Freedom Writing

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Still in Nixon's Grip

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas eulogizes Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.

I will always remember the moment when, 20 years ago today, I heard that Richard Nixon had died.

It wasn't one of those milestone moments people ask about decades later — like where one was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Nixon had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. It was not unexpected, and, besides, at 81, he was nearly twice as old as JFK had been when he died.

Still, you must understand. Nixon was president when I was a child. I remember seeing war protests on TV in which hate and anger were mostly what were on display. Judging from the defensive responses I saw and heard coming from the Nixon White House, it was clear there was no love lost between the sides. I never really understood why so many people were surprised when the extent of Nixon's response came out via the secret tape recordings that ultimately destroyed his presidency.

It all was a logical reaction — from Nixon's paranoid perspective.

Anyway, Nixon really shaped and defined the times in which I grew up. When he was president, I honestly couldn't imagine a time when he would not be president. I could not imagine a time when America would be free of his grip.

And then he resigned. The unthinkable not only became thinkable, it became fact.

Nearly 20 years later, he was dead. I remember feeling astonished by the relentless passage of time.

There have been seven presidencies since Nixon left the White House. Five of them, including the incumbent, already had become entries in American history texts by the time Nixon died.

And now 20 years have passed since Nixon's death. Two more presidents have been elected; a third will be elected in a couple of years. I am humbled anew by the speed of the passage of time.

Five years ago, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Nixon's death, I wrote that he was "deeply flawed." I still believe that.

I believed that 20 years ago tonight when I heard he had died. I was living in Norman, Okla. It was a Friday evening, and I was watching my TV. Suddenly, the channel I was watching interrupted the broadcast with the news bulletin that Nixon had died.

He had been in the news all week — since suffering a stroke on Monday. At first, it seemed likely he would recover, even though his movement and vision were impaired, but he lapsed into a coma and died that Friday.

It was the first time a former president had died in more than two decades. It doesn't happen often. Only two former presidents have died since Nixon died, but it could happen at any time. The fact that two former presidents are in their late 80s (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who will be 90 in June) makes the likelihood of another presidential funeral in the near future a distinct possibility; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are in their 60s and seem to be in good health, but they could be vulnerable as well.

In keeping with his wishes, Nixon did not receive a full state funeral, which would have called for his body to lie in state at the Capitol and probably some kind of funeral service in Washington. Everything was done in California. The five presidents who had succeeded him were there, along with many of his foes and allies from his years in Washington.

Both of his vice presidents were there. Gerald Ford, of course, had succeeded him when he resigned, but Spiro Agnew had been his first vice president, and he was there to pay his respects.

It was, I believe, the last public appearance by Ronald Reagan. His affliction with Alzheimer's was announced that year, and he was the next former president to die, a little more than 10 years later.

On the 20th anniversary of Nixon's death, it seems that no one is writing about him. He has been left behind with the other relics from the 20th century.

Ironically, Nixon's presidency continues to influence American policy and American spending in the 21st century. The president who sought "peace with honor" in Vietnam launched a war on drugs that America continues to fight and lose because it can't seem to find an honorable way out — and Americans continue to die because of it.

In so many ways, America is still in his grip.

Friday, April 18, 2014

More About the Midterms

We're roughly 6½ months from the midterm elections.

With a split Congress, the priorities for both political parties have been predictable, haven't they? I mean, the Democrats have the Senate and would like to have the House, too. The Republicans have the House, and they would like to take over the Senate. All things being equal, either could happen — and neither could happen.

CNN's Ashley Killough reports that the political terrain is getting worse for Democrats. Killough reports that five Senate races that were previously thought to be reasonably safe for Democrats have become competitive. That is based on information from a memo from the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — so take it with as many grains of salt as you wish.

Until the votes are counted in November, of course, anything (theoretically) is possible, but, as I have pointed out before, midterm elections don't usually work out too well for the president's party, especially in the second midterm of a president's tenure.

Historically speaking, therefore, since Democrats hold the White House, they are likely to experience setbacks in the midterms — unless something dramatic happens that has clear benefits for the president's party. How severe those setbacks will be is unclear.

With each passing day, the likelihood of something dramatic happening lessens.

How's it looking to observers so far?
  • Over at Sabato's Crystal Ball, the emphasis lately is on the House of Representatives, which Democrats had hoped (and, presumably, still do) to flip in the fall.

    At one time, the Democrats with whom I spoke expressed optimism upon hearing of the retirements of Republican incumbents. Based on my highly unreliable conversations, that mood has shifted. In more recent weeks and months, the Republicans with whom I have spoken have expressed the same sense of optimism regarding the retiring Democrat incumbents.

    Actually, writes Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor for the Crystal Ball, "the degree of turnover in the House this cycle is not unusually high." An average of slightly more than 70 House members leave every two years, Skelley writes, "about one–sixth of the total House membership."

    So far, 50 members of the House are leaving for one reason or another. Some are retiring. Others are seeking other offices. The reasons for a member's departure can be many (including losing a bid for renomination) and additional retirements may be announced, but, considering we are now better than midway through April, you have to wonder if the number of retirements will even reach the average.

    Currently, the Crystal Ball anticipates a gain for Republicans in the House of 5–8 seats. That is roughly what the Rothenberg Political Report projects.

