Season 3, Episode 14: Author and Political Scientist, Norman Ornstein on Covid-19, Mental Health and the November Election 
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Season 3, Episode 14: Author and Political Scientist, Norman Ornstein on Covid-19, Mental Health and the November Election

Sunday September 20th, 2020

On the Season 3 Finale Jay speaks with Norman Ornstein, American author and Political Scientist. Norman has spent the better part of his life working as a Washington insider and in recent years has observed the Republican-Democrat party divide deepen at an alarming rate. Join Jay and Norman as they discuss the impact of Covid-19 on American politics and what that means for the coming November election.

 

Transcription:

0:00:00 Jay Ruderman: Nothing prompts a response in a household like talking about politics. Many people have polarizing views and it is the one sure topic to be covered by the news every day of the year. 

 

[music] 

 

0:00:18 S?: All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman. 

 

0:00:29 JR: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and thank you for joining me for the Season 3 Finale of All Inclusive. If you haven’t already please be sure to go back and check out the rest of Season 3. We have some pretty amazing guests with really amazing stories and insight. On today’s show, we have one of the most foremost political scientists in our country, Dr. Norman Ornstein. Dr. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, as well as a contributing editor and columnist for The National Journal and the Atlantic. There’s also a BBC News election analyst and is the chairman of the Campaign Legal Center. 

 

0:00:58 JR: Welcome, Dr. Ornstein and thank you for being with us on All Inclusive. I just saw something, I’ve known you for a while, but a little known fact for me, which I found out was that you actually graduated high school at 14 and college at 18, which is quite impressive, so kudos for that. And I just think that you’re probably very well attuned to what you’re observing, and thank you for really joining us today and lending your expertise on our nation’s political system and its mental health. 

 

0:01:41 Norman Ornstein: Sure. 

 

0:01:42 JR: So let me ask you, when you were growing up, did you always like politics even at a young age, and did you ever think that your career would take you into the political sphere?  

 

0:01:55 NO: So as a young person, I really did have an interest in politics because my grandfather, who had emigrated from Russia, moved to Northern Minnesota, a very small town, and down to Minneapolis where he became a major labor leader and was instrumental as part of the very small kitchen cabinet that got Hubert Humphrey to run for Mayor of Minneapolis and got his career underway. And my mother’s family was very much engaged in what was called DFL politics, the party in Minnesota was the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. The youngest son, my grandfather’s youngest son, my uncle, served in the state legislature, was a nominee for Attorney General in the state, his son is now a state Senator in Minnesota. And I got to know Hubert Humphrey a little bit as a young person, and I got to know many of the other figures in Minnesota politics, so I was interested in politics. 

 

0:03:00 NO: I didn’t have any real sense that I would end up with a career that kind of intersected with the political world until I was in college, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was, as you said, a very young person. I was living at home in Minneapolis and commuting to the University of Minnesota. But I had a couple of professors who really shaped my career, one who in the end got me to the University of Michigan to get my PhD, the other who had worked in Congress for a year as a congressional fellow of the American Political Science Association, and brought all of those experiences to the classroom. And I decided to go to graduate school in political science and decided that I was going to do that too and be a congressional fellow, and I did, I managed to get that honor in 1969 and 1970, came to Washington, worked on the Hill, immersed myself in the politics of Congress, wrote my PhD dissertation on Congress and staff, and then ultimately after teaching in Italy for a year and finishing my dissertation, I came back to Washington to teach and began to write more widely in newspapers, to do some television, but also to write about politics and interact with many of the people here. So that really did establish my career and some of it clearly got started when I was very young. 

 

0:04:31 JR: So you’ve been in Washington or in the political scene for 40-plus years. 

 

0:04:38 NO: Yeah, 50. 

 

0:04:41 JR: Fifty. 

 

0:04:43 NO: But who’s counting? Yeah. 

 

0:04:44 JR: But you’ve met so many people in the political sphere, and I’m just wondering if there’s anyone in particular that has stood out as someone that you had a personal connection with, someone that you felt that you could really sit down and have an honest conversation with, or there may be more than one person. 

 

0:05:03 NO: I was thinking just the other day that I’ve just had this enormous great fortune of having a series of incredible mentors, people that I did spend a fair amount of time with and who I’ve admired greatly, and they cut across all kinds of party lines. One was Elliot Richardson, a very famous man, a Republican. I’ve never known anybody with the integrity that Elliot Richardson had. And he, of course, was the Attorney General when we saw the famous Saturday night massacre where Richard Nixon in the midst of the Watergate scandal wanted to fire the special counsel who was investigating, Archibald Cox, ordered the Attorney General to do it and Richardson refused and resigned as his Deputy Attorney General. 

 

0:06:01 NO: And I became friends with him, and he really was a mentor to me after he left government service. I served with him on a commission that was chaired by another one of my mentors who I was close to until he died very recently, Paul Volcker, and used to spend a great deal of time with him talking about public service. I am still on the board of his venture, the Volker Alliance. Another was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who I got to know when he was a political scientist and then became close to as a Senator. Another was Alan Simpson, a wonderful Republican Senator from Wyoming, who I later enlisted to co-chair a commission I had set up in the aftermath of 9-11, the Continuity of Government Commission, and he’s still going strong at 89. 

 

0:07:00 NO: So all of those, Walter Mondale, a mentor from, of course, my great state of Minnesota. Don Fraser, who was the Congressman from Minnesota who I worked for when I initially went there. Donna Shalala, a dear friend from political science, tennis partner for all eight years when she was Secretary of Health and Human Services, and now as she’s come back, the capstone of her career as a member of Congress. So a very large number, and I could actually go on and on, and all of them were just extremely nice and warm and took me under their wing and taught me an awful lot. And it’s one of those things too, Jay, where when you deal with people who are sort of towering figures, really fit the definition of statesman, who always put country first, who had enormous accomplishments in what they did, and it makes it more painful now to see how difficult it is to find people who meet that set of categories and who can transcend the differences that we have in a world that’s really been taken over by a kind of tribalism. 

