2019
November
26
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

The five hand-picked stories in today’s edition cover personal lessons from Watergate, how Netanyahu reshaped Israeli politics, Big Tech’s push to better banking, an homage to holiday workers, and navigating the gender divide at Thanksgiving.

First, if you’ve seen the movie “Ford v Ferrari,” you’ll recognize the historical echoes with the car industry today. More than five decades ago, Ford was trying to regain its status as an automaker for a younger generation. The debut of the Mustang in 1964 was the embodiment of that goal. 

Last week, Ford unveiled the Mustang Mach-E, an electric vehicle. “This is a Mustang for a new generation,” said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford. It would be hard to overstate the significance of Ford’s move. It signals a profound shift. A leading American maker of combustion-engine cars is so confident of the future of electric, it put its signature pony emblem on a vehicle powered by electrons. 

If there were any doubt about today’s epic battle, Elon Musk made it explicit last Thursday with the debut of the Tesla Cybertruck, which looks more like a post-apocalyptic DeLorean on steroids than a pickup truck. Mr. Musk claims that there are already 200,000 preorders for the $39,900 e-truck. 

To rub it in, Mr. Musk posted a 16-second video showing a Ford F-150 losing a tug of war with the Cybertruck. The video has been viewed more than 12 million times.

Ford was not amused. For 37 years, the F-150 has been the bestselling vehicle in America. The Detroit automaker wants a rematch as soon as next week.

Ford versus Tesla: The battle for the future of fossil fuel-free transportation is on.

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A deeper look

1. For those personally touched by Watergate, Trump drama resonates

Our reporter talks to key figures in the Nixon and Clinton impeachment proceedings. To them, grace, fairness, and family love remain important lessons today.

David
AP/File
John Ehrlichman, a former Nixon adviser and a key figure in the Watergate scandal, was surrounded by reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Feb. 22, 1975. Mr. Ehrlichman was convicted of conspiracy and perjury and served 18 months in prison.

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As Washington’s current impeachment saga unfolds, it’s resonating in a unique way with a certain group of Americans: those with personal connections to past such dramas.

For some, it’s meant a revisiting of painful emotions, as well as renewed reflection on lessons learned and moments of grace. While many see the rhythms of history at work, others are rethinking old conclusions.

John Ehrlichman’s testimony before the Senate Watergate committee in the summer of 1973 changed everything, says his daughter Jan. After his trials, the former adviser to President Richard Nixon left his family and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was Jan – then a young college grad – who dropped him off at prison after his conviction on multiple counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

Today, Ms. Ehrlichman acknowledges that Watergate had a profound effect on her life. “It made me value what’s important, which is love and taking care of your family,” she says.

She sees clear differences between the Nixon era and today – believing President Donald Trump’s actions threatened national security, while Mr. Nixon’s didn’t. But if there’s any through line for her, it’s the issue of fairness.

“Everybody deserves a fair hearing,” she says.

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For those personally touched by Watergate, Trump drama resonates

Jan Ehrlichman remembers the summer of 1973 as if it were yesterday. 

Her dad, John Ehrlichman, was knee-deep in the Watergate scandal. He had recently been fired as a top adviser to President Richard Nixon, and was now testifying before the Senate’s special Watergate committee. 

Ms. Ehrlichman, then a college student, and her mom would drive her dad to Capitol Hill, drop him off, and go watch the Senate hearings on TV at a friend’s house to avoid the press. Afterward, they’d go pick him up and talk about how it went. 

“We didn’t really get into the muck of it all,” Ms. Ehrlichman says in an interview. “We just wanted to make sure Dad was OK.” 

President Nixon was still more than a year away from resigning, but for the Ehrlichmans, this was the end of the road for their life in Washington. As soon as her father’s five days of testimony had wrapped, Ms. Ehrlichman and her parents finished packing up their house in northern Virginia, got in the car, and headed west. 

“We drove across the country, just the three of us,” says Ms. Ehrlichman, one of five children. “It was an amazing time to be with Dad.” 

When they arrived at their Seattle home, “we had at least a thousand letters and telegrams from people, almost all positive, saying what a great job he’d done,” she says. “They were happy he had stood up to the Democrats.” 

One year and two trials later, Mr. Ehrlichman was sentenced to prison, where he ultimately served 18 months. 

As Washington’s current impeachment saga unfolds, it’s resonating in a unique way with a certain group of Americans: those with personal connections to past such dramas. For some, it’s meant a revisiting of painful emotions, as well as renewed reflection on lessons learned and moments of grace. While some see the rhythms of history at work, others are rethinking old conclusions.

Ms. Ehrlichman still doesn’t think her dad was treated fairly in either the Senate hearings or in court, though she acknowledges that he felt he had crossed a line. She also believes President Donald Trump’s actions have threatened national security, while Mr. Nixon’s didn’t. But if there’s any through line for her between then and now, it’s the issue of fairness. 

“Everybody deserves a fair hearing,” says Ms. Ehrlichman, once a young Republican who worked on Mr. Nixon’s 1972 reelection and now a Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat. 

“The Impeachment Diary”

James Reston Jr. also sees parallels between today and the Nixon era. After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, spurring talk of impeachment, Mr. Reston dug up his diary from the summer of 1974. A young college professor on leave, he had come to Washington to witness what he hoped would be the final act of the Nixon drama. 

“The Impeachment Diary” by Mr. Reston has just been published, an edge-of-the-seat account from inside hearing rooms, court rooms – including Mr. Ehrlichman’s sentencing – and everyday Washington that conveys the real-time uncertainty of what would happen next.  

In the book’s preface, Mr. Reston, an author and playwright, doesn’t hide his disdain for the current president. His impeachment diary “should be read metaphorically,” he writes. “Read Nixon and imagine Trump.”

In an interview, Mr. Reston readily admits that, though he comes from a famous family of journalists – his father, James “Scotty” Reston, was a reporter and columnist for The New York Times – he was not an objective observer. He passionately opposed Mr. Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War, and was invested in the president’s removal from office. 

But like Ms. Ehrlichman, Mr. Reston sees fairness as essential, both then and now. “I’m very focused on the proper procedure being followed,” he says of the Trump case. “The parallel for a proper procedure is the Nixon experience.” 

The Watergate inquiry included the use of closed-door sessions, he says, to prevent grandstanding and to keep the focus on the content of the allegations. 

Mr. Reston offers a hopeful lesson from the Nixon example: “When the articles of impeachment are presented, it will become a dignified process. It will be a healing process and cathartic for the nation.”

He also isn’t worried about the potential for furthering national divisions. After all, he asks, how much more divided can we get? 

Ultimately, Mr. Reston sees the Trump impeachment process, even with a likely acquittal in the Senate, as a valuable civics lesson for the American people, as was the Nixon experience in the 1970s.