    To people who haven&apost been watching elections too closely until, say, the last 10 years or so, that may seem like a low number. In the context of other recent elections, I suppose it is. In the last five election cycles, either Republicans or Democrats gained at least 21 House seats three times.

    But those other two elections, in which one party or the other gained fewer than 10 seats, were more typical of American legislative elections.

    An election in which one party or the other wins as many seats as the parties did in 2006, 2008 and 2010 is seen as a transformational year by political observers.

    Charlie Cook's Cook Political Report finds 17 House seats up for grabs. If all those seats were held by Republicans and Democrats carried each, it would be enough for the Democrats to seize control of the House.

    The problem is that only four of those seats are held by Republicans. The rest are in Democrat hands. To win the House, it looks more and more like Democrats will need something dramatic to happen.
  • The latest Rothenberg Political Report finds Stuart Rothenberg obsessing over the rumor that outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius might challenge Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas.

    Rothenberg wrote that his initial response to a New York Times article that reported Sebelius, a former two–term governor of Kansas, was "considering entreaties from Democrats who want her to run" was that Democrats "had to be encouraged," given the difficulty they have had in recruiting quality candidates to challenge Republican incumbents.

    "After that," wrote Rothenberg, "I quickly came to my senses." He pointed out the things that occurred to me immediately upon hearing that Sebelius was considering making a run — things that should have given her pause if she really was thinking about it. Maybe they did.

    It is true that, at one time, Sebelius was a popular figure in Kansas. She was elected governor in 2002 with more than 53% of the vote, and she was re–elected in 2006 with 58% of the vote.

    But she was perceived as more of a centrist then.

    "I remember interviewing her years ago," Rothenberg writes, "when she was running for governor. She was all business. No chit–chat. Not much personal warmth at all. She was all about Kansas and managing things properly."

    That image has been transformed by the Obamacare experience. It is no secret that Sebelius' name is intricately tied to Obamacare, which is not popular in red–state Kansas. Her boss for the last five years, Barack Obama, got 41% of the vote in Kansas when he first sought the presidency in 2008, and that dropped to 38% of the vote when he ran for re–election in 2012.

    If Sebelius had run for the Senate, Obamacare would have been front and center, keeping the story in the headlines and benefiting Republicans elsewhere at a time when Democrats have been trying to change the subject to ... anything.

    Then there is Kansas' electoral history in Senate races. It hasn't been unusual for Democrats (even Democrat women) to be elected governor of Kansas — rare but not unusual — but Kansans haven't voted to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since (appropriately) the year before the premiere of "The Wizard of Oz."

    Rothenberg concluded that the Senate seat is safe for Roberts — and, apparently, so did Sebelius.

    Republicans need to win six seats to take control of the Senate. Rothenberg currently thinks a gain of 4–8 seats is probable. The Crystal Ball says Republicans appear likely to win four Senate seats with three more rated tossups. The Cook Political Report is a little more conservative right now, saying that three Democrat–held seats appear likely to flip and five more are up for grabs. But it also says two Republican–held seats are in jeopardy.
  • Those observers analyze politics professionally. I only do it on an amateur level.

    But, at this stage of a midterm campaign, I think it is useful to compare presidential job approval ratings for presidents in their second midterm election years.

    About a week ago, the McClatchy/Marist poll reported that Obama's approval rating was 45%. That's better than some polls, not as good as others, but it is the most recent one of which I am aware.

    How does that compare to other presidents in their second midterm election years?

    Well, Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, had an approval rating of 39% in a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in April 2006. Bush seldom enjoyed approval ratings of 40% or higher in 2006. His Republicans suffered, losing six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

    In April 1998, Bill Clinton had just survived an attempt to impeach him, and he was enjoying consistent approval ratings in the 60s. Thanks to the backlash against the impeachment attempt, the party division in the Senate was unchanged, and Clinton's Democrats actually gained four seats in the House.

    Ronald Reagan was facing his second midterm election in 1986. In mid–April of that year, Gallup reported that his approval rating was 63%. Reagan's Republicans lost eight Senate seats and five House seats.

    The circumstances of the midterm election of 1974 were unique in American history. Richard Nixon had been re–elected in 1972, but he resigned about three months before the midterm election of 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, had to face the wrath of the voters in the grip of Watergate backlash.

    Nixon was still president in April 1973, and Gallup reported his approval rating at 26%. Republicans lost five Senate seats and 49 House seats.

    Dwight Eisenhower was the last president to face a second midterm election — in 1958. In April 1958, Gallup reported his approval rating at 55%. 1958 was a tough year for Ike. His approval dipped below 50% in late March for the first time in his presidency. In November, Eisenhower's Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats.

    Harry Truman wasn't elected president, but he wound up serving most of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth term, and he presided over the midterm elections of 1946. The midterms of 1950 were the second midterms of his presidency, and, in the spring of 1950, his stunning victory in the 1948 presidential election was a distant memory, and he was fluctuating from the 30s to the 40s in his Gallup job approval ratings. Democrats lost six Senate seats and 29 House seats.

    Roosevelt had his own troubles. In the spring of 1938, with the second midterm of his presidency approaching, FDR's approval rating was 54% less than two years after he was re–elected in a landslide. In November, Roosevelt's Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Not Quite an Ordinary Armed Robbery

Forty years ago today, heiress Patty Hearst popped up in a surveillance video of a bank robbery in San Francisco.

