Freedom Writing

Friday, January 30, 2015

The First Attempt on the Life of a President

I've studied a lot of American history in my life.

I've always been something of an amateur historian. I even minored in history in graduate school.

And it pains me to see the state of knowledge of history in this country. As someone who has done some teaching in his life, I can assure you that the shocking stories of what young people do not know are absolutely true. I've seen enough instances of it that it doesn't surprise me anymore — which may be the worst part for me. I am not repulsed by the knowledge of just how many young Americans have no idea who the first president was or what the significance of the year 1776 was. Not anymore.

But I can forgive those who do know some things about American history for not knowing that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 was not the first attempt to assassinate a president. Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, but he was not the first to be the target of an assassination attempt.

That was Andrew Jackson on this day in 1835.

Jackson, who was 67 at the time, was leaving a congressional funeral when an out–of–work painter approached him and tried to shoot him. The gun misfired, and Jackson hit his attacker several times with his cane. The would–be assassin pulled out a second gun and tried to shoot the president with it, but that gun also misfired.

The president's aides pulled the president and the assailant apart. Jackson, it is said, was angry but unhurt.

Jackson believed the attacker had been hired by his political opponents, who were fighting with him over the president's attempt to break up the Bank of the United States. Jackson's vice president, Martin Van Buren, began carrying two pistols with him on Capitol Hill.

No connection between the assailant and Jackson's political enemies was ever established.

It was later determined that the odds of both guns misfiring during an assassination attempt were one in 125,000.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Auschwitz and Lessons For Today

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana (1863–1952)

This week, we observed the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at the end of World War II. The day of the liberation by Russian troops — Jan. 27, 1945 — is commemorated annually as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It is an appropriate time and Auschwitz an appropriate place to mark this anniversary. It has a unique significance, being the site of the first executions in what was to have been the Nazis' "final solution."

It was before my time so I have no firsthand knowledge, but I guess this was the first time that most people in the Allied countries realized what had been happening in the camps. If so, it probably came as quite a shock to some folks. Must have been hard to imagine how one group of people could be so hostile — so savage — in its treatment of another group. Sadly, it really isn't hard to imagine. Man has always been capable of great cruelty. Read your history.

I guess no one will ever know the actual figures, but the widely accepted casualty number is 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. It is further estimated that one in six Jews who died in the Holocaust died at Auschwitz. Could there be a more appropriate day or place to remember what happened?

Well, remembering is the problem for some Auschwitz survivors. If you happen to meet an Auschwitz survivor today, he or she likely was a teenager — or younger — when the camp was liberated. You can still find a few who were in their 20s when the camp was liberated, and there may be a few who were 30 or so, but they would have to be 100 or older by now.

Before long, they will all be gone. No one who lived through it will be alive to tell the tale, making it all the easier for those who deny the Holocaust to press their case.

Those Auschwitz survivors fear that the past will be forgotten, opening the door for it to happen again. It is only natural, I suppose, for them to fear renewed persecution of the Jews — it's been going on for centuries — but those who love freedom should be concerned as well.

For if one group is persecuted, none are safe. If rights are denied to some, they can be denied to all.

That is why America must remain vigilant.

The modern enemies of freedom do not wear the uniform of a country and are therefore harder to see when they are in our midst "hiding in plain sight." But they are there. Of that, you may be sure.

And they will not be defeated until we face facts and call them what they are. This isn't a religious war. But every extremist group has at least one characteristic that its members have in common with each other. In this case, it happens to be devotion to an extreme religious doctrine. For America to preserve its way of life, it will have to confront the enemies of freedom

There is always an extreme characteristic. No more searching for euphemisms that hide the truth.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Attack on Freedom

When I woke up this morning, I switched on my TV to get caught up on the news and was greeted by a reminder of something we should never again allow ourselves to forget.

It was the early reports of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper, in Paris that left 12 dead (so far) and nearly as many injured.

I won't go into details about Charlie Hebdo because those already have been reported by every journalist in the free world today.

Folks who are familiar with my blogs know that I am a journalist, a veteran of daily newspapers; this kind of thing cuts to the very core of things in which I believe — like freedom of the press and freedom of speech, both of which are threats to those who would impose a totalitarian system on others, as the terrorists seek to do. Satire is especially threatening to them because satirists hold nothing sacred and religious extremists hold nearly everything sacred — except for free speech.

What happened in Paris today was nothing less than an attack on freedom. It was an attack on every newsroom in the free world — and, as such, it was an attack on free speech.

The pillars of freedom.

It wasn't an attack on French newsrooms — or France — alone.

From what I have read and heard, the plot probably was carried out from a region near Paris that is primarily occupied by Muslims. If that is true, it is also probably true that the terrorists have allies in that area, like–minded individuals who helped them prepare for what was clearly a coordinated attack. How long were the ones who carried out the plot hiding in plain sight? How long will those who helped them hide in plain sight, perhaps to help carry out another such plot in the future?

