Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Land of the Blind: Getting to Roseland

A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Two :

THE THING ABOUT being a rescuer is that you tend to see problems as challenges rather than threats. You think, how bad could it be? After all, Rose Broadcasting was a revered institution, a national voice for peace and nonviolence populated with dedicated, sometimes gifted people. It was an honor to have an opportunity to lead, even if it felt a little tentative. The Board was rife with intrigue, and there were queasy rumors about the hiring process.
     Now I think: How bad could it get and where can I hide?
     Known as The Rose, it had taken the name of its late beloved founder Leonard Rose, and as a reference to what roses often represent – love and beauty. Anyway, it made for an enticing logo.
     Yet there was irony in the symbol. Rose is also the national flower of both the US and England. Long before that, early Christians adopted it as the symbol for their martyrs. The association with socialism and the left developed centuries later, linked to the British and Irish Labour parties, not to mention assorted left-wing political groups across Europe during the 20th Century.
      In May 1968, it became a badge of honor for street protesters in Paris.
      But the name also worked as a handy label for conservatives, for whom it served as more evidence that The Rose was pink, maybe even Red, a dangerous, subversive blot on the media landscape, a network of left-wing stations that “blamed America” for everything wrong in the world and supported disloyal, decadent elements in our society.
     Obviously that wasn’t how Leonard Rose had defined the mission, or how loyal Rose watchers saw it. For them it was the voice of truth and justice, a source of hope for a better world.
     Officially, it was the Rose Broadcasting System, a worker-managed, listener-supported multi-media company, owner of operations in half a dozen large markets, and frequent site of internecine political warfare. Over the decades it had grown from a single Los Angeles TV station into a network with billions in assets, millions of listeners, and a structure so Byzantine that even ardent defenders considered it dangerously dysfunctional.
     Before I became its chief executive, a colleague from the Pine Tree State dubbed it “the dream job from hell.” I found the description amusing at the time. Nor was I dissuaded when one Rose GM explained why he wasn’t interested in the job despite ample qualifications and political connections. “I want to survive,” he said. ”Professionally, and otherwise.”
     I followed up. “What the f--k does that mean?”
     “It means,” he said, “that people who get there also tend to get bloody. Rumors, media vultures, that kind of thing. It’s tough to find a home afterward.”
     He didn’t mention being assassinated or framed for murder. But obviously I should have taken the advice more seriously.
     A month later, I was on my way to Rose headquarters in New York, located behind an unmarked door in the same building as WARP, one of the oldest operations. But first, that stopover in Washington, DC to meet with Gene Montoya, American success story and the next big thing.
     Most people know the basics about Gene, or you might say, the “approved script.” Starting out the son of a poor Mexican immigrant and an Irish beauty queen, Gene Montoya had managed through hard work and political genius to become mayor, then congressman and most recently governor. At the time of my invitation, he was something even more exciting, a well-funded independent candidate for President. Less widely known was the fact that we were friends at one time, although I hadn’t heard from him since his star began to rise.
     In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention the last time we saw each other, about eight years before our reunion. He was standing in the third floor window of New Mexico’s state capitol, known as The Roundhouse and designed to represent the Zuni symbol for the sun – the only round state capitol in the country – watching dozens of anti-war protesters get dragged away roughly by the police for committing civil disobedience. I don’t know whether Gene personally issued the order, or even noticed me sitting cross-legged on the ground with the rest of an affinity group.
     For a while I held it against him anyway.
     This was definitely not the same dude I remember from our days with the Magic Coyote commune. Clearly people can change in twenty five years. In any case, about a year ago he asked to meet. Despite the hand-written invite – probably penned by a sycophantic intern – I didn’t believe that the reason was a sudden urge to reminisce about the good old days.
