Though some readers and listeners have clamored for them, Slate has never published transcripts of our Political Gabfest podcasts. But when listener Paul M. Garton sent us a transcript of this week’s Political Gabfest, we thought: Let’s try it and see if you like it. Please post your thoughts about the transcript in the comments section or on our Facebook page.
David Plotz: Hello and welcome to the Slate Political Gabfest for Oct. 25, 2013, the Healthcare.bomb Edition. I’m David Plotz, the editor of Slate. Here at my side, steady like a train, straight like a razor, John Dickerson. Hello, John.
John Dickerson: Hello, David.
DP: We’re in Washington. Emily Bazelon, Slate senior editor, now in hour 22 of her epic quest to sign up for Obamacare. She’s actually traveled all the way to Colorado to see if she can find an exchange that will take her.
Emily Bazelon: I’m knocking on doors.
DP: You're like, "Please, let me in. Is this healthcare.gov?"
EB: You know, I did get a notice about my eligibility for Obamacare, because I’m signed up under my husband’s health insurance right now, and I don't have my own health insurance. So, I got a notice in the mail, and I was thinking, I should just go on the Connecticut exchange and see what happens.
DP: I tried on the D.C. exchange shortly after it launched. It was painful. This week, we are away from the operatic histrionics of shutdown and default, back to the usual mediocrity, vanity, petty squalor of Washington—just the usual failure, cynicism, and despair. So we will talk today about the ongoing rolling failure of healthcare.gov, whether it can be saved, whether Obamacare will die a different death than was expected.
We will talk about the moron at the National Security Council who was fired when his anonymous, sexist, anti-Obama Twitter feed was exposed. And then we will talk about the Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler and his trip to Beach Week, and whether he is a good dad or a bad dad for letting his son drink heavily at Beach Week. What are you smirking about?
JD: I thought you said— because I misheard you, and I thought you said his “trip to be tweak.” And I thought, What new phrase is David minting here?
EB: What have we missed?
JD: Yeah, it's like, tweak is, like, a slightly different version of twerk? I was really lost.
DP: He may have said “twerk” in those photos.
JD: But you were just saying Beach Week.
DP: Plus, we will have cocktail chatter, of course. And listen to the end, because I have a whole new set of credits for you guys. I took a challenge. I took a reader/listener challenge to do better credits. So, we’re going to do even better credits. Or maybe, we’ll see— maybe I’m setting myself up for failure here.
A quick announcement. We have sold out everything there is to sell out in San Francisco. We’ve sold out Candlestick Park—no, we are ...
JD: Including our honor.
EB: We did not sell out Candlestick Park.
DP: Yes, if only we could sell out our honor. Our Dec. 11 regular show is sold out, and the Dec. 11 cocktail hour that we’re going to do beforehand is sold out. And our Dec. 10 added conundrum show is also sold out. However, there do appear to be some tickets that the venue has held back to sell at the door. I don't really know why they have done that or what that means, but it does seem—we’ll try to get some clarity about this—it does seem that there may be tickets at the door. We don’t really know how many. We’re trying to figure it out.
And another quick announcement: We may well be doing a special New York City show on Nov. 19 or Nov. 21. What? Why are you ...
DP: You are making, like, little noises. You're like a baby googling over here.
JD: Oh, I’m sorry. That was not a noise intended in any way for you.
DP: OK. So, Nov. 19 and Nov. 21, it's going to be our special John F. Kennedy show, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in New York City. We’re settling on a venue and date, but secure both those dates. Secure baby-sitters for both those days, and we will, too.
Healthcare.gov, the Edsel of websites, the Mitt Romney campaign of government ventures, has emerged from the shadows of the government shutdown into the bright light of day, and then crumbled into dust, crumbled deathly into dust. The software designed by the federal government—or designed, I guess, by contractors paid by the federal government—to enable Americans to learn about their health care options and to sign up for Obamacare has failed in almost every possible way that something can fail.
Contractors have been testifying in Congress about the screw-ups that went into this. It now appears that this site was not tested from start to finish, from soup to nuts, until two weeks before it launched. It appears that there were just tons of problems evident to everyone throughout the process. People are pointing fingers at other people. So, the contractors who were doing it are blaming the HHS officials who were in charge of it. The HHS, I think, is holding contractors responsible. Various contractors are blaming other people.
Meanwhile, it is just a catastrophe of the highest order, both for citizens, and, I think, as a political matter for the president and his supporters. John, why has it been such a disaster? So, what do we know about why it’s been so bad?
JD: Well, we still don’t really know, and the stories change. And the extent and level of the disaster is still a moving picture. I just got off a conference call with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is the governmental organization that took the lead role, kind of shepherded this whole process. So, there were 55 contractors, and they all kind of reported to CMS, as it's known, which is very complicating, because, in our world, CMS means content management system.
EB: Yes, thank you for translating that. I read so many news stories with that confusion in my head.
JD: And yet, the content management system is what's screwed up here, in a sense. So, it's all very woven in that fashion.
So, one of the things is, they say, "Well, we didn’t expect all this traffic." Well, OK, that's sort of true. But the traffic has been reduced, and a lot of the problems aren’t still fixed. So, what were some of the problems? Some of the problems were just simply filling out an application. Some of the problems were, you got there, and you went to your state to even put in your first name, and the thing crashed. Then there was a process where you could fill out your name, but then it got everything wrong. Or somewhere in the process, you'd get an error screen. Or it would somehow put you in different fields.
The reason this was supposed to be so great is that you were supposed to be able, in five or 10 minutes, to figure out what kind of coverage you were available for, what kind of federal subsidy you would get, and start to begin making choices about your health care, within five to 10 minutes.
EB: And John, we should say, that’s why you had to identify yourself in the beginning—because they were trying to set it up so that you would be able to know how the exchanges related to you personally, because, first, they would identify you, and verify your identification.
