Death of A Journalist

There is no connection between my career as a journalist and that of an accomplished and inspirational icon like Gwen Ifill except for this one personal anecdote.

In 2008, I was an attendee at the UNITY convention in Chicago. UNITY was where four journalism organizations, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian-American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association held one joint convention. It was like a Woodstock for news scribes and it was glorious.

One afternoon, I’m walking through the convention center on my way to a seminar and approaching in the other direction was Gwen Ifill. I stopped her and told her how much I admired and respected her. She smiled a pleasant smile and accepted my fanboy platitudes, shook my hand and went on her way.

That’s my personal Gwen Ifill story.

I recall how Ifill moderated the 2004 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards and she asked a question about the high rate of HIV-infected Black women which clearly neither Cheney or Edwards were prepared to answer.  These powerful White men were stunned into silence and mumbles, by an intrepid Black woman doing her job and doing it well.

Discomforting the comfortable: That’s what a real journalist does and Ifill was a real journalist in an age where they’re in scant supply.    Gwen Ifill always treated journalism as a profession worthy of respect and she worked hard at The Boston Globe, The New York Times, NBC News and PBS to earn it.

Now more than ever we needed Ifill’s kind of clarity and integrity and with her loss we’re all a little poorer for it.

Maureen Dowd Doesn’t Hate ALL Democrats. Just the Real Ones.

"I'd like Obama more if he were more like my fantasy presidents."

“I’d like Obama more if he were more like my fantasy presidents.”

Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist whose rep is based upon her sharp-edged nasty snark than deep political insights sniped at President Obama over the Senate’s failure to pass any meaningful gun legislation, “Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern,”  Dowd wrote with each word dripping in acidic scorn,  “How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him. ”

Dowd, who has never held any elected office besides runner-up to the homecoming queen helpfully suggested Obama should look to Hollywood for pointers on what to do,  “The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.”

The rank stupidity of Dowd’s brain-dead advice was not lost on Obama when he said during the White House Correspondents Dinner, “Everybody has got plenty of advice,” the president said with his own Snark Gun loaded and cocked, “Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in ‘The American President.’ And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?”

Instead of the I.R.S. investigating the Tea Party,  someone ought to investigate why the Times continues to give Dowd space to spew  nonsense.

“Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress,” the president said. “‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

“I just have to be snarky. I don’t have to make sense.”

That was a laugh line for the president, but the next one was him speaking from the heart.   “I’m sorry. I get frustrated sometimes.”

Obama has hosted Republican Senators for dinner.  He invited Paul Ryan to sit down for lunch.  He’s played golf with other Republicans.   As far as outreach goes, the president has tried everything but a pajama party sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom.

This is the kind of “bipartisan” reaching out b.s. that make the collective nipples of the Washington press corps hard and erect.   In the wake of the I.R.S. investigations, the continued Benghazi story and the Justice Department’s surveillance of the Associated Press, last week was Christmas in May for the professional Obama bashers in the GOP and right-wing noise machine.  What made things a bit more unusual was how the supposed Obama worship ping “liberal” media piled on as well.

The nature of the professional press is they are at your feet one day and at your throat the next.   The easy (and lazy) way to lay the blame for the failure of Congress to get anything done even when a clear majority of Americans want it, is to go Dowd’s way and lay it all on the wimp in the White House.   That allows the Republicans to claim their hands are clean and that is exactly the cover idiots like Mo Dowd provide them.

Dowd’s specialty is supposed to be politics, but she doesn’t seem to know how to count votes, how deals are cut to win votes, and how hard it is to “punish” lawmakers who don’t do the president’s bidding when they’re more afraid of special interest groups, possible primary challengers and irate voters back home than the man in the Oval Office.

Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”

This is how bubblehead liberals like Dowd breathing the rarefied air in their ivory towers believe the world should work.  Come on Obama, you gutless wonder!  Be like President Josiah Bartlett and impose your will, reward your friends and punish your enemies.    Guilt trip a balky Democrat if you can and ridicule them if you must.  It’s easy.  Just call President Bartlett and ask him!

“I got 99 problems, but being Charlie Sheen’s dad ain’t one of them.”

And then what?  What if Sen. Heitkamp says, “I’m sorry, Mr. President.  My constituents don’t want this bill and I don’t either.”  What can Obama do then?  Call Harry Reid and tell him to make sure Heitkamp only gets the crappiest of committee assignments?  Obama was in the Senate with Reid before he moved from the Capitol to the White House.  He knows Reid has no clout juice and they don’t fear Obama, they laugh right in Reid’s face.

The truth why President Obama can’t seem to get anything through Congress the answer is simple  The strategy of Congressional Republicans is to give him NOTHING.  If Obama is for it, they are against it.  Even if it is something Republicans normally favor.    This has always been known.   Now even some Republicans are ‘fessing up to the strategy, but that doesn’t shake the conviction of the skeptics who say if only Obama twisted arms a little harder and thumped that bully pulpit a little more.

There are far too many fools like Mo Dowd who think the President can do what he wants simply because he IS the President.    They blame Obama because it is easier than to blame a few hundred Republican obstructionists in Washington whose policy position is if Obama is for it, they are against it.   This is by design, not accident.   I’m reading Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein‘s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism and I’d be doing Dowd the biggest favor of her life if I passed it on to her to once I’m done.   There are lots of answers for her between the book’s covers.

Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, ” It’s time to acknowledge how far the Republican Party has veered towards tolerating extreme ideological beliefs and policies, and how the GOP has embraced cynical and destructive means to advance political ends over problem-solving.”

While Dowd would have us all believe if Obama would only grow a pair he could knock some sense into the GOP.   Ornstein and Mann know that’s too simple by half and despite the eagerness of the press to slice the pie into even slices of who’s to blame for the political gridlock, they aren’t reluctant to point to the Republicans as deserving the lion’s share.   “…However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.”

Derailing Hillary Clinton 2016 is the real target of the Benghazi “scandal.”  If it hurts Obama too, that’s just gravy to the wing nuts.   According to her polling numbers, Clinton has become more popular, not less.  The Republicans and Fox News haven’t laid a glove on her.

The Republican Strategy explained by a Republican.

The Republican Strategy explained by a Republican.

Dowd is impervious to reason, logic, history or fact.  She preens from her perch as the Grey Lady’s Red-Haired Harpy lacking the gravitas of Paul Krugman, the intelligence of Thomas Friedman, the compassion of Nicholas Kristof or the social conscience of Charles Blow.

But she’s still got Obama to kick around for another three years.  Unless her Republican friends successfully impeach him first.  She’d probably like that.

I WENT to New York last week to cover the TV presentations for the new season, shows like “Scandal,” “Shark Tank” and a faltering “American Idol.”

 I may as well have stayed here.

You know that the faltering American idol in the White House must be reeling in this scandalous spring. No Drama Obama is immersed in drama so over the top it could have been scripted by Shonda Rhimes and Karl Rove.

Who knows? If Washington keeps imploding, Hillary may run in 2016 on restoring honor to the White House.

If the system is broken it helps to know who broke it.

If the system is broken it helps to know who broke it.

You know Dowd is sippin’ that purple drank when an relentless Hillary-hater is looking wistfully to her for relief.   Could that be why she forget how much she despises Hillary as she spitefully made clear in 2008.

 As a possible first Madame President, Hillary is a flawed science experiment because you can’t take Bill out of the equation. Her story is wrapped up in her marriage, and her marriage is wrapped up in a series of unappetizing compromises, arrangements and dependencies.

Instead of carving out a separate identity for herself, she has become more entwined with Bill. She is running bolstered by his record and his muscle. She touts her experience as first lady, even though her judgment during those years on issue after issue was poor. She says she’s learned from her mistakes, but that’s not a compelling pitch…If Hillary fails, it will be her failure, not ours.