Do you think this can't happen here? That the ocean that separates us also protects us? That is what they thought before World Wars I and II.

What proportion of the population in your city is Muslim? Most are probably peaceful, but a few may be radicals, keeping it hidden from view. I used to cover the police beat, and one thing I noticed was that, inevitably, when someone was convicted of a violent crime, the people who knew him when he was growing up would say, "He was always such a good boy." It was always a surprise to them that he would do something like that.

In spite of what the administration wants everyone to believe, we are still at war with supporters of radical Islam. We may have stopped, but they never will, and that's a problem for this president. It really shouldn't be, but it is.

Somewhere along the way, Barack Obama got the idea that a president has the power to live in a world of his choosing. Obama wants a world where those who are entrusted with protecting Americans cannot be given certain kinds of information about suspects because that amounts to profiling.

That's nonsense. Presidents cannot choose the circumstances in which they serve, only how they respond to those circumstances. It is their duty to protect their people from whatever threatens them — be it disease or violence.

Failure to protect a president's people is negligence, yet Barack Obama is hesitant to confront the threat of radical Islam. He would probably prefer that the more rational elements of Islam would crack down on these extremists. His problem: How do you persuade the moderates to take action?

It is appropriate that the 40th anniversary of "The Godfather Part II" came along a couple of weeks ago because it offers some instruction here.

I direct your attention to the scene early in the movie in which Fredo's wife was drunk and making a scene, and Michael sent one of his henchmen to Fredo to tell him "Take care of this or I have to."

I know that not all Muslims are radicals, that only a small percentage fit that description. I know that the teachings of Islam are peaceful, but all religions have their extremists, the ones who have twisted the teachings of their faith.

The president of the United States, in spite of his personal feelings, must tell the cooler heads in the Islamic world that they have to take care of this — or we will have to.

Because this is the kind of thing that will spread if it is not checked. If it can happen in Paris, France, in the middle of a work week, what is to keep it from happening in Washington, D.C., or New York or Los Angeles — or Wichita, Kansas?


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Remember the Y2K Scare?

How naive we were as we approached the new year 15 years ago.

In the days leading up to New Year's Day 2000, there was this overwhelming anxiety about what would happen to the nation's computers when asked to shift correctly from 1999 to 2000. Apparently, the storyline went, computers hadn't been programmed to handle a situation in which all four digits of a year changed.

Which made me wonder ...

Personal computers were still relatively new in 1999. It was still news in those days when someone established an online presence. Online shopping may be pervasive today, but then it was still a new thing for many people. Prior to Y2K, I can recall an intensive effort by many businesses to encourage people to shop online — but I honestly don't recall now if it was encouraged during the Christmas season of 1999.

Perhaps it required too much courage in the face of all the doomsday predictions that were circulating.

My point is, the developers of the personal computer were considered the best and the brightest of their generation. Weren't they bright enough to know that the year 2000 was coming up?

All sorts of apocalyptic scenarios were proposed in the days leading up to New Year's Day, causing considerable fear among the many Americans for whom personal computers were still new and intimidating things. I'd like to think that people have learned since then, but sometimes you have to wonder.

As they apprehensively approached the dawn of a new millennium — which was incorrect, too, but I long ago reached the conclusion that I wasn't going to win that argument — many of those Americans believed they could engage in any behavior that suited their whims and remain completely anonymous online or that, by simply pressing delete, they could permanently remove embarrassing or incriminating comments or photographs. Unfortunately, it appears some people still do.

Well, anyway, back to New Year's Day 2000.

Remember what happened? Nothing. Well, that isn't completely true. As I recall, there were a few very minor glitches — the kinds of things that wouldn't raise any eyebrows today. But lots of people took it seriously.

Businesses, too. Somehow some folks got the idea that they could avoid any problems if they switched off their computers before midnight on New Year's Eve, then switched them back on the next day.

Which made me wonder ...

If computers really weren't programmed to accept a four–digit year change, what made those people think it would behave any differently when power was restored to it? What was so special about having the power off at midnight? It still wouldn't be programmed to accept a four–digit year change.

It did seem like the logical evolution in thought from those who, when forced to deal with video issues on an old–fashioned TV that needed rabbit ears to pick up signals, responded by hitting it on the side. Aside from maybe knocking loose some of the TV's innards, I couldn't figure out what they hoped to accomplish.

Maybe people lost their ability to reason because we weren't changing one digit or even two. We were changing all four digits — and people approached New Year's Day 2000 (dubbed "Y2K") with more apprehension than they did Mayan Calendar Day a couple of years ago.

"Of course, it wasn't long before it became clear that all the fears associated with the turn of the millennium were for naught," wrote TIME's Lily Rothman.

Well, I guess it's a good thing we don't have to worry about a computer revolt at midnight this year. If you don't buy into the end–of–days scenarios, the next generation that will have to worry about issues surrounding a millennium change won't begin to show up for more than 900 years.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Decade After the Boxing Day Tsunami

Do you remember what you were doing on this day in 2004?