It was and remains one of the most famous photographs of her.

Until February of 1974, Hearst had been a relatively unknown newspaper heiress. If she was known at all, it was as the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, supposedly the model for "Citizen Kane." She leaped into national headlines when she was kidnapped by a self–styled revolutionary group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

The kidnapping thrust her into the spotlight, and, at that time, the most famous photograph of her, the one that showed up on the cover of every news magazine and in every crude broadcasting graphic of the day, was the one at right.

It showed her as she apparently was before she was kidnapped — a naive heiress, apparently uninvolved in political causes of any kind, living in an apartment with her fiance.

For awhile, she communicated with her parents and the world via cassette tapes. The tapes were clearly propaganda statements that Hearst's captors forced her to read. In one such tape, Hearst said her captors wanted food delivered to the poor in California as their ransom, but, when Hearst's father, William Randolph Hearst Jr., complied in part with the demand, Patty still wasn't released because the SLA felt the food that was delivered was not very good.

Then the tapes stopped coming, and nothing was heard from Hearst until April, when she popped up again, first in a picture that her captors sent to the media and then in an armed robbery a couple of weeks later.

The picture of her that was released to the media, accompanied by a tape in which she announced that she had joined the SLA and would henceforth be known as Tania, quickly replaced the first as the most recognizable picture of her. That, too, wound up on the covers of news magazines and in broadcasting graphics.

It is the picture you see to the left — Hearst wearing revolutionary garb and holding a weapon. When that picture hit the news, I heard many adults speculating that the SLA would never allow her to hold a loaded weapon. Then, she was photographed participating in the robbery of a branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, carrying a weapon and making no apparent attempt to escape her captivity. After she and members of the SLA were taken into custody in 1975, law enforcement treated her as an accomplice rather than a victim.

After she was taken into custody, it was determined by some of the folks who examined her (as well as some who did not examine her) that she was a victim of the so–called Stockholm syndrome, in which a captive bonds with his/her captor(s).

At the time, I have to admit that I didn't really understand that. The news reports talked about the abuse she had suffered in captivity, and I couldn't reconcile that with the idea that she willingly joined the SLA — unless she had done so with the belief that it would prevent future abuse.

Perhaps it was a self–defense mechanism, but my memory is that any such reference was thinly veiled as something else.

Anyway, the jury believed she had joined the group willingly and convicted her of robbery. She was pardoned by President Carter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Defense of Press Freedom

I confess that I have mixed emotions about the case of Sharyl Attkisson, formerly an investigative reporter for CBS.

As I have written here many times, I am a First Amendment advocate. Well, actually, I believe in the Constitution — always have — and I am as apt to quote passages from it as other people are to cite quotations from the Bible, but everything comes back to the First Amendment. I don't believe any of the other freedoms we enjoy (and, in many cases, take for granted) would be possible without it.

I have worked for newspapers and a trade magazine, and I can sympathize with Attkisson's apparent frustration. She has said her reputation within CBS was that she was a "troublemaker" for pursuing leads on stories that were at odds with the White House's policies/stated positions.

I'm sure that much, if not all, of what she says is true. When she submitted the results of her investigations to the decision–makers in CBS' news division, she probably did receive many compliments for her work, which has always been solid, and she probably was told, from time to time, that there wasn't sufficient time to run it in its entirety.

At that point, I suppose, the editing process in broadcasting may well have subjected her work to, as she has put it, "the death of a thousand cuts." That's the kind of thing that can easily happen when one is trying to put together a page in a newspaper and space is limited — and the article is reviewed by several sets of eyes. Cuts are made, words are changed. Things happen. It isn't a conspiracy.

I am sure it was frustrating. I have seen people on the print side — I have even been one of them myself — who put a lot of time and effort into their work, only to have it diced up before it ended up on a page.

I'm sure the same thing happens in broadcasting.

In my own experience, I can say that it is beyond frustrating to have your work shredded in such a way, and, when it is, you find yourself open to any and all suggestions for why it happened. If, as is the case with Attkisson, your politics differ from your employer's, you may wonder if that explains what happened.

Fact is, things happen. As hard as it may be to accept, it probably wasn't intentional. It's too easy — and unfair — to blame the media. But, even if it is true, it is probably going to be too hard to prove. That's how our system is set up. The burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.

That's in the Constitution.

The accusations of media bias by both sides have never been as shrill in my lifetime as they are today. There have been times in my life when I worked for employers who did not share my views, and it did cross my mind, when something I wrote was severely cut, that politics may have had something to do with it.

(I occupied a much lower rung on the journalist's ladder than Attkisson, though.)

But the media cannot be as conveniently labeled as paranoid extremists on both sides would like the rest of us believe. The media in this country are not as monolithic as that. Not even close. Journalists really are like any other demographic group; they do not have the same mind, and they do not think the same things — but many do share the same motivations.

I hear conservatives accusing the media of being liberal, and I hear liberals accusing the media of being conservative — both are correct, and neither is correct. Political leanings certainly play a role in the running of media outlets. It would be naive to presume that they do not. But politics is not the whole story.

The media operate the way everything else does in a free–market society. Individual decisions are made. Some are good. Some are bad. Individual decisions on the upper level have an impact on everyone below.

