‘Mein Pate’ and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program

Helmut Kohl and Congress-Bundestag students in 1986

From left, Jochen Messemer, Caecilia Hanne, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Todd Neff, and Frederic Pflanz on April 9, 1986.

We had been scheduled for 15 minutes, but between Helmut Kohl’s meetings with economic advisors, discussions with coalition partners about what to do about the assumed bombing by Libya of a Berlin discotheque four days before – plus having to squeeze in a meeting with East German Politbüro member Günther Mittag – there was only time for a quick photo op.

It was April 9, 1986. My host brother Frederic and I had woken at 6 a.m. in the Ludwigshafen suburb of Oggersheim, West Germany, a bit earlier than for a normal Wednesday school day at Carl-Bosch Gymnasium. We were going a bit further than downtown LU, instead taking the train to Bonn, the capital, to meet Helmut Kohl, the country’s chancellor.

I had turned 17 a few months earlier; Frederic would turn 18 in a few days. I was an exchange student; he had been an exchange student the previous year. Both of us were part of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. It had launched a couple of years earlier. The program, jointly funded by the U.S. and West German governments, sent an American high school student to each Bundestag district in Germany and a German high school student to each U.S. Congressional district. The idea was to deepen U.S.-German ties in a Cold War era during which the threat of Soviet tanks rumbling through the Fulda Gap was quite real. Frederic, from Oggersheim, had spent a year in Kankakee, Illinois. I, from Dearborn, Michigan, was now in Oggersheim, the temporary third son of a family named Pflanz.

Oggersheim happened to be where Helmut Kohl was from. In the West German parliamentary system, the chancellor is also a member of the Bundestag. I had landed in Helmut Kohl’s district. And so, three-quarters of the way through my exchange year, Helmut Kohl’s staffers arranged for us to meet – actually, they had arranged for quite a bit more. This was an overnight trip, one that included a stop by the equivalent of the FBI headquarters in Wiesbaden, where we watched an anti-terror exercise, and also by the German Space Agency. All because, by random chance, I had ended up in the big guy’s district.

The moment crystallized in my memory is that of entering the enormous office and seeing the man at his desk, hurriedly checking something on a short stack of paper. He stood, confirming his famous size – six-foot-four, though at that point he was far short of the 300 pounds his obituaries last month cited. He wore a silvery suit that seemed to glow.

He shook all our hands, his grip soft, as if to offer comfort in the presence of such mass and gravitas. As we lined up for the photo we chit-chatted – he was surprised at my German: “Er spricht doch schon gut Deutsch.” I’d been immersed in a German family for nine months, so my German was in fact getting there, the fruits of countless hours of cramming and smile-nodding at things I scarcely understood. But Kohl’s infamous lack of foreign-language skills lent an irony to the comment that even a 17-year-old could grasp.

Within a minute or two we were hustled back out, to a conference room where an old reporter named Klaus Hoffman soon arrived. As a journalist now, I recognize this visit by teenagers as something between a very soft story and a nonstory. Hoffman was the equivalent of a White House reporter, though, and Die Rheinfalz was a big regional paper. Hoffman was a verygood writer, which I might have recognized at the time had I been able to read his product without consulting a dictionary. The headline: “Todd Neff Proud of His Godfather in the Chancellor’s Office.”

The real story would unfold much later, and it has to do with the Congress-Bundestag program itself. I can’t find the above article. A friend of mine WhatsApped it to me (notice the “Ü” on the keyboard above the headline, and the “€”, and the “Z” where the “Y” should be). That friend, Christian Volz, was a classmate of mine in 1985-1986. He and his family are visiting my family in Denver – tomorrow, in fact.

Last summer, his sister and her family visited, as did Frederic and his family. The summer before that, my family met that of Andreas Macha, another classmate, in San Diego. The summer before that, Andreas rented a big van and drove the two families around Southern Germany, and Christian hosted a “Welcome Neffs” party for about 50 folks.  I’m a godfather myself now – to Frederic’s son Phileas. If you include the kids, there are several dozen people in Germany whom I count as close friends, and my kids are friends with their kids now, too.

This all has political implications. Particularly in our current environment, there are dozens of Germans who know that not all Americans agree with what’s being currently purveyed as public and foreign policy. They have a personal connection to the United States they wouldn’t otherwise have. The real story is that the Congress-Bundestag program, as relates to this kid from Dearborn, worked in ways neither its creators nor its participants could have imagined.

