What Experts Fear About North Korea That the Public Doesn’t Know

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published May 3. We are running it again because of President Trump’s comments about “the dangers posed by North Korea.”

R.P. Eddy is a former Director of the White House National Security Council and senior U.S. diplomat. He is the CEO of Ergo.

President Trump recently warned that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea is possible. He may be right. Given the escalation of rhetoric from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—with the country’s official newspaper warning Tuesday that the U.S. could face a “preemptive nuclear strike” on its mainland—there is no greater potential global flashpoint. Despite the recent spike in news coverage, the mainstream media as well as some key decision makers seem to be missing seven critical facts.

The Bad News:

1. Up to 15,000 North Korean artillery pieces are aimed at Seoul. North Korea has been digging in and preparing for this stand-off since the 1960’s, stacking and hiding missiles and artillery in the hills and mountains of its border with South Korea. Many of these weapons will carry chemical weapons (more below). The artillery’s lethality is often debated, but there is a persistent belief these weapons could turn nearby Seoul, home to approximately 25 million, into a “sea of fire.”

2. North Korea may want something the U.S. can’t give. Here is the critical question: Are the Kims irrational expansionists who will only accept complete control of the entire Korean peninsula, or cornered hermits just hoping to survive? Neither Trump nor Chinese President Xi—nor even the North Korean people—really know the answer. This makes us nervous: The previous two leaders of North Korea negotiated international disarmament frameworks which guaranteed Pyongyang’s security, yet it was they who broke each one.

3. Kim Jong Un killed his brother with the nastiest chemical weapon ever made, so you would know he can. There’s an ongoing debate among experts about whether North Korea has successfully “miniaturized” a nuclear weapon to fit it on a long-range missile. That’s an unknown, but what here’s what we do know: The country has deadly chemical weapons which could be launched at South Korea or Japan. They demonstrated this capability earlier this year, when North Korean operatives used a nerve agent called VX to murder Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (c.) has struck a tough rhetoric. (AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS)

4. There’s no clean military solution: While the United States has reportedly been considering a military strike on either North Korean nuclear facilities or the leadership elite, such an attack is unlikely to succeed and could trigger a barrage from the Seoul-directed artillery.

5. One horrible, but potentially realistic, U.S. response could be condemned as criminal if ordered by Trump: Last month, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said about an attack on North Korea, “We’ve always had all options on the table… I wouldn’t take any off.”  Were North Korea to commence a massive artillery barrage on Seoul, and especially if they used chemical or biological weapons, one potential U.S. response could be nuclear retaliation against Pyongyang and/or their artillery at the border. (Perhaps dialing down the “variable yield” of our B-61 nuclear bombs to reduce radioactive fallout and civilian casualties). As outlandish as this response may seem right now, some U.S. war planners do not think so; it could be considered “proportional” and therefore within the laws of armed conflict. If a nuclear bombing were ordered under Obama–who was widely perceived as thoughtful and hesitant to use force—the world may have been largely willing to listen to his logic. Unfortunately, because much of the international community views President Trump as reactive, even unstable, any such U.S.-initiated action would likely be met by ferocious global condemnation. This perception of our President may be a tactical consideration for our war planners led by the very talented head of Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris.

6. Even a small nuclear exchange could trigger a global nuclear winter: Those who grew up in the 80’s likely remember the highly publicized fear of worldwide dramatic cooling that would follow a US-Soviet nuclear war. Science now tells us that even a small exchange between countries such as India and Pakistan or in North Korea, could cause a decade-long, “catastrophic” nuclear winter.

7. There will likely be a ripple effect that goes all the way to your cellphone: South Korea is home to a huge concentration of manufacturing facilities for the components of cell phones, batteries, and small screens. Samsung and other global tech titans have made the country a locus of their electronics sourcing and fabrication. A destabilization of the Korean peninsula would have a devastating impact on the supply of key technologies that power the global electronics market, causing prices to spike.

The Good News: 

When it comes to Pyongyang, there really isn’t any. Is there such a thing as a totally intractable national security challenge?

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North Korea testing
The Iha-ri Driver Training and Test Facility north of Kusong, North Korea on March 14, 2017. (DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)

Whistleblower John Kiriakou Used CIA Training Helped Him Survive Prison

In 2002, John Kiriakou was helping the Central Intelligence Agency track Al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan.

Ten years later, he was indicted on five felonies, including three violations of the Espionage Act.

The counterterrorism-officer-turned-whistleblower turned the resulting ordeal into a book—out this week—Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison. And as Kirakou told RealClearLife in an exclusive interview, it took all his tradecraft skills to navigate a maximum-security facility crammed with vengeful guards, mobsters and violent prisoners.

John Kiriakou
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou leaves U.S. District Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, after pleading guilty, in a plea deal, to leaking the names of covert operatives to journalists. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Kiriakou says his CIA background taught him “to be more cautious than, I think, 99 percent of people would be. You constantly have to be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on.”

“I had to constantly be collecting information on people, on guards, on events just to make sure that everything went okay and that I was safe,” he added.