It was, of course, the day after Christmas. I had made plans to meet my brother to see "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which had just premiered the day before.

We never really decided on a time or place to see it, though, until virtually the last minute that day. We met for lunch at a burger place and looked through the movie listings in the Dallas paper until we found a good starting time at a theater that was reasonably close. It was a Sunday, and it was kind of wet and dreary. The Cowboys were playing the Washington Redskins that afternoon, and we kind of hoped that would keep people at home in front of their TV sets, but nobody really seemed to care about the game. The Cowboys were on their way to a dismal 6–10 finish.

Consequently, my memory is that the theater was kind of full, and we wound up getting seats that were less than ideal.

Such a problem would be seen as trivial a few hours later after the world became aware of the deadly tsunami that had rolled across the Indian Ocean that day. The tsunami was triggered by an underwater earthquake that registered a magnitude of 9.3; that is only an estimate, of course, but if it is accurate, that would make it the second– or third–strongest earthquake in recorded history.

How strong is a 9.3 earthquake? The one that struck 10 years ago today is thought to have had the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima bombs. It caused at least 227,898 deaths.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, some proposed the creation of a global tsunami warning system, but because of the relative rarity of tsunamis in some areas — including the Indian Ocean, even though earthquakes are fairly common in Indonesia — a global network of sensors would be necessary, and that can be too costly for poor countries. Also, the world has so little experience with tsunamis that it would be extremely difficult to find enough people with the expertise to monitor and assess global conditions for tsunamis in the making. The first real sign of a tsunami is the earthquake itself, but if it happens far from shore, the tsunami may travel a great distance, as it did in 2004, before striking areas where the earthquake was barely felt, if at all, before it is noticed.

Tsunamis eventually reach a point where they begin to dissipate if they don't strike land, but they can still cause damage when they do; and tsunamis can be deceptive. Initially, they may resemble rising tides.

Something else to keep in mind — not all undersea earthquakes produce tsunamis. An undersea earthquake in almost the same area about three months later was estimated to be 8.7 (which would still make it one of the 15 strongest earthquakes in recorded history) but produced no tsunami.

The 2004 earthquake struck, as I recall, off the west coast of Indonesia that morning, which would have been Christmas evening here in the United States.

But, initially, no one knew what had happened, and it wouldn't become apparent to the world that anything out of the ordinary had happened until the tsunami wave had traveled across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, a journey that probably took about 10 hours.

Actually, what many people don't realize is that a tsunami is not a single wave but rather a series of waves that can come in surges separated by five minutes to an hour. The first wave is not always the most dangerous.

"A tsunami, when it approaches, is silent," observed survivor Alexa Moses, a writer from Australia, in The Age. A tsunami simply doesn't attract attention until it strikes land. The longer it takes to strike land, the more strength it can accumulate — until it reaches that point where its strength begins to diminish.

And a portion of the tsunami did strike India shortly after the earthquake, but most of it traversed the Indian Ocean unobstructed until it reached Africa.

For that matter, more than 130,000 of the casualties were in Indonesia, but not all of those deaths could be blamed on the tsunami. If you've ever seen footage of the aftermath of land–based earthquakes, you know that people die when buildings and bridges collapse, when they are struck by falling debris, etc., and it is reasonable to assume that many of the deaths in Indonesia were the result of being near the epicenter of a 9.3–magnitude earthquake.

Many deaths, of course, were the result of the tsunami, which was quite powerful in the immediate vicinity. Take a look at the link to Moses' article. You will see aerial photographs that clearly show how the topography was changed.

None of what had happened was being reported on TV as I prepared to meet my brother or on the radio as I drove to the burger place. After I got home from the movie, I saw the first reports I had seen of the destruction. It was astonishing.

It was also astonishing to see the world's response to the disaster. Relief efforts raised $14 billion. Many of the survivors of the tsunami still have a long journey in front of them, but that money made getting started on that journey less difficult.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Musing: Why I Write

It is early on Christmas morning, and I am awake, but it isn't like it was when I was a kid. I'm not up because I want to find out what is under the tree. I have no tree in my apartment.

Actually, I am up because I have had a touch of some sort of virus lately that has me congested, unable to breathe. So I am awake before sunrise on Christmas morning, like when I was a boy — although, clearly, not for the same reason.

It is cold and clear this morning. The forecasters have said it will be warmer today (but very windy), which would make it one of the milder Christmases I have experienced in Dallas. I didn't grow up here, but I spent most of my Christmases here visiting my grandparents and my parents' old friends, and I have spent most of the Christmases of my adult years here, too.

That doesn't make me an authority on Christmas in Dallas, but it's close! And, more often than not, Christmas in Dallas is cool — even cold at times. I remember a few warm ones when I was growing up, Christmases when my brother and I could go outside and play in shorts and T–shirts. We could climb the pecan trees in my grandmother's yard unencumbered by winter coats.

