Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Debate Prep

Word is that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden have immersed themselves in preparations for Thursday night's vice presidential debate.

Rebecca Traister, writing in Salon.com, says she refuses to join in a premature "Palin pity party" — as many seem to be doing.

Personally, I haven't seen so much attention given to the likelihood of a "train wreck" in a debate since Lloyd Bentsen was about to debate Dan ("You're no Jack Kennedy") Quayle 20 years ago.

Usually, it seems to me, when the media anticipates a train wreck, one tends to occur.

I don't know who was Traister's preference for president during the primaries, but I gather, from what she writes, that she supported Hillary Clinton.

"[J]ust because I did say this weekend that I 'almost feel sorry for [Palin]' doesn't mean, when I consider the situation rationally, that I do," Traister writes. "Yes, as a feminist, it sucks — hard — to watch a woman, no matter how much I hate her politics, unable to answer questions about her running mate during a television interview.

"And perhaps it's because this experience pains me so much that I feel not sympathy but biting anger. At her, at John McCain, at the misogynistic political mash that has been made of what was otherwise a groundbreaking year for women in presidential politics."

So, that's one attitude that Palin may not be able to overcome in a 90-minute televised encounter with Joe Biden.

Early stumbles on the national stage can create negative images that political figures never manage to reverse. For decades, those images have been cultivated by late-night TV talk show hosts — and the speed with which such images can circle the globe today can be measured in nanoseconds, thanks to the internet.

How many times did Gerald Ford stumble in public while president? Twice, by my count, but Chevy Chase built his career on Ford's reputation for being a klutz (which was bolstered by the old Lyndon Johnson line about Ford playing football without a helmet).

Rare as they were, those images remained with many people when Ford's body lay in state 30 years after his loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.

And, as conservative columnist David Frum told the New York Times, "The story of Dan Quayle is he did probably 1,000 smart things as vice president, but his image was locked in and it was very difficult to turn around. And Dan Quayle never in his life has performed as badly as Sarah Palin in the last month."

Nevertheless, Wesley Pruden writes, in the Washington Times, that yesterday's defeat of the financial bailout package "sets up an opportunity, maybe the last good one, for John McCain to start burning barns. Who better to start it than Sarah Palin, the stubborn mom with true grit who so terrifies the Democratic left?"

If anything is certain about Thursday night's debate, it is that it is Palin's best opportunity — if it is not her last opportunity — to change the public's opinion of her.

Given the treatment she has received on "Saturday Night Live" recently, that may be easier said than done.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Spinning McCain's Gamble

John McCain has the soul of a riverboat gambler.

Before the start of the Republican convention, McCain was believed to have a problem with true-believer conservatives, and the perception of political observers was that Barack Obama's campaign had not adequately appealed to disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, even after both Bill and Hillary Clinton were given prominent roles to play at the Democratic convention.

McCain, conventional wisdom held, needed a running mate who would reassure social conservatives, and it wouldn't hurt if his running mate could help the Republicans attract some of the disappointed female activists who had more in common with Obama philosophically but remained wary of him, nevertheless.

To address both needs, McCain rolled the dice and named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

For awhile, the Palin gambit appeared to pay off, but now it seems to be wearing off.

Time to roll the dice again.

Last week, as the dimensions of the financial crisis were becoming painfully clear, McCain was all over the place, suggesting that the presidential candidates suspend their campaign until the situation was resolved and saying that he would remain in Washington to work on the bailout plan instead of joining Obama for the first presidential debate.

McCain went ahead with the debate, and it does not appear that he has suspended his campaign indefinitely.

But the real gamble was on the bailout plan itself. That was a gamble McCain lost. The bailout plan was rejected by the House, 228-205, today.

It's not hard to imagine the outcome McCain was hoping for — the bailout package passes and the market rallies. McCain is the hero and the recipient of tons of positive press coverage, all without spending a dime of his own campaign funds.

But that's the fantasy. The reality is something different.

McCain can point out that only about four House Republicans supported the measure when he returned to Washington last week to make his bid to be the hero — and it's true that about one-third of the Republicans in the House ended up voting for it, which means that McCain at least helped persuade about 60 of his fellow Republicans to support it.

That speaks well for McCain's ability to persuade, and that's the spin McCain needs to use. But I'm doubtful that it will work.

Politics is a bottom-line game. And the bottom line in this matter — thus far — is that no bailout plan has been approved.

McCain gambled that he could demonstrate leadership qualities to the American public on the most critical issue facing the voters. He invested his time and his effort and was not successful.

If the bailout plan had been approved — and if the stock market hadn't plunged nearly 800 points today — it would have been the kind of longshot payoff that a gambler like McCain needs to level the playing field.

But the gamble didn't pay off. And, as a result, McCain may find himself having to make up even more ground in less time — and in increasingly hostile territory.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Was John Paul I Murdered?

Thirty years ago, in September of 1978, I enrolled as a freshman at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

Both my father and grandfather had been professors at Hendrix and, although neither was on the faculty at the time, I began my collegiate career at Hendrix.

(I transferred to the University of Arkansas as a sophomore, and that’s where I earned my bachelor’s degree.)

When I was in school at Hendrix, it operated on the trimester system. Freshman orientation didn’t begin until mid-September and the first classes didn’t meet until late September.

I still remember many of the things that happened in my first year in college, almost as clearly as if they just happened yesterday. I tend to associate things that were going on in the world at that time with what was happening in my personal life — I guess it's only natural for an 18-year-old to view the world from a personal perspective.

Anyway, the brief papacy of John Paul I formed part of the background for my life in the autumn of 1978.

So, to put things into a personal perspective,
  • In early September 1978, as I was preparing to enroll in college, Catholics around the world were praising the new pope, John Paul I, who was chosen in late August. His predecessor, Pope Paul VI, died at the age of 80 in early August.

  • In mid-September, during my freshman orientation, President Carter enjoyed the greatest foreign policy triumph of his administration — the Camp David Accords with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat.

  • In the morning hours of Sept. 29, after my freshman orientation was over and classes had begun, John Paul I was found dead in his papal apartment in the Vatican. His death was attributed to a myocardial infarction, which is also known as a heart attack.
Frankly, I was a little taken aback to realize that it’s been 30 years since John Paul I died. But his death was controversial at the time, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much in three decades.

Now, on the surface, the fact that a man was said to have died of a heart attack at the age of 65 wasn’t terribly surprising. Heart attacks are the leading cause of death for both men and women, and the risk becomes greater the older a person is.

About four years after John Paul I died, as a matter of fact, Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant died four weeks after retiring from coaching. Bryant was 69 when he died after checking into a hospital with chest pains.

It's regrettable when someone dies so soon after a great achievement (like John Paul) or after beginning his retirement years (like Bryant). But it happens.

However, the circumstances of John Paul's death raised some eyebrows.

People found it odd that, after the recent experience with Paul VI, whose illness and eventual death were extensively reported as quickly as the existing technology permitted in those days, a seemingly vibrant John Paul I died alone and, after the discovery of his corpse, no autopsy was performed and the body seemed to have been embalmed in undue haste.

There were rumors at the time that John Paul I, who had been pope for less than five weeks, had been the victim of foul play, that he had been poisoned.

A book that I read about seven years after John Paul I died, "In God’s Name" by David Yallop, made what I felt was a persuasive case that the pope’s death was the result of a murder conspiracy. You could argue, as many of my Catholic friends did, that the case was based mostly on rumors.

But if rumors were responsible for fueling this particular conspiracy theory, the rumors had staying power.

And one of the rumors I heard the most suggested that John Paul was killed by people he planned to remove from office because of corruption allegations involving the Vatican Bank.

I felt the allegations needed to be investigated thoroughly by the authorities. But the New York Times reported, in June 1984, that Yallop's assertions were dismissed as "absurd fantasies" by the Vatican.