It all began with 2007 ABC News interview, the first time a government official had acknowledged the Agency’s use of waterboarding. “I had aired the CIA’s dirty laundry—something which, is not done,” Kiriakou said bluntly.

After an initial FBI inquiry didn’t yield an indictment, the former case officer’s case was re-opened without his knowledge and he was secretly investigated for three years.

Then, in 2012, charges were filed. Once the most serious charges were dropped, he pleaded guilty to disclosing the identity of an intelligence officer to a journalist and was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison.

Doing Time Like A Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison Cover
Kiriakou talks about his prison experience in his upcoming book. (Rare Bird Books)

Highlighting the fact that the Obama administration charged more people under the Espionage Act than previous presidencies combined, the ex-CIA officer says Obama had a “Nixonian obsession with national security leaks.”

“This was a decidedly Obama policy, to use the Espionage Act to charge political opponents,” Kiriakou says. “As bad as Donald Trump might be, I can’t imagine a Trump administration doing something similar, or any other administration… even George Bush didn’t.”

Trying to make the best of a bad situation, Kiriakou and his family planned to treat his sentence like one of his CIA deployments overseas—or a “TDY” as Kiriakou called them. But things didn’t go as expected, and he soon learned that politics don’t stop at the prison gates.

When he reported to Loretto Correctional Institution in February 2013, Kiriakou was placed in the high-security prison with the most violent offenders instead of the adjacent minimum-security work camp to which the judge had agreed to send him. By the time Kiriakou would be able to get a hearing for an appeal, his sentence would be nearly over.

After his release, through a Freedom of Information Act request, Kiriakou learned that his file included a warning that he had access to the media. He believes that getting placed in the higher security prison was designed to silence him.

“In fact, the opposite was true, if I had gone to the camp, I would’ve just kept my head down, kept my mouth shut; I would’ve done my time and I would’ve gone home,” said Kiriakou. “But because they did this to me, I decided to speak out.”

Kiriakou penned a series of letters from prison.

The ex-CIA officer channeled his frustration into writing. His first letter—part of a series called “Letters from Loretto”— was published online and went viral. He then wrote a few op-eds that were published in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Beast.  Before Kiriakou knew it, celebrities like John Cusack and Oliver Stone were championing his cause. He even got a call from Yoko Ono.

Kiriakou explains that while the writing and its reception outside the prison walls “invigorated” him, it “infuriated (the correctional officers) for two straight years.”

That led to daily harassment.

To endure that pressure and navigate prison politics, he fell back on his skills from his former employer. “In CIA operational training, a big part of it is learning how to manipulate people into getting them to give you what you want, and you essentially do the the same thing,” Kiriakou said. “You’re constantly working people.”

Whether it was refusing to call the guards “sir” or making friends with the right people, Kiriakou deftly worked the system.

For instance, he learned that he couldn’t be punished for writing as long as he didn’t name any of the guards in his letters. “I knew the rules better than they did,” he claimed.

His cell, however, would still get trashed from time to time.

His fellow inmates didn’t give him as much trouble. “I made some really great friends in prison,” Kiriakou recounted. Before he got there, someone who had been following Kiriakou’s case went around to various mafioso in the prison and explained the difference between the FBI and the CIA. “The Italians welcomed me with open arms,” he said. Members of the Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, Colombo, Genovese crime families became his “closest friends.”

But, when another inmate called him a rat, Kiriakou exploded violently and challenged the guy to fight him on the spot. “As God as my witness, I was going to tear this guy limb from limb,” he swore. Before anything could happen, Kiriakou’s friend, a captain in the Bonanno crime family, intervened and told him he’d “take care of it.” Just 20 minutes later, the accuser showed up at Kiriakou’s cell with “his face totally rearranged” and apologized to him.

If that didn’t sound like something from a mafia movie, Kiriakou says “every night” was like the dinner scene depicted in Goodfellas. They indulged in white wine and ate Italian sausages (both sweet and hot) served with homemade marinara sauce, cooked in garbage bucket with live electrical wire.

“I gained 15 pounds in prison,” he said. “The food was amazing.”

Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, published by Rare Bird Books, is available May 16.

How ‘The Radium Girls’ Left a Legacy of Scientific and Civil Rights Contributions

As Americans lavishly enjoyed post-war prosperity during the Roaring Twenties, hundreds of young women working in factories were exposed to so much radium that their grave-sites still set off geiger counters.

Radium was proven to be dangerous in 1901, but the women who toiled in three factories— in New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut—were still allowed to be exposed to the substance without any precautions as it was used in luminous paint. Their plight was covered up by dishonest employers and concerns unaddressed by an indifferent medical community. Despite this, the “Radium Girls” fought for justice and even that was delayed by courts until it was too late for most.

While their fates were tragic, the Radium Girls left a legacy that’s tied to social and scientific milestones throughout much of the 20th century—from nuclear weapons and medical research to modern labor regulations.