Profit margins have a lot to do with those decisions. In my work for newspapers, I was always aware of the importance of circulation and advertising revenue. Given a choice between their principles and their financial security, my guess is that most journalists will opt for security — even if that means they must stand up for their principles in less overt ways.

But I was also aware of the fact that journalists are eager to cultivate favor from their sources — and that can make things complicated if the reporter doesn't maintain a certain distance from the source.

Those ratings and profits rely on access to the influential and the powerful. It has been alleged as long as I can remember that there have been reporters — at the White House, on Capitol Hill, etc. — who become a bit too chummy with their sources.

And, when I hear Attkisson speak of the chilling effect that experiences like hers can have on this profession, it strikes a nerve with me. I worry about the same thing.

How does all this relate to the Attkisson situation? I don't know. I just know that profit is always a factor in a business decision, and news outlets may be particularly vulnerable; when times have been hard, newspapers traditionally are among the first to feel the influence of a bad economy and among the last to recover from one. In my own experience, when newspapers have had to make tough decisions under such circumstances, it is easy for the workers to misinterpret things that are said and/or done. Human nature, I suppose.

(I have never worked for a broadcasting outlet, but I assume that profit would be defined, in part, by ratings.)

Attkisson was with CBS for more than two decades. There have been some rocky economic years in there — as well as some boom times — but CBS never fired her. The quality of her work was not an issue.

Given that, I guess, if I had been in Attkisson's position, I might be inclined to think what she apparently thinks.

The press is free, like any other business in America. The owners of a particular newspaper or TV station may have a certain set of principles that differs from their employees, just like owners and employees in other fields can and certainly do disagree.

And Atkisson is free to take her stand, which she does at her website. If you go there, you will find this, her statement of principle, I guess: "Resisting undue corporate, political and other special interests."

Because of the nature of this business, it may be easier to suspect that politics is behind certain decisions — but suspicion is not the same as proof of guilt, in a courtroom or a newsroom.

In fairness to Attkisson, she has not accused CBS of anything resembling a conspiracy. She has merely suggested that there was a pattern in the decisions that were made and the actions that were taken. But that cannot be accepted as proof.

A person cannot be found guilty of something because of a guess or a hunch. That's in the Constitution, too.

Freedom of the press can be a complicated, sometimes fragile, thing, but its preservation is essential in the existence of a republic.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Looking Out for Number One

"Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it."

Mark Twain

I'll be the first one to tell you that I was never very strong in certain subjects in school.

I knew a few people who got terrific grades in just about everything — there was one in particular who made it look stupefyingly easy, but she was such a sweet person that no one held it against her when she messed up the curve for the rest of us — but I'm sure they would tell you there were subjects at which they had to really work to keep that grade–point average up.

There may be some people in this world who do have a natural aptitude for just about every scholastic subject, but I have yet to meet one — just people who have successfully cultivated the appearance of brilliance.

And that is probably almost as good as if they really are brilliant. What people believe to be true tends to trump whatever is true.

That's what makes the art of spin so important in the world of politics. Even if they don't know much else, politicians do know a lot about the image–reality dynamic. When it is working in their favor, they ride the wave. But when the tide goes against them, they need the professional spinmeisters to turn things around.

In my experience, most politicians weren't the brightest bulbs in the box when they were in school. In fact, many might have been the polar opposite of that girl I mentioned earlier.

But the successful ones always seem to have known when it was time to trust their futures to the professional spinmeisters — who could, as I used to hear the adults in my world say from time to time, make chicken salad out of chicken s**t. In some circles — and depending upon what was being said — I guess that was/is called bluffing.

Sometimes, though, even spin won't work. That's when the strategy seems to be simply to change the subject.

And this year, with the party primaries in the midterm election campaigns now in full swing, a news event seems to have been made to order for changing the subject — the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It is a story that has been going on for nearly a month, much of it spent watching search parties fly over the Indian Ocean.

As I write this, the searchers apparently are no closer to learning the flight's fate than they have been in the last four weeks — but they continue to chase every lead, no matter how unlikely it may be. And news networks are lampooned for labeling a 4–week–old story breaking news.

But for politicians, particularly Democrats and most especially those in federal office, it means attention is taken away from the facts about Obamacare and the economy. For them, that is almost certainly a good thing.

Now, economics was one of those subjects I took in college because I was required to do so, not because I had any special understanding of the material. It was like a foreign language to me, and I never had much success learning a second language, either.

I have friends who were and still are fluent in economics. I have always freely admitted that I am not. I sure did try to be when I was in that class. I spent hours reading and re–reading the chapters of my ECON textbooks, hoping some of it would stick, but I regret to report that little, if any, of it did.

(Well, as Will Rogers used to say, we're all ignorant. We're just ignorant about different things.)

And today, most of my understanding of economics is based on my understanding of logic. That normally helps me in unfamiliar territory — but economics really is another matter. It has a logic all its own.

I don't understand the whimsical nature of the stock market or the prices of gold and silver — or, to be honest, monetary policy in general.

But I do have a basic understanding of natural law. See, I took physics in high school. I didn't do very well at it, but I understood enough about motion and similar principles from my own observations of the world that I wasn't completely lost in that class.

