Freedom Writing

Sunday, March 15, 2015

History Is a Harsh Mistress

"Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

"And we shall overcome."

Lyndon B. Johnson
March 15, 1965

History is, indeed, a harsh mistress. She beckons to those who will follow her when she deems that a great moment is at hand — but she never mentions that the window of opportunity is slamming shut nor does she identify what it is that must be addressed. She just gives vague nods in a general direction and lets you figure out the rest.

In the context of history, you have only minutes — seconds, really — to act, too. Then that window slams shut, and a new one will open sometime in the future, but history gives no warning until the moment is upon us again.

Nor can you apply what you learned from the last time to the new one — like old generals who are constantly trying to fight the last war and neglecting the things that will enable them to win the current one. "History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain cautioned, "but it does rhyme."

Fifty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson gave what was probably the most inspiring speech of his presidency — his address to Congress advocating passage of the Voting Rights Act. It broke no new legal ground, really. It was designed to enforce what had been the law of the land for nearly a century in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. They were part of the Reconstruction Amendments that guaranteed rights of citizenship, particularly the right to vote, to minorities, but, as everyone knew, they had not been enforced in most parts of the South.

The voting rights legislation came at a time when LBJ was, arguably, at the height of his political power, prestige and influence. In the year following John F. Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's approval rating had been at its highest — in the 70s — and no president can sustain those numbers indefinitely, but Johnson was doing pretty well after nearly 18 months in the White House. Just a few months earlier, he had been elected to a full four–year term as president in a landslide of historic proportions, and, as he delivered his speech 50 years ago tonight, his approval rating, according to Gallup, was 68%.

Johnson wanted to do something about the situation, but he wanted to proceed slowly, possibly because he wanted to conserve his political capital — which, in hindsight, might have been a good thing to do. America soon soured on the war in Vietnam, and he needed that capital to keep his approval ratings above 50% — a point he dropped below almost permanently by the middle of 1966.

What Johnson told his allies was that he didn't think Congress would be eager to take on another civil rights measure so soon after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Johnson embraced the idea and enthusiastically pressed for the bill's passage in Congress.

As it turned out, his support for the Voting Rights Act appears to have had little influence on his approval ratings. He remained above 60% for the rest of 1965 — even managed to hit 70% in May. But, of course, that was still in the future; he was hesitant to move quickly in the early spring of 1965.

Perhaps the populist, liberal wing of the Democrat Party of 1965 knew what both parties seem to have forgotten in the 21st century — that history is a harsh mistress and one must act quickly to satisfy her. I have read that the liberals of the day were eager to capitalize on their sweeping victories in the 1964 elections, and history certainly indicates there was good reason for that. Following the 1964 elections, the Democrats had the greatest congressional majorities — in both chambers — that any party has had since the Republic's early years.

The lesson of history is that, when such extremes are reached, there is usually a correction that occurs, and huge majorities begin to dwindle. It is only possible in hindsight, of course, to determine when critical mass was reached. At the time, though, the temptation to believe that popularity has not peaked must be hard to resist.

In a democracy, political success is fleeting — and, in fact, Johnson's approval ratings did plummet in the second half of his term. The unpopularity of the war had a lot to do with it; likewise, the civil rights movement almost certainly had something to do with it. As his approval ratings fell, so did Democrat majorities in the House and Senate.

There is a steep price to be paid for failing to act quickly enough — or failing to recognize history's call when it comes. It was the populist, liberal wing that pressured Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Capitol Hill. The events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge accelerated the process.

In my lifelong love affair with history, I have come to appreciate its timing, its ironies. So it is with this moment in history.

Johnson delivered what many believe is the most powerful speech in presidential history only a week and a half after the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's masterful "With malice toward none" second inaugural address. History wasn't repeating itself, but it was rhyming.

Johnson's speech, of course, came a week after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama — an event that has been re–created recently in the movie "Selma."

Anyone who thinks little progress has been made in racial relations in this country since Johnson gave his speech hasn't been paying attention. I was quite young when LBJ made that speech, and I wasn't aware of the historic events that were happening around me, but I had been to the single–screen movie theater in my hometown, and I had seen blacks being ushered into a corner of the balcony through a back door, and I knew that blacks were treated differently than whites. The public schools in my hometown didn't integrate until I enrolled in first grade. Mine was the first class in my hometown's history to go all the way from first grade through the twelfth integrated.

Since I wasn't old enough to read in 1965, I can't tell you if public drinking fountains and restrooms were still segregated in my hometown when LBJ made his speech, but if they weren't, they must have been at some time. I grew up in the South. Not the deep South where the worst things were happening, but it was still the South. In my home state, Orval Faubus led an ill–fated attempt to halt the desegregation of Little Rock Central years before George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and Bull Connor let loose the police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights activists in Alabama.

