Virtually every leading contender for president is a septuagenarian. Even the one millennial on the Las Vegas debate stage last night, Pete Buttigieg, is arguably a boomer in spirit. Where, one might ask, are today’s young leaders? There are plenty, of course, dispersed throughout lower offices in America. But I want to share with you a special glimpse I got of tomorrow’s leaders. I spent Presidents’ Day weekend with hundreds of them, and the experience made me more hopeful about the country than anything else in recent times.
Some of you may know that on many weekends, I volunteer as a parent judge at high school speech tournaments. I do this in part to support my boys, both of whom compete; I do it also because I was an avid speech competitor in high school myself and want to give back to the program that helped make me who I am. I credit that public speaking experience, more than any other, with teaching me not just oral communication skills, but also poise and self-confidence. It is what helped me overcome my pathological shyness and my discomfort with strangers. I wasn’t much for sports, but when I was a senior, I earned the distinction of best orator in my home state. And, for good or ill, I haven’t shut up since. Thus, perhaps, a future prosecutor and podcaster was born.
Last weekend was the annual Harvard national speech and debate tournament in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thousands of students from scores of schools all over the country came to the frigid New England campus to do their poetry readings, perform their dramatic bits, deliver their orations, and debate the issues of the day. From morning til night, an army of overdressed kids trudged the crosswalks between the storied buildings in Harvard Yard. In the early hours, at home base in the science center, you could see some competitors literally speaking to walls, animatedly rehearsing their pieces.
Let me give you a sense of what I saw judging a number of preliminary rounds. In the category of original oratory, students deliver from memory a ten-minute speech they have written themselves. Just to write and memorize and fluently deliver a talk of that length with no props, no podium, and no notes is an impressive feat for the average 16-year-old. Though performances and talent naturally varied, to a person, the speeches were mature and thoughtful and deeply reflective. One talked eloquently about how people express anger, how such expression is viewed through a biased gender lens; women often discriminated against for showing passion, men lauded for it. Another held forth on cancel culture. Another talked about the impossible and absurd cultural standards we set for beauty in America, cleverly making Barbie her rhetorical foil throughout. They explored complex themes of self-worth, stereotypes, and suicide. There was also simple wisdom from these kids. As one said, “We can be brave even when we are afraid.”
The hardest speech category, in my opinion, is something called extemporaneous speaking. I was much too chicken to brave this category in high school, which fact I once told my sons, and I suspect that is precisely why they both chose “extemp” as their signature competition event. Here is the harrowing format: each round is based on a broad topic (e.g., American politics, the economy, foreign policy, technology, and the like). Within the broad topic, a competitor is given a choice of three questions to answer. After that, they have a total of 30 mins to prepare a well-reasoned, fact-filled, soundly-sourced answer, to be delivered in a smooth seven-minute speech, with citations and without notes. The questions are often complex and obscure. Consider some of the questions that the kids in my rounds had to address:
Will there be an economic recession in 2020?
Will the coronavirus outbreak threaten the US-China trade deal?
How would Judy Shelton shape the direction of the Federal Reserve?
Will the USMCA be a substantial upgrade over NAFTA?
What steps should the US take to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East?
Seven years later, has Abenomics worked?
- What steps should Taiwan take to thwart Chinese attempts to take control of the island?
Good Lord. How many of these could you answer competently, even with a half-hour heads up? I confess I did not know the first thing about Judy Shelton, but was pleased to be educated by the teenager who drew that especially tough question. Compare these pointed questions with any asked at last night’s debate. The degree of difficulty is no different. What inspires and impresses me is not just that these kids are already so worldly, but that they have chosen this as their thing to do. Consider what it takes to be up to speed and thoughtful on every issue of domestic and international policy, to voluntarily subject yourself to such an ordeal, and prepare to be judged on your performance. That’s something else.
One point of personal pride. I found fascinating the viral video of Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer whiffing on the name of the Mexican president, which clip also showed Mayor Pete giving the correct answer, “Lopez Obrador.” How terrible a flub was not knowing that name? At the debate last night, Klobuchar implicitly conceded it was bad because she claimed it was momentary forgetfulness, rather than ignorance (watch the video and judge for yourself). Last Friday night at the tournament, I asked my older son if he knew who the president of Mexico was. As I later tweeted, straight up he said, “Lopez Obrador. AMLO [Andres Mauel Lopez Obrador]!” He then proceeded to give me chapter and verse about him and his policies. He was aware of the viral clip and wasn’t being boastful; he stressed that everyone who does “extemp” knows AMLO, of course must know AMLO, given that US-Mexico relations could always come up as a competition topic.