     That sun-fried afternoon in Santa Fe, when dozens of us were manhandled for demanding an end to bombing and lies – What else is new? – wasn’t the only time I was arrested for a good cause. About two years later it happened again, this time by accident while I visiting a campsite established to “Save the Rose.” There were earlier encounters with the fuzz, of course. All the Magic Coyote communards, myself and Gene Montoya included, were shackled and booked back in the day. It was the thing to do, a social obligation, a mark of honor.
     Saving The Rose had a similar allure. After all, it had been "hijacked" by corporate hacks and “We the People” would do whatever was needed to “take it back.” In other words, by any means necessary. Sartre coined the phrase but Malcolm X made it an article of faith and the Internet turned it into an acronym – BAMN.
      I use "we" somewhat loosely, since I wasn’t a member of the inner circle. But I did visit Ground Zero – a scruffy park near the business office on the outskirts of the capitol – just in time to be rounded up by the cops.
     The tension had been building up for months, and finally reached a boiling point when armed guards tried to arrest Gail Sahara, not yet the media celebrity she became but already popular as host of “Open Forum.” Then she charged on the air that the Board of Directors was scheming to sell the Los Angeles station. Her arrest was stopped by then CEO Carter Larkin (one of my discredited predecessors), yet Gail joined others on a growing list of the “fired and banned.” Within a week, thousands were committing not-so-civil disobedience outside Larkin’s office.
     All this may not seem especially relevant to the untimely demise of Gene Montoya. But it helps to explain the Rose as a born-again democracy, and why I could end up in charge.
     The"revolution" that created the “New Rose” began when the Board of Directors, chaired by former Under-Secretary of Education Rebecca Alice Lemon, voted to change the governing structure. There had been internal fights for years, but this time Board members claimed they were being forced to comply with government rules.
     The problem, claimed Lemon and her allies, was the Community Involvement Panels that “advised” management at the stations. The Corporation for Public Media had allegedly informed Rose executives that the Board would have to sever official ties with the CIPs to remain eligible for public funding. Even though Rose was financed mainly by listeners and underwriters, an increasing proportion of its revenue was being provided by the Feds. Cutting out the CIPs meant a bylaws amendment that would essentially make the Board self-perpetuating. Whether the CIPs ever had any binding control over the stations – and whether the change was actually what the CPM had in mind – are both fair questions.
     The first person to challenge the Board publicly was a producer, Hardy Berman, the professional curmudgeon who urged Gail Sahara to talk about the crisis on her show. Berman, an irascible, astute pro who found a home at the Rose during the sixties, was promptly suspended for violating a so-called "non-disclosure" rule. He later claimed that the trouble began when Larkin refused to renew Capital Bureau Chief Sandra Black’s contract.
     Black was a recent hire and popular with staff. Soon after that Larkin issued a statement intended "to clear the air." But his explanation included harsh words for both Berman and Sahara. The feisty host, probably egged on by the Berman, fired back by reading Larkin’s statement on her show, then proceeding to discuss internal network business. This violated a so-called "no dirty laundry" policy.
     There was a policy for almost any occasion, yet apparently never the right one.
     In her own defense, Sahara said her comments focused on “how concerned I was, as someone who has been with the Rose a long time, about what I considered authoritarian power plays and a wasteful bureaucracy." A few days later Berman was fired for letting her express that opinion. Sahara, an effective fundraiser, was spared but warned to shut up.
     In another version of the same story, Berman wanted to be fired in order to become a martyr and light a match under the activist base, and Larkin didn’t renew Black’s contract because she was too friendly with Sahara and Berman, who felt they could control her and thus the network’s political agenda. Still another version had the Rad Couple, as they were known, embezzling funds and writing themselves checks. Larkin never claimed that happened. But he did say an investigation of spending for “Open Forum” was being pursued. This was more than enough to rile the rumor mill.
     Anyway, a key moment was Berman’s removal – in handcuffs -- from the DC studio after an altercation with Larkin and the security staff. The story goes that Carolina Cruz – about whom more later– had just been selected to replace Black as head of the Capitol Bureau and asked Berman to come over for an orientation. That much was verified. Beyond this it becomes “she said, he said."
