Freedom Writing

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bear in the Woods

"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?"

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(Yesterday I wrote about Ronald Reagan's domestic–policy commercial from the 1984 campaign, informally known as "Morning in America.")

The Reagan campaign commercial of which I wrote yesterday is the one that most people remember from that campaign. Economic issues played such a critical role in Reagan's victory in 1980, and an advertisement illustrating how much better things were (by comparison) four years later was quite effective.

But I have always thought the better commercial was the one on foreign policy called "The Bear." It very cleverly illustrated the differences in thought regarding Russia (symbolized by a bear since at least the 17th century) and how much of a threat it was to the United States.

Again, Reagan's opponent wasn't mentioned by name.

But it very neatly summarized Reagan's philosophy of "peace through strength:"

"Since no one can really be sure who's right," adman/narrator Hal Riney said, "isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?"

That is the kind of question that never really seems to go out of style. America is today the world's last remaining superpower, but it has been cutting back on its active military. Consequently, many Americans live in fear that a rogue country like Iran or a terrorist group will gain possession of nuclear weapons.

I think it is safe to say that, if the party in the White House chooses to run a foreign policy commercial in the eight weeks before this year's midterm elections, it will not focus on the president's foreign–policy successes with crises brewing on virtually every continent on the globe — even though the president is not on anyone's ballot this year.

Anyway, the 1984 advertisement did seek to define Reagan and his foreign policy record, and it did so quite well. It reassured skittish voters that Reagan was not the reckless warmonger his critics made him out to be, that he favored a strong defense as a way to keep the peace, that such an approach was prudent in the world of 1984.

That sounded reasonable to voters, who had reached their own conclusions on whether Reagan was reckless after nearly four years of his leadership. Available evidence suggested otherwise to them.

The 1984 campaign really was the most rare of opportunities for an incumbent, it seems to me. Conditions were so much better than they had been four years earlier that Reagan could define himself instead of allowing his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to define him, and frame the debates in ways that were favorable for that definition.

The "Bear in the Woods" ad is a perfect example of that. In almost every modern political campaign for an office in the federal government, an advertisement on foreign policy — by candidates in either party — will be designed to reinforce negative perceptions/stereotypes about the opposition. But in 1984, the Reagan campaign was able to focus on political philosophy and explain to voters why the president believed his policy was the wisest choice.

It really was a brilliant piece of political advertising.

The Reagan camp had months to prepare the ads, too. There was no opposition to Reagan's bid for renomination so his staff was able to fine–tune the advertisements for the fall campaign under virtually no pressure — at least by campaign advertising standards.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When It Was Morning in America ...

"It's morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?"

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(Tomorrow I will write about Ronald Reagan's foreign–policy commercial from the 1984 campaign, "Bear in the Woods.")
I often hear people — on both sides of the political fence — lamenting the absence of civil, positive campaign advertising (by which they almost always mean TV advertising). On Sunday, I wrote about what I feel was the first of the negative ads used in a presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy girl" commercial in 1964.

That was the Pandora's box that unleashed all the negative advertising that most voters lament today. They aren't exaggerating. It is true that ads are decidedly negative today. Campaign advertising almost always promotes a negative image of a candidate's opponent, seldom a positive image of the candidate himself (or herself). Candidates from both sides of the aisle apparently believe the only way to win is to tear down the opponent. It's been that way for a long time; sometimes it seems it has never been otherwise.

That is the ironic part of all this, isn't it? Candidates believe they can't win without attacking their opponents, and voters say they are turned off by such a spectacle. For the time being, at least, I am inclined to believe that we will continue to be overwhelmed by negative advertising — at least until such tactics are clearly repudiated at the ballot box.

Political advertising on television, of course, is a comparatively new form of advertising, newer than radio, much newer than print. It's been around since 1952, but, in many ways, it was still evolving when Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale faced off in the 1984 presidential campaign.

Advertising in presidential campaigns was rather primitive — but generally not negative — in the 1950s — but, by 1964, a hardball form of negative advertising emerged in the form of Johnson's "Daisy girl" commercial.

That commercial only aired once, but it influenced the election in many ways — and is still discussed in conversations about political advertising. Perhaps its reputation for having helped the Johnson campaign led to the increasingly frequent use of negative advertising in the elections that followed.

I'm sure the Reagan campaign used some negative advertising in 1984, but I honestly don't remember any. That campaign is mostly remembered for two commercials that focused on the administration's record in its first four years. His opponent was never mentioned in either.

One was called "Prouder, Stronger, Better," and it was developed (in part) and narrated by San Francisco ad man Hal Riney — but it is more popularly remembered as "Morning in America," a phrase from the opening sentence.

Democrats (and I was one at the time) seethed over the commercial. I noticed that Democrats' complaints focused not on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the claims but rather on the merits of the production. They couldn't argue with the facts — compared to circumstances just before the last presidential election, unemployment was down; so were gas prices and interest rates.

Those are the kinds of things an incumbent wants to talk about in campaign commercials. It isn't necessary to focus on the negative if the incumbent can say things have been better on his watch — and the numbers back him up. Those numbers weren't particularly good — but they were better than four years earlier.