JD: Right, and this is in part a sales effort because, in the wake of this disaster, a lot of the president’s supporters say, "Well, you know, a website isn’t the whole ball of wax here." And in that they are right, except that the administration was banking a lot on this website. In fact, I wrote a story before it was launched based on conversations with administration officials on just how much they were banking on this website. Why? Because they were hoping that by making it super easy, that it would do two things. A, it would get people to sign up, and they want lots of people to sign up so that the insurance pools in these various states won’t be overloaded with sick people, which would cause premiums to skyrocket. And also they wanted people to say, "Gee, this was such as easy and fun process. And look—I’m not paying very much money, because I enter the information, and I find out immediately I’m going to get a subsidy, and therefore my premium’s going to be really low, and so this is going to be awesome."
And that would create an avalanche of social media stories that would get and reach out to these people who aren’t likely to sign up for insurance—a lot of them younger people who are like, you know, "I’m invincible. I don't want to pay the fine. I don't want to sign up. I’ve got other stuff to do"—so that this kind of wave of stories that they would hear from all these different parts of their life would maybe then encourage them to go sign up. Of course, the stories they are now hearing are just the opposite.
DP: So, one of the things that seems so alarming about this, Emily, is this idea of the death spiral, which is that, for any insurance market to flourish, there has to be a mix of healthy young people who don’t really get sick, who aren’t using the insurance very much, and the sick people who depend on it.
But with a process that is so difficult, the fear is that the only people who are going to be willing to go through this process and get through the exchanges and actually register for insurance are people who desperately need it—people who are likely to use it, people whose costs will be high—and that this will cause insurers to lose an arm and a leg and not to want to participate in the exchanges and for the exchanges to fail as a marketplace. Is this something that seems as alarming as economists make it out to be?
EB: Well, I think if it really happens, it will be extremely alarming. I do think it's premature to decide that Obamacare exchanges are going into a death spiral, because we have a whole bunch of months before people have to sign up. And if things are in this state of disarray technologically, the administration is going to have to delay the individual mandate. They just won’t have a choice. I know they're not going to say that right now. I don't think they should say that. I think, hopefully, things get fixed.
And if things get fixed by, you know, what seems like Thanksgiving, or maybe the end of Hanukkah—Hanukkah’s really early this year—then maybe we could all still make the deadlines
DP: Do a lot of people track their insurance purchases by Hanukkah?
EB: Well, I was going to say early December, and then it just seemed like a more interesting way to say that. Sorry, probably not. But, anyway, I mean it seems like right now, this is teetering on the brink of a real serious problem, but it could still get fixed. I have to say that when you read the news reports about how messed up this system is, it doesn’t inspire a lot of feelings that it's all going to be solved in time.
On the other hand, I feel like, having gone through some of these huge shifts, you know, in a different way at Slate, when we’ve redesigned things back in the day, before our current amazingly crackerjack tech team, we would have a lot of trouble. And it felt incredibly frustrating, and then things would eventually work themselves out.
JD: I would say two things. One, to your point, Emily, there is some evidence in the Massachusetts system—Massachusetts being the test case for all of this—that younger applicants or these “invincibles” rushed in at the last minute. In other words, if you were ever going to get them, you’re going to get them in either December, right before the January deadline, or in February/March, before the end of the open enrollment period.
So, if things can get fixed by then, that would be good, although they have to get so many of these young “invincibles” that, you know, every day that goes by does kind of matter. One thing, though, that seems really weird about where we are now—one of the things they said is, there was this huge deluge on the first day. Well, a couple of things. One, some of the reporting suggests that deluge was mostly of just curiosity seekers—people who were not necessarily coming in to get the final product. And yet the process for those who want to get the final product—and I’ve talked to them—is broken down.
So, in other words, when we had problems at Slate, usually they could narrow the problem, and some people would get service—or there would be some way to get a limited thing going forward. Here, at least in the way they explain it, even if you, like, winnow it down to a small number of people, it's still not working very well. And that's not just the website. What's also happening is the information, as it gets translated from the website to the insurance companies, the insurance companies are having to hand check all the information that comes in—call people on the phone, write it down on paper—to make sure that the information was translated effectively. And that suggests a systemic problem.
DP: Fortunately, there are so few people who are managing to get through that they're able to do it.
JD: That's right. The insurance companies are like, "Oh, actually, it's no big deal because it's such a trickle."
EB: A silver lining, David. Good job finding that one. I mean, what's so upsetting about this is, for me—and I’m sure for a lot of liberals—is feeling like the government took on this big project. Part of showing that big government can work, that the government should have this kind of role in the health insurance market, is for the government to competently execute its website, which it made a big deal of and went around touting.
And so that's really alarming. And the stories I’m now reading about what's messed up with the government procurement process and how basically it takes so much cumbersome effort and red tape to even get on the list to be considered for one of these big government contractors—these stories are really depressing. And they just take the air out of feeling like, oh, c’mon, yes, the government can succeed at endeavors like this.
DP: Right. And if you think about, for example, the government basically will never use open source software, even though almost every best practice that people point to is if you have a venture like this, you need to put it out there so people can play on it, test it, see if they can break it, and improve it, out in the real world. The government doesn’t use what’s called “agile” or “scrum” development, where you're sort of constantly iterating small prototype after small prototype, which is the way that every major software project is done these days.
Instead, it does what’s called a “waterfall” method, where it sort of sets out a huge set of requirements and then sort of hands it over to these companies to build. And then the companies that—as you say, Emily, the companies that get approval to do government software contracting—are a different sort of company than Google. These are companies which have jumped through a ton of government hoops, and they've met all sorts of requirements about how they staff and how they carry things out, and they're very good at dealing with the paperwork, but they may not be good at all with the actual software work itself. It’s just that what the government requires them to do is something different than what a real software company is doing.
JD: And that's why the Obama campaign, known for creating exponentially better software and technological advances, worked so well, because they could be entrepreneurial, they could be open source, they could fail, they could fix, they could be incredibly nimble in ways that the government isn’t at all.