A couple of times when I was growing up, my family drove to South Padre Island near the U.S.–Mexico border to spend Christmas there, and it was always nice and warm (today, for example, the temperature is supposed to be 71° in Brownsville, close to 80° tomorrow and Saturday).

Anyway, this morning I have been listening to Mannheim Steamroller. I don't know how long they've been putting out Christmas albums — decades, I suppose — but I have one that came out nearly 20 years ago. It is the only purely Christmas album in my collection. I have Christmas songs that various artists have recorded, but they are always part of more general albums.

I remember when I got this album. It was about six months after my mother was killed in a flash flood. I was teaching journalism in Oklahoma and commuting to Dallas on weekends to see about my father. On one of my weekend trips, I heard "Pat a Pan" on the car radio and decided I had to have it. It has been in my collection ever since.

Listening to it really can be an exercise in free association. When I hear it, I think of those days after my mother died, and then I think about her (although I am sure that she never heard this album) — and that leads me to thoughts of my childhood. Mom was my biggest booster, and I am sure she must have encouraged me to take the path I took in life — writing. I have worked at other kinds of jobs, but writing has always been at the core of who I am.

It is a path that has led me to the job I have today as editorial manager for a stock–trading oriented website. I am very happy to have that job on Christmas 2014. Of course, I guess an argument can be made that, after slogging my way through the last six years following the economic implosion, I would be very happy to have any job. And I suppose there is an element of that. But the truth is that I like the people with whom and for whom I work.

Not everyone can say that, and I really am thankful for my job. It allows me to write for a living. I know some professional writers who fret about a lot of things, including writer's block, and writing becomes work for them.

Not me. Writing has always been fun for me. When I have some spare time, I would just about always prefer to write about something. I write three blogs (one of which is this one) so I always have an outlet for any inspiration I may have.

That's what it is. Inspiration. That must have been what my mother encouraged in me when I was little. Mom was about creativity, which has a symbiotic relationship with inspiration. She taught first grade, and I think most of the people who came through her classroom and their parents would tell you she was the most creative teacher they ever knew.

After she died, my family received hundreds of letters from old friends scattered across the country, a few even halfway around the world. One friend who knew her when she was a teenager sent us a letter with some photos of Mom participating in a play in junior high or high school. In the photos, she was clearly hamming it up in her usual way, and the friend remarked in his letter, "I always thought that, if Mary had not gone into teaching, she would have gravitated to the stage."

A career on the stage might have satisfied her yearning for creative outlets. She found other outlets, one of which was encouraging me to write. I had other influences along the way, but I am quite sure she was my earliest. When I was in elementary school, she arranged for me to take piano lessons, which I did for many years. I haven't kept up with it, but all that practice made my fingers quite nimble, and I am sure it contributed to my typing ability, which has been valuable to me all these years. I have certainly found it to be an advantage since personal computers took over the workplace. Many of my colleagues still hunt and peck, but I took typing in junior high and I already had the advantage of several years of piano lessons under my belt.

Of course, typing alone is not the same as writing. Simply stringing words together in grammatically correct sentences is not the same as writing unless you explore related ideas and themes. That is something I have worked on for years, and I really think it has paid off. I have people who read my blogs all over the world. Some sign up as followers who are notified whenever I post something new; others just pop in from time to time to catch up on what I've written.

Occasionally, they write to me. One wrote, "I can't wait to see what you will write about next."

I suppose that sums up how I feel about writing. I often know what I want to write about; I just don't know what I will say about it until I sit down and write.

That is the pleasure I get from writing — discovering what I think or how I feel as a result of writing about it. Sometimes I honestly do not know how I feel about something until I start writing about it. Sometimes, I am as surprised as my readers at what I think.

And it is appropriate to think about that on Christmas — because that is a gift my mother gave me.

Thanks, Mom.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Nation of Witch Hunters

When I was growing up, "innocent until proven guilty" was practically a mantra whenever someone was accused of a crime. Even if everyone knew the accused was guilty, it simply was not considered American to speak of someone as guilty until a jury had reached that conclusion.

That, after all, was the kind of thing the early settlers came to America to escape (and then, ironically, engaged in their own witch hunting in Salem, Mass.).

The newsrooms where I worked in my newspaper days were always sensitive to that. For a time, when I was a police/courts reporter, my editors always reminded me, when I came to the newsroom to write about the day's proceedings in court, to refer to the defendant as "the accused" or "the alleged" until the jury reached its verdict.

Even if we knew the defendant was guilty. We couldn't say so until it was official — meaning that a jury had reached that conclusion.

Saying so in print only made it seem — and rightly so — that the press had already reached its conclusion. To hell with the jury.

That has never been the role of the press. The press' job is to be the eyes and ears of the community. The newspapers for which I worked, as I say, were always very sensitive about that kind of thing. They earnestly sought to maintain an aura of neutrality, and most of the reporters with whom I have worked would have bristled at the suggestion that they were not absolutely fair.

