Freedom Writing

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Do Obama's Approval Numbers Matter?

As of today, we are less than 100 days away from Election Day. A little more than five years ago, Democrats were fawning over the first 100 days of the Obama presidency. Today, they are considerably less enthusiastic about the next 100 days.

Nothing is cast in stone yet, but the sands are running rapidly through the hourglass for the Democrats.

Over and over, I have been asked the same question: Why do Barack Obama's approval numbers matter in the 2014 midterms?

Usually, I am asked this question by folks who still haven't gotten over that "Yes, we can" mindset from 2008 — some things matter because we say they matter, and other things don't matter because we say they don't matter — and they can't comprehend what has changed.

Well, there's this matter of delivering on one's promises — and presidents always seem to get the short end of the stick on that one. Either they haven't delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that — or they have delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that.

A voter's preference is a moving target. It all really depends on whose ox is being gored.

Some people don't understand that a single election never settles things, once and for all — and that no president can count on the same kind of support for his subordinates that he received two years earlier. Those subordinates are charged with implementing the president's policies via the legislative branch. When the policies ain't working, all involved are held accountable.

If the president isn't on the ballot, disgruntled voters will do as George Wallace used to encourage them to do — Send 'em a message. By proxy if necessary.

I'm sorry if this refresher civics course seems elementary. I mention it only to remind folks that this is a democracy, and people make no lifetime commitments to candidates, causes or parties. Well, some do, but many do not, and that really is perplexing for some.

They find the independence of the American voter bewildering.

Obama isn't on the ballot, they point out. He is barred by law from seeking a third term. The election isn't about him. It's about keeping the Senate and winning the House. (OK, even the diehards aren't mentioning that last one anymore. It's become one of those "in a perfect world" kind of things for modern Democrats. Holding on to the Senate is enough of a challenge.)

Well, technically, I suppose, that is true. We aren't electing a president in 2014. We are electing one–third of the Senate and all of the House, just as we do every two years. Every four years, we throw a presidential election into the mix — but not this time.

We're midway through the current four–year presidential term — hence, these are the midterm elections.

Historically, midterms have served as electoral adjustors. They almost always go against the party that occupies the White House, and that tendency is even more pronounced in a president's second midterm. In recent years, it has been referred to as a fatigue factor. There was talk of "Bush fatigue" in 2006 and "Clinton fatigue" in 1998. I can even remember talk of "Reagan fatigue" in 1986.

(If Watergate had not ended his presidency early, Nixon might well have encountered "Nixon fatigue" in November 1974. In hindsight, that might have been better for the Republicans. As it was, they lost five Senate seats and four dozen House seats in the Watergate backlash.)

I'm not really sure why it is that presidential fatigue seems to settle in at this point in a two–term presidency. I just know that it is so. Except for extremely rare circumstances, a president's party is radioactive two years after his re–election.

George W. Bush was extremely unpopular just before the 2006 midterms. Polls consistently showed his approval in the mid– to upper 30s prior to the election, and his Republicans lost six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was very popular. About a week before the election, his approval rating was 63%, according to Gallup. His popularity took a major hit after the election — when the Iran–Contra scandal was in the news — but Reagan's party still lost control of the Senate for the first time in six years (as well as five seats in the House).

Bill Clinton's second midterm in 1998 probably should have been a disaster for the Democrats — after all, in Clinton's first midterm, his party lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years — but 1998 was one of those extreme circumstances of which I spoke earlier. Republicans were perceived as having overreached in their attempt to impeach Clinton, and voters gave Democrats a four–seat gain in the House.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that Republicans are more engaged than Democrats, but they aren't as enthusiastic as they were in 2010 — or as Democrats were in 2006.

There may be good news and bad news in that for both parties. If Republicans are not as enthused as they were four years ago, they might not be as inclined to show up at the polls. Good news for Democrats.

Pew also finds that, currently, there is virtually no difference in party preference. Forty–five percent of voters prefer Republicans, 47% prefer Democrats. More good news for Democrats.

The enthusiasm gap for the out–of–power party is not as great this year, Pew reports, as it was in 2010 or 2006.

But that is how it stands in July. Unfortunately for Democrats, the election isn't being held in July. Numerous surveys over the years suggest that most Americans don't start paying attention to political campaigns until around October.

More than three–fourths of Republican–leaning voters say they definitely will vote this year whereas about two–thirds of Democrat–leaning voters say they definitely will vote — but those numbers are slightly lower for Republicans and a little higher for Democrats than they were four years ago. Again, more good news for Democrats.

However, about half of those Republican voters say they will vote against any and all supporters of Obama's policies, which is not much different from this point in the election cycle four years ago.

People still point to polls showing record–high dissatisfaction with Congress, and that can't be denied, but it can be misinterpreted. Yes, the American people aren't happy with Congress. But they never are. Dissatisfaction was pretty high in 2006 and 2010, too, but most incumbents who sought re–election were re–elected.