That appears to have put an end to any thoughts of investigating the suggestion that John Paul I was murdered.

"Absurd" or not, though, the rumors provided an element for the storyline in "The Godfather Part III." The final installment in the "Godfather" trilogy theorized that John Paul I was assassinated and connected that event with the Vatican Bank scandal.

Now, over the years, some of the questions surrounding John Paul’s death have been addressed. But it has reminded me at times of the John F. Kennedy assassination — in which one issue appears to be resolved but then a new issue pops up as a result.

And the rumors have persisted — aided by the presence of the internet, which makes it possible for conspiracy theories to thrive and questions to be asked.

This morning, after realizing that it had been 30 years since John Paul I died, I did a quick search on the internet in which I only typed in the name "John Paul I." That search alone produced nearly 51 million hits.

And, while clearly I haven’t had enough time to review anywhere near 51 million web pages (and I'll readily concede that some of the results from my search were irrelevant — like the ones that referred to John Paul Jones), I can already tell that many of these websites are devoted to the idea that John Paul I was murdered — that the public doesn't know the full story.

The suspicions may be simmering beneath the surface — but they still exist after 30 years.

Here are a few sites I found intriguing:Obviously, when the name John Paul is mentioned, the natural inclination is for people to think of John Paul II, who had the second-longest papacy ever (more than 26 years), and not John Paul I, whose 33-day papacy was the shortest in nearly 500 years.

In the last 30 years, John Paul I has been mostly forgotten by the public.

Nevertheless, it would be nice to have some answers about his death.

But I'm getting to the point where I doubt that mystery will be resolved in my lifetime — if it ever is.

I could be wrong about that. I used to believe I would never know the identity of "Deep Throat," who provided information to Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon.

But, much to my surprise, I found out who "Deep Throat" was — and perhaps I'll learn what really happened to the pope as well.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman Passes Away

Just minutes ago, I heard that Paul Newman died Friday of cancer.

In recent months, I've heard vague reports that he was ill, but I heard no reports that indicated the end was near. Apparently, Newman succeeded in keeping the details of his condition private.

Nevertheless, when one is 83 years old, as Newman was, anything can happen, and you should always be prepared.

But, speaking from the vantage point of my generation, as someone who remembers when Newman was a guaranteed box office draw and a Hollywood sex symbol, it was hard for me to imagine Newman in his 80s, let alone imagining that the robust actor would ever die.

At the CNN website, a poll has been set up where people can vote for their favorite Paul Newman film. I'll admit, that's a tough choice to make — in more than half a century, Newman made at least one movie in all but a handful of years, and there are valid cases to be made for many of them.

Even so, I've already named my choice in this blog — a few months ago. More on that in a minute.

(By the way, as of 11:26 a.m. Central, CNN shows "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" leading its informal poll with 31%, followed by "Cool Hand Luke" with 27% and "The Sting" with 20%.

(The online survey also reminds me of a fact that is seldom mentioned or acknowledged. Although the movie partnership of Newman and Robert Redford was widely hailed, it produced only two movies — "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting." Newman and Redford often talked about making another film, but could never agree on the details.)

Anyway, I was reminded, when I heard the news, of a blog post I wrote in June, in which I wrote that I had heard news reports that Newman was "seriously ill."

I wrote in June about his great career, but mainly I observed that this year is the 35th anniversary of the release of the film "The Sting." It's really been my favorite Newman film since I saw it as a teenager. If I cast a vote in CNN's online poll, I'll vote for "The Sting."

At the time of my post, I urged people to watch "The Sting" to mark its anniversary — and enjoy the story.

And now that Newman has passed away, I urge you to watch it and enjoy his performance.

Incidentally, at a time like this, I'm always reminded of what a truly remarkable job the New York Times does in its obituaries. If you want to see how well a person's life can be summarized in a single article, take a look at any obituary in any edition of the Times.

But, today, read the Times' tribute to Paul Newman.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The First Debate

After watching tonight's first Obama-McCain debate, I have to say I neither saw nor heard anything that surprised me.

In the early portion of the debate, which focused on the economic crisis even though the debate was supposed to be on foreign policy, McCain seemed uncomfortable. He's acknowledged a lack of familiarity with economic issues so it wasn't surprising when he stumbled a bit on those questions.

During that portion of the debate, Obama appeared to be more assertive, more in control of things.

It's a good thing for Obama that he came across as more reassuring on economic issues, because he appeared to revert to being shaky on foreign policy, while McCain gave the impression of someone who spoke from experience. It seemed to me that, in that portion of the debate, Obama appeared to be on the defensive. And that allowed McCain to seize the momentum.

But Obama will get the opportunity to reinforce a favorable image on economic issues when he debates McCain again in the next few weeks.

Neither candidate made a serious mistake. Both candidates remained on message. Voters who aren't familiar with one or both of the candidates got to see a lot of what each is about tonight.

I saw no clear advantage for either side.

Let's call it a draw.

Ronald Reagan and the Electoral Legacy of 1980

It's ironic, in many ways and on many levels, that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 served as the subject of the final installment in Kenneth Walsh's series in U.S. News & World Report on the most consequential presidential elections in American history.
  • In the current context, the unemployment and inflation numbers may not look as scary today as they did in 1980 (although $4/gallon gas certainly would have horrified voters 30 years ago — when gas was selling for about $1.20/gallon), but the underlying problems in the financial system pose a greater, more lasting threat to the American economy than the painful (but temporary) late-1970s adjustment from a wartime economy to a peacetime one that was more responsible for the country's economic woes than was ever acknowledged in the heat of the political battle in 1980.

    However, today, as it was in 1980, Americans must come to terms with the financial reality and decide what must be done. In 1980, Americans decided to follow Reagan's proposals and abandon many of the New Deal programs that had been responsible for reviving and modernizing the American economy half a century earlier but had come to be regarded as outmoded by a majority of voters.

  • Twenty years after leaving the presidency (and four years after his death), Reagan remains an admired figure in Republican politics.

    During the presidential primaries last spring, Republicans debated each other endlessly over who would be the "new" Reagan — as if that had become the latest question in the unofficial litmus test for being nominated by the Republican Party ["1) Are you against abortion? 2) Are you for gun rights? 3) Are you against gay marriage? 4) Do you have Reaganesque qualities?"].

    The ironic part of all that is that Reagan was considered too extreme by many observers during the 1980 campaign. And, as admired as he became during his eight years in the White House and as revered as he has been in the two decades since he left Washington, there are still people who believe that his policies were too extreme — and that his aversion to regulation is at least in part responsible for the economic mess in which we find ourselves today.

  • In spite of criticism, Walsh writes, Reagan "pursued the presidency with a special brand of good cheer and optimism that impressed the American people."

    And the American people responded.

    The part that I find ironic — taken in today's context — is that I don't see much cheer or optimism emanating from either side this year.

    In spite of his right-wing views, Reagan managed to reassure people, even those who disagreed with him. And that included many in the Republican Party.

    There was perhaps no greater example of Reagan's reassuring quality during the 1980 campaign than his performance in his one and only debate with President Carter a week before the election. That was the debate in which Reagan asked viewers if they were better off than they had been four years earlier.

    (It was also the debate in which Carter — unfortunately for him — claimed to have had a discussion about the task of controlling nuclear weapons with his young daughter.)

As I write this, it remains unclear whether tonight's debate between Barack Obama and John McCain will go forward as scheduled.

But, if nothing else, the election of 1980 symbolizes the importance of presidential debates in the formation of the relationship between a would-be president and the electorate.

Even in 1980, when presidential debates were still an infrequent occurrence in American politics, voters overcame their reservations about Reagan as they watched the debate — and rewarded him a week later with a landslide victory over an incumbent president.

The incumbent won't be on the ballot in 2008, but many Americans still need a nudge to push them from the fence on which they're sitting.