And the description that David gave and the different ways that these kinds of programs are written and work within the federal government suggests there may be some real difficulty in fixing it—because if it’s like a fire, and you can bring more firemen who have fire hoses to put out the fire, That's great. But if it's like Christmas lights, that's hard to untangle by committee. You know, it takes a long, slow process, and if you bring in lots of people, you create all kinds of levels of complexity and conference calls that have to happen. It’s not a problem that can be solved just by bringing on lots and lots of more people. That's the problem in terms of running up against this death spiral problem.
DP: Right. And one of the things they talk about is that, well, this is 50 million lines of code. It's going to be very hard to fix something with 50 million lines of code. Everyone who’s looked at this says, "Well, anything that has 50 million lines of code is totally messed up to begin with. Nothing should be that big." As you say, John, if your process to fix is just to bring more people to bear on it, that probably is not the way it's going to get resolved.
JD: The so-called “tech surge,” the spokesperson—who is just having a very bad day—from the CMS today—at one point she said, “We’re very excited to be in the middle of the tech surge,” which I just thought was ...
EB: As this wave comes barreling down to wash us away. You know, another problem that a lot of the coverage has pointed to is that—rather than outsourcing the management of putting all the pieces together and making sure everything fit and that this big, giant puzzle being constructed by different companies was actually going to function—it sounds like Medicare and Medicaid services tried to do that internally, without having the expertise.
And that's also really depressing and makes you feel like, what were they thinking, and who made all the bad decisions here? You know, should some heads roll over this? I don't frankly care all that much, because I feel like firing people can be a kind of easy, satisfyingly, momentary answer and not—but it does seem like, oh, my God, didn’t anyone understand how to do a project like this?
DP: So, one theme that runs through all the criticism here is that, obviously, government—this is a fault of government. Government doesn’t know how to do anything. It doesn’t know how to hire the right contractors. It doesn’t know how to do software. And there's clearly some truth to that. Clearly, there is some foundation, and conservatives are right to pound on this point.
I would also point out there is a ton of bad software that's released. You know, Microsoft is constantly delivering products that nobody wants to use or that are dated or done before anyone gets them. So, it’s not unusual to get something terribly wrong when you're dealing with software. It does happen.
EB: It happens in the private sector as well, but it doesn’t have the same kind of implications. And maybe they didn’t spend $400 billion on it—or is it million?
EB: Am I doing my usual million-to-billion switch?
JD: And one other thing, I think, which is interesting to watch, as we make a larger conclusion about an important point here—which is can government do big things like this well? And one of the arguments that Republicans had made throughout—Omar Alexander was the one that comes to mind, said, “We don’t do comprehensive well"—the argument that basically we can’t do big stuff because just government isn’t prepared to do that.
And this is a problem exacerbated by gridlock, because if you ever try to do something comprehensive, the tweaks necessary to make anything comprehensive more fine-tuned are impossible because—particularly with respect to health care—Republicans don’t want to tweak it because they want to kill it. So, you can’t even tweak something that you try and do that’s big and comprehensive ...
DP: Although it's not true that they don’t comprehensive well. Social Security works really well. Medicare works really well.
JD: Yeah, I mean in the modern era. I mean in modern legislation.
DP: Medicare is modern.
JD: I mean, post-1980. Or, let’s say, post-1960.
DP: Well, no. Medicare is an ongoing program. Medicare is administered perfectly capably—very well, people say.
JD: Right, but as we’ve used, both with respect to Medicare, and even—the better example, I think, is Medicare Part D, which wasn’t as big as what we’re offering now—but it had problems at first, significant problems. But it was tweaked—in part, tweaked with the help of Democrats.
But anyway, the thing to look at I think is there are individual states that have done very well in setting up these exchanges, having some of the same kinds of challenges—not on the scale of the federal effort, but there are individual state efforts where government was able to do it. So, is that an argument for states as the laboratories of democracy, which was Mitt Romney’s argument for how to do health care? Or is it an argument that, basically, the screw-up at the federal level was a particularly bad screw-up that doesn’t so much have something to do with government but just has to do with the bad execution of this government?
DP: Right, right. I want to turn us away from Tech Tuesday here to the political implications here. So, one argument that is making its way around—and, certainly, I think, a lot of Democrats are comforting themselves with this—is isn’t it good that Republicans didn’t skip the shutdown and focus on this before? Because had they only just allowed Obamacare to unroll and fall apart, rather than focusing everything on the shutdown, they would have made huge political gains. Do you think there's anything to that, John?
JD: I kind of don’t. I have another view, which is this festered for three weeks while the shutdown was going on. The Republicans were getting hammered, but a lot of the press covered it as a phenomenon sort of untainted by politics. If it had been immediately a Republican hobbyhorse from the beginning, everybody would have fallen into the kind of predictable left-right back-and-forths, and it would have been framed that way.
But when it comes out as just these are massive screw-ups, I wonder if that doesn’t give it a less partisan cast and, therefore, make it worse for Democrats and better for Republicans—because it's a story that's about not Republicans overreaching, but it's a story about a thing being launched by the government and it being a total mess. So, in that way, the fact that the Republicans were off having their adventure on trying to defund Obamacare allowed this to become a press story, rather than a left-right story.
I think, also, if this goes on for two more months, Obama has to delay this, this turns into—death spiral starts, the party that's associated with trying to end Obamacare will look better than it did this week.
DP: Oh my goodness, you are so right. Yeah.
EB: Yeah, that's a really good point. I mean, the other thing I kept thinking was, Oh, well maybe the Republican shutdown craziness will distract everyone long enough for the government to fix Obamacare, but that has clearly not happened.
JD: Can I add one little thing to watch for in the future, in terms of these numbers when and if they ever come out, of who’s being signed up and for what? You’ll hear a lot of numbers used. And a key thing to watch for is whether the people who are being enrolled in new health care are a part of the Medicaid system or a part of exchanges outside of Medicaid. Why is that important?
Well, one, the Medicaid system already exists, and you can get people into that based on their income levels. And that's relatively simple. Getting them into the exchanges is the complex thing that we’re talking about here, and so those numbers need to go up to suggest that the actual program is working at any kind of level. And right now, it doesn’t really seem like it's working very much at all.
