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Even Presidents Need A Touch Of Madness − In March



Then-Vice President Joe Biden at the NCAA men’s Final Four semifinal between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Syracuse Orange on April 2, 2016, in Houston. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Why would a president faced with lingering inflation at home and wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, among other problems, take time out to participate in the annual sports fan’s ritual of March Madness?

The “madness” began this year on March 17, when a committee appointed by the NCAA announced the field of 68 college basketball teams in each of two divisions – one for men and one for women – selected to compete for a national championship. The teams are divided into four brackets and seeded from 1 to 16, from best to worst, according to the judgment of the committee. The last two surviving men’s teams play on April 8 in the championship game, and the women’s surviving teams finish on April 7.

Tens of millions of college basketball fans, including the president if he chooses, take part in the ritual of filling out brackets, a task that involves trying to predict the winning teams starting with the first round of games.

It’s nearly impossible for anyone to predict the winner of every game. The chance of filling out a perfect bracket has been estimated to be 1 in 147 trillion attempts.

Following in the footsteps of former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden has filled out brackets for the 2024 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. This year, Biden is playing it safe by choosing the No. 1 seeds in both tournaments to win the national championship: South Carolina in the women’s bracket and UConn in the men’s.

Biden’s predictions are bound to improve from last year. That’s when his top pick to win the men’s tournament, the No. 2-seeded University of Arizona, was upset in the first round by Princeton University.

Biden may be participating in March Madness because he, like other presidents, enjoys the competitive nature of sports. And sports allow presidents to “cast a positive image of their presidency and speak to audiences they might not be able to reach any other way,” as journalist Chris Cillizza has written. In this case, Biden is taking the opportunity to carry on like a regular fan.

Yet, as my co-author Tom Morris and I observe in our research for a book on the relationship between sports and politics, presidential involvement in sporting events offers both risks and rewards.

A man holding a team jersey with the name 'Obama' on it, standing in front of a large group of men in suits.
President Barack Obama accepts a team jersey at the White House on May 11, 2009, from the North Carolina Tar Heels, the 2009 NCAA Division I national champions, whom Obama picked to win in his March Madness bracket.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A sports fan, not a politician

Presidents have been participating in sporting events at least since April 14, 1910, when William Howard Taft threw a ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators baseball game on opening day. And presidents routinely invite championship teams to the White House to publicly acknowledge their accomplishments.

But Obama, an avid basketball fan, was the first president to complete an NCAA Tournament bracket. The idea emerged near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, when ESPN reporter Andy Katz suggested to Obama, “If you win, how about I come to the White House and we do an NCAA Tournament bracket.”

Obama agreed. After winning the 2008 presidential election, he followed through.

On March 18, 2009, Katz interviewed Obama about his selections on ESPN’s show “SportsCenter.” According to Katz, Obama took the job seriously: “President Obama made his picks as a sports fan, not as a politician. He was knowledgeable about the teams and was even up to date on the latest injuries involving the contenders. … It was clear that he enjoyed filling out his bracket like the rest of America.”

Obama’s supporters cheered his participation in March Madness, while some opponents criticized the move as a frivolous distraction. The president surely must have better things to do; why take the NCAA Tournament so seriously?

But by failing to complete a bracket for the women’s tournament, Obama invited criticism that he was not taking women’s basketball seriously enough.

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan faulted Obama: “As the father of two athletic daughters, President Obama should know all about the importance of sports for women and girls.”

From that point on, Obama completed brackets for both the men’s and women’s tournaments. He was interviewed about his choices for both tournaments on ESPN.

At least one of Obama’s brackets is in the Smithsonian.

Choosing to win

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney drew a contrast with Obama by choosing not to fill out a bracket. Romney announced: “I’m not plugged in well enough this year to do that.”

Although Obama defeated Romney in the election, Romney ultimately proved to be a better predictor of NCAA Tournament basketball games.

Acting as a mere citizen three years later, Romney participated in the ESPN Tournament Challenge with what the network called an “astounding success.” He predicted all of the Final Four teams in the men’s tournament, placing himself in the top 1% of people who filled out the bracket and earning the headline, “Romney bracket crushes Obama’s.”

Evaluating Obama’s predictions became a regular part of March Madness. Analysts not only critiqued Obama’s relatively poor track record in predicting outcomes. They also considered how those choices reflected his effort to connect with people.