Typically, when people say they are not satisfied with Congress, they mean other people's senators and representatives, not their own. Anti–incumbency is said to be running high today, but it hasn't shown itself much in this year's party primaries.

And conventional wisdom holds that undecided voters are more inclined to break for the challenger in the closing days and weeks of a campaign. Thus, the likelihood that the voters will throw the bums out in November is very low.

What can Obama do? Well, in some cases, the best thing he can do is stay away entirely. He will continue to be a factor in the midterms — presidents just are, that's all there is to it — so he needs to respect the wishes of Democrats who are trying (in some instances, desperately) to hold on to their seats in red states like Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Observers are already referring to races in red states like Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where Democrats are retiring, as sure things for the GOP — which would put Republicans halfway to their goal of six seats to seize control of the Senate. Defeating Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina would give them the majority — assuming Democrats don't win one of a couple of Republican–held seats in which they are perceived as competitive.

That kind of thing — where the party that is fighting the electoral tide succeeds — doesn't usually happen in midterm elections, but, as Larry Sabato reminds us, "every election is different."

Earlier, Sabato was inclined to think that 2014 would be another "wave election," like the midterms of 2006 and 2010, but so far, he writes, "this election hasn't gelled quite the way it earlier appeared on paper."

Republicans are also fantasizing about picking up Democratic seats in Iowa, maybe Michigan and Oregon, too. These were seats that, not so long ago, were regarded as safe for the Democrats.

The fact that they are no longer seen as safe should send a chill down every Democrat's spine.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking a Step Closer to Impeachment

For a student of history and politics, even one as young as I was then, the Watergate period was a fascinating time in America.

In hindsight, it seems so different than it did when it happened. It turned out to be a textbook example of how the system should work — a confirmation, really, of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

But at the time, no one really knew how it would play out. Right up until Richard Nixon decided to resign — a conclusion that, I believe, became inevitable when he lost U.S. v. Nixon — no one really knew what he was going to do. I don't think even he knew what he would do. Certainly, if his original plan had gone as he expected, the whole matter would have been a distant memory by this time in 1974. But my sense was that, after the existence of the White House taping system was revealed to the public, he was winging it.

Maybe that was appropriate. Nixon was such a loner, anyway. He never really seemed to take anyone into his confidence, and I have always believed that he came to the conclusion that he had to resign on his own, using whatever logic and reasoning had guided his steps as an adult.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress were put in an uncomfortable position — having to defend a president who was liked by few and increasingly appeared to be guilty. The anguish of Republicans was evident in the words of Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, the only Republican on the committee to support all three of the articles of impeachment that were approved.

"The thing that's so appalling to me," Hogan told his colleagues, "is that the president, when this whole idea was suggested to him, didn't, in righteous indignation, rise up and say, 'Get out of here, you're in the office of the president of the United States. How can you talk about blackmail and bribery and keeping witnesses silent? This is the presidency of the United States.' But my president didn't do that. He sat there, and he worked and worked to try to cover this thing up so it wouldn't come to light."

Hogan may have felt freer to vote his conscience than his other Republican colleagues. Although his district had given Nixon 57% of its vote when he sought re–election in 1972, it was and is a heavily Democratic district (Steny Hoyer has represented the district for more than 30 years and was the majority leader under Nancy Pelosi), and it seemed likely to vote Hogan out in what was shaping up to be a Democratic year.

Anyway, Hogan was leaving the House to run for governor; he was unsuccessful.

In the summer of 1974, he was the only Republican to vote for all three articles of impeachment that were adopted by the Judiciary Committee.

Forty years ago today, as the nation watched, the House Judiciary Committee approved an article of impeachment against the president of the United States. It would approve three articles altogether. On Saturday, July 27, 1974, the Judiciary Committee voted, 27–11, in favor of the first article of impeachment, charging Nixon with obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate coverup.

"It was almost 7 in the evening when [chairman Peter] Rodino called for the vote on Article One," wrote Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. "As the camera moved from one member to the next, down the order from senior to junior, each face was an emotionless mask."

On Monday, July 29, 1974, the members of the committee voted, 28–10, for an article of impeachment charging Nixon with abuse of power for his misuse of the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Secret Service and the Department of Justice.

On Tuesday, July 30, 1974, the members of the committee voted, 21–17, for a third article of impeachment charging Nixon with contempt of Congress.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Making a Name For Himself

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America."

Barack Obama
July 27, 2004

Sometimes destiny is hard to recognize, even when it slaps you silly.

Until 10 years ago tomorrow night, no one knew who Barack Obama was. Well, some people knew who he was — but it is fair to say that most Americans, probably even most of those who did know who he was, did not know, when they saw Obama on their television screens, that they were getting a preview of coming attractions.