 

0:08:30 JR: So I wanted to get into that with you a little bit more. The names that you’re mentioning are all people, I think because I’m a certain age that I knew of, follow, they were key figures in the national political scene. I even had the opportunity in high school to be a Congressional page in the early ’80s and served under the Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, who was a Democrat, but he used to commute back to Massachusetts with Silvio Conte, who was a Republican. And the atmosphere in the House, I had the opportunity to be on the House floor late at night, and the camaraderie between Republicans and Democrats, even though it was in the time of Reagan, which was a partisan time, people could actually have friendships and work together. It seems like that’s no longer the case, and how did we develop into a time where it seems like the parties don’t even speak to each other anymore, and it’s very difficult to even get them in the room, never mind having the camaraderie that allows bipartisan legislation to emerge. 

 

0:10:00 NO: We’re certainly at a very low point now. Now, there is some of it. In the Senate, you’ll find, mostly on issues that don’t get into the bigger ones, where you still have some ability to work across party lines, and that includes some work in areas that you and I are both very much engaged in. We saw, for example, with a couple of bills that were co-sponsored by the Democratic Senator from Michigan, Debbie Stabenow, and the Republican Senator from Missouri, Roy Blunt, one that made an effort, for example, to get around this just really terrible quirk in the law that requires that community health centers taking care of those with mental illness have to have less than 16 beds if they’re going to get any Medicaid funding, which has dramatically restricted the opportunities for care and the number beds that exist. 

 

0:11:07 NO: We see it with a bill in the Senate by Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Dick Durbin to try and enable a remote Congress at the time of the pandemic. But the fact is, on most issues across most lines, we don’t have camaraderie anymore, camaraderie, we don’t have trust anymore. The norms have been scattered. This goes back long before Donald Trump. It’s something I’ve devoted a fair amount of my career and research to, with my long-time friend and colleague, going back to the University of Michigan, Tom Mann, we wrote a book in 2006 about Congress called The Broken Branch, where we really began to see this unraveling. And there, we put some blame on both parties, and a lot of it on Newt Gingrich from the time he entered Congress, really trying to tribalize the process so he could find a way to get the Republican majority. 

 

0:12:08 NO: And then when we wrote again, a book in 2012 called, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, that one, we looked early at the Republicans, because it had really become kind of asymmetric in the way in which our polarization was working and the tribalism was taking place, and amplified by outside forces like talk radio and cable news, and it’s gotten worse since, and it’s been dramatically amplified under Trump, but again, exacerbated by so many forces outside. And what started as a kind of tribalism, and sometimes the way I define it, what we used to have was partisanship, which is baked into our democratic system, and you would look at people on the other side of the aisle as really good people, good Americans, trying to solve the problems we all know exist, but just with a different approach, and we could find ways to work together, finding some common ground, sometimes doing a little give and take across the lines, to now where it’s you look at people on the other side as the enemy, evil people trying to destroy our way of life. 

 

0:13:30 NO: And when you reach that mindset and have it metastasize down to the states and then to the public as a whole, and realize that our elections now are driven by what the political scientists call negative partisanship, we’re more moved by trying to keep out those evil people on the other side then necessarily by adherence to your own party, you can see a very pernicious dynamic. And it means that finding ways to work together to solve these big problems that we have becomes more and more difficult, and everything gets filtered through the desire to gain more traction for the next election. And if you work with people in power, this is a phenomenon that hits the minority party, and things go well, then people are going to reward the party in power, and so you have a huge incentive not to work with them, and that makes it worse. 

 

0:14:33 NO: And add to that what’s become a phenomenon that again goes back, I believe, to Gingrich, when he became the Speaker, one of the first things he did was to eliminate the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which was this terrific place that had a group of top scientists and engineers who would give Congress technical information and facts that they could use to make their decisions. But because a lot of those facts, whether it was in defense or the environment, didn’t fit what goals Gingrich and his party had, it was better to discredit the facts and get rid of the people who were providing them. 

 

0:15:18 NO: And of course, we’ve seen the same thing play out often with fossil fuel companies trying to discredit the scientists who told us about climate change, and now we’re in a world where dealing with a pandemic, we have a significant portion of the population that doesn’t believe the scientists or the experts, where we see our leading specialist in infectious disease, a national hero, Anthony Fauci, facing death threats and being told that he’s just slanting the data to hurt Trump, it makes it so much harder for the society to grapple with the problems or to behave appropriately. It’s a real crisis we have on our hands, and it’s not going away if and when Donald Trump is no longer president. 

 

0:16:06 JR: Right, so I think we’ve seen over the last few decades great developments in politics, first of all, television and the introductions of television into first the House and then the Senate, social media and politics playing out on social media and also money, Citizens United, essentially unlimited money in the political system. Have all of these contributed to a debasing of our national discussion?  

 

0:16:47 NO: No doubt. It’s interesting, I’ve just been in my social isolation. One of the things I’ve been doing is cleaning up my study at home and going through pictures, and I’ve got a bunch of pictures from the fifth anniversary of C-SPAN coming into the House of Representatives, where Brian Lamb, the creator of C-SPAN, asked me to moderate a set of programs commemorating that fifth anniversary. And so I’ve got these pictures with Robert Byrd and Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley and other figures from that era. And of course, television in the House and Senate was a really big deal. Byrd opposed it, knowing that it would have some unintended consequences. And it’s wonderful, it’s necessary that we be able to have transparency and shed light on what Congress is doing. And when you don’t have that, really bad things can follow. 

 

0:17:54 NO: Just as an aside, I’ve noticed that the now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a committee that has always prided itself on its bipartisanship, Jim Risch, scheduled a meeting without notifying the minority to try and confirm somebody, they had the international broadcasting side, the Voice of America and so on, who’s undue criminal investigation, and not only scheduled the hearing to try and jam through the nomination without notice, but also decided that it would not be televised the way other meetings that they have done recently, especially with COVID, have been, because he wants to hide the actions that they’re taking. 

