Fair and Unbalanced

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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

The good news for Texans is that Donald Trump really, really wants to get this right. He knows Katrina doomed George W. Bush’s presidency. Trump, the developer, believes rebuilding after Harvey should be one aspect of his job he can actually handle.

The not-so-good news for Texans, and the rest of us, is that Trump so rarely gets anything right.

What I mean is, no other president — and, for that matter, no normal human being — would come to Texas to assess the response to Harvey and forget to mention the victims or to retell stories of rescues or to say how his heart breaks to see the loss but how he’s heartened at the same time to see the courage of so many ordinary people putting themselves at risk to save others or to even mention how those millions of Americans tuning in can help.

No other president would gaze out at the people gathered to see him at a Corpus Christi fire station and say, “What a crowd. What a turnout,” when the only size anyone cares about is the size of the storm, the 50 inches of rain, the size of the rescue-and-recovery team and the size of a nation’s heart as we try to take in the enormity of the loss. As I write, I’m watching the story of the 3-year-old rescued while clinging to her lifeless mother who had tried to take her to safety.

No other president would turn to the Texas governor in a press conference/briefing/photo op to begin to congratulate him for an effort that is only beginning, as the rains were still coming down and the rivers rising, as people in dire need of rescue were calling in vain for help. Trump caught himself and said instead to Gov. Greg Abbott, “And we won’t say congratulations. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to congratulate. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.” You know, just so long as he gets congratulated eventually.

No other president would tell Texans that “we are going to get you back and operating immediately,” as the flooding continues, and will continue, and as every other official warns of the long process of recovery that will take not weeks, not months, but years to complete.

No other president would say that the storm is “epic” and “historic” and forget to mention “catastrophic” and “heartbreaking.”

But, like all other presidents, Trump does want to be successful here. He wants to be the guy who beats epic and historic Harvey. He needs the win. He can’t get healthcare reform or much of anything else though Congress. He can’t seem to be able to intimidate North Korea. He can’t stop Robert Mueller’s investigation. He can’t stop the Washington Post and New York Times from trading blockbuster stories on the Russia connection. He can’t get Mexico or Congress or anyone else to pay for his wall. He can’t find a single poll to tweet that doesn’t show his ratings in free fall. He can’t get his Secretary of Defense to enact his bigoted transgender ban. He can’t get his top officials to stop disavowing his Charlottesville both-siderism. He can’t stop scientists from pointing to climate change and the predictions that storms would become ever more severe.

Mostly, Trump can’t stop himself from saying things like he pardoned the thoroughly-unpardonable Joe Arpaio last Friday because he thought the ratings — yes, the ratings — would be good as people watched Harvey bear down on Texas as a Category 4 Hurricane.

So, yes, Trump wants a victory here, although, of course, there’s no such thing as victory here. There is a long, long road to recovery. But Trump does have one advantage: He’s not worried whether conservatives in Congress are worried about the money to pay for it. You don’t think he’s going to sit around and listen to those who insist on offsets the way they did during Superstorm Sandy when a majority of Republicans — including all but one from Texas — voted against the final Sandy aid package. You don’t think Trump cares about — or even knew about — his budget proposal to cut FEMA’s funding. Trump doesn’t care what it costs so long as he can say, as he did to Abbott, that people will look back on this effort as a model for all to follow.

Trump flew to Texas as soon as he could in order to avoid Bush’s fate in Katrina. The image we have from Bush in that time was of him flying over the damage while looking down from his Air Force One window. His failure to stop in, say, Baton Rouge, was the failure that would come to define his presidency. And, of course, there’s the heckuva-job-Brownie comment, which only emphasized how out of touch Bush seemed to be with the disaster on the ground.

What Trump wanted from his trip was a we’ve-got-this moment. Or a hug-from-Chris-Christie moment. Instead, he had his “what-a-crowd” moment.

It’s easy to take that personally. My wife’s sister and her family live outside Houston. At last check, her neighborhood had been hit with 41 inches of water. That was a day ago. We impatiently await each email update. We breathe out each time she tells us she’s safe. The streets are flooding, she tells us, but fortunately her house is OK. So far. She writes how thankful she feels for that, knowing how many people have lost everything.