In those days, civil rights activists could be heard singing "We Shall Overcome." The phrase had become synonymous with "the movement," as I heard most blacks in my hometown call it, sanctified by the blood that had been spilled by so many. The casualties in Selma were only the latest, but they were the straw that broke the camel's back. Selma was too high profile for Johnson to ignore.

On this occasion, historian William Manchester observed, the president "concluded his speech with a phrase that had become hallowed by the blood and tears of a new generation of black Americans marching for justice. He said that their cause 'must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.'

"That was fine liberal eloquence,"
Manchester wrote, "but at times during the year it appeared to be a doubtful prediction. The eleventh anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education passed on May 17, and racism seemed stronger than ever."

My memory is foggy — I was, after all, a small child at the time — but I remember hearing the black ladies with whom my mother worked on our local Human Relations Council speaking of how great it was that the president had used that phrase.

It was more than symbolic to them.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Difference It Makes

"Tell people that there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

George Carlin

Unless your lifestyle is a reclusive one, like that of the Unabomber — and, if it is, then you most likely aren't reading this, anyway — you're bound to have seen the TV commercial in which the deejay is posing as a financial advisor. He got his hair cut. He put on a nice suit, and he threw around some impressive–sounding financial terms. Then he asked some unsuspecting dupes if they would trust him to handle their retirement planning. They all said they would. Then he revealed the truth about himself. "I have no financial experience at all," he confessed.

The unsuspecting dupes really shouldn't have been all that unsuspecting, though. It's the kind of sleight–of–hand that magicians have been pulling for generations. Sometimes people really should be hesitant based on what they know — and what they don't know. Nevertheless, there are always people who fall for scams.

And there are those who make up their minds and won't change, come hell or high water. In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

In my experience, people — particularly Americans — are too quick to give a second chance — and a third one and a fourth one and, well, you get the picture — to those of whom we have ample reason to be skeptical. Most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. For some, it's just the way they roll — all the time.

Sometimes we are rewarded for giving a second chance; but just as often, if not more, we are disappointed.

Now, in the case of one Hillary Rodham Clinton ...

Most Americans think they have spent a lot of time observing the Clintons, but I've got them beat. I lived in Arkansas before Bill ever won an election. I wasn't familiar with Hillary when she was a legal adviser to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry; it was after that that she agreed to marry Clinton and move to Arkansas. They were both in Little Rock by 1977; Bill was elected the state's attorney general in 1976. And that is when I — and, I suspect, most of the people in Arkansas — first became acquainted with Hillary.

From that point on, Bill was a fixture in Arkansas politics, and Hillary was often seen with him — not so much in his attorney general days but after that when he ran for governor. Statewide officials were elected to two–year terms in those days, and governors sort of lived with the fact that, unless they were stepping down voluntarily in the next election cycle, they pretty much had to spend half of each term running for office. There was no season for raising money for those campaigns, either; fundraising was — and, I expect, still is — an ongoing process.

Arkansas changed that law in the mid–1980s. Statewide officers are elected to four–year terms today, but Bill and Hillary Clinton cut their political teeth on the old arrangement.

Anyway, having observed the Clintons for more than half my life, I've kind of gone beyond the point of being disappointed by anything they say or do.

Since we are all, to a great extent, the products of our experiences, it seems fair to assume that experience plays a significant role in the mindsets of both Clintons. Indeed, given their behavior in their political lives, it seems to be — to most reasonable people — a sight more than an assumption.
Hillary Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.

Sen. Ron Johnson: I understand.

Clinton: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?

In the matter of the Clinton emails, Mrs. Clinton and her supporters want the country to focus on the fact that her people have already gone through the emails and decided which ones to release.

Is that sufficient?

As I recall, it wasn't sufficient 40 years ago when the subject of the congressional investigation in which Mrs. Clinton took part — you know, the one involving President Richard Nixon — offered to release certain White House tapes after they had been screened or edited transcripts of the tapes themselves. I can't say that I know what Hillary Rodham said or thought about that, but I do know what just about every Democrat — and some Republicans — said when Nixon tried to pull that one. They didn't go for it. Nixon went ahead and released edited transcripts, anyway, but they were ridiculed to such an extent that no one really gave them any credibility.

As I recall, when the subject of edited transcripts was first brought up by the White House, special prosecutor Archibald Cox rejected it, saying that transcripts "lack the evidenciary value of the tapes themselves."

