Mitch Albom's 'The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto' On World Cafe

Mitch Albom.
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Mitch Albom. Jenny Risher/Provided by the author hide caption

toggle caption Jenny Risher/Provided by the author

  • Brent James, “No, No, Honey” (from The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto: The Musical Companion)
  • Darlene Love, “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” (from The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto: The Musical Companion)

A successful journalist, radio and TV host, screenwriter and songwriter, Mitch Albom is the master of many things. But he is assuredly best known for his memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie, which has sold more than 14 million copies. Albom’s latest novel, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, is a Zelig-like account of the life of fictional singer and guitarist Frankie Presto, who seems to have been present at every great musical moment of the past century, from meeting Django Reinhardt and Elvis Presley to hanging out at the Brill Building and Woodstock. (And yes, there is a soundtrack.)

The author discusses the novel — and reveals which of the writers in the band Rock Bottom Remainders is the best musician — on today’s World Cafe.

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Villagers On World Cafe

Conor O'Brien, who performs as Villagers.
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Conor O’Brien, who performs as Villagers. Andrew Whitton/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Whitton/Courtesy of the artist

  • “Courage”
  • “Hot Scary Summer”
  • “The Soul Serene”

Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien, who performs as Villagers, has made three albums that have all hit Number 1 at home in Ireland, including his 2015 album, Darling Arithmetic. What’s different this time has less to do with the fact that he’s performing with a band and more to do with how he sees himself.

In the past, O’Brien says, he was not completely comfortable in his performing persona and his writing because he was unable to be straightforward about being gay. His new openness has made a big difference in his music — and has led to some engaging stories about how people have reacted to him, which he relates in today’s session.

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France Holds Memorial Service 2 Weeks After Attacks

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech honoring victims of the Paris attacks during a ceremony at the Invalides in Paris on Friday. The names of each of the 130 people killed in the attacks two weeks ago was read aloud.

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech honoring victims of the Paris attacks during a ceremony at the Invalides in Paris on Friday. The names of each of the 130 people killed in the attacks two weeks ago was read aloud. Francois Mori/AP hide caption

toggle caption Francois Mori/AP

France paid homage today to those who died in terrorist attacks in Paris two weeks ago. The names of the 130 people killed were read at a national memorial service at a historic military building in Paris called Les Invalides.

President Francois Hollande delivered a speech, saying France would continue to defend the values for which the victims were killed.

NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reported that the national ceremony began with the French anthem, La Marseillaise. After the music, pictures of the victims, the majority of whom were under 25, were shown on a giant screen as their names and ages were announced.

In his speech, Hollande said France is at war against ISIS; he has been traveling the world to convince nations to join the intensifying fight. Just yesterday, in what was seen as a major accomplishment, Hollande secured Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agreement that Russia would focus its airstrikes on ISIS, not opposition groups in Syria.

More than 1,000 people attended the memorial, including including survivors, families of the victims, and members of the government, as well as the political opposition. Basically, Eleanor said, politics were put aside as France remembered the dead.

On NPR’s Morning Edition, Eleanor said there has been a surge of patriotism in France:

“Hollande asked people to display the flag in their homes. Now, the French have a completely different relationship with flag than Americans. In France, it’s something on public buildings and maybe sporting events, but to personally wave it is considered something the far right does. But they can’t sell enough of them now.”

“They say the flag is imbued with new meaning; it means togetherness, not military conquest or politics. … And there’s been a lot of people joining the army as well, just like after 9/11 in the U.S., a huge burst of patriotism, people who want to defend their nation and their way of living.”

Meanwhile, there are reports that a man arrested today in Stuttgart, Germany, sold weapons to the Paris attackers, but authorities have not commented on the alleged connection.

Esme Nicholson reports for NPR that police say a 34-year-old man was arrested on suspicions of arms trading, but declined to comment on media reports suggesting the suspect is linked to the Paris attacks.