     Berman later claimed that Cruz threw her cell phone at him. She charged that Hardy was “belligerent” and "knocked over stuff," then falsely claimed that he had been assaulted. Whatever the truth, Hardy’s supporters were milling around outside the door, heard the ruckus, and were ready to believe him. But their presence also fueled suspicion that a subsequent public shouting match between Berman and Larkin in the hallway, complete with finger poking and enough contact for the alpha males to exchange spittle, may have been staged.
     What’s indisputable is this: Larkin called in security and they dragged Berman out of the building.
     But that was child’s play compared to what came next, As Sandra Black told the story, she had visited the office that same day to pick up her severance check. Although sensing that someone was following her home, she didn’t respect her intuition. When she stopped at a traffic light, a non-descript car – “like one of those unmarked government vehicles,” she told the police – sped past.
     A gunshot smashed through her windshield, missing her by less than a foot.
     The police couldn’t find a suspect, so no one was arrested or charged. Within Rose circles, however, the spin was that the attack was a warning – in response to the story being developed by the network, with Black’s support, about phony terrorist scares designed to gin up paranoia and justify just about anything in the name of national security. For some Roseniks, a government plot is the first and easiest explanation for any unexplained (aka suspicious) occurrence.
     How this relates to my working for the network has several angles. First of all, I knew the stories and, like other believers in the promise of progressive media, I wanted to help save the Rose.
     The Board and management had banned discussion of the crisis on the air. More staff was being fired, and as the protests grew Lemon asked the police to crack down on the demonstrators. With wartime logic in effect, the feds and cops had the tools and were ready to punch. But persistent protests forced the police to investigate the attempted shooting of Sandra Black.
     Over the next weeks, Lemon accused the opposition of violence and racism, the staff union filed unfair labor practices charges, federal mediation was launched, and a cadre of listeners filed a lawsuit demanding repeal of the “self-perpetuation” amendment and removal of the entire Board. Just when everyone thought the tension couldn’t get any worse, a confidential e-mail was circulated. It revealed a secret plan to sell off stations, a charge Sahara had leveled on the air before being threatened with arrest and banishment.
     By then I was on a cross-country road trip to the protest site, which had become a semi-permanent encampment surrounded by riot police and renamed Roseland. Less than two days after I arrived, cops invaded in the dead of night and made hundreds of arrests. I spent hours in a DC holding cell. But the next day Roseland was back in action.
     For me it served as a baptism. You might say I was born again as a part of Rose Nation. From that point on, I felt that I had a direct stake in the outcome of this revolution.
     It was also an effective, especially apropos distraction from grief, since that same weekend was the last time I saw Renny, the love of my life and the bane of my existence. After a bizarre courtship – she was considered an enemy of the state when we first met – we had lived and traveled together, driven each other nuts, and broken up on two continents.
     I am not over her yet.
     Second, I began to investigate questionable “terrorist” incidents, particularly the possibility that some of them might be hoaxes, and that line of inquiry led to “Outsourcing War,” which put our small production company on the map. The movie, which won some festival prizes, reached art houses, and was ultimately sold to Netflix. It exposed and tracked the creeping privatization of war, which has proceeded for decades but escalated sharply in recent times.
     Finally, and perhaps most crucially, I became General Manager and CEO largely because some people never forgave the other leading candidate for her ambiguous role in the network struggle. Carolina Cruz had survived the Rose Revolution – not surprising for someone who overcame an abusive father and death squads in Central America. She remained a muscular gatekeeper in the network. But neither her connections nor award-winning productions were enough to counter the charge that she was a power-hungry predator who could not be trusted.
     As insiders often said, “Welcome to Roseland. Feel the love.”