Whether the voters are trying to overcome whatever objections they may have to voting for a black man or a 72-year-old white man with a woman as his running mate, the debates can help provide that nudge.

The debate can even help the millions of Hillary Clinton supporters who remain torn between supporting a ticket that comes closest to sharing their views (in spite of the presence of a nominee many Clinton supporters still see as smug and elitist) or a ticket that has a candidate who shares their gender but not their philosophy.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Michael Barone's article in National Review about Gerald Ford's near-comeback against Carter in the 1976 campaign.

Barone wrote that 1976 resembled 2008 in many ways — and one of the similarities was how many "gaps" there were in the public's knowledge about the candidates. Ford's comeback was made possible, in part, by his campaign's efforts to educate the public and re-define both candidates' images.

Likewise, there are gaps in the public's knowledge of McCain and Obama. The debates — starting tonight — provide both candidates with the opportunity to fill in those gaps.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Proceed With the Debate

John McCain may have the most noble of intentions by suggesting that his Friday night debate with Barack Obama be postponed.

The cynical side of my nature whispers to me that it's a political ploy, most likely desperation from a man who fears he may say or do something in the debate that leads to his defeat — and believes he has only a narrow margin for error.

President Bush is right when he says the bailout is vital to the economy. That much, it seems to me, is beyond debate. But the amount of the bailout could be debated endlessly.

It took decades of mismanagement by both parties to get us to this point. It's not going to be solved in the 40 days we have left until the election.

And I'm glad Bush agreed to meet with McCain and Obama, since one of those two men will be taking the torch in January. Until one has been elected, though, they both need to be in the loop.

But what else can McCain or Obama do? What can they achieve by postponing their debate, as McCain has suggested?


Neither man has been elected president. They have different views on economic policy, and no doubt each would take the country in a different direction. All they can contribute to the crisis is more finger pointing and divisive talk.

In the true spirit of partisanship, both sides seem anxious to paint the other as being culpable in the financial crisis.

McCain's proposal to suspend the campaign until a solution is found is "presidential," according to William Kristol in the Weekly Standard. Harold Meyerson calls it a "ploy" in the Washington Post. The truth is, both parties bear equal responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves.

So if the candidates are going to debate each other anyway, why not go ahead and do it in the formalized setting upon which both sides agreed months ago?

Sure, the topic is different. Friday's debate is supposed to be about foreign affairs. And, while there are certainly voters who believe national security is the #1 issue in this campaign (my brother is one of them), the vast majority of voters are concerned about the economy.

The debate won't answer the questions the voters are asking right now. But it's better than the posturing the candidates would do after postponing the debate.

Proceed with the debate. Let the voters hear what the candidates have to say about foreign policy. Then, when the domestic debate is held, let's hear their views on gas prices and food prices and bad loans and the financial system.

Let's hear all we can about what they want to do after they take office.

Ch- ch- ch- changes

I guess it was bound to come to this.

I’ve been writing a blog, Freedom Writing, for nearly one year.

I’ve enjoyed writing it, but it’s become a catch-all kind of blog.

You see, I have many interests, and it’s been hard to confine them to a single blog.

I guess the people who have known me all my life would tell you that I’ve always been interested in current events and politics.

And, in fact, I would estimate that the majority of my posts in the last year have been about current events and politics.

But I’ve also used my blog to write about other things that interest me — sports, movies, TV, music.

Obviously, there is some overlapping between subjects from time to time. In fact, in the last week or so, about half of my posts on this blog have dealt with sports or music, and the rest have dealt with current events.

But I’d like to be more topical.

So, starting today, I’m launching two new blogs.

My sports blog will be called Tomato Cans. (If you don't understand the name, I have a brief explanation posted at the blog.)

My entertainment blog will be called Birth of a Notion. That's a play on the name of one of the original blockbuster silent movies, "Birth of a Nation," which was quite an achievement in its day. It was remarkably innovative when it was released in 1915, although it has become controversial as the years have gone by for its sympathetic and fallacious treatment of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

But, when one is talking about the film "Birth of a Nation," one would be well advised to remember the words of film critic Roger Ebert: "'Birth of a Nation' is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s 'Triumph of the Will,' it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."

And, above all else, I believe a blog, whether it's about movies or sports or current events, should be a learning experience — for both the person who reads it and the person who creates it.

My Freedom Writing blog will remain active. I will post new articles on current events and politics, and all the entries I’ve posted in the last year will remain in its archive.

I still plan to do some blog writing most days, but my entries may not be in the same blog from one day to the next.

If my post relates to sports, I’ll write in Tomato Cans.

And if my post relates to movies or TV or books or music — or entertainment in general — I’ll write in Birth of a Notion.

Later on, an additional blog or two may be needed. I’ll address that need if it comes up.

Clearly, this will be a work in progress, as I decide which blog to use under which circumstances.

For example, comedian George Carlin died earlier this year.

In the event that something similar happens, I will enter my initial blog post at Freedom Writing.

But if that person is featured in a CD or a movie that is released after his/her death — and if I decide to write about it — my blog post will appear in Birth of a Notion.

Similarly, if someone from the sports world dies, I’ll write about it first in Freedom Writing.

After that, if I mention that person in a sports-related context, it will appear in my Tomato Cans blog.

I encourage my regular readers to support these two new blogs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Dean of Ballparks

The exterior of Fenway Park in 1914.

Now that Yankee Stadium has ended its 85-year tenure as the home of the New York Yankees, which stadium holds the title of dean of America's ballparks?

Actually, that much hasn't changed.

Yankee Stadium opened its doors in 1923. But the ballpark that has been open longer than any other was — and still is — Boston's Fenway Park, which, as baseball historians will tell you, was Babe Ruth's home for many years before the Bronx opened the House That Ruth Built.

In fact, Fenway Park opened in 1912. Ground was broken on the construction site 97 years ago tomorrow, on Sept. 25, 1911, and the first baseball game was played there the following April — a few days after the "unsinkable" Titanic sank in the North Atlantic.

And Ruth, who began his baseball career as a pitcher, played his first major league game with Boston in 1914.

Every other ballpark in the major leagues came into existence after Yankee Stadium. The oldest baseball stadium in the National League is Chicago's Wrigley Field, which opened in 1926.

With the noteworthy exception of Wrigley Field, all the other ballparks in the majors are mere infants by comparison.

In the National League, for example, the next-oldest ballpark after Wrigley Field is Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.

All the other ballparks in the American League are still practically waiting for the paint to dry when compared to Fenway Park. The next-oldest baseball stadium in the American League — now that Yankee Stadium has closed its doors for good — is Baltimore's Camden Yards, which has been open since 1993.

Almost every major league baseball team plays in a ballpark that was built in the last 15 years. And almost all of those ballparks were said to feature something that distinguished the ballparks of yesteryear.

Why not renovate those ballparks instead of starting over from scratch? That seems like a fair question to ask. But the answer is different in each city. Maybe the location of the ballpark creates parking problems that can't be resolved or land can't be acquired to expand the seating sufficiently.

Maybe the stadium's location interferes with commerce. Maybe the financial operation has been poor and the owners had to sell to someone who doesn't care about history, just how much money there is to be made from buying and selling the land.

Sometimes, the structure is simply antiquated, unstable, and needs to be replaced.

Whatever the reason — and, in spite of the fact that the new stadium will be called Yankee Stadium and won't be given one of those hideous names that incorporates the sponsor's name (which could prove to be embarrassing if the sponsor goes out of business or has to endure a humiliating public scandal) — another monument to the past is coming down.

And we are the poorer for it.

It reminds me a bit of an episode of "Frasier," in which Frasier and his brother decide to buy and restore a restaurant that was significant in the family's history but is about to shut down permanently.

They decide to do this while having a one-last-time family dinner at the restaurant, after Daphne observes that, in her native England, they cherish their "antiquities," but Americans can't wait to tear them down.