But more to the point, if a bunch of people go into Medicaid, that's great if your goal is to insure people and make them healthy. And so that's a good thing for that. But to this death spiral question—people going into Medicaid doesn’t fix the risk pool that needs to have lots of healthy people—or just needs to have a lot of mix of people—for this experiment to work as a policy matter. So, when you hear big enrollment numbers, the key question is: How much of that is Medicaid, and how much of that is actual people engaging in private insurance?
DP: Now we come to the moron of the week story. @NatSecWonk was a Twitter feed ...
EB: Can you stop calling him a “moron”? It’s just too loaded. I know you believe it, but lead up to that.
DP: OK. @NatSecWonk was a Twitter feed, an anonymous Twitter feed, that was run by, it now appears, someone named Jofi Joseph, who was a National Security Council staffer. He was a director, a relatively low-level position, but he was heavily involved in our strategies about nonproliferation with Iran and North Korea.
This Twitter feed, which was run secretly for two years, became notorious among a small sector of foreign policy people for attacking the looks of various people in the foreign policy establishment in the media, for being incredibly nasty about Hillary Clinton and some of the people associated with Hillary Clinton, and for making lots of lewd and sexually charged remarks about people.
This same person, Joseph, may also be behind a Twitter feed about escort services. That hasn’t been, I think, 100 percent confirmed yet.
So, when he was uncovered earlier this week after an investigation by the Daily Beast, I think, Joseph was cashiered at National Security Council, and everyone involved got really, really angry. And there was a lot of hand—what was there? There wasn’t hand-wringing. Was there hand-wringing about Twitter?
DP: What is it?
JD: There were grand conclusions. There were grand conclusions drawn about Twitter, and the id, and what the new line is for being—I mean, this guy’s career is over. And then the question is—I’m riffing here—whether his career should be over and life should be over for—a couple questions. Should his life be over as a result of this behavior, A? B, does Twitter represent a special portal to the id that we are all just one dark path away from. Or is this guy actually just a jerk who did jerkolic things? Or C ...
DP: Let’s stop on B for a minute, because, John, you're a giant of Twitter. You're a titan of Twitter.
EB: But please don’t do something like this. It would be so sad for all of us.
DP: I didn’t check your feed. You've tweeted probably 20,000 or 30,000 times, some insane number of times, right?
DP: And every time you tweet, there is this moment where you must ask yourself, like, "Huh. I really wonder if I should tweet this."
EB: No, because John doesn’t write anything like this at all.
DP: Well, no, he doesn't.
EB: You might want to ask yourself that, since you tend to be a little more rash than John, and you also tweet.
DP: I can’t believe you said that, Emily.
EB: Why? It’s true.
DP: I can’t believe you said that.
EB: I mean, if I was, like, going to worry about one of you saying something irascible on Twitter, I would be more concerned about you.
DP: Well, irascible, yes. I just want to know what John’s id is like when he is tweeting. Do you ever have the sensation, like, I’m about to say something I shouldn't say?
JD: Oh, yeah.
DP: Or is your id compartmentalized—it’s all superego?
JD: No. Well, I do—I mean, that's true not just of Twitter. I don't find Twitter to be a—I don't find it to be a problem in that way. My problem with Twitter is the bile that just can consume you, and you can spend way too much time engaged in pointless, negative slap fights that are not even participating yourself, but watching them happen in a way that's ...
EB: Yeah, you don’t even do that, though. I mean, you may watch them get infected by the bile, but you're not creating the bile. I don't know. I mean, who can follow all of it? But I never see you do that.
JD: No, no, I don’t. The question though, I guess, is this—which is, in any administration, or “a” question is this—in any administration, these people exist. They are often sources to those of us who cover administrations. And one of the things that you have to do is know when you're dealing with somebody who feels like they should be further ahead in life, who feels like all their colleagues are idiots ...
DP: Or as we call those people, human beings.
JD: ... and they say really volatile things. Yeah, well, I think—no, you know the special cases, and this guy seemed like one of them, which is, you know, they just think they're the smartest person in the room, but yet they're not, A, and B, you know, they’ve had personality issues or whatever that have kept them from going forward. And in the past, a lot of these folks would show up as blind quotes in stories, anonymous quotes in stories.
And now you have a place where they can gain a certain kind of cachet because they have insider knowledge, which they can display in these tweets, but they are protected ...
EB: By anonymity.
JD: By anonymity, in the way they would have been in in a New York Times story. But, I mean, clearly, they go—this guy, like, it became the avenue of lots of destructive thoughts that were, I mean, he just kind of got increasingly worse.
DP: So, it's OK for him to have the thought? I want to just step through things.
DP: Is it OK ...
EB: No, David, we believe in thought policing. He’s not even allowed to think that he doesn’t like Susan Rice’s power suit.
DP: So, he’s allowed to obviously think that Susan Rice’s power suit is ludicrous and she’s homely, if he wants to think that, right?
JD: Sure, of course.
DP: Yeah, OK. Is he allowed to write that in an email to his wife?
EB: Yeah, as long as he thinks nobody’s going to read the email.
DP: What about an email to several friends?
EB: Well, then you're just upping the ante of the risk every time you ...
JD: No, no, he means as a policy.
EB: It’s not about whether you can do it; it's about whether it's wise.
JD: He means as a policy. I think—as a manager, I think you can argue that once you do it outside of your own family, you're being disloyal. You're ...
EB: Fomenting rebellion.
JD: Yeah, and you're just doing things that are bad for the general enterprise. And so you're toast.
DP: So, it's not Twitter in this; it's a community beyond the community of you and your absolutely nearest ones?
JD: Right, and then Twitter being a huge ...
EB: Right, but Twitter is a vehicle. It’s not just Twitter, but Twitter is the popular social media site that allows for easy anonymity. Or, actually, more like the illusion of easy anonymity, because this guy—like so many of these people—ends up getting outed. And that's, I think, what you see, is that he was clearly in some way reveling in being the snarky insider with the, you know, @NatSecWonk following that people are gossiping about in the hallways.