The keynote address he delivered 10 years ago before the delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston has been credited by many with making him president. I disagree. It certainly contributed to his political rise, it gave him national exposure, but I think it is an exaggeration to credit the speech with making him president. He was just a state senator from Illinois trying to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Three years later, he hadn't distinguished himself in the Senate, and he was not the front–runner in the polls when Democrats began holding presidential primaries; Hillary Clinton was.

People often forget that she, too, spoke to the delegates in Boston, who had gathered to nominate John Kerry for president.

But her speech seemed to stir little in the way of enthusiasm. The audience cheered her politely — probably more in gratitude for her husband's presidency than for her contribution, at the time, as a U.S. senator. In a way, perhaps, it foretold what would happen in the Democratic Party when it chose its next nominee.

It is true, as David Bernstein wrote in Chicago Magazine in 2007, that the address "changed Obama's profile overnight and made him a household name," but it is also true that it was not a history–changing speech.

And I would also dispute that it made Obama a "household name" in 2004. That came later.

"It was good, but it was nothing awe inspiring," his press aide, Robert Gibbs, said of Obama's speech. It wasn't until Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 that opinion polling started to show movement in his direction — until then, Hillary Clinton was still the front–runner.

Obama's speech 10 years ago was greeted with enthusiasm, but I honestly don't recall the extent of the positive response that Bernstein did. I suppose there may be something to it; Bernstein's article, after all, was published several months before the Iowa caucus — long before the idea of an Obama nomination qualified as more than wishful thinking.

But I'm inclined to think Bernstein was looking at it from the perspective of sustained candidacy, not necessarily nomination.

"Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago's Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority," Bernstein wrote. "After the speech, observers from across the political world hailed the address as an instant classic, and Obama was drawing comparisons (deservedly or not) to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy."

Now, whether it is true or not, I do fancy myself to be current on politics and what journalists write about things like primaries and conventions and keynote addresses. In the summer of 2004, I did a lot of reading, and I remember reading many accounts of the speeches at both of the major parties' conventions.

And I simply don't remember the kind of reaction that Bernstein did. I mean, come on. King? Kennedy? Really?

Other black politicians have given speeches to national conventions — Barbara Jordan, Condoleezza Rice, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell — and they didn't make that kind of impression.

Well, except for one.

Jordan was the first black woman to give a keynote address. American Rhetoric ranked her 1976 speech fifth in its list of the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century, behind only King, Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (twice).

And, although the convention was already set to nominate Jimmy Carter that summer, Jordan did receive the support of one delegate in the nominating ballot. However, I don't recall reading any articles promoting her as a future nominee — in fact, she retired from politics a couple of years later.

Jackson's 1984 address was ranked 12th, and his 1988 address was ranked 49th. I do remember reading some articles promoting Jackson as a future contender for a presidential nomination, but I'm sure I read just as many articles arguing that he should not seek the presidency — not because he was black but because of concerns about having a religious leader in the Oval Office.

Jackson, of course, was not a keynote speaker.

Pundits often refer to keynote speakers as if they are future presidential nominees. In my experience, few have come close to that — so, while there probably were those who, swept up in the excitement of the moment, spoke of Obama as a future nominee 10 years ago, it is likely that most of the people who heard them did not really think it was possible.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ted's Side of the Story

It has been 45 years since Ted Kennedy's car plunged into the waters of Chappaquiddick. A young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned that night. Kennedy himself has been dead for nearly five years, but the event is still capable of provoking passionate debates.

With only a few exceptions, Kennedy spent the seven days immediately following the incident in seclusion. When he was seen, he was wearing a neck brace, a silent reminder of the accident. He emerged 45 years ago today — sans neck brace — to deliver a national address on the matter.

Since Bobby Kennedy's assassination a year earlier, Kennedy was widely regarded as virtually a sure thing if he wanted the Democratic presidential nomination; after the accident, the conventional wisdom was that he was damaged goods — damaged beyond repair.

Before the Chappaquiddick incident, Kennedy was often mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for 1972. Even after Chappaquiddick, his name was still mentioned in connection with the 1976 race. He chose not to seek the nomination in either year, and it seemed his presidential ambitions really were behind him.

Incredibly, he did seek the presidency — in 1980 — but it always seemed to me he did so more out of a sense of personal obligation than anything else.

And he picked a year to run in which it was almost certain that he would not succeed. He ran against an incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in a year that was shaping up to be a Republican year. Running against an incumbent from one's own party has almost always been a "Man of La Mancha"–esque proposition — and, predictably, at least in the context of history, Kennedy did not defeat the incumbent.

But there was more to it than that. Early in the campaign for the nomination, Carter benefited from a rally–'round–the–flag mentality following the takeover of the American embassy in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

If Kennedy had beaten Carter, it is far from certain that he would have defeated the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. In hindsight, it really seems the tide was running against all Democrats in 1980.

Before any votes had been cast, Kennedy's commitment was brought into question when he gave a rambling answer to a pretty straight–forward question posed by CBS' Roger Mudd — "Why do you want to be president?"