It's not quite that simple. But it does strike me as ironic.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Significance of 60

The leaders of the two major political parties talk a good game when it comes to subjects like bipartisanship and democracy and a free market — but the truth is, both would like to have a monopoly on legislative power. It's at the top of their private wish lists.

As George W. Bush said, first as governor of Texas in 1998 and then as president-elect in 2000, "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heckuva lot easier."

At the heart of everything is a simple desire — to be in the majority.

The party that is in the majority determines the agenda. That's a pretty powerful incentive right there — being able to call the shots. And, for the majority party, the members of the minority party are merely a nuisance.

But how much of a nuisance?

Neither party is ever satisfied with simply achieving a majority or narrowing the gap. With certain milestones come new powers that draw the majority party ever closer to that ultimate goal of monopoly.

In 2006, the pendulum swung from the Republicans to the Democrats in both houses of Congress. But, while the Democrats staked out a clear majority in the House, they had to depend on the aid of a couple of independent senators — one of whom ran for re-election as an independent after being rejected for renomination by his state's Democrats — to cobble together their majority in the Senate.

In 2008, about two-thirds of the Senate seats that are up for election are held by Republicans — and, at last count, five of those seats are being vacated by the incumbents. Indications are that most of the open seats are vulnerable to being captured by the Democrats — and some of the Republican incumbents who are running for re-election appear to be in trouble as well.

Meanwhile, all the Democratic incumbents are running for re-election, and only one, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, seems to be in any kind of trouble. Landrieu, however, currently looks to be in control of her race and, with six weeks left until the election, her opponent is going to need to ride a pretty impressive wave to take the seat away from her.

So, with the Democrats generally expected to hold their Senate seats and pick up some that are currently held by Republicans, political observers are wondering if Democrats can achieve the next plateau of power — a three-fifths majority, or 60 seats.

Possession of a three-fifths majority would give the Democrats the power to choke off Republican filibusters and impose their will on the Republicans in other ways as well.

What would Democrats need to achieve a three-fifths majority? Well, Democrats hold 49 seats, plus there are two independent senators (from Vermont and Connecticut) who caucus with the Democrats. That is what accounts for their 51-49 lead.

But, if Connecticut's Joe Lieberman — who endorsed John McCain for president nearly a year ago, when most observers expected the Republican nominee to be Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney — decided to become a Republican, the chamber would be divided 50-50, with Dick Cheney providing the tiebreaking vote and giving control of the Senate to the GOP for Bush's final months in office.

If you assume that both independents will remain with the Democrats, the party needs to win nine more seats to reach 60.

If Lieberman decides he is more comfortable with the Republicans, Democrats will need 10 takeovers in November.

And, if Vermont's Bernie Sanders chooses to caucus with the Republicans, the Democrats would need to take over 11 seats.

Realistically, neither Leiberman nor Sanders (based on their voting records) would be likely to defect to the Republicans.

To build a bullet-proof three-fifths majority, however, Democrats would prefer to have enough party members occupying seats in the chamber that they wouldn't need to rely on the help of the independents.

That's not going to be easy to achieve. It would require the Democrats to take over seats at a clip that has rarely been seen since the Great Depression.

In Roll Call, Stuart Rothenberg writes that he believes Democrats are in a position to have 60 votes in their coalition (including Lieberman and Sanders) because nine Republican-held seats appear to be in jeopardy.

And, as we get closer to the election, Rothenberg asserts that the chances of Democrats controlling 60 Senate seats in the next Congress increasingly depend on what happens in three states — North Carolina, Minnesota and Mississippi.
  • In Minnesota, comedian Al Franken is challenging one-term Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

    On the surface, it may seem (pardon the expression) laughable to think that a state would elect a comedian to the Senate. But remember, this is Minnesota we're talking about. Ten years ago, Minnesota elected a wrestler as its governor.

    It may be close, but I believe Franken has a legitimate chance to win.

  • I can't say the same thing about North Carolina. Sen. Elizabeth Dole seems to have a fight on her hands, but I'm inclined to believe she will be re-elected, even if the margin is close.

    In fact, I expect the margin to be close. North Carolina is pretty much split down the middle, with Republicans holding a narrow advantage in the state. It's been that way for a long time. Mathematically, there's a chance that Dole will be denied another term in the Senate, but I don't think it's likely.

  • As nearly as I can tell, the only reason Mississippi is considered a toss-up is because the duly elected incumbent, Trent Lott, resigned last year, and the man who was appointed to fill the seat has a limited record as a senator and is facing the voters in a statewide race for the first time.

    At the time of his appointment, Lott's replacement had been a member of the House for more than a decade.

    I have to believe Lott's successor (who started his political career as Lott's political counsel) will be ratified by the voters in November.
That would leave the Democrats a few votes short of 60 — but still in a stronger position than they are in today.

Thus, if McCain wakes up on Nov. 5 to the realization that he has been elected president but the new Senate will have 58 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, he will know that he has his work cut out for him in the first two years of his presidency.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Vote Early

If you live in Virginia, Kentucky or Georgia, you can start voting today, reports USA Today.

I encourage early voting.

I've lived in states where early voting was not allowed — unless you could document ahead of time that you would not be at home on Election Day.

And, currently, I live in a state that allows early voting.

Most of the time, I participate in early voting. The lines usually aren't long when I go in to vote, so I'm able to get it done quickly.

But there have been times when I needed more time to make my decision. On those occasions, I waited until Election Day to vote.

If you live in a state where early voting is permitted — and if you have decided how you plan to vote — go ahead and cast your vote.

There's no reason why you shouldn't.

And it will mean one less body in line on Election Day.

Which means everyone can vote a little quicker.

The Letter of the Law

Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr won't be sitting in the Oval Office come January.

If it's possible to predict anything in this presidential year, that much is certain — along with the fact that Ralph Nader also will not be the 44th president.

That distinction will belong to either Barack Obama or John McCain.

But the path those men must follow to the White House became a little murkier last week, when Barr filed a lawsuit to keep Obama and McCain off the Texas ballot.

Whatever one may think of Barr's political views, it seems he's got a legitimate legal point. He contends both the Democrats and the Republicans missed the deadline imposed by state law.

"Barr’s calculations were that the candidates would have had to file by Aug. 25," writes Anna Tinsley in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "before Obama (Aug. 28) and McCain (Sept. 4) had accepted their parties’ nominations."

The secretary of state's office insists that everything was done appropriately.

"On Sept. 3, the secretary of state certified the ballot for the Nov. 4 general election," an office spokesman was quoted in the Star-Telegram. "The certified ballot includes presidential candidates nominated by the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties — as well as the declared list of write-in candidates."

It appears that Barr's case is based on a formality: Neither party's ticket had been officially nominated by the deadline.

In order to accomplish that, both parties probably would tell you that they would have had to schedule their conventions to conflict with the Olympics in Beijing in mid-August.

That's not really true.

The only scheduling regulation I'm aware of — whether it's legal or merely customary, I don't know — is that the party in power holds its nominating convention second. Because the Republicans won the White House in the last election, their nominating convention had to come after the Democrats concluded their convention.

While I'm sure that international diplomacy and courtesy were factors, what is more likely, I think, is that the conventions were scheduled with an eye to new campaign finance laws — which permit candidates to spend unlimited amounts of money before the convention, but restrict fundraising afterward for parties to qualify for federal campaign funds.

In the past, the challenging party has held its convention in July, even June. There was nothing (other than the laws that govern campaign financing) that I know of that would have prevented the Democrats from holding their convention in July, leaving the Republicans with ample time to hold their convention before the start of the Olympic Games on August 8.

But if qualifying for federal funds — and not the anticipation of complaints about holding a political convention during a global athletic event that is supposed to transcend politics — led the parties to schedule their conventions as late as they did, too little attention was given to compliance with existing laws.