I knew that every action has an equal and opposite reaction — from something as simple as playing baseball. To hit a ball a great distance, it was necessary to swing with as much force as possible. You don't hit the ball out of the park by squaring up to bunt.

And I knew from basic math that if you have a certain quantity of something and you give up a portion of it — through commerce or consumption or whatever — you are left with less to consume or trade for other things.

It isn't rocket science. And, for me, that is definitely a good thing.

Back when Barack Obama ran for president the first time, I freely acknowledge seeing logic in some of his objectives, but the recession and the economic implosion left what I thought was an unavoidable conclusion. The jobs crisis had to be met first — before any of the other objectives could be met.

Yes, I said, the health care system needs to be reformed. But not trashed — and certainly not while this nation is on its economic knees. Put America back to work so there is a solid economic foundation upon which to rebuild health care.

If we didn't do that, I warned, we would see premiums and deductibles go up, policies canceled, existing full–time jobs downgraded to part–time ones, and existing part–time jobs eliminated.

Yes, I said, the minimum wage should be higher. But we shouldn't forget that it was really only intended as a minimum entry–level wage. Over time, as the individual gains experience and knowledge, that individual will receive raises, bonuses, all sorts of additional incentives.

And I was also uncomfortable with the idea of raising the minimum wage by nearly 40%. It was unrealistic to think that businesses could give their current workers that kind of raise and be able to increase their workers' hours, much less create new jobs.

The economy is not one big faceless entity in spite of what we hear about a handful of massive corporations that monopolize everything. Yes, there are huge corporations that do control an ever–growing segment of the U.S. economy, but much of America's economic activity is still in the hands of small business owners. There may not be as many mom–and–pop shops as there once were, but they still drive the American economy.

Except for the newcomers, I guess nearly all small business owners have been in business for awhile. They're bound to have a pretty good idea what kind of annual profits they can expect from their businesses, and they budget accordingly. When their incomes don't meet their needs because of added financial demands, they have to make adjustments. Maybe minor adjustments in the prices being charged or the products/services being offered will bring things back into balance. Sometimes they have to cut employee hours. They may have to cut some jobs.

If you own your business and the math isn't balancing, you look for ways to make it balance. If you are required to meet new guidelines that take money from your budget, you have to compensate for that. If you are required to pay your employees more, you have to compensate for that as well.

You do what you have to do. Same in your personal life. If you are spending more than you're taking in, you have to find ways to economize. You have to function within your means.

It's physics. It's the law of survival — looking out for number one. And you can't blame anyone for that, can you?

If someone tries to sell me on the idea, the image that America can do things that I know in my heart are at odds with natural law, I resist. Because reality tells me otherwise, and I have to ask:

Why should the United States be immune to natural law?

That is the great unasked question in America today. But I get the feeling that more and more Americans are asking it in their hearts and minds.

The latest Associated Press-GfK poll indicates more movement away from the Democrats. That is bad news in the midterm election year.

I believe it is due, in part, to the fact that more people are realizing that, without a sound foundation, no lasting achievements are possible.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Truth About Midterms

The president spoke at a Democrat fundraiser in Miami a few days ago — and, once again, the former constitutional law professor demonstrated an amazing lack of understanding of how things work in America.

That's really remarkable, given the fact that the man has run in two national campaigns and has been immersed in the Washington political culture for nearly a decade — in addition to the time he spent teaching constitutional law.

I know that most Americans really have no knowledge of American history, but I've always wanted to believe that the president, whoever he happened to be, was more knowledgeable than the average American — if only because he or someone acting on his behalf researched something before he opened his mouth.

When he said that Democrats "do pretty well in presidential elections" but "get clobbered" in midterms, Obama was playing the victim card once again.

Surely, I thought to myself, he must know better than that. He's been to college, where he must have had to study some history. He's written books, which required him to write and think about history. He's been president, a role in which he has made history, for more than five years. He knows it isn't as simple as he suggests.

He isn't stupid, is he?

Maybe he has a selective memory. Or at least a very short–term one that doesn't predate his presidency.

Granted, his only experience with midterms during his presidency wasn't a good one. The Democrats did get clobbered. They lost 64 seats in the House.

And, from that same perspective, presidential election years have been better for Democrats, at least during the Obama era. In the years when he was at the top of the ballot, Democrats gained seats in Congress.

But that is how it usually is for presidents, regardless of party. Historically, midterms have been referendums on presidencies. Most of the time, they aren't favorable, even when a popular president sits in the Oval Office. The lower a president's job approval ratings are, the worse midterm elections tend to be.

(And that doesn't bode well for Obama, whose approval ratings are generally worse now than they were at this point in the 2010 election cycle.)

Obama's presidency only covers the last six years — actually, it is more like years right now. In the context of the lifespan of a nation that will celebrate the 238th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence this July, that is less than 3% of the total. Even if you calculate that lifetime from 1789, when George Washington was elected America's first president, it still represents less than 3% of the total.

In 2006, the last midterm election of the George W. Bush presidency — two years before Obama was elected president and while he was serving in the U.S. Senate — Republicans lost more than 30 House seats and six Senate seats. Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.

I'm quite sure he must have been aware of that when it happened.

