Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Cliffhanger in New York

It's been a tight race in the special election in New York's 20th District tonight.

In the race to replace Kirstin Gillibrand, Democrat Scott Murphy holds about a 60–vote lead over Republican Jim Tedisco with all precincts reporting.

Murphy has 77,344 votes and Tedisco has 77,285.

Tedisco seems to have carried the largest of the district's 10 counties and claimed narrower victories in four others.

But Murphy, as of this writing, has the lead, thanks to more substantial margins in the five counties he appears to have won. However, as the Albany Times–Union reports, there are nearly 6,000 absentee ballots that remain to be counted.

And that figure doesn't include the absentee ballots that can still arrive during a week–long grace period. They need to be postmarked March 30 or earlier, but as long as they meet that requirement, they can be counted.

So we'll wait and see what the postman brings.

The Polls Are Closed ...

... and my readers have spoken.

Forty–four people expressed their opinions of Barack Obama's performance as president in my blog poll, which was conducted in the last two weeks.

Half expressed disapproval — 19 (or 43%) said they strongly disapprove and three (6%) said they disapprove. Nearly half expressed approval — 11 (25%) said they strongly approve and eight (18%) said they approve. Three (6%) were neutral.

Forty–four respondents is hardly a scientific sample. I'm not a trained pollster, and I'm not sure what the margin of error would be.

But if these results, in any way, reflect the national view, the president has his work cut out for him.

Democrats, Expectations and Governing

Lately, I've been reading a fascinating article in The New Republic by Jonathan Chait — "Why the Democrats Can't Govern."

It carries the subheadline, "Look who's killing Obama's agenda now."

"The last Democrat who held the White House, Bill Clinton, saw the core of his domestic agenda come to ruin, his political support collapse, and his failure spawn a massive Republican resurgence that made progressive reform impossible for a decade to come," writes Chait. "The Democrat who last held the White House before that, Jimmy Carter, saw the exact same thing happen to him."

That's a little simplistic for my taste, but it raises a significant point. Will Rogers, who has been dead for nearly 74 years, may have put it better: "I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat."

Let me backtrack a little and examine the approval ratings for three previous Democratic presidents when they took office after their elections.

Less than a week after he took office in 1993, Clinton's approval rating was 58%, according to Gallup. About two weeks after his inauguration in 1977, Carter's approval rating was 66%, according to Gallup. And, as we all know, Barack Obama's approval rating around the time he was sworn in exceeded Carter's.

The last Democratic president before Carter, Lyndon Johnson, became president following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, then he sought a full four–year term the following year. He won in a landslide and, around the time of his inauguration, Gallup reported that his approval rating was 70%.

Yet, despite these high approval ratings, Johnson, Carter and Clinton saw squabbles in their own party that contributed to midterm setbacks. In Clinton's case, the result was more than a party setback — it was a Republican takeover of both the House and Senate.

We haven't seen these kinds of problems when Republicans have been in charge. After they took control of Congress, Republicans had to wait six years until a Republican was in the White House, but once George W. Bush was in the Oval Office, Republicans put aside any differences they had and supported the White House's agenda.

You could argue all day and all night about whether the agenda was right, but there was little dissension among Republicans on most policies when they were being considered by the legislative branch.

In the public's mind, that creates the aura of unity. The intelligence that was behind the invasion of Iraq and the logic that allowed banks and corporations to make huge gambles that backfired may be called into question now, but, at the time the policies were debated in the halls of Congress, nary a dissenting voice could be heard from the Republican side. In fact, some Democrats lent their support.

"George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate," Chait writes, pointing out that conventional wisdom suggested that Bush would have to cut back on his agenda. "Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near–total partisan discipline."

You have to wonder sometimes if there is something in the Democratic DNA that kicks in when the Democrats are in charge and prevents them from enacting their proposals. After all, Democrats today hold about as many House seats as they did in Clinton's first two years in office — and, on the Senate side, with the two independents who caucus with them (and, presumably, Al Franken, if he is declared the official winner of the Minnesota Senate race), Democrats control more seats than they have since the Carter years.

Democrats should be able to push through their agenda, shouldn't they? Republicans did it with a lot less. Yet, as Chait observes, "[a]t a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege."

This can lead to a president — even one who was elected overwhelmingly — appearing impotent to the public. And that can result in challenges within one's own party when the next presidential election cycle comes around. President Carter had to fight Sen. Edward Kennedy for his nomination in 1980. President Clinton managed to avoid a serious challenge, but his party had already lost control of Congress.

Republican incumbents, on the other hand, have had only one serious challenge to a sitting president in my lifetime — in 1976, when an unelected president (Ford) turned back the challenge from Ronald Reagan to win his party's nomination.

Forty-one years ago today, after narrowly winning the New Hampshire primary against the write–in insurgent candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, President Lyndon Johnson, at the end of a speech to the nation, dropped a political bombshell — "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president," Johnson told his stunned listeners. You can see it in the clip that is attached to this post.

It was a shocking statement from a man who, less than four years earlier, had received the highest percentage of the popular vote ever received by any presidential candidate. But two years after Johnson was elected, Democrats lost four Senate seats and nearly four dozen House seats. Democrats rebounded, for a time, during the Watergate era, but, in general, they struggled for the next four decades.

In Johnson's day, Democrats were a little more unified than they were in the 1970s, when Carter was president, or the 1990s, when Clinton was president, or even today. But their support for the Vietnam War was costly, and their support for civil rights led, as Johnson predicted, to the party's loss of the South for at least a generation.

The Democrats' legislative woes precede Johnson's presidency, however. Chait makes a good point when he says, "Democrats are trapped by their past."

Chait's explanation: "Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided ... that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline. Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals."

Thus, even when the stakes are as great as they are in 2009, the party in power lacks the discipline to meet the challenge effectively. Obama frequently reminds listeners that he inherited these problems. That may be true, but how long will the voters, facing the prospects of losing their jobs and/or homes, be willing to accept that?

In 2010, a majority of voters may not be thinking that Obama inherited these problems. They may be thinking of something Rogers said back in the 1930s: "If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?"

By then, the problem for Democrats may be that voters will see an abundance of stupidity on display on the majority side.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Election Eve in New York's 20th

They'll go to the polls in New York's 20th District tomorrow to select the replacement for Kirstin Gillibrand, who was named to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate.

The district has had a tradition of voting for Republicans, but the Republican, Jim Tedisco, trails the Democrat, Scott Murphy, in recent polls. The margin is narrow, though, and Tedisco has been sprinting through each of the district's 10 counties as the special election has approached in a frantic bid to pick up votes, but the GOP's leaders are skeptical in private, reports Elizabeth Benjamin for the New York Daily News.

"Republicans are privately lowering expectations," writes Benjamin, "and rather gloomily suggesting that this could be the beginning of the end for them in New York. Again."

But the factors that could influence the election have been favoring Tedisco recently. The Albany Times–Union says a lot of money has been contributed to this special election, and the beneficiary seems to be Tedisco, who also has been benefiting from editorial support. The Glens Falls Post–Star and Saratoga Springs Saratogian have endorsed the Republican.