 

0:18:45 NO: So it’s good to have, but you’re absolutely right, it can open up opportunities. The old, very old saw, you never want to watch laws or sausages being made, because politics is messy and can involve some give and take, some unseemly things or things that look on the surface to be bad, that can create even more division because of the rhetoric that’s used, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of that. And the other ways in which things have opened up have created their own issues. And the role of money, and especially in the post-Citizens United world, and it’s not just that decision, but the ones that followed that have created dark money possibilities, huge sums going through with nobody knowing where they’ve come from, channeled and laundered through multiple places. The theater that lawmakers have that when you raise money in the traditional fashion, which is with a limit of about $2700 or $2800 from individuals for an election, but then somebody can come in with two weeks left in the campaign where you don’t have the ability to counter it and pour in millions to slime you and all the negative campaigning that’s come from it. 

 

0:20:14 NO: And you’re going to have to protect yourself, and that means you have to go out and raise money, and often that means selling your soul to get that money or selling political favors, the degree to which a small number of elites, billionaires can dominate this process and to achieve their own goals, this is not a good thing. And when you realize that so much of it is used in an election process and hear all the decisions made by the Supreme Court under John Roberts, not just about money, blowing up the Voting Rights Act, for example, opening up opportunities for voter suppression, where campaigns are all about motivating your own base and suppressing the others. All of that means that the focus is on the negative and scaring people about what the other side will do. And once again, we’re back to all of the issues and difficulties of convincing Americans that we’re all Americans first and making decisions that are going to shape the lives of ourselves and our future generations, that meting a little pain now for a bigger gain later on, those things are harder to do now, and that’s a huge, huge problem. 

 

0:21:42 JR: So it seems to me that in the past, people who ran for president had to have some political experience, people were coming out of the Senate mainly, but the House governors, and now we’re seeing… I’ve been watching this series on Netflix called Trump: An American Dream, which essentially documents his rise as a celebrity and using celebrity, and one of the takeaway lines in one of the episodes I watched last night had Roger Stone being interviewed. Roger Stone, an associate of Trump’s who has since been convicted. But he made an interesting line, he said, “Listen, to run for president, you have to be known.” And people began to look at Trump because he was known. Are our politics changing from people who actually know how government operates to people who are celebrities and people know about them, and they may get into the system without a lot of background of how politics actually works? And maybe that’s what the electorate is looking for, in some ways, they’re so disenfranchised with the system for whatever reason that they may be looking for outsiders. 

 

0:23:23 NO: So we get into a kind of downward spiral that flows from all of this, and some of it gets back to televising, but also just a kind of cynical way in which politics gets covered. People who are not satisfied or who look at our political process and think, look what those politicians do, and clever people running for office run against politics and politicians, and say, I’m not like those other people, you get discredited the whole idea of compromise, of log rolling, of doing things for others, and that’s encouraged in so many other ways. And it makes it possible for people to jump up and say, elect me, I’ll run government like a business, I’m not going to do what those dirty politicians do. 

 

0:24:16 NO: And so we elect people who either don’t know what they’re doing or who are happy to run in a campaign where your goal is to shred the reputation of the other person and they’re going to do the same to you and you’re okay with that. Or who get into it because it’s an ideological crusade, and not because you’re there to solve problems, many of them requiring very difficult trade-offs. And it doesn’t go well, and instead of a public saying, oh my goodness, you know what, maybe we’re better off electing people who know what they’re doing in government, it’s not like you’re going to say, I need brain surgery, I don’t want one of those people who’s been to medical school, I want somebody who’s been, stayed overnight in a Holiday Inn, and you don’t end up with the outcomes that we want. 

 

0:25:14 NO: We’ve so discredited politics and politicians, and we’re seeing now, I think, the ultimate outcome of this. Now, this also goes back a long ways. I think the fantasy that if you could run government like a business, you wouldn’t waste tax payer dollars and it could work well and the shareholders would get what they want, ought to have been put to rest with Donald Trump. And I’ve sometimes joked, I suppose you could call it a joke, that we have run government like a business, but the business is Trump University, a business that’s now bankrupt because it basically built people, and government is not like a business, it’s not about a bottom line, it’s about solving problems, and sometimes solving those problems means you have to lay out a lot of money as an investment. Businesses now operate mostly by looking at the share price and what happens in the quarter. 

 

0:26:13 NO: Government shouldn’t be looking at it that way, it should be looking at benefiting society as a whole, and sometimes that means taking money from one group, so you can give it to another, because we’re all in the same boat. And it means looking at ways in which you solve problems and not in black and white terms, because so many of them involve shades of gray, and involve values that are not just maximizing profits, that include things like opportunity and equality and fairness, that are not at the top of the list of corporations, for example. 

 

0:26:55 NO: So we’ve strayed from, I think, where we ought to be. We ought to be embracing politics and a noble kind of politics, which means reforming a lot of the ways in which we do our business and making sure that money doesn’t play a truly pernicious role in this world, in this process. It means providing checks and balances, so that the temptation to corrupt because there’s power and money sloshing around is checked from getting out of control. And right now it’s not being checked at all, and right now we’ve lost, I think, all of our moorings in this sense. It is at least heartening to me that when we went through the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process, that people who had not served in office before, who are very fine people, but really wouldn’t have had the first ability to look at how you set up a governmental entity, an administration run things when you have to deal with a House and a Senate and a court system and the larger issues of politics. 

 

0:28:10 NO: People like Tom Steyer, for example, for all of the things that they brought to the table didn’t pass muster within the party, and the Democratic Party turned to somebody with deep experience in politics and in the executive, somebody who could hit the ground running as it were from the day after the election, on the day of the inauguration on and understands the nature of these politics. The people that we’ve elected in the past who didn’t have tended to have worse outcomes. 

 

0:28:46 JR: So speaking as someone who lives in the periphery and is not in DC, it seems like we’ve transitioned from a time where people are really identified with the major parties, Democrat and Republican. Now there’s a vast majority of Americans who are independent and are looking at different issues, at different leaders. But I sense an exhaustion in the country, and I’m wondering if that exhaustion also exists in DC, in people who are in government. And not to broadly prescribe mental health to vast sectors of the population, but where do you see our psyche as a nation and in the nation’s capital having to go through this sort of whiplash back and forth and responding to tweets and having elected officials responding to the President’s tweets, what impact is that having on our national psyche?  