And, since these conventions are scheduled well ahead of time, it seems to me that it follows that there would have been ample time to amend existing laws — either the federal campaign financing laws or state laws like the one Barr is challenging in Texas — so that such a problem would not occur.

Thus, I am left to conclude that somebody dropped the ball.

Barr is going to get some attention for his cause — but little else — from his legal maneuvering.

Of the two major party candidates, it seems to me that Obama has a modest loophole. Although it's technically true that neither party had nominated its ticket by the Texas deadline, Joe Biden had been named as Obama's presumptive running mate by that time. The ticket had not been formally nominated, but its complete identity was known.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, was not named as McCain's running mate until four days after the deadline. It's hard for the Republicans to argue convincingly that the identity of their ticket was known by Aug. 25 — all that was known at that time was the identity of the presidential nominee.

But it's also hard for me to imagine that Texas, which hasn't voted for a Democrat for president in 32 years, will allow the Republican ticket to be left off the ballot based on that — especially when you consider how crucial Texas is to the Republicans' hopes for victory.

All the statewide office-holders in Texas are Republicans (not to mention the fact that the incumbent president is a Texas Republican). No matter how Barr's court case plays out, I'm sure they'll find a way to keep the McCain-Palin ticket on the November ballot.

In every election scenario I've seen, whether it shows Obama or McCain winning, Texas is in the Republican column. McCain isn't guaranteed a national victory with the support of Texas' electoral votes — but he absolutely cannot win without them.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Last Days of 'The Cathedral'

If you're a sports fan — not just a baseball fan — you have to feel something in these, the final days of Yankee Stadium.

Yankee Stadium opened 85 years ago, in 1923, and it's been the home of baseball's New York Yankees ever since — except for the 1974 and 1975 seasons, when the stadium was closed for renovations.

Yankee Stadium has played host to college and pro football games, as well as some noteworthy boxing matches. Outdoor venues rarely host fights anymore, but it happened frequently at Yankee Stadium. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney both won fights there in the 1920s, and Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium in the 1930s — in a symbolic victory for America over Nazi Germany.

Tony Zale beat Rocky Graziano there in 1946, and Sugar Ray Robinson lost there in 1952.

In the final fight at Yankee Stadium — the only fight held there after the renovation — Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton in 1976.

It is as the home of the Yankees that the stadium will always be remembered. So many of baseball's greats have played there — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, the list goes on and on.

And, because the Yankees have won so many world championships, it follows that there have been more postseason games played in Yankee Stadium than any other ballpark.

A total of 16 World Series championships have been clinched with victories at Yankee Stadium — nine by the Yankees, seven by their opponents.

Other than the Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals are the only team to wrap up more than one world championship at Yankee Stadium.

Unless a miracle happens and the Yankees sneak into the playoffs, Sunday night will be their final game at Yankee Stadium. The Baltimore Orioles will be the opponent. ESPN will be there to present the final game — and I'm sure there will be some nostalgic film clips from the stadium's 85-year existence.

The game "will be an open-casket funeral for the House that Ruth Built, with no shortage of eulogies, tears and fond remembrances," writes Jeremy Olshan in the New York Post.

"Though some 40 former Yankee greats are expected to pay homage to the Stadium," Olshan writes, "more notable perhaps are the two biggest absences: Yankee boss George Steinbrenner and public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, who are both too ill to attend."

Of the two, I would say that Sheppard's absence is the more significant. His distinctive voice has announced the players at Yankee Stadium since 1951. Reggie Jackson called him the "Voice of God." It's hard to imagine the final Yankee game at Yankee Stadium without the 97-year-old Sheppard at the public address microphone. But that's the way it will be on Sunday night.

Nevertheless, it should be a memorable day for the folks who are fortunate enough to be there. For three hours on Sunday afternoon, fans will be allowed to walk around on the field, reports the Associated Press.

Can't be there? Tune in that evening.

If you need something to help you get in the mood, ESPN Classic will be showing films of some of the great sports events that have occurred there in the last 85 years — including some of the noteworthy fights.

There's a slight chance of showers in New York Sunday night, but it doesn't look like it will be enough to dampen the occasion.

Among the many for whom the final Yankee game at Yankee Stadium will be a bittersweet experience is famed songwriter Paul Simon, who reminisces in the New York Times about a lifetime as a Yankee fan.

For those who are old enough to remember Simon and Garfunkel's classic songs in the film "The Graduate," there is a special poignance in the reflections of the man who wrote the lines, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

And, in Simon's words, it's time to say "so long" to the House that Ruth Built.

Who's Going to the Fall Classic?

We’re about a week away from the conclusion of the major league baseball season.

Most of the pieces of the playoff puzzle are known, but it’s going to take a few more days before we know how they fit together.

Still, it’s possible to make a few assumptions at this point.
  • In the National League, for example, it seems pretty clear that the Chicago Cubs are going to represent the Central Division in the playoffs. And they’ll probably wind up with the best record in the league, so they’ll have homefield advantage through the playoffs.

    The Cubs have a nine-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, who, while technically still in the race in the Central Division, are locked in a three-way battle for the wild-card spot.

    The Brewers’ two rivals for the wild card are also fighting it out for the Eastern Division title. The odds are that one of those two teams — Philadelphia or New York — will win the division, leaving the other one to battle the Brewers for the wild card.

    Mathematically, there are a few other teams that could make things interesting at the end if the Brewers, Phillies and/or Mets get cold and lose the rest of their games. Or someone else gets hot at the right time.

    And that’s certainly not unheard-of — it was only last year, after all, that the Colorado Rockies, after plodding along through most of the season, won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games, as well as a one-game playoff for the wild-card spot, and went on to play in the World Series.

    The Rockies are out of the picture this year, but a similar hot streak could propel Florida, Houston, even St. Louis into the playoffs. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.

    Over in the lackluster N.L. West, the Dodgers appear to be on the verge of winning the division title. But even a 3.5-game lead with about nine left to play isn’t necessarily safe in that division.

  • In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels have already clinched the Western Division. The Angels are the front-runners for the homefield advantage, although Tampa Bay or Boston still could overtake them for that.

    The Devil Rays and the Red Sox are battling for the Eastern Division title. The loser almost certainly will be the wild-card team.

    In the Central Division, the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins are the last ones standing, but only one is likely to remain standing after next weekend.

    The Chisox have a 1.5-game lead today, but my guess is they’ll settle the matter once and for all next week when the teams meet in a three-game series in Minnesota.

    The numbers probably favor the Twins. They’ve won 65% of their home games, whereas the White Sox have won only 44% of their road games.

    And, after this weekend’s series in Tampa Bay, Minnesota plays all its remaining games at home.

    Again, there are a few teams that still have a chance — mathematically. If you’re a fan of the Yankees or Blue Jays, there’s still a chance. But the odds get longer each day.
Still, as Yogi Berra said, ”It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”

Good News for SEC Fans

(In these uncertain financial times — before you read any farther, I want to make it clear that, when I say "SEC," I refer to the Southeastern Conference, not the Securities and Exchange Commission.

   (I wish I had good news to report about the economy, but I'm afraid you'll have to depend on the nation's leaders.

   (Sorry about that.)

As a graduate of the University of Arkansas living in Texas, I'm always interested in whether Arkansas' football games are going to be televised where I live.

Experience tells me that the key factor in whether an Arkansas game is televised around here is the Razorbacks' record. Even though there are a lot of Arkansas alumni living in this area, the Razorbacks don't tend to get televised here if they're struggling — unless they're scheduled to play a top-ranked team.

The big schools around here are the University of Texas and Texas A&M — with pockets of loyal supporters for SMU, TCU, Baylor, etc. The UT and A&M games are almost always televised — and, if Hurricane Ike hadn't forced Arkansas and Texas to postpone their game until the 27th, I could have watched the Razorbacks play the Longhorns last weekend.

(At this point, no decision has been made about whether the re-scheduled game will be televised — although I'm inclined to believe that it will be picked up, at least as a regional broadcast around here.)