I guess we'll see what happens tomorrow.

There's Still Time to Vote

My poll assessing Barack Obama's job approval is due to wrap up tomorrow, but there's still plenty of time to vote if you haven't voted yet. And you can still change your vote if you want to.

With 22 hours left before the vote will be final, 37% of respondents say they strongly disapprove of the president's performance in his first 10 weeks in office, 31% strongly approve, 21% approve, 6% are neutral and 3% disapprove.

So far, we've had 32 people register their opinion. It's hardly a scientific sample, but I do want to express my gratitude to everyone who has taken a few seconds to vote and I hope those who haven't voted yet will do so.

Is the Party Over?

After three weeks of gains, the Dow Jones lost 254 points today amid concerns about the futures of the U.S. auto and banking industries.

Although the stock markets were up — on balance — last week, stocks slid Friday as well. One has to wonder if the stock market can possibly regain enough ground the rest of this week to keep the weekly streak of gains alive.

In a speech this morning, Barack Obama said the auto industry "had reached a critical point and that its transformation would be a painful but necessary process," writes Jack Healy in the New York Times.

Obama, who never seems to be at a loss for words although his policies have yet to produce any fruit, said, "Year after year, decade after decade, we have seen problems papered over and tough choices kicked down the road, even as foreign competitors outpaced us. Well, we have reached the end of that road."

And it seems the vehicle that brought us to that point may have broken down.

We may learn more when the employment numbers for March are released in early April.

The Attempt on Reagan's Life

Twenty-eight years ago today, Ronald Reagan exited the Washington Hilton Hotel after speaking to some AFL–CIO representatives. It had been a fairly routine presidential appearance, but what happened next was far from routine.

Reagan was fired upon by would–be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. A bullet pierced the president's lung, missing his heart by less than an inch. He was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent surgery and spent the next two weeks recovering from his wound. Three other people, including the president's press secretary, still lay wounded on the ground, as the presidential limousine made its way to the hospital.

In hindsight, it's hard to tell if Reagan secured his second term that day. His economic policies suffered something of a setback in the 1982 midterm elections, but he went on to be re–elected by a landslide in 1984. The way he handled the attack on his life, just shy of 10 weeks into his presidency, may have had a lot to do with it.

The impression he made on the public during the most trying of personal circumstances — saying to his wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck" or saying to his surgeons, "Please tell me you're all Republicans" — was decidedly endearing.

In the previous 20 years, Americans had become accustomed to the shootings of public figures — the murders of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King in the 1960s, the attempts on George Wallace and Gerald Ford in the 1970s and the slaying of ex–Beatle John Lennon a few months before Reagan was shot, among others — but the attack on Reagan shocked most Americans.

His gentle, good humor in the aftermath of an horrific experience was reassuring, even for those who disagreed with him.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Newspapers Are Necessary

Nolan Finley writes a simple truth — "Newspapers may go away, but the scoundrels won't" — in the Detroit News.

Each person may have his or her own reason for wanting the newspaper to remain in existence — access to the daily crossword puzzle, the horoscope, the school lunch menus or the box scores for the sports teams — but Finley points out the most important reason why newspapers are important to everyone.

Newspapers have a vital role to play in a democracy. They're just as important today as they were when the country declared its independence in the 18th century — perhaps even moreso. In fact, in an age of instant news via cable and internet, I would drop the "perhaps" from that sentence.

"[F]or the life of me I can't see how this country can sustain a vigorous, participatory democracy if newspapers disappear," Finley writes.

Neither can I.

The breathtakingly rapid disappearance of daily newspapers "ought to disturb anyone who buys into the premise that institutions both public and private need an independent monitor to keep them honest," Finley writes. "And who wouldn't believe that, considering what the corruption and incompetence of Washington and Wall Street have done to our economy?"

There are a lot of bases to cover. And, as Finley observes, "If it's not newspapers doing the job, who will? ... Broadcasters don't have the manpower; bloggers lack the credibility."

Before you dismiss this as a lot of old–school protesting against "progress," ask yourself this question, courtesy of Mr. Finley:

"Do you want to rest a pillar of our democracy on a blogger sitting in a basement with a computer and an ax to grind?"

Irving R. Levine Dies

It didn't get much attention the other day, but longtime NBC newsman Irving R. Levine died Friday at the age of 86. The cause was prostate cancer.

Levine was one of those broadcast newsmen who had a distinctive voice and perhaps an even more distinctive appearance. With his signature bow tie, professorial demeanor and plain, no–frills language, Levine "helped make the economy a staple of television news," writes the New York Times.

He was finicky about his sign–off. I remember hearing a story about Levine — perhaps one of my journalism professors in college told this tale, I simply don't remember and it really doesn't matter — in which NBC was trying to work in more segments into the evening newscast and asked Levine if he would drop the middle initial of his name when concluding his reports as a way to save a second or two.

"I'd rather drop the 'B' in NBC," he replied.

On a Clear Day ...

... you can see the Dallas skyline from my balcony ...

... but last week fog was in the way.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

An Electoral Test for Obama

Murphy and Tedisco are in a tight race in New York's 20th.

On Tuesday, Barack Obama will have been president for 10 weeks, but he may be facing his first electoral test that day.

At least, that is what John Fund writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Undoubtedly, you are aware of the several Senate seats that became vacant after the election last November. Both the president and the vice president gave up their Senate seats after winning the election, and Hillary Clinton gave up her seat after she was appointed secretary of state by Obama.

New York Gov. David Paterson picked Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand of the 20th District to take Clinton's place, and the seat has been vacant for about two months.

On Tuesday, a special election will be held to pick Gillibrand's successor.

Gillibrand received 53% of the vote in the 20th District when she was elected in 2006, even though her opponent was a four–term incumbent Republican who lost by six percentage points in a Democratic year. She was re–elected in November with 62%.

But a few things are worth remembering.
  • Although New York hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1984, much of the party's margin in the state is concentrated downstate, in New York City.

  • The upstate district that was represented by Gillibrand has been represented by Democrats for about six of the last 24 years.

  • Until Gillibrand was elected in 2006, no Democrat had won the district since 1990.
The parties' nominees in the special election were chosen by each party's county committees. State Assembly minority leader Jim Tedisco was nominated by the Republicans. Scott Murphy, a businessman, was picked by the Democrats. The Libertarian candidate was taken off the ballot because a technicality disqualified more than half of the signatures on his ballot petition.

The stakes in the election are fairly high, especially for Republicans. RNC Chairman Michael Steele has said it is the first of three "incredibly important" elections for his party.

Polls indicate a close race. Irene Jay Liu writes, in the Albany Times–Union, that Murphy, whose lead has been approximately the margin of error, is making inroads on his opponent.

As Maury Thompson observes for the Glens Falls Post–Star, though, the race still is regarded as too close to call by political analysts, and both parties will be watching Tuesday's results closely to see how the stimulus package and the Obama budget are playing with the voters.

"Should Republicans win, [Obama] will try to chalk it up as no big surprise," Fund writes. "If Democrats prevail, you can bet the White House will herald it as evidence of grass–roots support for its agenda. What's strange is how little confidence the White House seems to have in a Democratic candidate tailor–made for a district Barack Obama carried just five months ago."