That, he says, “made the country stronger and reinforced fundamental values.”

Khue Bui/AP/File
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi met with reporters on Capitol Hill, Feb. 4, 1999, after the Clinton impeachment trial adjourned for the day. The Senate had moved to bring President Bill Clinton's trial to a prompt conclusion, rejecting a last-ditch request by House prosecutors to summon Monica Lewinsky for live testimony.

Trent Lott and the “smoking gun” 

For many Americans of a certain age, memories of the Watergate hearings and Nixon resignation are indelible. The same goes for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, then acquittal in the Senate. 

Former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott was deeply involved in both. As a Republican House freshman, Mr. Lott served on the Judiciary Committee during the crucial final stretch of the Nixon presidency. As Senate majority leader, he oversaw President Clinton’s impeachment trial. 

In an interview, Mr. Lott offers lessons from both experiences. Back in 1974, he had voted in committee against all the articles of impeachment – and then the “smoking gun” tape and transcript came out, revealing that Mr. Nixon had personally ordered a cover-up of the Watergate burglary. Mr. Lott reversed himself and supported one article of impeachment, obstruction of justice. 

“I was known as one of the 10 hardheads, but when I was confronted with the transcript, I said, ‘What can I do?’” he says. “This is when you need to be a statesman, if you can.”

As the top Senate Republican during the Clinton impeachment, Mr. Lott points to his ability to work with the top Senate Democrat at the time, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, as key to crafting a workable process and keeping it on track. 

Last month, he and former Senator Daschle wrote a joint op-ed offering some faint hope that even today, a fair Senate impeachment trial is possible. But he knows the political atmosphere is worse than it was in 1999. 

“It was a different time, different people, different media. And I had Tom Daschle,” Mr. Lott says, alluding to the tensions between today’s Senate leaders. “Even then, it wasn’t easy. We struggled on how to go forward at the beginning.”

Mr. Lott recommends turning to the Founding Fathers. “I just happen to have the Federalist Papers at my fingertips,” he says, quoting from Federalist No. 65 and Alexander Hamilton’s warning against putting loyalty to factions ahead of evidence during a Senate impeachment trial. 

The retired Senate leader offers his own warning to Democrats ahead of a possible trial in January: “Trump may not be able to win, but the Democrats are probably going to lose. Why they want to drive this to the edge of a hanging when an election is only 10 months away doesn’t make a lot of sense.” 

Mr. Lott also notes that in the run-up to the Clinton impeachment his party lost seats in the 1998 midterms. Indeed, some former GOP House members now regret impeaching Mr. Clinton. 

“We made a mistake,” former Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina recently told The Associated Press. He adds that he was “probably sort of blinded” by his dislike of Mr. Clinton, and sees similarities to today. 

Other former House Republicans disagree that impeaching Mr. Clinton was a mistake. They argue that by laying down that marker on conduct in office, the GOP energized a key part of its political base, religious conservatives, and won back the presidency in 2000. 

Veteran reporters look back

Ask any reporter who covered Watergate what it was like, and the memories flood back. After the so-called Saturday Night Massacre of Oct. 20, 1973, when Mr. Nixon fired the special prosecutor and set impeachment in motion, top reporters recall the rush of events that followed – and the growing sense that Mr. Nixon’s days as president were numbered. 

“Between December 1973 and July 1974, I did nothing but cover Vice President Ford,” says Tom DeFrank, then of Newsweek. “I had the time of my life.”  

The night Mr. Nixon announced his resignation, Mr. DeFrank was in the White House basement, where reporters work. “Even from there, I could hear the roar of the crowd in Lafayette Park across the street and cars honking their horns as they drove down Pennsylvania Avenue,” says the reporter, now at National Journal. 

Carl Leubsdorf, a columnist at The Dallas Morning News, was running the AP’s Senate coverage back then, and keeping close tabs on key senators from both parties. He recalls that the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, then majority whip, was drafting rules aimed at tying the hands of Chief Justice Warren Burger, who would have presided over a Senate impeachment trial.

“Byrd was afraid the chief justice would favor Nixon,” Mr. Leubsdorf says. Of course, it never got to that; the president resigned before he could be impeached. 

“I never got to cover my trial,” the columnist laments.  

Mr. Leubsdorf was so gripped by Mr. Nixon’s final days in office that he kept a diary, which The Dallas Morning News later published.

Today feels different in key ways, both men agree. Back then, the news environment was less frenetic and atomized. There was no 24/7 cable, no Twitter, no Fox News. The times were also less politically polarized. 

And today, nobody expects the president to resign. Mr. Trump himself raised the Nixon analogy in June when asked by a reporter about impeachment: “He left. I don’t leave.” 

“You have to hold your head up”

After John Ehrlichman’s televised testimony before the Senate Watergate committee, life would never be the same. “Waiters and waitresses, people would come up with napkins and want Dad’s autograph,” says his daughter Jan. 

Even years later, she says, they’d be walking down the street in New York, and people would grab each other and whisper, “Oh, that’s John Ehrlichman.” 

“The notoriety from those moments was pretty life-changing,” Ms. Ehrlichman says. “You have to hold your head up.”

She and her dad were close. After the Watergate trial, Mr. Ehrlichman left his family and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to start over. It was Jan who dropped him off at prison in Arizona after his conviction on multiple counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

Ms. Ehrlichman knows that her dad, who died in 1999, came across to some people as arrogant, as he defended himself both in the Senate hearings and in court. But she is also acutely aware of the human cost for everyone involved. She recalls writing a letter to Mr. Nixon after he’d fired her dad, and getting a handwritten letter back.

Today, Ms. Ehrlichman acknowledges that her connection to Watergate, as a young woman just coming into her own, had a profound effect on her life. 

“It made me value what’s important, which is love and taking care of your family,” she says. “It taught me to be strong and know who I am and know who my dad is and who my family is – that the good is what’s important, and that it doesn’t really matter what other people think.” 

She tells a story. Last year, on a visit to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, Ms. Ehrlichman and her husband were in someone’s home buying jewelry. When she told the seller who she was, he invited them next door to show them something: a large, framed photo of President Nixon in 1970 signing the bill that returned the sacred Blue Lake to the Taos Indians. 

“I knew that Dad and Nixon had helped save the Taos Blue Lake, and given that back to them,” Ms. Ehrlichman says.

“The Taos Indians love Nixon – and they love my dad.” 

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2. Netanyahu’s future is uncertain. His American style is here to stay.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu adopted American-style politics and values, including elevating the importance of personal loyalty and strengthening executive power. At what expense to democracy?

David
Amir Cohen/Reuters
Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a protest supporting the Israeli prime minister after he was charged in corruption cases, in Tel Aviv, Nov. 26, 2019. The words in Hebrew on the flag behind his picture read, "Only Bibi."