It's been awhile since I worked in a newsroom so I don't know when that began to change. All I know is that it did — probably tentatively at first but grew progressively bolder as the press began to discover that no one was going to hold it accountable for prejudging criminal defendants.

Even if the press was wrong.

Today, all that is needed for the public to turn on someone is for someone else to say something. Anything. Doesn't matter if it is true. It is accepted on face value. Look how quickly people have turned on Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers of his day. He has been accused of truly reprehensible behavior. If those accusations are true, he should be held accountable. But they haven't been proven in court, which is where every American who is accused of something is entitled to face his/her accuser and defend himself/herself against the charges if possible. That's what the people who braved the unknown to settle this land wanted.

Well, at least, that's how it used to be.

How about the case of cable TV cooking star Paula Deen, who admitted using the "N word" many years ago and apologized profusely — only to be driven from the airwaves anyway by those whose only motive appeared to be a desire to see how the other half had been living all these years — not a quest for justice.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the grand jury, as you undoubtedly know, has been investigating the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18–year–old black man. The grand jury's decision not to indict the white police officer who shot Brown sparked riots and looting.

If you look at the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, you will see that most of the witnesses' accounts supported the officer's version of events — and most, if not all, of those witnesses were black. The facts simply did not support accusing the officer of a crime and spending who knows how many taxpayer dollars in a futile attempt to convict him.

And that is what grand juries really are designed to do — filter the unsupported cases from the supported ones. Do you believe that there are too many frivolous cases clogging up the judicial system? Grand juries have been doing their part to keep the frivolous cases out of the system in this country for a couple of centuries. If you think it is bad now, try living in an America that doesn't have grand juries to serve as courthouse gatekeepers.

Apparently, there are, to misquote Jack Nicholson, people who can't handle the truth, though. In spite of the testimony of those witnesses, there are still people who say justice wasn't served — and that race was the reason.

That is mere speculation unless there is proof to support it. Astonishingly, there are people who continue to cling to claims that have been recanted, citing them as evidence in this case — when, in fact, they are no such thing.

Things are a bit murkier in the choking death of Eric Garner in New York in July. I haven't seen those grand jury transcripts, and I would like to because it could give me some insight into the jurors' mindset. From looking at the video, it appears that, at the least, a charge of negligent homicide might be in order — but a video doesn't tell you everything you need to know.

Videos do help, of course, and I like the idea of equipping police officers with body cameras so investigators can see precisely what the officer saw when something like this happens. It's a worthy goal, but Barack Obama's pledge to provide federal funds to help police departments pay for such cameras is one more example of how Obama ignores feasibility in order to pursue what he believes would be an ideal world.

America is already $18 trillion in debt. The wise thing — the prudent thing — would be to focus on bringing down the debt, not adding to it. Hard choices must be made. Such choices almost always involve sacrifice, and, in the last six years, many Americans have had to make sacrifices they never thought they would have to make. Their leaders must give careful consideration before asking for more.

Of course, homicides aren't the only things getting attention these days. There have been a couple of cases of rape — or, rather, alleged rape — in the news. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that rape is anything other than what it is — an act of violence. But it is the kind of charge that sticks to someone even if he's been cleared.

I covered a rape trial once. The defendant was acquitted, but he was forever linked to the charge. He lost his job, couldn't find another one locally and, eventually, had to leave town. I've always hoped he was able to pick up the loose threads of his life and get back on track.

I also left that experience thinking that, if newspapers voluntarily withhold the names of alleged rape victims (and that is a voluntary thing — it is not mandated by law — freedom of the press, don't you know), they should also withhold the names of the accused until they have been convicted.

Rape is an incendiary charge. Bill Cosby, as I have pointed out, hasn't been convicted. He hasn't even been formally charged, yet his long–time associates are throwing him under the bus, one after the other. Maybe they're right to do so. But what if they are wrong?

Yes, sexual assault is an incendiary charge. It must be handled judiciously, which makes the case of actress Lena Dunham both fascinating and troubling.

For the last couple of months, Dunham has been hawking her memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" which includes her account of an occasion when she was raped.

Well, to be fair, she never actually accuses anyone of rape. But she does describe an evening of what is best described as non–consensual sex.

Dunham, in case you don't remember, made advertisements for Obama's re–election two years ago. Those advertisements were intended to appeal to young voters, equating casting one's first vote with losing one's virginity.

I do not mention that to explain any conclusions I may have reached about Dunham or her moral compass or anything like that — I think most readers are capable of doing that on their own — but because her political leanings are important to remember in the context of a portion of her narrative. I refer to her description of an occasion when she claims to have been raped by a prominent "campus Republican" named Barry when she was a student at Oberlin College.

Oberlin is in Ohio and, from what I have heard, put the liberal in "liberal arts." Just about any Republican would stick out like a sore thumb there.

Her account has been effectively debunked by John Nolte of Breitbart. It was praised for its "truthiness" in TIME back in September.