1921 magazine advertisement for Undark. (Published in The Story of a Great Engineer)

Research proving radium’s tumor-shrinking powers gave birth to an entire industry of consumer products, from cosmetics to elixirs, marketed a cure-all—though they contained low enough concentration of the substance to be harmless, according to Popular Science. Though one product, a glow-in-the-dark paint called “Undark” contained deadly levels of radium.

Lab workers—who were mostly men—at three watch dial factories that used the paint were required to wear lead aprons and forbidden from holding the radium with their bare hands.

A doctor wearing a mask, shirt and apron impregnated with lead to shield him from the effects of a vial of radium in 1936. (Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, women hired at the factories to paint the watch dials were encouraged to use their lips and tongues to shape the brush tips. They were kept separate from the lab workers, keeping them in the dark, literally and figuratively.

“The tragic part about this story is that even before a single dial painter started work, they already knew that radium was very dangerous,” said Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.

Radium is especially harmful when ingested because it has similar properties to calcium that make it easily absorbed by teeth, bone, and other parts of the body. High concentrations of radium slowly hollow out bones into brittle, honeycomb-like structures, causing them to fracture or collapse entirely in severe cases. In addition to this painful affliction, dial painters also developed bone cancers, leukemia, anemia, as well as lesions and sores. Almost all lost their teeth.

Front and side views of a dial painter with a radium-induced sarcoma of the chin. (Collection of Ross Mullner, Courtesy of ‘Radium Girls’)

As concerns surrounding radium became more public in the 1920’s, the women repeatedly brought it up with their employers only to be told the paint would, contrary to their belief, make them healthier.”There was no opportunity for the girls to have protective measures,” Moore says.

After several tries, the U.S. Radium Corporation in New Jersey eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement with five dial painters—dubbed by media as the “Radium Girls”—in 1928. For the first time in American history, an employer was required to pay for its workers’ medical treatment as a result of negligence.

A bedside hearing at the home of Catherine Donohue, who sued the Radium Dial Company but was too sick to attend the trial in court.(Chicago Daily Times / Sun-Times Media, Courtesy of ‘Radium Girls’)

Another group of women won a lawsuit against the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois that required protective measures for dial painters. According to Moore, these cases paved the way for American labor rights milestones throughout the 20th century and inevitably led to the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Just a few months after the safety precautions for radium were put in place, the U.S. entered World War Two and employment of dial painters increased by 1,600 percent to meet the military’s demand. Meanwhile, another radioactive material—Plutonium—was needed for a new kind of weapon.

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. (United States Department of Defense )

In Radium Girls, Moore describes a young chemist working on the Manhattan Project who was haunted by the ghosts of the dial painters. He wrote in his journal:

“As I was making the rounds of the laboratory rooms this morning, I was suddenly struck by a disturbing vision [of] the workers in the radium dial-painting industry.”

These were the words of Glenn Seaborg, who would win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and discover several elements later his life. But before Seaborg had his prodigious streak, he insisted they research effects of exposure to plutonium, which turned out to cause devastating effects similar to radium exposure.

Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, recording the meter stats of nuclear tests in April 1946. (Fritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

As a result, mandatory precautions were established—letting the Manhattan Project scientists build the atomic bomb in relative safety. (The effects of its payload on Japan, of course, was a different matter.) A report from the U.S. Atomic Energy commission specifically mentions the dial painters in this regard, describing their contributions as “invaluable.” Yet, the scientific impact of the dial painters continued in peace time.

Promises of a new world fueled by atomic energy and the Cold War nuclear arms race spurred public interest in the effects of radiation exposure, but little was known about it at the time. In 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—where Seaborg was an advisor—created a committee to investigate the long-term effects of Strontium-90, a radioactive isotope used in nuclear weapons.

The “Radium Girls” were the only known examples of the detriment radiation caused to the human body. The surviving women volunteered as subjects for medical examinations, which included extensive blood tests, x-rays, bone marrow biopsies (and several post-mortem autopsies). Soon after the studies began, scientists quickly realized the women could also help them understand the phenomenon of radioactive fallout.

After being deemed “essential to the security of the nation,” permanent studies were established to learn as much as possible from the dial painters. An entire research center, the Argonne National Laboratory, was even built for the primary purpose of studying the women.

Dial painters working in a factory in New Jersey, belonging to the United States Radium Corporation, in 1922. (U.S. Radium Corporation)

By 1957, researchers concluded the danger from Strontium-90 was too great, leading the AEC to push for reduced nuclear activity. Under renewed importance after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a ban was finally agreed upon by the US, the UK and USSR in 1963. The Limited Test Ban Treaty—negotiated by Seaborg, then-AEC Chairman—prohibited the three countries from conducting nuclear tests everywhere but underground. The legacy of several hundred dial painters had snowballed into an international policy to inhibit the most destructive weapons in history.

In 2011, a statue was erected in Ottawa, Illinois in honor of their dial painters’ sacrifice and the impact they’ve had since. A few years later, Mae Keane—thought to be last of the “Radium Girls”—died at the age of 107, defying all medical expectations, NPR reports. Her long life is a testament to the fortitude of the brave women, from one of American industrial history’s darkest moments, that paid the ultimate price for a legacy that’s saved millions of lives around the world.