What is Dowd anyway?   A smug, smart-ass who is passed off as some sort of “liberal” but comes off more like the Times version of a self-hating one like Fox’s Kirsten Powers or a TV critic?   Why should anyone take seriously a political columnist who doesn’t seem to know how politics works?
If you believe the op-ed page even the Times doesn’t believe Dowd parroting the G.O.P.’s talking points about “scandals.”

The American public, Greg Sargent pointed out this morning, does not find a presidential scandal in either the Benghazi talking points or the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of right-wing groups seeking a tax-exempt and disclosure-free status.

In a C.N.N. poll released over the weekend, 61 percent of Americans say President Obama’s comments about the I.R.S. investigation were mostly or completely true, and 55 percent say the I.R.S. acted on its own. On Benghazi, 50 percent believe that early statements about the attack reflect what the administration believed at the time, compared with 44 percent – 76 percent of them Republicans – who say officials intentionally misled the public.

The blind hatred of the Republicans for this president will gradually lead them to overplay their hand.   For now Obama will have to take incoming fire from the front from Republican Klingons trying to depose him as well as backstabbing “liberals” and the eighth biggest hack in journalism who have the  long knives out after Obama the same way they were for  Bill and Hillary, Al Gore, John Kerry and every other Democrat who doesn’t measure up to Joe Bartlett.

Because in Dowd’s wacky world, the only good Democrats  are Democrat who aren’t real.

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I Freelance, But That Doesn’t Mean I’m Free.

I do not suffer fools or lazy editors well.

Being a blogger has never been my ambition.  I looked at blogging as a way to keep my writing skills sharp until something better came along.   I always considered myself a journalist who blogs.   I would have never guessed four years after starting my blog, it would still be my primary outlet.

The option is always there to go back to submitting to the Black press and alternative sites and publications.   The problem with that is after you’ve graduated high school, how many times should you return to visit?    There’s a feeling everyone gets that they have outgrown certain things and for me contributing to Black and alternative publications is a step backward, not forward.

Which is why during a recent trip to Philadelphia, a friend asked me to contribute an article to a website called The Black Commentator, I didn’t pump my fist at the invitation.  Don’t get the idea I think I’m too good for The Black Commentator.   I still enjoy writing for predominantly Black audiences, but I’m past the point where simply getting published is enough.  Where my work is published and by whom matters just as much. As far as anesthetics goes, The Black Commentator website is an ugly throwback to the earliest days of the Internet.   It’s a text heavy, no photography, no illustrations, liberal-to-Far-Left site which has the audacity to lock away most of its content behind a $39.99 paywall.   Paywalls are all the rage these days as more newspapers such as The New York Times and Washington Post are looking at charging readers a fee to get access to their premium content.

The Black Commentator does not have such premium content to justify such a cost, but that’s an opinion.

I wasn’t fired with enthusiasm to write for the website, but I did it as a favor to my friend.   She wanted an essay about U.N. ambassador Susan Rice and the rough time she would face from Republicans in the Senate if President Obama nominated her to replace the departing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

I wrapped up the assignment in three days.  I edited it for errors and e-mailed it to my friend for her to submit to The Black Commentator.    She said it would probably run in the December  7 edition.

December 7 rolled around and I checked the website.  I had not received any correspondence asking for any corrections to the piece, so I figured it was good to go.   I figured wrong.   My friend sent me an e-mail from the publisher  stating:

We are rejecting Jeff’s piece.  There are two major factual errors in the opening graph.  

Editing is one thing, but re-writing a piece is something we prefer to avoid.

I woud (sic) have sent this note directly to Jeff, but I do not have his email address.