Now that the reliability of the story has been brought into question, Eugene Volokh of the Washington Post wonders if this prominent "campus Republican," identified in Dunham's book as "Barry," has grounds for legal action against her.

The most egregious example of this willingness — nay, eagerness — to blindly accept anything that is said could be found in the pages of Rolling Stone last month. The article described the horrific gang rape of a woman identified as Jackie at a University of Virginia frat house.

There were angry protests and the school suspended all fraternity activities for a year. Those would be appropriate responses except for one thing — "there now appear to be discrepancies" in the account, Rolling Stone's managing editor says. More than a few, actually. There are more holes in the story than you'll find in the average block of Swiss cheese.

As a journalist, I am embarrassed by the blatantly sloppy fact checking. It is shoddy journalism, and it is inexcusable.

Rolling Stone's managing editor was right to acknowledge that the "failure is on us," but the mistakes were so basic that a first–year journalism student, never mind a newsroom full of seasoned vets, would have spotted them.

The thing that concerns me, though, is this: What if the editors at Rolling Stone knew in advance about the problems with the story, and they gambled that no one would call them on it? That it wasn't sloppiness after all?

I am reminded of the bogus charges leveled by Tawana Brawley against a group of white men back in the late '80s. Do you happen to recall who one of her chief supporters was? Al Sharpton.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Fine Art of Compromise ... and Lost Opportunity

"The trusts and combinations — the communism of pelf — whose machinations have prevented us from reaching the success we deserve should not be forgotten nor forgiven."

Letter from Grover Cleveland to Rep. Thomas C. Catchings (D–Miss.)
August 27, 1894

I have mentioned here that I have been studying the presidency most of my life.

And Grover Cleveland has always fascinated me. He always stood out because he was — and still is — the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. (He was also president half a century before presidents were limited to two terms — so, presumably, he could have sought a third term in 1896, but his party repudiated him. More on that in a minute.)

I have found it fascinating, too, to observe all the different presidents in American history to whom Barack Obama has been compared.

That didn't really begin with Obama. Incoming presidents are almost always compared to presidents from the past. I don't know why. Maybe to try to get an idea of what to expect. There have been no other black presidents so Obama couldn't be compared to anyone on a racial level.

When he was about to take the oath of office for the first time, Obama was compared, at different times and for different reasons, to great presidents from American history like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lincoln, of course, was a natural, having presided over the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. There were some comparisons, as well, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, mostly because FDR had taken office during the most perilous economic period in the nation's history, even to John F. Kennedy, perhaps because both were young and their elections made history.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has been compared to less accomplished presidents. In recent years, it has frequently been asked if he is more incompetent than Jimmy Carter, who is generally regarded as the most incompetent president in recent memory.

Six years ago, about three weeks before Obama took the oath of office the first time, political scientist Michael Barone suggested that Dwight Eisenhower might be the more appropriate comparison, and I wrote about that.

Barone's point was that Eisenhower had done little to help his fellow Republicans, many of whom "grumbled that Ike ... was selfish.

"Eisenhower, I suspect, regarded himself as a unique national figure,"
Barone wrote, "and believed that maximizing his popularity far beyond his party's was in the national interest."

I was reminded of that tonight when I heard Obama's speech on immigration. Many congressional Democrats are supporting the president — publicly, at least — but some are not. Regardless of the negative ramifications of his executive order — and a poll conducted Wednesday night indicates that nearly half of respondents oppose Obama's acting via executive order — Obama seems determined to prove that he is still relevant.

Coming a mere two weeks after Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections, it seems to me a president who was more concerned about his party's future than his own would act more prudently. Bill Clinton, after all, lost control of both chambers of Congress in the midterms of 1994, and Democrats didn't regain the majority in either chamber for 12 years.

Clinton did manage to retake some his party's lost ground when he ran for re–election in 1996 and then again after surviving an attempt by the Republicans to impeach him before the 1998 midterms, defying all logic.

I've always felt that a lot of that was because Clinton was appropriately chastened by his party's massive losses in the midterms. I felt, at the time, that many of the voters who had voted Republican in 1994 believed Clinton had learned an important lesson and were more open to supporting him and the members of his party in 1996.

Obama has now been through two disastrous midterm elections, and he has emerged from the second not chastened but defiant. He appears to be entirely ready to do everything on his own, completely ignoring the role that the Founding Fathers intended for Congress to play. An opportunity to let compromise and cooperation be what the Founding Fathers envisioned in their fledgling republic is being squandered.

Once such an opportunity is lost, once such a president takes this kind of approach, it is hard, if not impossible, to establish a rapport with the other side.

Obama isn't the first to do this, which brings me back to Grover Cleveland. A little background information is called for here.

Cleveland was first elected president in 1884. He was the first Democrat elected to the office in more than a quarter of a century — in spite of the revelation that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock. It was close, but Cleveland managed to pull it off.