 

0:30:09 NO: Not a very good one, to say the least. And it’s more than just a weariness in Washington. Washington is a complicated city. When I first got here in 1969, it was a capital that was very much like Bonn in Germany, Brasilia in Brazil, narrow places with just one focus, and that was politics and governments. You didn’t have much of an art or cultural scene other than the national museums like the Smithsonian. There was some local theater, but nothing that was all that vibrant. Other worlds just weren’t there. It was a pretty boring place; my friends from New York who came down here couldn’t wait to get back. Now it’s more of a vibrant capital and it’s more than just government, but it is still the seat of government, and that means a very large group of people in the civil service, people working directly in agencies. And right now, because we have the degradation and denigration of government at almost all levels, where we’ve seen, for example, the diplomatic corps hollowed out, the most experienced diplomats leaving or being forced out and replaced in many instances by those who do not belong there. 

 

0:31:38 NO: That started at the beginning of the Trump administration with Rex Tillerson. It’s gotten much worse with Mike Pompeo. We see it with scientists at the EPA, the stories in the last week or two, it’s not in Washington, but the Centers for Disease Control, which is in Atlanta, believing that they’ve been sidelined because they’re not doing the bidding of Donald Trump, but instead relying on their science, but also led by somebody who’s not doing a very good job. You know, the term that I’ve used for how we’re governed under Trump is kakistocracy, which is a 17th century word with a Greek root about the worst kind of government led by the worst and most unscrupulous among us. 

 

0:32:24 NO: And the morale of those working in government, the sense that you’re doing something for the nation and that it’s noble has been shattered almost across the board, and that’s true increasingly in the military as well. When you see a president who decides that he wants to shine a spotlight on people who are, by any standard, war criminals, a Navy SEAL singled out by his fellow SEALs, that band of brothers, for horrific war crimes, pardoned by the President and traveling… When we were traveling with him, and then an officer trying to protect his troops from the pandemic being removed and basically slimed in the worst terms by the Secretary of Defense, all of those things have a toll on them. 

 

0:33:22 NO: For anybody who loves the Congress and the give and take that we’ve seen there, the dysfunction, a lot of it I attribute to Mitch McConnell, who’s done as much to shatter the norms in the process as anybody else, but also the complete failure to provide a check and balance or to do any kind of real advice and consent on the President’s nominees for the courts or the Executive, all of that has sort of cast a pall on things. And when we were doing social events, dinner parties and the like, that, I used to go to plenty of events where there was a real mixture of Democrats and Republicans, and it was all lively and civil conversation. Before we did the social isolation, if anybody was doing a dinner party, they were very careful to segregate the audiences, so you didn’t end up with a shouting match or worse at the table. 

 

0:34:19 NO: It’s a very different place, and some of that may change if and when the Trump administration is gone, but it’s going to take a long time, if at all in our lifetimes before we restore some of that sense of trust and civility that we’ve had, and, you know, it’s depressing. We have to hope that one thing that emerges from the pandemic, when you get into this kind of tragedy with so many people unemployed, people who are struggling just to survive, the concerns that we’re having over loved ones potentially getting sick and dying, the nobility and courage that we see from the health providers, that maybe we’ll, just as we’ve seen in the past, in wartime or in the aftermath of 9-11, a country recognizing that we’re all vulnerable and we’re all in this together, and we have to take care of all of us. 

 

0:35:25 NO: But when I look at the way some of the… When I look at the way Fox News is covering this, when I look at politicians who are proud to call themselves pro-life saying, well, you know, Granny and Grandpa may have to die so we can get the businesses open again. When I see Asian-American health professionals being accosted on the streets and have racial slurs hurled at them because it’s called the Wuhan virus, when I see health professionals being screamed at just because they’re making a big deal out of the virus, it makes me fearful that what we’ve seen in the past, a rallying around, a coming together may not work in quite the same way. 

 

0:36:13 S?: You’re listening to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more, view the show notes and transcripts at rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you are listening. 

 

0:36:31 JR: On a macro level, in terms of our constitutional system, we’re built on a system of checks and balances, and Congress has been a check on the Executive branch. Have you seen a weakening of Congress, have you seen a capitulation to the Executive branch, and I’m not sure what role the judiciary is playing, but we have three co-equal branches of government. Are we now looking at an emergence of a superior branch in the Executive branch that really, the other branches are sort of taking a pass and letting them just grow in power and influence?  

 

0:37:20 NO: So my late mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, coined a phrase and wrote an article called Defining Deviancy Down that to some significant degree, you can have a constitution in place, you can have laws in place, you can have rules in place, but you need the norms to work. You need to have this sense of institutional patriotism, as it were, people who protect their own institutions and will act to protect right against wrong. And what we’ve seen, first in the Senate, is none of that, virtually no hearings on malfeasance in governance. If you go back, and this is one of the things that I’ve found quite depressing. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the HELP Committee as it’s called, has jurisdiction over the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. 

 

0:38:22 NO: The Department of Education has been filled with corruption and scandal, the people in charge of the student loan programs are those who misused and misdirected and were under investigation for student loan abuses. The people in charge of private schools are those who were a part of some private university and school scams. You look at the Department of Health and Human Services which, among other things, was in charge of the facilities taking in those seeking asylum, had a lot to do with the child separation. The HELP Committee, which is supposed to oversee these things, chaired by somebody with a long and distinguished career in public service, Lamar Alexander, now retiring, turned a blind eye to all of it, confirmed people who had no business being confirmed. We have not seen oversight and any effective oversight of what’s going on with COVID. 

 

0:39:23 NO: And in the House of Representatives, which tried, which under Speaker Pelosi has tried to do a lot of very aggressive oversight, they’ve issued subpoenas to witnesses who refuse to testify, a White House with its own counsel putting blanket refusal on any witness from the administration coming in to testify, and courts that have refused to do anything about it, that means that you’ve effectively neutered the oversight capability. And then the institution that really has more power, because the Senate can confirm or refuse to confirm presidential nominees for the courts and for executive posts, so they could force change on a Congress that could use the appropriations process to deny money for things that a president may want, has done virtually nothing. 