And that quite struck me. My son and his classmates are not running to be the leader of the free world, not yet anyway; they’re just trying to reach baseline preparedness to be competent at a high school speech tournament. And they took care to be so prepared.
They’re just kids. But their diligence and dedication inspire me. They are too young to lead us yet, but I can’t wait.
On Tuesday, the White House announced its decision to grant clemency to four high-profile convicted felons: the billionaire “junk bond king” Michael Milken, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
The Trump administration’s latest blitz of pardons and commutations includes more traditional recipients of executive clemency — like individuals who have served time for drug-related charges — but nearly half were well-connected felons who committed white-collar crimes having to do with public corruption.
As Preet and Anne discuss on this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, Trump’s clemency announcement was highly unusual. After Trump informed reporters of his plans to commute Gov. Blagojevich’s sentence while on the tarmac next to Air Force One, the White House issued a press release listing the names of Trump’s friends and advisors who had advocated for each of the recipients. The episode renewed concerns about the White House’s clemency process.
What is the typical clemency process, and what standards must an individual meet to be considered for executive clemency?
Article II of the Constitution grants the President sweeping clemency powers: “The President…shall have the power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” However, the clemency process was formalized through the creation of the Office of the Pardon Attorney in 1865, and a set of standards have emerged over time.
According to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the clemency process has traditionally included significant input (to the extent possible) from the US Attorney in the district of conviction, an Assistant Attorney General, and the sentencing judge. Pardons, which the DOJ calls “expressions of the president’s forgiveness,” are typically granted “on the basis of the petitioner’s demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time after conviction and service of sentence.” In that spirit, the Department’s regulations require a petitioner to wait at least five years after conviction or release to apply. In addition to good behavior, the other major factors that the office formally considers in making a determination are “seriousness and relative recentness of the offense,” “acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement,” “need for relief,” and “official recommendations and reports.”
The decision to commute the length of a sentence currently being served, which the DOJ says is an “extraordinary remedy,” also has its own set of standards. The Office of the Pardon Attorney provides:
Appropriate grounds for considering commutation have traditionally included disparity or undue severity of sentence, critical illness or old age, and meritorious service rendered to the government by the petitioner, e.g., cooperation with investigative or prosecutive efforts that has not been adequately rewarded by other official action.
The President has shown little need for such traditional standards. On Wednesday, the DOJ disclosed to Senator Patrick Leahy that Trump only consulted the Office of the Pardon Attorney on six of his prior twenty-two pardons and commutations. And Trump may not be done yet. Many have also speculated that Trump’s recent pardons are an attempt to set the stage for a pardon of his longtime friend and advisor, Roger Stone, who just today was sentenced to three years and four months in prison for lying to Congress and witness tampering.
While Trump’s pardoning spree has drawn the ire of anti-corruption advocates, it is far from the first instance of questionable clemencies. The history of presidential pardons is littered with controversial cases, including President Ford’s pardon of a disgraced President Nixon, President Clinton’s last-minute pardon of campaign donor and wanted fugitive Marc Rich, and President Trump’s 2017 pardon of hyper-conservative Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
What do you think of Trump’s pardons? Are they a big deal — or are they par for the presidential course? Let us know your thoughts by writing to us at letters@CAFE.com, or reply to this email.
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
Ronan Farrow is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. Farrow is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose articles in The New Yorker exposed sexual assault allegations against the disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein and several other powerful men.
Farrow’s book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators and his accompanying “The Catch and Kill Podcast” recount his struggle to publish his initial Weinstein exposé amid a number of obstacles set up by Weinstein’s enablers. These roadblocks included the practice of “catch and kill”— the tendency of tabloids like The National Enquirer to purchase salacious stories only to “kill” them in exchange for political or monetary favors from the implicated parties.
In this excerpt, Farrow discusses the corrosive political impact of the “catch and kill” strategy:
We’ve talked in the weeds about the actual tabloid practice, but it is emblematic of a larger problem, which is one of the big threats to our democracy and our basic freedom: the restraints placed upon the free flow of information by powerful people, whether it’s literally using a tabloid to buy up stories and suppress them before voters can see them in an election…or the more attenuated thing that happens all the time, which is that a powerful person leans on an outlet to get a story killed.
Scott R. Anderson is a former U.S. diplomat and a Fellow at both the Brookings Institution and Columbia Law School. As a Senior Editor at Lawfare, he provides expert analysis on issues relating to law, national security, and foreign policy. Follow him @S_R_Anders.
THIS WEEK ON CAFE INSIDER
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