And so he had this illusion of a different kind of invincibility from the people who won’t necessarily sign up for health insurance but some sense that he could do this anonymously but also enjoy the ride. And that's, I think, particular to the social media moment.
JD: And he didn’t have that many followers. He was a bit of a—I mean, this is a super inside Washington story, but it's not unimportant in a broader sense, because, as I said, these kinds of people exist. There are probably some in HHS right who would like to be tweeting, “Geez, I remember that meeting two months ago when I said, ‘We should probably test this thing, because it's going to be a total disaster when we launch it.’ ”
EB: “And my boss said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. What do you know?’ ”
JD: Yeah. And so, the question is, then, is it ruinous to the enterprise if somebody tweeted things that are of news value and not of morale-busting value? And so, would they get canned for that, too? In other words, what if they weren’t a jerk ...
EB: That's a really interesting question. What do you think? What’s the answer to that? They probably would, but they probably shouldn't, right?
DP: Well, if you are tweeting what's happening inside confidential government meetings, that is a fireable offense, absolutely.
EB: David wants to fire us for it; ergo, it must be fireable.
DP: No, I’m—there wasn’t—I think ...
EB: Well, seriously, like, if someone was doing that, you're a manager and a boss who actually has to worry about this stuff. You would not want that going on.
DP: Right, no, and there was one occasion where someone did that in Slate, and it ...
EB: And we got upset.
DP: Believe me, it was very, very upsetting. But, of course, that person should not be allowed to keep their job for doing that.
JD: Yeah. No, I was just running through the thought experiment.
DP: What would be forgivable here—if he’d done this once, if there had been one tweet, right, which was, “God, Susan Rice is a bitch” or something?
JD: Or what if it was, “God, Susan Rice is hot"?
DP: Or, “God, Susan Rice is hot.” Either one. Why are we talking about poor Susan Rice?
JD: No. Well, because he did.
EB: I brought her up, because there was actually one about her “black power suit.” But it was neither “bitch” nor “hot,” just to be clear.
DP: But so I think one tweet is a forgivable offense, right?
JD: Right. This is in the context of our ongoing conversation about, what is the new normal in this crazy world, and what can you be forgiven of? Right, I think one dumb act is probably fine, although think about the people we know who have just said one stupid thing on Twitter and have lost their jobs over it.
EB: Yeah, one dumb enough thing, I think, once is enough. I think the other thing is this is a difference between the previous universe you were outlining, John, of the blind quotes to New York Times, because you couldn’t connect all of those blind quotes up as one disgruntled employee, right?
I mean, even if some reporter then regularly starts turning to you and using you every time, you could be a different person. Nobody can see the pattern, not to mention the fact that the reporter is presumably filtering some of your more ridiculous thoughts.
DP: Wait, who has been fired for a single dumb tweet?
EB: Oh, journalists.
JD: Yeah, David Chalian at ABC, the woman from CNN ...
EB: Yes, thank you.
JD: … whose name I can’t remember.
DP: Oh, that's sad.
JD: And that's not it.
DP: That’s ridiculous.
JD: I think there's another one.
DP: Yeah, and the guy who said something about the TV correspondent who was raped in Egypt. Remember that awful moment? There have been a few of them.
JD: Oh, yeah.
DP: That's absurd. You should not be fired for a single dumb tweet.
EB: Good. I’m going to write something really dumb!
DP: So just write one dumb tweet. You each get one.
JD: So, here’s a question, though: Does this make us more—just as a general public—are we bigger jerks? Or because we have to think about what we’re going to say in public—often, if you're engaged in social media—you're more engaged with your self-censoring, and therefore you're thinking more about the kinds of things that are possible to say out in public, and therefore you're thinking more about what's polite and what's good for the common, you know, experience?
DP: Yeah. So, this gets to something I want to talk about. One of the things that I think is quite sad about our era—and about the real name push that we have and the fact that anonymity is never anonymity anymore—so, this guy was definitely going to get found out.
EB: Yeah, but people believe in anonymity. They still have this misguided belief in it. That's the problem.
DP: People have a misguided belief in it. But, in general, the fact that anonymity is increasingly hard to get. Facebook doesn’t permit it. Most commenting on a lot of sites doesn’t permit it. There's a loss when you don’t have anonymity.
EB: Oh, God. I am so not with you on this one. There is a loss if you're, like, a political dissident in Syria. If you are in this country, almost all the time there is a net gain for not having anonymous comments. We so err on the side of, oh, free speech, everywhere, everywhere. Let's, you know, let people defame each other and not have any accountability for it. And I think that in free societies that is generally a big mistake.
And yes, you can make small exceptions for people who truly feel at risk, like victims of domestic violence are an example, but most of the time it is much healthier discourse when people have to own up to what they are saying.
DP: Most of the time, it's true. I would not argue with you that, most of the time, it's true. But I would say there are times when it's not true. There are times when people, for totally legitimate reasons, are afraid of the consequences for them. And sometimes it's cowardly, but where they are able to speak out about something that they wouldn’t be able to speak out about if their real name was associated with it. And John’s example of the health care one is a good one. What if someone had been flagging that, raising that to the public months and months ago?
EB: But you just said that person legitimately should have been fired for that. You have to decide which side of this you're on. Are you thinking about it as the manager who is dealing with disgruntlement and potential troublemaking?
DP: I’m talking about for the public.
EB: Or are you thinking of it as, you know, the journalist who’s almost always in favor of transparency?
JD: Excellently done, Emily.
DP: No, that's not right. As the manager, as the person who employed that person, that person should be fired. As a citizen ...
EB: And yet, we should make more opportunities for them to go around, and we should mourn the hypothetical imagined loss. These people have plenty of opportunities. They have outlets for this all over the place. We still allow anonymous commenting on Slate, for reasons that are totally mysterious to me.
DP: Who has plenty of outlets for it? I don't think if you're a government whistle-blower, there are not plenty of outlets.
EB: What are you talking about? You can go on Facebook and make up an identity. I mean, most of the time, people do not get caught for making up their identities and hiding. That’s why they keep doing it, because the odds of getting caught are very low.