A Well-Heeled Horse Racing Fan’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby

They don’t call horse racing the “Sport of Kings” for nothing.

Sure, everybody’s betting on the same pot of gold—that’s literally the meaning of “parimutuel“—but to truly enjoy horse racing at its finest, it helps to be ultra-wealthy.

The reason? Unless you’re an owner or a degenerate gambler, horse racing isn’t just about the hefty payouts for wins, places, and shows (and exactas, trifectas, and pick-sixes); it’s about the overall experience. And while the underdressed gawkers stand trackside, waiving their rolled up programs like makeshift riding crops, chomping on overpriced hotdogs and guzzling cheap beer, the ones who really get the best view will be sitting far, far away, in the lap of luxury. That experience will include a billowing cigar, an expertly crafted cocktail—a Mint Julep, maybe—and the highest-quality cuisine available.

So while the rest of the internet is bleating on about what funny hat to wear or which horse will earn a gambler $4.34, RealClearLife has dug deep to provide you with the best overall experiences on each leg of the Triple Crown and beyond.

Billionaire's Guide to Horse Racing
The famed spires at at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day May 5, 2007 in Louisville. (A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

 

Kentucky Derby (May 6)
And You’re Off: If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Louisville, Kentucky (pronounced LOO-vull by the natives), you are no doubt aware of just how much sports mean to this city. For one, there’s the college basketball scene. There’s also the Louisville Slugger bat factory and museum, which has been feeding hungry hitters in the majors for decades. And of course, there’s Churchill Downs, the famed horse racetrack, where the Kentucky Derby is run annually.
The Inside Scoop: With the Derby right around the corner, a distinguished aficionado really needs to work connections to find the best luxury options onsite, as most are probably unofficially sold out. But just like Saratoga (see below), Churchill Downs has enough cachet in and of itself to offer patrons an incredible experience—wealthy or not—anywhere on the track’s grounds. At the moment, the only luxury ticket package still available is the balcony area of the Stakes Room. What comes with that package? Premium open bar from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., gourmet food buffets from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and everything one needs to put his or her money on the right horse in the right race. Tickets start at $5,000/person (reserve one here).
Secret Sauce: Show up two days early and grab tickets to the Fillies & Lilies Party at the Kentucky Derby Museum, which will feature live music from country great Clint Black. VIP ticket-holders get access to a premium open bar; private bourbon lounge (hopefully, they have some Pappy Van Winkle); heavy appetizers; a reserved table for four in the second row; and private cocktail servers. General Admission tickets go for $599 a pop. But you know you want VIP access. That’ll cost $999/person. Reserve a spot here.

Billionaire's Guide to Horse Racing
The field heads into the first turn during the 141st Running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 21, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

 

Preakness Stakes (May 20)
And You’re Off: Just a few weeks after the Derby, there’s the opportunity to jet over to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, home of the Preakness Stakes—or the second leg of the coveted Triple Crown (the last horse to accomplish the rare feat was American Pharoah in 2015). Although the most happening party’s in the infield—the area between the oval track and the track itself—unless you want your finest clothes to be ruined (or get waterlogged, in the event of inclement weather), it’s best to look for a dryer, more esteemed solution like the one we’ve mapped out below.
The Inside Scoop: While you sip at your bourbon-based Black-eyed Susan, the official cocktail of the Preakness, it’s best to hold down the fort at the Turfside Terrace, which is the best value and view for the money. Running $450 per person for the day, the ticket includes trackside seating under an awning, with full view of the home stretch and finish line (there are also two Jumbotrons, in case the spectator in front is 6-foot-9). The deal also includes a gourmet luncheon, beer and wine, a souvenir program, live entertainment, and of course, access to private betting machines. For more information, click here.
Secret Sauce: A more refined visitor doesn’t have to avoid infield just because of the more liberal attire and libation options. If you do wander into the party, there are some cleaner, less pedestrian options to enjoy. The VIP-like Mug & Vine Lounge tickets cost $155 per person, and get you in front of the live entertainment in a private corral (country stalwart Sam Hunt co-headlines), with added amenities such as wine, private restroom trailers, and jumbo screens. Order tickets here.

Billionaire's Guide to Horse Racing
The field loads into the starting gate for 148th running of the Belmont Stakes in Hempstead, NY. (Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

 

Belmont Stakes (June 10)
And You’re Off: The last stop on the Triple Crown locomotive is the Belmont Stakes, which takes place on Long Island in Elmont, New York. Of course, New York City is too close by not to do a run-through, and there are countless ways to enjoy the Big Apple in the summer: We’d suggest a Yankees game or Hamilton on Broadway, but there are countless other options. There’s also loads to do out on Long Island as well, including exploring the North Fork wine region and of course, the Hamptons. But a plan is essential for race day, as traffic could easily put a damper on the day if the travel-time is underestimated.
The Inside Scoop: There are quite a few options for luxury accommodations at the track itself, but your best bet is the ultra-exclusive, third-floor luxury suites tied to the temperature-controlled Diamond Room at North Shore Terrace. Ascending a private escalator, you’ll get premium views of the track below in an air-conditioned box (handy in a humid New York City summer). This also comes with access to a number of additional amenities, including a fully stocked bar, live entertainment, celebrity chef, jockey meet-and-greets, and other perks. This’ll run about $1,100/person.
Secret Sauce: If you want to rock out the night before the big race, we’d suggest catching Mike DelGuidice & Big Shot, who are playing the track and all your favorite Billy Joel hits. Why the recommendation to watch a cover band? The catch here is that DelGuidice is actually on tour with the real Billy Joel, who heard his tribute band and hired him. (If you want to make it a really long weekend, you can catch the real Billy Joel at MSG on June 6.)

