In the musical "Hamilton," Thomas Jefferson returns to a turbulent United States after five years in Paris and sings, "So what'd I miss?"
If you were spending this week focused on your job, school, health, family or just getting ready for Thanksgiving, instead of riveted to your screen, you might have the same question.
The answer: A lot.
Three days of televised House committee hearings that brought Democrats closer to impeaching President Donald Trump. A debate that exposed key differences between the 2020 candidates. A controversy over Prince Andrew's interview that led him to pull out of public life. An election in deep-red Louisiana that narrowly kept a Democrat in the governor's office. And the opening of two feel-good blockbuster movies, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and "Frozen 2."
The pivotal political moment came Wednesday, when Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland gave his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, noted Michael D'Antonio: "President Donald Trump's abuse of power has been confirmed by a witness with direct involvement in the scheme."
At times, Sondland seemed almost gleeful as he outed Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and top administration figures as players in an effort to extract a political favor from Ukraine in return for vital military aid from the US.
"With his testimony, Sondland portrayed the Trump-Giuliani scheme as constructed out of lies and fantasies and characterized the schemers to be aggressive, abusive and heedless of the damage they were doing to both the United States and Ukraine. As the military aid was delayed, battles raged and soldiers died," D'Antonio wrote.
The next day, former National Security Council senior director and Russia scholar Fiona Hill decisively rejected the right-wing conspiracy theory blaming Ukraine, rather than Russia, for interfering in the 2016 US election. Hill "told the committee and the nation that America is 'being torn apart' by the erosion of a shared idea of truth," wrote Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
"Trump and the GOP, in de facto partnership with Fox News, are creating an alternate reality for followers in which facts are what the President needs them to be."
Trump's defenses almost entirely gone
Sondland's testimony, wrote legal analyst Elie Honig, "put to rest two mainstays of the Republican battery of defenses for President Donald Trump: That the investigation was not based on firsthand information, and that there was 'no quid pro quo.'" Honig said the last credible defense for the President is to blame it all on Giuliani going "rogue."
The key question now, according to former Watergate assistant prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste and Kelly B. Kramer, is whether the evidence supports the constitutional standard for impeachment and removal from office, which mentions "bribery" along with "other high crimes and misdemeanors."
While noting that "the facts are still emerging, and there is much that we as Americans do not know about how and why President Trump acted as he did," Ben-Veniste and Kramer concluded that there's already "a strong prima facie basis for concluding that the President solicited a bribe."
Sondland's opening statement caught Republicans "flat-footed," wrote Scott Jennings. But as harmful as the ambassador was to Trump's defenses, Jennings added, "later in questioning, Sondland muddied those waters by flatly stating that 'No one told me the aid was tied to anything. I was presuming it was.'"
Polls taken before the latest testimony show no sign that Trump is losing support as a result of the impeachment inquiry, Jennings noted, and they reveal "the structural problems Democrats face in convincing any Republican to support their impeachment dreams. The truth is, most Americans have their minds made up on Trump one way or the other and no impeachment hearing will change that."
'The case has been made'
Whatever the long-term impact, Elliot Williams gave House Democrats credit for building a methodical and powerful case: "Democrats' behind-the-scenes decisions over who would speak, for how long, and in what order were nothing short of genius."
"Look, the case has been made," wrote Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. "Almost everything in the impeachment hearings this week fleshed out and backed up the charge that President Trump muscled Ukraine for political gain ... It became clear in a new and public way that pretty much everyone around the president has been forced for three years to work around his poor judgment and unpredictability in order to do their jobs."
Republicans Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan trotted out a variety of gambits to question the credibility of the witnesses, wrote Julian Zelizer. "Rather than having a debate about whether the President's actions were impeachable, Republicans instead treated the nation to a week of wild-eyed accusations that simply pushed aside the alarming reality that credible witnesses — public servants all — laid before them."
If we can't polka together ...
Polka fans Bill Bishop and his wife made a 65-mile move five years ago from his "ultra-hip, ultra-Democratic Austin neighborhood" in Texas to "La Grange, a town of approximately 4,800 on the Texas prairie where the local DJ plays polka in the mornings (along with Tom T. Hall's not-quite-classic "Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs"). And where Republicans are as plentiful as pearl-snap shirts ... We crossed from one political reality to another. In the 2016 Presidential election, there was a 50-point difference between the place we left and the community we had moved to."
Kicking off the second part of CNN Opinion's special report on the "Fractured States of America," Yaffa Fredrick drew the full picture of how the nation got this way: "Americans have sorted themselves into predominantly liberal and conservative enclaves. Social media has accentuated partisan division and enabled extremists to get their views out. And the political system has abetted the fracture by drawing voting district lines in ways that encourage members of Congress to resist compromise."
For an example of the harmful effects of gerrymandering, read David Daley's account of how it changed Asheville, North Carolina, once a toss-up district that was sliced up to advantage conservative Republicans in Congress. "Of course, this story is not unique to Asheville. All over the country, partisans have cracked cities in two, drawn districts that look like Donald Duck kicking Goofy and exploited new technology and advanced data to maximize gains. And the consequences for democracy continue to be catastrophic, locking in a new era of minority rule across multiple states, distorting the competitive balance of congressional delegations and placing public policy — and many politicians — beyond the reach of the ballot box."
As John Avlon pointed out in a piece on partisan media, "A new Pew survey shows that 73% of Americans now believe that Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on basic facts. That's a potential death sentence for a democracy that depends on reasoning together to solve common problems."
For those confronting a politically fraught Thanksgiving dinner this week, our experts have an interactive guide to help.