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Benjamin Netanyahu first gained exposure and experience as a diplomat at the United Nations. When he was ready to launch his political career, he brought an American style of politics home with him, transforming the Israeli political landscape and its values.

Today Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is embattled and may be facing his political exit, having failed to form a new government and having been indicted on charges of corruption. But his political legacy, which most recently includes the import to Israel of Trumpian populism, is likely to live on.

Israel’s political parties were always intensely ideological. But in taking the helm of the right-wing Likud party, Mr. Netanyahu, informally known as “Bibi,” cultivated it increasingly as a personal platform for himself as its leader. The evolution can be seen in the progression of Likud campaign slogans from “Only the Likud can” in 1984 to, popularly but unofficially in 2019, “Only Bibi.”

Under him, the office of prime minister also became more personality-driven in the American style of a presidency. Says Gayil Talshir, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: “The changes Netanyahu drove were to the rules of the game, so his influence will not end should he leave the system – they are here to stay.”

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Netanyahu’s future is uncertain. His American style is here to stay.

When CNN was still something of a start-up in the mid-1980s and Benjamin Netanyahu was a young Israeli diplomat at the United Nations, he made it a point to fly to Atlanta to get to know the workings of this new creature called 24-hour cable news.

Back then Mr. Netanyahu was appearing regularly on American television, having broken out of the pack of other silver-tongued foreign diplomats to craft himself as an expert in counter-terrorism just as Americans were coming to grips with a new age of terror.

“He really played the game – he totally understood how to make himself a star,” says Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

During his diplomatic sojourn, Mr. Netanyahu, who had been raised in part in a Philadelphia suburb and had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sailed between network and cable television studio appearances. He made connections with U.S. politicians – already back then focusing on Republicans – and wooed American Jews with his charm and fluent, American-accented English.

By the late 1980s Mr. Netanyahu was ready to return to Israel and launch his own political career. He brought an American style of politics home with him – one that has transformed the Israeli political landscape and its values.

Today Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is embattled and may be facing his political exit, having failed to form a new government and been indicted on charges of corruption. But his political legacy, which most recently includes the import to Israel of Trumpian populism, is likely to live on.

“You never had an Israeli leader before who had such a gut feeling for American politics,” says Doug Bloomfield, a columnist and former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its many political parties have represented very distinctive ideologies. But in taking leadership of the right-wing Likud party in the early 1990s, Mr. Netanyahu cultivated it less as a grassroots organization and more as a personal platform for himself as its leader.

The evolution can be seen in the progression of Likud campaign slogans from “Only the Likud can” in 1984 and “The people want Likud” in 1988 to, in 2019, “Netanyahu, proven leadership,” or, popularly but unofficially, “Only Bibi.”

Richard Drew/AP/File
Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council in February 1986, at a time when the U.S.-educated future prime minister was a regular guest expert on American television.

Under Mr. Netanyahu, the office of prime minister also became more personality-driven in the American style of a presidency, both in the way he campaigns and the way he governs.

Israel’s parliamentary system does not have the same system of checks and balances that the United States does, and Mr. Netanyahu tried to consolidate as much power as he could in the office of the prime minister – while attempting to weaken the public’s brakes on power like the media and the justice system, says Gayil Talshir, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“The changes Netanyahu drove were to the rules of the game, so his influence will not end should he leave the system – they are here to stay,” says Dr. Talshir, who is writing a book on structural changes to Israeli political ideology.

His attack on the institutions that checked the prime minister’s power did more than just make the office more presidential. Some argue he compromised democracy by trampling on those institutions and, at least implicitly, the principles they were created to embody.

“He did not achieve all he tried, but he did succeed in concentrating informal power,” says Mr. Pfeffer.

Master communicator

Israel did not know what hit it when Mr. Netanyahu imported the role of television in politics. Color TV had only been around for a decade, and the only channel to watch was state television.

“He was surrounded then by politicians who did not care about television, and television did not care about them,” says Chemi Shalev, a columnist for Haaretz and former U.S. correspondent for the Israeli daily.

Today American political consultants are ubiquitous worldwide, but when Mr. Netanyahu first brought over conservative strategist Arthur Finkelstein in his successful 1996 campaign, the hardball tactics and slogans like “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” and “Peres will divide Jerusalem” (referring to then Prime Minister Shimon Peres) were totally new. So was extensive polling. Both became Netanyahu hallmarks and made a lasting mark on campaigning.

More recently Mr. Netanyahu was the first Israeli politician to seize the potential of directly communicating with the public, first through his own website and then on social media.

On election day 2015, for example, with Likud trailing in polls to the Labor party, he posted what became an infamous video on his Facebook page. In somber tones he warned that Arab citizens of Israel were turning out in “droves” – bused in by left-wing groups – and that his right-wing government was in danger.

Israel recoiled at the overt racism by a mainstream politician, forcing a Netanyahu apology, but the tactic worked. And he did it without relying on the traditional media, which he has repeatedly excoriated as disloyal and out to get him and his family.

Wedge politics, and values

Israeli politics has always had its divides, but Mr. Netanyahu is the leader who arguably made wedge politics his most effective cudgel against rivals. He built a cult of personality around the perception that he is the champion of the downtrodden, the indispensable hero of right-wing values – safeguarding settlement in the West Bank and acting as a foil against two groups he cast as disloyal: Jewish leftists and Arab citizens.

Perhaps most significantly in his march against traditional Israeli values, Mr. Netanyahu lobbed a hand grenade into the nation’s identity as being both Jewish and democratic. This was seen most boldly in 2018 when he helped enshrine Israel as an exclusively Jewish national project in what is called the nation-state law.

Once again communicating through social media, Mr. Netanyahu last March responded to a popular Israeli actress who posted an angry missive on Instagram asking for the government to remember the concept of equality and that Arabs “are also human beings.”

He wrote: “Israel is not a country of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law that we passed, Israel is the state of the Jewish people – and belongs to them alone. There is no problem with Arab citizens – they have equal rights like everybody.”

The Trump factor

Long before Donald Trump became president and employed similar tactics, Mr. Netanyahu claimed a vast conspiracy against him by the elites in Israel’s media and justice system. This includes painting civil servants as traitors who have betrayed him personally.

“Netanyahu has equated both personal loyalty and public interest with what is good for Netanyahu instead of what is good for the country,” says Hebrew University’s Dr. Talshir. “This sense of personal loyalty has weakened Israel’s ideological side.”

“What Trump did was turbo-charge Bibi, he showed him how far he can go,” says Mr. Shalev at Haaretz.

After Israel’s attorney general, whom he had hand-picked, announced the indictments against him Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu went on television, painting himself as a victim and vowing to fight. He compared the indictments to a coup and called for an investigation into the investigators.

Some Netanyahu associates even called it a “Deep State” coup, similar to the wording Republicans in Congress have used to describe the impeachment hearings against Mr. Trump.