Billionaire's Guide to Horse Racing
Arrogate No. 1, ridden by Mike Smith, wins the Travers Stakes on Travers Stakes Day at Saratoga Race Course on August 27, 2016 in Saratoga Springs, New York. (Dan Heary/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)

 

Saratoga (July 21–Sept. 4)
And You’re Off: About 3.5 hours north of New York City, Saratoga Springs is a quaint upstate New York town—not so dissimilar from some of the higher-end resort locales on Long Island (save for the lack of beaches). Once known for its mineral spas and itinerant summer residents, Saratoga now caters almost exclusively to the upscale, many of whom have moved there year-round. The town’s biggest draw, besides Skidmore College, is Saratoga Race Course, which opened in 1863, and is one of the oldest horse racing tracks in the country. The top race of the year is the Travers, which occurs several weeks after the third leg of the Triple Crown is over, and usually includes the Derby winner among the top-level competitors.
The Inside Scoop: This writer is a little biased here, having grown up in Saratoga, but that gives RealClearLife an edge: An insider’s knowledge of all the secret spots. For those that wish to get the all-in experience, suggest checking out real estate in the area (either buying or renting a house immediately), or checking into one of the luxury hotels (the majestic, 19th-century Adelphi Hotel in downtown Saratoga, will reopen July 1 after extensive renovations). For the best experience at the track itself—really, regardless of income level—RCL‘s suggestion is to inquire about box seating. The track still has that “classic” feel (think: Fenway Park or Wrigley Field), so a visitor needs to experience it firsthand to get the full experience. It has the best line of sight to the action … at least among the best-dressed folks. There’s  table service, TV monitors, and maybe even a little visit from Lady Luck. (For those looking for a little more privacy, there’s always the luxury suites.)
Special Sauce: Make sure not to miss breakfast at the track. It’s not such a big secret anymore, but it’s still worth the experience. More here. If you’re a fan of celebrity sightings, we’d suggest grabbing some bar real estate after hours at 9 Maple Ave., a jazz club that has a sprawling whiskey and martini menu. On the weekends, though, it can get crowded, and Travers weekend, it’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder.

Billionaire's Guide to Horse Racing
(Courtesy of Del Mar)

 

Breeders’ Cup (Nov. 3-4)
And You’re Off: Although technically not part of the Triple Crown circuit, the Breeders’ Cup attracts the top talent from around the globe and usually features the recent Triple Crown (or leg) winners. The two-day event tends to shift around from track to track on an annual basis, and this year, Del Mar Racetrack in Del Mar, California, has the honors. Aside from the beautiful, always-summer weather in California, Del Mar itself has quite a bit to offer guests of a certain ilk.
The Inside Scoop: A rep at the track told RCL that the height of luxury for Breeders’ Cup weekend can be had at Del Mar’s Trackside Chalet, which runs about $2,000 per person. At the chalet, patrons will get unrestricted views of the race—and a separate outside viewing platform—reserved seating in a climate-controlled area, gourmet food and beverages (upgrade that to an open bar for $200), and jockey appearances.
Secret Sauce: For those who want to jump on next year’s Kentucky Derby, make sure to catch the Del Mar Futurity, which will help predict the following year’s racers. Check out the track’s stakes schedule here.

To get in the mood, watch the running of last year’s Kentucky Derby below.

What the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Was Like Without Trump

Though he didn’t attend this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Trump’s presence was still palpable in the expansive ballroom of the Washington Hilton Saturday evening.

A red carpet usually adorned with Hollywood glitz barely turned heads as black tie-clad members of the media swept out of the sweltering D.C. heat and into the cool basement ballroom to honor—as the president of the White House Correspondents Association reminded the room—good journalism.

“We are here to celebrate the press, not the presidency,” WHCA president Jeff Mason said. “The White House Correspondents’ Association works every day to stand up for press freedom and advocate for journalist’s ability to do their jobs…President Trump’s White House is no different.”

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But in the absence of the usual joke-filled speech from the commander-in-chief, a chance for presidents from either party to defuse tensions with the press, the dinner itself was different. Having announced in February that he would skip the prestigious gathering — attended in the past by the likes of Academy Award-winning actors and major league athletes — President Trump instead appeared at a campaign-style rally he organized in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to celebrate his first 100 days in office. He spent much of his hour-long speech disparaging the media, calling them a “disgrace” and specifically calling MSNBC and CNN “fake news.”