David Halbfinger writes, in the New York Times, that the Wall Street bonuses will be factors in the vote.

Will the special election provide the answers to the questions? Or will it raise more questions than it answers?

The Hoggs of Texas

Tuesday was the 158th anniversary of the birth of a man named James "Big Jim" Hogg.

If you have never lived in Texas, that name may not mean much to you. But Jim Hogg was governor of the state in the late 19th century.

Hogg was a populist who spoke on behalf of William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and 1900. He wasn't a wealthy man when he left office, but land and oil deals in his post-gubernatorial years permitted him to acquire a sizable fortune.

Hogg's distant cousin, Sid McMath, was governor of Arkansas from 1949–1953.

Hogg may be best remembered for naming his daughter Ima. It's an unusual name, which supposedly came from a poem written by his brother.

Hogg had four children. The other three were all boys.

Ima was the second oldest of the Hogg children. For as long as I can remember, there was a tall tale that Hogg had another daughter who was named "Ura," but that, apparently, is merely an urban legend.

After her father died in 1906, Ima Hogg became one of the most respected Texas women of the 20th century. She studied music in Vienna for two years, then established the Houston Symphony Orchestra upon returning to Texas. She was a philanthropist and art collector, who owned works by Picasso and Matisse. She made hundreds of contributions to Houston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Ima Hogg never married and died in 1975, having lived into her 90s.

Remembering Eisenhower

These days, we hear a lot of talk about wars. We hear talk about the metaphorical wars, like the "war on drugs," and we hear talk about genuine wars involving real troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A man who fought in both world wars and was president when the cease–fire went into effect in Korea, Dwight Eisenhower, died 40 years ago today. He went to school at West Point (where he played football and once tackled the great Jim Thorpe, but a knee injury cut short his athletic career).

It can truly be said that few — if any — presidents in American history have seen as much war or as much killing as Eisenhower did.

And few may have loved peace as much.

"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can," Eisenhower said nearly seven years before becoming president, "only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity."

So, when Eisenhower was about to leave office, he warned his fellow Americans about what he called the "military–industrial complex."

Maybe it was his background as a soldier that enabled him to see things that others never did. But the "military–industrial complex" has played a significant role in American life since long before Eisenhower's farewell address.

And it continues to influence policies and budgets.

When Eisenhower sought the presidency in 1952, he apparently didn't mind being called "the General," although he seems to have preferred the more relaxed and informal "Ike," but when he left office, he was proud of his administration's record in foreign affairs. "The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration," he said. "We kept the peace. People asked how it happened — by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."

As his presidency was nearing its end, Ike tried to caution his countrymen about the new internal threat that existed. Did they heed his warning?

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," he said. "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Rally Continues

The stock market lost some ground today, but it stayed in positive territory for the week.

That's the best such run since last May, writes Alexandra Twin of CNNMoney.com, but Twin reports a warning from Dean Barber at Barber Financial Group.

"[T]here is momentum here in the short run," Barber said, "but this is the classic bear market rally and investors need to be careful not to fall into the classic bear market trap."

Twin summarized the situation pretty well.

"[T]he advance has been based on hope that the recession will soon end because a lot of money has been thrown at the financial sector and the economy," writes Twin. "However, fundamentally, the economy remains in bad shape, as do the state of corporate profits."

So, I guess the bottom line is this:

It's fine to hope that this will be more than a temporary rally. There's always the possibility that it really is.

But those who have spent their adult lives observing the stock markets say this is likely to hit the wall — probably in the near future.

So enjoy it while you can.

Not the Best of Times in Dallas

One gets the impression lately that our tax dollars are not being used as efficiently as they could be here in Dallas, Texas.
  • I guess the most egregious example has been making national headlines.

    NFL running back Ryan Moats was pulled over for a routine traffic offense last week. Moats and the occupants of his vehicle had a good reason for their haste — they were trying to get to a hospital to say goodbye to Moats' mother–in–law, who was dying of breast cancer.

    Moats tried to explain the situation to the officer, but he was delayed so long that his mother–in–law died before he could get to her bedside.

    The officer has been placed on paid administrative leave until an internal investigation is completed — after which he may be fired.

    He may still have a chance to keep his job. It's a good thing for him that the Dallas Morning News' Jacquielynn Floyd is not responsible for making that decision.

    And he's fortunate that the Dallas Morning News' editorial staff won't decide his fate, either.

    If either of them were charged with that task, the officer might already be on the unemployment line.

    But their input may influence the actions of those who will decide whether the officer stays on the force.

  • Over at City Hall, they make glossy calendars every year that list all scheduled City Council proceedings, as well as all holidays.

    Well, most holidays.

    These calendars, which are distributed free to city residents, have a lot of valuable information. But they ain't perfect. Christians won't be able to rely on the calendars to know when Good Friday or Easter are coming up next month. They'll have to turn to their pastors or priests for that information because those observances were omitted.

    Well, thank goodness they got International Migratory Bird Day correct.

    I pointed this out to an old family friend. She said the omission was probably an "oversight" and told me that the person responsible for the entries in the calendar is "probably a 'good egg' at heart."

    I can only hope that person's supervisor is as forgiving as my friend is.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The War on Drugs, the Economy and the Other Stuff

Today, while visiting RealClearPolitics, my eyes were drawn to a piece by ABC journalist John Stossel, in which he makes the argument that the war on drugs is idiotic.

It is idiotic — and for many reasons.

Stossel touches on one of them — the insistence of law enforcement to interfere with transactions involving medical marijuana in states like California where it has been declared legal for that purpose.

A dozen other states also have declared medical marijuana legal.

The war on drugs is based, Stossel reports, on the fact that "U.S. law ludicrously calls marijuana a schedule I narcotic. That puts it in the same category as heroin."

Just to clarify, the word "narcotic" is applied pretty broadly to illegal substances — but many, like marijuana, are not considered narcotics in a medical sense, only in a legal sense.

Schedule I drugs have "a high tendency for abuse and have no accepted medical use." Pharmacies do not sell them, and they are not available with a prescription from a physician.

Schedule II drugs also have "a high tendency for abuse," but they may have an accepted medical use and can produce dependency or addiction with chronic use.

The likelihood of abuse or addiction declines significantly in schedules III-V. But it's worth pointing out that marijuana is the only schedule I drug of which I am aware that is not synthetically produced or enhanced.

And more and more people have concluded that marijuana does have medicinal value — for people who are suffering from cancer or AIDS or glaucoma or numerous other conditions.

But cigarettes contain a substance that is synthetically enhanced. The nicotine content in cigarettes has been manipulated by cigarette manufacturers to increase the likelihood that users will become addicted.

Cigarette addiction has been compared to heroin addiction.

But cigarettes are legal.

I don't think public health or the public's well-being ever figured into the equation, whether we're talking about legal substances like nicotine or alcohol or illegal substances like marijuana. Medical science has abundant proof that tobacco can cause a whole range of medical problems. So can alcohol — which was illegal during Prohibition.