DP: So, your view—this is funny, because I’m typically, in my life, I'm a person who believes in all sorts of transparency. I've, you know, published my Social Security number and things like that.
JD: And your telephone number, even.
DP: I published my telephone number, my license plate number, my home address.
EB: Yeah, but you're also a free speech absolutist, and this view of yours goes with your free speech absolutism, which I don’t have.
DP: So your view is that there are never, Emily, there are never occasions where anonymity is OK?
EB: I told you, Syrian dissidents ...
DP: No, in the U.S.
EB: ... and people who directly fear violence. Yes, those people—or, you know, if you're the subject of a story and you are baring incredibly private information—that was baring without the e in it—and you are putting yourself at risk. So, yes, the journalist knows who you are, but you don’t necessarily have to give your name. Fine. But if you are writing, you know, a string of expletives or snark on any social media site or commenting anywhere, we would be better off if you had to have your name on that before you posted.
JD: I associate myself with the comments from the gentle lady from New Haven.
EB: Thank you.
DP: Of course you do. You guys are all for decency and kindness and let’s all be sweet to each other.
EB: I don't know what cabal you're imaging us to be a part of. But what bothers me about this subject is I think our general tendency here—and it's why we allow for so much defamation online—in this country, it's this kind of, to me, kneejerk belief that more speech is always better.
And in this case, you can argue that having all this anonymous, crappy speech is actually stifling. Think of all the online comment threads that just devolve into total trashing in a way that means that nobody normal wants to get involved with them. That's because we’re allowing all this anonymous speech. There is a cost.
JD: It’s true. It is. And, also, people who behave like dogs in commenting sections and in a lot of the work that Emily’s done—although, I guess, in some of those cases, these bullies have not been anonymous—we should find the way to shame them and make them think twice, at least, about behaving that way. As a social common good, I think we should work to do more of that than work to give new outlets for people to behave like dogs.
DP: OK, you guys have won.
EB: Oh, we vanquished you. Let's end this. We learned a lot.
DP: No, I just ...
EB: No, you're not vanquished?
DP: We’re done talking about it. But, yes, you can declare victory.
EB: OK, you can concede to that degree. That’s fine.
DP: Maryland attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler, a Democrat, found himself in hot water this week—or maybe in cold beer this week—when the Baltimore Sun ran photos of Gansler at a Beach Week party. These were photos taken last spring, when his son, a recent high school graduate from a private school outside of D.C., went to a beach in Delaware. Right, John? It was in Delaware?
JD: Mm-hmm. It was Bethany, right?
DP: Was it Bethany? With six ...
EB: That was Eastern Shore, yeah.
DP: But Delaware, not in Maryland. Anyway, it’s a key point. With six friends, they rented a house under the egess of Gansler and the other parents. And Gansler—there was a photograph of him attending an extremely sweaty, obviously drunken party.
There was a kerfuffle about this, because Gansler, as the attorney general of Maryland, cannot be sanctioning underage drinking. All these students were underage. And it came out. Gansler said that the parents of the children who rented this house had allowed the children to rent the house with a particular set of rules—the rules being that the boys could not drink and drive, they couldn’t have hard liquor there—only wine and beer, presumably—they couldn’t be in a room with a closed door with a girl. And they had to be chaperoned, but there were adults at the house to enforce these rules.
So, Gansler said, you know, “I shouldn’t have been shutting this party down. I shouldn’t have been calling the Delaware cops here. I shouldn’t have been preventing this underage drinking, because we had taken precautions as parents. I was there in my capacity as a parent, not as the attorney general of Maryland. I was in a different state.”
So he’s getting a lot of grief for this. John, as a veteran of Beach Week, does he deserve this grief?
EB: Oh, John, tell us your Beach Week story, please. I mean, would you think your mom and dad should have been there?
JD: You know what’s amazing? When we went to Beach Week—just since you mentioned your mom and dad—I mean, we went to Beach Week in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. We just took off and went to the beach as 10th graders. And, like, who knows what we were doing? And, like, it was just—parenting was just a very different thing back then.
So, anyway, this was obviously a much more engaged set of parents, but that is almost more complicating for Gansler, because his line seems to have gotten—the problem here is, right, not the crime but the coverup, because now he’s said that, in retrospect, he made a mistake. And so he said in a press conference on Thursday, “Perhaps I should have assumed there was drinking in the home, and I got that wrong.”
If you look at this picture, which includes—the attorney general is hard to see, because, in the foreground, two bros with no shirts are on sandwiching some young woman in dance—it is so clear that drinking is going on. It's like. I mean, you know ...
DP: There are red Solo cups; ergo, drinking was going on.
JD: I know. I mean, it's like ...
EB: Oh, c’mon. They were drinking Diet Coke, guys.
JD: So, to claim, like, “I should have looked around to see if there was somebody in the corner with, like, you know, a Bud Light,” I mean, that—so that sort of doesn’t pass the laugh test.
EB: So, what's the real problem here, though? Is the real problem that he did the wrong thing by chaperoning this party, and essentially allowing the kids—and even, like, helping them plan it? Or, actually, is that praiseworthy parental behavior, because he was also preventing much greater harms of drinking and driving, and, you know, potential sexual assault and other bad stuff that happens when kids do this on their own?
And if this is praiseworthy parental behavior, then does the law have it wrong? Is that the problem? Because, clearly, he is in some space that is not easily legally defensible. That’s why he’s being misleading, whatever. pretending to himself and others that he didn’t know there was drinking going on. That's silly.
DP: Well, that's just a lie. He’s lying. That's what we call a lie.
JD: Yeah, that's right. I mean, yes, that’s a lie. And you wonder whether the picture—in the picture, like, he’s in a swarm of sweaty, drunken people, and he’s taking a picture. You wonder what the picture is.
DP: Oh, he claimed he wasn’t taking a picture.
EB: He doesn’t think he’s taking—it says he says he was, like, texting his kid.
DP: He claimed he was showing his son ...
EB: He doesn’t say he’s taking a picture. Someone took a picture of him.