This week, the Razorbacks are scheduled to play ninth-ranked Alabama.

The Razorbacks are undefeated — but unimpressively so, with narrow wins over Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. Not exactly powerhouses.

I haven't found any indications that Arkansas-Alabama will be televised here (perhaps my friends in Arkansas will be able to see the game, but it doesn't look like it will be shown in my area).

But there should be a few pretty intense SEC games to watch tomorrow as it is.
  • At 2:30 p.m. (Central), CBS will show the Florida at Tennessee game. Tennessee has received some modest support in the Top 25 poll but isn't ranked. That would almost certainly change if the Volunteers can beat Florida tomorrow. The Gators are ranked #4 by the Associated Press.

    This game probably won't get high ratings in the Dallas-Fort Worth area because Texas A&M is playing Miami (Florida) at the same time on ABC. But the Aggies appear to be going through a rather painful transition right now, so if that game gets out of hand, I wouldn't be surprised if many area college football fans switch to the Tennessee-Florida game.

  • The big one in the SEC is going to be shown on ESPN starting at 7:45 p.m. (Central). Sixth-ranked LSU will be playing at 10th-ranked Auburn.

    Again, there is some local competition. The #7 Texas Longhorns will be playing Rice on FSN at 6 p.m. (Central). But, by the time LSU and Auburn get started, the Longhorns could well have their game under control.

    Even so, LSU and Auburn is clearly the marquee matchup of the weekend. Cory McCartney writes, for Sports Illustrated, that there are three things for football fans to care about in this game:

    1. "Defense. Defense. Defense." That's certainly true. You're not going to see any video game-like scores in this game.

    2. "Auburn's spread is still very much a work in progress."

    3. "LSU is about to test Auburn's run defense."

    McCartney predicts a close game — but you'll have to read his article to see which team he predicts will win!

    (I'll tell you this much — he thinks 17 points will be enough to win the game.)
Some questions will be answered this weekend, and those answers will have huge implications in the SEC race.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Burden of Great Expectations

By almost any yardstick one chooses, the 1964 election was a lopsided landslide. President Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy less than a year earlier, hammered Barry Goldwater in an election that was never in any doubt.

In some ways, the victory wasn't as complete as some — for example, both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan carried 49 states when they ran as incumbents, whereas Johnson carried 44.

But more than 61% of the voters cast their ballots for Johnson, and that's a figure that no one, not even Johnson's idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has matched or exceeded.

The 1964 election is the subject of Kenneth Walsh's next-to-last article in his U.S. News & World Report series on the most consequential elections in American history.

By invoking the dead president's memory, Johnson successfully sought the passage of a social agenda that exceeded what Kennedy had hoped to achieve in his lifetime, using skills from his Senate majority leader days to get a mountain of legislation passed.

The legislation wasn't well received in the South, and Johnson himself conceded that the Democrats had handed domination of the region to the Republicans for a generation or more after passing bills like the civil rights act and the voting rights act.

At least, that's what the legend tells us.

If it is mostly legendary, it had the virtue of being accurate. In the 44 years since that time, only one Democrat — Jimmy Carter of Georgia, in 1976 — has carried more than four states in the Old South.

Of course, Johnson's standing in the South (and, consequently, the Democratic Party's standing in the South) wasn't helped by Johnson's efforts to support Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

Without the landmark legislation that Johnson promoted, this year's nomination of Barack Obama might not have happened. So, in many ways, it's appropriate that Obama should be nominated not only on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech — but also the day after what would have been Johnson's 100th birthday.

For Obama's nomination is as much Johnson's legacy as it is King's.

In the four years that followed the historic landslide of 1964, Johnson's popularity declined along with the popularity of the Vietnam War. By March of 1968, Johnson had had enough and withdrew as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, leaving the war to his successor.

"His failure to honestly discuss how badly the war was going and to reveal the true costs of the conflict led to a credibility gap with voters," Walsh writes. "He also badly underestimated the determination of the enemy to win."

Johnson's administration achieved some remarkable things on the domestic side, but, as Walsh observes, "the momentum behind Johnson's programs stalled under the weight of the war's unpopularity and cost."

And, in the end, the president who wanted to be remembered for his domestic achievements (and who may yet be recognized for that part of his record) instead found waiting for him an ugly little war on the other side of the world that consumed him.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?

"How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertajibbit? A will of a wisp? A clown?

Many a thing you know you'd like tell her.
Many a thing she ought to understand.
But how do you make her stay?
And listen to all you say?
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?"

When I was a child, multiple-screen theaters were rare — if they existed at all.

My childhood memories are of the old-fashioned movie theaters one sees today mostly in old black-and-white movies or TV shows — one screen, big marquee out front with flashing lights promoting whatever film happened to be showing there, and usually there was a balcony (in my hometown, blacks were still herded into a designated section of the balcony, never permitted to sit anywhere else when I was a child — even if the rest of the theater was practically empty).

I say this because there was such a theater only a few blocks from my grandmother's house in Dallas. And, when I was a child, it seemed like "The Sound of Music" was showing at that theater for months, if not years.

Now, I know that time periods can become distorted in a child's mind.

But I'm fairly certain the movie was showing at that theater for quite awhile.

I say that because I grew up in a central Arkansas town that was about 330 miles from Dallas. My family tried to visit the grandparents about three or four times a year — typically at least once in the summer, again at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas — and I have clear memories of going to see "The Sound of Music" in Dallas more than once.

My grandmother was a big fan of that movie, and I remember her suggesting that we go to see it several times when we visited. Normally, our visits were for a week or less, and it would have been extremely unusual for us to go see the same movie twice in a week, even one my grandmother liked as much as "The Sound of Music."

But she would have suggested seeing it when we visited in the summer, and she would have suggested seeing it again when we visited at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Anyway, I have memories of going to see the movie one time when I was wearing light, summer clothing and another time when I was wearing a heavy coat like the kind I always wore during the Christmas holidays.

And that indicates that we saw it during the summer and during the winter.

I'll admit, it's possible I've got these memories confused with something else. After all, I'm relying on memories from more than 40 years ago, when I was in elementary school.

But "The Sound of Music" was the highest-grossing film to that time. And, in the days before multi-screen theaters, it wasn't unusual for popular movies to have extended runs at some theaters.

Especially a movie that was shattering box office records across the nation.

Anyway, my memories of certain songs and characters in that film have led me to some observations about Sarah Palin.

There's a strange dichotomy surrounding her candidacy. It's a problem Barack Obama's campaign can't seem to resolve.

It's the question about Palin's experience.

Her political résumé is thin, as is Obama's.

She has executive experience, even if she's been a big fish in a little pond. Obama has none.

She had very limited legislative experience, as a member of her small hometown's city council. Obama has the edge in that category, having served in the Illinois legislature and, for the last three and a half years, in the U.S. Senate.

This, it seems to me, would be very important if Palin and Obama were seeking the same office. But they're not.

On the experience question, Obama and his opponent, John McCain, have the same amount of executive experience — none.

They both belong to the same legislative body — the U.S. Senate — and McCain has been there about five times as long as Obama.

Palin is the only major party nominee with executive experience. But, for someone whose state is so close to Russia and whose son is being dispatched to fight in Iraq, she has been portrayed as blissfully unaware of foreign policy issues and the executive's role in foreign relations.

That doesn't really seem fair to me. I watched Palin's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson. In the much-discussed segment in which Gibson asked Palin if she agreed with the "Bush doctrine," I thought Palin's response ("In what respect, Charlie?") was reasonable, considering the fact that there are about six versions of this doctrine floating around. Even Bush himself doesn't seem to know which one is the most accurate.

Essentially, though, she was correct when she said the purpose of the doctrine was to "rid this world of Islamic extremism." Whether one agrees with Bush's doctrine or not, it's darn near impossible to argue that it hasn't focused on the extremists in the Muslim world.