In fact, midterms nearly always go against the party that holds the White House. In the last half–century, there have been only two exceptions to that rule — 2002, when voters rallied around the party in power just after the 9–11 attacks, and 1998, when there was a backlash against Republicans for their attempt to impeach Bill Clinton.

Otherwise, the president's party has, to use Obama's expression, been "clobbered."

Well, clobbered isn't always the best word. Sometimes, it hasn't been so bad. In 1990, George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost only one Senate seat and eight House seats as the nation was mobilizing for the Gulf War. Historically, that sort of loss is probably typical.

But sometimes it has been terrible. Clinton's Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994 (nine Senate seats, 54 House seats). Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 1986 midterms (eight seats flipped) and lost quite a bit of ground (27 seats) in the House in the 1982 midterms.

There was a time when massive losses were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time, losses were kept to a handful of seats either way. In 1978, for example, Jimmy Carter's Democrats lost only three seats in the Senate and 15 seats in the House, which may have hinted at but certainly didn't predict Carter's landslide loss in 1980.

In fact, Carter's party suffered losses in 1978 that were dwarfed by the hit the Republicans took in the Watergate midterm of 1974 (five Senate seats and 48 House seats), but the Republican president, Gerald Ford, did much better against Carter in 1976 than Carter did against Reagan in 1980.

That was probably more characteristic of the way things used to be — when most midterm shifts were modest. In those days, massive midterm losses were more rare. When they happened, you knew that habitually long–suffering Americans were running out of patience.

But voters haven't been showing a lot of midterm patience in the last couple of decades — and they have almost never had much patience with the president's party in the sixth year of a presidency.

That alone made Democrats vulnerable in 2014 — along with the fact that the party's success in congressional elections the year Obama was elected president means Democrats have to defend twice as many Senate seats as Republicans. The problems caused by Obamacare and the concern over Russian aggression — as well as lingering scandals — have made the landscape even more treacherous for Democrats.

I mentioned Reagan's problems in the 1986 midterms — and his approval rating before the election was more than 60%.

Dwight Eisenhower's Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats in 1958 — and Ike's approval rating was in the 50s.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't immune. His popularity was in the 50s prior to the 1938 midterms, but his Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats.

Now, I realize that politicians have to project a sense of urgency to get a response from their usually reliable financial backers. Perhaps that is what Obama was doing in Miami — just stirrin' things up, hoping for a reaction. He must know that midterms are seldom kind to sixth–year presidencies, and it usually takes extraordinary circumstances to change that.

Obama's job approval will have a direct bearing on what happens on Election Day.

Based on Gallup's latest numbers (Obama at 43% approval), the president has a lot to do.

Does he have enough time to do it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Searching for a Missing Jet

The longer the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing now for more than a week, goes on, the more frantic and hysterical some people seem to be.

At least, that is what I gather from some of the theories they are putting forth.

I'll grant you that it is an intriguing mystery, but it is not a cause for panic.

I guess I owe my calm to my training as a journalist. When you work for newspapers, you learn quickly that very seldom (if ever) can you give your readers the whole story on something important the first time. It tends to dribble out over time, especially if you're dealing with people who are intent on keeping the truth hidden. Heck, it took Woodward and Bernstein nearly a year of writing about the Watergate break–in before the Senate started calling witnesses to testify before a special committee — and it was another year after that before the House began considering articles of impeachment.

Journalists have to keep a cool head — and keep their eyes on the prize. Just because the answer isn't obvious doesn't mean it can't be found. Journalists must be patient.

I'm not saying this jet went missing because of a criminal act, that it has been hijacked or anything like that — although there are some who have been saying that for several days now. It may well turn out to be a terrorist act, but, without any evidence, I find that assertion to be, at the very least, irresponsible.

After all, the idea behind terrorism is to make sure that the people you want to terrorize know what you have done. The plane has been missing for nearly two weeks, and no one has claimed responsibility for its disappearance or made any demands.

Some have suggested things that are even more dramatic and implausible — alien abduction, for example, or a meteor strike.

Courtney Love rejected the alien theory (but not the meteor theory), claiming that she had found the plane or, at least, she had found evidence of it — in an aerial photo of water in which she claimed she could see an oil slick. Rush Limbaugh suggested that the jet was shot down by a "hostile country."

Some of the theories that have been put forth are even more absurd. Few, though, are as absurd as the paranoid assertion that terrorists were behind the plane's disappearance.

So what did happen to it?

The most plausible explanation I have heard so far comes from Chris Goodfellow, an experienced pilot writing at Wired.com. He says he believes an electrical fire on board the plane led to the disappearance (and probable crash, either on land somewhere or in the sea, when the plane ran out of fuel).

My advice is this: Speculation won't accelerate the discovery of the plane or what is left of it (if, indeed, it is discovered), but as long as your attention is on the Eastern Hemisphere, you might want to pay closer attention to what is happening in Russia and the Ukraine.

What is happening there is sending signals to other potential hotspots, such as China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran ...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Unheeded Cry for Help

Fifty years ago today, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death a short distance from her home in Queens, N.Y.

By itself, that isn't too noteworthy, but there were unusual circumstances that made the case stand out, primarily the fact that more than three dozen of her neighbors apparently heard her screaming for help — but did nothing to assist the 5–foot–1, 105–pound woman.

Why? It was probably explained best in a simple comment one of the neighbors made to a New York Times reporter: "I didn't want to get involved."