Four years later, when Cleveland sought a second term, conditions were good. The nation was at peace, and the economy was doing pretty well, but there was division over the issue of tariff policy. The election was another cliffhanger. Cleveland again won the popular vote by a narrow margin, but his opponent, Benjamin Harrison, received enough electoral votes to win.

So Cleveland left the White House in March 1889, but he returned as the Democratic nominee in 1892 and defeated Harrison. It was the second time a major party nominated someone for president three straight times. The first one, Andrew Jackson, also won the popular vote all three times; like Cleveland, though, he was denied the presidency once because he lost the electoral vote.

Perhaps it was the experience of having been returned to the White House after losing the electoral vote four years earlier that contributed to Cleveland's messianic complex. To be fair, it would be hard not to feel that there was an element of historical inevitability at work.

But that doesn't really excuse how Cleveland approached the outcome of the 1894 midterms.

One cannot tell the story of the 1894 midterms without telling the story of the Panic of 1893 for it defined Cleveland's second term as well as the midterms. It was the worst economic depression the United States had experienced up to that time. Unemployment in America was about 3% when Cleveland was elected in 1892. After a series of bank failures, it ballooned into double figures in 1893 and stayed there for the remainder of Cleveland's term.

The depression was a key factor in the debate over bimetallism in 1894. Cleveland and his wing of the Democratic Party were known as "bourbon Democrats," supporters of a kind of laissez–faire capitalism. They supported the gold standard and opposed bimetallism, in which both gold and silver are legal tender.

The economy was already the main topic of the campaign, and a major coal strike in the spring didn't help. In fact, it hammered the fragile economies of the states in the Midwest and the Northeast. Republicans blamed Democrats for the poor economy, and the argument found a receptive audience.

Republicans gained House seats just about everywhere except the Southern states, which remained solidly Democratic, and states where Republicans already held all the House seats. Democrats went from a 220–106 advantage to a 104–226 deficit. It remains the most massive shift in House party division in U.S. history.

Under circumstances such as these, a president has two choices — he can be conciliatory and try to move to the political center, as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did, or he can dig in his heels and be even more intransigent.

Much as Obama is doing 120 years later, Cleveland chose the latter approach after the midterms in 1894. Perhaps he felt he had no allies in Washington anymore, but I've always felt his go–it–alone approach was a big reason why he was repudiated by the Democrats in 1896. The fragmented party chose instead to go with William Jennings Bryan, who would be nominated three times and lose each time. In fact, with the exception of the Woodrow Wilson presidency, no Democrat would win the White House for the next 36 years.

For that matter, they didn't regain the majority in the House until the 1910 midterms, but they lost that majority six years later in spite of the fact that President Wilson was at the top of the ballot. It took the stock market crash of 1929 to restore Democrats to majority status in the House in the midterms of 1930.

That is one cautionary tale that emerges from this year's midterms. Another is the exaggerated importance given to the turnout. I know it is a popular excuse to use after a party has been slammed in the midterms, but it is misleading.

In 2006, when Democrats retook the majority in both chambers for the first time in 12 years, they treated it as a mandate for change. But roughly the same number of voters participated in 2006 as participated in 2014. Granted, there has been an increase in the overall population in those eight years so the share of registered voters who participated is different, but the overall numbers are the same.

Republicans, too, pointed to low turnout in 2006. My advice to them would be not to duplicate the Democrats' mistake. They believed their success was permanent — and it never is in politics.

It can last longer, though, if you lead.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Anniversary of the 'In Cold Blood' Killings

"Now, on this final day of her life, Mrs. Clutter hung in the closet the calico house dress she had been wearing and put on one of her trailing nightgowns and a fresh set of white socks. Then, before retiring, she exchanged her ordinary glasses for a pair of reading spectacles. Though she subscribed to several periodicals (the Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Reader's Digest and Together: Midmonth Magazine for Methodist Families), none of these rested on the bedside table — only a Bible. A bookmark lay between its pages, a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: 'Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.'"

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

They happened before I was born, but the murders of the Clutter family 55 years ago today in Holcomb, Kansas, still have the power to grip people.

I re–read Truman Capote's riveting account of those murders, "In Cold Blood," about a year ago. I was just as engrossed by it as I was when I first read it in college. As a reading experience, it reminded me of Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson Family murders, "Helter Skelter."

Capote did a lot of writing in his life, but "In Cold Blood" was the book he was born to write. It seems almost like the kind of book that would write itself, that all it needed was a person to be the go–between. But writers are a funny sort, and my understanding is that Capote agonized over aspects of his book. Some writers are like that. The creative process makes impossible demands on them.

So writing "In Cold Blood" may have been a very emotionally trying experience for Capote. It may have been unimaginably wrenching to try to put everything on paper. I know it took awhile for him to finish it. Some writers find it very difficult to achieve the level of detachment that is necessary to write about unpleasant things. It is often essential, I have observed, to be detached in the news business. You must express in print the shock and revulsion people feel upon hearing about such things — without letting those things affect you personally. It is why many talented writers don't make it as news writers.