(There was something Nixonian in the way Barack Obama insisted he had learned of Hillary's private email through news reports. That, of course, is how Nixon claimed he had learned of the Watergate break–in.)

And now Hillary Clinton reaches into Nixon's playbook. But summaries of her email correspondences — or release of certain emails that were selected by Hillary and/or her staff — lack the evidenciary value of the emails themselves.

Of course, there is more to this than merely the resemblance to a long–ago scandal. There is the question of cyber security. In recent years, we have seen how easily the computer files of huge retail outfits can be hacked and private information can be compromised.

Doesn't that make it even more important that Americans be completely assured that the communications of the secretary of state — whose email correspondence may very well have contained sensitive classified information — cannot be intercepted?

What assurance can they have from a privately run server that sufficient security is in place?

We live in perilous times. It shouldn't be necessary to remind people of that, with all the grisly images we have seen on our TV screens — beheadings, people being burned alive and tossed from buildings — but, nevertheless, there are people who will ignore the facts.

Those are the people who will tell you that ISIS and its allies there in the Middle East are savages, primitive, medieval at best. And I will concede that they follow medieval texts and dress in medieval ways — and, most importantly, they think medieval thoughts. But that does not mean that they turn a blind eye to modern technology. They don't like the modern world, but they know that they must use the tools of the modern world if they are to defeat it. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants turned modern technology against America in 2001, hijacking airplanes and using computers for all sorts of purposes — communicating with each other, financial transactions, reserving seats on the doomed airplanes.

Why should we think that modern jihadists would behave any differently?

We've heard the stories of their active efforts to recruit people from the West. Doesn't it make sense that they would be looking for people who know how to hack computer systems? It wouldn't surprise me if they already have recruited such people.

It wouldn't really matter where they were, either — although I am quite sure there are already sleeper cells across this country waiting for their orders. Computer hackers can be anywhere. As long as they can connect to the internet, they can go about their business.

What guarantee do we have that Mrs. Clinton's emails, which were not under the protection of the government, were not hacked while she was in office? Oh, I know, there are no guarantees anymore. But it still seems — to me — to be an inexcusable temptation of fate to obsessively control one's email records instead of doing as the law requires.

Fact is, under the law, Mrs. Clinton's email correspondence while secretary of state does not belong to her. Regardless of what it was — a highly sensitive official email to a foreign ally or a personal email to an old friend — it is the property of the U.S. government.

Upon entering office, a president swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That means following the laws of the land.

Mrs. Clinton asks her audiences these days, "Don't you want to see a woman president of the United States?"

My answer to that is — yes. But I want it to be the right woman for the job. Not just any woman.

And the right woman for the job will not have a history of playing by the rules of her choosing, thoughtlessly putting others at risk. It is the same standard I apply to any man seeking the presidency.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

'With Malice Toward None:' Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

President Abraham Lincoln (bottom circle) delivers his second inaugural address
while the man who would assassinate him six weeks later listens (top circle).

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Abraham Lincoln
March 4, 1865

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address.

As I have mentioned here before, I have been studying the presidents and the presidency most of my life — and that is not a joke. I really have. And in the course of my life, I have read the texts of many presidential inaugural addresses. I have watched all or part of most of the inaugural addresses that have been delivered in my lifetime.

And the one Lincoln delivered 150 years ago today may be the best ever given. Its words adorn the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Lincoln's first inaugural address is considered one of the great speeches in American history — and rightfully so — with its oft–quoted passage about "the better angels of our nature."

But imagine, if you will, Lincoln's state of mind when he prepared to give his second inaugural address. On the occasion of his first inauguration, Lincoln and just about everyone else knew that war was a foregone conclusion so that was Lincoln's focus. It was obviously going to be the priority of the new administration, and the status of the war was going to be critical to his re–election bid four years later.

For a time in his re–election campaign, Lincoln was convinced that he would be defeated. The war news in the first half of 1864 had not been good for the administration, and Lincoln had resolved that, if he did lose, he would see to it that the North won the war before he left office — because he knew the Democrat who defeated him would be committed to ending the war, not winning it or preserving the Union — but things were looking up in the second half of the year. General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta in his famed march to the sea, and David "Damn the torpedoes" Farragut captured Mobile Bay, Alabama. After that, it was all good news, and Lincoln was re–elected in a landslide. By the time he took the oath of office for the second time, the war was almost won.

I don't know if the weather in Washington was as severe 150 years ago as it has been recently, but historical accounts do tell us that it had been raining quite a bit in Washington in the days leading up to Lincoln's inauguration. On the day of the inaugural, though, the skies cleared, and the sun came out, bringing tens of thousands of people out to witness the historic event. After all, Lincoln was only the sixth president to give a second inaugural address.