We can imagine Trump heading home and watching the news about his trip and coming away puzzled by the fake-news notion that a president’s job description includes consoling a nation in time of tragedy — and not making the story all about him. We can imagine Trump yelling at his staff for not reminding him to be empathetic or, failing that, to maybe look sympathetic.

Trump promises he’ll return to Texas soon, meaning he’ll get another chance to get at least that much right. And then someone can remind him that the actual hard part about making the recovery work is everything else.

Texas National Guard Soldiers conduct rescue operations in flooded areas around Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017. Photo by U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West via Flickr: Creative Commons.

 

As if to prove that desperate times do, in fact, call for desperate measures, I bring you the latest in desperate-sounding Colorado political news in the time of Donald Trump.

First, in the shocking-if-it-were-actually-true news, Axios’ Mike Allen is reporting that John Hickenlooper is considering maybe possibly running with John Kasich on a presidential unity ticket in 2020. As you know, the two moderate governors — OK, “moderate” may be a stretch for Kasich, particularly on women’s reproductive rights — have been on tour together and are set to announce a detailed bipartisan healthcare-fix alternative that could have the support of as many as 11 governors.

If they were to actually pull this off, and their healthcare alternative were to gain some traction with (in descending order of likelihood) the media, the public, the Congress, the president, it could actually put them in that sweet third-way spot that could lead to, well, something.

Kasich, who would apparently top the ticket in this scenario, and Hick are talking about moving next from healthcare to immigration and jobs. And if they could fashion solutions for all three, they might as well skip the White House and head straight to the Vatican.

Could this happen?

I’d have to say it’s about as likely as Donald Trump getting elected … Oh, wait. It turns out Trump was elected president. Which means, we shouldn’t discount anything, although it seems to me that the publicity generated here would more likely fuel a Kasich primary run against Trump in 2020 and put Hick either in the Democratic mix for president (which he can’t win) or in the 2020 Senate race against Cory Gardner (which he could). Whatever else happens, Hickenlooper, finally term limited as governor, seems certain to be running for something.

And  the idea of a unity ticket to counter the deep Washington dysfunction is a sure attention magnet for, you know, the shows. We should get some idea of how real the Kasich-Hickenlooper tag team is by how angry Democrats become. If there were a viable third party, that would have to help no one more than Trump, who could conceivably win re-election simply by holding on to this base.

Speaking of which.

Not to be outdone, our old friend Tom Tancredo, who has twice run for governor and who has twice lost in races Hickenlooper won, is threatening to run for governor again. I’ve checked with the experts and apparently Tancredo’s threat is perfectly legal and not, to my surprise, a possible hate crime.

The reason Tancredo says he wants to run for governor this time — in 2010, it was to save the Republican Party by running as a third-party candidate and in 2014 it was, well, I have no idea why — is that Colorado Republican leaders are unwilling to stand up for the rights of white-nationalist fringe groups.

No, seriously. Tancredo was an invited speaker — of course, he was — at a VDARE conference scheduled for next April at Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs. VDARE is a white-nationalist organization (according to The Southern Poverty Law Center and nearly everyone else) that was involved, at least tangentially, in the neo-Nazi, KKK rally in Charlottesville. A writer for VDARE.com was one of the Charlottesville organizers.

Pressured by left-wing activists — presumably like Colorado Springs’ Republican Mayor John Suthers who had said the city wouldn’t provide security for the event — the resort canceled the reservation and most people, fearing another Charlottesville, were relieved.

Tancredo was not. He told Colorado Politics that the GOP silence on the topic was “infuriating” and “appalling,” which sounds very much like something Tancredo would say, and that he wouldn’t have to be pushed very hard to stick it to the already-crowded-and-still-growing Republican governor’s field by tossing his Make America Hate Again hat into the ring.

You can see why Tancredo would be tempted. He must be thinking, what the hell, Trump’s election was a sure sign that the crazy in politics is ascendant and particularly that part shared by Trump and Tancredo (anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Republican establishment, anti-media, pro-wall, pro-white-nationalist-leaning fringe groups, etc., etc.) As far as I can tell, the main difference between Trump the demagogue and Tancredo the carnival barker is that Saudi-loving Trump has never once suggested we bomb Mecca.