During the days of Prohibition, a lot of people were killed because alcohol sales had been driven underground. The black market flourished. The cost of enforcing the law against alcohol was quite high, as was the loss of tax revenue (approximately $500 million annually).

Since Prohibition was repealed three–quarters of a century ago, very few deaths have been caused by clashes between law enforcement officers and alcohol manufacturers — except in a few pockets of the country where alcohol is still illegal. In 2006, U.S. tax revenue for alcoholic beverages was $5.3 billion. That's nearly 2½ times what it was 30 years earlier.

Today, we are seeing similar problems associated with the war on drugs.

Both Mexicans and Americans are dying by the thousands in an effort to keep illegal drugs from crossing the border. Many otherwise law–abiding citizens are being arrested and tried for possession of marijuana. Others are being denied job opportunities because drug screens have revealed the presence of traces of past drug use that in no way measure current impairment.

Stossel is blunt: "The war on drugs is idiotic. It deters few, drives drug use underground — making it more dangerous — and creates horrible crime."

Those reasons, apparently, aren't enough to persuade the president to revisit the issue. "I do not think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," Barack Obama said when asked about legalizing marijuana during his online town hall today.

It's worth pointing out that many of the internet participants voted for Obama and were motivated by their support for him to take part. They ranked the issues, and this was one of the major issues they wanted to address.

"I don't know what this says about the online audience," Obama joked. He might want to take it easy on that kind of thing. After all, that online audience played an important role in putting him where he is. If he's going to commit their money to bailouts for banks and corporations, he owes it to them to discuss the issues they care about.

They're paying their admission price.

Let's see. So far this year, more than $4.8 billion in federal funds and more than $7.3 billion in state funds has been spent on the "war on drugs." More than 400,000 people have been arrested for drug law offenses.

The war on drugs costs American taxpayers $40 billion a year, and the cost continues to rise. By the government's own standards, America is losing this war. Illegal drugs are cheaper and easier to obtain, and the beneficiaries of this war are organized crime, arms manufacturers, special interests and corrupt elements of law enforcement.

Joshua Green leaped into the conversation with an item at The Atlantic's website. "Legal pot sales in California generated $100 million in state tax revenue last year, a welcome infusion for a state facing a crippling budget deficit," Green writes. "Know anybody else whose budget projects red ink as far as the eye can see?"

Taxing and regulating a substance that millions continue to consume in spite of existing law wouldn't benefit the economy? Legalizing the industry — and, in the process, creating millions of jobs — wouldn't help the economy? Not spending billions of dollars to fight a losing war wouldn't be good for the economy? And not continuing to needlessly risk the lives of police officers and the citizens they are sworn to protect wouldn't be a good thing?

And the president dismisses the suggestion, making light of those who bring it up, while his secretary of state is in Mexico to discuss new strategies for a war on drugs that the United States was losing when Hillary Clinton was still the first lady of Arkansas.

Another Good Day on Wall Street

Stocks went up again today, and, unless tomorrow is a really terrible day, we should see a third straight week of gains.

" 'Up for the year to date' is a phrase that nobody in the stock market had heard for a long time. Until Thursday," writes Rob Curran for Dow Jones Newswires.

To put it in numerical terms for the day, "The Dow Jones industrial average rose 174 points, or 2.2% at the close," writes Alexandra Twin for CNN. "The S&P 500 index rose 18 points, or 2.3%. The Nasdaq composite rose 58 points, or 3.8%."

The question most people seem to be asking is, does this mean the economy is stabilizing?

I'm inclined to say what I've been saying — that we won't be able to know that until we can look back at some point in the future and can see that things stabilized at a particular point.

No one was able to announce the start of the recession in December 2007, and no one can announce the end of it until well after the fact.

But, like everyone else, I'm looking forward to the day when the recession is behind us.

And I hope the gains in the stock market this month are signs that that time either is upon us or drawing nigh.

Things are looking promising right now. But let's remain calm and see where we're actually headed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Will It Be Three Straight Weeks?

That's a question I can't answer. But it seems much more likely today than it may have yesterday.

I'm talking about the stock market, which posted overall gains the last couple of weeks. It picked up nearly 500 points on Monday, then it lost 115 points yesterday. Today, the Dow Jones gained 1.2%, and S&P and Nasdaq picked up just under 1% each.

At the moment, it seems likely that the markets won't take the kind of hits that would be needed on Thursday and Friday to wipe out the overall gains in all three for the week.

As I've said many times before, I'm no economist. I don't know what this means. Does it mean the economy is starting to turn around? Will consumers start spending again, which will encourage employers to hire more people? Or will it prove to be a temporary reversal, followed by a steeper slide?

CNN's Alexandra Twin reports that "[a] pair of better–than–expected economic reports added to optimism that the economy is getting closer to stabilizing:"
  • New home sales and

  • durable goods orders.
Does this have any long–term implications for the economy? Well, sure, I guess — in theory.

But that's the thing, isn't it? Until it comes to pass, it's all theoretical.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

The day after Barack Obama's second presidential news conference, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that there are those who are so eager to drink the Kool-Aid that they gulp it down and get back in line for seconds.

Almost defiantly, the Huffington Post seized upon conservative Bill Bennett's assertion that the press is not "in love" with Obama. Nice try.

Obama, by holding these regular press conferences, can be said to be keeping the people informed. In much the same way, Franklin Roosevelt sought to keep Americans informed with his less frequent fireside chats.

But those were different times. People seem to have had more patience during the Great Depression than they do today, even though the times were tougher. A few days ago, Jamie Lee Curtis wrote admiringly on Huffington Post about Michelle Obama's vegetable garden on the White House lawn.

"I want growth, healthy growth," she wrote. "Grassroots growth. Seeds planted and taking root in front of a hungry America. Give him time. Give them time. Give it all time. Yes we can. Wait and wonder."

She lamented "the shrinking of our news" but not the departure of "the greed, avarice, gluttony, grossness, selfishness, deceit and cruelty of the last eight years and beyond."

Perhaps it is easier to counsel the virtues of patience when one is a child of Hollywood stars, a reasonably accomplished actress herself and the wife of a man who is — nominally, at least — a British lord and a successful screenwriter, musician, actor and comedian.

It's tough to be patient when you can't be sure where the money for your rent or your health insurance or your next meal is coming from.

Nevertheless, some folks are quaffing that Kool-Aid.

As Walter Shapiro observes in The New Republic, "journalistic convention requires three events to justify a trend, but we are jumping the gun because, frankly, the networks are not likely to pre–empt their lucrative evening programming next month to give Obama a third chance to fail to make news at a news conference."

Even so, I'm inclined to think the networks will devote prime–time to the next Obama press conference — even if it means postponing the season finale of "American Idol."

I wonder, though, if anything substantive emerged from the press conference. Was there anything new?

Josh Gerstein reports, for Politico, that Obama attempted "to convince Americans that his budget and policy prescriptions are exactly what's needed to get [the] nation's economy back on track, despite criticism from both parties in Congress."