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: Journalist Bob Woodward attends the 2017 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at Washington Hilton on April 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Journalist Bob Woodward speaks at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at Washington Hilton on April 29, 2017. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

“A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now,” Trump told the crowd. “And I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?”

Back in Washington, Bob Woodward, The Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate scandal, took to the stage to send a message directly to the president and to the journalists in the sold-out ballroom about the value of the First Amendment and free speech. “Like politicians and presidents sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far,”  Woodward said. “When that happens we should own up to it. But the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Mr. President, the media is not ‘fake news.'”

Much of the evening was devoted to championing free speech—attendees sat down to blue “First Amendment” pins on their plates, and were encouraged to don them on their clothing. The chatter grew to consensus, however,  that the air was more relaxed than in years past, as party-goers observed lower security and the lack of a high-energy hum with the absence of the president and his aides.

Actress Rosario Dawson arrives for the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) dinner
Actress Rosario Dawson arrives for the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner

But one element the evening that wasn’t missing was entertainment. Host Hasan Minhaj of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show took to the stage to shoot barbs at President Trump and the press, even though he was specifically asked by the WHCA to avoid criticizing the administration.

“The leader of our country is not here. That’s because he lives in Moscow, it’s a very long flight,” Minhaj cracked. Later, he turned to CNN: “I’m not gonna call you fake news, but everything isn’t breaking news…every time a story breaks, you go to nine screens…it’s giving me anxiety.”

As the dinner concluded, guests who have attended in year’s past noted the difference in the evening’s tone. Stacey Deziel, a guest of The Daily Beast who has been to multiple dinners throughout the years, told RealClearLife that this year’s event was much more of an industry awards dinner, rather than a celebrity-laden people-worthy event.

“I think it was a powerful tonic. I think [journalists] needed to have that solidarity and comrades and reinforcement of what they do because it’s really important to the republic,” Deziel said.

Marc Adelman, a bicoastal media strategist who has attended ten of the dinners, agreed that it was important for the press to come together and “let some air” out of the tire.

“I think these moments are important both for the organizations who are here who we are honoring, which is the press, and those of us that support a free press,” Adelman said. “I think it’s good to get everybody in a room and have a laugh, and sort of take a deep breath. I think even with the president not being here, I think that very much gets accomplished in this.”

Adelman went on to say that he thought President Trump might’ve enjoyed himself, had he attended.

“We all have to take our jobs and what our roles are very seriously, but also we can poke some fun at ourselves,” Adelman said. “I think actually President Trump can do that very well, he had some great moments at the Al Smith Dinner in October, where he had some really great lines. And so I think he might’ve actually enjoyed being here.”

Check out the video below to see Minhaj’s full performance.

New U.S. News High School Rankings Teaches That Charter Schools Are Working

Add another win to charter schools’ column—this time, courtesy of newly released rankings on the top high schools in the nation from U.S. News and World Report.

The annual “U.S. News Best High Schools Rankings” was released yesterday, with charter schools notching 60 percent of the top 10 public high schools on the list, as well as the top three slots (those went to a trio of BASIS schools in Arizona). Also, 60 out of the top 100 schools listed were either charter or magnet schools, according to the New York Post.

“That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for a sector that is only six percent of all children attending schools,” Paul Peterson, professor of government and the director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, told RealClearLife. “They’re a very small share of our total educational system.”

Per U.S. News, the 2017 rankings take into account data from over 22,000 public high schools in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. Schools are awarded gold, silver, or bronze ratings based on a four-tier methodology: (1) students performing better than expected in their home state; (2) disadvantaged students performing better than the state average; (3) students graduation rates meeting or exceeding the national average; (4) and ultimately, students’ readiness to tackle college coursework.

Publicly funded but privately run, charter schools have been around since the ’70s, and have become popular alternatives to traditional public schools because they don’t have to work within the boundaries of government bureaucracy. Charters have also been viewed as a highly successful alternative for urban and underprivileged youth, who may not have access to better choices in their area. (See RealClearLife‘s story on Wyatt Tee Walker, co-founder of the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem.) One such school, KIPP Academy in New York City’s The Bronx, landed at No. 10 on the U.S. News‘ rankings.

As the New York Post noted last year, for example, New York City charters were outpacing public schools on state English and math exams. Peterson explains that BASIS—which can now boast of having four of the top five high schools in the nation—has even opened a private school in the city, but is charging students tuition. The reason BASIS tops the list? Because of two factors that permeate charter school culture: how aggressive they are academically (i.e. how many Advanced Placement classes students are likely to take); and the “flexibility” or “freedom” to have a mission like that, explains Nat Malkus, a research fellow in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “[BASIS charters] are quite honest with people; they’re like, ‘We do super-hard work, and if your kid is not ready to come in and hit the books hard every day, they’re probably not going to be very happy here.”

The rise of the charter school has also become a hot-button political issue in recent years, with a number of bipartisan voices coming out in favor of them. Last year, then–presidential candidate Donald Trump called school choice the “new civil rights issue of our time“—and later, as president, appointed charter schools proponent Betsy DeVos as his new Secretary of Education. DeVos has been an outspoken supporter of charter schools and vouchers programs.