It’s not the first time Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters have used Trumpian vocabulary. The U.S. president may have introduced the term “fake news,” but it’s a concept Mr. Netanyahu, a staunch Trump supporter, had been selling already and quickly adopted as a slur against the Israeli media.

If in the past Mr. Netanyahu was the odd man out in international settings as a populist, says Mr. Shalev, President Trump helped him feel more comfortable on the world stage, and radicalized his tactics.

“Trump inspired him to be sharper, to pay no attention to the truth. This whole thing of telling lies was something he did throughout his career, but before, the lies were the kind of things he told foreign leaders. … Only recently did he start saying things [publicly] that were obviously not true,” says Mr. Shalev. “If Trump taught him anything, it’s that a lie is just as good as truth and sometimes better.”

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3. Apple card? Google checking account? Why big tech wants to be your banker.

The U.S. lags most of the world in digital banking. But the tech giants – Apple, Google, and Facebook – are accelerating the pace of progress.

David
Jitendra Prakash/Reuters/File
A Sadhu or a Hindu holy man pays a vendor through Paytm, a digital wallet company, after buying a book during an annual religious festival in Allahabad, India, on Jan. 26, 2017.

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Google set off furious speculation this month when it said it would team up with Citigroup and a small California credit union to offer checking accounts. Will Google take over finance the way it dominates internet search? Will it marry financial information with its own search data to blanket people with ever more targeted marketing?    

The reality for now is more modest, some analysts say. The tech giant may be looking for ways to boost interest in its existing mobile payment app, Google Pay, which lags behind Apple Pay and is doing much better in India than in the U.S.

But the direction is clear. Finance is going digital. Nearly 3 in 4 consumers in East Asia last year used mobile wallets for in-store payments. If the rising role of high-tech firms brings worries about declining consumer privacy, the flip side is convenience – like apps that guide consumers toward good shopping deals based on their location.

“Think of it as applying artificial intelligence to the banking system,” says finance expert James Angel of Georgetown University. “The more data it has, the more things it can do.”

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Apple card? Google checking account? Why big tech wants to be your banker.

The American pocketbook is quickly becoming obsolete, by global standards. 

Weighed down by credit cards and checkbooks, the nation’s payment system can’t keep pace with developing nations’ alternative, where consumers pay with smartphones and send and receive money in minutes instead of days.

Sensing an opportunity to diversify and use their digital savvy to modernize a tradition-bound industry, America’s biggest high-tech firms are expanding into finance with everything from digital wallets to credit cards and even checking accounts.

“That’s going to be a natural next step for these companies to grow,” says Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, which is based in Los Angeles. “It’s part of an arms race right now going on between tech companies trying to further expand their tentacles outside their core competency – from Apple to Amazon to Facebook to Google, across the board.”

The movement, started about a decade ago, is picking up speed. Other new entrants, so-called neo or challenger banks, are also shaking up the industry with new products that traditional financial players are rushing to counter with their own offerings. All this points to a world where people will use smartphones instead of plastic for purchases and ditch paper checks to make instant payments to friends and businesses.

“The environment has changed dramatically and banks can no longer sit on their laurels,” says Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group, a Boston-based global research and advisory firm. “With real-time payments ... there’s no reason why you couldn’t pay your employees daily rather than biweekly. And suddenly you can start to think about how the money movement will be very different.”

The latest tech-based rumblings have come from Google, which earlier this month announced it would team up with Citigroup and a small California credit union to offer checking accounts next year. Containing few details, the announcement set off furious speculation: Will a Google bank take over finance the way it dominates internet search? Will Google marry financial information with its own search data to blanket consumers with ever more targeted marketing?   

Eric Risberg/AP/File
A cash register terminal promoted usage of the then-new Apple Pay mobile payment system at a Whole Foods store in Cupertino, California, on Oct. 17, 2014. Apple and Google are among the tech companies venturing increasingly into finance, often with partners from the banking industry.

The reality, in the short term at least, may be more modest, several analysts say. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, may be looking for ways to boost interest in its existing mobile payment app, Google Pay, which as of estimates last year had only about 11 million users in the United States. That’s half of what Apple Pay had – and a sixth of the Google Pay users in India.

Apple has not stood still, either. In August, it launched an Apple Pay credit card with its partner, Goldman Sachs, which has become the preferred payment system for many Apple fans. The app offers cash back rewards of 1% to 3% on purchases, which are credited on the same day. It also provides visual budgeting and spending guides as well as tight integration with the Apple iPhone, making mobile payments with the press of a few buttons.

“Used [Apple] Pay for the first time at @myfamilydollar. Worked out great,” tweeted consumer David Becker last week. “I have no idea why places like @DollarGeneral don’t accept it? It’d make me go there even more. But for now, when it comes to dollar stores, @myfamilydollar has my business.”

Still, Apple’s success is modest when compared with expectations when it first launched Apple Pay in 2014. For all the talk of payments by mobile phones, Americans and Europeans still rely primarily on credit cards for in-store purchases, according to Juniper Research. By contrast, nearly 3 in 4 consumers in East Asia last year used mobile wallets for such payments, thanks to the success of Alipay, the online payment system of Alibaba, China’s e-commerce system, and Ratuken Edy, Japan’s electronic money card. Many U.S. tech companies are watching them closely. 

“China is a blueprint to where many of them want to go,” says Mr. Ives of Wedbush. “But I don’t expect it to be the same trajectory.”

The pace of announcements is picking up. In October, Uber said it planned to launch Uber Money as a way for its users to pay its drivers directly. In the same week Google made its checking account announcement, Facebook introduced Facebook Pay, a feature that will allow its users to pay for merchandise directly on its social media platforms as well as send and receive money from friends. 

The effort is separate from Facebook’s far more ambitious effort announced this summer to create its own digital cryptocurrency, which would compete with Bitcoin. That plan has come under withering scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators alike in Washington, concerned about privacy, money laundering, and a currency outside the control of governments. Several key financial partners have dropped out of the project.

And partners seem to be key. By teaming up with existing banks and other financial institutions, the high-tech giants won’t have to bother with all the regulatory plumbing that comes with financial transactions. The partnerships offer tech firms a better chance of avoiding such government scrutiny. Even Amazon, which is the leader in the U.S. in integrating digital commerce with transactions, including credit cards and even cash advances to its merchants, is partnering with Synchrony Bank to offer its card. 

“The bigger concern will be data and data privacy and how the data will be used,” says Ron Shevlin, research director at Cornerstone Advisors, a banking consultancy. Purchase and even search data can yield important clues about consumers, so high-tech companies will have to be transparent about how and when they use it.

Eventually, forays into finance could pay off in new services, analysts say, whether it’s helping banks make better loans or creating something unique to attract new customers. 