Assessing Obama’s record over eight years, Sports Illustrated concluded: “President Obama used basketball as a way to bond with the American people but he has had ups and downs in making his NCAA tournament picks.”

No March Madness for Trump

After he left office, Obama the basketball enthusiast continued to fill out NCAA men’s and women’s tournament brackets. Meanwhile, his successor, President Donald Trump, declined ESPN’s invitation to complete what has been referred to as the “presidential bracket.”

Trump might have been too busy, disinterested in basketball or unwilling to associate himself with Obama. Nonetheless, Trump left open the possibility of a future engagement with sports. And he did correctly predict the Super Bowl winner in 2017.

White House spokesperson Hope Hicks announced: “We look forward to working with ESPN on another opportunity in the near future.”

Enjoying the madness

Biden has returned to Obama’s practice, though not with the same fervor or enthusiasm. In 2023, Biden submitted his brackets just a few minutes before the start of the first game.

Unlike Obama, who routinely participated in pickup games and had a basketball court installed on the White House grounds so he could practice shooting, Biden is less enamored of basketball. After all, he grew up playing baseball and was a star receiver for his high school football team.

When it comes to filling out NCAA brackets, presidents may be playing politics – or they may just be taking time to enjoy the madness.

The Conversation

Daniel Palazzolo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Oman Serves As A Crucial Back Channel Between Iran And The US As Tensions Flare In The Middle East




Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, meets his Omani counterpart, Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, in Tehran on July 17, 2023. Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Prior to launching a barrage of drones and missiles at Israel on April 13, 2024, Iran reportedly got word to Washington that its response to an earlier strike on its embassy compound in Syria would seek to avoid major escalation. The message was conveyed via the Gulf Arab state of Oman.

The current crisis in the Middle East is one that officials in Oman have spent years trying to avoid. Located across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, and with close defense and security ties to the U.S. and the U.K., Oman is aware that tit-for-tat attacks raise the risk of a broader war that would engulf countries and armed nonstate groups across the region.

Full-blown war could be triggered by further escalatory actions by Tehran or Jerusalem. But it could also occur through miscalculation or misunderstanding, especially given the lack of official bilateral channels for dialogue and de-escalation.

And this is where Oman steps in. For years, the Gulf state has quietly built a track record of easing regional tensions through diplomacy. It has continued to play this role since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. In the months since that assault and Israel’s response in Gaza inflamed the region, Oman has held high-level dialogues with Iran, hosted British Foreign Secretary David Cameron for talks on security in the Red Sea, and called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

It could now play a crucial role in keeping a channel of communication open between the U.S. and Iran as parties seek to tamp down tensions.

Standing apart from regional rivalries

Along with neighboring Qatar and Kuwait – as well as Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of an American embassy – Oman has played a critical role in back-channel diplomacy.

But Oman’s approach is distinct from that of other nations. Rather than participating in direct talks, it creates space for dialogue, serving as a facilitator rather than a mediator.

Multiple reasons account for the Omani decision to act as a facilitator. Unlike several of the other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Oman lacks a history of tense relations with Iran.

Rather, Omanis recall that Iran under the shah provided support to Oman during the 1970s when the Gulf state’s then young new sultan, Qaboos bin Said, was fighting a decadelong uprising in the southern province of Dhofar.

Even after the shah was ousted in the 1979 Iranian revolution and replaced by a clerical regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Oman stood apart from others in the region and declined to get involved in regional rivalries and competition for geopolitical influence that marred Iran’s ties with other Gulf states.

Secret back channels

Representing a small state in a volatile region, Omani officials have created diplomatic spaces that permit them to engage with regional issues on their own terms and in ways that play to their strengths. As Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, a career diplomat who became the Omani foreign minister in 2020, noted back in 2003, “We try to make use of our intermediate position between larger powers to reduce the potential for conflict in our immediate neighborhood.”

Unlike Qatar, which has attracted worldwide attention over its role as a mediator in Hamas-Israel negotiations, Oman engages less in mediation and more in facilitation.

This is an important distinction and one the Omanis have maintained in regards to engaging with U.S. and Iranian officials, as well as Saudi and Houthi representatives during the decade-long Yemeni civil war.