JD: Oh, I know, but he’s holding up his iPhone ...
EB: It’s obvious he’s taking a picture, but he claims he was just showing his son the schedule for the next day.
EB: I love that. OK, well, so, we know he’s lying. But the reason he’s lying is because what he was doing was not legally sanctioned. So, should it have been?
JD: Well, but here's the thing—isn’t it, you're allowed to serve your own kids beer in your own house?
DP: Are you?
JD: Yeah. I just don’t know whether you're allowed to, like, basically throw a party like this.
EB: You're definitely not allowed to throw a party like this. Other parents have gotten in trouble for this.
JD: OK. But, I mean ...
DP: Wait, are you in trouble for just the drinking or the consequences that result from the drinking?
EB: Well, you're in trouble for the underage drinking. And if a kid was to leave the party, drive, and hit someone, you could potentially get sued for that. You know, whether you'd actually be on the hook or not depends on the state and the legal precedent, but you certainly could get sued and criminally charged, potentially. I mean, unusual, but it could happen.
DP: Right, but the fact that they took these precautions, is this precautionary parenting when you say, "Bad things are going to happen." We know as a matter of definitive certainty, because Beach Weeks have been happening at that beach for 50 years. We know that these children are going to drink. We know some of them will engage in sexual behavior. We know there will be driving, potentially. Isn’t it responsible for Gansler to be precautionary in that way?
EB: I think it probably is but also still illegal. And that's the tricky space. That's the problem with this story. That’s why he’s getting heat for it.
DP: Well, is it illegal to have set up the principle to begin with or illegal for him to be there at that moment?
EB: Look, I mean, it's illegal for him to be there at that moment, because that's what there's evidence of, right? I mean, what there's evidence of is an adult allowing—and because there were these rules set up beforehand, you know, with knowledge, aforethought, or whatever—intentionally allowing all this underage drinking to take place. That's his problem.
JD: So, the question then that Gansler raises is does he have any moral authority over other people’s children in another state? OK, so not Maryland. And as a parent, does he have to, like, make a “parent’s arrest”? Now, that would be unlikely, since he was in on the original group of parents who chipped in to rent the house and made the detailed plans for the party.
EB: Well, that's—the thing is, I don't think the complaining about this is coming from inside the community. I mean, it sounds like the parents all got together, and they decided this was the way to handle it safely for their kids. Yes, their kids were going to party. They wanted it to be in limits; they wanted to be relatively safe. And a bunch of a people bought into that.
The problem is that the law doesn’t provide a safe space in which parents can do that. And so, if you're then running for office, and a photo like this gets out, then you get called a hypocrite, because you're supposed to be enforcing the law if you're the attorney general.
DP: Do you think that there's no place for him to be a parent?
EB: I think there should be. I think we probably need to rethink—more and more, parents are trying to be more hands-on and confront what their kids are doing at Beach Week. Just like you said, John, for us, this is kind of unimaginable. When we were growing up, parents did not say, "OK, we know there's going to be drinking at the after prom. Now, here are the ground rules for it, and we’re going to chaperone you." That just didn’t happen in my experience.
But once it starts to happen, then you have this problem—that the legal liability still reflects an old set of rules where parents were better off turning a blind eye.
DP: OK, so he’s obviously not going to be charged with anything. This is purely a scandal of optics. So, as Maryland voters, which none of us are—but were we Maryland voters, should this be something that should be held against Gansler, or should it be something for which he should be praised?
EB: I would not hold it against him, but I do think it's a problem when you have laws that the top law enforcement officials are confronted with, and aiding, abetting, breaking, and then, you know, it comes up. Like the fact that I wouldn’t hold it against him doesn’t mean that there isn’t still this problem. That, to me, speaks to the fact that we need to update these laws, that they are old-fashioned.
DP: No, what you're saying is that other people should hold it against him.
EB: No, I’m not. I’m saying both that I think—I mean, law-breaking like this doesn’t bother me, so I don't really care whether he was enforcing the law, and I think it's fine for the voters of Maryland to essentially understand that he was doing something that was worthy to do as a parent, even though it broke the law, etc.
But I think when you have laws that get people in potential trouble for potentially praiseworthy behavior, that's not good. That's when you need to revise the laws.
DP: Well, how would the law get revised in this situation that would better?
EB: I haven’t completely thought that through, but I think we would have a space in which underage drinking in front of adults was no longer illegal. But you'd have to have a lot of caveats for that, because you don’t want adults to be able get kids drunk or let kids drink whose parents haven’t agreed with that, right? That would be pretty scary. So, you have to have some very, like, limited space with a lot of adverbs in the statute, that somehow only get at this very particular scenario of kids who are drinking in a relatively safe way, whose parents are okay with that.
DP: Right. Well, what’s also interesting about this is that while the six boys who rented the house, they were all in on a pact, all the other people who were at that party were not in on that pact.
EB: Well, we don’t really know that that's true one way or the other, right?
DP: Well, yes, we do.
EB: I mean, maybe all the other parents had essentially been checked in with, or maybe not. That's a really good question.
DP: We don’t. We don't know it. We certainly don’t know they were in on a pact, and there's no reason to assume that every single other underage person there has a parent who authorized underage drinking under these conditions.
EB: That's true. But on the other hand, all those other parents, if they were sending their kids down to Beach Week unsupervised—I mean, what did they think was going on? Like, really, those parents should be glad that Gansler was at that party and that there were these rules, right?
JD: Right, because otherwise you’d be at a party ...
EB: The fact that they didn’t agree to them just makes them more irresponsible, in the sense that they were doing the old turn-the-blind-eye thing.
DP: Right; so Gansler should be praised, because he was bold enough to put in on the record, to allow this to be recorded as his moral stance.
JD: In the first, but in the second, he’s weaseling out.
DP: Well, now he’s weaseling out. He is weaseling out. But, as a Maryland voter, John, would you ...
JD: Oh, no, no.
DP: But would it make you more likely to vote for him?
JD: Well, it depends on the other candidate. It depends on what the issues were. But I don't think it matters.