But on this night in 1969, he didn't speak about the presidency. He spoke about Chappaquiddick. Earlier in the day, he had entered a plea of guilty at the Edgartown, Mass., courthouse; he was given a suspended sentence and his driver's license was taken away.

Thoughts of the presidency probably were part of the equation, though, particularly when you examine the issues he chose to address when he spoke before the cameras:
  • His wife, Joan, had not accompanied him that weekend due to "reasons of health." Her absence had been frequently mentioned, and Kennedy apparently felt obliged to say that she was pregnant (she suffered a miscarriage shortly thereafter).
  • He denied the "widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct" by himself and Kopechne.
  • He denied that he had been under the influence of alcohol while he was driving.
  • He acknowledged that his actions after the accident "made no sense to [him] at all."
  • He said he had been told by his doctors that he had suffered a concussion and shock, but he didn't use that as an excuse for his actions.
  • He said it was "indefensible" that he did not contact authorities after the accident.
  • He told viewers that he had enlisted the help of two friends at the party to help try to rescue her.
  • He said that "all kinds of scrambled thoughts" went through his head that, in hindsight, seem like nothing short of denial — including the idea that Kopechne may have saved herself somehow and whether "some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys."
"The speech was not a success," wrote William Manchester. "He answered questions that hadn't been asked ... He also seemed to imply that the damage to his career was more momentous than [Kopechne's] death." That, I suppose, remained to be seen.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Supreme Court: The President Is Not Above the Law

For two weeks in the summer of 1974, the eight Supreme Court justices who were deciding on United States v. Nixon had been reviewing the details of the case and considering the lawyers' arguments.

Executive privilege was given as the defense's argument for not turning over the tapes that had been requested. But the real issue was: Is the president above the law?

The justices answered that question 40 years ago today.

And while the Supreme Court considered the matter, all kinds of things were happening in the Watergate case.

The day after the justices heard arguments, the House Judiciary Committee released its own versions of transcripts of eight conversations that had been released earlier by the White House. When the White House transcripts were compared to the Judiciary Committee's transcripts, it was clear that several long Watergate–related passages had been omitted in the White House version.

A week later, Nixon refused to comply with the House Judiciary Committee's last four subpoenas. In an interview that day, he called Watergate "the broadest but thinnest scandal in American history."

The day before that, the White House had furnished some John Ehrlichman notes to the Judiciary Committee, portions of which were blacked out. A few days later, Nixon attorney James St. Clair assured the committee that the deletions had been made by mistake, but the public relations damage had clearly been done.

The Judiciary Committee also made public five volumes of evidence that challenged the White House's argument that national security was the reason for the wiretaps. Without identifying which ones, Vice President Gerald Ford said he had listened to portions of two of the tapes and had reached the conclusion that it was "very understandable" that different interpretations could be made of words that were spoken on them.

Volume upon volume of evidence was released to the public, and both the majority and minority counsels on the Judiciary Committee urged a Senate trial on one or more of five impeachment charges: (1) obstruction of justice, (2) abuse of power, (3) contempt of Congress, (4) failure to adhere to the pledge to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" and (5) denigration of the presidency through underpayment of income taxes and use of federal money for personal purposes.

In California, the president's press secretary said the majority counsel, John Doar, was running a "kangaroo court."

The minority counsel, Albert Jenner, was replaced a couple of days later — after saying the case for impeachment was persuasive.

A couple of days before the Supreme Court announced its ruling, St. Clair declined to say whether Nixon would comply if the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes.

The next day, House Judiciary Committee member Lawrence Hogan, a Republican from Maryland, announced he would vote for impeachment. Hogan had already decided not to seek re–election to the House and was instead seeking the governorship of his state.

Forty years ago today, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski told the Baltimore Sun that he was "appalled" by the White House's refusal to say whether it would obey a Supreme Court order to turn over the tapes.

And such an order was handed down later that day.

By an 8–0 vote, the justices ruled that Nixon had to turn over the records of 64 Watergate–related conversations. They acknowledged that there was a constitutional basis for executive privilege but said that, when such a claim is "based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of justice."

"In careful but clear language," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, "the Court ordered the president to turn over the tapes."

St. Clair, wrote Woodward and Bernstein, had been certain he would win the case. "He was shattered that he had lost. When he read the decision, it became clear to him that the tapes would have to go to [presiding Judge John] Sirica.

"'The president is not above the law. Nor does he contend that he is,' St. Clair had told the court. He hoped that the president understood what that meant. Nixon had never told him exactly what he would do if there were an adverse decision, but St. Clair knew that his own legal advice to the president had to be unqualified compliance.

"When St. Clair arrived at the residence, he told the president ... that he advised full compliance. The president was not convinced. He wondered if, in fact, to preserve the power of his office, he didn't have a constitutional duty to reject the court order."