Omani facilitation takes varied forms. It can consist of passing messages and maintaining indirect channels of communication between adversaries or arranging back channels and hosting discreet meetings.

There is little of the publicity seen in Qatar’s mediation initiatives, such as the talks with the Taliban that produced the 2020 Doha Agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

But Oman’s approach can nonetheless yield results. In his memoir, “The Back Channel,” written after his retirement from the State Department and before his appointment as President Joe Biden’s director of the CIA, William Burns provided a detailed account of the Omani role in facilitating the back channel between U.S. and Iranian officials in 2013 that evolved into negotiations that produced the the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.

That back channel began after Iranian officials passed a message through Oman to the U.S. in 2012 suggesting a meeting in Muscat, the Gulf state’s capital.

Burns recalled that the head of Omani intelligence “greeted both delegations as we walked into the meeting room” and “offered a few brief words of welcome and then departed.”

The back channel remained secret throughout eight rounds of generally constructive dialogue that marked the longest and most sustained engagement between Iranian and U.S. officials since 1979.

Hosting adversaries

While the thaw between the U.S. and Iran didn’t last, the Omani back channel highlighted several factors key to the success of any attempt to dial down tensions between seemingly implacable adversaries.

The trust both sides had in Omani officials was critical, and the positive outcome of the meetings built confidence in each side’s use of Omani channels.

Oman’s role as a facilitator of indirect engagement between the U.S. and Iran assumed added importance with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the failure of the Biden administration to reenter the agreement.

Seemingly the only time Oman has not been willing to serve this role – when tensions soared after the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani in January 2020 – was because Sultan Qaboos was critically ill. In Oman’s absence, the Swiss led the back channel.

Tamping down tensions

During the heightened tensions since the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, Oman has passed on messages between Iranian and U.S. officials. In January 2024, Omani officials hosted delegations of senior negotiators from both countries, shuttling between the representatives in separate rooms.

Even as a wider regional conflict loomed in the Middle East after Israel presumably bombed an Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, Oman was on hand to try to tamp down tensions.

On April 7, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, visited Oman – providing an opportunity for Omani officials to debrief the U.S. and other Western officials on Iran’s thinking as Tehran planned its response to the Damascus attack.

And while the current crisis in the Middle East is of a magnitude that Oman alone cannot address, the ability of trusted intermediaries such as Oman – along with Qatar and Switzerland – to keep open channels of communication is crucial to minimizing the possibility of any accidental escalation on the Iranian side, and to complementing U.S. and European dialogue with Israeli leaders in the quest to find a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

The Conversation

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Ireland At The Crossroads: Can The Ancient Brehon Laws Guide The Republic Away From Anti-Immigrant Sentiment?




Undocumented migrants in Ireland hold a demonstration in 2017. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ireland’s new prime minister is a relatively young man leading a comparatively young republic that is experiencing several unprecedented challenges.

Simon Harris was confirmed as “taoiseach,” or prime minister, on April 9, 2024, following the surprise resignation of his predecessor, Leo Varadkar.

The 37-year-old Harris takes the helm of a country very much at the crossroads of change. Local, national and presidential elections are all on the horizon, with the outcomes potentially determining the form that Irish democracy – and quite possibly unity in an island partitioned between a British-ruled north and an Irish republic in the south – will take.

Underlying these decisions is the question of how Irish voters will respond to the challenge of what is being called the “New Ireland” – a country in which approximately 20% of the population was not born in the republic, with a similar number identifying as nonwhite Irish.

A history of immigration

For a country whose main export, historically, has been its people – with 8 million leaving between 1815 and 1914 in large part because of a famine – and one that experienced little inward immigration until recently, this marks a substantial shift.

Moreover, change has taken place in a relatively short space of time and has had a significant impact on the republic’s current population of just above 5 million.

In 2023, 141,600 people immigrated to Ireland, representing a 15-year high. The majority are returning Irish nationals, many from the United Kingdom, encouraged by Ireland’s buoyant economy and ties to the European Union. But there are also a sizable number of Ukrainian refugees. A smaller number come from India, Brazil or Africa, the latter including refugees from the main conflict zones of Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The record levels of immigration, coming at a time of a severe housing shortage in Ireland, has led to a backlash that boiled over on Nov. 23, 2023. Triggered by the stabbing of three young children and their care assistant in the center of Dublin by an immigrant of Algerian origin, a mob unleashed looting, arson and vandalism on the streets of Dublin. The Garda (police) commissioner blamed the events on a “lunatic, hooligan faction driven by a far-right ideology.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment has been accompanied by a hashtag campaign, #irelandisfull. And it isn’t only taking the form of street violence. The overtly anti-immigrant Ireland First was officially registered as a political party in 2023 and is seeking candidates for the upcoming elections.