Now, Palin's views wouldn't be a problem — unless McCain is elected president and then dies in office. The constitutional requirements of a vice president aren't demanding — but things can change without warning, as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson discovered.

And, as a cancer survivor, McCain's longevity is not assured — even though his mother is still alive in her 90s, suggesting that the family genes favor long lives.

So the experience factor really only becomes relevant for Palin if she ascends to the presidency. And there's no way to know ahead of time if that's going to happen.

Of course, if it did happen, it wouldn't be a first for this country (except for the fact that Palin is a woman).

Back in 1920, the Republicans nominated the governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, to be Warren Harding's running mate.

Like McCain, Harding was a senator who had never been a governor (although he ran for governor once and was defeated).

Like Palin, Coolidge had been governor for only a couple of years (although, far from having one of the smallest populations in the nation, Massachusetts had one of the largest).

And, like Palin, Coolidge had been a mayor before becoming governor.

Although Coolidge ascended to the presidency following Harding's fatal heart attack in 1923, the question of his experience never became an issue during the 1920 campaign.

(As a matter of fact, Coolidge wasn't even Harding's choice for running mate. Harding and the party bosses favored a senator from Wisconsin, but the delegates to the convention rebelled in favor of Coolidge, who was popular for his handling of the Boston police strike the year before.)

But the experience factor has been used by some as a wedge issue, an attempt to establish more distance between Palin and the disaffected supporters of Hillary Clinton (who has arguably been advocating everything Palin opposes since Palin was a child).

Democrats would like to turn GOP attempts to bridge that gap into a political "bridge to nowhere," but their efforts were dealt a setback this week when CNN reported that "Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter and member of the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee, will endorse John McCain for president" today.

It seems to me the Democrats' Palin problem can be explained in a couple of cultural references.

One is, of course, the dilemma over how to handle her, as described in the song lyrics from "Maria" in "The Sound of Music." Ideally, Palin's opponents would dismiss her without dissing her gender (thereby alienating women like Forester).

The other is an old Merrie Melodies wartime cartoon from the 1940s called "Swooner Crooner."

In the cartoon, Porky Pig is supervisor of an "eggcraft" factory in which dozens of hens are employed to lay eggs for the war effort.

The hens get distracted from their duties by a singing chicken who bears a striking resemblance to Frank Sinatra, then Porky recruits a new singing chicken (who bears a striking resemblance to Bing Crosby), and the hens become more productive than they've ever been.

That may help to explain the problem Democrats are having these days. Until McCain picked Palin as his running mate, Obama was the only candidate, as the major parties' first black nominee for president, who represented a real break with the past.

But Palin is the first woman nominated by the Republicans — and only the second woman to be nominated by a major party.

Right now, she's the hot thing. She's taken the spotlight from Obama.

That's what successful candidates do.

Obama and his people have to take the initiative and find a way to re-claim the spotlight.

When they did this against Hillary Clinton, in the days following Clinton's surprising victory in the New Hampshire primary, it was easy to narrow it down to racism vs. misogyny because both candidates shared the same political philosophy.

It's different in the general election. The only thing Palin has in common with Clinton is her gender — other than that, they seem to have completely different opinions on every major issue. Nevertheless, she seems to be gaining support among those Clinton supporters for whom gender was the most important issue in this campaign.

Obama and Biden can't win over most of those voters — nor should they try.

But the debates will give the Democrats the opportunity to re-capture the spotlight on the issues. With unemployment and gas prices going up and support for Iraq declining daily, that's a playing field that should be more favorable to them.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Richard Wright Dies

"Remember a day before today
A day when you were young.
Free to play alone with time
Evening never came.
Sing a song that can't be sung
Without the morning's kiss
Queen — you shall be it if you wish
Look for your king
Why can't we play today
Why can't we stay that way
Climb your favorite apple tree
Try to catch the sun
Hide from your little brother's gun
Dream yourself away
Why can't we reach the sun
Why can't we blow the years away
Blow away
Blow away

Richard Wright
("Remember A Day")
from Pink Floyd's "A Saucerful of Secrets"

Nearly 21 years ago, when I was living in Little Rock, Ark., my brother told me he wanted to treat the two of us to a Pink Floyd concert. The concert was going to be in Reunion Arena in Dallas sometime around my 28th birthday.

My brother was living in Dallas at the time, and he said he could get tickets easily.

Sure, I said. I'd like to see Pink Floyd. And I made arrangements to take some time off from work and drive to Dallas for the concert.

Mind you, this was in the days when Pink Floyd and songwriter/bass guitarist Roger Waters were going through a rather messy, public split.

Waters actually left the band two years earlier, in late 1985, saying it was a "spent force," and he focused his attention on a solo career. The remaining members of the band were working on a new album, though, prompting a legal dispute over Waters' claim that the band's name shouldn't be used. The matter was eventually settled out of court.

Anyway, in November 1987, I found myself in Reunion Arena with my brother, watching Pink Floyd perform. As we were walking through the parking lot to the arena, I saw several cars and vans with the words "Roger Who?" sprayed on the windows.

It's safe to say emotions were running high on both sides in those days.

Keyboardist Richard Wright played that night, as he always did at every Pink Floyd concert since the band was formed in the 1960s. Wright was a founding member of Pink Floyd, although he probably wasn't as well known as his band mates.

If you missed seeing him perform that night — or any other night — you've run out of chances to see him, I'm sorry to say.

Wright passed away from cancer at his home in Britain today. He was 65.

The Times of London reported that one of Wright's band mates, David Gilmour, wrote this about Wright on his blog: "No one can replace Richard. He was my musical partner and my friend. I have never played with anyone quite like him."

As BBC so aptly put it, "with Wright's passing, a hugely important chapter in the story of British music has closed."

The Comeback Kids

I don't know if I've ever seen a regular-season NFL Sunday that had as many comebacks as we saw yesterday.

Was it because it was only the second week of the season and many players haven't gotten into mid-season form?

Or was it a sign of things to come?

We shall see, we shall see.
  • The San Diego-Denver game may have been the most dramatic game on the schedule.

    Denver led, 31-17, at halftime, then gave up 21 points in the second half before scoring the winning touchdown with just under four minutes to play. The Chargers still had a chance to pull it out on the final play of the game, but the Broncos prevailed, 39-38.

    The teams combined for an astonishing 942 yards in total offense. The two starting quarterbacks combined for more than 700 yards on 57-of-83 passing — with seven TD passes and only two interceptions — between them.

    Kind of like a throwback to the salad days of the old AFL, isn't it?

  • Speaking of starting quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers may have made Green Bay's fans forget (albeit temporarily) about Brett Favre's departure.

    OK, Packer fans won't forget about Favre any time soon. But Rodgers completed three first-half touchdown passes as the Packers ran up a 21-3 halftime lead on Detroit.

    Thanks to a couple of field goals and a couple of Calvin Johnson TD receptions, the Lions rallied to take a 25-24 lead on Green Bay in the fourth quarter, but the Packers scored the last 24 points of the game on a couple of interception returns for touchdowns and a TD run by Brandon Jackson.

    Rodgers is now 2-0 as the starting QB for the Packers. The last Green Bay QB who started his tenure in Titletown 2-0 was Scott Hunter, who also replaced a Super Bowl-winning legend — Bart Starr — in 1971.

  • Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to a come-from-behind victory over the Minnesota Vikings on the road.

    The Colts trailed, 15-0, before Manning threw for a couple of TDs (one of which included a two-point conversion that tied the score), then maneuvered the team into position for kicker Adam Vinatieri to nail the game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining.

    Manning was another member of the 300-yard club, passing for 311 yards against the Vikings.

  • The Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars have met nine times. In seven of those games, the winner has outscored the loser by six points or less.

    Sunday's game was no exception, as Buffalo improved to 2-0 with a 20-16 victory over the Jaguars.