Next Chapter
Previous Chapter

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Land of the Blind: A Carlo Kostner Mystery

Chapter One
: Almost President :

GENE MONTOYA HAD a way of boiling things down that rang as simplistic. But it had served him well in later years when his main tasks as an elected official were shaking hands, fundraising, and giving speeches. The rhetoric evolved but the skill set stayed the same. Personally, I found life difficult to boil down into stark black and white, us versus them formulations. Existence looked like a huge grey area.
     Now it just looks absurd.
But that wasn’t Gene, who thought and spoke in certainties and absolutes that were reassuring to the many voters who repeatedly elected him. When we first met, for example, he was “totally opposed” to exploitive development plans being concocted by “capitalist pigs” who wanted to turn the area around Taos into a tourist destination. Ten years later, as a state Senator, he was equally certain that environmentalists were “trust fund elitists” who didn't appreciate the need of plain working people for basic services.
      Fifteen years after that, he was sure that Iraq posed a sufficient threat to its Middle East neighbors to justify crippling sanctions and bombing. But that didn’t stop him, when we met in his presidential campaign office, from thanking me for making “Outsourcing War” and calling it a “wake up call for the American people.” I suppressed a laugh when he added, “I especially loved the way you edited it, exposing those congressional hypocrites with their own words.” Instead I accepted the compliment and shared the praise with the crew.
     “You were always too modest,” he replied, pouring a glass of sparkling water I hadn’t requested. “But it’s like I tell the team: you have to package the message in a way people can hear it.”
     “You seem to be doing pretty well.”
     “We are, for a shoestring campaign that people called impossible or fringe six months ago. They told me: Nader couldn’t do it, and Sanders rejected the idea in favor of taking power in the Democratic Party. You can’t have an effective independent candidacy in this country, they said. But let’s talk about you. Rose Broadcasting, I’m impressed.”
      “I'm in shock.” It wasn’t completely candid. My real feelings were more a combination of disorientation and low-grade panic. “It took months to make the deal," I said, "and even when they made an offer, I wasn’t sure I should do it.”
      “Why the hell not? You deserve it.” This was beginning to feel uncomfortable, Gene Montoya acting like a fan, lauding my skill and professing deep admiration. Then again, he was a professional pol, and the best of them have a gift for making every person they encounter feel special, unique, the focus of their attention and sincerity.
      “I always thought you were hiding out in New Mexico,” he claimed. “I love the place, obviously, it’s my roots. But you, you came up in Los Angeles, surrounded by all that glitz and power, the image industry. And still you toss it off and go indie. I mean, didn’t your father work for Reagan?”
      He had obviously ordered up a dossier. Still, it couldn’t have been thorough since he wasn’t clear about my current situation. “So, are you still with what’s her name – the German…”
      “Renny. No, not for a while. As far as I know, she went home several years ago.”
      “Well, you’ve been with so many women, amigo, it’s hard to keep track. The Indian princess, I definitely remember her. Then Faith. You still see her, I assume, you have that great boy…”
     “Billy, yes. He’s doing fine. But you heard that his grandfather died?”
     “I know,” he said, affecting a solemnity that felt almost genuine. “A great man. You should do a film on him.”
     He was right about that. Paul Peterson wasn't only my son’s grandfather but an icon of the peace movement, a man whose dedication and simple living had inspired several generations. A descendant of President John Adams, he had rejected privilege and, after working at the Modern School in New Jersey, went on to found his own educational community, the Vermont Institute for Voluntary Action. Throughout the post-war period, during the sixties, and in the more ambiguous decades that followed, he inspired thousands through his poetry, his work at VIVA, and his exemplary lifestyle.
       “Did you know him?” I asked.
       “We met, toward the end. He visited my office with a delegation about Iraq, before the invasion. You know I didn’t support another war.”
       “Oh? What changed your mind?”