“Imagine your personal financial assistant, who basically keeps track of your spending but also integrates with other information on your life,” says James Angel, a finance professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Because it knows your location, it can tell what store you’re in, guess what you’ll buy, and alert you to places that sell it cheaper. Or it might warn you not to enter a particular store because your bank account is particularly low.

“Think of it as applying artificial intelligence to the banking system,” Professor Angel says. “The more data it has, the more things it can do.”

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A deeper look

4. ‘You get to be the hero.’ Meet the on-call workers who save Thanksgiving.

In the U.S., Thanksgiving gathers us in gratitude. But what about the holiday’s on-call workers? With patience and skill, they sacrifice their holidays to rescue ours.

David
Karen Norris/Staff

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When you stop to look around, it’s not hard to see the massive shadow workforce undergirding our Thanksgiving rituals of visiting and hosting and eating and celebrating. 

Much of the public sector stays lit – law enforcement, firefighters, utility departments, emergency crews. So do airlines, bus services, freight shippers, railroads, and more and more retailers that open their stores not only on Black Friday but on Thanksgiving Day as well. And hotlines like the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line come to our last-second, meal-making rescues with poultry pro tips.

Surveys have shown that as many as 40% of businesses require at least some employees to work on Thanksgiving. Every one of those people helps make our holidays possible. So here’s to them all. Maybe a little extra in the tip jar wouldn’t hurt.

“Oftentimes, being a plumber is pretty thankless, I won’t lie,” says Ken Reef from Colorado. “But not on Thanksgiving. People are so, so happy to see you when you show up. On Thanksgiving, you get to be the hero.”

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‘You get to be the hero.’ Meet the on-call workers who save Thanksgiving.

Like you and me – not to mention countless restaurant managers, airport logistics personnel, and the Dallas Cowboys – Ken Reef doesn’t just show up cold for Thanksgiving Day. He plans for it. He prepares. He pregames.

Unlike you and me, however, Mr. Reef’s preparations don’t involve boning up on recipes or vacuuming the guest bedroom. What Mr. Reef is doing in advance of Thanksgiving is buying water heaters. Lots of them. He knows he’ll need them because he knows we’ll need them – more of us than would like. And Mr. Reef’s job will be to get them into emergency service before our visiting in-laws step into cold showers. Of course, those appliances will be the least of Mr. Reef’s Thanksgiving workload, because Mr. Reef is a plumber. And for plumbers, Thanksgiving is Armageddon. 

Karen Norris/Staff

“Actually, Thanksgiving Day itself starts a little slow,” says Mr. Reef, a 20-year drain-service veteran in Colorado Springs, Colorado, “but by noon things really start kicking off. And the afternoon and evening can be crazy. And then there’s Friday, our busiest day all year. It’s Black Friday to you. To us? Make that ‘Brown Friday.’ Sorry. But there are disasters.”

Such as? 

“Well, you know the famous one about the turkey in the trap?”

Not that kind of trap. Turns out he’s referring to “a case out of Kansas City,” which has become lore in the plumbing trade. Evidently a local firm was called to the home of an older woman because her toilet had jammed, and now there was the worst kind of flood. Not a problem, said the plumber in question, nothing we can’t handle.

But the typical handling didn’t work. The plungers, the mechanical snakes. The plumber deduced that something was stuck in the toilet’s trap – something big. So he removed the stool to access the trap ... and found an entire turkey carcass inside. (“Hard to do,” noted Mr. Reef.) The client had tried to flush her Thanksgiving remains down the toilet. “Why did you do that?” asked the plumber when the excavation was done.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t have a garbage disposal.”

Naturally.

Mr. Reef hastens to point out that most of his challenges are more prosaic than that – your usual backups in sinks, sewer lines, and dishwashers. Plus those water heater breakdowns for which he stocks up. All of it the “logical result” of a holiday that’s like any other day, he says, only more so. More people, more food, more overload, more waste, more mistakes. (We’ll come back to those mistakes.) “Thanksgiving is long, but that’s what we’re here for, all hands on deck,” he says, in an almost relishing tone.

“It’s nothing we can’t handle.”

On call

Easy for Mr. Reef to say.

But let’s pause a moment to pay tribute to – nay, to give thanks for – the fact that he says it. Along with the fact that a lot of other people say it, too, while they spend Thanksgiving not at home but on the job. “Nothing we can’t handle.” Because without them, the Thanksgivings most of us enjoy might not quite be possible. 

Overstatement? Surveys have shown that as many as 40% of businesses require at least some employees to work on Thanksgiving. And though there are no good data for the exact number of people who clock in on that day, an Allstate/National Journal survey from 2014 revealed that fully 25% of American workers are required to work on either Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, or New Year’s Day. 

When you stop to look around, it’s not hard to see the massive shadow workforce undergirding our Thanksgiving rituals of visiting and hosting and eating and celebrating. Much of the public sector stays lit – law enforcement, firefighters, utility departments, emergency crews. And so do airlines, bus services, freight shippers, railroads, and more and more retailers that open their stores not only on Black Friday but on Thanksgiving Day, as well.

Also doing business as usual or better: gas stations, gyms, convenience stores, media outlets (somebody’s gotta comment on all that football), and restaurants. At the national restaurant chain Cracker Barrel, Thanksgiving Day is the busiest day of the year. Many Starbucks are open, of course. And so is Disney World.

And then there is the entire health care industry, which hums steadily through every holiday but which registers a Thanksgiving-specific spike. Hospital emergency room visits on Thanksgiving have been reported to exceed the norm by 10% in Lubbock, Texas; by 12% in New York; and by 15% in Kansas City. Causes? People eat wrong, drink too much, sleep too little, and play far too much touch football while in something less than game shape. Lubbock ER doctor James Williams even attributed some of the patient uptick to the kickoff of Christmas-decorating season – the hanging of the lights, as he told an interviewer – a source of mishaps that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission confirms. The lesson, as always: We are not as good on ladders as we think.

Every one of those people – from the baggage handlers to the baristas to the busboys – help make our Thanksgivings possible. So here’s to them all. Maybe a little extra in the tip jar wouldn’t hurt.

But there’s making Thanksgiving possible, and there’s flat-out saving Thanksgiving – which means saving us from the two kinds of potential disasters that are dreaded above the rest, the kinds of disasters that threaten family comity, personal reputation, and emotional survival (as well as one’s Instagram feed). They are when the drain won’t flow, and when the bird won’t cook.

For 15 years, the Roto-Rooter Services Co. – a national drain-cleaning chain headquartered in Cincinnati – has tracked customer demand. “And on the Friday after Thanksgiving, business jumps 50%, year after year without fail,” says company spokesman Paul Abrams. “Thanksgiving Day is busy, too, but people assume they’re going to pay through the nose on Thanksgiving – they’re wrong by the way, rates are the same – so they tough it out until the day after.” Unless they have guests, in which case the cavalry can never come soon enough.