 

0:40:23 NO: And if a president then even when he doesn’t get what he wants, decides that he will circumvent the law, we simply do not have the courts intervening, but we also have a Justice Department that’s supposed to be independent in many ways of the president, with an Attorney General who is far more the president’s lawyer and willing to both turn a blind eye to corruption and bad things, but also often help it out. And just one example of what we’ve seen on this front, we now know that the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was being investigated by the Inspector General. Just a year or so ago, I went down to Atlanta to participate in a conference on the 40th anniversary of the Inspectors General Act, which created these independent entities to make sure we didn’t waste money or engage in corruption, and the main investigation of the Inspector General was because Congress had made it very clear that they were not going to sell arms to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Saudi government’s direct complicity in the torture and murder of an American in Turkey, the journalist Khashoggi. 

 

0:41:43 NO: Trump wanted to do it anyhow, and he got the Secretary of State to do it, and what in effect was a direct slap at Congress and an illicit act, and when he found out that he was being investigated, he fired, got the President to fire the Inspector General, violating the law now, because you’re supposed to give 30 days’ notice, and they have blocked the Inspector General during that 30 days from going back into his office. And then the Secretary of State lied by saying he had no idea what was being investigated when in fact he had agreed to written questions on just this. It’s a set of misdeeds and scandalous acts that cause your jaw to drop, and we’ve seen nothing in the Senate that begins to even lift a tiny little finger to try and deal with it, to denounce it, to act to stop the misdeeds. 

 

0:42:43 NO: So Congress is not doing its job. Just the other day, we had something that cast what I thought was a pretty bad light on the Supreme Court, we’d had an appeals court ruling that would give the House of Representatives access to the grand jury information of the Mueller investigation, because there’s every reason to believe that there might be deeds taken by the president that could be considered high crimes and misdemeanors, went beyond whatever he was impeached for before on the fairly narrow sense. And the Supreme Court said, no, we’re not going to let you have access to that now, we’re going to hold a full hearing, which just delays this possibly even beyond the election. They have not acted in what is the clear letter of the law to give Congress access to Trump’s tax returns, and there’s ample legislative reason for that. 

 

0:43:41 NO: So one of the main goals that Mitch McConnell had in getting Donald Trump as president, one of the main reasons that the Senate Republicans have not done anything about misconduct or misdeeds is because he’s giving them the judges that they want to put in place who will be there for 50 years or 40 years or well after they’re no longer in power, and those judges in many cases are protecting President Trump, even though their actions are at best highly questionable. 

 

0:44:14 JR: So if you go back to ’73 and Watergate and Nixon, we were living in a different world. There was the investigation, a lot of it was being played out in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and there was limited media. Now you’re living in an age of Fox News, social media, there’s a question whether if social media and Fox News were around in ’73, whether Nixon would have been placed in a position. But you did have a situation there when Senate Republicans came to Nixon and said, that’s it. You just don’t have support. And that does not seem to be the case today. Maybe that‘s because the base of that party is attuned to Trump, and there’s fear amongst the Republican party, but I think that we’re living in a very, very different age right now, and… 

 

0:45:36 NO: You’re exactly right. 

 

0:45:38 JR: And among you and your colleagues, is there fear of, not just insecurity in the country, not just sort of anxiety, but is there a fear that we may be slipping into a different form of government than our forefathers had envisioned?  

 

0:46:06 NO: Yes, there is. And what we’ve learned from history is no nation is immune from dark impulses, no nation is immune from slippage from democracy towards autocracy. And what the reality is, my wife and I, last spring, went to Germany and Poland and spent some time immersing ourselves in the history, not just of the 1930s, but the 1920s, and it’s striking. It’s particularly striking, of course, Germany, the most sophisticated, most highly educated, most cosmopolitan country in the world at the time, and you see the slippage step by step by step, you see people who you otherwise admire, see as insightful and articulate and educated getting caught up in a kind of information loop where suddenly things that are beyond bounds seem perfectly okay. You see the ability to pit one group of people in a society against the other that makes the ends justified through all of the means taken, and we’re not immune, and we’re seeing this happen in a lot of ways worldwide. 

 

0:47:38 NO: When people are uncertain because the world now is filled with uncertainties, climate uncertainties, economic uncertainties, the changing technology that means that jobs are no longer secure in the same way, and coping with the global economy becomes difficult, the reality in a global world that amplifies what happens with a pathogen when you get a pandemic, and the degree to which communications have changed, all of those things leave us open. And frankly, I’ve been jolted this past week even a little bit more because of what we’ve seen with these Inspectors General. The President has now fired the Inspectors General from the intelligence community. A man, you’re only supposed to get rid of them for cause, but fired because he did his job. 

 

0:48:39 NO: We just saw it, of course, with the State Department, clearly because the Inspector General was investigating misdeeds by the Secretary and by people around the Secretary on multiple fronts, uncovered largely was that the President also fired the Inspector General from the Department of Transportation, because that Inspector General was investigating the Secretary who’s married to Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, and her actions to benefit politically her husband in Kentucky, not to mention actions that benefited her family, which is a family of shipping magnates, and we’ve seen others. In many other cases, the President has gotten rid of the Inspector General and replaced them with a temporary one, they’re supposed to be confirmed by the Senate, but he’s put people in place who are cronies of his, and not even gone through the confirmation process. 

 

0:49:44 NO: And if you can get away with that, if you can get away with removing every check and balance on corruption, it’s a giant step towards a different form of government, and if they’re able to get away with this and get away with the kind of voter suppression that we’ve seen, which moves us further and further away from Americans deciding their own fate, then we are living in a different world. And we’ve always had this conceit that we were different; after all, we’ve lasted for almost 250 years with our form of government. What we’re seeing now is all the ugly things that can happen in other places, they can happen here too. 