The standard operating procedure for writers and editors, at least the one I’m familiar with since 1992, is you submit an article for publication, the publication goes over the article and makes suggestions for clarification, accuracy, and composition.   Maybe a paragraph needs to be moved from here to there or stricken entirely.   Perhaps the editor has a question and needs the writer to explain how they reached this conclusion or where that quote came from.   This is the process and it a collaborative one.   That is how I’ve always known it to work.

Apparently The Black Commentator doesn’t get down like that.   Was I pissed off?  Surprisingly not that much.  But was I annoyed over the expenditure of time and effort for nothing?  What do you think?   I can’t speak to how the editor learned his craft, but my experience is when a freelancer submits an article and you have a problem with it, you extend them the professional courtesy to revise and resubmit. Or you say it’s too broken to be fixed.  It’s not a fun thing to hear, but you can’t make it as a freelancer if  you can’t cope with rejection.

What an editor should always do is keep your snarky quips to yourself.   I responded:

I received from Miss (name withheld) your note to her of your decision to reject my article on Susan Rice based upon “””two major factual errors in the opening graph.”

As  my friend was serving as both the point person of contact and the intermediary between myself and The Black Commentator editorial, I would have been more than willing to revise and correct any problems in the article—IF I had been extended the opportunity to do so.

Since I was only submitting in response to an invitation from Miss (name withheld)  and to the best of my knowledge I was doing so without compensation, I can’t say I’m all that disappointed by your decision.

However, your observation that “Editing is one thing, but re-writing a piece is something we prefer to avoid”   would probably be more apt had I been offered the opportunity to edit the article after submission.

It’s unfortunate my expenditure of time and effort did not pass The Black Commentator’s rigorous publishing standards, but I certainly cannot correct “two major factual errors” if no one deems it worth bringing it to my attention.   It is not presumptuous for the writer to expect the professional courtesy of being offered the opportunity to correct that which is incorrect.  

The gentle reader might wonder what was  the response from the editor?   He didn’t, which is a response of a sort.

When I write an 1,806 word article and some smart-ass editor who doesn’t know me from a can of paint gives me the back of the hand treatment, I react badly as I am not one prone to suffer silently.   Kill that noise.   You shoot my dog and I kill your cat.   That’s how I get down.

I conquered any uncertainty over whether I was any good as a writer years ago.   I’ve confirmed that I am to my satisfaction, and  do not need  The Black Commentator for validation.

It isn’t egotism or over-confidence to place a value on your writing and decline lesser offers for the service you provide.   Pay me what I’m worth, cross my palm with coin of the realm and congratulations!  You’ve purchased my services and all that entails.   But while I’m a cheap date, I’m not a free one.   That’s what people like this particular editor do not and can not understand.  I don’t care about your titles, I don’t care about your degrees or how much you make or how fine your woman is, how diversified your portfolio is or how big a bat you’re swinging.

That doesn’t impress me.   What does impress me is are you producing a quality publication with high standards of journalism and professionalism?   If you are, then you are the type of person I want to be associated with.

If  you are not, then it’s probably a good thing our first date turned out to be our last date.

The Saboteur: How Jayson Blair Destroyed Newsroom Diversity

Jayson Blair made the job tougher for every other Black journalist.

(This is a column I wrote in 2003 in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at The New York Times.  Blair resigned in disgrace, but  not before he became the symbol of how wrong-minded affirmative action had blinded The Times to his deceptions and fabrications.)

There is a widely held assumption that the news media has a liberal bias, but if one of the tenets of liberalism is respecting and encouraging diversity then those of us who work in journalism can tell you there is no such bias.  If newspapers reflect the communities they serve, what’s staring back from the mirror is a White reflection.

According to a survey conducted by the Boston Globe, the newspaper industry had a net increase of four minority journalists in 2002, and the percentage of minorities in newsrooms increased to 12 percent.  Almost half of the nation’s newspapers employ no minority reporters, photographers or artists.