Of Nixon's defenders, historian Theodore White wrote, "they were like German officers on the firing line in 1918 who knew long before the Kaiser that the time for surrender had come."

The president eventually agreed to a kind of compliance. He told St. Clair that he would need to time to review the tapes before turning them over — weeks, perhaps months. St. Clair wasn't sure he could arrange that. Jaworski was eager to get the tapes for use in the upcoming coverup trial.

Nixon also informed lawyer Fred Buzhardt that "there might be a problem with the June 23 tape."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Global Chaos

When I was a child, my parents told me many stories. I'm sure most of your parents were the same way.

Mostly, I think it was my mother who told me stories, but my father did from time to time. The story that I remember hearing from him most often was the one about Chicken Little — you know, the one about the chicken who was convinced the world was coming to an end and ran about proclaiming, "The sky is falling!"

I'm getting somewhat the same sensation these days.

Under Barack Obama, the United States' global reputation is leaning away from strength and closer to impotence. His supporters, like the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, insist that "it's virtually impossible to be a successful modern president," which is a handy and much–used excuse. I heard it from Jimmy Carter's supporters in 1980. I heard it from George H.W. Bush's supporters in 1992. Nothing new about it.

They probably said it about Herbert Hoover in 1932.

But that's a copout.

Each of those presidents was said to have failed. I know for certain that Carter's backers and Bush's backers insisted that the presidency had become too big a job for any mortal man. And each of those presidents was beaten by a man whom history regards as far more successful than the president he succeeded.

"Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail," Cillizza writes.

I disagree. It's an important job, and sometimes it requires a lot of work for what seems like minimal gain, if any gain can be seen at all. But this assumption that a president will "almost certainly fail" suggests that, well, if the guy we've got can't do it, no one can. Not so. Presidents are not infallible. Popes, kings and dictators are considered infallible. But America is not ruled by a pope, king or dictator.When a president's failings become too great to ignore, his apologists immediately begin to defend him for fighting the good fight — and excuse him for falling short — for no one can juggle the duties of the presidency, especially if his skin is black and he has to deal with all those racists.

Never mind that those racists elected him president twice.

Early in his presidency, I heard Obama's supporters boast that he was opening a new era in global relations. In that first year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For what? I asked. Nobel Prize recipients typically have accomplished something for which the Nobel Committee is rewarding them.

He got it for what he will do, one of my friends assured me. What will he do? I asked. My friend did not respond.

OK, well, I've got a pretty good idea now. Russia's on the move, and we do nothing to stop it. There are at least two things I never ever expected to see in my lifetime that, apparently, I shall, nevertheless, see. The first was the breakup of the old Soviet Union. Once that happened, I never thought I would see the Soviet Union reunited. But Vladimir Putin appears determined to do that, and Obama has no apparent intent to prevent it. That is thing #2.

And that seems likely to lead us to a third thing I never expected to see — Cold War II.

All hell is breaking loose in the Middle East (OK, all hell is always breaking loose in the Middle East, only it seems more dangerous, more menacing today). Tens of thousands of children are being permitted to cross the U.S.–Mexico border illegally, most not accompanied by adults — along with who knows how many other adults, all of whom are in violation of U.S. immigration law. Many may be criminals in their native countries.

America has no foreign policy to speak of. There appears to be a perception that there is a new law in America, an open–border policy. There is no such law, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that people think there is and seek to take advantage of it.

America has always been a compassionate country, but the current border crisis creates a no–win situation. There is validity to the argument from those who ask how the United States can, in good conscience, turn away children and send them back to possibly criminal and violent environments in central and South America.

I don't believe that anyone likes that idea. But as much as the United States might like to fling open its doors and be the sanctuary for all the oppressed peoples of the world, it simply cannot do so. America already admits more legal immigrants than any other country in the world — by far. It does not have the resources to support hundreds of thousands of new illegal immigrants (in addition to the millions who are already here), to provide food and shelter and health care for them all.

America might have had the resources if the Obama administration had focused from the start on resolving the economic crisis and putting America back to work, as it promised to do but did not do.

Well, that is a discussion for another time. The fact is that America does not have those resources now and must be careful with the relatively meager (by historical standards) resources it has, especially when the government is subsidizing health care policies for nonexistent applicants.

What is needed is a president who has diplomatic skills, who could talk to leaders of other countries about stepping up and helping with the immigrants who are currently flooding across our southern border — and will at least try to work with members of the opposing party.

And we need a president who will forcefully tell the world that the United States does not have an open–border policy, that no country can afford to have an open–border policy in these perilous times. But we will do everything we possibly can for all immigrants who enter the country legally and want to become citizens.

Americans are generous people; they want to see everyone succeed, but they expect everyone to play by the same set of rules.

The perception of an open border has been achieved largely through word of mouth. When word begins to spread that people are not being allowed across the border, I believe the crisis will subside. Then, hopefully, a meaningful discussion about immigration policy can begin.