 

0:50:25 NO: You perhaps saw the HBO series, The Plot Against America, based on the Philip Roth novel. We watched it a couple of weeks ago, and of course, it’s based on a novel where Franklin Roosevelt doesn’t win re-election in 1936 and is replaced by Charles Lindbergh, a sympathizer of Hitler and the Germans, and an administration that becomes extremely ugly with racism and anti-semitism emerging and a significant share of the society stepping up to that. And a darker ending than the book itself, where we have a new election with Roosevelt running again, but the intimation at least that no matter how the people were voting, the ballots were going to be burned, and we might get an outcome that didn’t reflect those views. That’s fiction, but it tells us that fiction can become fact. 

 

0:51:32 JR: Norm, you’re a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where you study politics, elections, United States Congress, you’ve written and studied politics to a great extent. Have you ever considered a run for politics yourself?  

 

0:51:53 NO: I used to, I will say that it was a fantasy a long time ago. When I first started to meet with members of Congress, there was so… Such a magnet, an allure, to thinking, Oh, my God, could I be one of those? I was never in a position from the places that I lived in or what I did to ever do anything like that. I used to encourage people with talent that I knew to go into politics and run for office. It’s a little harder to do that now, but I’m past that stage. The fantasy that I did have was that I could do it without any of the heavy lifting, you know, hen I was living in Maryland, that maybe there’d be a vacancy in the Senate, and that I’d know the Governor and the Governor might appoint me, but that was a total fantasy, and that’s gone long by the boards. But I have spent a lot of time with people in Congress, and I have very dear friends. 

 

0:52:57 NO: And these are very difficult jobs, and as I saw the way the job evolved to where now you have to spend many hours a day doing what’s called call time, namely that you basically solicit money and you have to now solicit money for yourself, you have to solicit money for your party. If you want to be a leader, you have to solicit money for a leadership PAC, so that you can distribute it to others and be in a position where you can be in the leadership. And my answer is no, thanks. 

 

0:53:42 JR: Right. It is a great deal of fundraising. I want to shift a little bit to mental health, and I know that you’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to the issue of mental health, I know that you have a personal connection to mental health. You recently wrote an article in the Atlantic entitled The Coming Mental Health Crisis: Congress Must Rethink the American Approach to Mental Healthcare During the Pandemic. And in it, you mention how Congress allocated just $425 million out of $185 billion that was given to healthcare providers as a whole as a result of the CARES Act. Why was mental healthcare given such a small slice of the pie, and why do you think mental health is so often overlooked? Is it part of the stigma surrounding mental health?  

 

0:54:46 NO: I do think that that’s a significant part of it. When they started… But there’s another element too, which is in a related vein, the people pushing for funding for mental health, for help and getting the issues that surround it and the people who suffer from it and the families who do as well are just not nearly as organized or as influential as other lobbying groups. As you know, Jay, I got into this issue because, as so many do, you have a personal connection. I had a son, a brilliant young man, a national champion high school debater, went to Princeton and was out in Hollywood having some success when he had a psychotic break at age 24 and went through a 10-year struggle with serious mental illness before he died accidentally at 34, more than five years ago. 

 

0:55:46 NO: And when I first became public about this and wrote about it in an attempt to try and implement good public policy, I got flooded with responses, people who wrote to me, who called me. It was a lot of, something very similar, “I’ve never told anybody this, but… ” And it was, “I’ve never told anybody this, but my father died of suicide, my mother, my sister, my brother is seriously ill, I have a child and I don’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know that anybody else had these issues.” What became clear to me is, there isn’t a family in America where you can’t find some set of circumstances, some loved one who hasn’t been touched in a fashion by problems of mental illness and usually an often serious mental illness, but because of that stigma, people don’t speak up. The number of people affected by mental illness is significantly greater than those who have been directly affected by breast cancer or AIDS or prostate cancer, but those groups that have lobbied have had more success in getting funding and getting attention to them. 

 

0:57:00 NO: And I think it is because in part, we don’t think of mental illness as what it really is, which is a brain disease, and the brain is an organ like other organs. Even the term mental illness, I can’t tell you how many well-meaning friends of ours, highly educated, smart people, while our son was going through the struggle with what we began to call stage four brain disease, would say to us, just give him a kick in the ass, as if he had the ability to just through his own will overcome it, and that’s true whether we’re talking about clinical depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any of the others. They’re diseases of organs, and we haven’t been able to get a handle on those. 

 

0:57:56 NO: When Congress has dealt with mental illness in the past, it’s because there are members who’ve had their personal connections who have spearheaded efforts to do that. And that’s true with other areas of disability as well, as you know very well. We don’t have as many champions now, and so when you get all this money allocated for the pandemic, we didn’t have the people speaking up and saying We need more on the mental health front, and the tragedy that I think we’re facing now is an immediate one, because the people who are most vulnerable to this pandemic, the homeless people who have no ability to wash their hands, to stay clean, to stay away from others in many cases, and a very large share of them have mental illness, usually a serious mental illness. For many of those, they are like my son, which is a part of their brain disease is you don’t have any insight into your illness, what’s called anosognosia. 

 

0:59:10 NO: And if you don’t have any insight into your mental illness, and then you get something like COVID telling people, well, you need to get tested, or we need to isolate you socially, it just isn’t going to work. A large share are in prisons, and we’ve already seen that they have no personal protective equipment, no hygiene, no social isolation, and large numbers of them are becoming infected. The community mental health centers that are supposed to be the places where you can go to get treatment if there’s an emergency, or if you’re just going there to get your regular medications, many of them have closed or have drastically curtailed what they’re doing, because the people working there don’t have the gear and don’t want to be exposed, and so you can’t go and even get that medication. And then we know that more and more people are going to have exposure to their own illnesses or making them greater, depression all the way up through something more, because of the stress from the pandemic, the loss of jobs, the close quarters in which they’re living, and even perhaps an impact of the virus itself. 

 

1:00:24 NO: What we’ve seen with previous epidemics and pandemics is there’s a sharp increase in mental illness afterwards, and if we don’t have the beds or the professionals or the laws that can work to help people with mental illness now, what’s going to happen when we see a very substantial increase in the need for treatment in the aftermath of this? So we’ve got, I think, a looming bigger crisis on our hands, and at this point, we need to issue a clarion call to do something about it. 