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Man scales Colosseum to protest Rome Holy Year crackdown

A man climbed onto an outside ledge of Rome’s Colosseum on Friday and shouted in protest at a new decree restricting sightseeing tours, rickshaw rides and centurion impersonators as part of a public order crackdown in the city.

Italy’s capital is imposing extra security measures and sprucing up parks and piazzas as it gears up to host the Roman Catholic Holy Year, or “Jubilee”, that could draw millions of tourists and pilgrims.

A policeman said the protester, a manager at a guided tour company, had reached the outer edge of the 2,000 year-old amphitheatre from inside, apparently through the main entrance.

The fact someone had evaded security at one of Italy’ most-visited sites and police were powerless to intervene caused concern about whether the city is ready for the Jubilee, or up to the task of protecting its citizens from the risk of attacks like the ones that killed 130 people in Paris two weeks ago.

“If he were a kamikaze with a gun or a bomb, he’d have blown up the Colosseum by now,” said retired soldier Marco Deviato, 54, in the square surrounding the monument.

City authorities said they would install new metal detectors at the Colosseum after the attacks in France.

Firefighters and police set up a large inflatable cushion below the small balcony, where the man shuffled around in the cold morning air, shouting: “I’ll go on hunger strike.”

The incident drew a small crowd of onlookers including others affected by the decree which bans people from making money from tourists by posing for photos dressed as Roman soldiers, offering rickshaw rides or promoting tours and selling museum tickets in public areas.

“All these people have families and now their jobs have been taken away. Italy is already in crisis, now what do they do? They take away hundreds of jobs,” said Luca, 42, who has worked as a centurion impersonator for 15 years.

Holy Year is one of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic church’s most important events, and sees the faithful make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites.

Catholics performing such pilgrimages or doing good works during the Holy Year can traditionally gain indulgences, or the remission of punishment for sins, under certain conditions.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)

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After The Cranberries and Pie, Take Time To Talk About Death

What seemed like a burden can become a gift.

What seemed like a burden can become a gift. iStockphoto hide caption

toggle caption iStockphoto

Two years ago my mom fell at home and ended up being admitted to the ICU with four broken ribs and internal injuries. She was lucky. After two weeks in the hospital and a few more in a rehab unit she was back home, using her new blue walker to get around.

I think of that each Thanksgiving as I make pies just the way she taught me, grateful that she’s still with us and that she’s told us how she wants to die

Before she was discharged, Mom signed a POLST form, short for a Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment. I’d heard of advance directives, which spell out the kind of medical care a person would want if they become too ill to communicate those wishes. But I’d never heard of POLST.

In Oregon, where my mother lives, it’s a one-page piece of pink paper that bluntly asks if you want to have CPR performed if your heart stops and you’re not breathing. Three other check boxes ask how much medical intervention you want: going to the hospital and an intensive care unit; perhaps the hospital but no ICU; or skip the hospital altogether. A third question asks if you want to be fed through a tube. That’s it.

Because it’s signed by a doctor or other provider, a POLST has teeth. It overrides the legal obligation of an EMT or a hospital to provide CPR and other emergency care that for old and sick people can lead to a long, miserable hospital stay.

“It’s not for healthy people,” says Dr. Susan Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health Science University. Instead, it’s for someone who is aware that they may soon die.

“We would encourage doctors to reach out to patients if they would not be surprised if they died in the coming year,” Tolle says, “or if they had advanced frailty. The little old lady hunched over their walker, that’s the definition of frailty.”

That’s also the definition of my 92-year-old mom. She can still beat me handily at hearts, but she’s physically weaker each time I see her. “Do everything” is the default mode for American medicine, but that all-out approach often doesn’t serve the very old well.

CPR works only about 10 percent of the time in the general population, Tolle told me, and it’s even less successful in a frail old lady.

First, if someone at that age collapses, it’s usually because there’s a serious medical problem like a heart attack or stroke. And performing CPR on someone with osteoporosis breaks ribs rather than circulating blood. “That isn’t walking off the film set looking good with your hair nicely combed,” Tolle says. “That’s going to the ICU on a ventilator.”