    The Bills led, 10-3, at intermission, then relinquished the lead in the third quarter, trailing 13-10 going into the fourth quarter. But the Bills scored 10 points in the final four minutes to win the game.

  • The Washington Redskins jumped out to a 3-0 lead over New Orleans in the first quarter, then fell behind at halftime, 10-9.

    The Saints built a two-score advantage by the end of the third quarter, 24-15, but Washington scored 15 unanswered points in the final period to win the game, 29-24.

  • The Carolina Panthers remained unbeaten with a 20-17 come-from-behind victory over the Chicago Bears.

    The Bears led, 10-3, at halftime, and they maintained their lead by a slimmer margin, 17-13, going into the fourth quarter.

    But the Panthers won the game on Jonathan Stewart's 1-yard TD run with 3:52 to play.

  • San Francisco and Seattle needed overtime to settle things between them.

    The 49ers fell behind, 14-3, in the first quarter, and trailed, 20-13, at halftime. They rallied to take the lead in the third quarter, 27-20, but Seattle took the lead, 30-27, in the fourth quarter before the 49ers tied the game on a 28-yard Joe Nedney field goal with less than 2:30 to play in regulation.

    Nedney won the game in the overtime period with a 40-yard field goal.
The week wraps up tonight when the Philadelphia Eagles visit the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN's Monday night football game at 7:30 p.m. (Central).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Poll Positions

Politics is a rough-and-tumble game.

In a political campaign, it’s all about winning.

After all, what good is it to be a politician if you don’t win campaigns? A politician only gets into position to enact his/her policy ideas if he/she wins elections.

(Which reminds me of a flashback scene in an early episode of ”The West Wing.” Toby Ziegler, who was the White House communications director for most of the series, is discussing his background as a political operative with a woman in a tavern. The conversation is occurring just before Ziegler believes he will be fired from the staff of Martin Sheen’s fledgling presidential campaign.

(The woman asks Toby about his record in political campaigns. ”How many elections have you won?” she asks. ”Altogether?” he asks her. She nods. ”Including city council, two congressional elections, a Senate race, a gubernatorial campaign, and a national campaign?” he asks.

(There’s a long pause. Then Toby says, ”None.” The woman looks bewildered. ”None of them?” she asks. Toby replies, ”You gotta be impressed with my consistency.”)

As Vince Lombardi used to say, winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

Unlike a sports event, where you have a scoreboard to tell you who’s ahead and who’s behind and how much time is left before a winner will be declared, there are few ways to be certain who’s leading in a political campaign. The calendar gives us a deadline for the completion of the campaign; otherwise, there are few reliable indicators that can reveal the identity of the leader.

Some people will say that public opinion polls serve that purpose. But others will point out that polls can be manipulated, in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons.

My personal belief is that, like anything else, public opinion polls can be mishandled. Questions can be phrased in a way that tends to favor one candidate/issue or another.

At best, if a poll question is phrased and presented in as neutral a manner as possible, the results can serve only as a snapshot of the electorate at a particular time.

If such a poll/snapshot is taken on September 14, it can tell us how the voters feel generally on that date. But it can’t tell us how every voter feels because every voter won’t be included in the survey.

And it can’t assure us that the results will be duplicated precisely when the voters go to the polls in seven weeks.

Political campaigns will ebb and flow, especially when the incumbent is not on the ballot. In such a campaign, the nominee of the incumbent’s party has to act as the stand-in, taking the criticism (or praise) that rightfully belongs to the incumbent.

It’s not entirely fair that John McCain should be the fall guy for the many mistakes that have been made by George W. Bush and the Republican Party — even though it’s true that he has been supportive of much of Bush’s agenda for nearly eight years.

Nevertheless, first as the presumptive nominee and now as the actual nominee, McCain must carry the burden of the administration’s unpopular record — much as Adlai Stevenson had to do for President Truman in 1952.

(In Stevenson’s defense, he bore less culpability for Truman’s record, as a state governor, than McCain bears for Bush’s record, as a member of Congress.

(But Stevenson had the misfortune of running for president against a popular war hero, Dwight Eisenhower. And, even if you support Obama, you have to admit he’s no Ike.)

But now that McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate has given his campaign a boost in the polls, some observers are looking at the election through new eyes — or, at least, new reading glasses.

In the Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery refers to her colleague, TIME’s Joe Klein, and his ”anticipation” of the apology he will receive (but will not accept) from McCain ”for the unworthy, nasty, disreputable and really mean campaign he has run” (those are Emery’s words) — once the campaign is over.

Emery, acting on the assumption (apparently based on recent polls) that McCain will win the election, contends there is no reason McCain should offer such an apology — even though an apology should be issued by McCain for the distortion in a McCain commercial of a vote Barack Obama cast as an Illinois state senator for a bill designed to protect children from sexual predators.

”[C]omplaints by the press about ‘mean’ campaigning are a reliable sign to Republicans that their tactics are working,” Emery writes.

Emery also suggests that there are two reasons why the press ever liked McCain in 2000:
  1. He ran against Bush.

  2. He lost.
”The best Republican of all is one who nobly loses,” writes Emery, ”which is what McCain looked like doing until he picked Sarah Palin, at which point most of the media exploded in fury.”

Actually, this defiant, never-say-you’re-sorry stance is nothing new for Emery. Shortly before the 2004 election, she wrote a similar column for National Review urging Bush not to apologize for anything.

The prevailing attitude these days is that McCain has seized the momentum. As I say, it largely appears to be based on recent poll results, and the polls’ plausibility depends to a great extent upon how much faith one places in their methodology.

David Paul Kuhn writes, for Politico.com, that there are five ”trends” that may explain why McCain is perceived to have taken the lead:
  1. ”McCain as a ‘change agent.’”

  2. ”The center shifts: Independents move to McCain.”

  3. ”The economic gap narrows.”

  4. ”Palin narrows the enthusiasm gap.”

  5. ”Democrats voter ID edge dulls.”
You can give whatever significance you wish to each — or all — of these trends, although all of the ”facts” to which Kuhn refers are poll results.

He makes no attempt to conceal that fact; indeed, his entire article is based on poll findings.

And that’s my point.

The fretting about the shift in momentum is based entirely on poll results. No one has voted yet — except, perhaps, in terms of financial contributions. In that area, Obama continues to enjoy a big lead — which is practically unheard-of for Democrats.

The candidates have seven weeks to make their cases to the American public. Be prepared: Polls may shift frequently during that time.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gas Prices Going Up Again

It's been less than 12 hours since Hurricane Ike made landfall in the Galveston area, and gas prices are going up again.

"According to a nationwide survey released by the AAA Saturday," writes CNNMoney.com, "the average price of regular unleaded gasoline edged up 5.8 cents to $3.73 a gallon, from $3.675 a day earlier."

Gas shortages are expected because so many Gulf Coast refineries had to shut down.

President Bush says federal officials are monitoring what's happening and will step in if it appears that anyone is trying to take advantage of the situation.

"[T]he Department of Energy, the Federal Trade Commission and, I know, the state authorities will be monitoring the gasoline prices to make sure consumers are not being gouged," Bush said in a brief televised statement this morning.

Last night, the Houston Chronicle reported that the severity of the storm would determine "[h]ow soon refineries can start back up, tanker trucks can fill up at terminals and new supplies reach retailers."

It's still too early to know when that will be.

But this much is for sure:
  • One of the refineries is the #1 domestic supplier for the United States, and many of the other affected refineries play significant roles in U.S. energy supply.
  • Production and supply experts were telling CNN this afternoon that, even if the shutdowns are temporary, it will be days, if not weeks, before they can get back up to normal capacity.

    The restoration of power to the region will have a lot to do with how long the refineries remain shut down.
For the distribution points that depend on those supply lines, it is said that $4/gallon gas is back on the horizon.