He also defended the president's response to the AIG bonuses. Obama, he wrote, "sought to temper some of the public anger over bonuses paid to employees at the failed insurance giant AIG — saying that while it's understandable, it shouldn't lead to punitive measures that stymie the economic recovery."

Gerstein quoted Obama — "This budget is inseparable from this recovery" — as an article of faith.

Acknowledging that an "eclectic and pre–determined list of presidential questioners ... reflects the breakdown of traditional media hierarchies," Shapiro writes that "perhaps Obama's boldest decision was to call on Jon Ward from the conservative Washington Times, but to ignore the Washington Post."

Ward's question dealt with Obama's recent decision to end the ban on federal funding for stem cell research. I'm not certain when I first became aware of Obama's intentions concerning funding for stem cell research, but I know I was aware of it before he took the oath of office. So that action was hardly a news flash, in my view. Nor would I consider responding to a question about it to be "bold."

"Obama fluently answered the questions, sometimes at considerable length," write John Harris and Jonathan Martin at Politico. "But his responses were typically variations on a single–word theme: Whatever."

Is "whatever" enough justification for a presidential policy? Many seem to think so.

"Over the past week, Obama has barnstormed the nation's televisions, with repeated town halls in California, a seat on Jay Leno's couch, a big 60 Minutes splash on Sunday, and now a prime–time press conference," observes Michael Scherer for TIME. "Even those who eschew politics have most likely seen a clip or two of their President in charge, projecting confidence, explaining that things will get better. And for the White House, that is the message that matters."

So why is it becoming a tough sell for many of Obama's devotees in the media? I think it has a lot to do with the instant gratification culture in which we live.

John Dickerson of Slate referred to that, albeit indirectly. "The president tires of people who want quick and easy answers," he writes, "a point that became abundantly clear when he snapped ever so slightly at CNN's Ed Henry, who pressed him on why he hadn't shown outrage about the AIG bonuses more quickly."

I grew up in the 1970s, when it took a couple of years for enough irrefutable evidence to accumulate to lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon. The lesson of that experience was not lost on me.

But I was dismayed, some 20 years later, when I found myself in a classroom instructing aspiring journalists, many of whom expected news stories to be resolved immediately — and exhibited a certain impatience when they were not.

And that was before the influence of the internet and the more pervasive presence of cable and satellite TV — both of which have fed the fallacious impression that others can do the job of gathering the news better than trained journalists.

Today, the Huffington Post is reporting that a Rasmussen survey indicates that about one-third of Americans under the age of 40 believe that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are replacing traditional news outlets.

These men are intelligent and articulate. They may even have some insights into news events. But they are not — I repeat, not — trained news gatherers.

By the time our Kool–Aid–logged culture realizes that, it will be too late.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Well, It Was Bound to Happen

After the stock market rallied for a gain of nearly 500 points yesterday, it was inevitable, I suppose, that some retrenching would be going on today.

"Stocks slumped in the morning as investors eyed the AIG hearing in Washington," writes CNN's Alexandra Twin, "cut losses in the afternoon and then slipped again near the close."

To keep things in perspective, though, the Dow Jones lost 1.5%, S&P lost 2% and Nasdaq lost 2.5%. They could lose roughly the same amount each day for the rest of the week and still not entirely wipe out the gains that were recorded yesterday.

If that happens, the stock market will be on the plus side — although perhaps barely — for the third consecutive week.

How long has it been since that happened?


"The duty of journalists is to tell the truth. Journalism means you go back to the actual facts, you look at the documents, you discover what the record is, and you report it that way."

Noam Chomsky
(1928- )

It is ironic, I think, that Barack Obama will be holding a primetime press conference the day after it was reported that one newspaper in Michigan will fold in July, three more will reduce their publishing operations to three days a week, the Charlotte Observer will cut its staff by nearly 15% and will reduce the pay of the staffers who remain, and other newspapers, most notably the oldest newspaper in Arizona, may go under if a buyer is not found.

Mind you, I think it is a good thing that Obama apparently intends to communicate regularly with the people in this way. It wasn't exactly habitual in the Bush White House. And presidential press conferences are one way to promote the "filter–free news" environment of which Jonathan Martin writes at Politico.com.

But the downside of "filter–free news" is the alarmingly rapid decline of daily newspapers. They have played an important role in maintaining freedom and democracy in America for more than two centuries, and their demise is not to be taken lightly, even among those who like to complain about the press.

There are many angles to this. One is the decline in advertising revenue, which is the lifeblood of a newspaper. In a weak economy, advertisers are always more reluctant to pay for the display ads that keep newspapers in business — and that problem is more pronounced today since this recession is more severe than any that most people who are alive today have ever encountered.

Some have suggested that a drop in the quality of writing has played a role, which is probably true at some newspapers but not necessarily across the board.

Newspaper readership has been declining, which makes advertisers more skittish because they don't believe they will get as much bang for their bucks. Now, that raises an interesting point for me because total readership is somewhat hard to calculate.

There have always been people who read newspapers that were purchased by others, whether you're talking about newspapers that were placed with the other periodicals for general consumption in a library or a newspaper that was discarded in an eatery and picked up by someone else. It's hard for me — or anyone, really — to tell if a lot of readers have been irretrievably lost or if just as many people are reading the paper but fewer are paying for it.

Is total readership declining that dramatically? Or is the real decline in actual sales? That doesn't seem to matter to advertisers. As far as they are concerned, paid circulation is the key — and that has been dropping in many places.

Which leads to a downward spiral.

The assumption these days seems to be that the internet, relying on "citizen journalists" who have no training as journalists and often cannot distinguish — or do not even attempt to distinguish — between news coverage and opinion, can fill the gap.

I'd like to think it is true that ordinary citizens can perform this vital role in the life of a republic. But, as I see it, turning these "citizen journalists" loose to write whatever they please and then post it directly to the internet — with no middleman to check their facts or their spelling or their grammar — is a recipe for chaos.

Not to mention libel.

The fact that it hastens the day when illiteracy reigns concerns me, although I see signs of that on the internet every day. I fully expect, one day soon, to see "news" reports at the online-only publications that are primarily internet slang (i.e., abbreviations like LOL), emoticons and smileys — and whose authors cannot be bothered to capitalize proper nouns or write grammatically correct sentences.

But what concerns me more is this — it begs the question, "Who will be held accountable?" when these citizen journalists don't take the time to dot their I's and cross their T's — or when there is no one to do it for them.

As I say, I'm glad the president will endeavor to hold these press conferences in an attempt to make the actions of his administration transparent.

But who will hold Obama — or his successors — accountable when the Fourth Estate exists no more?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Good News, Bad News

Sometimes it seems that you can't get some good news without getting some bad news to balance it out.

Today is a case in point.

Thanks — apparently — to the Obama administration's plan to buy nearly $1 trillion in bad bank assets, the stock market posted its biggest one-day point gain since Nov. 21, which was four months ago — 497 points.

And, because the losses of the last four months have been so staggering, the single-day percentage gain — 6.8% — is the highest since Oct. 28, which was nearly five months ago.

And the S&P did better than the Dow Jones today. It had its biggest one-day gain since Nov. 13. Its percentage gain was also its largest since Oct. 28, but S&P's percentage gain of 7.1% exceeded the Dow's.