In studies, Tolle, who helped develop the POLST form, has found that just about 12 percent of permanent nursing home residents would want to go to an ICU. “Most say, ‘I want to go to the hospital to get the easy things fixed, but I don’t want the ICU. I don’t want CPR.’ “

POLST forms work well in nursing homes, where they’re often taped on a resident’s bathroom door. But they can be harder to put in force when people are still living in the community.

Oregon has an electronic POLST registry that EMTs and hospitals can check remotely. But only 18 states have POLST programs in place, though many more have them in the works. Most have no registry, meaning that someone intent on having the directions on their POLST form followed would need to wear a medical alert bracelet.

Some members of the disability community have questioned whether POLST is being too broadly applied. Rather than give people more control over end-of-life medical care, they say, it could mean interpreting “disabled” to mean “on death’s door”.

This video helps explain who’s too healthy to sign a POLST form.

Oregon POLST YouTube

“Our concern is that it’s being used with non-terminal people,” says John Kelly, a 54-year-old quadriplegic who lives in Boston. He was taken aback when a nurse showed up with Massachusetts’ version of the form, called a MOLST. “I joke that I’ve got my pink MOLST on the fridge, and I’m afraid that the firemen will come in and glance at the refrigerator and say, OK, he’s got [a do-not-resuscitate order]. They interpret it as meaning no treatment at all.”

POLST is almost certainly inappropriate for someone disabled but otherwise healthy, Tolle says. “People are handing out the form a little too early sometimes, and we want to push back on that,” she says. “It’s for people who we can say are in the winter of their lives. They have advanced illness and frailty. They have declining health.”

Since her fall my mom has been quite clear about what treatments she doesn’t want. I realize that her desires may change and that the POLST form should then change, too. And I know we’ll be talking about this more, even though I have a hard time thinking about it without tearing up.

Family gatherings like Thanksgiving can be a good time for adult children to ask aging parents about their wishes for end-of-life care, and whether those wishes would be best expressed through an advance directive or a POLST. A number of groups offer crib sheets with questions that aren’t entirely scary, like “Would you rather die at home or in a hospital?”

It’s also a good time for parents to speak their minds if the kids don’t ask.

“Lean into it, step up to the plate,” Tolle says. “On Thanksgiving after dinner, tell your children what you want. You really will lift a burden.”

An earlier version of this story ran on Nov. 28, 2013.

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Dear Pope Francis, As You Visit Uganda, Here's What You Should Know

A vendor arranges portraits of Pope Francis outside of the Lubaga Cathedral in Kampala in anticipation of the papal visit.

A vendor arranges portraits of Pope Francis outside of the Lubaga Cathedral in Kampala in anticipation of the papal visit. ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Dear Pope Francis,

We’re excited to welcome you to Uganda. Catholics make up nearly half of the Christian population here — and they’re eager to meet you!

Our’s is a lovely country. Buzzfeed ranked us the 13th most beautiful country in the world! (But of course, we think it’s Number One.)

Still, Uganda has got its fair share of problems — especially when it comes to healthcare, human rights and education. We’re hoping you can use your influence to galvanize our young people and push our nation’s leaders to fix some of these issues. Here’s what we’re thinking about:

Healthcare

When you arrive at our infamous Entebbe International Airport, it may reassure you to know that just a few months ago, Uganda initiated heightened Ebola screening for everyone coming into the country. This set-up includes a mobile medical center that offers counseling and clinical screening, a stand-by ambulance and protective gear.

But our healthcare system is far from perfect. That’s why our leaders and wealthy citizens travel to India, Dubai and Europe for their healthcare. Not to mention that a study in 2013 found that nearly 50 percent of our registered medical practitioners have left the country over the past 10 years.

So as the presidential elections draw close, we would love to see our leaders put more emphasis on improving our health system. Right now, patients are forced to pay bribes or go without care. Our leaders must fight this sort of corruption, which undermines the health of millions of vulnerable citizens

Infrastructure

Our nice new highways were made possible by Chinese loans. We are happy to be rid of aid from the International Monetary Fund, which came with generally higher interest rates and and lots of strings attached .