       He bristled but controlled his response. “I never wanted to go in,” he said, “but that madman had to be stopped. Now, I know people felt it was just as bad, maybe worse. But that’s the difference between staying in the opposition and working on the inside. You have to choose between flawed options. Leftists never seem to get that. You know the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
        “There was nothing good about –”
       “I know, I know.” He seemed eager to keep the conversation cordial, to the point of giving ground to keep it heading in the direction he wanted. “We learn as we go. That’s why I wanted to see you. We reviewed your film and I think you’ve hit on something key, something we want to talk more about in the campaign.”
     “Great,” I said, “you should. How about calling for a congressional inquiry, starting with PIA?” I was referring to the huge private military company that was at the center of a new scandal for shooting on unarmed civilians.
     “Exactly. But I need to know I can call on you during the campaign, as an advisor.”
     “Don’t you have people for that? I just started a new job, as you know.”
     He chuckled and reached across the glass table for a friendly slap on the knee. “That’s right, I do have people. Funny, no? We were going to overthrow the system, now it’s us.”
     “Speak for yourself. I still consider myself as part of the opposition. So, what’s all this really about?”
     The question was risky since it suggested suspicion of his sincerity. I didn’t want to be intimidated but there was no way to avoid some insecurity. Not that he was the first presidential candidate I had met. In campaigns past I had interviewed Bush (the father not the son, and definitely on drugs), interrogated Ted Kennedy (as he killed the Carter presidency in 1980), shared a breakfast with Walter Mondale (skin as grey as his rumpled suit), and discussed art with Howard Baker (decent photographer, slightly disoriented). Long before that, when my father served in the GOP establishment, I also had a moment with Big Ron as he was playing California governor.
     No, what put me on edge wasn’t the proximity to power, it was the feeling that, contrary to those encounters, this candidate apparently wanted something from me rather than the reverse. In Reagan’s case, I was mad for a handful of the jelly beans on his desk.
     Gene chose to ignore my tone and used the opening to display his knowledge of the topic that I'd spent several years investigating. “Look,” he said, “we know what they’re involved in – torture, illegal surveillance, worse. Our sources say that half the budget for military operations in the Middle East is currently going to private contractors. But like the film says, it's deeper – abdicating domestic security and military operations around the world to corporations. Private interests running our foreign policy, that’s what I want to put on the front page. And I want your help.”
     “I’m flattered.” It wasn’t a lie. He had done his homework. For the next ten minutes Gene described the current state of affairs – a growing global trade in hired military services that ran the gamut from cooks and maintenance on fighter jets to communications technicians and trainers, from recruiters and generals who provide strategic expertise, to fighter pilots and commandos on the ground, an exploding sector heading toward income of $200 billion a year.
     “Gail Sahara should be looking at this,” he urged. “Hell, it should be on the evening news instead of the latest pop-tart meltdown. We’ve got to make it happen.”
     “Easier said than done. I’ve barely started work, and I doubt whether Gail or the rest of the network is going to take up the issue just because I say so.” That was an evasion. Even if it could be orchestrated, his approach – a candidate and a media executive colluding to spike up the coverage of an issue – was more than merely unethical.  But I knew Gene wouldn't see it that way. He had his sights set on the bad guys and, as always, considered himself on the side of the angels.
       “Then you need to kick some ass,” he pressed. “But sure, you have to find your own way. My point is that we are in a position, finally, where we can make a real difference. I’m not running to hear the sound of my own voice.”
     “I was wondering.”
     He paused, almost not getting it. Like many true believers, Gene suffered from a bad case of irony deficiency. He had that in common with Gail Sahara and many Roseniks. One of the main causes of what I like to call truth decay, this debilitating deficiency develops when a person can’t handle paradox or see the difference between what appears to be and what actually is, in essence when someone can’t process the endless ironies we face. Some say ridicule, irreverence, even blasphemy, can be a cure. But I think it may be more like herpes.  If you have it, the problem can remain dormant for a while. But basically you have it for life and it’s bound to flare up now and then.