“Under the Obama administration, [the federal government] put a lot of money into charter schools—about $250 million a year—and Trump is interested in even increasing that,” notes Malkus. But he likens that largely to “seed money.” “All these policies depend on how well [schools] are done, but done well, charters are a fantastic addition to the public education system,” Malkus continues.

However, as Peterson explains, how much sway the federal government has over the proliferation of charter schools is actually quite limited. “It’s really up to the states to allow for more charter schools, and states have been pulling back,” says Peterson. “As ironic as it is, charter schools are under pressure right now.”

This May the Fourth, a Look at ‘Star Wars’ Tech Here on Earth

Laser weapons and EmDrive aren't the products of science-fiction anymore. (Lucasfilm)
Laser weapons and space crafts aren’t the stuff of science-fiction anymore. (Lucasfilm)

It’s been forty years since Star Wars hit theaters and became a worldwide phenomenon. Today, on May the Fourth, that fictional world seems much closer to a reality than it was when George Lucas wrote the script for A New Hope.

Between its flying passenger drones, 3D-printed offices, and planned Hyperloop system, cities like Dubai could easily be mistaken for Coruscant, a sprawling metropolis in the films that’s so big it covers the entire planet.

Boston Dynamic’s ATLAS humanoid robot doesn’t make quips like C3-PO or Rogue One’s K2-SO, but it sure runs like them. Prototypes of hoverbikes resembling the speeder bikes from  Return of the Jedi may be up for sale later this year. EmDrive technology, similar to the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, is now thought to be within eventual reach by NASA scientists—supported by rumors of early military space tests, according to Popular Mechanics.

Some gadgets in the Star Wars universe mirror ones from reality so closely that it’s uncanny. The filmmaker is quite the forward thinker, so it begs the question: was George Lucas prescient?

Tupac's hologram performance at Coachella in 2012, left, and the famous scene with Princess Leia, right. (Getty Images/Lucasfilm)
Tupac’s hologram performance at Coachella in 2012, left, and the famous scene with Princess Leia, right. (Getty Images/Lucasfilm)

 

Many wondered if 3D projections featured in the iconic scene with Princess Leia were around the corner after Tupac’s hologram performance at Coachella in 2012. Not only are appearances like that common today, but telecom companies are teaming up to put that tech into smartphones, according to Vocativ.

Scientists recently re-created the Death Star laser, too. Instead of destroying planets, the futuristic beam could improve lasers being used in anti-drone defense systems, like the one just delivered to the U.S. Army, Washington Post reports. Companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon are all developing some form of a laser weapon.

Engadget reports a bionic prosthetic developed for wounded combat vets was named LUKE—a nod to the one-handed Skywalker.

Technology like LUKE, however, suggests the multi-billion dollar franchise was more of an influence than a prediction. Instead of Lucas having foresight, his magnum opus could have inspired today’s innovators and shaped their products in the process.

There’s no doubt at least a few Silicon Valley pioneers are Star Wars fans.

Many of today's tech leaders are fans of the franchise, including Mark Zuckerberg. (Facebook)
Many of today’s tech leaders are fans of the franchise, including Mark Zuckerberg. (Facebook)

 

Mark Zuckerberg’s shown his love by dressing his dog and infant daughter up as characters from the films. He’s been such a high-profile fanboy taht the Facebook founder was treated to a Han Solo-inspired retort to his comment on The Force Awakens trailer just after its debut online. (“This looks amazing. I love Star Wars,” he wrote. “We know,” the Star Wars Official Facebook page replied.)

Elon Musk told the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium audience in 2014 that Star Wars was the first film he ever saw. Musk’s SpaceX is arguably the most important company bringing Earthlings all a little closer to the reality of the type of intergalactic exploration portrayed in Star Wars. It’s mission to colonize Mars is the first step of in making mankind a “multi-planetary species.” The company recently made history by proving reused rockets to be possible, and there was a little Star Wars influence involved in that success. The recycled Falcon 9 rocket has extendable fins, which he called an “X-Wing” configuration, to help balance when landing, TechCrunch reports.

Then again, George Lucas is as much of an innovator as Musk, Zuckerberg, or any number of other Star Wars fans behind today’s technology. The filmmaker and his team invented many of the special effects required to pull off space battles and other stunts in the original films. To this date, Lucas has racked up 29 patents to his name.

The Star Wars creator may have been an inventor, but he also borrowed a lot from history. Ancient leaders and their empires inspired characters like Queen Amidala and Emperor Palpatine, according to Nancy Reagin’s Star Wars and History. Princessa Leia and the Rebel Alliance grew from Joan of Arc’s rebellion against Henry VI. Likewise, Han Solo’s journey from smuggler to hero parallels John Hancock, who first made a living skirting British blockades.