In fact, the only thing that could be called negative was the final sentence — Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

And that really was the point for which a case had been made. The commercial was saying the current administration had made good on its promises. The president's opponent had been part of the previous administration. The Reagan campaign saw the choice as being between staying the course (to borrow Reagan's famous campaign pitch during the 1982 midterm elections) and going back to the policies of the previous administration.

That was a pretty effective way to frame the choice, and more than 58% of those who voted agreed with Reagan.

It's the kind of case every incumbent would like to make — that things have been better under his or her watch than they were under his/her predecessor — but few incumbents can make.

Was Reagan lucky, as Democrats claimed? Or was he good, as Republicans insisted? I have heard it said that it is better to be lucky than good, and maybe that was the case with Ronald Reagan. A president's critics always seem to be convinced that he is leading the country to disaster, and Reagan had no shortage of critics. If he had run for re–election in 1982, there is no doubt that he would have lost. His approval ratings before and after the election languished in the lower 40s.

But conditions changed considerably in the next two years — and Reagan's approval rating just before the 1984 election was precisely what his ultimate share of the popular vote turned out to be — 58%. Reagan certainly was lucky in his timing

If "Morning in America" came across as kinda corny, well, it was. Positive ads lack the drama of negative ads. Perhaps that is the price to be paid for getting what you want.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I Beg Your Pardon?

"As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family. Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."

Gerald Ford
Sept. 8, 1974

Many presidents have been known as "His Accidency." It is a label that is generally reserved for those who were elected vice president and then became president after the guy who was at the top of the ticket when the people voted on the matter died. There have been eight presidents who died in office.

Sometimes the voters have been pleased with the accidental president's performance — well, pleased enough to give him a full term on his own. Sometimes they haven't been pleased, and they voted him out. Sometimes the accidental president sees the writing on the wall and decides not to seek a full term.

Gerald Ford was a unique case in American history. He must be the most accidental president of all because he only became vice president when he was appointed to replace the duly elected vice president in the first use of the 25th Amendment to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency. Then, when Richard Nixon resigned, he became president.

Maybe that unique role in American history was liberating for Ford. Maybe he felt he could do things differently than the three dozen men who had occupied the presidency before him precisely because he had not sought the presidency or the vice presidency.

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots," he said on the day he took office. A few minutes later, he pledged, "If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises."

The people believed him, even people who loathed his predecessor. They were willing to give him a chance. He came across as pleasant and sincere. It was a refreshing change. But it didn't last, largely because of what happened 40 years ago today.

It started out as a rather routine late–summer Sunday. Pro football would start its season a week later; college football had kicked things off with a bare–bones schedule the day before. For sports enthusiasts, the only thing of note besides baseball's pennant races was daredevil Evel Knievel's scheduled attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in the Skycycle X–2, a steam–powered rocket. He failed in the attempt, suffering some broken bones but nothing major.

But Knievel, who had been the recipient of considerable hype before the attempt, was knocked completely off the front pages. Ford, who had barely been in office a month, announced that he was pardoning his predecessor. The sense of betrayal showed in Ford's approval rating. A week after taking office, Ford's approval rating was 71% — nearly three times Nixon's approval rating when he resigned the week before.

But Ford's approval rating tumbled to 50% after the pardon, and many people — myself included — believe he never recovered politically. There were a few fluctuations, but, for the most part, his approval rating remained in the 40s for the rest of his presidency.

With the pardon, much of the good will that had accompanied Ford into office evaporated.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ken Gormley and David Shribman agree that the nation was "stunned" at the time. That would be impossible to dispute. "Now," they contend, "there's almost universal agreement that Ford was right." Personally, I have mixed feelings on that. Maybe I always will. I have come to believe that there was at least some justification for the pardon. Maybe it did allow the nation to heal. But even Ford must have known that the healing process would be long. The American people had been deceived — a lot — by their presidents for 10 years. They weren't going to be over it in a day or a week or a month or a year — or even two years when Ford would have to face the voters.

I don't know if Ford's pardon of Nixon hastened the nation's healing process, as Ford hoped, but it did resolve a dilemma for his Justice Department.

Memos show officials at Justice were wrestling with Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution, which said that a person removed from office by impeachment and conviction "shall nevertheless be liable to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to the law."

The Constitution, however, said nothing about a president who resigned from office. Ford's pardon effectively ended that discussion.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

LBJ's Daisy Commercial Changed Everything

Less than a year ago, I wrote that Lee Atwater deserved much of the credit for our present state of polarization, thanks to the way he ran George H.W. Bush's national campaign 26 years ago.

But I guess credit for the template for divisive modern political advertising goes to Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 campaign staff. They were responsible for a commercial that is remembered as the "daisy commercial." It had its one and only airing 50 years ago today.

It showed a little girl plucking the petals from a flower, as small children do, and counting. The girl who was shown in the commercial was 2 years old, and she was observed in a very serene, pastoral setting.

As she counted to 10 — haltingly and, at times, out of sequence, which is understandable with a child that age — an adult voice began a missile launch countdown in the background, and the camera zoomed in on the girl's face until the pupil of her eye filled the screen.