     Just as I was becoming uncomfortable Gene came up with a fleeting smile and a barely perceptible nod, a delayed acknowledgement that he did realize the comment was supposed to be funny.
     “No, this isn’t about me,” he said. “The stakes are too high. I’m running on two main issues – a new foreign policy based on cooperation and getting serious about climate change. But we’ve got to break away from the old scripts being forced on the country by the Democrats and Republicans. One side says Government is the problem and we should do nothing about the global environmental crisis. The other side says it's the solution to every problem but downplays the power of corporate pirates to block every avenue of change. People know they’re being offered false choices. But they won’t accept the argument that they are simply victims. They need a new narrative based on hard truths, high aspirations and fresh possibilities, not half-truths, complaints and limits.
     “Look, Carlo.  I know we haven’t always agreed on tactics, or even the nature of the problem.” He was on a roll now. “But here we are, on the edge of an historic moment. This issue – whatever we call it, mercenary armies, privatization, soldiers of fortune – it’s potentially very powerful. But you aren’t going to break through with a documentary, and I can’t make it a top line issue without a push from the media. Corporate outlets aren’t going to help, but maybe you can, and I have to ask. Think about it.”
     As far as Gene was concerned, he'd finished the pitch and the meeting was about over. I could tell because he leaned back, glanced at the door and snuck a peek at his watch. But it was also my chance to sign on with the Montoya Movement, pass and make a graceful exit, or try to keep the discussion going. Whatever I chose it had to be now. Very soon there would be a phone call or a knock to remind him about the next pressing appointment.  
     “Ok, I’ll see what’s possible,” I offered, working out the best way to go as I spoke. “You make a strong case. But you have to understand, these people, the group that brought me in and the staff – most of whom I haven’t met – are very absorbed by their own priorities. It’s a network, but the control has been mostly at the station level, with managers and local Boards. As for Gail, I barely know her and she’s not an employee anymore. She has her own operation, and we have a contract. She has editorial autonomy. So, I’m not sure I can deliver, even if I think it would work.”
     What I wanted to add, but did not, was that Gene was delusional if he thought an independent candidate for president could drive the national debate, even with the complicity of a network that reached a small percent of the voting public and the rest of the industry considered a platform for propaganda.
     Of course, I did turn out to be wrong about Gene’s potential, but not far off about my own inability to break through Roseland provincialism. Over the next year, while I attempted to harness the unruly organization while maintaining a fragile majority on the Board, Gene’s incipient movement became the most effective national challenge to the two-party system in almost a century. Less than two months before Election Day, he was polling above 25 percent and looked like a possible winner in California and a half dozen other states. The press labeled it “Montoya’s Moment.” Had the trend continued, it's very likely that no candidate would have achieved a majority of the electoral vote, thus tossing the decision into Congress.
     Gene had also accomplished what is known inside the beltway as the “full Ginsberg,” named for Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, who first managed the feat in January, 1998. That Sunday morning he was interviewed on five political chat shows and, contrary to Hillary Clinton, whose 2007 “Ginsberg” inadvertently led her to emit a disconcerting belly laugh during several exchanges, Gene delivered a series of pitch perfect performances that would have produced another bump in his numbers.
     But it was not to be. Less than a week later, a few days before I dropped from sight, Gene Montoya was found dead at his home, skin covered with cysts, pustules and dark eruptions, slouched in a lounge chair beside his backyard swimming pool.
     Not the campaign climax either of us envisioned.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Blaming Outsiders: An American Tradition Since 1800