The attack lasted roughly 30 minutes. The assailant apparently selected Genovese at random and was chased off twice after he started stabbing her — the first time when a neighbor shouted from his apartment window, "Hey, let that girl alone!" and the second time when other windows started opening and the attacker decided to go move his car — but returned twice, the last time to finish off the semiconscious victim, who had managed to get inside one of the buildings.

Her killer found her by following the trail of blood she left behind. He finished her off, then raped her corpse.

About 40–45 minutes after the attack began, one of the neighbors called the police — after first calling a friend for advice on what to do. The police arrived in a couple of minutes; in the course of their investigation, they found 38 witnesses who had heard or seen at least a portion of the attack.

He suggested the witnesses may have been confused by what they were seeing and hearing.

An investigator told the press that Genovese might have survived if the police had been summoned when the attack began; otherwise, there didn't seem to be anything too unusual about the murder at first. It received scant coverage in the newspapers, and little was said in the investigators' report.

"This tendency to shy away from reporting crimes is a common one," the deputy police commissioner said at the time — and, in fact, the case drew no special attention.

Until two weeks later, when the New York Times ran an article with the headline "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call."

The case was troubling for many people who wondered how civilized humans could stand by and do nothing while a young woman was being brutally murdered. Some offered the explanation that they thought it was a lovers' quarrel, and they didn't want to interfere.

One psychiatrist said the failure of the witnesses to act promptly may have been at least partly because of television. "We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain," he said. "The immediate effect can be delusional, equivalent to a sort of post–hypnotic suggestion."

There were numerous theories offered to explain why no one did anything, but none was satisfactory. The Times, in a hand–wringing editorial, wondered why that was. "Seldom has The Times published a more horrifying story," the editorial said, "than its account of how 38 respectable, law–abiding, middle class Queens citizens watched a killer stalk his young woman victim ... without one of them making a call to the Police Department that might have saved her life."

Fear was a plausible reason, I suppose. The city of Boston, about 200 miles to the northeast of New York, had been gripped by the fear of the "Boston strangler" killings around that time. The thought of that may have intimidated some of the witnesses.

But, in the end, it was still hard to rationalize what had happened.

Folks are still trying to make sense of it. Karen Matthews writes for the Associated Press that the case still fascinates people half a century later.

"Kitty Genovese's screams for help couldn't save her on the night she was murdered outside her apartment in 1964," Matthews writes. "Fifty years later, those screams still echo, a symbol of urban breakdown and city dwellers' seeming callousness toward their neighbors."

There are those who, much like the folks who deny the Holocaust, argue that Genovese's murder was not quite what it has been made out to be. Some people, including author Kevin Cook who just published a book on the subject, take issue with various parts of the story, including the number of witnesses.

Some observe that Times metro editor A.M. Rosenthal had lunch with the city's police commissioner about 10 days after the murder, and the commissioner mentioned the case, prompting Rosenthal to send a reporter out to Queens to get a compelling story.

And the reporter came back with a compelling story.

The Genovese case was responsible, I think, for the designation "the bystander effect," a psychological phenomenon in which the more witnesses there are, the less likely people are to help an individual in distress. They conclude that someone else is sure to call the authorities, that such a call may already have been made.

In the long story of human history, I'm sure something similar must have happened before Genovese was slain, but, for whatever reason, it never caught the public's attention the way the Genovese case did.

If you want to find something good that came from the case, Matthews points out that "[i]t has been credited with spurring adoption of the 911 system in 1968 as well as 'Good Samaritan' laws that give legal protection to people who help those in trouble." And that is good.

The emergence of mobile technology makes it easier for people to reach out for assistance as well.

So I suppose the question is: Can a Genovese case happen in the 21st century?

And my answer is: I don't know. Modern technology might not make a difference. I gather that most, if not all, of Genovese's neighbors had access to telephones.

The "bystander effect" might still apply, anyway, whether the phones were mobile or landline.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Voting

"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable."

G.K. Chesterton

I read with interest an article by Peter Grier in the Christian Science Monitor that sought to clarify what recent poll numbers indicate.

For example,the Associated Press found that, while the majority believe the president is a nice guy, two–thirds rate his presidency as average at best — and nearly half rate his presidency below average. Clearly, liking the president and liking his agenda are two separate things.

I guess one of the most intriguing quotes I read said, in effect, Barack Obama seems like a nice guy, someone I might like to hang out with, but I like a lot of people and most of them aren't qualified to be president.

That's the part of public opinion polling that I have never fully comprehended, I guess. I get that people want to feel good about the people for whom they vote, but, please, try to understand. I was a child during the Nixon years. No one seemed to like him, not even people who voted for him, yet he was elected president twice. The second time he was elected, he got a higher share of the popular vote than anyone in American history except Lyndon Johnson.

The lesson I took from that was somewhat Machiavellian, I guess — a leader does not have to be loved or even liked. (Yet, the questions that are put to modern voters about their political choices — Which candidate do you like best? Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? — suggest that likability is the only thing voters consider.)

But a leader does need to lead.

Being liked simply isn't a requirement of the job. It's a plus, but it isn't necessary. And my assessment, after the special election in Florida, is that Democrats relied too much on the impression that Obama is generally well liked — and gave too little credibility to voter opposition to the policy.