Like it or not, America is a global power that other countries look to for leadership. Without it, the world will descend into greater chaos.

Some presidents have the skills that are necessary to lead a great power through times like these; others do not. And when those who do not are granted power and make decisions that weaken the United States, those who would harm us are emboldened.

My father once told me that the great thing about America is that there has always been someone, the right man for the times, who steps forward and leads.

I hope that leader comes along soon.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Dawning of a New World

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Neil Armstrong
July 20, 1969

I've heard that astronaut Neil Armstrong, the man who took the first steps on the moon, was a modest man, not prone to hyperbole.

When he said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as he descended the ladder on the lunar module and planted his foot on the moon's surface, I believe he really did understand the huge implications of that single, simple act. Regardless of how educated they were, all people — and it was estimated that half a billion people worldwide were watching — could understand what it meant to put a foot on the ground, and most could probably grasp that it was merely the first step on a journey that would take mankind into an era of unimagined developments and changes.

But all would not be revealed at once. In a manner of speaking, it was the first day of school for the human race. Science continues to build on things that were discovered via NASA's missions to the moon.

I was a small boy at the time, of course, so I didn't understand everything. Nevertheless, for me, the most heart–stopping moment on Apollo 11's historic voyage was the descent of the lunar module to the moon's surface on this day in 1969. I understood enough to know there were risks in that procedure.

Earlier, the lunar module had separated from the command module, which was piloted by Michael Collins, and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their journey to the moon.

As the lunar module descended, computers were reporting lots of errors — which turned out not to be errors, after all, just computer miscalculations — and Armstrong and Aldrin reported back to mission control that they were passing lunar landmarks four seconds earlier than expected and would be "long" — landing west of their intended landing site.

The folks back in Houston would easily adapt their design for later flights — but nobody in the viewing audience knew that. Viewers were told that the lunar module might not have enough fuel to re–connect with the command module if it didn't land within a certain time. Turned out the astronauts were receiving premature low fuel warnings, and there was no crisis after all.

But no one knew that. I remember feeling a genuine concern for the men on board — and a genuine sense of relief when they reported a successful landing with a few seconds to spare.

I wasn't the only one who responded that way — but I was part of a decidedly smaller subset that may have felt such anxiety for the first time in their lives on that occasion.

"Tranquility, we copy you on the ground," came the reply from Mission Control. "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."

It was the first mission to the moon. The astronauts and the crew on the ground were learning things that would be adjusted on succeeding flights, but, in July 1969, it was all new.

The astronauts did not step out on the moon right away. NASA had scheduled a five–hour sleep period for them because they had been up since early that morning, but the astronauts apparently did not sleep. With an unexplored frontier waiting just outside their door, I guess that would have been like asking a kid to sleep late on Christmas morning. Anyway, Armstrong and Aldrin spent the downtime preparing for their historic moon walks instead of napping.

While not mentioned publicly at the time, Aldrin also took communion prior to going out on the moon's surface. He did so privately because, at the time, NASA was contending with atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lawsuit that demanded that astronauts abstain from religious activities while in space.

I think that originated when the crew of Apollo 8 read passages from the Bible on Christmas Eve.

So Aldrin took communion on the moon with a special kit that had been prepared by his pastor, but he drew no attention to it.

When he returned to earth, Aldrin gave the chalice he used to his church, which still has it. Every year, on the Sunday closest to July 20, the church commemorates his lunar communion.

Once the astronauts were on the moon, I figured the hard part was over. I mean, all they had to do was go out the door of the lunar module, climb down that ladder and walk around on the surface, right? Nothing to it.

I suppose I was much too young to understand that, until someone did get out and walk around, no one really knew what to expect. All kinds of possibilities went through people's minds — and it's safe to say that most, if not all, were not good.

Before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, there was still a kind of mysterious aura surrounding it. Astronauts had been close enough to the moon to peer at its surface from their space capsules, and they thought they knew what to expect — but no one was really sure.

The moon, Shakespeare said, "comes more nearer earth than she was wont and drives men mad." And there did seem to be a kind of madness settling upon the earth around the time of Apollo 11's journey to the moon.

Most of the madness at the time was brought on by the space race. At the height of the Cold War, Russia and the United States were driven mad in a desperate race to get to the moon first. America won that race 50 years ago today.

But the madness wasn't confined to space. There were times that summer when it seemed the world was on the brink of spinning out of control.

Less than 48 hours before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy plunged into the channel on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass. Kennedy survived, but a young woman who was riding in the car with him, 28–year–old Mary Jo Kopechne, perished.

And about three weeks later, the Manson Family would commit a series of highly publicized (for that pre–cable, pre–internet era) horrific murders in California.

Much of the world watched that night. It is said that more than 500 million people witnessed those first steps on the moon and heard Armstrong say, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

And, from that moment on, it really was a new world — a world in which man could fly to the moon and back if he chose to do so.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The First Bump on That Glass Ceiling

Nearly 15 years earlier to the day, Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. On this night in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro took a giant leap for women.