To counter growing tensions, Harris has said he intends to pursue a “more planned and sustainable” immigration policy.

But familiarity with Ireland’s history may offer a counterpoint to the Ireland-is-full viewpoint, which has little to do with traditional Irish values regarding hospitality. Rather, such views run counter to Brehon law – the customs and laws that governed Irish society before the coming of the English in the 12th century.

The Brehon laws were a remarkable body of progressive codes that regulated all aspects of society, from beekeeping to homicide. Their exact origins are unknown, but for several centuries they were passed on orally from one generation to the next.

In the seventh century, the laws were written down for the first time, usually by Christian monks – the preservers of much ancient Celtic culture.

Welcome, stranger

Restitution – or restorative justice – rather than punishment lay at the heart of the laws. Consequently, there was no capital punishment or prisons but a scale of penalties or fines for all transgressions, which were proportionate to the severity of the crime and the financial means of the perpetrator.

On the topic of hospitality, the Brehon laws were unequivocal: All households, from royal residences to the poorest of homes, were obliged to provide some measure of “oigidecht” – or hospitality – to travelers, even if they were unknown. In old Irish, the word oigi meant “stranger.”

The hospitality included food and drink, and even entertainment, although the level of each depended on the social status of the household. No monetary payment was expected, although the visitor could offer a poem or a song to his hosts.

Refusal to abide by these rules could result in ostracization or a fine.

The arrival of the English, and with them English common law, eroded the use of the Brehon laws, although they did not completely disappear until the 17th century.

Today, the name survives in U.S. cities through the existence of Brehon law societies, which place human rights at the heart of legal interventions.

Opening arms

It is the spirit of Brehon that I believe best represents Irish society today. Despite the outpouring of xenophobia in November and the emergence of anti-immigration politics, the majority of Irish people are still known for their hospitality to strangers.

It is a well-earned reputation. From the time of the French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century to the Ukrainian refugees in the 2020s, Ireland has offered shelter to those facing discrimination and death elsewhere.

And it has long given a warm welcome to nonwhite visitors, from African-born Olaudah Equiano in the 1790s to American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the 1840s to U.S. actor and activist Paul Robeson in the 1930s – each of whom regarded their time in Ireland as some of their happiest.

A group of people stand around a statue.
A statue of antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass is unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images

Douglass, then a fugitive slave, was struck by “the total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color”.

It is a reputation that has paid dividends, too. Irish tourism remains robust, generating over 5.3 billion euros in revenue (approximately US$5.7 billion) in 2023, making it the country’s major native industry and the largest regional employer.

An integral part of the promotion of Ireland as a tourist destination is the concept of visiting “Ireland of the Welcomes,” where the time-honored greeting is “Céad Míle Fáilte,” which translates as “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

As Ireland – and its new, young leader – responds to the challenges of becoming a more diverse society, the Brehon laws may serve as a guide for Irish seeking a return to traditional values grounded in hospitality and inclusivity, delivering a new Ireland in which both tourists and immigrants are given “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

The Conversation

Christine Kinealy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Reagan’s Great America Shining On A Hill Twisted Into Trump’s Dark Vision Of Christian Nationalism





In August 1982, Ronald Reagan’s father-in-law was dying. Nancy Reagan’s beloved dad, Loyal Davis, was an atheist – a troubling fact to the 40th president. So Reagan penned a private, handwritten note in which he recounted how the prayers of colleagues and friends had cured him of a painful stomach ulcer.

Giving hope for what lay beyond, Reagan entreated the older man, “We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater life, a greater glory awaits us … and all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands.”

For decades, some of Reagan’s critics have questioned his religiosity, noting he rarely went to church. But the missive to his father-in-law reveals a deep and heartfelt faith. That faith also factored heavily into his political stands and policies, as I discuss in my book “Righting the American Dream: How the Media Mainstreamed Reagan’s Evangelical Vision.”