 

1:00:58 JR: I think you’re spot on, and I’ve expressed to you in private, but do it at this point also that I’m so sorry for your loss. I do think that every American family has a connection to the issue of mental illness, it’s something that those of us who are parents worry about and think about all the time, especially in an age of social media and the pressure that young people receive. And even like, you know, the Foundation did a white paper on suicide amongst our first responders, our police, firefighters and EMTs, and it’s proven out almost every week that there is some place in the United States a first responder that takes their life. And the takeaway from the paper was that more first responders die in the line of suicide, die by suicide than in the line of duty. 

 

1:02:08 JR: So it’s a huge issue in society. I see glimmers of hope where I see public figures like a Michael Phelps or a Kevin Love in the MBA, or a Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, significant public figures talk about their own mental health challenges, and I think that that gives hope to their fans to be more explicit. But it is something that the pressures of our society are only increasing. The more awareness out there, I believe the more potential that someone can get the help they need, but we also need our elected officials, whether they be local or state or federal, to really put more resources to it, because there are far too many people who are leaving us who don’t have to. 

 

1:03:06 JR: Now, we’re coming into the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 26. What do you remember about the legislative process and what were the biggest points that you remember around it, because it’s really the landmark Civil Rights legislation regarding disability in this country. 

 

1:03:32 NO: No question, and I think it’s one of the high points. I would put the Americans With Disabilities Act up there with the Civil Rights Acts and with things like Medicare and Social Security as huge steps of progress in America. I just saw a couple of weeks ago this documentary called Crip Camp, which is just a marvelous and compelling movie about a group of people in New York with very serious disabilities going back to the 1950s, some of them with polio, others with every other form of disability, who were able to go to a camp set up for them in the Catskills, and some of them went on to become enormous activists in the forerunners to the Americans For Disabilities Act, and began to get out there. 

 

1:04:32 NO: And what I saw in that film and what I’ve seen with our conversations and other things as well, the stigma that surrounds metal illness has been there, and in a very deep way, for other disabilities as well. We didn’t look at people in wheelchairs as human beings in the same way. If you had cerebral palsy and you couldn’t talk the way others talked, if you had deafness or other disabilities. I have deafness in my family going back and had an uncle who told me that as a young person, profoundly deaf, they almost put him at an early age, five or six, into an institution, the equivalent of a mental institution where he would have had to spend the rest of his life. Instead, he went on, went to Gallaudet College, was a star there. 

 

1:05:33 NO: But this was something we tried to turn our backs on. And when it became more visible and it became a major civil rights movement, it opened up a lot of eyes and it created different possibilities. But of course, the other reality is that we needed legislative champions who had the drive and the motivation and the power and the ability to bring about change. And there, of course, it involved members of Congress who had tragedies or difficulties or experiences in their own families. And one who you know well and who I’ve also been proud to know as a friend is Tom Harkin. Tom had as much to do with this as anybody else, Pete Domenici, former Senator from New Mexico, who’s championed, who championed these issues when he was in the Senate. We were able to get things done because of that concatenation of events, of the ability to see human beings where we’d looked through them before, and the need to have those champions who could actually make this happen. 

 

1:06:56 NO: And it’s had a profound impact on the society, and I don’t think it’s possible to look at this without saying that it has been an enormously beneficial impact, not just for those people with disabilities and their families, but for everybody. It’s lifted everybody up, it’s opened up a talent base in the society that was shut down before. In much the same way, if you go back, that we saw that talent base of more than half the population of women opened up to other opportunities and contributing to all of us. So it’s one of the great things that’s happened in our lifetimes. 

 

1:07:40 JR: I wanted… I mean, of course, you mentioned Tom Harkin and Pete Domenici and I think someone also like in the House side, Tony Coelho, was a leading factor, among others. And we have to give credit to the first President Bush for signing it into legislation. Our Foundation had the privilege of sponsoring the Sundance Film Festival in Utah under the auspices of Robert Redford, and the opening film was Crip Camp, and it’s an amazing film, I would recommend it to anyone because it’s a great story, but it really tells the emergence of the disability rights movement. Where do you think the ADA has to go from here? What more needs to be done that it’s just not… That hasn’t been covered in the initial legislation?  

 

1:08:45 NO: Well, just to mention one area, and it’s one we’ve worked on together, we need to make sure that all those people with every kind of disability is able to vote. Access to voting, which has now become of course a huge issue in the middle of the pandemic, but to be able to gain that access, we don’t have, it’s deeply unfortunate, an absolute constitutional right to vote. It’s there for segments of the population in the 14th Amendment, but what we’ve seen is more efforts to make it harder to vote more generally than to make it easier to vote. But even where we have seen efforts to make it easier there are blind spots, as it were, when it comes to many areas of disability, and that’s going to be true with votes by mail, absentee votes, as it is with access to polling places, with the ability to vote yourself if you are blind, if you are without hearing, if you are in a wheelchair. And so many other ways, places that have made it easier, but it’s not universally perceived. 

 

1:10:14 NO: So that’s one area certainly where I think we need to do better. But I think we also have to… There’s certainly more access to buildings, there are more rights available to those with disabilities. I worry, frankly, that we may see a setback now if we’re in a world where it’s an us versus them kind of society, and I would say maybe as much as anything we have to make sure we don’t see some attempts to dilute the Act itself, give more ability for employers to fire people or not to hire people, take away some of the requirements for access, move more… Back towards more stigma. So there are things we need to do to make this bigger and better, but we also have to make sure we don’t make it lesser. 

 

1:11:15 JR: That’s actually a point that I had a conversation recently with the chairman of a board I serve on, the National Organization of Disability, but the former Governor of Pennsylvania and First Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge talked about coming out of the pandemic and the additional hurdles that people with disabilities may have to face regarding employment, so there is so much left to be done. And in my conversations with Senator Tom Harkin he said that one of the things that the Americans With Disabilities Act never was able to improve was the employment of people of disabilities across our country. So there is still work to be done. I want to end with something that’s very personal and important to you, and we’ve been talking about this off and on over the years, but the Matthew Harris Ornstein Memorial Foundation has done some really great things. Could you just talk a little bit about some of the things that the Foundation does and how the listeners of this podcast can find out more about the activities of the Foundation?  