But our roads could use some improvement: we lose thousands of lives annually to traffic accidents. We need safety standards for pedestrians and cyclists and better traffic laws.

Education

As you pass by our city schools, know that we have an 89 percent youth literacy rate. Ugandans are passionate about learning.

But due to our underfunded public education system, many kids are falling through the cracks. No child should be go to school hungry or attend class under a mango tree. Yet this still happens.

We hope you mention that to our leaders. If they really want Uganda to become a middle-income nation by 2020, they must invest in education for all.

And while you’re at it, could you maybe nudge our leadership to build up job training centers and bring in more industries that will employ our unemployed? Vibrant, energetic young people make up over three quarters of our population — and many of them need to work.

Religion

When you visit the Namugongo shrines, which commemorate Ugandan martyrs who died for their Christian faith, remember how deeply spiritual Ugandans of all different faith are. We have a long tradition of religious diversity — Uganda is home to everyone from Bahais to Orthodox Christians.

Lately American evangelical missionary groups have exploited our spirituality by promoting bigotry and funding Ugandan campaigns to limit gay rights. We hope you, as a spiritual leader, keep spreading your message of acceptance. As you told a journalist recently: “If a person is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

We hope you will inspire Ugandan clergy, politicians and youth and challenge our leadership to go beyond the hype of their rhetoric and ensure all East Africans will soon live in dignity, peace and tranquility.

Sincerely,

James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is the cofounder of Teach For Uganda, and a 2014 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and 2015 Global Fellow at Acumen. Viviane Rutabingwa is a public health professional with a focus on the uninsured and refugees. She is a Global Health Corps alumni and a founding member of A Place For Books. You can follow them on Twitter: @JamesArinaitwe and @Rootsi.

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Pop Culture Happy Hour: A Conversation With Trevor Noah

Linda Holmes and Trevor Noah talk during NPR's Weekend In Washington event on October 31.
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Linda Holmes and Trevor Noah talk during NPR’s Weekend In Washington event on October 31. Paul Morigi/AP Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Paul Morigi/AP Images for NPR

It’s Thanksgiving week, and Team PCHH is enjoying some down time, which makes it a perfect moment to bring you a special show. On October 31 — a few hours before our live show with Fred Armisen — I sat down for a chat here in Washington with Trevor Noah, who was then about a month into his gig as the host of The Daily Show.

(I should also add that he had his appendix out four days later, so who knows? Maybe this was the very last interview for which his appendix was present.)

Noah has a really interesting story, not only because he’s been famous for longer than a lot of Americans realized when he took over for Jon Stewart, but because in that time, he’s had a lot of chances to reflect for a guy who’s only 31.

We talk in this discussion about how he originally perceived The Daily Show, about the change he made to Jon Stewart’s office, about finding a broader array of voices for his incarnation of the show, and about what his first month was like. He also shares some thoughts on why he doesn’t like to say he goes “back to” South Africa to visit, what he considers the advantages of people being willing to say things other people don’t like, and why he sometimes ignores advice about which jokes to tell where.

There’s some good stuff here about comedy, but there’s also some good stuff about how organizations can diversify themselves through active rather than passive commitment, and about why he didn’t immediately make himself a media critic, and about a documentary that might be up your alley if you’re interested in more about his history.

We’ll be back next week with our regular panel, including our friend Kat Chow, who has finally returned from assignment and whom we haven’t quite stopped hugging yet.

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Instead Of Being Lunch, Goat Wins Over Tiger

A goat at a Safari Park in Russia was dropped into the Siberian tiger enclosure as lunch. But instead, it butted the tiger out of its sleeping space. The two are friends now and take daily walks.

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Americans Don't Disagree On Politics As Much As You Might Think

Only around 1 in 5 Americans trusts the government, and it has helped fuel the rise of political outsiders like Donald Trump.