The strange thing about the VDARE issue is that Tancredo is not entirely wrong. There is a free-speech component to this argument, or would be if Colorado Springs had denied VDARE a permit. But no permit was requested. And I’m guessing that Suthers, who said the city wouldn’t get involved in security if VDARE came to the Springs, was actually bluffing. Or do you think he’d stand by if there was a Charlottesville situation? And, of course, free speech means we’re all welcome to suggest VDARE do its hate thing somewhere else.

Here’s what Tancredo told The Denver Post when saying he was considering running: “Not one Republican in this state, no one elected or running for office, has the guts to say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Whatever happened with the First Amendment? Have we totally annihilated it in our rush to appease the left?”

What ties together the Hickenlooper maybe-news and the Tancredo maybe-news is the definite presence of maybe-not-all-there Donald Trump, who, we’ll recall, said there were some “very fine people” on the alt-right side in Charlottesville who were defending, presumably, “our” culture. Trump’s approval numbers seem to be sinking daily — Gallup had him at 34 at last count — and the Democrats have been struggling to figure out how to best take advantage.

At the same time, Trump is slamming the even-less-popular Republican Congress, his latest twitter target. And now, together, or maybe not together, Trump and McConnell and Ryan are facing the possibility of a government shutdown and/or a default on the nation’s debt next month. If you’ve got your Trump crisis calendar handy, September looks busy.

In other words, the timing for Kasich-looper, no matter how much of a longshot, looks pretty good, particularly if the health-care plan proves semi-workable. Of course, there have been very few days over the last seven months that haven’t looked pretty good for someone to be opposing Trump. And the only certainty is that there will be many, many, many, many more of those days still to come.

 

Photo credit: Left-VictoryNH: Protect Our Primary, Creative Commons, Flickr; Right-U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons, Flickr

I’m not a psychiatrist, but I doubt that Donald Trump is actually crazy — or any more crazy than, say, your crazy uncle who needs his hourly cable-TV-news fix. Sure, he’s unfit for the office. He’s an incompetent who surrounds himself with incompetence. He’s a race-baiting, dog-whistling, fear-mongering demagogue. He’s a megalomaniac and a narcissist who seems to have a major empathy problem. As Trump would say, he’s a sick person. But crazy?

OK, he does have a truth phobia. He began his Phoenix speech lying about the size of the protests outside the hall. That was an easily checkable lie. Everyone who watched the rally on TV had also seen the crowd of protesters. The people at the rally had walked by the protesters. In other words, everyone knew it wasn’t true. Everyone. Does that mean he’s crazy? Or has Trump spent a lifetime lying so baldly that the lie itself becomes its own kind of truth —  seen by his supporters as basically a dare to deny the Trumpian reality that they and Fox News and much of right-wing radio share?

I’m not in the three-dimensional-chess crowd of Trump rationalizers. I don’t think he’s a threat in a game of checkers. But this version of Trump is no more unhinged than any of the versions of the man who we came to know as the self-aggrandizing, tabloid-hungry, reality-TV-famous, short-fingered vulgarian. The difference is that once there was Trump, and now there is Trump in the Oval Office.

The crazy, the real crazy, is that enough people in the most powerful nation on earth felt sufficiently moved by his sense of group victimization to elect him president. And if his numbers among Republicans are slipping, the great majority, somewhere around 80 percent, still support him, which is why Republican politicians still support him. Maybe you can explain why people voted for him. But how do you explain why so many stick with him?

What I’m saying is, look at these numbers from the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll. Among all voters — not just Trump voters — 43 percent blame the white supremacists most for the violence in Charlottesville, but 36 percent, or nearly as many, say the supremacists and the counterprotesters were equally to blame, and nine percent blame counterprotesters more. So, we can do the math. A slight plurality — 45-43 percent, within the margin of an incredible error — thinks the counterprotesters were equally or more to blame for clashes with … Nazis, one of whom drove a car into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer.

That’s a lot of crazy.