But there was plenty of bad news in the newspaper business today:
  • The Ann Arbor News announced that its last edition will be published in July. It will be replaced by a Web site called AnnArbor.com.

  • Three other Michigan newspapers — the Flint Journal, the Saginaw News and the Bay City Times — are going to cut back to three publication days per week.

  • The Charlotte Observer plans to cut its staff by 14.6% and reduce the pay of most of the employees it retains.

  • The Tucson Citizen appears likely to fold if the Gannett Co. cannot find a buyer.
As CNN's Stephanie Chen observes, "Amid the decline comes concern over who, if anyone, can assume newspapers' traditional role as a watchdog. For more than 200 years, that role has been an integral part of American democracy."

Who will assume that role now? The internet?

Well, that seems to be the direction we're headed, but I have my doubts.

An Easter Question

A few years ago, Mel Gibson made quite a stir when he released his film, "The Passion of the Christ."

Gibson repeatedly told interviewers that he was prompted to make the film because of a personal dedication to the truth. But, while I found the film to be very moving, there's a part of it that has always concerned me, even though I will freely concede that I have had no formal education in theological matters — unlike my father and my grandfather, both of whom were religion professors.

I'm not referring to complaints that Gibson's movie was anti-Semitic, although it would be hard for Jews to argue against the fact that their ancestors played a significant role in the Easter story.

No, what I refer to is the depiction of the scourging of Jesus.

For most of my life I have been under the impression that Jesus endured 39 lashes before the crucifixion. I'm not sure where that number came from originally — I assume it is something I was told in Sunday school when I was a child, but in my readings of the Gospels since that time, I have not found a passage that explicitly confirms that was the number. The Gospels talk about the severe beating Jesus was given, but I have found no reference to the exact number of lashes that were inflicted.

When I was about 10 or 11 years old, Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborated with Tim Rice on the rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar." It was enormously popular and was responsible for reconciling many young people — who felt alienated by the war in Vietnam and the generational/cultural conflicts of the 1960s — to the story of Jesus. And, in the composition "Trial Before Pilate," a specific reference to 39 lashes was made, and those 39 lashes were depicted in the music.

In my mind, that confirmed what I had been unable to confirm elsewhere, although I didn't know where Webber and Rice came up with that number.

I watched Gibson's movie closely, particularly when it reached the point of the scourging. But I lost count of the number of lashes that were administered long after the total passed 39. Before seeing the movie, I have to admit that I defended Gibson against charges that the film was unduly violent. My reasoning was that one could not depict the story of the crucifixion in a manner that was not violent. But, after seeing the film, I concluded (based on my lifelong presumption that the scourging involved 39 lashes) that it was, indeed, more violent than it needed to be.

Gibson's film made me wonder, though, where the idea of 39 lashes came from. What, if any, was the significance of that number? Most of the numbers that one encounters in the Gospels have some additional symbolic meaning. From time to time, as an adult, I have tried to find an answer. The closest I have come to it is this:

It was understood, in those days, that 40 lashes would be enough to kill a man. Therefore, in order to avoid sentencing someone to death, the most severe punishment that could be administered was 40 lashes minus one — or 39 lashes.

This, I have been told, was Moses' Law. But, while the Old Testament has a lot to say about Moses — specifically, in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — I have found no references to his recommendation for scourging. Perhaps it is there and I simply haven't found it.

(As an aside, I will point out here that my grandfather died when I was 6 years old, but my father, who is still living, hasn't been able to clear up this matter for me.)

Writer Jim Bishop, who wrote engrossing, journalistic hour–by–hour accounts of the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, wrote a similar book about the crucifixion. It was called "The Day Christ Died," and it was punctuated by general chapters that enlightened readers about the Jewish world, Jesus and the Roman world.

In his book, Bishop wrote this about scourging:
"Roman scourging was called the 'halfway death' because it was supposed to stop this side of death. It was not administered in addition to other punishment. The two 'thieves' who would die on this day were not scourged. And the Jewish law — Mithah Arikhta — forbade any manner of prolonged death for condemned criminals, and exempted any who were to die from the shame of being scourged.

"The Jews called their scourging the 'intermediate death' although it was far less severe than the Romans. The custom in Palestine was to administer to the prisoner '40 stripes save one.' It was done by a paid executioner, who, armed with a long supple rod, beat the prisoner 13 times on each shoulder and 13 times on the loins. The prisoner seldom died but, although in time the scars might fade, the shame and humiliation seldom did.

"The scourging of Rome was more deadly. It was administered by a trained man, called a lictor — there were none in Palestine — and he used a short circular piece of wood, to which were attached several strips of leather. At the end of each strip, he sewed a chunk of bone or a small piece of iron chain. This instrument was called a flagellum. There was no set number of stripes to be administered, and the law said nothing about the parts of the body to be assailed."

That reference to three 13s made some symbolic sense to me when I read the book as a teenager. Three, of course, is significant for Christians — the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. And it seemed to link up with the superstition about Friday the 13th, since Friday was the day of the scourging and the crucifixion.

But I later learned that numerologists, regardless of their religious beliefs, view the number 12 as a number of completeness (since it can refer to the number of months in a year, the number of hours on a clock, the signs of the Zodiac as well as the number of disciples) and the number 13 is considered irregular.

I have also heard of another superstition, which supposedly originates from the Last Supper or from a Norse myth (possibly both) — if 13 people are seated at a table, one of the diners will die.

Which, I suppose, brings me back to my original dilemma.

Is it possible to determine how many lashes were administered to Jesus?

For the last couple of months, I have been attending the Methodist church where my mother was a member in the years before her death. I even joined the congregation last month.

I don't think I am particularly religious, but I do feel that I have become more spiritual in recent years. And I've always been curious about historical issues.

This is one such issue for which I would like to find an answer. So I'm hoping my regular readers can enlighten me on this.

And I know the minister of my church has read my blog in the past. I hope he will read this and he will have some illuminating thoughts he can share.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jade Goody Passes Away

It has been reported that Jade Goody, 27, the British reality TV star, died of cervical cancer early today. At her side were her mother, her husband of one month, and a family friend — and apparently they each give different times for her death.

One of the things many people had been concerned about did not happen. There were no cameras rolling at the time of her death. That remained a private matter, experienced only by Goody and those three people, but, reports Sarah Lyall in the New York Times, "the British news media have been running daily updates on her condition for the past week."

I wrote about Goody's situation about a month ago. As it is with anyone you hear about who is terminally ill, you hope that, somehow, a miracle will happen and that person will suddenly get better. But the forecast then was that she had maybe two months left. As it turned out, she only had one.

It seems that one thing that medical science can do more efficiently than it ever has before is pinpoint how much time a terminally ill person has left.

Rest in peace, Jade.

The Winter (and Spring) of Our Discontent

He hasn't even reached that mythical 100–day mark in his administration, but there are signs that the "honeymoon" may be over for Barack Obama.

On a personal level, Obama still seems to be popular with the voters — his latest job approval figures range from the mid-50s (Rasmussen) to the mid-60s (CNN/Opinion Research). But his policies? Not so much.