This isn't the first time that the US has faced a potential constitutional crisis or charges that the presidential race was rigged with the aid of a foreign power.

Rumors of conspiracy and war were also rampant at the end of the eighteenth century. The "enemy" then was France. Some warned ominously that Napoleon's troops were moving on Florida and Louisiana. By April 1798 Congress had voted funds to arm merchant ships and fortify the harbors. In May it instructed US warships to capture any French vessel caught in American waters.

Public fears were on the rise and the pressure for action was intense. John Adams' wife Abigail supported a declaration of war and criticized Congress for acting too slowly. But the President and Congress decided instead to focus on enemies at home.

As the summer temperature soared past 90 degrees in Philadelphia, lawmakers went further than even Adams hoped, passing the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams called them emergency wartime measures. After all, there were more than 25,000 French immigrants in the country! And most of them were survivors of the slave uprising in Haiti on the island of Santo Domingo. Obvious security threats, right?

As historian David McCullough notes, there were French newspapers in Philadelphia as well as French schools, booksellers, boardinghouses and restaurants. “The French, it seemed, were everywhere,” he writes, “and who was to measure the threat they posed in the event of war with France?”

The Alien Act was a Trumpian initiative aimed directly at immigrants, increasing the period of residency to qualify for citizenship and giving the President the power to deport any foreigner he considered dangerous. But the more consequential law turned out to be the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to stir people up or write anything critical of the government, Congress, or the President.  Editor Noah Webster backed the idea, declaring it time to stop other newspaper editors from libeling public figures. Even George Washington commented privately that some publications deserved punishment for their attacks. War was the pretext, but a little censorship sounded reasonable to many leaders. We've heard similar calls from Trump.

Officially, the purpose of the Sedition Act was to crack down on illegal actions that tended to cause the disruption or overthrow of the government. Rather than a foreign spy, however, the first target was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, an opposition editor in Philadelphia arrested for libeling Adams. In daily attacks he had belittled Adams as “President by three votes,” mocking his weight and describing him as a British tool. But Bache was never convicted, instead dying of yellow fever before he could stand trial.

Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was equally high on Adams’ list. After the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, he had demanded a roll call vote to see “who are friends and enemies of the Constitution.” Jefferson agreed, calling the repressive new laws an unconstitutional “reign of terror.” But what triggered President Adams into action was a letter to the editor. Responding to an attack in the Federalist Vermont Journal, Lyon wrote the US should stay out of war with France. The Adams administration, he went on, had forgotten the welfare of the people “in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.”

There was also a comment about Lyon’s foot and the seat of the president’s pants.
That was enough for Adams and his allies. Lyon was placed on trial, in Vermont, in front of a judge who had run against him for Congress, convicted of bringing the President and government into contempt, fined $1,000, sentenced to four months, and marched in chains through the streets of Vergennes to jail. The sentence was imposed in October 1799, just a month before he was up for re-election.

But Adams and the Federalists had made a tactical error. They had targeted a hero, a popular figure who had come to the colonies as an indentured servant, fought the British with Ethan Allen, and married one of Allen’s cousins. As a result Vermont voters defied the President and re-elected him anyway. Despite Lyon’s occasionally extreme behavior the arrest had made him even more popular, an early example of the state’s outspoken, contrarian, and sometimes defiantly independent streak.

The next year, for the only time in US history, the President - John Adams - ran against the Vice President - Thomas Jefferson. Since Matthew Lyon’s trial for sedition, eleven more people had been convicted under Adams' law. But that didn’t stop the Anti-Federalist press from calling him a monarchist, an old man too impressed with the British. Some claimed he was insane.
The attacks on Jefferson were equally harsh, from weakling and French intriguer to libertine and unrepentant atheist who mocked Christian faith. But the criticism of Adams came from both Anti-Federalist republicans, who considered him a warmonger, and Federalists, who said he was too cowardly to confront the French.
The race turned out to be closer than anyone expected. Adams did well enough in New England, but lost in New York, the West and South. The outcome in New York was largely the result of Aaron Burr’s influence in New York City. Counting up electoral votes from the nation’s 16 states, Jefferson had 73 to 65 for Adams and 63 for Charles Pinckney, a Federalist stalwart from South Carolina. But Burr also had 73 votes, which created a tie. That meant the choice went to the House of Representatives.

Burr’s refusal to step aside and clear the way for Jefferson fueled suspicions that he was privately bargaining with the Federalists. Alexander Hamilton distrusted both men but opted for the current Vice President. “Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself,” he charged, “thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement…Jefferson is in my view less dangerous than Burr.”

In the end, the tie-breaking vote was cast by Lyon, the same person whom Adams had targeted with sedition charges. Lyon respected Burr as a New York power broker, but he was philosophically allied with Jefferson. It thus surprised few when he picked the Virginian over Boston’s first citizen to be the next president. Burr became vice president and Adams became a one-term President

In 1801, the former president was still bitter -- and still blaming immigrants. “Is there no pride in American bosoms?" Adams wrote. "Can their hearts endure that (James) Callendar, (William) Duane, (Thomas) Cooper and Lyon should be the most influential men in the country, all foreigners and all degraded characters?” All four had been charged with sedition.

Adams called them “foreign liars." He also charged, a bit oddly at the time, that there were “no Americans in America.” It all sounds too familiar.