I know that voters want to like the people for whom they vote, but I have voted in many elections, and I know it isn't always possible to like the candidates for whom you choose to vote.

When you're casting your vote, my experience is that you are more likely to encounter a race in which you really don't like either of the candidates as you are to encounter a race in which you do like them. (Most of the time, there will probably be one candidate you like better than the other.)

In every election, though, you really have two options. You can skip voting in that race entirely (you certainly aren't required to vote in every race on your ballot, and I generally do skip at least one such race every election), or, if you have no clear preference in the likability department, you can choose a candidate based on other (usually more important) factors, such as the candidates' relevant experience and records of achievement.

That, too, can be exaggerated, but the truthfulness of what a candidate says about himself or herself can be easily verified by enterprising reporters. So, too, can the success or failure of the policies and programs with which a candidate and/or the candidate's party are linked in the public mind.

Which brings me to the special election in Florida.

It's hard, in the aftermath of yesterday's special election in Florida's 13th congressional district, to avoid wondering just how much of an influence the low popularity of Barack Obama and the implementation of his signature achievement, the passage of Obamacare, had on the outcome — and, by extension, how much it will affect other races across the country in November.

Predictably, Democrats are downplaying the Obamacare part of it. Instead, they are pointing out that Republicans narrowly held on to a seat they have won comfortably for decades. Party cheerleader Debbie Wasserman Schultz was spinning so fast today that the loss amazingly became a positive.

Just as predictably, the Republicans are calling this an early indication of a national rejection of Obamacare. They dismiss the fact that the Republican winner was held under 50% in the three–candidate race. House Speaker John Boehner called it a "big win," which is a considerable stretch.

But here's the bottom line: The special election in Florida's 13th was a "must–win" for Democrats, in the words of political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

For years, Democrats have been anticipating a takeover when the seat was open. After all, Democratic presidential nominees have carried the district in five of the last six national elections. But the takeover did not happen.

After the votes were counted, Rothenberg wrote this: "The Republican special election win doesn't guarantee anything for November. But it is likely to put Democrats even more on the defensive, undermining grassroots morale and possibly adding fuel to the argument that Democratic dollars should go toward saving the Senate than fighting for the House."

That's about the size of it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Not-So-Special Special Election

What is there to be made of the results of today's special election to fill the vacancy in Florida's 13th District?

Even though I know that, in the days ahead, both parties will spin the outcome in the direction that makes them look better than the other, I'm inclined to think there isn't a lot to conclude. Someone had to win, but I think it is more of a draw more than anything else.

There's some good and some bad for everyone.

The election — to fill the vacancy left by the death last October of Bill Young, who held the seat more than 40 years and for whom the winner, Republican David Jolly, served as general counsel — didn't really tell us much. The polls closed there a couple of hours ago, and it is already known that, with 100% of the precincts reporting, Jolly received 48.5% of the vote, Democrat Alex Sink received 47% of the vote and Libertarian Lucas Overby took 5%.

Republicans will say that this is proof that Democrats will struggle under the burden of Obamacare this year — and perhaps that is true, although you really can't draw that conclusion based on the results of one special election for a seat that has been held by Republicans for decades.

Another Republican was elected to complete the current two–year term, but his support level was far below his predecessor's — ever. Even when Republicans were getting hammered nationally in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned, Young, then a two–term congressman, received in excess of three–fourths of the vote.

Young, as I mentioned before, was more of a centrist than most of his Republicans colleagues are perceived to be.

The results did indicate a certain amount of loyalty to the deceased congressman. And, if the Libertarian had not been on the ballot, it is conceivable that Jolly would have received a majority of the vote. But even if Jolly had swept all of Overby's votes, he would not have matched Young's performance in 2012 — or in any other election since 1970.

Before the election, Democrats wanted people to believe the times they are a–changin' in Florida's 13th. Perhaps they are. But that, too, is far from clear.

Barack Obama carried the district in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats were hopeful that this was indicative of a permanent shift. But I'm inclined to see it as proof that, while Young's district is a reasonably reliable bellwether for national politics, it isn't necessarily so on the congressional level.

Young won 22 consecutive elections, even in years that weren't good for Republicans nationally; while Young's constituency did change as district lines were redrawn every 10 years, the same voters that sent Young to Congress voted for nine of the winners in the 11 presidential elections that were held during Young's tenure (10 winners if you count Al Gore's popular vote victory over George W. Bush in 2000).

The real bottom line for Democrats is that they still need 17 seats to grab a narrow majority in the House. They had hoped to bring the number down to 16, which would have been a steep uphill climb as it was. It will be harder still to find that 17th seat this November.

Republicans are likely to retain their advantage in the House. Currently, most observers see little, if any, movement in the midterm elections this fall.

But what do the results of today's election tell us about the Republicans' prospects for winning the six seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats? Nothing, really. There is no Senate race in Florida this year so the outcome tells us nothing of value about whether Republicans are likely to win enough seats to gain control of the chamber for Obama's last two years in the White House.

This early in the cycle, though, it seems to me there isn't much that can be known for certain. Nearly eight more months will pass before the midterm elections are held, and there many things that can happen in that time.

But history suggests — and today's results may well confirm — that the political landscape will not be favorable to the president's party.