Only around 1 in 5 Americans trusts the government, and it has helped fuel the rise of political outsiders like Donald Trump. Ty Wright/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ty Wright/Getty Images

It’s become de rigueur to write about the woes of Thanksgiving table political arguments. And if you are unlucky enough to actually experience these, you may have noticed that the fights at the Thanksgiving table have grown more heated in recent years. And that would make sense — after all, we keep hearing that Capitol Hill is growing more polarized (and, relatedly, paralyzed).

Given all that, it may surprise you to hear that Americans aren’t actually all that ideologically polarized. In fact, they’re really pretty moderate, at least according to Vanderbilt University’s Marc Hetherington and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Thomas Rudolph, the authors of the recent book “Why Washington Won’t Work.”

Hetherington talked with NPR about why Americans distrust Washington so much and why partisanship seems more intense than ever. Here’s a transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Danielle Kurtzleben: You say that Americans really aren’t getting all that ideologically polarized. That doesn’t feel true. So how on earth is that right?

Marc Hetherington: People are not so polarized on issues specifically or in terms of their ideological predispositions.

And the reason is that most people don’t pay that close of attention to politics. And in order to have extreme viewpoints on the issues or in terms of their ideologies, that requires a lot of political expertise to take extreme positions on issues.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re not polarized. It just means that we’re not polarized in terms of our issue positions or ideologies. We point out that ordinary Americans are, in fact, polarized, but it’s in their feelings, not in their issue positions. We’ve come to dislike our opponents in a way that we’ve never disliked them at this level before.

DK: How did that happen?

MH: It’s a combination of lots of things over time. A big part of this, at least to Tom and me, is that there’s really nothing that [our representatives] in Washington agree on across party lines any longer. In other words, all the moderates kind of disappeared from the people who represent us.

It’s a story that’s tied up in the evolution of the parties on racial issues. As race came to dominate politics, no longer could Southern Democrats survive, so they were replaced with ever-more conservative Republicans and, in the Northeast, Northeastern Republicans couldn’t survive; they were replaced by really liberal Democrats.

So, the center of both parties ended up disappearing, in fact, becoming pretty conservative among the Republicans [and] southerners, and liberal among the Democrats — the Northeasterners and far Westerners, for that matter.

So, a big part of why we don’t like each other is the people who provide us with our cues — that is, our leaders — they basically spend all their time telling us that the other side is always wrong, on every single vector. And that’s one of the things that causes people to dislike the other side.

Another important piece is the types of issues that divide us these days — when we are divided about things people have deep, strong feelings about, like race and ethnicity, as it is tied up in immigration these days, or gay rights.

These are issues that people have really strong feelings and opinions about. It’s not like wage and price controls or something along those lines. These are deep-seated values — things like keeping us safe from terrorism. People care.

And I think the last piece that’s really important but maybe underappreciated is that the margins between Republicans and Democrats are so close these days.

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit. I’m a big baseball fan. When two sides are really pretty evenly matched, and you like one of them, and you don’t like the other one, you really don’t like the other one more when you’re evenly matched than if the other team is a lot better or a lot worse than your team.

So, I’m a Red Sox fan. I hate the Yankees, but when I really hate the Yankees is when the two teams are competing closely. And that’s one of the things happening in politics these days. It’s just raising the temperature.

DK: We found out this week that trust in government is at near-historic lows. How does that play into this discussion?

MH: It’s a very straightforward kind of notion: if you really just don’t like the other side, the other side when they’re running the government is very basically seen as untrustworthy.

And what we show is that this trust, it provides for a bridge between the two different political parties. But if there’s no one in the party opposite the president who trusts the other side, that bridge is never going to get formed.

If there are very few out-party partisans who support the president’s programs, there’s no reason for Republican legislators to compromise with President Obama. Or during the last years of the Bush administration, there was no incentive for Democrats to compromise with President Bush. There was no one in their constituencies saying, “I trust this guy! I believe these ideas are good ones.”

DK: Then why do both sides dislike each other so much now? Is it the same reasons that pushed trust downward?