Chick-fil-A backlash and 'cancel culture'
After years of controversy, Chick-fil-A said it would stop donating to two organizations that have been criticized for being anti-LGBTQ and instead focus on the causes of "education, homelessness and hunger."
It wasn't nearly enough for Richard Morgan, who wrote, "This would perhaps be more convincing if Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A's CEO, acknowledged as wrong, and directly apologized for the comments that he made in 2012 about the company's belief and support of the 'the biblical definition of the family unit.'"
Allison Hope, a writer and LGBTQ activist, cautioned that there are reasons to applaud what the company is doing: "if we condemn them even while they're making moves to be better — regardless of the reason and especially when right-wingers are also bashing them — we risk alienating them and others who are watching."
A royal mess
In what was widely seen as a public relations disaster, Prince Andrew spoke in an interview with the BBC about his friendship with the convicted sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein. "The prince's lack of humanity or perspective as he answered the questions put to him was astonishing," wrote Kate Maltby. "Even when invited to offer a closing statement, Andrew didn't offer an expression of sympathy to Epstein's victims ...
"He doesn't regret his friendship with Epstein, because the man's 'extraordinary ability to bring people together' gave him wonderful networking opportunities. Where else might a prince pick up networking opportunities?"
There's a larger issue, she noted. To justify the "unearned privilege the royals enjoy," defenders of the system argue "that to be raised royal is to undergo a unique educational process that by definition instils virtue and duty in those who experience it ... Prince Andrew's decision to open up to the cameras this week blew that argument out of the water."
Mayor Pete 'unscathed'
The expected debate pile-on against Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who has been surging in Iowa polls, didn't happen in the Democrats' fifth debate, held in Atlanta Wednesday. "He has yet to have a bad debate performance and emerged from this one unscathed," wrote Tara Setmayer.
"He once again exhibited policy depth on issues from health care to farm subsidies and thoughtfulness when challenged by Kamala Harris on issues of race. Buttigieg also demonstrated he can counterpunch with the best of them particularly on foreign policy."
Debate coach Todd Graham gave Buttigieg and Andrew Yang As, and ranked Kamala Harris highly: "She's a master at criticizing others without coming across as a jerk. She called out Tulsi Gabbard for spending 'four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama' before going on to admonish her for efforts to be chummy with Trump and Steve Bannon, and her criticism of the Democratic Party. It was a horrible look for Gabbard. On policy, Harris also shone ..."
At harvest time, going wild
At a farmer's market, poet Tess Taylor overheard a woman lamenting a year's worth of environmental catastrophes with the despairing conclusion, "We're so far beyond doomed."
Taylor understood what she meant. "It's enraging, depressing, exhausting," she wrote. "In the Bay Area newly intense firestorms come to our door, weekly. In our warming seas, the kelp forests of California are dying off, threatening ocean fishery collapse."
And yet she found hope this year in a book that might spark conversation around the Thanksgiving table: "Wilding." Isabella Tree tells the story of the 700-year-old English farm she and her husband inherited. When they could no longer make a go of it, they decided to let their land go largely wild and were surprised by the result.
"The process called back more dense and diverse species than even experts had imagined was possible," Taylor wrote. "Even what seemed invasive at first made sense in time: One year a meadow filled up with thistles, which seemed like a nuisance, but also provided cover for a bumper crop of beneficial insects and butterflies. Tree's love of species names buoys her discoveries along, and her careful observations about the interconnectedness of even overlooked creatures seemed to give us all reason to hope."
A difficult holiday choice
This Thanksgiving, David Perry's family is ordering a cooked turkey, breaking with its tradition of following an elaborate recipe which uses 30-plus ingredients in its stuffing and requires "an every-15-minute basting regime."
Perry's mother died last year. "It wasn't easy to make the decision to order Thanksgiving dinner this year. I wanted to do it 'right.' I wanted to re-create the memories of the cooking, to roll back time, to feel like I did when my mother was here. But that's not possible. The stress of trying was going to interfere with the more important thing: being with my family."
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Michael D'Antonio: Trump's puzzling visit to the hospital
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Can we go back to the neighborhood now?
Sara Stewart saw "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" at the Toronto Film Festival and fought back tears. Tom Hanks portrays the children's show host Fred Rogers and it's "pretty darn close to a must-see," she wrote.
"But it was when I came back home to western Pennsylvania that I really began to reflect on how much we still need Rogers, a native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and a longtime Pittsburgh resident," she observed. "We need his teachings more than ever, particularly in the complicated, deeply divided region he called home."
She recounts moving to the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, from New York City four years ago. "We hiked in the woods and kayaked in the lake. I slowly began to recognize more and more faces around town. I felt I had a community.
"Then the 2016 campaign season happened.
"I started noting frequent sightings of Confederate flags on cars. MAGA hats began to proliferate in alarming numbers; our Hillary Clinton sign disappeared from our front yard. By the time election night was winding down, I was in tears, convinced I'd unwittingly moved into a truly foreign land — one that didn't want my kind around."
But this weekend, the town of Indiana honors its most famous native son, Jimmy Stewart, with its annual "It's a Wonderful Life" holiday festival, something Rogers would appreciate, Stewart wrote.
Another would be "a sign that's been popping up in front of houses around town for a while now. It's a small message, but a quietly hopeful one. The brightly-colored cardboard rectangle bears three versions of a single sentence, in English, Spanish and Arabic, that might have come straight from Rogers himself. 'No matter where you are from,' it reads, 'we're glad you're our neighbor.'"