That was followed by a mushroom cloud — and a snippet from one of Lyndon Johnson's speeches.

"These are the stakes," Johnson said. "To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."

"Fifty years later, the visual is startling — even shocking," writes John Rash for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But just as jarring are the words."

Another voice — I've heard it was sportscaster Chris Schenkel's (but I heard Schenkel call football games when I was growing up, and the voice in the commercial never sounded like his voice to me) — then said, "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The message was clear. Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, could not be trusted with nuclear weapons.

"You can love 'Daisy' for its power or hate it for its excess — I both love it and hate it — but it changed political advertising forever," wrote Drew Babb in the Washington Post.

It cannot be denied that the daisy commercial was an effective reminder that Goldwater had voted against the nuclear test ban treaty.

Babb, who teaches political advertising at American University and is president of the firm Drew Babb & Associates, went on to list the ways it changed political advertising. The logic is hard to fault.
  • "It gave politicians a license to kill."

    Babb observed that "[e]arlier political commercials were overwhelmingly upbeat." He pointed out that, only four years earlier, an advertisement for John F. Kennedy featured Frank Sinatra singing a revised version of "High Hopes."

    Dwight Eisenhower's commercials were relentlessly upbeat.

    Of course, television was still in its infancy then. As it grew up, it grew teeth. Fangs, in fact.
  • "By all means, trash the tropes."

    The rules were clearly different. Johnson's ad agency was largely made up of "New York street brawlers" accustomed to competing over products, not politics, and they did what they knew.
  • "Overreacting can boomerang."

    That is a fact that both parties should keep in mind today. Advertising has become much more sophisticated in half a century, but the experience of 1964 should not be forgotten. Republicans howled about the ad, and Johnson's campaign pulled it after its only showing 50 years ago today. But the networks reported on the Republican reaction and, so the viewers would know what the fuss was about, ran the ad over and over again.

    If they hadn't seen it when it aired as a commercial, they were bound to have seen it when it was shown repeatedly on the nightly news. Consequently, the message was reinforced — and almost certainly contributed to Johnson's landslide victory that fall.
Do you think the theme is outdated because America is the world's only remaining superpower? A group called Secure America doesn't. It recently unveiled a commercial called "Daisy 2," and it was clearly inspired by the commercial that ran 50 years ago.

It pulls no punches. Here is what the narrator says:
"These are the stakes. We either stand up to supporters of terrorism, or we and our allies risk losing the freedom we cherish. We must not let the jihadist government of Iran get a nuclear bomb. President Obama has an opportunity to stop it. But he is failing. Join with us. Let's secure America — now."

Monday, September 1, 2014

Revisionism Does No One Any Favors

"At daybreak on September 1, 1939 ... the German armies poured across the Polish frontier and converged on Warsaw from the north, south and west. ... The people in the streets ... were apathetic despite the immensity of the news which had greeted them from their radios and from the extra editions of the morning newspapers. ... Perhaps ... the German people were simply dazed at waking up on this first morning of September to find themselves in a war which they had been sure the Fuehrer somehow would avoid. They could not quite believe it, now that it had come."

William Shirer

One of the great what–ifs of history allegedly occurred on a battlefield in northern France in the autumn of 1918, the waning days of World War I.

Adolf Hitler, who was 29 at the time, was serving in the German army. He had been wounded and was stumbling across the battlefield when he encountered a British soldier named Henry Tandey, 27 years old.

Reportedly, the weary Hitler staggered into Tandey's line of fire, and, for a time, Hitler was in Tandey's sights. But Tandey lowered his gun, and Hitler nodded his thanks and moved on.

That story may be merely a myth, a legend without a morsel of truth in it. But we do know that Tandey lived and served during World War I, and we know that Hitler also served in World War I and lived to propel the world into a second World War. If that story about the encounter between Tandey and Hitler is true, in such a moment, the course of human history truly hangs in the balance.

If Tandey had pulled the trigger, Hitler would have died that day, and the tens of millions who died on the European battlefields, in the gas chambers or in the ovens of World War II because of him would have been spared. If Tandey had been blessed with the ability to look into the future, my guess is he would have chosen to kill Hitler to prevent the deaths of the millions.

But Tandey couldn't do it. Even with the knowledge of what could be prevented, it might still be difficult for most of us to shoot at another human being. In general, it is a good thing that most of us have that spark of humanity within us that prevents us from taking another person's life. But sometimes it is necessary to prevent or, at least, mitigate the consequences of things that are inevitable. At least, they often appear inevitable in hindsight.

If Hitler had been killed on that battlefield in France, it is highly unlikely that Germany would have invaded Poland 75 years ago today. But Tandey couldn't pull the trigger — so Hitler lived to launch the Holocaust.

The fact that Hitler lived made the Holocaust virtually inevitable, didn't it? I mean, he might have died on that battlefield in France a couple of decades earlier — or he might have died any time (and for any reason) in the next 21 years. If he had died, the likelihood of the Holocaust happening would have died with him. But, of course, he didn't — and it didn't, either. No amount of revisionist history writing would change those facts.