MH: I would put it in this order. So the changes that I talked about with close party margins and issues being these sort of gut-level issues, the emergence of all of these, and the resorting of the electoral map because of race, all those things contribute to dislike, and dislike contributes to distrust.

And polarization itself contributes to this distrust in government as well. When the government is polarized like it is — and there’s no doubt that the political left is way different from the political right in Washington these days — what we see in the measures of government productivity is that it’s abysmally low.

People don’t like that. So this polarization, the gridlock that results from the polarization, that causes people to distrust the government too, and with good reason: people expect the government to perform well.

DK: So it’s circular?

MH: It’s absolutely circular in that regard. More polarization begets poor performance, which begets worse trust, which gives you worse performance, which, of course, gives you more frustration.

DK: What I think is fascinating is what you write about that chart of Americans’ trust levels — that maybe our baseline we’re aiming for shouldn’t be the super-high trust levels of the 1950s and ’60s.

MH: I think that that’s one of the really interesting things we ought to take away from this. Most of the good survey research that’s being done has its roots in the 1950s and the 1960s.

And I think one of the things that’s important to keep in mind is that may well have been a super anomalous period in American history. But it’s become the baseline we measure everything from. Levels of trust in government in that period were extraordinarily high, and one of the things we do in the book is explore why they might have been so high then.

When you think about what was going on in the late 1950s, early 1960s, when these first trust measures were taken, it was a really scary time. You had the end of the Korean War, the beginning of the Cold War; you had the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of these things were making people think about how government was keeping them safe and successfully so.

And these kinds of partisan issues were taking a back seat. Everybody was together on these things.

But what’s changed in the last 40 or 50 years is that foreign policy has played a less-central role, except after, of course 9/11, when trust in government shot way up. A big part of what’s going on here is that when politics are more what you might think of as normal-state — when there’s not the worry about losing your life, for instance — we trust the government less.

DK: You write that Republicans distrust government more when Democrats are in charge. I can’t help thinking about GOP candidates like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. Is Obama one reason these political outsiders have become such huge phenomena?

MH: I think that’s a really good observation. If trust and dislike of the Democrats wasn’t so high, it would be a much-less fertile environment for the Trumps and Carsons, and I’d add Ted Cruz to that mix of things, too — people who really want to, either in the case of Cruz, someone who has governed as though he wants to blow up the system, or in the case of Trump or Carson, that they are kind of exemplars of blowing up the system. They might not have promised to do that, but they’re so outside the box that they’re very different.

DK: So after eight years of George W. Bush being president, did the same sort of government mistrust — this time from Democrats — fuel a young, relatively inexperienced senator to being elected president?

MH: It could be. We never really thought about that, but Obama, of course, was a tremendous outsider candidate. And if you may have noted, trust in government among Democrats was super low in 2007 and 2008 because of the financial crisis and all of that, and so they were looking for in a sense “the real deal.” Everybody would have predicted Hillary Clinton would have won in 2008.

I hadn’t thought about it. I love that idea, actually — that the low-trust environment was likely something that fueled the outsider Obama, just like it’s fueling different outsiders among Republicans this year. I will say this, too: it provided him the fuel. The one thing that he also had mixed with that fuel was tremendous political skills.

DK: OK, so let’s switch gears: give us some optimism. Your last chapter is called, “Things Will Probably Get Better, But We Are Not Sure How.” Reassure our readers that things will get better.

MH: I don’t know if I can!

The only optimism that we’re able to generate in that last chapter is because in the past we’ve found ourselves in these positions before, and the country has somehow grown out of them. I find this fascinating.

I’m doing similar research on this: the politics of the late 1800s and the politics of today are so similar. And eventually there was a Teddy Roosevelt and the Republicans winning huge victories, starting in 1896, 1900, 1904 and then the Republicans actually became a governing majority and did lots of stuff. And the same happens with Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and thereafter.

But what we find ourselves with right now is the sort of politics that’s very similar to when characters like Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland were president. These presidents — they’re known for their facial hair, not for their great accomplishments. And we’re right back to that moment in time where the gridlock makes it impossible for much of anything to happen.

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