“But we’re just the back end of the process,” says Mr. Reef. The front end – the very front end – is the food. “And even us plumbers know,” says Mr. Reef, “that as bad as our disasters are, blowing the meal is worse.” 

Thankfully – are you noting a theme here? – there are people who can save us from that particular disaster, too.

Karen Norris/Staff

Holiday hotline

In a quiet corner of Naperville, Illinois, is a large, unremarkable office floor, “about the size of a basketball court,” that on Thanksgiving Day is the opposite of quiet. It is the home of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (that’s 1-800-BUTTERBALL, to you), which for its 39th year will again come to our collective, last-second, meal-making rescue.

There are other cooking hotlines – from those by other turkey brands such as Jennie-O and Honeysuckle White, to ones addressing other menu niches (the Crisco Pie & Baking Hotline, the Sara Lee Desserts Pie Hot­line, the Ocean Spray Holiday Helpline). There’s a U.S. Department of Agriculture meat and poultry hotline putting our tax dollars to work. And there’s even an excellent quick-response Q&A forum on Food52, the website launched by former New York Times Magazine food editor Amanda Hesser. “This is our Super Bowl!” says Food52 executive Suzanne D’Amato about the hot­line on Thanksgiving Day.

But Butterball is the grande dame. On Thanksgiving Day, 50 cooking advisers will work the phone lines (and text screens and social media platforms), most of them talking at once. They’ll field more than 10,000 queries. Which surprises hotline director Nicole Johnson, since these days there’s no question the internet can’t answer.

What doesn’t surprise any of the Butterball veterans are the problems that callers confront them with, since by now there are none they haven’t heard.

For instance?

Q: My turkey has no breast meat! What do I do?

A: (In calm voice) Turn it over.

Q: My oven’s too small, so I used a hammer to shatter all the bones and crush the bird into a lump – that’s OK, right?

A: OK in theory. Just be careful carving. And don’t get your hopes up about presentation.

Q: I sliced my bird in half with a chain saw – will the engine oil be a problem?

A: That would be yes.

Karen Norris/Staff

Q: I found a turkey in a freezer unopened since 1969. Can I eat it?

A: That would be no.

Q: My bird barely fits inside my oven – will it rise too much for me to get it out?

A: Turkeys don’t rise.

Q: I forgot to remove the plastic shrink-wrap before I roasted it. What now?

A: Do you have another bird?

Q: I scrubbed my raw turkey with a toothbrush dipped in bleach for three hours. Is that enough to kill the harmful bacteria? 

A: Not sure. 

Bonus A: But if you eat it, it could kill you.

And then there’s the No. 1 most often-asked question: How do I find out when my turkey is done? The only acceptable answer: with a thermometer. You can’t tell if a turkey is done by looking at it. Or by twisting its leg. Butterball advises that a turkey is done when the thermometer reads 180 degrees Fahrenheit deep in the thigh, and 165 degrees in the center of the stuffing, if the turkey is stuffed. 

Or there’s the other most often-asked question: I forgot to thaw my turkey – how can I thaw it now?

A: For starters, not in a hot tub, or with a hair dryer, or in the bathtub with your twins, all of which have been tried more often than you’d imagine. (“People are a hoot!” a hotline veteran once delightedly told an interviewer.) Butterball operatives cite the USDA recommendation: Soak the turkey, bagged, in cold water for 30 minutes per pound of bird, changing the water every 30 minutes as you go. All of which sounds like the best possible reason for remembering to do your thawing right in the first place, by giving your bird a day in the refrigerator for every 4 or 5 pounds of its weight.

Karen Norris/Staff

Phew. Are we poking fun? No, we are not. On account of we live in a pretty glassy house ourselves. There was the year I decided to “burnish” our turkey by roasting it draped in a fat-soaked cheesecloth (it was a thing, I’m telling you), only to annoy the neighbors with fire alarms and smoke that sent our visitors into the subfreezing yard.

And the year I forgot to buy a roasting pan and had to fabricate one from tinfoil and cookie sheets (another fail, more turkey drippings on the oven floor, more smoke). As well as the year when our own complaining sewer system resulted in a “situation,” as my then 8-year-old niece called it; we and our houseguests spent half of Thanksgiving fervently watching two unfortunate drain pros interrogate our holding tank, their quilted coveralls and woolen balaclavas providing far too little protection against the unbroken Northwest wind. What had we done wrong? I still don’t know. I’m not sure I want to.

(But to both of those gentlemen, wherever they are: Thank you, more than I can say.)

Dodging disaster

As a public service, we should point out that the people who save Thanksgiving have thoughts about all this – countermeasures, let’s call them – which mostly amount to advice about how we can forestall our disasters in the first place (before they become their disasters).

Even Roto-Rooter, whose revenues rise with our troubles, doesn’t hesitate to educate about how to keep those troubles at bay. “Funny thing,” says Mr. Abrams, in the Cincinnati headquarters, “at first we were afraid that sharing all the preventative info would undercut our business – but, nah, never happened.”

Nowadays, locate any plumbing company that hosts a blog and you’ll find a treatise about how to avoid Thanksgiving disasters. Read enough of them, and they start to feel like a collective plea. Please don’t pour the turkey fat down the sink. Please keep an eye on those houseguests “just trying to help” with cleanup. Please, please, please don’t mistake your garbage disposal for a trash can. And don’t mistake your toilet for a garbage disposal, either, in case you need reminding. (See above.)

In Rochester, Minnesota, Norm Autry tells us that although we should use a lot of running water when using the garbage disposal, “running the faucet for 15 minutes does not rinse that pipe. A garbage disposal is an appliance of convenience, but if not used properly it will come back to bite you.”

In Newfoundland, New Jersey, Mark Lindsay gets more specific: “Pour any excess grease from turkey or roast pans into a disposable container and let it congeal; then discard the container in the trash.” Here’s his list of what not to put in your garbage disposal:

• Bones.

• Celery, pumpkin or potato flesh, or other fibrous foods.

• Coffee grounds.

• Eggshells.

• Fruit pits.

• Pasta.

• GREASE (capital letters, his). 

And in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dave Parker reminds us that “lots of guests means lots of flushing. Save your guests the embarrassment of asking for a plunger – just in case – and leave one in plain sight near the toilet. And consider a friendly-worded ‘do not flush’ list as a reminder to guests (baby wipes, Q-tips, floss).”

The cooking advisers are a little less desperately prescriptive. (Except, really, get that turkey out of the freezer and into the fridge on Saturday, not Thursday, we’re begging you.) Most of the advice about disaster avoidance in the kitchen might be summarized like this: Don’t experiment. Just don’t. Thanksgiving is not the moment to try fat-basted cheesecloth on your bird to prevent it from drying out. Or to top that side dish of portobellos with some new recipe’s suggestion of pepper, paprika, and cayenne. And do not decide that you’ve fallen in love with the word “spatchcock” and that this is the day to make it happen. Put down the cleaver. This is not that day.