The invasion of Poland didn't actually start the Holocaust. That really began years earlier when Hitler started to implement anti–semitic laws in Germany — and began to fine–tune his plans for eastern Europe. Consequently, it would be wrong to designate today as the anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. It had already begun and wouldn't go into overdrive for a few more years.

In Germany, the invasion of Poland was called the "Defensive War." The Germans were told that Germany had been attacked by Poland and that Germans living in Poland were being persecuted.

But we know that wasn't true. You can clearly see — in these pictures that were published in LIFE magazine — that the Poles were not invading Germany 75 years ago today.

When people speak today of a war on a particular demographic group, they should be reminded of what a war on a particular demographic group really looks like. There are still those who know, but their numbers grow smaller with each passing year. They remember the Holocaust and the price that humanity paid for it; unfortunately, many of those who have come along in the last half century or so think the invasion of Poland and the events that followed have been blown out of proportion — if many of them happened at all.

Revisionism does no one any favors.

The invasion of Poland had many objectives, some of which were obvious while others were not so obvious.

One of its objectives was Hitler's often–stated goal (consistently denied by western governments and elements in the media of the day who sought to appease the Nazis) of eliminating the Jewish race.

Los Angeles is home to the second–largest Jewish population in America, fourth largest in the world (larger even than Jerusalem). Amanda Susskind of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles writes of her own family's experiences in the German concentration camps and, while "it is hard to shock me," Susskind writes that she "found it particularly chilling" to discover from recent surveys that staggering numbers of people across the globe "never heard of the Holocaust or believe it has been greatly exaggerated."
"The survey data reveal that that it is imperative to continue to teach about the Holocaust. Sadly, we face another challenge meeting this imperative: One of the indicators of anti–Semitism is the stereotype — and roughly 30 percent of those surveyed worldwide think this — that 'Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.'"

Amanda Susskind
Jewish Journal

Revisionist historians seem to have gained the upper hand, and appeasement is once again in the air.

As ISIS terrorists wage war with Israel and Russia continues its march to reassemble the Soviet Union, it is an appropriate time for us to remember the invasion of Poland 75 years ago today and ponder the perils of appeasement.

Have we learned anything from that experience?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When the Cheering Would Not Stop

"When there were periods of crisis, you stood beside him. When there were periods of happiness, you laughed with him. And when there were periods of sorrow, you comforted him."

Robert F. Kennedy
Aug. 27, 1964

It was the president's birthday, and he was scheduled to give a speech accepting his party's nomination that night. His newly anointed running mate also was scheduled to give a speech accepting his nomination.

But the delegates at the Democratic National Convention 50 years ago tonight gave their longest, most sustained ovation to the attorney general and late president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was there to introduce a film honoring his brother, who had been assassinated about nine months earlier.

There was no love lost between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. Johnson feared having to put Kennedy on the ticket with him to placate party leaders; the bad blood between them predated John F. Kennedy's administration, and LBJ had worried, on the day of the assassination, that Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, would find some way to deny him the presidency.

That did not happen, of course, but so intent was LBJ on preventing Kennedy from seizing power that he had announced, early in 1964, that no members of his Cabinet would be considered for running mate.

(In my studies of that time, I have yet to see any kind of evidence that Kennedy ever wanted to be Johnson's running mate.)

Of course, that didn't prevent Johnson from relying heavily on Kennedy to get the Civil Rights Act passed earlier in the summer of 1964. If he was nothing else, Johnson was a political creature, and he knew the P.R. value of at least appearing to be in Kennedy's good graces. But he feared being upstaged by Kennedy.

Kennedy originally was scheduled to introduce the film on Tuesday, Aug. 25, but Johnson wanted to push it back to Thursday night. He was worried that a movement to draft Kennedy, born of the emotion of the moment, could force him to put Kennedy on the ticket. Consequently, he wanted Kennedy to make his appearance on Thursday night, the last night of the convention — when the nominations would be done deals and all that remained would be the acceptance speeches.

Even though it was supposed to be Johnson's night.

Even though it was Johnson's birthday.

"I stood on the floor in the midst of the thunderous ovation," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger. "I had never seen anything like it. Ordinarily an organ in the background controls the pandemonium of a convention. This time they stopped the organ after a moment or so. But the demonstration roared on, reaching a new intensity every time that Robert Kennedy, standing with a wistful half–smile on his face, tried to bring it to an end."

The delegates' ovation was not a surprise. The duration and fervor of it was.

As Schlesinger noted, Kennedy tried, unsuccessfully, to quiet the crowd so he could speak. Henry Jackson of Washington reportedly told Kennedy to let the delegates have their demonstration. "Let them get it all out of their systems," he supposedly said. And, for the most part, Kennedy did.

When Kennedy finally did speak, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the convention hall, particularly when he closed with a quotation from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet:"
"When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When Germany and Russia Signed Their Nonaggression Pact

By and large, people are pretty good about learning from their mistakes. When they do something that results in physical pain and/or humiliation, most people make a mental note not to do that anymore. It's a defense mechanism, I suppose.