Maps matter way beyond finding the nearest coffee shop

a vintage map of the world

A Skype conversation skips across continents with no perceptible lag. The manufacturing economy cranks forth like a containerized, globally integrated, seamless, just-in-time wonder. Hollywood films are released simultaneously in Boston, Berlin and Beijing, often finding larger audiences in China than anywhere else.

It’s enough to make the world seem flat. Not so fast, says Robert Kaplan. [more]

World War III is coming, and you’ll never believe who’s going to start it

Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein

At first blush, the key players in George Friedman’s World War III scenario seem to have been plucked from a random-country generator: Japan, Turkey, and… Poland?

But take a step back. First, consider the source. Friedman, 68, has been in the geopolitical strategy game for decades. He founded the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor in 1996 and led it until retiring in 2015. Along the way, he wrote bestselling books of immense scope and ambition, including The Next 100 Years and, most recently, 2015’s Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. In 2016, he founded Geopolitical Futures, a geopolitical forecaster focused, as he puts it, on allowing readers “to distinguish the significant from the trivial” in a world “inundated with information.”

His World War III scenario is another example of Friedman’s ability to drink in a deluge of information and distill it down to a fascinating, plausible (if counterintuitive), and indeed significant essence. What’s more, it is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. [more]

Regs not the problem for oil business

oil

The incoming Trump administration and the oil and gas industry like to talk about the burdens of environmental red tape. But in Deloitte’s “reality check” of the top six issues facing the oil and gas industry in 2015, regulatory burden is absent. These are mostly big companies for whom compliance is a part of doing business and a manageable cost of operations. The entrepreneurs running wildcat operations aren’t strangers to this side of the ledger, either. And keep in mind that these companies, averaged over time (it’s a cyclical business, the world’s largest industry) make money hand over fist and can afford to do their part in minimizing the environmental impacts. For every Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, there are hundreds of projects that go forward unhindered.

Industry-bought statements by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute in the wake of the joint U.S.-Canadian protection of thousands of square miles of seas from offshore drilling that talk about the importance of these places for energy security – they’re a joke. Arctic offshore today accounts for about 0.025 percent of U.S. crude production. The Gulf of Mexico offshore produces 23 percent of all U.S. crude and basically all of the offshore production.

We won’t need it long-term, either. Electrification of the vehicle fleet will drive down domestic demand, meaning less oil will satisfy it over time, obviating the need to drill sensitive areas that threaten tourism and the environment (not even getting into global warming here).

Shell abandoned its drilling plans in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be catastrophic: imaging trying to clean up after a Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, but in 40 mph winds at minus-20, with no local fishing fleets or anyone else to help out (caribou being notoriously lazy). The industry would have to self-fund the entire cleanup infrastructure, even if they found a bonanza of oil, which Shell at least didn’t.

Exxon Mobil had a “rough” year in 2016, its net incoming falling by about half – still, it made $16 billion on $260 billion in sales. God knows what their regulatory costs were, showing up in various accounting buckets all over the world. But this company’s – and most oil companies’ – profits hinge not on the relatively minor costs of doing their part in keeping the planet more livable, but on the whims of global oil production and demand.

Donald Trump and the O.J. Simpson playbook

Trump&OJ

Capping true stories with lies, a Trump mainstay, was central to the O.J. Simpson defense.

Donald Trump is coming to our Denver Lowry neighborhood today, to a rally at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Denver. A buddy of mine joked that we should maybe build a wall around the neighborhood. I said maybe we could get Stapleton (a neighborhood to the north) to pay for it.

I briefly considered signing up for tickets just to watch the show, the repressed reporter in me curious as to the scene and the people Trump attracts. But the novelist and shorts story writer George Saunders already did this, and his impressions and thoughts on the topic are gold-standard. My favorite line:

Above all, Trump supporters are “not politically correct,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they have a particular aversion to that psychological moment when, having thought something, you decide that it is not a good thought, and might pointlessly hurt someone’s feelings, and therefore decline to say it.

While Saunders does great reporting and is as insightful in this long-read nonfiction piece as he is in his short stories, neither he nor anyone else I’ve read seems to have pinpointed why some 50 million people are likely to actually vote for Donald Trump for president of the United States in November. So I’ll give it a shot here, with help benefactors to two killers — one fictional, one real-life — and the NRA.

Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher novels, puts us on the right track. In a recent, short piece having nothing to do with Donald Trump, he questioned whether the positives of our being such suckers for a good yarn outweighed the negatives (“Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape,” Child writes):

Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?

But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead.