Whenever a Black journalist gets a hot job in the field or wins a Pulitzer Prize, their personal accomplishment feels like a small win for all the others trying to get on the up escalator.  This is why the now-notorious Jayson Blair betrayed not only his employers, his readers and his profession, but he made life immeasurably more difficult for every other Black journalist.

Blair’s name will become a fixture in future Journalism 101 classes.  He will become the embodiment of how one manipulative and deceitful individual can mislead his editors when determined to do so.  It’s news when any reporter’s misdeeds compels a newspaper to issue a front page explanation of his “crimes of journalistic fraud.”  It’s news of historic proportions when it is a reporter for the New York Times.

Even before to his ignoble fall from grace there were multiple warning signs that while Blair was an accomplished liar and plagiarist, he wasn’t a very good reporter.   The great irony of his deception is that it wasn’t his any of the esteemed editors at the Times who brought an end to his reign of error to an end.  It was a former Times intern, Macarena Hernandez, who had worked with Blair and gone on to work at the San Antonio Express-News and would discover a story of Blair’s was awfully similar to one of her own.

In his book, Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Crippled American Journalism, William McGowan sneered at the thought of bringing more Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans into newsrooms.  “After 25 years of trying, the newspaper industry needs to give itself a break and say, ‘This isn’t important,” McGowan wrote,  “and focus on having accurate and truthful coverage, which it doesn’t have now.”

Macarena Hernandez: one of the good guys in a story without enough of them.

In his wildest fantasies, McGowan couldn’t have conceived of a Jayson Blair coming alone to prove him right.   Everyone who criticized the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 26-year-old goal of making newsrooms as racially diverse as the communities they cover suddenly had powerful ammunition.

A chilly blast at diversity came from Slate columnist Mickey Kaus.  “The NYT story’s part line—that the underlying problem appears to have been communications—is a defense euphemism worthy of Nixon.   Everyone at the paper seems to have communicated quite clearly in January 2001.   Rather, the Blair disaster appears to (in large part) to be a fairly direct consequence of the Times’ misguided race preference policy.  Plenty of other factors were involved, but without ‘diversity’ it wouldn’t have happened.”

If Blair were a White liar instead of a Black one, would Kaus be suggesting papers stop hiring White people?  Why is it only people of color whom have to carry the sins of the few on the backs of the many?

“Jayson doesn’t represent me,” Hernandez said.  “I worked my ass off for everything I’ve ever got, and he doesn’t [represent] any of the minority journalists I know who have worked their asses off every day.”

Breaking into the bastion of Whiteness that is the typical American newsroom has never been easy, so it is fair to blame Blair for being in the back of the mind of the interviewer when a brother or sister doesn’t get the job?   Probably not, yet a small voice in the back of their mind may whisper as they dejectedly pick up their rejected resume to leave, “Did they turn me down because they’re afraid I might be another Jayson Blair?”

Bob Herbert, a Times columnist, fired back at those who would hold Blair up as proof of the failure of diversity efforts.  “There’s a real shortage of Black reporters, editors and columnists at the Times.   But the few who are here…don’t deserve to be stigmatized by people who can see them only through the prism of a stereotype.”

“The problem with American newsrooms is too little diversity, not too much,” Herbert said.  “Blacks have always faced discrimination and maddening double standards in the newsroom and they continue to do so.   So do women, Latinos and many other groups that are not part of the traditional newsroom-in-crowd.”

The tragedy of Jayson Blair is not a tragedy simply for Black journalists.  It is a tragedy for journalism as a whole and his skin color is irrelevant to his bad acts.  Blair didn’t commit his fraud because he is Black, but because he is a deeply flawed and troubled young man.  Eventually the system did work and he was caught, but the Times has some serious work to do in overhauling its fact-checking system and needs to do a better job in evaluating talent.

Former Times national correspondent E.R. Shipp was quoted in an Salon article rightfully placing the failure on delinquent editors and and a drug and alcohol addled reporter.