 

1:12:33 NO: Absolutely, I will. First of all, if you go to mornstein, MORNSTEIN, dot org, you’ll see all kinds of things about our son and what we’ve been doing in his memory. When you lose a child, your options are basically to curl up in a corner or to decide you’re going to do something to try and make sense out of a horrible, unspeakable tragedy. And so we decided to do the latter, and we’ve been involved in two main areas. One of course is trying to change the world surrounding mental illness, so that people who suffer from severe illnesses don’t have to go through the horrors and pain and stigma that our son did and that their families don’t have to suffer, especially in a system that’s completely broken. So I’ve been involved in trying to implement better policy, but we’re also doing two things on that front. 

 

1:13:38 NO: One is we’ve produced a documentary about a quite remarkable judge in Miami Dade County in Florida named Steve Leifman who’s completely transformed the way the criminal justice system deals with those with serious mental illness. That wasn’t something that was a big issue with our son, but it is with so many others, so many who end up encountering the criminal justice system in a very bad way. And Leifman has found ways to save lives and save money. Going back to one of the things that you said earlier, Jay, he’s now trained over 7500 police officers in a week-long intensive program called Crisis Intervention Team Policing, where they learn how to de-escalate conflict rather than the training that teaches them to escalate if somebody doesn’t obey a command, to be sensitive to and to understand when they‘re dealing with somebody with a mental illness. 

 

1:14:38 NO: And one of the side effects of that is they’re getting 150 to 200 calls a month into their mental health hotline from police officers, many of whom suffer from PTSD or depression and, as you said, more die from suicide than from the normal things or the terrible things that can happen on the job, and now they’re realizing that they can get treatment and that what they have is not something to be ashamed of or to hide. So we’ve done this documentary that aired on Public Broadcasting on April 14th, that’s available at pbs.org. It’s called The Definition of Insanity. I would encourage people to go to the pbs.org website and watch it, and then we want to take it around the country whenever we’re able to take anything around the country and try and engage in conversations with stakeholders and others and spread best practices. Because we need resources to improve the system, but you can actually do it in a way that saves lives and saves money. 

 

1:15:44 NO: We’re also working with this marvelous psychologist named Xavier Amador, who’s written a book called I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help, about how you can communicate with and perhaps even partner with people who have this phenomenon called anosognosia, where you don’t have any insight into your illness, and if you try to argue with them or use reason, you get nowhere and you can be alienated. And Xavier has found a way to communicate that can really make it much better and easier for families and for first responders and others to have interactions with those with a serious mental illness, and he’s done trainings around the country, and we’ve co-sponsored those with him for… And also to train people to train others. We’d like to expand that even to schools and other places. 

 

1:16:38 NO: And then finally we’re doing something that our son would have been very happy about, and that is the debate front. He was, as I’d mentioned earlier, a national champion high school debater, it was a great thing for him, it was his entree into Princeton. Debate teaches you life skills, how to get up in front of others and do public speaking, how to do research, learning all sides of issues, learning substance, learning how to reason better and think on your feet, and schools love this. And what we did was we created a summer debate camp for public school kids, mostly Title I, in the Washington, DC area, working with a non-profit called the Washington Urban Debate League. 

 

1:17:24 NO: And our camp last summer was for two weeks, we had 185 kids, 85% minorities, from rising sixth graders through high school, then they go back to their schools and form teams and do tournaments every year. We give out an award at the end of the camp, the Matthew Ornstein Award, to the debater, not the best debater, but the one who best exemplifies his values, which include hard work and team work and the compassion and empathy for others. And the winner of the award in 2017, a young man named Jonathan Collins, won the award that year, and has now gone on and is a student at Harvard where he was recruited by the debate coach to give him opportunities that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Coming from a working class family, debate opened up things for him and gave him the kinds of skills that are going to make him succeed in life. And now we have a challenge, we’re probably going to have to do a virtual camp this summer. 

 

1:18:30 NO: Boston, by the way, has one of the best urban debate leagues reaching large numbers of young people, and it’s one of those things, and it’s another thing that you can reflect on for those with, who have different kinds of disabilities. We all believe in equal opportunity, at least we say we do, but it’s not equal opportunity when some people start 25 yards ahead of the starting blocks and others start 25 yards behind, and you can be 25 yards behind because you have a disability, physical or mental, or because your family doesn’t have any resources, or because you don’t have an intact family, and that can be worse if you are a person of color. And what we’re trying to do with the debate camp and with the whole area of debate is to get people up to the starting blocks, so that their own drive and intelligence and other qualities can give them those opportunities to succeed in life and to help others. And we all ought to be thinking about ways in which we can do those things, and it’s been gratifying, at least, to have played a small part for some with what we’re doing in our Foundation. 

 

1:19:46 JR: Well, Norm, I really want to thank you for being my guest on All Inclusive. Your insights, both into the political world, but also into our general society and making our society a better place, were really helpful and appreciated, and I want to thank you so much and wish you and your family all the best. And hopefully we’ll see our world continue to get to be a more fair, equitable place as time goes on. So thank you so much. 

 

1:20:28 NO: Well, thank you, Jay. And I also want to thank you and your family for doing all that you have done. Your Foundation is really a beacon in this area, and you’ve managed to accomplish so much in so many areas, and it was in some ways a model for us when we tried to think about what we were going to do and how we can operate. 

 

1:20:52 JR: Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us once again. It’s been such a pleasure having you listen and follow along. This is the end of Season 3 so if you want more be sure to go back and listen to more episodes from the season on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcast. We will of course be back in a couple of months with more amazing stories and more amazing guests. Once again, I’m Jay Ruderman and thank you for listening to All Inclusive.  

 

1:20:58 S?: All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundations. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman. 

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