All good advice, no? Of course we won’t follow it. Or many of us won’t, at least. Sure, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but this is America. Live now, fix later.

So the people who save Thanksgiving for us will have to keep saving it.

Which, for them, isn’t all bad. As Roto-Rooter’s Mr. Abrams doesn’t hesitate to note, “A plumber can make a lot of money on Thanksgiving.”

Money’s good. Given the price they pay to get it, though – the lost family time, the disastrous conditions (literally), the obliteration of other things that go along with Thanksgivings – it’s a good thing that the people sacrificing their own holidays in order to rescue ours get something else, too. Something better.

“You get to be the hero”

“Oftentimes,” reflects Mr. Reef, the water heater stockpiler, “being a plumber is pretty thankless, I won’t lie. But not on Thanksgiving.” Doesn’t matter how long the hours are, or how frustrating the challenges, or how severely you suffer from an entirely understandable case of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), he says, “Thanksgiving is rewarding. People are so, so happy to see you when you show up.

“On Thanksgiving, you get to be the hero.”

And if that’s not enough, you get to feel connected, too. “It’s the day you get to really feel those intimate relationships with customers that we miss on a day-to-day basis,” Mr. Reef says.

Says Food52’s Ms. D’Amato, of her company’s all-staff effort to answer any posted query in 10 minutes or less: “It’s all hands on deck, but it’s fun, too. Everyone at Food52 comes together to make this a really special experience for our community. ... It’s full-on, but it’s also so rewarding to help people and be there for them.” The secret sauce, though, isn’t always the advice, she says. “It’s about just supporting people and easing their anxieties: ‘So your meal may not turn out perfect – it’s OK! Mine may not either.’ It’s about being in it together.” 

At Butterball, too, it’s not the goofy questions that the staffers like to talk about the most. It’s the feeling of being there on a day when things are happening that might be remembered forever: when someone who has just lost a lifelong partner now has to cook alone and doesn’t know how; when young newlyweds are nervously hosting their first Thanksgiving and can’t figure out the gravy; when recent immigrants reach out because they so want to get this new tradition – their new tradition – exactly right.

It’s the feeling of being in service. And anyway, what’s better – to receive gifts, or to have them to give?

“Honestly,” says Mr. Reef, “holidays really do bring out the best in people.” The work is hard, sure, but what a difference you can make. What gratitude you’re met with. “And the food! People are so relieved and happy, they keep feeding you at every stop. And the food is so great!

“Only thing is,” he says, “by the end of the day you’re too full to eat a Thanksgiving meal of your own.”

But don’t worry, he adds, starting to laugh. “It’s nothing we can’t handle.”

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Essay

5. Help in the kitchen or watch football? A Thanksgiving guest’s dilemma.

We have another helping of Thanksgiving – a feast that’s meant to unite us. But gender stereotypes and turf battles can turn the table tense. Our writer has thoughts on how to skip the drama, not the dressing.

David

Two ways to read the story

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No matter how progressive you or your family appear to be, traditional gender roles at Thanksgiving are as ubiquitous as paper pilgrim hats. 

In the kitchen, (mostly) women bustle about in aprons. In another room, (mostly) men sit around the TV, counting the downs and the minutes until it is time to carve the turkey. 

The kitchen can be a perilous obstacle course, and I don’t mean the too-crowded countertops and pots of boiling potatoes. It’s the culinary power play between self-appointed matriarchs and those trying to call audibles. “Stay out of the way” is the unspoken command. The closer as a family member you are to the matriarchal quarterback, the greater your potential for scoring a Thanksgiving touchdown.

“Homecoming” is one of the central myths of Thanksgiving. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the influential 19th-century magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, campaigned tirelessly for almost two decades before the Civil War to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Not only did she feel it was a rallying call to unify Americans around hearth and home, it presented an opportunity for the woman of the household to display her domestic talents. Even though I have resisted it, this siren call pulls me in at Thanksgiving, too.

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Help in the kitchen or watch football? A Thanksgiving guest’s dilemma.

On the surface, Thanksgiving promises to be the most unifying, satisfying experience in the American holiday calendar. Spend time with your family. Cook your favorite dishes. Watch football from the couch. Say grace. Eat as much as you want. 

Simple, right?

Not exactly. In my experience, each one of those vignettes is carefully crafted to disguise the postmodern handwringing that is actually happening on the fourth Thursday of every November. No matter how progressive you or your family appears to be, the practice of traditional gender roles at Thanksgiving is as ubiquitous as paper pilgrim hats. 

As a regular Thanksgiving guest, I am often filled with existential dread when I arrive at the doorstep. In one direction, the kitchen hums with activity amid the familiar smells of baking bread and pumpkin pie as (mostly) women bustle about in aprons. From the other comes the distant sounds of football on TV as (mostly) men sit counting the downs and the minutes until it is time to carve the turkey. 

I’m not much of a football fan. But the kitchen can be a perilous obstacle course, and I don’t mean the too-crowded countertops and pots of boiling potatoes. It’s the culinary power play between self-appointed matriarchs and those trying to call audibles. (If you have ever been a willing or unwilling participant in kitchen turf battles, you get it.) “Stay out of the way” is the unspoken command. The closer as a family member you are to the matriarchal quarterback, the greater your potential for scoring a Thanksgiving touchdown.

This struggle manifests itself in various ways, from potluck dishes that don’t quite fit the menu to grumblings over cranberry sauce versus relish to the best way to make gravy. After all, if your favorite dish isn’t represented at the Thanksgiving table, does your family even know who you are? And what about the vegans and the vegetarians?

“Homecoming” is one of the central myths of Thanksgiving. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the influential 19th-century magazine Godey's Lady's Book, campaigned tirelessly for almost two decades before the Civil War to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Not only did she feel it was a rallying call to unify Americans around hearth and home, it presented an opportunity for the woman of the household to display her domestic talents. (Hale was against women’s suffrage, but that’s a story for another day.) The “cult of domesticity” that emerged in the wake of the Civil War has had such a lasting influence it is now a field of academic study.

At that time, American women, who had few opportunities to shine outside the home, bought into this mythology of domesticity. As Hale grew the subscriptions of her magazine to 150,000, President Abraham Lincoln finally declared a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863 shortly after receiving (another) one of Hale’s letters. It was then 60 years before the holiday was officially ratified by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The desire to master the domestic sphere remains a strong pull for American women. Good Housekeeping, launched in 1885, continues to have a robust reach of 46 million, one of the largest magazine circulations in the United States.

Even though I have resisted it, this siren call to unleash my domestic prowess at Thanksgiving pulls me in. 