In recent years, Donald Trump, another former president and the current Republican presidential candidate, has often spoken about his faith, posing for photo ops with right-wing preachers and praising his “favorite book” – the Bible.

The latest such demonstration was a video in which Trump promoted sales of a pricey US$59.99 version of the Bible. “Let’s make America pray again,” he urged viewers. “As we lead into Good Friday and Easter, I encourage you to get a copy of the God Bless the USA Bible.”

While Reagan and Trump – two of the most media-savvy Republican presidents – used religion to advance their political visions, their messages and missions are starkly different.

Why religion plays a part in politics

In my book, I explain that underlying American politics is a religious vision that links citizens to civic values. The most prevalent vision is that God blessed America and tasked its citizens with spreading freedom and democracy. It’s an idea that has undergirded Americans’ patriotism and inspired American domestic and foreign policies for decades.

Reagan telegraphed belief in a God-blessed America by describing the United States as “a shining city on a hill.” Reagan flipped the original meaning of a Biblical phrase from a 17th century Puritan sermon. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus warns that the world will judge whether or not his disciples, a symbolic city on a hill, stick to their ideals. By adding “shining,” Reagan sanctified American exceptionalism and the United States’ role as a global model of freedom.

A close up of a man speaking in front of a microphone with the American flag next to him.
Reagan described the U.S. as a ‘shining city on a hill,’ signaling American exceptionalism.
J. David Ake J./AFP via Getty Images

Once elected, Reagan sought practical ways to apply his faith in freedom, which, like many evangelicals, he believed came from God. By cutting taxes, ending industry regulations and privatizing government functions, he hoped to give individuals more economic and political freedom.

Reagan’s love of freedom also fueled his hostility to the Soviet Union. He labeled its communist government “an evil empire,” because it denied its citizens freedom. Casting a geopolitical stance as a cosmic battle between good and evil, Reagan made defeating communism a religious calling.

I argue that Reagan’s evangelical vision was mainstreamed through the media, which reported his interviews and public statements. This vision was not always apparent, but Americans liked his policies even if they missed their religious dimension. In other words, when Reagan proposed allowing the free market to determine the economy, limiting federal power and standing up for democracy worldwide, one didn’t need to be an evangelical to agree.

A new religious vision

Trump saw an opening for a new kind of religiously tinged politics when he ran for president in 2016. But unlike Reagan’s vision of spreading freedom and democracy here and abroad, Trump’s vision sticks closer to home.

I would argue that Trump’s religious vision is rooted in white Christian nationalism, the belief that the white Christians who founded America hoped to spread Protestant beliefs and ideals. According to white Christian nationalists, the founders also wanted to limit the influence of non-Christian immigrants and enslaved Africans.

Likewise, Trump’s rhetoric, mainstreamed by the media, portrays “real” Americans as white Christians. Many of these are men and women fearful that secularists and religious, racial and ethnic minorities want to replace, if not eliminate, them.

By most measures, Trump is not personally religious, although supporters contest that claim. But he has convinced conservative Americans, especially white evangelicals, that he is “God’s instrument on earth.”

When confronted with his financial misconduct, sexual crimes and outrageous lies, backers say that God works through flawed men. And evidence of that work – the U.S. Supreme Court overturning abortion rights, building the border wall and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – has won him their support.

Trump’s mainstreaming of white Christian nationalism is evident in his latest scheme. The God Bless the USA Bible sports an American flag on its cover. Included with scripture is the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Pledge of Allegiance and the handwritten lyrics to singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” A portion of the sales will benefit Trump’s organization.

Christianity and nationalism hand in hand

Former President Donald Trump and his faith.

Trump rejects America’s role as the “shining city on a hill” and its mission to spread freedom and democracy. His goal is to restore what he calls the “founding fathers’ vision.” It’s a vision shared by Americans who think the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, despite proof to the contrary.

Religion can be a force for good or ill. Reagan believed that his religious vision would promote individual freedom and spread democracy worldwide. Americans may agree or disagree on whether he was successful and at what cost.

But Trump’s religious vision – one that hawks Bibles, disparages democracy and mocks governance – isn’t one that Reagan would recognize.

The Conversation

Diane Winston does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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