But there is one lesson — well, actually two lessons — that people repeatedly refuse to learn: (1) There is evil in the world, and (2) there is always someone who will be willing to cooperate with that evil.

I think just about everyone can agree that Adolf Hitler was evil. Everything he did in World War II was influenced by his experiences as a soldier in World War I.

One of the most significant lessons he took from World War I was that Germany came closest to victory when Russia was not involved. When that changed, so did the fortunes of war.

Consequently, as Hitler was readying his forces for the invasion of Poland that would set World War II irretrievably in motion 75 years ago, he dispatched foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow to work out an agreement with the Russians: The countries would agree not to attack each other.

Hitler intended to keep the Soviet Union out of the fighting this time.

Ribbentrop's trip to Moscow was announced on Aug. 22, 1939. Actually, I suppose, things got started around Aug. 14, when Ribbentrop contacted the Soviets to work out the second of a couple of deals.

The first pact was an economic one. The Soviets promised to provide food and raw materials to the Nazis; in return, the Nazis promised to provide products like machinery to the Soviets. (This made it possible for the Nazis to sidestep Britain's blockade in the early years of the war.) The details had been worked out earlier in the summer, and the agreement was signed in Berlin on Aug. 19.

The second agreement was the nonaggression pact.

Under the cloak of darkness in the late hours of Aug. 23, Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed a nonaggression pact that history remembers as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. It achieved what Hitler wanted. It kept the Soviet Union out of the hostilities.

Until Hitler himself broke the pact with Germany's invasion of Russia in June 1941.

Why did Hitler do it? I suppose you can answer that with another question: Why did Hitler do anything? The simple answer was that keeping Russia out of the war had helped him strengthen his hand in Europe. The nonaggression pact had served its purpose, and Hitler was looking to fulfill his pledge in Mein Kampf to look to the east for "living space" for the German people — and the raw materials he needed for the war effort.

He misjudged the strength of his position, and, apparently, he forgot with whom he was dealing.

Hitler's military leaders warned him that a two–front war would put enormous strain on the already weak German economy, but Hitler saw only the potential benefits. He soon saw the downside as his Army was repelled outside Moscow after the Russian winter set in.

There was a secret protocol in the nonaggression pact of which the world knew little until the Russians confirmed its existence in 1989.

Under this secret protocol, the Nazis and Soviets divided up eastern Europe into what were called "spheres of influence." In exchange for the Soviets' promise to stay out of the coming war, the Nazis gave them the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to act as a buffer from an invasion from the west. Poland also would be divided between the two countries.

The spoils of war were already being divvied up — and not a single shot had been fired ... yet.

The Coronation of Ronald Reagan

"Isn't our choice really not one of left or right, but of up or down? Down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and, ultimately, totalitarianism, always advanced as for our own good. The alternative is the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society."

Ronald Reagan
Acceptance speech
Aug. 23, 1984

I wasn't a fan of Ronald Reagan when he was president. I had the opportunity to vote for him, but I didn't. I don't regret my choice. At the time, I was a Democrat, and I wouldn't have thought of voting for anyone other than the Democrat in any race. It's how I was brought up.

Even if I had not been brought up by diehard Democrats, that was age–appropriate for that time in my life, as I understand it. Winston Churchill reportedly said, "Anyone who isn't a liberal by age 20 has no heart. Anyone who isn't a conservative by age 40 has no brain." (Note: I say "reportedly" because I have found no proof that Churchill actually said or wrote those sentences. I don't know who did, but I do know that I have heard those sentences all my life, and they seem to be one of those unattributable truisms. Whoever said or wrote it was spot on in his/her evaluation of the progression of life.)

Well, I don't know what all that says about me. As I have acknowledged before, I am now an independent. I feel like Joe Piscopo, who recently wrote that he wasn't ready to embrace the Republican Party, but "[i]n good conscience ... I can't continue to call myself a Democrat."

That is reminiscent of what Reagan frequently told his audiences — that he had been a Democrat as a young man but became a Republican after the Democrats moved away from the things that drew him to the party in the first place. He would conclude his story by asking his audiences, "Did I leave the Democratic Party? Or did the Democratic Party leave me?"

I didn't understand Reagan's appeal to ordinary Americans. I suppose I bought the line of thinking that insisted Reagan was hopelessly nostalgic about a simpler time in American history and determined to revive that time instead of leading the nation forward into the future.

I couldn't understand Reagan's appeal. I knew people who voted for Reagan 30 years ago. Everyone did. He ended up winning 49 states and receiving more than 58% of the popular vote in the last real landslide in American history. Oh, I know that there have been times when candidates have won by "landslide" — even though they were no such thing. Historically, a landslide has occurred when one candidate received more than 55% of the popular vote and more than 400 electoral votes from 40 states or more.

Landslides were almost routine from 1964 to 1984. Three of the six presidential elections held in that time fit that description, but none of the seven elections held since 1984 have. Some have been called landslides, but none truly were. And, as evenly divided as America is today, I doubt that we will see a landslide like the one from 1984 in the near future — unless an extraordinarily charismatic candidate emerges.