Most of the mutterings I've read lately have been coming from abroad. For example, David Warren writes in the Ottawa Citizen that, while the majority of Americans voted for Obama last November, they did not endorse his policies.

"[T]hey wanted Obama the man, but not Obama the agenda, except for the uplifting rhetorical bits about 'hope,' 'change,' and so forth," writes Warren. "The idea that the man could not be separated from the agenda never fully fixed."

I'm inclined to agree with that, as well as Warren's assertion that Obama "was perfectly sincere in denying that he was [an ideologue], and in claiming that he would be looking for bipartisan consensus."

And, Warren continues, "I also think he is sincere in proceeding with an agenda ... that leaves most Republicans, and quite a few of the more conservative Democrats, utterly aghast."

Warren is skeptical that there will be a second term for Obama. "Sixty days into his first term (and I begin to doubt there'll be a second), he would seem already to have dug a hole from which no rhetorical skill can lift him."

It may be a little premature to be wondering about the prospects for a second term, but it isn't too early to assess the Democratic Party's chances in the 2010 midterm elections. And that's a subject Charlie Cook has been examining in the National Journal.

"Republicans have pulled even with Democrats on the generic congressional ballot test," Cook reports, citing findings from Democratic pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies. The key to this good news for the GOP seems to be independent voters. As Cook writes, "[V]oters who call themselves independents gave GOP candidates the edge by 14 points, 38 percent to 24 percent."

Cook's analysis of the poll results is worth reading in full, but I find it hard to argue with his conclusion that "although Republicans still 'have their work cut out for them,' the public doesn't want to give President Obama and the Democrats in Congress a blank check."

From "across the pond," as they say in England, The Guardian urges people to give Obama some time. It has been suggested, The Guardian writes, that Obama "may be less the new Abraham Lincoln or the new Franklin Roosevelt than the new Jimmy Carter."

That seems a little unfair to me, although Obama, like Carter, is an intelligent, well-educated man who may be replicating Carter's mistake of trying to do too much at once.

"According to this arresting but surely premature argument, Mr. Obama is making Mr. Carter's mistake of giving too much priority to pushing a new social agenda and is not focusing enough on trying to fix the economy," writes The Guardian.

Much of the response from abroad appears to stem from Obama's decision to send a video message to Iran — which, I suppose, only invites comparisons to Carter, whose downfall was brought about, in large part, because of the American hostages in that country. However, as The Guardian observes, "Mr. Obama was smart enough to couch his message in cultural, rather than explicitly political, terms."

In the end, The Guardian counsels, "Mr. Obama gets some things wrong. But he is doing the big things right. Give him time."

Domestically, Obama seems to have kept most of his defenders, but their ranks are diminishing.

Perhaps one of the best examples of that is Maureen Dowd, who writes in today's New York Times about Michelle Obama's new vegetable garden on the White House lawn — and her promise that everyone in the family, including her husband, will pull weeds "whether they like it or not."

Dowd, who made no secret of her support for Obama even before he announced his candidacy, observed that the scene "left me wondering if the wrong Obama is in the Oval."

As Dowd puts it, "It's a time in America's history where we need less smooth jazz and more martial brass."

And she suggests that Obama may have "lost touch with his hole–in–the–shoe, hole–in–the–Datsun, have–not roots."

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the economy went through some rough patches, although they certainly weren't as dire as the circumstances we face today.

Some friends of my parents owned some land in the country where they kept some livestock and a stock pond filled with fish. They made available part of their land for their friends to use for vegetable gardens to help them save money on their food bills, and my parents took them up on the offer.

For a few years, we consumed our homegrown vegetables exclusively (I was particularly fond of our turnip greens, tomatoes and corn on the cob).

And I found that weeding our garden, from time to time, gave me an opportunity to think through all sorts of things that I had been finding puzzling. Spending time in the garden like that, where it was peaceful and quiet (except for a bird's occasional burst into song), had an invigorating quality.

Perhaps the president could re–discover his roots if he put on an old pair of jeans and took a trowel out to Michelle's garden for a few hours.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The 'R-Word'

"Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot.
"Now what did he say? 'Are there any niggers here tonight?' I know there's one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let's see, there's two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kike. And there's another kike — that's two kikes and three niggers. And there's a spic. Right? Hmm? There's another spic. Ooh, there's a wop; there's a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there's three lace–curtain Irish micks. And there's one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm–hmm. I got three kikes here, do I hear five kikes? I got five kikes, do I hear six spics? I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop.
"Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, 'I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,' and if he'd just say 'nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger' to every nigger he saw, 'boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,' 'nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger' 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some 6-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school."

From Julian Barry's screenplay for "Lenny"
can be seen/heard in Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the truth 1998

During his much publicized appearance on "The Tonight Show" this week, Barack Obama inadvertently brought attention to what is considered an offensive slur.

Obama didn't actually use the slur — that's my understanding, anyway, since I didn't watch the program — but he did, as I say, bring attention to it indirectly.

It began as a bit of self-deprecating humor.

As you may recall, during last year's presidential campaign, Obama bowled a 37 in a game — which is pathetic, by legitimate bowlers' standards.

Obama told "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno that he had been practicing in the White House bowling alley and observed that his bowling skills are "like Special Olympics or something."

The remark prompted Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton to explain that Obama did not mean to make fun of Special Olympics.

"The president made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics," Burton said. "He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world."

It seems to me that, at some point, every president in my memory has — unintentionally — offended someone with an offhand remark, so Obama is certainly not unique in that regard. And it definitely isn't unique for a White House to have to backpedal when something a president has said is not well received by a segment of the public.

But, as Jessica Ravitz of CNN reports, Special Olympics is taking advantage of the unanticipated publicity to promote its campaign against the "R–word"retard. And that part is unique in my experience.

The "(blank)–word" designation has been in vogue for awhile now as a substitute for whichever offensive term is being discussed — but without actually saying it.

I've always thought that was kind of a cowardly way to handle it. I much prefer Lenny Bruce's solution, which was presented in the 1974 movie "Lenny" — a film I urge everyone to see, by the way. As the movie demonstrated, Bruce was never timid about taking on sensitive issues, whether they dealt with sex or race or religion or anything else.

Bruce died in 1966, but his pursuit of truth inspired many great comedians — among them Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Cosby. And I have no doubt that, if Bruce was alive today, he would have some choice things to say about the flap over Special Olympics.

Personally, I think he made a good point when he suggested that the suppression of words is what gives them the power to hurt people. By making them commonplace, he reasoned, you could take away those words' power to hurt.

I also think Carlin was correct — to a certain degree — when he took it a step further, suggesting that "the same words that hurt can heal. It's a matter of how you use them."

But Carlin made a valid point when he observed, after making some humorous references about Irish Catholics, that they were his "gang" and it's permissible, as he put it, "to hit your own gang."

I suppose the same logic can be applied to black rappers who use the word "nigger" in their recordings. But — still using that logic here — is it permissible for the same black rapper who uses the word "nigger" to also use the word "bitch" in a recording? If the rapper happens to be female, perhaps it is.