We’ve watched Trump struggle through what appear to be his recent mood swings. On Charlottesville, he first said “many sides” were to blame. Then he gave his hostage speech, sticking to the prompter, calling out neo-Nazis for being Neo-Nazis. And then came the mad Tuesday press conference in which he gave his bizarre views on moral equivalency, insisting there were “very fine people” on both sides.

And then, again, in his speech on his “new” Afghanistan policy — which is much like the old policy of never-ending war —  Trump spoke of a united America that hurts when any American hurts. And the very next night, he offered up his divisive speech raging about the “they” who are trying to steal “our” history and “our” culture by removing statues of generals who fought to defend the institution of slavery. Meanwhile, as the non-unity centerpiece of his speech, he basically promised to pardon the racist and bigoted Sheriff Joe. What did he say on Wednesday? “It is time to heal the wounds that divide us.” Yes, he did.

They look like wild mood swings, but they’re not. These were entirely predictable Trump reactions to the facts on the ground as he sees them. The sticking-to-the-prompter speeches were those in which his advisers had convinced him to use their words to try to clear up the mess he had made. The going-off-the-prompter speeches were the liberated Trump, insisting that there was no mess, or if there was one, it was entirely the fake media’s fault.

He is obsessed with the media. Or maybe he’s just obsessed with the strategy of blaming the media. If it’s not the media, it has to be those in his own party. You may have seen the New York Times story about how Mitch McConnell is privately saying Trump is unable to save his presidency. If you watched the rally, you saw Trump rage against Sen. Jeff Flake (without naming him) and criticize Sen. John McCain (though not by name) even as he fights brain cancer. And he didn’t even mention the sailors lost on the USS John S. McCain.

To show how much he misses Hillary Clinton, Trump called the media the “crooked media.” It was an homage, I guess, like when he said the media don’t care about America. He did rant. He did rave. He did blame the media for not reporting the truth, even as he lied about his own Charlottesville speeches. It was classic Trump. He read from a sheet of paper quoting himself while leaving out the controversial “many sides” and “very fine people” parts of the quotes. Is that a sick guy, or a sick lie, or both?

Trump, the president of the United States, can actually say things like this in defense of his Charlottesville failure: “I hit ’em with neo-Nazi. I hit ’em with everything. I got the white supremacist, the neo-Nazi. I got ’em all in there. Let’s see. KKK? We have KKK. I got ’em all. So they’re having a hard time. So what did they say, right? ‘It should have been sooner; he’s a racist.’”

That’s the actual quote, which you can deconstruct this way: It is crazy that this man is president. On CNN, James Clapper said it was scary that Trump is anywhere near the nuclear codes, and he’s right.

But is Trump suffering from dementia? Or is he suffering, along with the rest of us, from him being Trump?

This is the Trump presidency. A man who believes that winning is everything — he disingenuously promised his latest plan meant victory in Afghanistan — keeps losing. And, being in way over his head, he has no idea what to do about it. If he’s not panicking, that would be crazy.

He keeps firing people. It doesn’t help. He blames the people who work for him. It doesn’t help. He wars with McConnell. It doesn’t help. He blames Democrats. It doesn’t help. He blames the media, and the media counters by listing every lie he tells.

That drives him crazy. It doesn’t mean he is crazy. If only it were that easy.

 

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr

Donald Trump has just pushed some very fine people, as he would put it, over the edge. Some very fine people now know that the president of the United States is not just your random unfit demagogue who somehow ended up in the White House.

He’s the unfit demagogue who has chosen to publicly align himself, before God and country and all those TV cameras, with white supremacists.

Some very fine people who were certain that nothing Trump could say could shock them anymore watched in dismay as Trump, who built an empire on his brand, has unaccountably branded himself as friend to Nazis and the KKK — the two most thoroughly despised brands in American history.

I wrote the other day that we shouldn’t talk about Trump and his nod to both-siderism as having crossed a line, because he had crossed them all before and to no effect — either on him, on his congressional enablers, or on his base.