To be honest, I never thought Reagan was all that charismatic, but, clearly, a large number of Americans did. In hindsight, I see some things differently than I did at the time, which is understandable, as I was quite young, but one thing that I have always known was that Reagan was an effective speaker. I didn't know why he was so effective at that time.

I was always envious of that. He had a folksy kind of charm that made many people in 1980 realize that he was not the warmongering ogre his critics said he was. There were a lot of horror stories spread about Reagan that seemed less and less valid to people the longer he was in office. There is no doubt that many of the things his opponents said about him were true, but reasonable people look at the record and see that Reagan was president for eight years — and he never launched a nuclear attack on anyone. His detractors warned that he would have America in a nuclear war within days of taking office. Once they got past that image, they wondered how many other falsehoods they had been told.

As a Democrat, I hoped he would be replaced when he sought a second term, that his election had been a mistake that voters would redress. But, on this night 30 years ago, when I watched him accept the Republican nomination in Dallas, I knew he would win in November.

I don't know how I knew. But I didn't tell any of my Democrat friends the conclusion I had reached. I didn't want to discourage them.

Thirty years ago tonight, Reagan told his fellow Americans that the choice was simple — it was between "their government of pessimism, fear and limits, or ours of hope, confidence and growth.

"Their government sees people only as members of groups,"
he continued. "Ours serves all the people of America as individuals. ... Theirs lives by promises, the bigger the better. We offer proven, workable answers.

On the surface, that sounds good. No American disagrees with that statement, right? At least, as long as "theirs" and "ours" remain undefined. It's only when you go deeper into a candidate's philosophy on individual issues that he/she can legitimately be labeled conservative or liberal.

I knew people who voted for Reagan who probably disagreed with him 70–80% of the time, but they voted for him because they thought he was a strong leader. I understood that mentality in 1980, when Reagan ran against the discredited Jimmy Carter, who rode a populist wave into the White House four years earlier. Carter was widely perceived to be a failure. Again, in hindsight, I am inclined to believe that anyone who got the Republican nomination that year was destined to win.

I disagreed with the majority's assessment, but I honestly believed Reagan's victory in 1980 had been a fluke.

But, by 1984, Reagan had a track record. It was one with which I was not impressed, but it clearly impressed others, and his acceptance speech was filled with references that resonated with his listeners, both those in the convention hall in Dallas and the millions watching at home.

Such as the misery index, a calculation Democrats used in Carter's campaign against President Ford in 1976.

"[A]dding the unemployment and inflation rates, [Democrats] got what they called a misery index," Reagan said. "In '76 it came to 12.5%. They declared the incumbent had no right to seek re–election with that kind of a misery index. Well, four years ago, in the 1980 election, they didn't mention the misery index, possibly because it was then over 20%. And do you know something? They won't mention it in this election, either. It's down to 11.6 and dropping."

Reagan never stooped to name calling. His rhetoric was almost always positive; he tended to save his put–downs for himself. Perhaps that was what people found so appealing.

It may be why he could get away with blatantly emotional rhetoric, as he did near the end of his acceptance speech when he spoke of repairs that were being made to the Statue of Liberty.

"Just this past Fourth of July, the torch atop the Statue of Liberty was hoisted down for replacement," Reagan observed. I will never forget the cameras scanning the crowd of delegates and coming to rest on the face of a young woman, a delegate standing on the floor of the convention hall, looking up at Reagan, her hands clasped in a prayerful pose, tears streaming down her cheeks as Reagan said, "We can be forgiven for thinking that maybe it was just worn out from lighting the way to freedom for 17 million new Americans. So, now we'll put up a new one."

I thought that was astonishingly corny. I was even more astonished when I realized just how many heart strings Reagan had tugged with that tale.

Reagan was no fluke.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

"We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired."

Fannie Lou Hamer
Aug. 22, 1964

I really must apologize. I intended to write about this on the actual anniversary, which was yesterday, but it was an unusually busy day for me. Even so, I didn't want the anniversary — the 50th — to pass without observation. I want to tell the story. Because it is a good story, one that should be remembered.

It's the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

I didn't hear of Fannie Lou Hamer until well after the fact. I think my mother was the one who told me about her, but that isn't really important. She was a civil rights activist from Mississippi who was in the national headlines for a little while in the summer of 1964, then largely disappeared from national view.

She was involved in the planning of 1964's Freedom Summer, when blacks in Mississippi were being taught how to register to vote. It was an effort that went on throughout the South during the 1960s, actually, but it was far more dramatic in Mississippi, where blacks and whites had lived separately under a social and legal system that had been in place for generations. Other places in the South were integrated — to varying degrees — but Mississippi had earned a reputation for being a "closed society."

I've only seen film of her, but Fannie Lou Hamer has always reminded me of the black women I knew when I was a child in central Arkansas — and, I suppose, she was about the same age as they were, too. I never could tell how old they were. (Guess I'm not much better at guessing people's ages today than I was then.) I knew what I needed to know, I suppose. They were always friends of my mother — at least, I always met them through her — and they were older than she was. I knew that much.