But, while I'm not a fan of rap music, most of the rappers with whom I am familiar are male, not female. So that logic would suggest that it is offensive for them to use the word "bitch."

That reminds me of a song by one of my favorite songwriters, John Lennon, that made a similar point about language. The song was called, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World."

I suppose I digress here.

But it really isn't that simple, is it? Some people use offensive words as weapons, and I doubt that will ever change. The words that are being used may change, but not the intention to hurt others.

Some such words just seem silly now — "cracker" comes to mind. I think, if anyone called me a "cracker," I would probably laugh.

I should point out, though, that Special Olympics doesn't hesitate to identify the "R–word" in its campaign. And there is nothing funny about the use of the word "retard." Ravitz's article at CNN.com posts a visual element from the campaign that puts it bluntly:


And therein lies the problem."

The real problem is that, like any offensive word, the "R–word" is just a word. Its origins may have been innocent enough, but it is used today to speak disparagingly of those who are now called "people with intellectual disabilities."

Personally, I don't think I have used the word "retard" since I was a child and knew no better. But many people do use the word, and I applaud Special Olympics' effort to "change the conversation."

As Carlin said, we do think in language. If we think of others in words that command our respect, perhaps we will treat them with respect, too.

Special Olympics is encouraging people to participate in a "day of awareness" on Tuesday, March 31. "[J]oin youth and actor John C. McGinley in a day of awareness for America[ns] to stop and think about their use of the R–word," the organization urges at its R–word website.

It's an appropriate occasion for people to think not only of the "R–word" but of the other words that people use that are hurtful. Perhaps it is a good starting point for changing all conversations.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Continuing Mystery

This was called the "Rose Mary Stretch."

Sometimes it seems that many of the things that happened in America and the world when I was growing up have never had a full public accounting.

That really isn't true. It took awhile, but several things that happened when I was a child have been resolved. It took three decades to close the books on the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, for example, but Byron De La Beckwith was ultimately held accountable for the crime.

And even most of the cases where some questions still remain have had an official resolution — Lee Harvey Oswald is still blamed for President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and James Earl Ray remains the gunman of record in Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, even though legitimate questions have been asked about the participation of both. Sirhan Sirhan fired his weapon in a room full of people so it would have been hard for him to resist the charge of being involved in Bobby Kennedy's assassination, but questions remain about whether a second gunman was in that pantry that night.

A few years ago, we learned that former FBI associate director Mark Felt was the legendary "Deep Throat" who blew the whistle on the Nixon White House. Felt died last December at the age of 95.

For the longest time, I thought I would never know the identity of "Deep Throat." Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who stayed with the Watergate story when no one else was connecting the dots and altered the course of history in their vital role as government watchdogs, had promised not to reveal his identity before his death. When it actually was revealed, it was done so by Felt's choice; Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the truth of his claim.

As a young person, I really admired Woodward and Bernstein. I must have been about 14 when I read "All the President' Men." I think I was probably 16 when I read their sequel, "The Final Days," and I even got Bernstein to autograph my copy when I heard him speak in person nearly 20 years later.

I've often thought that it was the work of Woodward and Bernstein that inspired me to study journalism in college and work in the field for many years.

Those two reporters managed to tie together nearly all of the loose ends. But one mystery that remains unresolved is the cause of the infamous 18½-minute gap in the White House tapes.

Only former White House counsel John Dean had challenged Richard Nixon's version of events before White House aide Alexander Butterfield was questioned by the Senate Watergate committee in the summer of 1973. But the senators had been intrigued when Dean testified — he suggested that he had been under the impression at times that, during meetings with Nixon, he had been asked numerous leading questions, as if a recording were being made and a record were being kept of his statements.

A few weeks later, Butterfield revealed the existence of Nixon's taping system. Later that year, one of Nixon's attorneys, while reviewing tapes that had been subpoenaed, discovered the lengthy erasure. Further scrutiny indicated that there had been between five and nine separate erasures, which suggests that whoever erased that portion of the tape did so repeatedly, reviewing what was still audible, then erasing some more until all the incriminating portions of that conversation seemed to have been deleted.

Butterfield said that the only people he knew of who were aware of the taping system were Nixon, chief of staff Bob Haldeman, Gen. Alexander Haig, Lawrence Higby (one of Haldeman's assistants), Stephen Bull (assistant to Nixon), Butterfield himself and Butterfield's secretary. He said that he did not think Dean or presidential assistant John Ehrlichman knew about it.

After the existence of the gap was revealed, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's secretary, took the blame for up to five minutes of the erasure. In the picture above, she demonstrates for the press how she may have unknowingly placed her foot on the "record" pedal during her transcription of the tape when she was interrupted to answer a phone.

But to achieve this would have required the somewhat diminutive Woods to perform a rather gymnastic maneuver — and hold it for the duration of the phone conversation.

The tape in question was made three days after the Watergate break–in so it seems likely the conversation dealt with the Watergate matter.

In his movie "Nixon," director Oliver Stone portrayed Nixon alone in a room in the White House, fumbling clumsily with the tape recorder while reviewing the content of the tapes. As I recall, it was implied that Nixon was the one who really made all the erasures, which seems plausible to me.

Woods was fiercely loyal to Nixon; she had worked for him for more than 20 years. But she only took the blame for up to five minutes of the erasure.

And those who knew about the taping system before it was made public had nothing to gain from taking a bullet for the president.

The existence of the gap was not conclusive proof of Nixon's involvement, but it certainly cast a shadow over the president. Ultimately, the tapes that were left intact provided clear evidence of Nixon's participation in the coverup, and he became the first president to resign.

Bob Woodward once observed that, rather than an 18½–minute gap, Nixon would have needed an 18,500–minute gap to obliterate all taped evidence of his participation in the coverup.

Nearly everyone who played a role in the Watergate scandal is gone now. Next month, in fact, it will be 15 years since Nixon himself died.

So I'm inclined to believe that we will never know the truth about the 18½–minute gap. Was it Nixon, struggling with technology he couldn't comprehend? That seems like the most likely scenario. Although he was regarded as brilliant in some circles, Nixon was frequently out of step with what was considered modern technology in the 1970s — and seems ridiculously simple by today's standards.

It seemed obvious to me then — and seems even moreso today — that the most logical strategy for someone who was determined to destroy evidence was to listen to the tape carefully, pinpoint how much needed to be deleted, play it through again to time it and determine how much of an erasure would be needed and then make a single erasure. The likelihood of five to nine separate erasures conjures a mental image not unlike the one shown in Stone's movie of a man recklessly, almost randomly, erasing two or three minutes at a time, then playing it back to see if he could get away with what remained.

The tapes are in the possession of the National Archives. My understanding is that it has made several attempts to restore the missing portion but without success. The tapes are now being kept in a climate–controlled vault to preserve them in case a future breakthrough provides the means to recover what was erased.

As I say, it will probably still be a mystery when I die. And I doubt it is a mystery that will ever be resolved. I mean, even if the National Archives can restore the erased part, it can never tell us who was responsible for the erasures.

I'm inclined to believe that only Nixon could have cleared it up for us.