"Abraham Lincoln, rising tall, gaunt and outstanding, stepped forward to read his inaugural address," Carl Sandburg wrote in his biography of the 16th president. "Applause roared, again and again was repeated, and finally died far away on the outer edge of the throng. In a silence almost profound the audience now listened. Seldom had a president been so short–spoken about the issues of so grave an hour."

The reconstruction of the Union was on Lincoln's mind, and that called for a brief speech, Lincoln told his listeners, and he reminded them of the circumstances four years earlier when he took office. "Both parties deprecated war," he said, "but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

And it had gone on far longer than either side had expected.

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God," Lincoln observed, "and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray," Lincoln said, "that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Sandburg wrote that "[a] subdued handclapping and occasional cheers punctuated the address. Reporters noticed at the final paragraph many moist eyes and here and there tears coursing down faces unashamed."

Frederick Douglass reportedly told the president, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort."

Douglass was there. He heard the speech when it was given. What a privilege that must have been — especially when you consider that modern presidents seem to feel obliged to speak interminably. Lincoln gave the greatest speeches in the nation's history; frequently, they lasted only a few minutes. His Gettysburg Address was written on an envelope, and his second inaugural address might as well have been.

And the significance was in the eye — or, rather, the ear — of the beholder.

"Like the Gettysburg Address, and more particularly the House Divided speech, the second inaugural took on varied meanings," Sandburg wrote. "To some it was a howl for vengeance, to others a benediction and a plea — with deep music."

Lincoln was re–elected with 55% of the popular vote four months earlier on Nov. 8, 1864, defeating his former general, George McClellan.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yeah, That's the Ticket ...

NBC has suspended Brian Williams for six months for repeatedly misrepresenting the facts about his work as an embedded journalist in Iraq — specifically as they relate to his experience on board a helicopter that he said was shot down.

Problem is that some folks — folks who were there — don't remember it that way.

Maybe we ought to cut the guy some slack. Things can seem black and white when you're young, but they take on subtle hues of gray as you get older. Whether it's the fabled fog of war or some other kind of fog, it's easy to be mistaken about things. Easier than some people might think.

It's like when I was the 40th president of the United States, and I had to deal with the air traffic controllers' strike, and ...

Wait a minute, you say Ronald Reagan was the 40th president?

Oh, yeah, that's right. I've been studying the presidents most of my life, and I frequently write about presidents and would–be presidents on this blog — but I've never actually been president. (I have been to the White House, but I was a child at the time.)

You know, the same way Brian Williams was in a war zone and may have seen a helicopter get shot down — but, contrary to what he has said on several occasions, no helicopters in which he was riding were shot down.

Well, that is a small detail, isn't it? Just as Williams apparently did, I must have "conflated" truth with fiction.

As I was saying, in the course of your life, you can get mixed up about what happened to you and what happened to someone else. A good example is when I won Best Actor Oscars in back–to–back years, and ...

Oooops, I did it again, didn't I? I "conflated" again. That wasn't me. That was Tom Hanks. I've seen a lot of movies, but I've never actually been in a movie. Therefore, I've never been nominated for — let alone won — an Oscar for my performance in a movie.

And I suppose now you'll tell me that I didn't win the Masters when I was only 21. Right, that was Tiger Woods. I've watched some golf on television, but I have never played golf.

Fact is, I am a writer. I have worked for newspapers and a trade magazine. I've taught journalism on the college level.

And I feel thoroughly qualified to say the following. A journalist's most valuable possession is his credibility. When that is gone, when people can no longer trust what he says or writes, the journalist might as well look for another way to make a living.

Which is what I think Williams should be doing during his six–month suspension.

He might also want to look into the Pathological Liars Club. I'm, uh, president of that organization. Yeah, that's it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Looking Ahead to 2016

Bet you thought that, once the midterms were over, we'd get a reprieve from politics for awhile. Well, you were wrong! At best, all you get is a chance to catch your breath.

America's political pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes the swing is so modest you need a microscope to see it. Other times it swings wildly. In recent years, both parties have made the mistake of misreading election results and assuming they had longer–term implications than they had. Success is fleeting in American politics.

The midterm election was held in early November. By Thanksgiving, I had already read/heard several reports about people who were considering seeking their parties' nominations; then, Jeb Bush put his foot to the gas pedal and accelerated the process. Interested parties need to jump in soon, or all the resources in money and advisers will get locked in for Bush.

As it stands, 2016 will be a non–incumbent year, which means both parties' nominations are up for grabs. Technically speaking, that is. At this point in the process, it's still mostly a name recognition contest. Bush has the name — which isn't as toxic as it was a few years ago — and he's been grabbing up the money and the people even though few people outside of Florida know much more about him than the fact that he is the son of one president and the brother of another.