I didn't know until later the extent of Fannie Lou Hamer's suffering in Mississippi, which was much more overtly racist than Arkansas in those days — still is, to a degree, I guess. She was sterilized without her consent — by a white doctor as part of a state–sponsored plan to reduce the number of poor blacks. In the summer of 1963, she and a group of activists were arrested on a false charge and beaten so badly in police custody that it took weeks to recover.

I could understand if such experiences made her angry, distrustful and bitter. But Fannie Lou Hamer looked and sounded like the women I knew in my hometown long after her moment in the spotlight. However unpleasant their experiences had been, they were unfailingly positive. They spoke of faith and "the movement" and registering blacks to vote. So did she.

Fannie Lou Hamer sometimes seemed sad, but she had a profound faith in God and what Martin Luther King called "the promised land" — even though I don't think that King used that expression until the famous speech he gave the night before his assassination.

I guess you could call her a realistic optimist — she believed a change was gonna come, but she doubted she would live to see it.

In the summer of 1964, she was 46 years old and regarded as something of a maternal figure by the primarily young people who had been recruited and trained in the North to challenge segregation in the South.

Fannie Lou Hamer participated in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. She was there — and, as a journalist, I reserve most of my admiration for people who were there, wherever there happened to be. That commands far more respect from me than those who report on events from afar — even though, for many, it is the only way they can report or comment on most events.

Fannie Lou Hamer was there.

(It's funny, but, for some reason, I can't seem to refer to her as "Hamer" on second reference, which would be in keeping with the AP Style that has influenced my writing since college. I simply have to use her full name.)

Fifty years ago, the Democrats were preparing to hold their national convention. They would nominate President Lyndon Johnson for a full term in office. They would nominate Hubert Humphrey to be his running mate. They would hear a brief speech from Robert F. Kennedy introducing a film about the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. The delegates would hear a lot about domestic policy, about civil rights.

Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi gave the national Democratic Party an opportunity to do more than talk in the days leading up to the Democrats' national convention. The Freedom Democrats challenged the legitimacy of Mississippi's then–all–white Democratic Party, demanding to be seated.

The Freedom Democrats were careful to do all the things the national party required in order to send a slate of delegates to the national convention, including hold a statewide convention to select 68 delegates. That slate included four whites. Then the Freedom Democrats sent their delegates — by bus — to Atlantic City.

Read the words of historian Theodore White, who also was there.

"It is difficult to compress the emotion that the Freedom Democratic Party aroused at Atlantic City into the narrow proportions of importance it holds in the story of the convention," wrote White. "There was no moment when the convention machinery ... might not have imposed a solution. But the intensity of the emotion was so deep, and all other proceedings were so dull, that for three days the convention paused to consider its only excitement.

"One gets the flavor best,"
White continued, "not by considering the issues raised but by considering and listening to a voice. On Saturday afternoon, as the Convention Credentials Committee moved to consider the situation in Mississippi, a robust Negress rose to testify. She gave her name as Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of ... Ruleville, Mississippi [in Sunflower County, northwestern Mississippi] ... Then she proceeded to tell her effort to register to vote, legally, going back as far as 1962; and as her fine, mellow voice rose, it began to chant with the grief and the sobbing that are the source of all the blues in the world. The hot, muggy room was electrified as she concluded her narrative of a Mississippi Negro's life when one attempts to register."

At that point, most accounts I have read indicated that the majority of delegates would have voted to seat the Freedom Democrats, but other Southern delegations were threatening to walk out if that happened — and Lyndon Johnson, already fearful of the reaction in the South to the passage of the Civil Rights Act earlier that summer, did not want to lose additional Southern support.

So Johnson, with the assistance of his soon–to–be vice–presidential nominee and Humphrey's fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale, worked out what was charitably called a "compromise" — two of the Freedom Democrats would be given at–large (and non–voting) seats.

The compromise was ludicrous, and the Freedom Democrats knew it. They rejected it, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who is probably best known for her statement that "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired"), summed things up beautifully.
"We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired."

By the way, Johnson's "compromise" didn't help him. He lost five Southern states and nearly lost a sixth. In the 50 years since, Jimmy Carter (in 1976) has been the only Democrat who carried more Southern states than he lost.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where Is the Outrage?

I support Americans' right to assemble peacefully, to protest peacefully when they believe an injustice has occurred. I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

I wish my government did, too.

For more than a week now, Americans have witnessed scenes in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., where a black teenager was shot and killed. They haven't always been peaceful — or anything resembling it. What are they protesting? A young man died. That is a sad thing. Some would call it an injustice.

I wouldn't.

Before you make any assumptions about me that are not true, hear me out. My definition of injustice is when justice has been denied. Has justice been denied in this case? No. The system has not had time to do what it was designed to do.

Many of the people I have seen involved in the protests in Missouri say they want justice — but they don't. They want revenge. Those are two different things. Justice requires facts, evidence. Revenge does not.

If anyone — in Ferguson or anywhere else — tells you he/she knows the police officer was guilty of murder, he/she is lying — because no one knows all the facts. That is — supposedly — why we have trials. To see the evidence, hear the testimony, then sift through it all and decide what the truth is.