“It’s about getting hoodwinked.  It’s not a race issue,” Shipp said.  “It’s not about race or lowering standards to engage in affirmative action.   That’s bullshit.”

Blair never quite explained and never really apologized.

Shipp is right.  If it’s too much to ask one person to carry the weight of a entire race’s aspirations, it’s equally unfair to smear an entire race due to one person’s crimes.  Blair’s sins are his to bear and his alone.

Who gets the blame for what Jayson Blair did?  Start with Jayson Blair.

Originally published 2003 in a different form in Columbus Alive

It’s Time to Eat Your Peas, Mr. President

"Man, after dealing with those Republicans all day, I need a smoke!"

You can’t talk to a man when he don’t want to understand and apparently you can’t negotiate with Republicans either.  So why try?

John Boehner walked out of debt ceiling negotiations, again?   What is this?  The third or fourth time already? Boehner leaves and comes back more times than an abused spouse.

The hell with him.  Boehner’s afraid if he makes a deal Eric Cantor will take his job.   And he wants to keep his job  so he won’t make any that raises the debt ceiling without huge and painful spending cuts.   Painful for Democrats and their constituents.   As long as no millionaire or billionaire is left behind, that’s all The Boehner Bunch cares about.

This is getting nowhere fast.  After Boehner’s latest walk, the President explained to the press what went wrong this time.

Obama said he offered Boehner “over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending,” including domestic and defense spending.   

“We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs,” the president said.  “Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.”   What Obama wanted in return was $1.2 trillion in revenues and none in tax rate increases.

"I know what you mean, dawg."

No deal, dude. 

“It’s hard to understand why Speaker Boehner would walk away from this kind of deal,” a bewildered Obama said. “Can they say yes to anything?”

Apparently not and so its time to say the hell with the Republicans.  If the debt ceiling is going to be raised and Chaos and Disorder avoided it may be up to the president to save America from going off the economic cliffs.   The GOP is sitting in the backseat of the car screaming in Obama’s ear to speed up and drive off the cliff.   He needs to throw an elbow into their yapping mouths and take control of the situation before disaster strikes.

Maybe it’s time for President Obama to take President Clinton’s advice, bypass the Tea Party-possessed GOP, invoke the 14th Amendment and raise the debt ceiling with the Constitutional powers granted to the Chief Executive without cutting any more dirty deals with double dealers like Boehner, Cantor and  Mitch McConnell.

The New York Times agrees Obama is going to have cut the GOP loose.

A deadlocked Congress has become incapable of acting consistently; it commits to entitlements it will not reduce, appropriates funds it does not have, borrows money it cannot repay and then imposes a debt ceiling it will not raise. One of those things must give; in reality, that means that the conflicting laws will have to be reconciled by the only actor who combines the power to act with a willingness to shoulder responsibility — the president.

There comes a time when no deal is better than a bad deal and a terrible deal would be one that shreds the social safety net for the poor, the elderly, students, veterans and the most vulnerable and suffering citizens while sparing Wall Street once again as Main Street bears the brunt.

It’s time to eat your peas Mr. President.  A big ol’ heaping plate of ’em.

Obama said he’d risk his presidency to resolve this crisis. Fine. Time to call the Republicans bluff.   If they have the balls to try to impeach him, then let them try to impeach him.  The polls say the GOP is playing a losing hand with their “drive faster, homey, not slower”  death dive.   Maybe this is all just one really long and really bad television show where everything gets resolved in the last five minutes and maybe the Republicans are as  crazy as they seem to be. 

Could the Republicans decide to try and impeach the president if he bypasses them and raises the debt ceiling without Congress?   Maybe.  Let’s find out. 

My guess It will never happen. Not with a presidential election right around the corner.  The Republicans will be exposed as the bullies and cowards they are and they will lose And the president and the country will win.

Put a little butter on the peas, Mr. President.  They aren’t so bad at all.