Such a level of detachment must have been necessary for the local officials who investigated the murders. In a small town like Holcomb (which, more than half a century later, has a population that barely exceeds 2,000), everyone knows everyone else, and Herb Clutter, the family patriarch, was a pillar of the community. He was a farmer, he hired people to work on his farm, and, by all accounts, he treated them well. He was rumored to be very wealthy — after all, he didn't drink or smoke. Had no vices of any kind, as far as anyone could tell. He was also rumored to keep all his money in a safe in his home.

At least, that is what one fellow in particular had heard. This fellow had worked for Clutter about 10 years earlier and told a jailhouse cellmate about him and the money he supposedly had in his remote country farmhouse. Truth was, Herb Clutter didn't have a fortune in his home. He didn't have a safe, either. This cellmate didn't know that, though, and he started planning to rob this farmer as soon as he and another buddy of his were released.

Fifty–five years ago, they were both free, and they made their way to Holcomb, where they intended to rob the Clutters. When they discovered that there was no safe and no fortune, they could have left and, in all probability, never been charged with a crime. Instead, they killed each member of the family so there would be no witnesses and left with $42 in cash, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

The crime shocked America, which was a more innocent place (at least, it seems so in hindsight) in the 1950s than many people today realize — even with all the jokes that are made about the simplicity of that decade. It's my opinion, though, that the difference between that time and today is the level of technology. I doubt that shocking crimes happened any less frequently then than they do today; people just didn't hear about them as much.

Nearly two years earlier, the nation was transfixed by the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the inspiration for "Natural Born Killers." It must have taken a lot to transfix the nation in those days. TVs were not fixtures in every American home in those days — maybe 60% would be my guess. Cable didn't exist, nor did the internet. The primary sources for news and information probably were newspapers and radio.

Those same news sources must have been the primary sources for most Americans when the Clutter family was killed, and the word spread so far that it reached Truman Capote via the New York Times — and he and his lifelong friend, Harper Lee (author of "To Kill a Mockingbird"), traveled to Holcomb to do research for a book on the case.

What is often lost in the telling of the murders is the fear that the victims must have experienced in those early morning hours. They did what people are usually told to do if they are abducted — cooperate with your abductor, do whatever you must to stay alive. Yet, they did not live through the night.

Their deaths led to Capote's book and at least two movies of which I am aware. For Capote, of course, it was a career–defining book — which has been criticized frequently since its publication for fabricating conversations and scenes it described. Sometimes that was obviously necessary, given that it described conversations and/or scenes that no living person could verify. But sometimes Capote appears to have deliberately misquoted some people whose versions of events did not support his narrative.

Sometimes that wasn't terribly important to the story; other times, though, it was. That seems to be how it is with the new journalism, the nonfiction novel.

One fact cannot be changed or fabricated. The Clutter family has been dead for 55 years.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Day the Wall Fell Down

Unless you are at least 60 years old today, you probably had no memory on this day in 1989 of a time when the Berlin Wall did not exist. It was 25 years ago today that the wall was brought down, fulfilling Ronald Reagan's famous 1987 challenge to "tear down this wall."

If you are under 30, you almost certainly have no memory of a time when the Berlin Wall did exist.

But, for anyone who remembers most or all of the years between 1961 and 1989, the Berlin Wall was a constant reminder of the tensions between East and West.

It was a fact of life for seven presidents, from John F. Kennedy, whose administration witnessed the construction of the wall in the summer of 1961, to George H.W. Bush, whose administration saw it fall 25 years ago today.

Most Americans — regardless of age — probably had no idea the wall was about to fall, probably had no understanding of the events in that part of the world that were leading to this day. My memory is that it caught most Americans by surprise. They had heard Reagan's plea a couple of years earlier — if they were old enough, they remembered Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in the shadow of the wall two years after its construction — but such speeches were mostly regarded as symbolic, valuable as propaganda for stirring up the masses. Just as the wall itself was a symbol. I guess Americans were conditioned to believe the wall would always exist. The Berlin Wall took on the same kind of mythical aura as the Great Wall of China — with the added value of armed guards. It was there. It would continue to be there. Never mind that it had not always been there.

("Whatever happened to the kind of inspirational presidential oratory that helped bring down that wall — and Soviet communism?" wonders USA Today's Rick Hamson.)

After it happened, it was easy to see — as it always is — the progression of events that led to that moment. But, before it happened, the collapse of the Berlin Wall was seen as, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, delusional fantasy.

Personally, I never thought it would happen. I couldn't imagine a world with a unified Berlin. And today I can't imagine a world in which the wall could be resurrected — yet, with Russian aggression in the Ukraine and militant Muslim aggression in the Middle East, one can only wonder if the last 25 years have been merely an interlude.

Freedom, the adage says, isn't free.

Is it possible there could be another wall — perhaps not in Berlin but somewhere else?