Which brings me to two terrified dead and the incredible story surrounding them, chronicled in the ESPN series, “O.J.: Made in America.” This five-part documentary is full of great stuff, but the recounting of the O.J. Simpson murder trial itself was most relevant to our political moment.

Here you have both components leading to Child’s “bad things.” There were people being prepared to lie — the Simpson defense team, which managed to cast doubt on overwhelming evidence (from wife-beating motive all the way to convincing blood-based DNA evidence) and help the man who once rushed for 2,003 yards in a single, 14-game NFL season beat a double-murder rap.

And you had people prepared to believe them — not just the jury, but also the African American public, some 70 percent of whom were convinced Simpson was innocent (roughly the same percentage of whites believed he was guilty; time has narrowed this gap, but it still remains). The defense team famously appealed to the black-majority jury’s experience with the LAPD’s historically ill treatment of African Americans, which we now know (see Black Lives Matter) is not confined to greater Los Angeles.

Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Kim Kardashian’s dad and the rest of the defense team were people prepared to lie — not in the specifics, as the police did mishandle evidence, Mark Furman did perjure himself and so on. But in spinning a yarn of O.J. Simpson as a victim of a civil-rights-abusing police conspiracy, they lied to the jury and, thanks to gavel-to-gavel CNN coverage, vast numbers of people prepared to believe them due to prior LAPD misdeeds and Simpson’s public image as charismatic sports hero.

The essence of the defense team’s success was taking a true story — a long history of police abuses against black people in Los Angeles — and mixing it with a fiction, which was that convicting O.J. Simpson would perpetuate these abuses. This was Cochran’s main message in a closing argument in which he infamously compared the L.A. police detective who had happened to come across Simpson’s blood-soaked glove to Adolph Hitler, the most murderous storyteller of them all. Cochran capped a truth with the lie that O.J. Simpson’s exoneration would somehow be a solution.

Which brings us to Trump. Trump no double murderer, but all signs point to his actual occupation of the Oval Office as a potential catastrophe for American democracy and U.S. foreign relations. His inadequacies in a U.S. presidential context are epic, and probably best delineated by the man who actually wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which turns out to be a work of fiction.

To return to Child’s framework, Trump is prepared to lie — about the true nature of the threats to the United States and our already formidable capabilities to counter them, about Ted Cruz’s father being complicit in the Kennedy assassination, about the viability of his insane policies (the Mexican-financed wall, the barring-of-Muslims, the dismantling of a 70-year-old NATO framework whose benefits to the United States vastly outweigh the costs), about his own background as a charitable giver (poor), about his own finances (tax returns).

And people are prepared to believe him. As the Simpson defense team did with the Los Angeles police force’s history of abuses of power and African American bodies, Trump does with the hollowing out of U.S. manufacturing and inexorable demographic change. Huge numbers of people are hurting and have few prospects to advance on low-paying service jobs for which they sometimes compete with immigrants willing to do our dirty work, the rich are getting richer, and the body politic has ignored them in favor of those wealthy enough to hire lobbyists and threaten attack ads. Enter Trump, who builds upon this truth the lie that he’s somehow the solution. Millions of people are buying it.

Yet Trump is vulnerable to another narrative reality, one nicely put by a vendor the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in May. The writer Evan Osnos describes a conversation with Tim Schmidt, founder of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association:

For several years, Schmidt had a sideline in packaging his sales techniques. He calls the approach “tribal marketing.” It’s based on generating revenue by emphasizing the boundaries of a community. “We all have the need to belong,” he wrote in a presentation entitled “How to Turn One of Mankind’s Deepest Needs Into Cold, Hard cash.” In a section called “How Do You Create Belief & Belonging?,” he explained, “You can’t have a yin without a yang. Must have an enemy.”

Schmidt is telling stories — lies, too, probably, given the data correlating gun ownership with gun deaths. But there’s a deeper truth to this, in that all good stories need villains who need vanquishing. For the Simpson defense team, it was the LAPD. For Trump, it’s the Chinese, the Muslims, the Mexicans and other “others.”

Trump and other populist/nativist demagogues vilify as a matter of course, and Trump is gifted at stoking and steering the ire of his tribe. But what Trump seems not to recognize is that, in so doing, he has shaped himself into an enemy — a yang for many yins — at least in the eyes of those who happen to disagree with his ignorant, pessimistic, dictatorial, black-and-white worldview.

It would be hard to see Jeb Bush or John Kasich as a true enemy, someone whose very persona invites hatred. With the conventions behind us, Trump, who has risen to the Republican nomination on a raft of lies floating along on a true story, may now feel the wrath of the very power of narrative he has so deftly exploited.