Murder, by the way, is a legal term that is reserved for a case in which a jury has ruled that someone's death was caused deliberately by someone else. Until a jury has made that determination, legally (based on the laws of the state where the death occurred), no murder has happened.


And I can tell you — as one who covered my share of trials in my reporting days — that almost no one knows the whole story until that trial has been held.

We don't really know what happened in Ferguson two weeks ago. We should reserve judgment because we do know that our system requires that we presume the innocence of the accused until he has been proven guilty in an open court. If I am ever accused of anything and find myself in court, I want that presumption of innocence. For it to remain strong, it cannot be denied to anyone. Nor can due process.

That is so important because often there is no unambiguous evidence of someone's guilt, and all the available evidence must be studied before a conclusion can be reached. Criminal charges of any kind are far too serious to be left to emotion.

We do know what happened in Iraq, though. It is not ambiguous. We don't know precisely when it happened, only when the video of the execution of photojournalist James Foley by an ISIS terrorist surfaced. Foley's beheading wasn't accidental. It was intentional. It was carried out by an apparent Briton — but nearly all of him — including his face — was hidden by black clothing.

He wasn't necessarily British. I have taught many foreign students; some spoke with distinctly British accents, but they weren't from the U.K. They came from other countries. Without exception, they were schooled in British schools by British teachers, and if you spoke to any of them on the phone, you would assume they were British. But they weren't.

The English–speaking jihadists were recruited deliberately. It's obvious. With their British accents, they can blend into places like America without arousing any suspicion while waiting for their assignments. Such accents are regarded as non–threatening by most Americans. And, even if they don't necessarily look British, with our borders as wide open as they are, who's going to notice another undocumented foreigner?

I am outraged on several levels by this act of blatant barbarism.

While I have done other things in my life, I will always consider myself a journalist. I never faced the danger that Foley clearly did, but I have known those who did. And when something like this happens, it is like a death in the family. I never met James Foley, but, as I say, I have known many like him.

The president, who never hesitates to stick his nose where it doesn't belong domestically, especially when it involves white on black crime (of which there is remarkably little), took some time from his vacation to acknowledge the murder — and took the unprecedented step of revealing details about a U.S. mission that failed to rescue Foley earlier this summer — then rushed back to the golf course in Martha's Vineyard, which is where he was when Foley's family held their emotional press conference.

He didn't have a photo op with Foley's family the way he did with Bergdahl's — even though he could have negotiated for Foley's freedom when he went against American policy to negotiate for Bergdahl's release.

What reason was there for disclosing details about the mission that failed? Politics. It was the president's way of getting credit for being tough — yes, he did try to do something, but, oops, it just didn't work. And, for all you bad guys, here's what we tried to do with material that we have at such–and–such location. Do you think that put any Americans in jeopardy? I do.

The president, along with his media enablers, is loath to use the word "evil," even when really no other word is sufficient. This is one of those times.

In just an hour or so on the internet last night, I found two references — in the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report — to ISIS' brownshirts as "militant."

My father is OK with the use of the word "militant," but I'm not. It strikes me as flippant. When I hear the word "militant," I think of the protests of the '60s — when campus militants, as they were called, threw Molotov cocktails at buildings — and people. Mostly, those "militants" were protesting for something (i.e., civil rights) or against something (the war in Vietnam). Sometimes, people got hurt. Occasionally (but, really, not that often) people were killed.

But it was never as blatant, as cold–bloodedly deliberate as the slaying of James Foley.

We need a word for these ISIS people. Judging by their behavior, people is far too generous, but there are those who would object if they were called animals, which is much closer to the truth. Do we need a new word? I'm not so sure. I think it would be appropriate to call them 21st–century Nazis. In the '40s, if someone said the word Nazi, you knew precisely what it meant.

Like the 20th–century Nazis, these people cannot be appeased. They are intent upon killing Americans. They said they would execute more Americans — and all they're looking for is an excuse. They asked for $132 million for Foley, then, when they were told that time would be needed to raise the money, they stopped communicating altogether.

They weren't interested in the money. They already control the oilfields in Iraq and Syria as well as all the sources of revenue in the larger cities. All the request for time to raise such a huge sum did was take away an excuse to kill an American, but they had another one ready. They blamed the pin–prick airstrikes and warned that, if they continue, more Americans will die. Obama said they would continue.

Do you doubt that they will make good their threat? I don't. Not for a second. They clearly want to kill Americans — and they want Americans to see them killing Americans.

It was naive for anyone to believe that the war on terror was over. Now, I fear, it will be deadly.

Do you believe that, somehow, ISIS will fail because evil always fails? The Nazis didn't fail. They were beaten by the Allies. It is the only way to deal with this kind of people. I regret having to say that because it contradicts the way I was brought up. But as long as these people exist, they are a deadly threat to us and our modern allies. Our friends in Europe should be especially concerned, being as close to ISIS as they are, geographically.

A few months ago, we observed the 70th anniversary of D–Day, the event that marked the turning point of World War II. A sustained effort is needed now if we are to rid the world of the menace that threatens us today.

We cannot delude ourselves into thinking it is over until it really is.