She had been telling folks to "just call me Geri" since long before Walter Mondale picked her to be his running mate a week earlier. But somehow that just didn't seem right for a presumptive vice–presidential nominee.

It took her more than four minutes, but Ferraro finally said what thousands in San Francisco's Moscone Center and millions more watching on TV had been waiting to hear.

First, though, she reaffirmed that "America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us."

Exactly one week earlier, Mondale, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had announced that he had chosen her to be his running mate — and now, it was her turn to officially accept the nomination (per political protocol) after the delegates approved Mondale's choice, which they did by acclamation.

It was a mere formality, of course. A rather quaint American tradition. No one thought for a second that she would turn down the nomination. And she didn't. Then after she had accepted the nomination, she spent about 25 minutes introducing herself to America. Other than her debate with Vice President George H.W. Bush three months later, it was about the most extensive exposure America would get to the first female on a major party's national ticket.

Not all Americans were watching, of course. They never are, but in a convention week that included soaring speeches from Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, Ferraro's speech clearly was the emotional high point.

American Rhetoric proclaimed the speech she gave 30 years ago tonight to be #56 on the list of the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. It carried unique challenges that neither Cuomo nor Jackson had to face.

Ferraro was the first woman on a major–party ticket. It was historic, and all eyes would be watching her closely. Her detractors would be looking for anything to criticize, and her supporters would be looking for anything to praise.

Ferraro simply seemed to want her opportunity to tell the country what she could do.

"The promise of our country is that the rules are fair," Ferraro told the delegates. "If you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America's blessings."

That is pretty standard political rhetoric, but it seemed more convincing coming from the first woman on a major party's national ticket.

And, taking a page from John F. Kennedy's political playbook, Ferraro said, "The issue is not what America can do for women, but what women can do for America."

Reactions to the speech were generally good. Pundit reactions to the selection of Ferraro as running mate were decidedly mixed, although Ferraro initially proved to be an asset. Mondale's campaign had been far behind Ronald Reagan's in the polls before the convention; after the convention, the Democratic ticket enjoyed a nice bounce and even managed to pull roughly even — for awhile.

But the Democrats came back to earth in a hurry. By the end of July, questions came up about her finances, her husband's finances, their separate tax returns, etc., and the momentum came to a screeching halt.

No one knew any of that 30 years ago tonight, of course, when Ferraro stood before the delegates to the Democratic convention and accepted the vice presidential nomination.

It was a legitimate nomination, but it was still mostly symbolic. Nearly everyone watching probably realized, on some level, that she would not be elected.

Nevertheless, the euphoria inside the convention hall was unmistakable, and Ferraro was almost giddy at times.

"By choosing a woman to run for our nation's second–highest office," Ferraro said, "you sent a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.

"If we can do this, we can do anything."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Will She or Won't She?

I grew up in Arkansas. I lived there during most of Bill Clinton's tenure as governor.

And I feel as qualified to say this as anyone who lived in Arkansas when I did: Hillary Clinton has always been a perplexing person. (Well, at least as an adult. I can't say what she was like as a child.)

During her time in Arkansas' governor's mansion, she often took stands or made statements that cut against the grain with average Arkansans. She was a traditional feminist in most of her views, and she was unapologetic for it — which produced kind of a strange dichotomy. I knew people who frequently disagreed with her yet still admired her determination to stand up for what she believed.

Would those same people have voted for her for anything? I doubt it. To my knowledge, most never supported her husband when he ran for governor.

But they admired her integrity — and, like all first spouses, she had no legal authority in that role. She was part of the deal if they voted for Bill — even if they would not vote for her.

Two for the price of one, as Bill liked to say during the '92 presidential campaign. That seemed to upset some folks, but I barely noticed it. I had heard it before.

And I have heard what she has been saying lately before, too.

She had a conversation with PBS' Charlie Rose the other day, and she was asked about 2016.

"I'm about to have my first grandchild, which I'm thrilled about," she replied. "I can't wait. I want to see what that feels like. I'm not going to skip over it. I want to really be present, as I meet this ... new person in our family."

Can't blame her for that. I know several people who have become grandparents, and they all speak of how rewarding that relationship between grandparent and grandchild is.

I have also known many people who did not live to become grandparents. It is a privilege to live that long, and it certainly should not be taken lightly.

So Hillary's desire to be with her family is completely understandable. It is an excuse I have heard before, though.

John Mitchell served as Richard Nixon's attorney general and, for a time, as Nixon's re–election campaign manager, but he left when the Watergate investigation got too uncomfortable for him.

He gave as his reason for stepping down a desire to be with his family. That was hard for some people to swallow, given that it meant being with his wife, Martha, who had made several phone calls to reporters about the emerging scandal and alleged that political pressure was being applied to her husband and others in the administration.