But that was before Tuesday. It’s one thing to call immigrants rapists or to mock a disabled reporter or to give winking support to the alt-right. It’s another to publicly say that those in Charlottesville who were bravely standing up to the neo-Nazis and the KKK were no better than — yes, you know  — the Nazis and the KKK themselves. He said there were “very fine people” on both sides, even if only one side — yes, the Nazis — had permits. He said the press had treated those marching alongside the Nazis “very unfairly” and that he alone was ready to point out that the anti-Nazi “alt-left” was also “very, very violent.”

“You had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest and very legally protest,” Trump said of the Nazis. Trump obviously hasn’t seen the VICE report from the ground in Charlottesville and the shocking video of Trump’s so-called peaceful march. He should watch it. Everyone should watch it.

And maybe it’s just me, and I guess all the others in the fake-news press, but if you’re marching with those holding the tiki torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans, that may disqualify you from the whole very-fine-person construct.

So, Trump did cross a line, which is quickly turning into an abyss. David Duke tweeted his thanks for Trump’s honesty. Meanwhile, Trump’s two main CEO councils have now been disbanded. Imagine, the nation’s CEOs standing in as the national conscience.

And when they write the books about the rise and fall of Donald Trump — and the “fall” is now as inevitable as it is likely to be tragic — the question they’ll have to answer is how far Trump dragged America down as he went.

There are other questions, of course. How long can the American people stand the turmoil of a Trump presidency before they put enough pressure on Republican lawmakers to finally disassociate themselves from Trump? You don’t need a graph to spot the trend line here. One Trump crisis bleeds — in this case, in the death of Heather Heyer, literally and tragically bleeds — into the next and then the next and then the next. As a friend noted to me the other day, no president other than Trump could have threatened fire and fury nuclear war on a Tuesday and have it forgotten by the weekend.

But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe the question is how long Trump can stand it. We saw at the Tuesday presser a man entirely guided by impulse. He was mad at the media for criticizing his Saturday both-siderism — now seen as Trump’s halcyon days — mad at his handlers for forcing him to give the hostage-like “racism is evil” statement, mad enough that he took questions from the press so that he’d have the chance to show how mad (and not just angry mad) he was.

If he felt the need to reach out, as some have suggested he was doing, to those with sympathy not for Nazis but for the concept that white America is getting a bad deal, you can see how desperate he is. He tried again to make the moral-equivalency case, this time that removing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues would mean that statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson inevitably follow.

It’s an absurd argument. Washington and Jefferson, though both slaveholders, helped birth the nation and the very ideals that make America, at its best, great. Lee and Jackson were the generals who bore arms against the United States in defense of slavery and whose statues were erected, in the main, as a political statement in favor of Jim Crow and Southern apartheid. There is no more equivalency here than there was between the Charlottesville protesters and the Nazis.

I don’t know what comes next for Trumpworld, only that the political tensions aren’t going away and neither is the question of what comes next. The cumulative effect is clear. Trump may have his unshakeable base, something like a third of the electorate, but the ground keeps shifting, on them, on Trump, on the rest of us.

Biographer David Maraniss suggested this in a tweet: “The living former presidents – Bushes, Carter, Clinton & Obama- should make a joint statement calling on the racist Trump to resign.” They won’t do it, of course. Not yet anyway. But it’s a simple proposition and an even simpler test. If you’re having trouble condemning Nazis, you’re probably not fit to hold the office.

But here’s a sure prediction: It won’t be the last test that Trump fails. And it won’t be the last one that tests a nation along with him.

Photo of Mt. Rushmore by Christian Collins via Flickr: Creative Commons

The temptation is to say that a line was crossed on Saturday in America. But I can’t bring myself to do it.

Maybe the most depressing thing about the death and chaos in Charlottesville is just that. A group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites, Confederate and Nazi flag wavers and others in the alt-right movement converged on a small college town — my own college town, as it happens —  and left one counter-protester dead, two assisting policemen killed in a helicopter crash, many wounded and a nation badly shaken.

And the reassuring words from the president of the United States were that violence and bigotry are bad, but that “many sides” are to be blamed. And, he added, what we need to do is study how this could happen, as if the lessons of violent racism in this country still needed to be learned.

As Joe Biden tweeted, in this five-word lesson: “There is only one side.”