That was enough for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, I guess. Romney wisely withdrew yesterday.

I didn't get to see his announcement, but it sounded like an impression of Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront."

Recent polls showed him in the lead, he said, particularly in the states whose primaries come early in the calendar, and he was "convinced" he could have won the nomination a second straight time — something no non–incumbent candidate in either party has been able to do since Adlai Stevenson.

("I coulda been a contendah.")

Once these guys (and gals) get the fever and start looking at themselves in the mirror each morning and imagining "Hail to the Chief" being played when he/she enters a room, the only cure for it seems to be the grave. Maybe it's an addiction. I don't know. But the word addiction has been expanded considerably in recent years. I wouldn't be surprised if politicians are prime prospects for addiction. Many already have addictions of other kinds as well, and being a narcissist almost seems like a key component of a politician's DNA.

I believe Romney is a sincere, well–meaning man who allowed himself to be defined by his opposition. Those things happen in campaigns. Both parties have done it so neither party is innocent; no point in pointing fingers on that one. There's plenty of blame to go around. The bottom line is, once you have been defined by the opposition, it is even more difficult to prevail the next time. To a great extent, Romney had been defined within his own party by his previous campaign for the nomination and by the opposition party in the general election.

Recent speculation of which issues Romney would choose to champion this time seemed to revive the old stereotypes of Romney as elitist, cold and calculating. It reminded me of what I heard when I was a child during Richard Nixon's comeback campaign of 1968. The emphasis was on the new Nixon. Nixon was always reinventing himself, and Romney has slipped into that mode as well.

But he resisted its lure. Good for him. It was the smart thing to do, and it most likely closes the door on his presidential ambitions. If the 2016 GOP nominee fails to win the election, Romney would be 73 in 2020. That isn't too old to win the nomination, but, historically speaking, it is too old to win the election. But my guess is he will continue to hear "Hail to the Chief" when he looks in the mirror each morning.

Barack Obama is barred by law from seeking a third term so, unless he issues an executive order repealing the 22nd Amendment, the Democrats will need a new nominee. Conventional wisdom insists it will be Hillary Clinton.

Really, how often does the frontrunner win the nomination? (I am speaking, of course, about non–incumbent presidential elections. Incumbents are rarely challenged for the nomination if they decide to seek another term — and even more rarely are those challenges serious.)

In the last 40 years, I suppose it has happened more often on the Republicans' side than on the Democrats' — Romney, John McCain (2008), George W. Bush (2000), Bob Dole (1996), George H.W. Bush (1988), Ronald Reagan (1980) and Gerald Ford (1976) all were frontrunners. The narrative on the Republican side was that the nominee always was the runnerup the last time the nomination was up for grabs. That hasn't always been the case, but it has been close to it for nearly 40 years. And those frontrunners almost always faced viable challengers from within before claiming the nomination.

Democrats have been more freewheeling. Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner heading into the primaries and caucuses of 2008 but lost to Obama, a newcomer to the national stage. The argument can be made that the nominees in 2004 (John Kerry) and 2000 (Al Gore) were frontrunners when the primaries began, but they, too, had to fend off challenges.

Clinton's husband was lightly regarded when his 1992 campaign began, but Mario Cuomo decided not to run, and Bill Clinton emerged from a pack of supposedly second–tier candidates dubbed "the Dwarfs."

Heading into 1988, Gary Hart — an insurgent challenger from 1984 — was regarded as the frontrunner until his campaign imploded. Michael Dukakis emerged from a group of largely unknown candidates to win the nomination.

Hart's insurgent candidacy made things uncomfortable for former Vice President Walter Mondale, the original frontrunner who went on to win the nomination. Mondale's former boss, Jimmy Carter, first won the nomination as an unknown riding a populist wave. Four years before that, the extreme left wing of the Democrat Party seized the nomination in the person of George McGovern.

Hillary Clinton may well go on to win the nomination, but she will have to overcome the problems we already know about — she really wasn't a very good candidate the last time, and her recent public remarks suggest that a lifetime in the public eye hasn't taught her much about diplomacy, her years as secretary of State notwithstanding.

What's more, there are rumblings about members of the liberal base pressing for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to seek the nomination. Not surprisingly, Clinton has been trying to improve her standing with the far left wing.

Historically, a non–incumbent presidential election has been an opportunity for both parties to write a new chapter in their history. Unfortunately, it appears that both parties are taking a trajectory that seems likely to give both nominations to dynastic retreads.

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.