That was sure to be uncomfortable to say the least, I heard many people say.

I don't think it would be that way for Hillary — except, perhaps, for those times she might have to spend alone with Bill. But Hillary would have the benefit of knowing what it feels like to be a grandmother — and sharing a new relationship with her daughter.

Well, that's a pretty good reason for not seeking the job. But Hillary didn't stop there. She spoke about the negative side as well.

Speaking as one who observed the presidency from close range as both the first spouse and the secretary of state, Hillary told Rose that the job has "gotten tougher."

Well, it always has been a big job — but I can see how it could quickly become overwhelming for anyone. A president has to be better than competent in many different areas.

The economy is still sluggish, just not quite as sluggish as it was five years ago.

Her husband's presidency was relatively peaceful, but, with terrorists and Russians on the march, who knows what kind of foreign environment she would inherit?

And then there are all those social issues that divide Americans' loyalties — guns, contraception and abortion, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, the list goes on and on. I don't think anyone will ever be able to bring Americans together on those issues, but a president is obligated to at least try. Good presidents will try to fashion some kind of compromise that, in the end, pleases no one. Not–so–good presidents won't try to do that. But the issues will still demand a lot of their time and attention.

Seems to me it would be a lot more relaxing — and a lot more fun — to play with her grandchild(ren). She and Bill have that nice big place in New York with that nice big yard that they bought back when they left the White House dead broke. Sounds like a great place to be a grandparent and play with the grandchild(ren).

Plus, if Hillary does not run, she will be able to preserve her integrity.

Just about five years ago, when NBC's Ann Curry interviewed Hillary, she asked her about 2016.

It was a direct question. "Will you run for president again? Yes or no?"

And it got a direct answer. "No."

Curry asked again and received the same response.

For someone who has always argued — albeit in a different context — that no means no, this is a good time to drive home the point.

Of course, the problem is that, when someone prominent rules out a run for the presidency, he/she experiences a spike in his/her favorability ratings.

And the whole thing begins all over again.

Staying a Step Ahead of the Stalkers

It is hard to remember Rebecca Schaeffer. I can look at a picture of her today and be unable to place where I saw her — or if I saw her or what her voice sounded like.

When you look at her picture, you can see that she had an appealing smile, a generally engaging demeanor. (Yes, I do think you can tell that from a picture.) But there have always been many of those in the entertainment world.

Of course, it has been more than 25 years since she graced our television screens in My Sister Sam, a sitcom that lasted a couple of seasons in the 1980s. She had a small part in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," but those scenes were cut. Otherwise, she hadn't made much of a dent in her field — yet.

She was 21 years old, still new on the entertainment scene, seemed to possess some star quality. I was aware of her name, but I can't say that I watched either My Sister Sam or the handful of movies she made, a couple of which were released after her 1989 murder — when, I suppose, her commercial appeal was at its height.

But we know that at least one person, 19–year–old Robert John Bardo of Tucson, Ariz., was watching.

He became obsessed with her after the first object of his obsession, a child peace activist named Samantha Smith, died in a plane crash. Bardo stalked Schaeffer for awhile; he even tried to gain access to the studio where her TV show was filmed, but he was kept out by security. For awhile, it seems he lost interest in her and fixated on others, but he zeroed in on her again after watching one of her movies and seeing her in bed with an actor.

Bardo hired an investigator to find Schaeffer's home address, which he did through Department of Motor Vehicles records. Bardo then confronted Schaeffer at her home 25 years ago today. Schaeffer answered the door, gave Bardo an autograph and went back to her apartment. She thought he had gone away when her doorbell rang a second time. She went to answer it, and Bardo shot her in the chest.

Who knows what goes through the mind of such a person? Does he think of the consequences of his crime? If Bardo bothered to think at all about how his act would be perceived by anyone — and, based on my experience as a police reporter, I doubt that he gave any thought to it, especially how it would be perceived by the media or social activists — he probably thought it would be treated like one of thousands of murders that were committed that year.

But it wasn't. It was a landmark legal event that made government acknowledge stalking for what it was. Prior to Schaeffer's murder, my impression is that stalking was treated as a "boyfriend/girlfriend" thing. Even if the two were not lovers, even if one was a total stranger to the other. Those were merely details.

It wasn't taken seriously. It wasn't treated like a real crime. Of course, it was and is a real crime. Schaeffer's death was a flashpoint for that realization. A public epiphany.

Laws were changed to protect the privacy of citizens, prohibiting state Departments of Motor Vehicles from releasing personal information about licensed drivers.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of it. The advent of the internet, with its online address search services, significantly eroded that law's impact. Today, anyone with access to a computer and the know–how to use it can do what that investigator did for Bardo 25 years ago.

Evolving technology has changed most things, and those who would rather such private information is not so readily available to potential stalkers need to be steadfast in their resolve.

For all the Rebecca Schaeffers out there, we must stay a step ahead of the stalkers.