SR-71 production at Lockheed Skunk Works, left, and an X-Wing hangar at the Rebel Base on Yavin 4, right. (Wikimedia Commons/Lucasfilm)
SR-71 production at Lockheed Skunk Works in 1965, left, and an X-Wing hangar at the Rebel Base on Yavin 4, right. (CIA Archive/Lucasfilm)

 

It doesn’t take a Jedi mind reader to see how battles in Star Wars were inspired by real conflicts, but that often spilled over in a more literal way during filming. Instead of dreaming of futuristic visions, the set designers used World War Two relics to make the most of their shoestring budgets. “In those days you could buy scrap airplanes from $60, and so I went around Britain buying up scrap aircraft, jet engines — all sorts of stuff. Out of that, we did most of the set dressing,” set decorator Roger Christian told Star Wars Insider.

The crew made most of the spaceships, robots, gadgets, and weapons from bits of old war machines and junkyard parts. Han Solo’s iconic blaster? That’s a Frankenstein-like amalgam of an antique Mauser Pistol, a German M-81 machine gun, and a few other parts. “Rather than have your slick streamlined ray guns, we took actual World War II machine guns and cannibalized one into another,” said production designer John Barry in an interview with historian Cole Horton.

What We Know About the Obama Foundation, as Former President’s Plans Take Shape

As his successor puts a very different stamp on the American political landscape, observers in the Beltway and beyond are looking to see what former President Obama is going to do next.

After a brief, high-profile vacation following the end of his two-term presidency, the Democrat announced the launch of a charity, the Obama Foundation. But aside from a website with a cryptic video and a call for supporters’ opinions to go with donations, details are shrouded in secrecy.

The much-anticipated foundation is clearly still in planning mode. Experts estimate that it could take more than $1.5 billion alone to construct the Obama Presidential Center, which will include the foundation, presidential library, and museum, in the Jackson Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side.

“It will be interesting to see the direction that Obama goes once he establishes the library,” Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a non-profit also based in Chicago, told RCL. “He will need time to figure out the course of the foundation. He’s a young man, so he will certainly be more active in the library and foundation than someone older.”

Two months after he left office, all eyes are still on what exactly will be keeping Obama active. On Feb. 24, the former president made headlines when he stopped in the Big Apple to speak with some folks at the Simons Foundation, rumored benefactors for the Obama Foundation.

The Obama Foundation has indicated its focus will be various projects throughout Chicago, the country, and the world, but the specifics are still unclear. Requests for comments from the foundation have gone unanswered, but the Obama.org website states that the Obama Foundation will be “a startup for citizenship — an ongoing project for us to shape, together, what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.”

Obama website
Homepage of Obama.org (Obama.org)

The organization may still be formulating its own plan. The former commander-in-chief and his crew have been enlisting citizens to “add your voice” to the dialogue by filling out an online survey of what they expect out of the foundation. And people have been responding. In just one month, the organization received hundreds of thousands of ideas for the future Obama Foundation.

Meanwhile the Obamas appointed David Simas, who was one of the president’s top political aides while in office and director of the political strategy and outreach arm of the White House, as CEO of the foundation. The hiring hints that the Obama Foundation will include some level of political activism. In March, another former White House staffer, Yohannes Abraham, was selected to serve under Simas. 

Barack Obama and David Simas
Barack Obama (R) and David Simas (L), outside the Oval Office of the White House on May 18, 2016. (Michael Reynolds – Pool/Getty Images)

 

“Obama is interested in urban issues,” said Benjamin Hufbauer, who wrote a book on presidential libraries and is an associate professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “They’re building the presidential foundation in an area of Chicago that is not exactly prosperous. They will probably do outreach with the intention of giving the area an economic boost.”

Borochoff said the Obama Foundation will most likely be participating in activities that are aligned with Obama’s values, but was quick to point out that this is standard operation.

“Part of having a library is for past presidents to promote their ideals and their history,” he said. “He’s doing nothing insidious.”

The first presidential library was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, as a way for the former president to establish his own memorial. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Carter Center was created, the first presidential foundation, setting the tone for future presidential centers.

“Before that there were no foundations to do public advocacy,” Hufbauer said.

Hufbauer said Democratic presidents usually follow the “Carter model,” doing philanthropic work, while Republican presidents do more academic-based research, such as theorizing about changes to policies.

Currently an 11-person board oversees operations of the Obama Foundation.

By law the foundation will need to find private donors to finance 60 percent of the construction and endowment costs to maintain the library — up 20 percent from previous requirements. Once a library is established the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains the library.

The city of Chicago has provided the land for the presidential center at a nominal cost.

Already, though, there have been some issues with that site, such as major roads that cut through the potential park area. The foundation has toyed with the idea of closing the through ways only to be met by opposition from local activists.

Earlier this year the Obama Foundation announced the New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will head the team of landscape architects, along with architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the husband-and-wife team also based in Manhattan, to help shape the grounds around the center in Jackson Park.

“We are honored to be a part of this very exciting project,” Tiffany Jow, who handles communications for Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, said in an email. “Unfortunately none of the architects are permitted to discuss the project or its design at this time.”

The Obama Presidential Center is expected to open in 2021.