DP: No, it doesn’t depend on the other candidate. It's more, would this episode alone make you think Doug Gansler—this man would be a better attorney general or governor for my state, given what ...
DP: No. Where would the sanction that parents are allowed to give—the free pass that parents are allowed to give—how far does that extend? Does it extend to allowing smoking weed?
EB: No, because smoking weed is—oh, are you asking morally or legally?
EB: I mean, I was going to say that we don’t legally allow kids to smoke weed.
DP: But we don’t legally allow kids to drink alcohol, either.
EB: True. OK, so you were asking a moral question. I mean, to me it extends to that.
JD: But I think you do. But I think there are laws ...
EB: But isn't this, like, a deeply personal question?
DP: Yeah, I'm hoping you'll reveal something interesting.
EB: I mean, to me, the thing about weed is that it's actually less dangerous than alcohol, in terms of the other behaviors it's associated with. So I would have the same rule for it. What about you?
DP: I really have not thought about this. I don't know. What about knowing your son has a significant other, and you've talked to the parents of that significant other, you know there's some form of sexual activity going on between the couple—allowing them as underage to, you know, sleep together in your house?
EB: I’m letting Dickerson take that one.
JD: What are we asking? Sorry, I was just looking up to see what the law is actually in Delaware.
EB: Oh. David was asking: You know that your son is having sex with his girlfriend. Can they do it in your house?
JD: No. Depends how old they are, but I don't—no.
EB: I have not figured out my stance on this one. I have a few more years. Get back to me later.
JD: So, in Delaware, you can drink underage, on private, nonalcohol-selling premises, with parental consent.
EB: If you have parental consent.
JD: If you have parental consent.
EB: So, then, every single one of those kids would have had to have their parents be OK with it.
JD: Every one of them, yes.
DP: In the presence of an adult?
JD: I don't know.
DP: Doesn't even say that?
JD: It doesn't say that, yeah.
DP: That's interesting.
JD: And there's some states in which you can drink on an alcohol-selling premises with parental consent. So, for example, in Connecticut, Emily, you could ...
EB: So good to know. What can my kids do?
JD: Take the kids out, and get them just— give them a snout full, and, as long as it's with your consent, the boys could get totally pickled.
EB: Well, that explains why I hear a lot of not “My son's too young,” but about after-proms, where parents have said, "There can be some drinking, and here are the rules."
DP: We'll check back with all of us when our children are 16, 17.
EB: Yeah, you got out of answering your own hypothetical there.
JD: I have seven minutes until my car gets ticketed.
DP: Let's turn to cocktail chatter, before John's car gets ticketed. When you are drinking, John, with your children, your underage kids, what are you going to be chattering about with them?
JD: So, I stood up for Gerald Ford, who Justice Scalia kneed in the groin for no good reason in his interview with New York magazine. And I was just then, as a result of that, doing some reading about Gerald Ford. And in the context of the Civil War and the Republican Party that we hear a lot about—and we hear about these primary challenges from super Tea Party crazy people, going after, you know, good, decent Republicans.
So, Gerald Ford's political career started in 1948 in a Republican primary challenge. There was a sitting Republican congressman from the Fifth District of Michigan—Bartel Jonkman, I think, is how you pronounce his name—and Gerald Ford was like, "No, I want to be in." Like, Gerald Ford—he most mild-mannered, non-Tea Party thing—so what's the point of this?
The point is two things. One, we kind of treat inner-party primary challenges like they are this sign that the Republican Party is, like, at this total crossroads, and deadly, and they used to happen all the time—and over different reasons. And it's like I think we need some context for these kinds of things.
The second thing is that the reason Ford did this is that he was the part of the post–World War II generation, which was—we talked about this with Kennedy—but a whole slew of people who came back from the war and was like, "No, we almost got killed. Now it's our turn." And so there was just this wave of people who—not unlike the Tea Party wave, who felt their own calls to service, but this was one that was based on World War II. And so I thought that was interesting.
DP: Emily, when you are drinking with your sons this weekend, what are you going to chatter about with them?
EB: I am going to chatter about Arguendo, which is the show about the Supreme Court oral argument in a case about nude dancing that a theater company in New York called the Elevator Repair Service has turned into a wildly entertaining play.
I consulted early on, I'm proud to say. I have a sense of unreasonable pride about this production. I was a skeptic in the very beginning, and I've been proven utterly wrong. The show is really delightful. It will be at the Public Theater for another couple weeks, and then it's moving onto Columbus, Ohio; and Williamstown, Mass.; and Chicago; and D.C.; and even New Haven. So there will be many opportunities to see it.
And I think that it should then be staged at the Supreme Court, and the justices should all attend.
DP: Emily's piece—if you haven't read it, it's a great piece. It made me really, really want to see this play. We will go see this play.
I want to chatter about a very moving story that was in the New York Times this week about James Davis, who lives in Stevenson, Ala. His wife died in 2009. They were married for many, many years, very happily. She asked that he bury her in the front yard, and he did it. He buried her in the front yard. There were no regulations in the city barring him from burying his wife in the front yard. However, he didn't fill out or didn't get the requisite paperwork completed that the city required that he complete, and the city then sued him to get him to disinter his wife, and put her elsewhere.
The city said, "You didn't do the paperwork. Also, this is going to hurt property values if people are burying their wives in the front yard. Who's going to maintain this grave in perpetuity, blah, blah, blah?"
I am so on Davis' side. I feel like you can bury people wherever you want, whenever you want. If you own the land, put them anywhere.
EB: Even if you don't, man—nice park, good tree.
DP: Yeah, totally.
JD: Well, I don't know about that. Public …
EB: [unintelligible] a few years ago about a burial ground that was, like, in a forest. We should go find that and recycle it. It's awesome. I loved it.
DP: I would like my body to be thrown in the—I don't want to be buried. I just want them to just chuck it out in the woods.
EB: Well, then, you might want to have to own the property.
DP: Yeah, chuck it to be, like, gnawed on by coyotes and things like that. I'm looking forward to that.
Thanks to Paul M. Garton, Inc. for providing the transcript.