The temptation is to say that in refusing to condemn the torch-lit, Klan-rally-without-the-hoods bigotry playing out in Charlottesville, in refusing to say that, for God’s sake, his grandchildren are Jewish and that he rejects anyone who spews this kind of hatred toward his grandchildren, Donald Trump revealed something about himself. But, of course, that’s not true. All Donald Trump revealed was that he was exactly who we thought him to be, the person who can spit out the most vile things about, say, Megyn Kelly, but who couldn’t bring himself to criticize David Duke. Anyone who can’t see that simply, and willfully, refuses to see that.

We knew about his historical ignorance. We knew about his historic lack of empathy. We knew about his unwillingness and/or inability, as Michael Gerson pointed out, to do the most essential job of the president — to “express something of the nation’s soul” in such times. What Trump expressed instead was his pathological need to remind everyone that, despite whatever else was happening,  he deserves credit for doing a great job as president. Unemployment’s down, the market is up, a Nazi used ISIS tactics by plowing a car into a crowd, and we’re going to study how this happened.

This is stunning and yet not surprising, which is what we’ve said time and again about Trump. His refusal to condemn the bigots was basically an admission he believes that much of his base is sympathetic to what Cory Gardner insisted that Trump call “domestic terrorism.”

Yes, Cory Gardner. It was Gardner who tempted me. I’ve cited Gardner many times for being all too typical of those Republicans who have enabled Trump, who have sat by silently as Trump defiles his office, who had, in fact, just buckled under by voting for the ill-prepared, ill-conceived repeal-and-maybe-replace bills that would have robbed millions of their health care coverage in a failed attempt to provide Trump with a legislative victory.

But a line must have been crossed for Gardner, who tweeted a reply to Trump’s first vague tweet on Charlottesville, which was not even as strong as his many-sides statement that came much later.

“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” Gardner tweeted. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”

For Gardner, this was a bold step. A parade of Republicans — Hatch, Grassley, McCain, Rubio, Cruz and many others, including even Jeff Sessions — followed. And Gardner double-downed by going on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper Sunday morning to say that Trump needed to “step up,” noting that “This is not the time for vagaries. This isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines.”

Noting that Ivanka Trump had just called out white nationalists, Gardner said her father must follow. “This is a time to lay blame, to lay blame on bigotry, to lay blame on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred,” Gardner said. “And that needs to be said. Call this white supremacism, this white nationalism, evil, and let the country hear it. Let the world hear it.”

Gardner added: “And if he doesn’t do that, then we can continue to answer the question of why.”

The problem for Gardner, and for the rest of us, is that it’s too late for Trump to lay blame on Nazis. There is no reasonable explanation for his failure to have already done so. This was the dog whistle of all dog whistles.

The question that must be asked and answered is why shouldn’t we say that a line, finally, has been crossed and that it is no longer possible to be aligned with this president. Not only is Trump morally and intellectually unfit for the job, not only does he feed conspiracy theories, chase down innocent immigrants, play chicken with nuclear-armed nations, attempt to quash climate science, but he’s the president who would have us think he can make America great again with a wink and a nod to torches and many-sidesism.

The history is pretty clear. Gardner blasted Trump for the Access Hollywood tape but then joined his team. Lyin’ Ted allowed Trump to connect his father to, of all things, the Kennedy assassination and then joined his team. Lil Marco played handsies with Trump and then joined his team. Paul Ryan called Trump’s attack on the Indiana judge textbook racism, but then joined his team.

Now Trump has many-sided with Nazis. I keep wanting to say a line has been crossed and that this one is, at last, a line too far. But he has crossed so many lines during his Mexicans-are-rapists, heroes-aren’t-captured, disabled-reporters-are-mockable, so-what-if-Putin-kills-people, fire-Jim-Comey, threaten-job-of-special-prosecutor campaign and presidency.

And so, a man slams a car into a crowd in the name of white supremacy. A president condemns the violence in the name of law and order. A nation is shocked and saddened and angered. In other words, another day in Trumpworld. Another day when shock and sadness and anger aren’t enough. Another day when the real unanswered question is how not to give in to despair.

 

Photo of University of Virginia Rotunda by Rob for Creative Commons on Flickr.