Last year, smitten by a Martha Stewart recipe for a wild rice and fruit salad, I offered to bring it to my sister-in-law’s house for the meal. “How about a simple green salad instead?” was the response.

My mother-in-law, also a regular guest at Thanksgiving in her neck of the woods, casually shared how she survives, er, satisfies her vision and taste for the holiday. She makes a Thanksgiving meal with her favorite recipes on Wednesday and then enjoys it as “leftovers” later in the week. 

Perfect. A Hail Mary pass! Now, if I can just convince my husband and stepchildren they will love wild rice and fruit salad.

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The Monitor's View

Visit a prison, make the world safer?

Two ways to read the story

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On Monday, 39 district attorneys around the United States joined in a pledge to visit prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers. The aim is “to embed in the culture of DAs’ offices the recognition that decisions to incarcerate someone should never be taken lightly.”

Their action follows other recent initiatives to have officials and lawmakers visits prisons and get up-close empathy about life for both inmates and guards.

Will this idea work? Something is certainly needed to improve criminal justice. More than two-thirds of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within three years.

Face-to-face encounters between inmates and those responsible for sending them to prison might help. Time in prison can serve many aspects of justice, such as an opportunity for rehabilitation. But add in some empathy, and the nation’s high incarceration rate might go down. You can’t fix something if you choose to ignore it.

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Visit a prison, make the world safer?

An estimated 1 in 4 women in the United States currently have a family member in prison. That is a startling statistic about the level of crime as well as the nation’s propensity to lock up criminals. Yet behind the numbers lies another reality: Millions of family members who visit their loved ones behind bars have learned the reality of the prison experience – for both inmates and guards. And out of that experience, many have become advocates for reform, such as in sentencing, reentry programs, solitary confinement, overcrowding, and even victim restitution.

Some also push for others to share this experience, especially lawmakers, governors, and prosecutors who make decisions about incarcerating people. Many if not most of these officials have never set foot in a jail or prison.

The advocates believe regular prison visits would give officials up-close empathy about prison life. It might compel them to make changes in their law enforcement work or in shaping policy. Movies and TV shows depicting prisons are no substitute for listening to real inmates and guards.

In 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The visit may have helped launch several initiatives. In 2017, a bipartisan group of governors agreed to engage closely with people involved with criminal justice. At least 15 of them have visited prisons. The Vera Institute of Justice also began to offer prison “field trips” to community members such as clergy and teachers. Then in July, the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums set a challenge to all elected policy leaders to personally visit correctional facilities.

On Monday, 39 district attorneys around the country joined in a pledge to visit prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers as well as send their staff. The aim is “to embed in the culture of DAs’ offices the recognition that decisions to incarcerate someone should never be taken lightly.”

“No prosecutor should be putting people in places they haven’t seen or walked through,” says Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the group that launched the effort.

Will this idea work? Something is certainly needed to improve criminal justice. More than two-thirds of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within three years.

Face-to-face encounters between inmates and those responsible for sending them to prison might help. Time in prison can serve many aspects of justice, such as an opportunity for rehabilitation. But add in some empathy, and the nation’s high incarceration rate might go down. You can’t fix something if you choose to ignore it.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Something to be grateful for – even in tough times

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Many people around the world agree there’s value in being grateful. But what if there seems little to give thanks for? Even in the face of challenges, we can gratefully acknowledge God as a limitless source of good, joy, and peace – and find hope and solutions.

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Something to be grateful for – even in tough times

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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How wonderful it is that countries worldwide have national days of Thanksgiving. Just think of it! It’s an acknowledgment that gratitude is a universally good thing to feel and practice. This holds true for everyone, no matter where we live.

But what if there seems little to be grateful for, or our efforts to be grateful feel hollow and empty?

I’ve found it helpful to gratefully acknowledge that those very situations can turn us more unreservedly to trust in God – to seek answers not in the limited, material, finite universe we appear to live in, but in what the teachings of Christian Science reveal as the real source of permanent goodness: God.

These teachings explain that Principle is a synonym for God. This helps us understand God’s law as the underlying premise of creation. It’s a bit like the way that the light we see breaking through a thick cloud cover is always traceable back to the sun: We can be grateful for the light peeking through the clouds, but to understand its ultimate source is to latch on to the awareness of it being permanent and indestructible.

The Apostle Paul declared, “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). Real happiness isn’t sourced in matter, which by its very nature is temporary, but is found in eternal Spirit, God. It’s with gratitude that we can turn away from looking to materiality for happiness and instead seek it in the permanence of divine Principle. Paul’s life experience, as related in the Bible, shows how this empowers us to feel God’s wisdom and protection through challenges.

It’s not so much a matter of having a stiff upper lip, nor should we think that God sends us evils to prove our loyalty. God is entirely good and could never impart anything but good to His children. It’s about what we can learn from trials when we face them. The presence of divine goodness never goes away. It is not dependent on whether or not we immediately seem to see evidence of it at any given time, because it is infinite.

And as we anchor our thought to this underlying source of good, we find real security. God gives us spiritual ideas that meet our needs and bring more good into our daily lives, and we can be gratefully receptive to these ideas.

One November, my family learned that a construction project my husband had been scheduled to do was not going to go forward after all. We had taken a large down payment on the project and had already spent it, partially for the supplies for the project but also as family income. We did not have the funds to give the down payment back.

It was tempting to feel this would be a very bleak holiday season, and at first it was hard to muster up any genuine gratitude. But, the severity of the financial situation did turn me unreservedly to God for an answer. I opened the 1932 “Christian Science Hymnal” to find some guidance in my prayers and read this:

When all material streams are dried,
Thy fullness is the same;
May I with this be satisfied,
And glory in Thy name.

All good, where’er it may be found,
Its source doth find in Thee;
I must have all things and abound,
While God is God to me.

(John Ryland, No. 224, © CSBD)

I caught a beautiful glimpse of the fact that God is the source of all supply, and that this very glimpse of God as our unfailing source of good was itself substantive. Furthermore, I saw that as God’s spiritual offspring, we remain inseparable from this source.

My prayers brought confidence that the way would become clear. And that’s just what happened. Several unexpected construction jobs emerged, and in short order funds became available to meet all needs.

I was so grateful that we were so quickly able to return the down payment, but what I was most grateful for that Thanksgiving was going deeper in seeing God, not the material indicators of income, as our real source of supply.

Life can be challenging at times. But when we gratefully turn to God as the source of all that’s good and true – of health, companionship, purposeful activity, joy, peace – then we find unfailing answers in Him.

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Viewfinder

Love in the time of protest

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A masked couple, demonstrators, kiss in front of a burning barricade durning a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 25, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 27th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about how months of flooding awakened Mississippi residents’ sense of place and identity.

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 26, 2019
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