would be king.”

Going forward, Mr. Schiff explained, the House managers’ case would be broken into three parts: Wednesday would be spent on a “factual chronology” detailing “the president’s corrupt scheme in narrative form.” Next would come a discussion of “the constitutional framework of impeachment as it was envisioned by the founders,” followed by an analysis of how the president’s “corrupt course of conduct” is precisely the sort of misbehavior “impeachment was intended to remedy.”

This was high drama that was, however, draining:

Running two and half hours, Mr. Schiff’s presentation was methodical and his narrative coherent and comprehensive – some might even call it exhaustive. At one point, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, threw his hands about in frustration at being denied a break for so long.

But Mr. Schiff was merely the opening act, after which flowed a stream of his fellow managers providing even more granular detail – and more video clips. (Someone should have brought popcorn, except no food – other than candy – is allowed on the Senate floor during the trial.) With each passing hour, the evidence against the president piled higher, even if some senators could not be bothered to stay in their seats and listen.

Gail Collins notes what those particular senators missed:

Schiff, one of the managers the House sent to handle the impeachment trial in the Senate, has been the rock star of the proceedings. (Okay, suggesting this is a rocking experience would be… overstatement. But you get the idea.)

On Wednesday, Schiff spoke for nearly two and a half hours, nonstop, to open the Democrats’ case. Not a record, but really long, even for a politician. Donald Trump took up just a little over two hours at his impeachment-day rally, when he had enough time to suggest that the late Congressman John Dingell went to hell and to call Schiff “not exactly the best-looking guy we’ve ever seen.”

That does seem to be how Trump thinks, and that’s the problem:

Schiff’s mission was to take the Senate – and better yet, the American public – through Trump’s impeachable behavior, step by step. It’s certainly an action-packed story, and the Democrats have the advantage of audiovisual aids.

So much easier to keep the audience’s interest when you’ve got the title character on tape, saying stuff like, “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Trump was busy making himself a cartoon villain, while Schiff went the other way:

For much of our modern history Republicans have tended to be the ones continually quoting the founding fathers, usually in regard to the dangers of an over-powerful federal government. Now the tables have turned. Clearly Mitch McConnell and his minions need to come up with some early American heroes who wouldn’t have seen a problem with a president who tries to make secret deals with a foreign power in order to enhance his chances for re-election.

On Wednesday, Schiff concluded with references to George Washington crossing the Delaware, Thomas Paine, Washington’s farewell address and Benjamin Franklin announcing our government would be “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Other Democrats then picked up the story, and they’ll be doing it for quite a while.

And then there’s the president:

He’s made the occasional burst into public – expressing the wish that he could be right there at the trial, where he could “sit right in the front row and stare into their corrupt faces.”

Really, try to imagine Donald Trump sitting still for two and a half hours of anything. Let alone a recapitulation of all the disasters of his term in office. His handlers, in a perfect world, would have had him somewhere on a remote ice floe.

“All I do is, I’m honest,” he told reporters clamoring for an impeachment reaction. “I make great deals. I’ve made great deals for our country.”

How do you think the founding fathers would have felt about that? Just try to imagine if one of them got caught trying to trade taxpayer money for political dirt on an opponent, and George Washington calming a horrified colleague with, “Well yeah, Mr. Hamilton, but remember… he makes great deals.”

This wasn’t even a fair fight, and Charlie Savage sees this:

When President Trump’s impeachment trial opened this week, the Democratic House managers prosecuting the case piled their table high with binders and notepads. Only a few rested on the defense table.

The contrasting amount of material the two legal teams brought into the Senate chamber to support their initial arguments foreshadowed a broader difference in their approaches to the trial.

In its opening days, the House managers have focused on the facts. They are trying to build a clear and coherent story around their theme that the president abused his power – delving into the details, putting up slides to summarize major points, and playing a well-organized selection of video clips of statements by Mr. Trump and by House witnesses.

Eschewing props, the defense team has focused instead on the process. They have used their time to reinforce the House Republican theme that impeachment is a sham and unfair to Mr. Trump – urging the Senate to swiftly dispose of the case without subpoenaing any additional documents or testimony.

That was a mistake. The facts were not boring. Look at this! This really happened! And then even stranger things happened! But process is always boring. By rule, this should not have happened, and it did, and this other thing should have happened, and it did not! You could look it up!

Which is the more compelling argument? But of course that doesn’t matter. Mitch McConnell already has more than enough votes to acquit Trump of everything. He can afford to be boring. Adam Schiff, however, is winning the argument and all subsets of the argument, by being dramatic and dramatically thorough. So he loses. But he wins, eventually. No one wants to be bored to death.

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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2 Responses to Fighting Boredom

  1. John Le Pouvoir says:

    Fifty senators? Hmmm…

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